Cymbeline II: The Trunk

Adam Haas Hunter as Cloten, from

Adam Haas Hunter as Cloten, from

I’m starting to see the comic potential of this play. Cloten, the princely prat, has the best line so far. He’s just come in from a night of carousing and beating up his inferiors, and reviews his latest adventures with his two lordly buddies (who make it quite clear that Cloten came out worse than he claims). Suddenly one companion draws the prince’s attention to the approaching King and Queen. “I am glad I was up so late,” Cloten says, “for that’s the reason I was up so early. He cannot choose but take this service I have done fatherly.”

But I’m forgetting the trunk. In the first scene of this act, Imogen retires to her bedchamber, where she is keeping Iachimo’s trunk. Her maid leaves, the lights fall, and Imogen utters her bedtime prayer: “To your protection I commend me, gods,/From fairies and the tempters of the night/Guard me, beseech ye!”

Picture this: all is quiet as Imogen sleeps. We hear a creak and look at the door. Who’s coming in to disturb the princess? But the door remains shut. Then, from the corner of our eye, we see the trunk’s lid rise.

H A Saintsbury as Iachimo, 1906

H A Saintsbury as Iachimo, 1906

I knew it! That fiend Iachimo hops out of the trunk and prances around the room like Peter Pan chasing his shadow. If there were cell phones in Ancient Britain, he’d be Instagramming Imogen’s bedroom as evidence that he was there. Lacking technology, he must memorize the scene — the bed, the fireplace, the window, the embroidered hangings. Remorselessly he takes Posthumus’s bracelet from Imogen’s wrist, at the same time noticing a mole on her breast. The perfect detail to prove he has bedded her, without actually committing the deed. Then back into the trunk, to make his escape later.

When next we see Iachimo, he is back in Rome, regaling Posthumus with the story of Imogen’s fall. The bracelet and mention of the mole are enough to convince Posthumus that he’s been cuckolded, and Act II ends with his vitriolic soliloquy about evil women: “I’ll write against them,/Detest them, curse them. Yet ’tis greater skill/In a true hate to pray they have their will;/The very devils cannot plague them better.” Imogen may need Iachimo to back up her defense, for it doesn’t seem possible that Posthumus can ever trust her again.

I’m still waiting for those two missing sons to make their appearance, still waiting for some military action. For now, it’s only Iachimo’s machinations and Cloten’s oafish bragging and ineffectual wooing of Imogen. The Queen’s poisons are still waiting in the wings, but you can be sure they’ll show up at some point to cause confusion and dismay.

In his post on Act I, Calmgrove noted the absence so far of familiar phrases or lines. Whether this is the cause or result of the play being so rarely performed is up for debate. But one well-known song appears in Act II: Hark, hark, the lark*. Here’s Kat Carson singing Schubert’s melody.

As for Shakespeare’s language, I’ll take a moment to point out three unusual words. In Act I, “tomboy” is used to mean “whore”. According to the OED, this word dating from the mid-1500s refers to a rude boy, a “bold or immodest woman”, or an overly active girl. All three meanings were in use before 1600, so this is a word that quickly took on multiple meanings. Iachimo uses it during his first, failed attempt to seduce Imogen: “A lady/So fair, and fastened to an empery/Would make the great’st king double, to be partnered/With tomboys hired with that self exhibition/Which your own coffers yield”.

“Companion” is used as a term of insult: “It is not fit your lordship should undertake every companion that you give offense to.” (Although it must be noted here, that the insult is aimed equally at Cloten.)

“Minion” can mean anything from a prince’s favorite (as it’s used here to refer to Posthumus: “The exile of her minion is too new”), a darling, or a lover, to a fop or slave. One’s meaning must be very clear when throwing this word around.

BTW, 862 quotes from Cymbeline are used as exemplars in the OED.

Act III in 2 days.

*I will be forever the minion of the first person to identify the YA book in which one of the characters runs around crying “hark, hark, the lark”. My brain is not cooperating in helping me remember the book’s title, the character’s gender, or the scene in which it happens.

