The Enchanted Pen: The Reign of King Edward III

Magic, love, poetry…and being freakin’ done.

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I stood up, fist-pumped a triumphant “Yes,” and collapsed onto the floor into giddy carpet-angels.

At 2:59pm on January 5, 2017, I did it. I read the word “queen” and was finished with the complete works of William Shakespeare, 146,344 days after he died.

Every last play. Every last line. Every last word. Every last iamb. Every last roguish, rascally, knavish, villainous fragment he may have in some way, shape, or form penned.

Whither hast thou been? There. What hast thou done? That.

I even read random little love poems that sound like something I once wrote about a schoolyard crush: “I did walk, I did talk / With my love, with my dove” (A Song, 4.34-35). No, the great Shakespeare was not above rhyming love and dove.

That’s thirty-nine plays, ya hear? Over 880,000 words. A whole lotta thee’s and anon’s, methinks. What? Didn’t copy? Thirty. Nine. Plays. In one year. No. In 361 days. I finished five days ahead of schedule, having launched Shakespeare Confidential on January 10, 2016.

I sprung up. There was work to be done. I had to tell Facebook. I had to tell Twitter.

I read the word “queen” and was finished with the complete works of William Shakespeare, 146,344 days after he died.

Likes and congrats starting pouring in my feed when it panged me like a slipped disc in my back. I technically said I would read the complete works of William Shakespeare in 2016, the year marking the four hundredth anniversary of his death, didn’t I?

This hadn’t dawned on me when I finished Hamlet in the wee hours of January 3rd. I took a seat. I took a few deep breaths. I called my wife for a second opinion.

We agreed: The letter of the law would be finishing the project before 11:59:59 on December 31, 2016, but its spirit was reading all of Shakespeare over one year’s time.

“And I did that. That’s what I did. Yeah, that’s right.” At this point I was just assuaging my own Hamletian doubts.

“Plus, the rough edges make for a more interesting story, right?”

***

I nearly bailed on my final play, The Reign of Edward III, which had been included in the Norton Shakespeare some years after I shelled out (well, my father’s credit card shelled out) over a hundred bucks for some used copies of the first edition in the Xavier University bookstore. That turned out to be a pretty good investment, come to think of it.

I couldn’t find a physical copy of the play anywhere back in the states, when I needed to finish over the Christmas holiday. I hunted for it in libraries and bookstores. A California Barnes and Noble said they could ship in a copy. For $99. That wasn’t going to happen. My brother’s local library had an edition of a Complete Works with Edward III (not bad, Bexley, OH, not bad at all). But I didn’t discover this until the day before my stay there ended.

I started making excuses. Actually, I started making a formal list of objections:

  1. Most anthologies don’t include it. There have long been questions about what parts Shakespeare may have written.
  2. Few people actually read the play. It’s not considered a particularly good play.
  3. I’d have to read it online:
    • Elizabethan English is terribly difficult to wade through on a screen.
    • The available text was short on glosses and footnotes. That means even more language and historical context I would miss reading a digital copy.
    • The online edition would be inconsistent with other texts I’ve read.
    • I couldn’t underline notable passages and circle interesting words.
  4. I really wanted to finish Shakespeare Confidential on Hamlet, Shakespeare’s most Shakespearean play.

Aroint ye, excuses! The counterarguments:

  1. More and more anthologies are including Edward III, as forensic and corpus linguistics have recently identified hallmark signs of Shakespeare’s idiolect. 
  2. Few people may do so, but people actually read it.
  3. Reading online is tough, but it was available with just a few simple keystrokes:
    • I’ve read 38 other plays at this point. I’ve got some practice working my way through the language.
    • Again, I’ve read 38 other plays at this point. I can handle raw text.
    • For Much Ado About Nothing, I did read the Folger edition, after all.
    • Even when I marked up compelling parts, I still coped their line numbers down in a notebook.
  4. I really wanted to read all of Shakespeare in one year.

I really wanted that last one, item #4. 

“I’ll be disappearing in the basement for awhile,” I informed my stepmother while loading up on fresh coffee and water upstairs.

“Happy reading,” she wished.

