Hello Good-bye: Shakespeare’s Birthday, Deathday, and Lasting Legacy

23 April, 2018

         Today marks the 454th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birthday and the 402nd anniversary of his death. To mark the day and continue to celebrate Poetry Month, I was reading a few of my favourite bits and pieces from the oeuvre of the Man from Stratford, fragments that remind us how much we can learn from someone who lived and wrote over four hundred years ago and that I shall share here, with you.

Issues of friendship (usually complicated) pervade Shakespeare’s work. Hermia and Helena; Hamlet and Horatio; Rosalind and Celia; the Prince, Claudio, and Benedick; Beatrice and Hero; Anthony and Enobarbus; Hal and Falstaff; Paulina and Hermione (not Granger) — these friendships have trials and separations, misunderstandings serious and silly, but throughout his plays and poems, Shakespeare recognizes that friendship is essential to humanity. Sonnet 29 describes the way a steady and loyal friend can save us from the depths of despair and self-loathing.

Sonnet XXIX

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope, 
Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state, 
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
    For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
    That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

While sometimes we need to look to others for support or inspiration, Shakespeare also urges us to examine ourselves to find what qualities lie within that we can, that we mustshare with others. Our awareness of how we depend on others becomes balanced by the realization of what we owe the world:

Thyself and thy belongings
Are not thine own so proper as to waste
Thyself upon thy virtues, they on thee.
Heaven doth with us as we with torches do,
Not light them for themselves; for if our virtues
Did not go forth of us, ‘twere all alike
As if we had them not.

 Measure For Measure I.i.29-35

Of course, it’s all fun and games until somebody is looking to be the next king of England. In Henry IV, Part 1, Hal contemplates how his companions use him and how he intends to use them in turn to solidify his claim to the throne that his father usurped (though I will say, I think with good reason) from Henry’s cousin Richard.

I know you all, and will awhile uphold 
The unyoked humour of your idleness: 
Yet herein will I imitate the sun, 
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds 
To smother up his beauty from the world, 
That, when he please again to be himself, 
Being wanted, he may be more wonder’d at, 
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists 
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him. 
If all the year were playing holidays, 
To sport would be as tedious as to work; 
But when they seldom come, they wish’d for come, 
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents. 
So, when this loose behavior I throw off 
And pay the debt I never promised, 
By how much better than my word I am, 
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes; 
And like bright metal on a sullen ground, 
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault, 
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes 
Than that which hath no foil to set it off. 
I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill; 
Redeeming time when men think least I will.

Henry IV, I. ii

We could pause here to debate whether Hal is a clever politician or a rotten blackguard, if his companions deserve such a reversal, whether Hal is reluctant to do what he knows must be done or gleefully anticipating pulling the rug out from under Poins, Bardo, and especially Falstaff (“No, my good lord; banish Peto, banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant, being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world”), but if anyone wants to have that discussion, let’s save it for the comments.

Back to the sonnets for a finish. In the thirty-third fourteener (that’s for any mountain climbers who might be reading), Shakespeare employs much of the same imagery he put into the mouth of Hal. The imagery works differently in the sonnet. We could, I suppose, maintain that 33 makes an argument for the benefits of recycling, but besides that important lesson, this poem also provides us with a thought-paradigm that can lead us to being forgiving of others and maybe even of ourselves.

Sonnet XXXIII

Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain-tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;
Anon permit the basest clouds to ride 
With ugly rack on his celestial face,
And from the forlorn world his visage hide,
Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace:
Even so my sun one early morn did shine
With all triumphant splendor on my brow; 
But out, alack! he was but one hour mine;
The region cloud hath mask’d him from me now.
    Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;
    Suns of the world may stain when heaven’s sun staineth.

None of us is perfect, but all of us are connected. Shakespeare lived a long time ago, but his works remain to make us think, to question, to push ourselves to become better people with broader minds and more expansive souls.

Happy birthday, Bill, and may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

 

P.S. Because Shakespeare and Cervantes share a death-day, here’s a sonnet from Don Quixote, one that touches on many of the same themes as the passages above:

When heavenward, holy Friendship, thou didst go
 Soaring to seek thy home beyond the sky,
 And take thy seat among the saints on high,
It was thy will to leave on earth below
Thy semblance, and upon it to bestow
 Thy veil, wherewith at times hypocrisy,
 Parading in thy shape, deceives the eye,
And makes its vileness bright as virtue show.
Friendship, return to us, or force the cheat
 That wears it now, thy livery to restore,
   By aid whereof sincerity is slain.
If thou wilt not unmask thy counterfeit,
 This earth will be the prey of strife once more,
   As when primaeval discord held its reign.

 

Month of Letters Update

 

     week-of-mail It’s been a little over two weeks two-weeks-of-mail1 since the beginning of the Month of Letters began, and the missives are flying fast and furiously. It was suggested that those of us with blogs post photos of what we’ve been sending, so here’s an update of my progress with visual aids. I haven’t kept an accurate count of how many letters I’ve sent, but I have managed to get at least one epistle in the mail every day. My first-letters went to the MoL’s founder and a friend in Florida. One particularly virtuous day I managed to send out twelve notes  to Girls Love Mail, SUPPORTER an organization that “gives the gift of hand-written letters to newly diagnosed breast cancer patients.” 