Posted in Cymbeline, Shakespeare | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Henry Pulling’s Middle Age Crisis

200px-Travelswithmyaunt1stcoverGraham Greene, Travels with My Aunt (1969)

Nestled in a playground near my apartment is a Little Free Library, to which I frequently contribute, and from which I frequently borrow, although I’ve yet to return any of the borrowed books. The other day I found a copy of Greene’s truly funny novel about Henry Pulling’s adventures with his Aunt Augusta, which I’ve been meaning to read for quite some time. Treasure!

Henry, a retired banker, single and childless, devotes the evening of his life (at his age, more like the late afternoon) to cultivating dahlias in the garden of his quiet suburban London home. He has never traveled further than Brighton, never been in love, never done anything wrong.

But within a week of meeting his 75-year-old Aunt Augusta at his mother’s funeral, Henry finds himself on the Orient Express to Istanbul, smoking pot in a first class car with a pregnant American hippie whose father is a CIA agent, and wondering what his Aunt is smuggling into Turkey, and for what purpose. He’s also just learned from his aunt that his mother was, in fact, his step-mother.

Who then is his mother? A girl who refused to marry Henry’s father, is all that Augusta will say, but a clever reader will eventually put the clues together to discover Henry’s true parentage.

Aunt Augusta is one of Greene’s great characters (avoid the film version which, despite Maggie Smith’s Augusta, is a mess of Hollywood happy-ever-after). Augusta has led, and still leads, such a life that she envies no one, despite her frequent experiences with destitution. With Henry, she travels to Paris, Istanbul, Boulogne, and a small town in Paraguay. In her wake follows the faithful Wordsworth, a hotel doorman from Freetown, Sierra Leone, whom she has taken as a lover and then discarded when her one true love reappears.

Poor Henry. As he learns more about his aunt’s life, he soon realizes how she has made her way as a prostitute, smuggler, embezzler, art thief, and mistress, none of which she sees as wrong. She explains that she prefers the unsettled life, with death waiting around every corner, because it keeps her senses on edge. She belittles Henry’s yearning for his dahlias, which, for her, represent a smooth path with no mental or physical challenges. In a word, dull.

Augusta reminds me a bit of Patrick Dennis’s Auntie Mame, who also lives on the edge of life, but without all the illegal shenanigans. But where Mame at her lowest point falls in love with a wealthy man who saves her from the worst of the Depression, Augusta falls in love with a thief and eventual war criminal who steals all her money and then abandons her. What does she do? For decades she keeps that candle burning for Mr. Visconti and puts Henry and Wordsworth in danger so that she can help her lover start his smuggling business in Paraguay.

Put that way, I find it hard to admire Henry’s aunt. But Greene makes us love her despite her amoral view of life. She is not just clever, she understands human nature, and she nearly always knows how to get herself and those she loves out of trouble.

Eventually Henry must decide if his future lies with his aunt or his dahlias. It amazed me that I wanted him to choose both.

Posted in Adventure, Fiction, Humorous, Travel book | Tagged | Leave a comment

Cymbeline 1: The Wager

Imogen and Posthumus, by John Faed (1819-1902)

Imogen and Posthumus, by John Faed (1819-1902)

Act I: Ancient Britain. King Cymbeline has remarried, and his current wife (“the Queen”) hopes to wed Cloten, her son by a previous marriage, to Cymbeline’s heir, his daughter Imogen.

Cloten, however, is a braggart whom all at court, except his mother and Cymbeline, know is “a thing/Too bad for bad report”. Cloten strikes me as oafish, but not so very bad, yet it’s still early. I’ll keep an eye on him.

To complicate matters, Imogen has just married the orphaned Posthumus Leonatus. Posthumus has been banished, Imogen is to be locked away, the Queen has started gathering herbal poisons, and Cymbeline flies into a rage when he sees the unhappy Imogen and Posthumus embracing before their separation.

