Over last weekend’s trip, I finished Don Quixote. Although most of the book was delightful, I found the ending somewhat unsatisfying. It hints at a third part to the tale that apparently was never written. I couldn’t find a trace of the last paragraph of Wikipedia’s plot summary anywhere. Perhaps more than one version of the book exists? Mine is the J.M. Cohen translation, which is mentioned in the Wikipedia article. There must be some strange enchantment concealing the true text from my eyes.
Next on my list, some selected plays by Shakespeare. I’ve already finished Romeo and Juliet. It’s been a while since I read Shakespeare, and I had forgotten (or perhaps never fully appreciated) the bard’s exquisite use of language, rhyme, meter, and wordplay.
I had not read Romeo and Juliet since high school, when I consumed it in order to spoof it (I was Juliet). Much of the plot has become arcane to 21st century readers. The idea that the father should decide whom the daughter should marry would be laughable today. And instead of revealing her secret marriage when push came to shove, Juliet decides to fake her death, and everything goes to hell from there (Shakespeare says it better). Where’s Dr. Phil when you need him? Just talk to each other, folks!
We also live in an age where dying to preserve one’s honor seems unlikely at best, ridiculous at worst. Yet it’s a common theme in Shakespeare and his contemporaries, and seems to meet with general approval. As Joseph Addison said, “Better to die ten thousand deaths than wound my honor.” Could you find yourself saying those words, or acting upon them?
This morning I started A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which starts out with a similar controversy over a daughter not wanting to marry the man her father has chosen because she loves another. But this play seems more light-hearted right out of the gate than Romeo and Juliet. Either Shakespeare (whomever he may have been) makes quite a few chronological mistakes, or he intentionally tosses in anachronisms to give the scene a farcical flavor. Just in the first act I noticed these:
1. Hermia refers to the tale of Dido and Aeneas as an ancient example of faithfulness in love:
And by that fire which burn’d the Carthage queen,
When the false Troyan under sail was seen,
But Aeneas’ adventures begin after the Trojan War, and this play is set in the time of Theseus of Athens, who supposedly lived a generation or so prior to that famous conflict.
2. Three times Shakespeare uses the word “cross” to indicate a burden of suffering, a Christian metaphor used in a pre-Christian setting (which might have simply gotten by him unnoticed).
3. Most glaring of all, in Scene II Bottom and Quince banter about the beards worn by French royalty. With Theseus dated somewhere prior to 1200 BC and the French monarchy beginning no earlier than 410 AD we have an anachronism on the millennial scale. But then, even the names “Bottom” and “Quince” hardly belong in pre-Classical Greece.
Perhaps despite the ostensibly ancient setting, Shakespeare employs contemporary conversation and characters in order to give the play a lighter feeling, much the same as if a 21st century production of Romeo and Juliet were to have Juliet listening to her iPod in order to ignore Paris. Or when Romeo learns of Juliet’s death he googles it just to be sure. Maybe then he would have stumbled across Friar Laurence’s blog and found out about the ruse in time after all.