Posts Tagged ‘William Shakespeare’

Favourites of 2017: Books

January 2, 2018

All things considered, 2017 was a pretty good year for reading. Long, difficult books were mostly off the table — there’s that volume of Kierkegaard I’ve been seeping through for 8 months — but I found some quite good, short, easier books that were worth reading.

For this year-end reflection, I’ve selected ten good books from among those I read this year. I list them randomly, or nearly so. Links, where present, usually go to my more extensive notes on the book.


I’ll begin with Livy, whose writing was a thread that ran through my whole year. I began the first volume of his great Roman history Ab urbe condita in January or February, and I finished the fifth and last volume in December. This was a great book with which to kick off my Roman reading project; although it breaks off in the 160s BC, with much of the greatest drama still ahead, my understanding of the history of Republican Rome has improved greatly. I now feel I have context and at least some depth when I see a reference to Cincinnatus, or Camillus, or Hannibal, or Scipio, and a much better sense of how Rome grew from an Italian city among other, comparable, Italian cities to a superpower of the ancient world. I wrote fairly extensively about this history as I was reading. I am looking forward to continuing this reading project in 2018; I expect that much of the year will be spent in the company of Cicero and Julius Caesar.


I was given as a gift a huge volume of Anglo-Saxon poetry this year, and I expect that it will be the center of gravity of my medieval reading in 2018, but this year my favourite medieval literature was The Song of Roland, a splendid heroic poem about a battle between the rearguard of Charlemagne’s army, led by Roland, and the Islamic army besetting them as they pass through the Alps. Although not a scrupulously historical poem, it does teach us about the attitudes of Christians toward Muslims a thousand years ago, gives us an intriguing example of the medieval effort to baptize the military virtues, and presents us with a wonderful portrait of Roland, a figure who loomed large in the European imagination for centuries.


With my son I have been reading Thornton Burgess’ books about the inhabitants of the Green Forest and the Green Meadows. Beginning with Old Mother West Wind and continuing through the adventures of one little friend after another — Old Man Coyote, Paddy the Beaver, Chatterer the Red Squirrel, Sammy Jay, Jerry Muskrat, Grandfather Frog, and others — we have gradually come to feel quite at home in those woods. Though he is certainly less mercurial and virtuosic than, for example, Kenneth Grahame, Burgess nonetheless has a fine talent for diverting tales with memorable characters and moral weight. He wrote, I believe, about 100 of these books, and so our explorations are far from over. So long as my son is content to continue, I am as well.


This year I continued my habit of reading — or seeing staged — one Shakespearean play each month. I ventured off the beaten trail and read “Pericles”, a late-ish play (probably c.1608) that was new to me. It was a very pleasant surprise. It has something of the character of a fable, complete with riddles, a beautiful princess, an evil king, miraculous events, and a happy ending. For some time I’ve been interested in the relationship between Shakespeare’s art and medieval literature and drama (I’ve been meaning to read this book, for example), and in no other Shakespeare play have I had such a powerful sense of being on medieval terrain, as though he had adapted a story from The Canterbury Tales. In fact the play is based on a poem of John Gower, Chaucer’s contemporary, and Gower himself appears in the play in a role something like that of a Greek chorus, commenting on the action. It’s delightful. Thematically the play is about, among other things, what it means to be a good father, and in particular about the relationships of fathers to their daughters. The final act has a reunion scene that brought tears into my eyes. Highly recommended.


Over the past few years I’ve been reading the Aubrey-Maturin sea-faring novels, and greatly enjoying them, but this year I also read The Voyage of the Beagle, a real-life account of a circumnavigation voyage in the 1830s, and I enjoyed it at least as much. It is true that Charles Darwin, the ship’s talented young naturalist, doesn’t tell us much about life at sea, but this particular voyage landed ashore at numerous locations along the Argentine and Chilean coasts, as well as at a few island archipelagos in the Pacific, and I found his many observations on natural history fascinating. The same author went on to write a number of other books on related topics, and it would be interesting to look into those some day as well.


Perhaps because I spent a few months this year homeschooling our kids, I read several books on education. Among these the best was Stratford Caldecott’s Beauty in the Word, a remarkably rich and thoughtful exploration of the classical educational trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Some descriptions of classical education merely correlate these three subjects with the developmental capacities of children (as Dorothy Sayers did in an influential essay), but Caldecott goes much further, digging deeply into the relevance this general schema has for the child’s intellectual, moral, social, and even metaphysical formation. His organizing question is “What kind of education would enable a child to progress in the rational understanding of the world without losing his poetic and artistic appreciation of it?”, and it leads him to rewarding discussions of tradition, drama, technology, and liturgy, among many other things. If you think that education ought to be richly human, concerned with what kind of persons we should be rather than just what sort of things we might do, calling for the best and wisest counsel we can muster, this is a book for you.


The conversion memoir is a genre with a distinguished history stretching back, for English speakers, to John Henry Newman, and further back, to St Augustine, in the wider tradition. These memoirs tend to have certain elements in common, and perhaps the most distinctive thing about Sally Read’s Night’s Bright Darkness is that it doesn’t follow the usual patterns at all. It’s an account of her conversion from comfortable atheism to astounded Catholicism in which, instead of passing over the ground between the two, as a normal person would do, she somehow tunnelled or teleported from one side to the other. This is a poor metaphor for the real substance of her story, which is grace. The other distinctive feature of this book is how beautifully written it is; Read is a poet, and brings a literary sensibility to the manner in which she tells her story.


English speakers continue to receive, in translation, by dribs and drabs, literary crumbs that fell from the table of the great German Thomist and intellectual historian Josef Pieper. This year I sat down with a volume that appeared, a few years ago now, under the title The Silence of Goethe. As is so often the case with Pieper, the slender profile of the book belies its rich content, which consists of meditations on the value of reticence and silence for both public and private life, as culled from the voluminous writings of Pieper’s great countryman. Counsel to the effect that “You live properly only if you live a hidden life” has particular value for those of us living in the age of social media, in which the temptation to live even our private lives in public is seductive. That this, and allied, advice comes from a man who was himself one of the best-known figures of his age gives it a certain tried-and-true authority.