During his exile in Rome, Posthumus brags to Iachimo of his wife’s beauty and constancy, and the inevitable wager ensues. Iachimo claims no woman can resist his charms, Posthumus says Imogen could, and the rest follows. Act I ends with Iachimo trying to bed Imogen by alleging her husband’s unfaithfulness. Imogen’s offended, Iachimo apologizes, she forgives and agrees to keep a trunk for him while he is in Gaul. Her emotional 180 is odd, but perhaps is intended to reveal innocent trust.

Curtain drops on Act I.

This late play holds echoes of other Shakespearean characters: the Cymbeline/Imogen contretemps looks to be following the lead set by Lear/Cordelia. The Queen brings Lady Macbeth to mind. As for Iachimo, he’s so like Iago that they have the same name (translations of Jacob or James). The plot, a pastiche of Holingshed and Boccaccio, sets the innocent and admirable wedded couple, Imogen and Posthumus, against all who wish to part them. But, unlike Romeo and Juliet, this romance promises a happier ending.

What stands out at this point is the complex web of relationships at Cymbeline’s court. The mood is unhappy: in the first scene, two gentlemen note that “You do not meet a man but frowns.” They’re relieved that Imogen is safely wed to Posthumus, whom everyone admires, yet they know a happy resolution is not just around the corner. The fact that Cymbeline prefers Cloten to Posthumus is worrisome for these gentlemen.

Meanwhile, the cast of characters includes some Roman officers and soldiers, “apparitions”, and Cymbeline’s two sons (“the eldest of them at three years old,/I’th’swathing clothes the other, from their nursery/were stol’n, and to this hour no guess in knowledge/Which way they went”). Are there perhaps some battle scenes in the offing? Or a haunting? In what manner will the princes reappear? To mention stollen children and then not resolve that mystery would be anathema, especially in a romance.

Back in 2 days with news on Act II.

Posted in Cymbeline, Shakespeare | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

They’re at it again!

Folger Library Digital Image collection

Folger Library Digital Image collection

In honor of Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, Calmgrove and I are partnering again, on a close reading of Cymbeline. We’re each reading this play for the first time, each starting this project with no idea of what to expect. Aiming for the unknown is part of the fun.

For the next few days, we’ll post something to our blogs about each of the five acts of this late play (ca. 1609-1610), with a sixth closing post to go up on the anniversary of WS’s baptism, April 26th. Our conversations will continue in each other’s Comments sections, and we hope you will join us. You can find a full text of the play, thanks to MIT, here.

My edition: Pelican Shakespeare (1969), Alfred Harbage, General Editor.

Posted in Shakespeare | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

New month

Hey, I just saw that Shakespeare’s 450th is coming up this year. Gotta pull something together to celebrate.

This year, I’m giving you a taste of the Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Images Collection. Check out the collection here.

For this post, all Lady Macbeths. (That’s the kind of mood I’m in.)

Some famous actresses (you’ll recognize their names), some whose first names were never recorded, and one surprise.

Take time to read some Shakespeare this month!



Posted in Shakespeare, writing | Tagged , | 9 Comments

Identity themes, reader response, and the critical lens

imagesA conversation with a student last night sparked this post, which covers wide swatches of literary theory as well as some personal issues. Read on if you dare.

A few decades ago I took a course on Japanese literature that included some psychoanalytical theory. We focused intensively on Norman Holland’s The Dynamics of Literary Response (1968) and how identity themes influence a reader’s understanding of a text — these form the critical lens through which we read and interpret any text.

When I took this course, I was familiar with Reader Response theory (an offshoot of the intentional fallacy, which posits that it doesn’t matter what an author intended; what matters is what the reader comprehends): essentially there is no one correct interpretation of a text, but as teachers we want to help move students towards more sophisticated and complex interpretations that don’t conflict with textual evidence (e.g., Moby Dick is definitely not about a peaceful around-the-world cruise, but it also isn’t just about hunting an angry whale). Holland took Reader Response theory and added the concept that one’s identity will influence one’s response. It may even be possible to locate a readers’s identity themes in that person’s responses to a text. A new kind of Rorschach test: give a person a book and ask her to tell you what she sees in it.