“We’ll see about that.”

I cued up the play on Shakespeare’s Words, from celebrated Shakespeareans David and Ben Crystal, and strapped myself in.

***

A funny thing happened. I ended up finishing the play in a just few short hours, my fastest all year. Maybe I really had learned a thing or two on may way to Shakespeare completism. Maybe I was less encumbered by shuttling back and forth between footnotes and text, between glosses and my notebooks. Or maybe I was just ready to be done already.

“For so such moving hath a Poet’s pen: Then, if thou be a Poet, move thou so.”

But another funny thing happened. I can barely remember a damned thing about it other than that the English and French are fighting and the English win. This is pretty much a safe assumption for any of Shakespeare’s history plays. And this, as Wikipedia has since kindly reminded me, is pretty much an accurate outline of the play.

I remembered that, and a passage where Edward III asks his secretary, Lodowick, to write some poetry for a new love interest:

Now, Lod’wick, invocate some golden Muse,
To bring thee hither an enchanted pen,
That may for sighs set down true sighs indeed,
Talking of grief, to make thee ready groan;
And when thou writ’st of tears, encouch the word
Before and after with such sweet laments,
That it may raise drops in a Tartar’s eye,
And make a flint-heart Scythian pitiful;
For so much moving hath a Poet’s pen:
Then, if thou be a Poet, move thou so,
And be enriched by thy sovereign’s love.
For, if the touch of sweet concordant strings
Could force attendance in the ears of hell,
How much more shall the strains of poets’ wit
Beguile and ravish soft and humane minds! (2.1.65-79)

This passage, perhaps, is as close as we get to a statement of poetics from Shakespeare. Of what he may have thought poetry is and can do. Of he thought art is for.

For Shakespeare, poetry’s like magic and love: It seduces and enchants us, as the renowned Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate argued at that lecture I attended in Oxford back in April 2016. Poetry conjures up powerful images in our mind – which were called fantasies in Shakespeare’s day. And these images have power over us. Like Theseus’ potions in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Prospero’s spells in The Tempest. They make us think differently. They make us act differently.

Like magic, like love, poetry changes us. Poetry transforms us. For so such moving hath a Poet’s pen: / Then, if thou be a Poet, move thou so. O, thou wert a poet, Shakespeare.

Hamlet be damned: I can think of no better way to close out my year of reading the complete works of Shakespeare…and there I was, trying to skip out on Edward III. Fie!

Flourish. [Exit]

The art of artifice (and the artifice of art): The Life of Timon of Athens

In which Shakespeare beats a Painter and Poet with a stick.

The Life of Timon of Athens isn’t a particularly celebrated play in Shakespeare’s oeuvre. Many critics think its language and plot don’t quite stack up to the Bard’s usual standards. Some argue it was never finished. Others conclude the play was a collaboration. Whatever its status in the canon, the tragedy stands out for its focus on money – and still has some warnings worth heeding.

Athenians love Timon because he lavishes them with gifts and parties: “Methinks I could deal kingdoms to my friends,/ And ne’er be weary” (1.2.215-16). His friendships are bought, but Timon is blind to this: “You shall perceive how you/ Mistake my fortunes. I am wealthy in my friends,” he responds when his servant relays that his creditors are demanding payment (2.2.178-79). His generosity is borrowed. And none of his friends bail him out.

The Senate threatens to execute Timon for defaulting on his debts. Fleeing the polis, a forsaken Timon himself forsakes the world. “I am sick of this false world!” (4.3.368) as he cries, cursing man and gold, “thou sweet king-killer,” alike (4.3.374).

Timon becomes his foil, Apemantus, a gadfly philosopher whose cynicism he well sums up in grace he says at one of Timon’s banquets early in the play:

Immortal gods, I crave no pelf.
I pray for no man but myself.
Grant I may never prove so fond
To trust man on his oath or bond,
Or a harlot for her weeping,
Or a dog that seems a-sleeping
Or a keeper with my freedom,
Or my friends if I should need ‘em.
Amen. So fall to’t.
Rich men sin, and I eat root. (1.2.61-70)

In his own root-eating misanthropy Timon fails to see his servant, Flavius, stays by his side. He fails to see to his comrade, Alcibiades, leads an uprising against the city to defend him. The Senate relents their too-cruel punishment, but too late, as Timon dies out in the wilderness.