I read a handful of Wodehouse’s Jeeves novels this year, and Thank You, Jeeves can stand in, on this list, for the lot of them. Published in 1934, it was the first of Wodehouse’s full-length Jeeves novels, and is a delightful tale about Bertie’s retreat to a country cottage in which to practice the banjolele. Jeeves is unable to abide the instrument, and so enters the employ of one or another of the characters circling around Bertie throughout the story, being replaced by a homicidal, drunk valet called Brinkley. Among the most pleasing characters in this mélange is Pauline Stoker, an American girl possessed of a “pre-eminent pulchritude”, to whom Bertie was briefly engaged on a prior trip to America, and for whom he now tries to play matchmaker. At stake are the sale of a run-down manor house and the future married happiness of several of Bertie’s friends. As usual with Wodehouse, the writing is superb and the invention never flagging. Some might take offense at the plot element involving Bertie and the “loony doctor” Sir Roderick Glossop wandering the grounds in black-face, but we are not so censorious.


This was yet another year in which I did not read much theology or philosophy, but I did manage one of the early classics of Christian theology in St Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. The aim of the book is to provide a defence of the fittingness of the Incarnation, death, and Resurrection of Christ against those who contended that these centerpieces of the Christian story had an arbitrary or even blasphemous character. Athanasius brings out beautifully the drama of Christ’s saving action as a descent into the world, a battle against evil, and a triumphant elevation of all things into the everlasting and unconquerable life of the Holy Trinity. It is a book that has become a touchstone for a Christian metaphysics of the good, in which Creation itself is caught up into the mystery of Christ.


As in past years, it is fun to look at the original publication dates of the books (or plays) I read this year. Here is the histogram:

I skewed modern, as usual, but not so severely as in past years, and the classical and medieval books can at least be said to have made a decent showing. The 20th century was the big winner, as might be expected, but even there it was the early 1900s which got much of my attention, with the average post-1900 publication date being 1955.

Finally, a bit of trivia:

Most books by a single author: Thornton Burgess (12), Shakespeare (12), Terence (6), Wodehouse (5).

Plautus: Four Comedies

November 19, 2017

Four Comedies
Titus Maccius Plautus
Translated from the Latin by Erich Segal
(Oxford, 1996) [c.200 BC]
xlvi + 242 p.

Plautus is the earliest extant Roman literary figure; he was the author of about 130 plays, of which 20 survive in whole or significant part. Writing at a time when Rome was expanding in power and coming into contact with other major powers in the Mediterranean, his period of success overlaps with the Second Punic War (218-201 BC); Rome was under the greatest existential threat she’d yet known, and so, naturally, Plautus wrote raucous and diverting comedies. Rome was also moving more into the Greek sphere of influence, and this was decisive for Plautus; many of his plays are adapted from Greek originals, even retaining a Greek setting and making frequent jests about Greeks.

On the evidence collected here, his plays are works of quick wit, rapidly developing plot, wordplay, and delightful farce. His characters are not richly developed, but then the plays are not really about the characters; they are comedies of circumstance and situation. This Oxford edition calls Plautus “the single greatest influence on Western comedy”, and his manner does feel familiar (more so than does, for instance, Aristophanes). The characters crack jokes, make frequent asides, and even address the audience. They are unbuttoned affairs in which, it seems, anything might happen.


The Braggart Soldier is the longest of the plays in this volume (about 1400 lines), and it illustrates well the attractions of Plautus’ writing. The situation involves a conspiracy among the household slaves to allow the mistress of the house to abscond with a handsome young man, and a boastful husband who is duped into trading her for her non-existent twin sister. It is great fun, and Segal’s translation is part of the pleasure: there is a long sequence in the middle in which he sustains page after page of lines with internal rhymes, and it is quite a delight.


The Brothers Menaechmus is about twin brothers, separated as children, who find themselves, many years later, unbeknownst to themselves or anyone else, in the same city at the same time. It’s a delightful little comedy featuring a long string of hilarious instances of mistaken identity. I was quite taken with Segal’s translation, which, though it introduces elements (such as occasional rhyme) not present in the original, is wonderfully witty and engaging.

The play is best known to English speakers as being the play Shakespeare adapted into The Comedy of Errors, and it is on account of this adaptation that English speakers have a motive, and an understandable one, not to get to know the original. The truth is that Shakespeare’s version is incomparably superior, not only in its verbal wit but in its plot construction, for by adding a second pair of twins (the Dromios) as the servants of the twin brothers, Shakespeare exponentially expanded the play’s scope for confusion and comedy. It’s no contest. But presumably Shakespeare chose to adapt Plautus’ play because he saw some merit in it, and he was right so to see. It would be fun to read the two plays in close conjunction. But read Plautus first, to avoid disappointment.


Although I anticipated that The Haunted House might have a supernatural angle, in fact the house in question is just one that emits noises because a wayward son and his many drunk friends are inside, hiding from the father, who has returned unexpectedly from a long journey. Meanwhile, outside, a clever household slave concocts a series of comedic diversions to prevent the father from entering. It’s an entertaining play that I imagine would work very well on stage.


The last play in this volume is The Pot of Gold, about a miserly father who obsessively guards a pot of gold — that is, not a pot full of gold, but an actual gold pot, though the distinction hardly matters for the play’s purposes. He is one of the best rendered characters I’ve encountered in this set of plays, coming closest to having something like a realistic, albeit exaggerated, psychology. Meanwhile his daughter, soon to be married, is about to give birth — though she is apparently not great with child, for the father is entirely unaware of her condition — having been “ravished” (or, to speak plainly, raped) at a city festival by a relation of her fiancé. In the principal comic scene this “ravisher” approaches her father to confess his crime and ask for her hand in marriage, but her father misconstrues his confession as an admission that he has stolen the precious pot of gold. This is comedy, yes, but dark; the man’s greed corrupts even his closest relationships and, indeed, his whole experience. The play breaks off before the conclusion, but the notes indicate that “most scholars” believe it ends with the father giving the pot of gold as a dowry gift — a redemption story.