In my final paper for that course, I considered my response to Tanizaki’s Diary of a Mad Old Man in the light of my own identity themes and realized that my decision to identify the protagonist with my grandfather (dead for less than a decade at that time) was a denial that this protagonist was closer in age to my father (still alive and lively, at age 91, as I write this). Is that clear? I’m far from knowledgeable about Freudian psychology, but that shift of identification seems very much like displacement: reluctant to think about my father’s death, I shifted to connect this dying old man with my already dead grandfather. So much easier to deal with.

Last night this all came back to me in a discussion of Elizabeth Borton de Treviño’s I, Juan de Pareja. One student said that he hated the book for its Fascist, anti-gay, pro-slavery, pro-human trafficking stance and averred that the author was purposely promoting these goals.

Juan de Pareja, by Velazquez

Juan de Pareja, by Velazquez

I knew already that I, Juan de Pareja is a problematic novel. This tale¹ of Diego Velazquez’s slave, Juan de Pareja, published in 1965, doesn’t give us an enslaved person who rebels and resists at every moment, yearning for freedom and hating his owners. Pareja is not happy with his lot, he certainly feels the constraints on his life (especially since, as a slave, he is forbidden to paint), but he accepts his situation, is grateful for having a kind master, and uses every opportunity to learn what he can about painting. He befriends Velazquez and other painters, takes initiative to find portrait clients for his master, influences Velazquez’s artistic decisions, and plays a critical role in the artist’s family and political life. Eventually he becomes Velazquez’s close friend.

This novel is Borton de Treviño’s effort to explore not just an historical period (the first half of the 17th century in Spain) but also a creative relationship that begins as slave-master and ends as friend-colleague. Narrated by Pareja, the novel’s language draws attention to light and color (Pareja has an artist’s eye, so this comes as no surprise), without drawing it away from the narrator’s situation in society: the fate of two gold earrings, the only tangible reminders of his mother who died when he was young, symbolize Pareja’s movement towards freedom and self-actualization. One is stolen, and Pareja helplessly mourns its loss — he is powerless at this point, possibly his lowest in the novel. Years later he sells the other to purchase art supplies — here Pareja regrets the loss but willingly makes this sacrifice. This is his first free decision after starting to paint in secret, but because he makes it while still Velazquez’s property it announces his taking a large step towards freedom.

Portrait of a Monk, Juan de Pareja

Portrait of a Monk, Juan de Pareja

Only in conversations with Lolis, another person enslaved by the Velazquez family, does his enslavement become an explicit problem. She has already told him she will never marry another slave, and he loses hope of every winning her. After his manumission, he tries again. He asks Velazquez for permission to marry Lolis. Velazquez grants this wish, but it’s Lolis who refuses, explaining, “I do not wish to bear any children into slavery.” Even before replying, Lolis must ask permission to give an honest answer. This simple exchange says much about the utter cruelty of slavery, even if the owners are “kind”.

That the scene isn’t more explicitly didactic may be what made my student respond so negatively to the novel. He wasn’t the only dissatisfied reader in the class. They appeared to want a main character who flails against the world and fights hard for his freedom. To them, Pareja’s acceptance seemed too much like complicity. That complicity, however, is an important point to make about enslavement. To paraphrase Henry H. Garnet (as quoted in David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation, 2013), when slavery has made the slave blind to his own situation, it has “done it’s perfect work.” Pareja himself explains his acceptance: Slavery is “an injustice. But I am a religious man. I do not expect justice here on earth, but only in heaven.” Probably not a statement one wants to hear from the protagonist.

This dissatisfaction with Pareja’s complicity in his enslavement came as no surprise, but hearing about an anti-gay message stumped me. I needed evidence. The student pointed to a series of events: Pareja escapes Don Carmello, a brutal trader who is taking him to his new master, and travels for a few days with a “blond and handsome” young man. When the young man leaves him, Pareja is discovered by Don Carmello, who beats him senseless; his blood-caked clothes have to be peeled from his body. My student saw this as an instance of punishment for the few days of implied homosexuality. As the student correctly pointed out, it isn’t Don Carmello who inflicts the punishment — it’s Borton de Treviño. Thus her anti-gay agenda.