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I’ve sent out some valentines     IMG_7269 , and found a couple new mail boxes to use explorer. I mailed a Jane-Austen-style letter AUSTEN-STYLE1 (all folded up and sealed with wax instead of using an envelope). I started out writing with a quill, but that part ended up looking like something written by Hermann Rorschach, so I capitulated and went back to my fountain pen IMG_7226 (the pink one is the Austen letter).

 

       I’ve sent birthday cards IMG_7214 and  parcel (parcels, really)  IMG_7223, and letters to India, Australia, Germany, and Great Britain international. I’ve posted spot-of-mail1 to old friends IMG_7224 IMG_7063 and new pen-pals IMG_7221 IMG_7225

I have many letters to answer and send, but if anyone reading this wants a chance to decipher my handwriting, send me a message here or through the Month of Letters website, and I’ll add you to my list. 

small stones and the Month of Letters

   WOWH badge-14-300x300 In January, I participated in the Writing Our Way Home Mindful Writing Challenge. The challenge is to write one small stone every day. A small stone is a brief observation intended to connect the writer and then readers to the world in fresh and meaningful ways, or, as their originator defines them, “A small stone is a short piece of writing that precisely captures a fully-engaged moment.”  They are the brain-child of Satya Robin, an author, therapist, and Buddhist monk, and you can find out much more about small stones and Ms. Robin here: http://www.writingourwayhome.com.  Some of the participants write exceptionally moving observations. I offer some of mine below as examples of the poorer sort:

The gradations of evening slip behind the tree and sink through the clouds.

The wind stage-whispers to the house; its voice calls to and pulls the snow clinging to its wake.

Frost crystals on the barbeque – something like pearls before swine.

 The evening bruises darker against the slip of the moon.

Age creeps up on the dogs, seeps into their bones like the cold of deep winter, saps the colour from their fur, pulls their legs put from under them when they stand, and the poor mutts look in vain for their betrayer.

Layers of light – the sheen of the moon, the quiet reflections of the clouds, the insistent welcome of the homes below.

 The lights of the Nepalese restaurant are vibrant and gaudy and as enticingly welcoming as the sounds of a carousel.

 Awkward and ungainly with fish-wife voices, the Canada geese usurp a momentary majesty against the purpling sky.

The yellow spider, shocked by the mist hitting the rosemary, scrambles for the highest point of the plant and throws its front legs up in supplication to whatever gods watch over spiders, hoping for a life-line.

 The lone tree on the hill that shelters the cow has a new companion, one that also appreciates the rush of the wind through bone and feather, branch and leaf.

How to picture the wind? It is a vampire: I feel the swirl of its cape, the coldness of its blood, the bite on my exposed throat and cheek, but it eludes every snatch of my grasping shutter.

The snow falls with the ticking of thousands of infinitesimal clocks, with the patting of elves’ hands on the heads of sleeping birds.

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Writing through this month of small stones provides me with an reminder to look at the world the way I look at language. It is not a perspective that comes naturally to me (as I think is apparent), but the stretch seems to air out neglected rooms in my head. (It also makes me get out of the house. I don’t find that I am inspired by my computer screen or want to look too closely at the dishes in the sink. I did get off a good phrase about my piles of paper being “tarnished with dust” but I decided one of those was enough).

LetterMo2014squareThis last month I was engaged in epistolary endeavours inspired by Mary Robinette Kowal’s Month of Letters Challenge. This is fun. The goal is to mail at least one item (not including bills and mass-mailings and the like) every day (one may skip Sundays and holidays) and to log what one has mailed. In addition to acquiring points for every letter mailed, there are a number of Achievement stamps that one can earn along with additional points. There are stamps for sending one’s First Letter first-letter, for mailing a Parcel parcel, for going forth boldly as an Explorer explorer and mailing in a box one has not used before adventurer. There are also stamps for worthy causes such as mailing to a Soldier soldier or other service person and for sending notes to be distributed to cancer patients through Girls Love Mail SUPPORTER. It is a game all players can “win”; participants need garner only forty points to earn a “winner” stamp at the end of the month.
LetterMo-2014-Winner

One of my favourite Achievements is the Austen-style letter AUSTEN-STYLE1. Such a missive should be written with a dip pen IMG_0417 (ideally a quill IMG_0071), folded, and sealed with wax: IMG_0075. If one is friendly with one’s local postal-clerks, it is possible to persuade them to send the letter through the mail sans envelope. (I suppose if we were really to be authentic, we’d find folks with horses to deliver them for us. Perhaps next year.) spot-of-mail1

Although the challenges of January and February are in many ways markedly different, what they have in common is the impulse toward connection. Often that’s what writing is all about. We use it to connect with ourselves, with the world around us, with close friends, with the teacher giving us a grade, with authors who have lived in centuries long gone, with generations yet to come, with other seekers of knowledge we will never meet but who share our curiosity about Shakespeare or germs or hats or the germs that probably lived in the hats worn by Shakespeare. Writing is wonderful, alchemical, and transforms our lives and the lives of others. I never tire of what can be done with words.

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