Molière was impressed enough by this play to take it as the model for his L’Avare (The Miser); he retained many of the comedic elements from Plautus, including the discomforting humour of the daughter/pot-of-gold confusion, but infused all of the characters with more realism and, in my mind, brought out the interior corruption of the central character with even greater force.


I’ve enjoyed each of these plays. In his introductory notes to this volume, Erich Segal makes a distinction between “great drama” and “great theatre”; with his stock characters, loony situations, and comedic high-jinx, Plautus may not qualify as the former, but he might very well deliver the latter. Should I ever have the opportunity to see one of his plays on the stage, I would not readily turn it down.

Lecture night: He said, she said

May 25, 2016

The history of the Reformation in England has been of special interest to me since I read Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars, in which he challenged the received (though not universally so) account of the docility with which the English people embraced Anglicanism in the sixteenth century. Since then there have been many books published exploring the condition of non-conformists, both Catholic and Protestant, in England, and the oppression and violence they endured from the state.

This freshly considered history has begun to spill into related disciplines, including Shakespeare studies. Although Shakespeare’s own religious views are a matter of dispute, there is at least circumstantial evidence connecting him with Catholic recusancy: among other things, his mother’s family were well-known recusants, and his daughter was also cited for recusancy.

Some have now undertaken to re-read Shakespeare’s plays in the light of this new understanding of the historical context in which he wrote. Do the plays have anything to tell us about the Catholic experience during the Elizabethan period?

Here are are two lectures addressed to this question, both delivered at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture a few years ago. The first, by Peter Holland, answers in the negative: in his view, there is no convincing evidence that Shakespeare was a Catholic and nothing in his plays to suggest that he was concerned about the plight of Catholics in England. He’s a very distinguished Shakespearian, and it’s an excellent lecture.

Opposing him is Clare Asquith, author of Shadowplay, a book which argues that Shakespeare, rather like an Elizabethan Shostakovich, laced his plays with veiled criticisms of the state, especially for its handling of religion, and that Shakespeare was deeply concerned with the suffering of Catholic recusants. She proposes a kind of “code” for understanding the references to religious and political controversy that Shakespeare’s audience would have understood, but which were artfully framed so as to maintain plausible deniability — this is the same “code” of which Peter Holland is critical in his lecture.

Taken together, these two lectures are very interesting. Holland’s skepticism is salutary, but I do think that Asquith makes some good points about his failure to adequately integrate the post-Duffy history into his reading of Shakespeare, and some of the passages she proposes as examples of Shakespearean subterfuge are quite fascinating. On the other hand, when hunting for subtleties it is hard to know when or if a trail has dried up, and Asquith runs the risk of imagining evidence where none exists.

(There are two other lectures from the same Notre Dame series: one by Joseph Pearce and one by John Finnis. Both argue that the evidence supports the view that Shakespeare was himself a Catholic. Pearce focuses on biographical and historical data, while Finnis’ approach is textual, concentrated in this lecture on Richard III. If you should want to hear them all, the order in which they were delivered is: Pearce, Holland, Finnis, Asquith.)

Johnson: Preface to Shakespeare

April 23, 2016

Preface to Shakespeare
Samuel Johnsonshakespeare-234x300

Johnson, together with George Steevens, edited and published an edition of Shakespeare’s plays in 1765, and included in it this prefatory essay, surely one of the most famous examples of literary criticism in English letters. I had previously read it, years ago, but, being a noted dullard, did not remember much about it, and I am happy to have had the opportunity to read it again.

johnsonThe first thing I’ll note is that Johnson’s views on Shakespeare are far from being boiler-plate. We’ve grown so accustomed to hearing Shakespeare spoken of in exclusively laudatory terms, as the greatest literary figure in history, as the Bard, that it can be a little shocking to read what Dr Johnson has to say:

The plots are often so loosely formed, that a very slight consideration may improve them, and so carelessly pursued, that he seems not always fully to comprehend his own design. He omits opportunities of instructing or delighting which the train of his story seems to force upon him, and apparently rejects those exhibitions which would be more affecting, for the sake of those which are more easy.

or, even more startling:

His declamations or set speeches are commonly cold and weak, for his power was the power of nature; when he endeavoured, like other tragick writers, to catch opportunities of amplification, and instead of inquiring what the occasion demanded, to show how much his stores of knowledge could supply, he seldom escapes without the pity or resentment of his reader.

That Shakespeare should be an author accused of writing “cold and weak” speeches seems almost comical, for is he not especially treasured for his famous speeches, and is there anyone to match him on that terrain? And Johnson makes other statements that are more or less the opposite of the received wisdom, such as that Shakespeare, the most eloquent man in England, was especially adept at capturing the texture and tones of common speech:

The dialogue of this authour is often so evidently determined by the incident which produces it, and is pursued with so much ease and simplicity, that it seems scarcely to claim the merit of fiction, but to have been gleaned by diligent selection out of common conversation, and common occurrences.

This is all intensely interesting, but I’m honestly not sure if it tells us something about Shakespeare or about Johnson, who goes on to argue that Shakespeare — the author of Othello, Hamlet, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and Julius Caesar — was a greater comedian than tragedian:

In his comick scenes, he seems to produce without labour, what no labour can improve. In tragedy he is always struggling after some occasion to be comick, but in comedy he seems to repose, or to luxuriate, as in a mode of thinking congenial to his nature. In his tragick scenes there is always something wanting, but his comedy often surpasses expectation or desire. His comedy pleases by the thoughts and the language, and his tragedy for the greater part by incident and action. His tragedy seems to be skill, his comedy to be instinct.