All right. Let’s assume that this is, indeed, a scene of retribution for same-sex attraction (whether the relationship was consummated or not is irrelevant — in fact, Pareja sleeps each night in the barn with the handsome young man’s horses). But in the larger story, there are other same-sex relationships which reward Pareja, first and foremost his comradeship with Velazquez. Setting that aside, I’ll focus on his friendship with visiting artist Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, who appears one day to study with the Master and befriends the slave. The young, merry (perhaps even lusty — when he first meets Pareja, he pats his “bulging sash”) Murillo provides oil paints, brushes and canvas so that Pareja no longer need steal them from the Master. Murillo also calms Pareja’s fears that his soul is in mortal danger because he hasn’t confessed that he paints. “Painting is no sin,” Murillo explains.

Is it too much to extrapolate from the forbidden “painting” to any forbidden behavior that endangers the soul? Am I reaching too far to hope that here Borton de Treviño implies that homosexuality is no sin?

I’d argue that, if the three days traveling with the handsome blond man (whose name we never learn) symbolizes a homosexual one-night-stand (pardon the bald crudity of this term), then Pareja’s deeper and longer lasting friendship with Murillo must be allowed to represent a committed homosexual relationship.

So, now I’m back where I started: identity themes and the critical lens. I can’t tell my student that his response is wrong. There’s no such thing: his identity themes control his critical stance and he is a careful reader who was paying attention (as an openly gay man, he is perfectly right to use a lens that points to any justification of anti-gay violence). But I want to go back to him and challenge him to return to the text and find more evidence of anti-gay messages, while also taking into account anything that can be interpreted as pro-gay. To convince me that Borton de Treviño had an anti-gay agenda when she wrote I, Juan de Pareja will be difficult; it might not even be important (that intentional fallacy again). But I can be convinced that the novel has undertones that are easy to miss if one is reading only for the story of a slave who yearns to paint more than he yearns for freedom².

Never let anyone tell you that children’s literature is simple and flat. The really good stuff, like this novel, can lead to sudden realizations, self-recognition, and even heavy duty thinking. I want to thank my student for bringing this interpretation to my attention. I’ll keep that particular lens at hand, the next time I read the book.

¹Borton de Treviño explains in an afterword that little historical information was available. She writes, “It is known that Velázquez inherited Juan de Pareja from relatives in Seville; it is known that he gave him his freedom, and in the way in which my story sets it forth. It is known that the great portrait of Pareja was painted by Velázquez in Italy, at or about the time he painted Pope Innocent X.” The rest is what she terms “biographical fiction” — working from the “recorded ‘conversations’” Velázquez left us in his paintings.

²Perhaps yearning to paint is Pareja’s displacement of his desire for freedom, since he would need to be free in order to paint without fear of breaking the law.

Posted in Critical lens, Identity themes, Newbery Award, Reader response theory, reading, Slavery | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Update on Mr. Hopkins

probchartFor this post I have to prep you with some math, and then a bit of probability.

Fact: there are just under 2.6 million seconds in a 30-day month.

Thus, if an improbable event has a one-in-a-million chance of happening, and if any such event can happen within one second, then each month ought to contain 2.6 improbable events. (This is why I ran into two college friends in Athens, Greece, and why a distant relative with my exact name has a similar teaching job in Switzerland.)

UnknownSo, here’s one of this month’s improbable events (although, to be fair, it happened several years ago): the Mr. Hopkins who is mentioned in Pfeffer’s Life as We Knew It (see my review here) is NOT a reference to an obscure 1939 book of speculative fiction. Pfeffer’s use of that name is pure coincidence.

How do I know? Because I emailed her, and she replied.

Thank you, Ms. Pfeffer, for your quick response. And I must agree with your final comment: “Ah, the mysteries of creation!”

Posted in Probability, Science fiction | Tagged | 5 Comments