William Shakespeare, April 1564 – April 23rd 1616



Thank you, Will.

You created some of the most unforgettable characters ever to grace a stage.

You taught us that the English language could sing to rival any other, and you invented more than 1700 words that we’re still using today (‘bloodstained’, ‘premeditated’, ‘impartial’, ‘tranquil’, and – would you believe, anyone? – ‘puking’, to name just a few).

You held up a mirror and you showed us ourselves, in all our shame and in all our glory.

You died four hundred years ago today, and we will never forget you.

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

– Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1


If you want to find out more about Shakespeare, the best thing to do is to go see one of his plays. Summer Shakespeare festivals are coming up; ours in Edmonton is the Freewill Shakespeare Festival. This year they’re doing ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Love’s Labours Lost’, and festival passes are on sale now.

There are many excellent editions of Shakespeare’s ‘Complete Works‘. I actually own two – a very old edition with just the text, and a big monster with excellent supplementary notes. I enjoy them both, for different reasons.

If you want an entertaining biography, my favourite is the one by Bill Bryson, ‘The World as Stage‘.

Here’s my favourite Shakespeare quote, from Portia’s speech to Shylock in Act IV, Scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice:

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.

Happy 450th birthday, Will Shakspear

During his lifetime William Shakespeare spelled his last name in a variety of ways; I’m rather fond of ‘Shakspear’ myself.

Will Shakspear was born 450 years ago this year. He was baptized on April 26th 1564; the actual date of his birth is not known, but baptism at the age of three days would have been a fair assumption, hence the convention of celebrating his birthday on April 23rd (which, 52 years later, was the date of his death).

Personally I would have no problem calling Shakspear the greatest writer in the English language. His plays, of course, were meant to be seen, not read, and I’m sure millions of English schoolchildren, like me, have struggled with them as printed texts but been thrilled by them as they are brought alive on the stage. One of the things I’m proud of is that we gave our children the chance to see Shakspear live before they read him. It appears to have worked; they all seem to enjoy him.

Will Shakspear does not need my praise. I’m reminded of the story of a man who was walking through an art gallery making disparaging comments about the paintings. Finally the exasperated curator said, “Sir, the paintings are not on trial – you are!” By all the standards we possess, Shakspear was at least ‘a’ great writer – I would say, ‘the’ great writer, the one who formed our language, captured our imagination, and gave us a compelling vision, not of humanity as it should be, but of humanity as it actually is, in all its nobility and wickedness. And he did it with that deliciously outrageous sense of humour that has given us not only tragic characters like Lear and Macbeth, or villains like Richard III, or pedants like Polonius and Jaques, but also wonderful comic figures like Sir Toby Belch, or Sir John Falstaff, or Robin Goodfellow (otherwise known as Puck), or Nick Bottom with his donkey’s head.

Thank you, Master Shakspear. You did your job well, and we can all enjoy the benefits of it, if we want to. A very happy 450th birthday to you, sir.


Hopefully, a bit of wisdom for 2013

I tend not to make New Year’s resolutions because I’m not good at keeping them, but here are a few nuggets of wisdom to take into 2013. A few old saws here, but true nonetheless.

‘Most folks are as happy as they choose to be’
 – attributed to Abraham Lincoln.

“Deserves death! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”
Gandalf, speaking to Frodo about Gollum in Tolkien’s ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’.

‘Junk will always expand to fill available space, and work will always expand to fill available time. So building more storage space is not the answer, and neither is working longer hours’.

‘Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.’
– Jesus, Luke 12:15 

‘From the lying moon to the movement of stars,
Everyone’s wondering who they are;
And those who know don’t have the words to tell,
And those with the words don’t know too well’
 – Bruce Cockburn, ‘Burden of the Angel/Beast’

‘Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar;
The friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch’d, unfledg’d comrade.’
Polonius, in Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’

“Do not waste time bothering whether you ʿloveʾ your neighbour; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.”
– C.S. Lewis, in ‘Mere Christianity’

‘There is one thing, Emma, which a man can always do, if he chuses, and that is, his duty; not by maneuvering and finessing, but by vigour and resolution.’
– Mr. Knightley to Emma Woodhouse, in Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’

‘Even in social life, you will never make a good impression on other people until you stop thinking about what sort of impression you’re making’.
– C.S. Lewis, in ‘Mere Christianity’

Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy’.
– Portia, in Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’

‘The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own’, or ‘real’ life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life—the life God is sending one day by day: what one calls one’s ‘real life’ is a phantom of one’s own imagination’.
– C.S. Lewis, from a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves

‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’
 – several places in the Old Testament

‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.’
– Jesus, Matthew 7:21

‘So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own’.
– Jesus, Matthew 5:31-34

Taking advice from Polonius

Last night when I was at the Expressionz open stage, someone performed an original song which included the well-known sentiment ‘To thine own self be true’. Readers with any familiarity with English literature will recognise this as a quote from Shakespeare; it appears on the lips of Polonius, Laertes’ father, in Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 4, in the form of advice given by an old man to his son as the son is about to travel overseas to go to college.

It occurred to me that different ages probably fasten onto different quotes from great literature, according to the current fashion of thought in each age. Ours is an age that revolts at the thought of owing ‘truth’ (i.e. faithfulness) to anyone other than oneself, and so the words of Polonius about being true to oneself find a ready and appreciative audience today. What is often overlooked is that these words are only one part of Polonius’ speech (albeit the climax, near the end); here is the whole:

Yet here, Laertes! aboard, aboard, for shame!
The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail,
And you are stayed for. There; my blessing with
And these few precepts in thy memory
See thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportion’d thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar;
The friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch’d, unfledg’d comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
Bear’t that the opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are most select and generous, chief in that.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell! My blessing season this in thee!