This, too, is a fascinating judgement, and let’s pause a moment to appreciate how elegantly it is expressed (“produce without labour, what no labour can improve”). But I’m not sure if its contradiction of the common view tells us more about Johnson or about ourselves. I rather like what Johnson says here, though, because I do feel that our appreciation of Shakespeare as a comedian falls short of what he deserves, and partly so because we, as a culture, lack something, some spiritual capacity, that would allow us to produce comedy of comparable stature. I can’t resist quoting Chesterton, who echoed this point:

No audacious spirit has dreamed or dared to imitate Shakespeare’s comedy. No one has made any real attempt to recover the loves and the laughter of Elizabethan England. The low dark arches, the low strong pillars upon which Shakespeare’s temple rests we can all explore and handle. We can all get into his mere tragedy; we can all explore his dungeon and penetrate to his coal-cellar; but we stretch our hands and crane our necks in vain towards that height where the tall turrets of his levity are tossed towards the sky. Perhaps it is right that this should be so; properly understood, comedy is an even grander thing than tragedy. (The Illustrated London News, 27 April 1907)

Shakespeare has often been praised in our day for his even-handed approach to moral issues: Shakespeare doesn’t moralize, and all but disappears into his characters so that we’re never quite sure what he thinks. This quality might account for some of his appeal to an age seduced by moral relativism. Johnson perceives much the same quality in Shakespeare, but he is clear that this is a fault:

He sacrifices virtue to convenience, and is so much more careful to please than to instruct, that he seems to write without any moral purpose. From his writings indeed a system of social duty may be selected, for he that thinks reasonably must think morally; but his precepts and axioms drop casually from him; he makes no just distribution of good or evil, nor is always careful to shew in the virtuous a disapprobation of the wicked; he carries his persons indifferently through right and wrong, and at the close dismisses them without further care, and leaves their examples to operate by chance. This fault the barbarity of his age cannot extenuate; for it is always a writer’s duty to make the world better, and justice is a virtue independant on time or place.

Naturally it would be misleading to give the impression that Johnson makes none but critical remarks about his subject. Qualities which he selects for approbation are Shakespeare’s tonal range:

Shakespeare has united the powers of exciting laughter and sorrow not only in one mind, but in one composition. Almost all his plays are divided between serious and ludicrous characters, and, in the successive evolutions of the design, sometimes produce seriousness and sorrow, and sometimes levity and laughter.

and his talent for creating memorable characters:

Perhaps no poet ever kept his personages more distinct from each other.

Indeed, what author author, save perhaps Dickens, has given us an array of characters to match Hamlet, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Iago, Desdemona, Romeo, Juliet, Marc Antony, Bottom, Shylock, Miranda, King Lear, Falstaff, Prince Hal, Rosalind, Beatrice, and Benedict? Although in this connection Johnson also makes another judgment which I don’t quite know how to interpret:

In the writings of other poets a character is too often an individual; in those of Shakespeare it is commonly a species.

At first blush this seems to contradict his judgment immediately above, for are not individual characters more likely to be distinct from one another than are species? Well, perhaps not; species are, almost by definition, more different from one another than are individuals of the same species. I’ll hazard that the modern idiom of “he’s an individual” to denote his peculiar distinctiveness was not current in Johnson’s time.(Parenthetically, is it not wonderful to see “individual” used by Johnson with a slight perjorative sense. Let us raise a glass to old books.)

Moving on, we find another surprise: Johnson claims that the standard five-Act structure of Shakespearean drama is “void of authority,” and is merely a convenience introduced by editors. Can this really be so?

Not that we should speak disparagingly of the labours of editors, for Johnson reminds us how our possession of Shakespeare’s plays in anything like their current form and extent is largely due to the interventions of editors, the playwright himself having taken little interest in preserving his work:

It does not appear, that Shakespeare thought his works worthy of posterity, that he levied any ideal tribute upon future times, or had any further prospect, than of present popularity and present profit. When his plays had been acted, his hope was at an end; he solicited no addition of honour from the reader…

So careless was this great poet of future fame, that, though he retired to ease and plenty, while he was yet little “declined into the vale of years,” before he could be disgusted with fatigue, or disabled by infirmity, he made no collection of his works, nor desired to rescue those that had been already published from the depravations that obscured them, or secure to the rest a better destiny, by giving them to the world in their genuine state.

Of the plays which bear the name of Shakespeare in the late editions, the greater part were not published till about seven years after his death, and the few which appeared in his life are apparently thrust into the world without the care of the authour, and therefore probably without his knowledge.

There’s a delicious irony here, of course, that the most eminent literary man we have didn’t particularly care for literary eminence, and that our most famous writer should have cared so little for fame. Certainly it makes a marked contrast with the giants writing in other languages. (This interesting essay on Goethe brings out the contrasts well.)


Apart from these remarks specifically about Shakespeare, the Preface includes a number of characteristically Johnsonian — that is, characteristically pugnacious and eloquent — pronouncements about literature more generally.

We find, for instance, his famous dictum that

The end of writing is to instruct; the end of poetry is to instruct by pleasing.

Maybe. Or rather: yes, sometimes. I once knew someone who argued that the purpose of art was to provoke self-reflection and teach self-knowledge. Yes, sometimes. But art might also be for the sheer joy of it, or ad majorem Dei gloriam, and what goes for art in general goes for poetry in particular. I wonder what Johnson would have thought of T.S. Eliot?

Speaking of Eliot, if you’re sitting down with a gigantic scholarly edition of his poems and you’re wondering if you should just read the poetry or dig into the line-by-line commentary, Johnson has some advice:

Parts are not to be examined till the whole has been surveyed; there is a kind of intellectual remoteness necessary for the comprehension of any great work in its full design and its true proportions; a close approach shews the smaller niceties, but the beauty of the whole is discerned no longer.

And as one labours toward “the comprehension of any great work,” one is naturally always engaged in forming a judgement about its merits. Johnson gives his view of how such judgement is developed and matured:

Judgement, like other faculties, is improved by practice, and its advancement is hindered by submission to dictatorial decisions, as the memory grows torpid by the use of a table book. Some initiation is however necessary; of all skill, part is infused by precept, and part is obtained by habit.

This seems of such general application for education in general that I think I’ll commit it to memory. Or maybe I’ll just write it here in this table book. What was I saying again?