***

Timon of Athens isn’t exactly the most artful social commentary, but it does develop a  compelling theme of artifice. We see the artifice of men and money, yes. You can’t buy love. Who can you really trust? But we also see the artifice of law. “We are for laws; he dies” (3.6.85), as one senator summarily sentences Timon. It’s a stark reminder that even morality is man-made.

He is as self-absorbed in his exile as he is in buying his countrymen’s affections.

We also see the artifice of Timon’s own self-pity: “I never had/ Honest man about me; ay, all I kept were knaves,/ To serve in meat to villains” (4.3.469-71). No, faithful Flavius doesn’t count; he’s just his lowly servant, as if only the rich and powerful are capable of any depth, or at least any sentiment of value.

There is a touching scene when all of Timon’s servants gather together at Timon’s house to mourn their master’s fall. “Yet do our hearts wear Timon’s livery./ That I see by our faces. We are fellows still,/ Serving alike in sorrow” (4.2.17-19). The master-servant relationship itself is not a natural construction, but Timon’s servants transcend the artifice of social roles and achieve true fellow feeling. “There’s none/ Can truly say he gives if he receives,” Timon earlier comments on the cycle of debt that a gift ignites (1.2.9-10). Only his servants prove otherwise.

But Timon certainly learns no lessons about egocentrism in his hermitage. He is as self-absorbed in his exile as he is in buying his countrymen’s affections. Timon may reject gold, but he doesn’t have to reject man – or the golden mean.

***

We’re always looking for clues to Shakespeare’s creative process. What did he think? What was his process like? How did he come up with his ideas? Did he know he was great? Did ever imagine that, 400 years after he died, some American dude would be cooped up in a spare room qua office in Dublin, spending the Sunday of his bank holiday weekend trying to glean some deep wisdom from the words of one of his lesser plays? Well, Timon of Athens may gives us some small glimpse into the poet’s poetics, but it may not glitter like gold: Shakespeare exposes the artifice of, well, art itself.

Art, counterfeit and fiction, is a made thing, fashioned from human hands, not from some divine imagination we mortals are not permitted to.

Shakespeare (and his collaborator, presumably) stages a Painter and Poet. In the beginning, we see them flattering Timon with portraits and verses. For patronage, of course. For money. For all their highfalutin words of inspiration, not even the artists transcend base greed. We see the pair again at the end of the play. They feign loyalty to the indigent hermit, hearing report of gold Timon discovers in the forest. But Timon overhears their mercenary dissembling and calls them out on it. He cleverly undercuts the Painter: “Thou draw’st counterfeit/ Best in all Athens; thou’rt indeed the best;/ Thou counterfeit’s most lively” (5.1.77-79). And the poet he lambastes: “And for thy fiction,/ Why, thy verse swells with stuff so fine and smooth/ That thou art even natural in thine art” (5.1.80-82). Then he beats the two with his stick. And natural, we should also remember, could mean “foolish” in Elizabethan vernacular – which just takes a sledgehammer to the play’s natural-artificial axis. Thanks, Shakespeare: You knew the artifice of sign and signifier all too well, too.

For as much as we like to worship great art and artists, as if the creator and their works exist in some higher sphere unsullied by the affairs of lowly man, Shakespeare recognizes that art is manufactured. That art, too, is often motivated by practical needs, by self-interest, by profit. The Bard had to make a living, after all. It can be deflating, even cheapening, to peek behind the creative curtain, like a son recognizing his father’s fallibility for the first time. But it’s also comforting, too, especially for the aspiring artist: Art, counterfeit and fiction, is a made thing, fashioned from human hands, not from some divine imagination we mortals are not permitted to.

But not all counterfeits, shall we say, are equally convincing. Not all fictions are equally credible. Not all makers are equally skilled. Not all art is equally good. Timon of Athens is no Hamlet. Still, I could never write a Timon of Athens.