I had to chuckle when I read these words again; our age, which quotes the advice to be true to oneself so readily, would not be so happy with other aspects of Polonius’ parental wisdom!

We live in a day where anyone with a computer connection and a laptop can scatter their thoughts abroad at will, giving the entire world the inestimable benefit of their infinite wisdom! Indeed, I am indulging this very impulse at this moment myself; I had an idea a few hours ago, and now I am blogging it for all the world to read! Polonius, however, would not have been happy with this urge to spray the universe with our pearls of wisdom:

                           Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportion’d thought his act…
Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice…

I’m reminded of the old saying that God gave us two ears and one mouth, from which fact we were meant to draw the obvious conclusion – or the related saying that it is better to keep your mouth shut and have everyone think you a fool than to open your mouth and confirm them in their opinion! An earlier age was obviously not as sure as ours appears to be that each of us has a priceless treasure of individuality and creativity that the world is waiting with bated breath to receive!

And what about this one?

Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar;

When I was a teenager I never assumed I could call people by their first name unless they specifically told me so; nowadays we’re all on first name terms (and I admit I enjoy this informality), but sometimes we have difficulty drawing the line at what is an appropriate intimacy. And as for vulgarity…!

At last count I have 491 Facebook ‘friends’, with all of whom, according to Facebook, I ‘became’ friends when I accepted their friend requests, or they accepted mine (the fact that, in some cases, I have been friends with these people for ten times the lifespan of Facebook has apparently escaped Mark Zuckerberg’s notice!). Nowadays we want to be friends with everyone, but Polonius would not have approved:

The friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch’d, unfledg’d comrade.

The ‘dull thy palm’ line of course refers to wearing down your palm by shaking hands with everyone in sight. Polonius’ advice is for Laertes to be happy with a few well-tried, longstanding friendships and not to enter too quickly into new ones with people he does not know as well.

Our entire economic system is built around the borrowing and lending of money; we call it ‘investment’, but the failure of this system is the very thing that has caused the world so much grief over the past few years. Polonius would not have been surprised, even if he was thinking mainly of loans made by an individual to their friends:

Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.

‘For loan oft loses both itself and friend’; how true that is! Better to give an outright gift, if gift is needed, than to give a loan and then resent it for years after the friend either cannot repay it, or choses not to do so.

I have seen Polonius presented in Hamlet as a pedantic old bore, and some of the things he says in the play do seem rather tiresome. But it seems to me that he has some wise advice to share with Laertes in this scene. It is natural for us to fasten on to the lines that harmonise well with the spirit of our age, but we should resist that temptation, and ask if there is not some wisdom to be found in the parts that do not sit as easily with our twenty-first century postmodern thinking. C.S. Lewis once remarked that it was dangerous to read only books written recently because every age has its blind spots and so we need to be confronted by the mindset of another age to give us a different perspective. Obviously, he said, the future is not available to us, so the past is all we have. It is appropriate, then, for us to mine the wisdom of the past, and when we find there things which contradict the assumptions of our present age, we should not dismiss the older perspective too quickly or too lightly. It may be that the voice of the past is saying exactly what we most need to hear, and the fact that we find ourselves instinctively resisting its suggestions should alert us all the more to this possibility.

Much Ado About Quite A Lot, Actually!

One of Edmonton’s many ‘best kept secrets’ is the Free Will Shakespeare Festival. This is the twenty-second year that the ‘Free Willies’ have been using the Heritage Ampitheatre at Hawrelak Park to bring us their outstanding open-air productions of the plays of the Bard. Marci and I have been going down to the park to watch them since long before we moved to Edmonton in 2000; I think the mid-nineties might have been the first time we took in one of their plays while we were on a holiday trip. Over the years they’ve been getting better and better; some of the more memorable productions included Julius Caesar in 1998, Richard III in 2001, and the Merchant of Venice in 2004.
The man who gave one of the best ever performances as Richard III in 2001, John Ulyatt, is back this year as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. Plying opposite him as Beatrice is Belinda Cornish, who is fairly new to the Free Will Shakespeare Festival, but who is obviously destined to be one of its stars. In order to be believable, these two need to be played with just the right combination of biting wit and sarcasm on the one hand, and obvious attraction and affection on the other, because they start the play at each other’s throats and end it in each other’s arms (well – more or less!). They are the archetypical ‘anti-romantic’ couple, whose love conversation later in the play continues to include playful little intimate put-downs and whose stubbornness at the end almost – but not quite – derails their own wedding! Ulyatt and Cornish have these two down to a tee; definitely the best portrayal of Benedick and Beatrice I’ve ever seen (and miles above the well known Kenneth Branagh/Emma Thompson movie portrayal).
Artistic director Marianne Copithorne has done a wonderful job bringing Shakespeare’s script to the stage, with clever production details and the odd non-Shakespearean line thrown in for good measure (“These are the dogberry days of summer”, says Dogberry as he lounges by the centrepiece of the stage). Her only questionable decision, in my view, was eliminating Leonato’s brother Antonio entirely from the script and having Friar Francis take over his few spoken parts. This leads to one confusing moment later in the play, where Leonato invites Claudio to marry ‘his brother’s daughter’ and everyone who is unfamiliar with the story thinks he is talking about Beatrice, as her (presumably dead) father is the only brother of Leonato who has been mentioned in the play to this point.
But this is a minor mistake in an otherwise brilliant production. If you live within easy distance of Edmonton, I strongly recommend that you get down to the park to see Much Ado before the season ends on July 25th. Individual tickets are $22.50 and a season pass (for both Much Adoand Macbeth) is $35. The schedule is available online here.