Ah yes: the formation of judgement. I’ll close with Johnson’s views on how the collective judgement of readers through time gradually establishes particular literary works as masterpieces. Apparently he had never heard that it was all a conspiracy of white males to project their power. He writes:

…to works not raised upon principles demonstrative and scientifick, but appealing wholly to observation and experience, no other test can be applied than length of duration and continuance of esteem. What mankind have long possessed they have often examined and compared, and if they persist to value the possession, it is because frequent comparisons have confirmed opinion in its favour…

The reverence due to writings that have long subsisted arises therefore not from any credulous confidence in the superior wisdom of past ages, or gloomy persuasion of the degeneracy of mankind, but is the consequence of acknowledged and indubitable positions, that what has been longest known has been most considered, and what is most considered is best understood.


I hope it is clear from the length at which I have written that this Preface to Shakespeare is a very stimulating and enjoyable read. It is always a pleasure to spend time in the good Doctor’s company.


April 1, 2016

This month marks the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare. I hope to do a few Shakespeare-themed posts over the next few weeks, but I thought I’d start by collecting some from the past history of this web log:

I’ve also covered a number of adaptations of Shakespeare in the “Great moments in opera” series:

It’s not much, considering how long I’ve been doing this.

Wonder and imagination

March 10, 2016

Here’s a quite wonderful lecture by Anthony Esolen on education and the imaginative life, in which he circles around that most wonderful of plays, The Tempest.

Favourites of 2015: Film

December 31, 2015

This year I continued the effort to acquaint myself with admired films and directors. I may have watched a relatively small number of new films, but I did see films by Hitchcock, Ozu, Allen, Bergman, Chaplin, and Kurosawa, to name a few. Unfortunately for me, as I survey the films I have assembled for discussion today, I see that my preferences still veer toward contemporary cinema.

Here’s a surprise: the best film I saw this year was Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011). I am beginning to sound like a broken record. I’ve seen it a half-dozen times now, I think, and it was just as good, or better, this time around. It’s the best film I know.


hara_kiri_miike_capitoni_poster_hiOf the films I saw for the first time this year, I think my favourite was a rather unconventional choice: Takashi Miike’s Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011). This is Miike’s re-make of Kobayashi’s 1962 classic Harakiri (which I also saw this year). I am not generally an enthusiast for martial arts films, and I am aware that re-makes are rarely superior to their originals, but nonetheless I found Miike’s film got under my skin in a way that Kobayashi’s did not. It is a slow film with only a few action sequences; the focus is on the tragic plight of the central characters. When violence does make its way onto the screen — and there are two principal places where it does — it is invested with so much pathos that it is nearly unbearable. This is my kind of samurai film.


Southwest_(film)_film_posterAnother very compelling, and verrrrry slow, film is Southwest (2012), an independent film from Brazil directed by first-time filmmaker Eduardo Nunes. (Hat-tip: Tim Brayson) It is almost unbelievable that this could be a debut, for the directorial hand is so patient and so elegant. Filmed in gorgeous black and white, it tells the story of a young girl, born under mysterious circumstances, who ages rapidly and lives her whole life over the course of just a few days. Best understood, I think, as a folk-tale or fairy tale, it is mysterious through and through. But I found it mesmerizing. I don’t think it received very wide distribution, and it may be difficult to find, but it’s worth the effort. (Actually, the whole film is available on YouTube, if you speak Portuguese.)


My favourites of the older films I saw this year were Swing Time (1936) and Rear Window (1954). The former was a star vehicle for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and they are dynamite together. The story is a sweet one, but one watches the movie for the dance sequences, which are unadulterated delights. Music by Jerome Kern too. When the credits rolled I threw my hat in the air. And I’d seen Rear Window a few times previously, but since I don’t anticipate that I’ll ever tire of seeing Grace Kelly on screen, I doubt I’ll ever tire of seeing Rear Window.


deux-joursI caught up this year with the latest Dardenne brothers film, Two Days, One Night (2014). The premise is a novel one: a woman will lose her job unless she can convince her co-workers to give up their raises, and so, over the course of the film, she approaches each of them, one by one, to make her case. Given that setup, the film more or less writes itself, and in the hands of lesser filmmakers it could have easily become tedious and schematic. But the Dardennes, and Marion Cotillard in the leading role, invest each of those encounters with genuine feeling and fresh ideas. The film turns into a quite probing meditation on justice and charity, on power and humility, and on what it means to love one’s neighbour. Just thinking about it makes me want to see it again.


the-hollow-crownCheating a bit, and before I get to some genre picks, let me say a quick word about the best television that I saw this year. Actually, I think this was the only television I saw this year, but it was still good enough to warrant inclusion in this post. It was a BBC mini-series called The Hollow Crown, a four-part, roughly 8-hour dramatization of Shakespeare’s Greater Henriad, beginning with Richard II, continuing with Henry IV, Parts I and II, and concluding with Henry V. Naturally, a project this ambitious is bound to have a few weak spots, but by and large I thought the adaptations were excellent. Richard II was a play that I didn’t know at all prior to watching it, and as far as I know this is the only screen adaptation available.

In these productions, no attempt has been made to update the historical setting, and the sets throughout are sumptuous. The acting is top notch too, with Ben Whishaw playing Richard II, Jeremy Irons as Henry IV, Tom Hiddleston as Henry V, and Simon Russell Beale a superb Falstaff.

A highlight of the series for me was the portrayal of Falstaff. Somehow Falstaff on the page has always been for me something less than the Falstaff of my imagination: the Falstaff of wit and outsized merriment. Simon Russell Beale’s Falstaff also differs from the Falstaff of my imagination, but in a fruitful way. His Falstaff is rather sad, his wit always with a touch of weariness. He is a coward, of course, and a cheat, and we know that, but I had thought that his irrepressible spirit was supposed somehow to outshine those faults. Here they do not. Here Falstaff seems to know his faults and feel them, and it makes him vulnerable, most especially to his dearest friend. This vulnerability lends a real poignancy to the acting scene in the tavern, when he pleads the case of “old Jack”. Beale’s performance isn’t the last word on Falstaff, but it has enlarged my conception of who Falstaff is, or could be, and for that I am grateful.


