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The Shakespeare Hour

Among the many positive consequences of having declared running this and my other sites as my Day Job, I now enjoy a vastly increased executive authority. When I make decisions, they are duly carried out by - me. The difference between a vocation and an avocation is you can concentrate on the aspects of an avocation that appeal to you, and neglect as much as you can of the rest. Vocations are much sterner.

So, when I decided that it was part of my day job to spend an hour a week reading Shakespeare, this hour had to be scheduled and then honored. Owing to the turbulence of start-up, I had my hour of Shakespeare yesterday afternoon, and not on Monday. (Monday is an idiotic choice, because I'm usually cooking dinner for Ms NOLA and M le Neveu. Perhaps Thursday is the right day after all.) Happily, I didn't have to decide what Shakespeare to read; I've been stalled in the middle of Troilus and Cressida for an embarrassingly long time. I have never read this play before, and I don't know the story line. It's primarily known, I think, for a speech that occurs in the first act that outlines Shakespeare's conservative political outlook.

The heavens themselves, the planets, and this center

Observe degree, priority, and place.

Institute, course, proportion, season, form,

Office, and custom, in all line of order.

And therefore is the glorious planet Sol

In noble eminence enthroned and sphered

Amidst the other; whose med'cinable eye

Corrects the influence of evil planets...


                           O, when degree is shaked,

Which is the ladder of all high designs,

The enterprise is sick. How could communities,

Degrees in schools, and brotherhoods in cities,

Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,

The primogenity and due of birth,

Prerogative of age, crowns, scepters, laurels,

But by degree, stand in authentic place?

Take but degree away, untune that string,

And hark what discord follows.

The whole speech, delivered by Ulysses, gives concise expression to a completely vanished world-view, one based equally upon a mistaken cosmology and upon the bootstrapped authority of a Supreme Being and Its representatives on earth (kings and the pope). The references to music show that Shakespeare understood Platonic ideas of mathematical harmony.

But monologues are easier to digest than dramatic passages in Elizabethan English.

PANDARUS How now, how now, how go maidenheads? Here, you maid, where's my cousin Cressid?


Go hang yourself, you naughty mocking uncle.

You bring me to do - and then you flout me too.

Pandarus To do what? To do what? Let her say what. What have I brought you to do?


Come, come, beshrew your heart! You'll ne'er be good.

Nor suffer others.

Pandarus Ha ha! Alas, poor wretch! A poor capocchia! Hast not slept tonight? Would he not - ah, naughty man - let it sleep? A bugbear rake him!

Happily, the boss says that I don't have to try explain this to you. He says that Shakespeare is not the point of this entry. The difficulty of reading Shakespeare is. My, we are rusty.

I asked one of my literate French correspondents if he reads Montaigne in the original French. Not at all, he replied. Montaigne in the original is unreadable. Here's a random sample from "De l'inconstance de nos actions."

Encore que je sois tousjours d'advis de dire du bien le bien, et d'interpreter plustost en bonne part les choses qui le peuvent estre, si est-ce que l'estrangeté de nostre condition porte que nous soyons souvent par le vice mesmes poussez à bien faire, si le bien faire ne se jugeoit pas la seule intention.

Well, not unreadable perhaps, but no picnic, either. My point is that, although Shakespeare's English is only a little more recent than Montaigne's French, it remains canonical. Fewer people in every successive generation, I am sure, are comfortable with Shakespeare's idiom; fluency with the Bard is certainly no longer the badge of educated literacy that it used to be. Worried that I might be slipping into incomprehension, the boss decided that the writer of this blog must refresh his acquaintance with the source.

I am not a Shakespeare enthusiast, by the way. I have read one or two biographies, and I have a clutch of critical studies, the most recent by Frank Kermode. I have visited Stratford-upon-Avon, but it was not my idea. I absolutely decline to entertain the authorship debate, and I am not curious about "what Shakespeare was like." Contact with his texts, however, is always revitalizing.

I expect to finish Troilus and Cressida during my next hour with Shakespeare. Then I'll have to decide what's next. Please send any suggestions to the boss, for his okay.


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Good for you, and us. I would be very happy alternating histories, in historical order, with the other plays in publication order (doesn't matter whose version) and an additional hour spent on several of the sonnets.

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