And now for a few of my favourite genre films from this year:

Literary adaptation: Apart from The Hollow Crown, my favourite adaptation of a literary classic was Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility (1995), which I had seen many years ago but watched again. Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet are wonderful as Elinor and Marianne, and Hugh Grant, looking well and truly discomfited by his period costume, is a suitably comic Mr Ferrars. Any film that can crackle with excitement as all the actors sit silently in their chairs has my admiration, and this realization of Austen’s novel has a few such delicious encounters.

Family films: I was completely charmed by Kenneth Branagh’s recent Cinderella (2015). Blessedly free of self-consciousness, irony, and grrrl power, it simply lets the story unfold according to its own internal logic, and what a wonderful story it is. The CGI “transformation” scenes are splendidly done — the kids love them — and that final scene in which the shoe slips onto the foot is luminous through and through. Delightful.

secret-kellsI also want to praise The Secret of Kells (2009), a wonderful animated film from Ireland, directed by Tomm Moore (another first-time director, I note). It tells the story of Brendan, a young boy living at Kells monastery while the famous Book of Kells is being made in the scriptorium. The film is set at a time when Christianity was still relatively new in the Celtic world, and it includes encounters not only with monks but with fairies and deities of the Celtic religions. (Steven Greydanus has written from a Catholic perspective about the portrayal of religion in the film.) The animation style is distinctive, with a strong preference for geometric designs and symmetries, and, as is fitting for this story, a proliferation of Celtic weaves and curling tendrils. It’s a unique film that most people have probably not seen, or even heard of, but which I expect most would appreciate. My only real complaint about it is that it never tells us what is in the Book of Kells! It’s a book of the Gospels, of course. Why so coy? It’s an unfortunate omission that mars an otherwise highly recommendable film.

I’ll also mention briefly that Tomm Moore followed The Secret of Kells with Song of the Sea in 2014. It’s also terrific — maybe even more visually stunning than its predecessor, but the story didn’t capture me in quite the same way. Nonetheless, both films are superior to most animated fare.

It_Follows_(poster)Horror: I usually steer clear of horror films, but this year I saw a few worth remarking on. At the top of the heap (of corpses?) is It Follows, which premiered at the 2014 Cannes festival and, following much critical acclaim, got a wide release in 2015. The premise is that a vicious entity pursues a target, slowly but relentlessly, until that person has sexual relations with someone, at which point the entity begins pursuing the sexual partner instead. It sounds silly, but it works wonderfully both on its own terms and on a metaphorical level. Much of the credit is owed to director David Robert Mitchell’s patient camera. When was the last time you saw a film in which a long, static, wide shot had you squirming in your seat and shouting urgently at the screen? It happens. The fact that the mortal danger is transmitted sexually, that the characters in the story are tempted to instrumentalize sexual partners, and that almost the entire film is populated by teenagers, without an adult in sight, has led more than one person to interpret It Follows as a commentary on the sexual revolution, and personally I think it works quiet well from that perspective. Naturally the analogies are imperfect, but this is one of the more thought-provoking films I saw this year.

A superior monster movie was Bong Joon-Ho’s The Host (2006), in which a giant, mutated beast emerges from the river in a major urban center and terrorizes the city. It’s very well constructed, takes the time to invest in its principal characters, and has a few surprises up its sleeve. The monster is great, and Bong Joon-Ho, one of the leading Korean auteurs, elevates the material with his subtle stylistic touch. It’s awfully good.

coherenceScience fiction: I saw a few very good science fiction films this year, good enough to write about here, but also notably imperfect in interesting ways. The first was Coherence (2013), a low-budget independent film by first-time director James Ward Byrkit. It’s an ensemble film that takes place entirely at an evening dinner party among friends, during the course of which strange events begin to occur in the neighbourhood (the nature of which, for fear of giving too much away, I shall not reveal). The film works quite well on its own terms — the largely improvised dialogue is lively, the sense of atmosphere is warm and charming, and the bizarre phenomena that slowly unfold are fascinating — but unfortunately the film tries to connect these mysteries to real science, most notably to quantum mechanics. It can’t be done convincingly, and the script falters in consequence. But if you can overlook that bit of flummery, it’s a cracking good puzzle picture.

exmachinaEx Machina is also a directorial debut, this time from Alex Garland (previously known to me as the screenwriter of Never Let Me Go, one of my favourite sci-fi films of the decade). The film introduces us to the efforts of an eccentric genius (a superb Oscar Isaac) to build an android intelligent enough to pass the Turing Test. He invites a bright young student (Domhnall Gleeson) to his remote home to help evaluate the robot’s performance, and the film follows the Test as it unfolds over a number of sessions. There are many things to like about Ex Machina: the android, played by Alicia Vikander, is a triumphant blend of strong acting and subtle special effects; the house in which the film takes place is used effectively to heighten tension; the screenplay has a lot on its mind and grows increasingly tense and troubled; and it has an ending that, although I didn’t particularly like it, is interesting enough to argue about. But like many popular accounts of AI the film is confused about the distinction between intelligence and consciousness, and about the meaning of the Turing Test. At least, it seems to be. There remains a tantalizing possibility that the filmmakers intend us to see that confusion as another element obscuring the characters’ view of their own situation. But that might be granting the filmmakers the benefit of too much doubt. Mixed feelings, then, but I liked it enough to consider seeing it again some day. Not recommended to those who dislike android nudity, of which there is an abundance.

71-posterWar: I don’t know if it’s quite right to describe the Troubles in Northern Ireland as a war, but that is the setting for ’71, an excellent little film from 2014. It follows a British soldier through one harrowing night after he is accidentally abandoned by his unit in a volatile neighbourhood of Belfast. I particularly admire the film for a scene early on in which the soldier and his unit confront a crowd of angry protestors in the street. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a film that better conveys how frightening such a situation can be, how chaotic, and how quickly it can explode into violence. Once he is stranded, the film becomes a survival tale as he tries to make his way back to safety. It’s full of twists and turns, some of them harder to follow than others — the political alliances are convoluted, and the presence of undercover agents doesn’t help the clarity — but the film is tightly written and quite engaging.

Tim's Vermeer (click to enlarge)

Tim’s Vermeer (click to enlarge)

Documentary: I’d like to heartily recommend the odd but fascinating Tim’s Vermeer (2013). Tim is Tim Jenison, a tech wizard with a bountiful fortune, time on his hands, and a love for the paintings of Johannes Vermeer. Vermeer’s photorealistic paintings have dazzled viewers for centuries, and Jenison, an expert in lighting and optics, simply could not understand how he accomplished it. So he set out to paint one himself, and the film tells the story of how he did so. In the process, he uses an optical technique that he argues, quite convincingly in my opinion, was used by Vermeer in order to achieve the fine gradations of light and colour that characterize his work. If Jenison is correct, it casts Vermeer’s technical virtuosity in a rather new, less impressive, light, though of course it takes nothing away from his sense of composition and his craftsmanship. All in all, it’s a lovely little documentary, highly recommended.


Longest films: Greed (1924) [4h06]; At Berkeley (2014) [4h04]; The Human Condition I: No Greater Love (1959) [3h26].

Shortest films: Everything Will Be OK (2006) [0h17]; I Am So Proud Of You (2008) [0h22]; And Then Came The Evening And The Morning (1990) [1h01].

Oldest films: The Kid (1921), Greed (1924), The Gold Rush (1925).

Newest films: Inside Out (June), Mad Max: Fury Road (May), Cinderella (March).

Most worthy of a shoe thrown at the screen as the credits rolled: Les Diaboliques (1955).

Started, but not finished: Léon: The Professional (1994), Hard To Be A God (2013).

Disappointments: The Conversation (1974), Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), Inherent Vice (2014).

Other films I would recommend if I hadn’t already gone on too long: Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), Cat People (1942), Late Spring (1949), Wild Strawberries (1957), Le Samouraï (1967), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Upstream Color (2013), Interstellar (2014).

Films I saw but don’t remember seeing: Trouble in Paradise (1932), L’Atalante (1934), It Happened One Night (1934), The Red Shoes (1948), Chungking Express (1994), Talk to Her (2002), A Most Violent Year (2014).

Favourites of 2015: Books

December 28, 2015

Today I kick off my annual “favourites of” series of posts, in which I’ll be writing about the best books, music, and movies that I had the good fortune to read, hear, and see this year. These are not “Favourites of 2015” lists in the usual sense, because most of what I’ll be discussing is not of recent vintage. The theme for today is books.


shakespeare-234x300At the beginning of the year I set myself a modest personal challenge: to read one Shakespeare play each month. I had noticed that years were slipping by in which I hadn’t read even one, and it didn’t seem right. I’m happy to say that I met the challenge, and then some. I treated myself to a few of my favourite plays (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest), dipped into the historical plays (Richard II through Henry V), read a couple of the great tragedies (Macbeth and Hamlet), and also enjoyed several of the less well-known plays (The Winter’s Tale, Troilus and Cressida, and Coriolanus, for example). The experiment was such a success that I’m going to continue it in 2016. At this rate, it will only take about 4 years for me to read all the plays. I am also, inspired by this book, going to make an effort to memorize at least a few Shakespearian passages this year.

I know a place where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
All overcanopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet muskroses, and with eglantine.

Not bad for a start. We’ll see how it goes.

This was also a year in which I made a few tentative steps into the world of e-books. I had noticed, with some dismay, that much, or even most, of my reading time was in the dark. I made the most of it, but my flashlight was waking up the baby and annoying my wife. And so I loaded a few books onto my phone (I use the Marvin reading app); in night mode it seems not to bother anyone, and in consequence I have been able to read more, and sleep less, than I did formerly. I’ve been raiding Gutenberg for free books. I read a lot of Chesterton this year in this format, and some classic novels too.

Speaking of novels, I’m sort of surprised to find that I read only a handful this year: Dostoyevsky (The Adolescent), Tolstoy (Anna Karenina), Dickens (Dombey and Son), a few of the Aubrey-Maturin novels, and … I think that’s it, leaving aside books for children. The novel I got for Christmas last year, Nabokov’s Pnin, I see is still sitting there. Soon, soon.

sutcliff-arthurI did read a lot of children’s books this year. Untold numbers with the children themselves as bedtime reading, but I also enjoyed a fair number on my own. In my mind, I am “scouting ahead” so as to be in a position to put good books in their paths as they grow up, but to tell the truth I’ve enjoyed these books on their own merits, quite apart from the satisfaction of being a good parent (or my best imitation of one). My focus this year was on medieval- and classical-themed books for kids, and I read Rosemary Sutcliff’s Arthurian trilogy along with her novelizations of Homer, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tales from Greek mythology in A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys, other Greek and Roman myths rendered by Padraic Colum and Charles Kingsley, legendary tales about saints from William Canton, and a few collections of fairy tales too, including the Grimm one. It was good stuff, for the most part, and I hope to write in more detail about it in the near future.

Before leaving the topic of children’s books, let me praise the picture books my kids loved most this year: Aaron Becker’s Journey and Quest. They are wordless picture books, so the children take an active role in telling the story, rather than just listening. We’ve read other wordless picture books in the past, but none of them matched — indeed, none of them came close to matching — the incredible enthusiasm that Becker’s books produced in our kids. The stories are about two children transported to another world in which they must … well, just what they must do is one of the things the readers have to puzzle out. Each child is in possession of a magical pen; the things they draw with the pens become real. There are kings, soldiers, mountains, castles, undersea cities, mysterious maps, and all the ingredients of a great adventure. Becker’s watercolour illustrations are enchanting: full of interesting detail, beautiful to look at, and subtly composed to further the story bit by bit. Journey and Quest are the first parts of a projected trilogy, so we are eagerly awaiting the conclusion.


This year the kids also sank their teeth into Super Shark Encyclopedia and Super Nature Encyclopedia. For months on end these were our exclusive bedtime reading, and (mercifully) the books are very well done.

chestertonOn the non-fiction side, I read (as I said above) a lot of Chesterton, going more or less in chronological order, hitting some of the lesser-known books and discovering in most cases that they are lesser-known for a reason. Still, even when Chesterton is not at his peak he’s still pretty good. I think I’ve gleaned enough quotations to keep The Hebdomadal Chesterton going for another couple of years, at least. Inspired by my pop music odyssey I read a few books about Bob Dylan (by Clinton Heylin and Mr. Zimmermann himself) and Van Morrison (Hymns to the Silence, by Peter Mills).

FooteVols1-3I read some history, and among the chief triumphs of my year in reading was the completion of Shelby Foote’s massive The Civil War: A Narrative. I actually started reading this back when the Civil War began — sorry, when the sesquicentennial of the war began, in 2011 — and kept pace with the events of the war as they unfolded, finishing up just in time to mark the sesquicentennial of the end of the war. This was a great way to read this history, and I would recommend it to everyone if it weren’t too late to do so. Foote’s history focuses principally on the military side of the war experience, with occasional forays into politics, and very occasional glances at civilian life during the war. He digs into the tactical details, really putting the reader on the ground and explaining how battles unfolded. Foote is broadly sympathetic to the Confederate side of the war — not to slavery, but to other aspects of Southern life and culture that were destroyed by the war. The fact that Foote is often showing us the war from the Southern perspective helps to complicate an over-simple picture. Anyway, it’s a great book. Sometimes history is written not by the victors, but by the best historians.

boswell-johnsonlifeWhat else? I dipped in and out of Plutarch’s Lives. I relished James Boswell’s Life of Johnson (which actually took two years to read). I read a few long-ish format poems, by Goldsmith, Newman, and Dryden. I burrowed into a handful of books on politics and culture (by James Kalb, Richard Weaver, and, by proxy, Charles Taylor); I’ll write more about those at some point. It appears that the only philosophy I read this year was the Gorgias, plus Owen Barfield’s Saving the Appearances, if that counts as philosophy. It was a particularly dismal year for theological reading; only Julian of Norwich qualifies, if she qualifies. Oh, and Edmund Campion at year’s end, if he qualifies. Oh, and The Cloud of Unknowing, if that qualifies.

If you could see the list of books I set for myself at the beginning of the year, you’d be forced to conclude that 2015 was a calamitous failure, reading-wise. But I’m not going to show you that list. All in all, it was a pretty decent year of reading.


Favourite fiction: Anna Karenina

Favourite non-fiction: The Civil War (Foote)

Favourite biography: Life of Johnson

Favourite play: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Books published in 2015 and read by me: 0

Most gruesome children’s book: Jack the Giant-Killer, by Richard Doyle

Most books by a single author: William Shakespeare (14), G.K. Chesterton (12), Rosemary Sutcliff (5), Patrick O’Brian (4).

Least favourite fiction: The Club of Queer Trades (Chesterton)

Least favourite non-fiction: The Appetite of Tyranny (Chesterton)


Given that I was reading quite a few Gutenberg books this year, all of which are rather old, it’s interesting for me to see if I’ve been able to shift the center of gravity of my reading out of the twentieth century. Here is a histogram of the original publication dates of the books I read this year:


No. The coverage of the last 500 years isn’t too bad, but still the 20th century emerges triumphant. I did very badly indeed in my classical and medieval reading. (I’ve also been having trouble with my graphics drivers since I upgraded to Matlab 2015b; hence the diagonal lines in each bin of the histogram.) Here’s a closer look at the books published since 1800:


This looks more promising. There are actually more books in the period from 1840-1940 than in the 75 years from 1940 to the present. I’m going to bend the rules a little and declare this a victory.

I think we’ll look at my 2015 in popular music next time. In the meantime: Tolle, lege, and may many good books come your way in 2016.

Versions of Shylock

August 13, 2013

I think I have mentioned before that I have been, from time to time, watching the old Royal Shakespeare Company television programme Playing Shakespeare. Here is a nice clip from the show in which two fine actors, David Suchet and Patrick Stewart, give us two different versions of Shylock’s famous “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” speech from Act 3, Scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice

It is fascinating to see how their very different conceptions of the character (outlined in this clip) play out. An interesting short discussion follows about how not to play the scene.

A Shakespearean master class

January 7, 2013

Over the past year or so I have been watching, off and on, a British television series from the 1980s called Playing Shakespeare. The programme is led by John Barton, who explores the performance of Shakespearean drama “in the round”, with the help of actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company (which company Barton himself founded). Some of these actors are known to you and me because of their careers in film: Ian McKellan, Patrick Stewart, and Ben Kingsley, for instance.

I have never acted in a Shakespeare play, and I don’t foresee that I ever will, but the programme is fascinating nonetheless for the insight it provides into the plays and the art of bringing them to life. We have all, I have no doubt, witnessed bad Shakespearean acting, and we have all, I hope, occasionally seen good Shakespearean acting. Part of the pleasure of watching Playing Shakespeare has for me been in seeing how even good acting can be made something special by slight touches.

Watching has also helped me realize how much difference a good director can make to the success of a play. John Barton is a wonderful host: genial, clear, and, most important, full of interesting ideas about how to deliver the lines in order to get the most from them.

Here is a good example from an episode exploring Shakespearean irony, which Barton defines rather broadly as “saying one thing while meaning another” (or saying one thing while also meaning another). The “case study” is a speech by Richard II from Act III Scene 2 of the play bearing his name. They run through it once, quite well all things considered, then have a discussion about it, and finally run through it again. What a difference!

(The clip above is the entire one-hour episode. I have attempted to use wizardry to start and stop the clip at certain points, but if my wizardry fails I intend to start at 26:00 and end at 31:15. I am sorry but I do not know the names of the actors in this clip.)