William Shakespeare, A Mere Shepherd’s Son

“However wickedness outstrips men, it has no wings to fly from God.” 

In classrooms and on campus,

They Persecute the Bard, William Shakespeare, anew

A move is afoot to shear Western Civilization of all its golden fleece. I’ve been opposing this for years now, but the move is unstoppable. The wicked Queen of Neoliberalism demands fealty, and she will have it. 

The litany of crimes accusing William Shakespeare spew from the usual, artless, trite boilerplate. He is a giant in the Western Canon of world literature, and far more deserving than most of his peers on that catalogue of greats. The Bard is one of the most powerful poets in any language who ever lived by grace of God. 

And what a beautiful soul! Sigmund Freud’s many psychological insights did not arise from study of his patients, but rather from study of Shakespeare’s plays. Such was the intimacy and the insight achieved by the Bard!

Cries of “white supremacy! Colonialism!” resound through academic halls as they fly against Shakespeare. In sorrow, however, the Bard himself would never have been surprised. For one, he was too attuned to our nature. For another, he was too much a victim of it in his own life. 

 

If you look for William Shakespeare in Elizabethan society, you will find him standing outside of it, on the margins, in the shadowy haunts of actors and theater people. London’s men of letters mocked the Bard for being a “mere shepherd’s son” who dared presumptuously to pen verse, for William was of low birth and beneath their station. (That, and jealously, for the Bard had more raw talent then all of them put together!) 

Shakespeare was also almost certainly a Catholic. No one can claim this for certain, we simply lack information, but this is most likely the case. Both his mother and father were Recusants, so he sprung from this bed. We know that he did read Latin, using a Latin text of Plutarch as grist for his storytelling. How did a mere shepherd’s son, with no classical education, know Latin? That’s the mark of a papist! Furthermore, at his height Shakespeare purchased the Blackfriars Gatehouse, a place that figured as a haven and even a stop on an “Underground Railroad” of sorts for Catholics of the day. For, you see, to be a Catholic was to be an outlaw. The evil queen, Elizabeth, would have you disemboweled for this crime. (That gatehouse did figure prominently in the Gunpowder Plot as a safehouse).

And Shakespeare got out. He made his money in London, cashed out and bought the biggest house in Stratford-Upon-Avon. He fled from that London society which never accepted him; he took his wife and they disappeared into the obscurity from whence they arose.

Some white privilege, no? Look for it, look for the hints of his faith that the Bard littered throughout his verse. Will you find them? Will you find the real Shakespeare, peering at what unfolds before him on the stage, from the shadows? 

Golden Calves or Van Goghs?

A couple years ago at the Art Basel Miami happening, an artist named Maurizio Cattelan made waves at an opening press conference, where he gave a speech, duct-taped a common banana to a wall, and then declared this to be a work of art named ‘Comedian’ btw worth $120,000. Incredibly, two editions of it were sold for that price. And then another artistic prankster ate one of the taped bananas. And then common finger-paintings done by children started flying out of the galleries for $75,000 each.

What is going on here? Has everybody lost their minds? Well there’s a lot to unpack. Too much, really, because so much is wrong with this nonsense! I can’t possibly go over in just one day all my objections to things uncovered here. But the first question to tackle, I suppose, is this: “What is art?”

The term ‘art‘ comes to us from the Latin, ‘ars‘. That old Latin word confers a lot. In my Lewis & Short Latin dictionary the entry for ars takes up almost half of a page! (And these pages are in annoyingly fine print that I can no longer read without reading glasses, and the pages are large). Pregnant with so many nuances, the word’s entry is too much a task to cover, but all of the nuances dance around one idea: significant skill at producing something. I can make a taco, but am I a taco artist? Do I truly know that elusive Art Of The Taco?? That’s a bit much to say! Significant. Skill.

An antagonist may say, “Okay, that’s well and good. But still, ‘significance’ contains subjective criteria.” True! Beauty is indeed always in the eye of the beholder. Many more things exist to consider. We can take the example of Mr. Cattelan’s neat little trick with the banana. What did this involve? First, a setting, then a production, and then a language through which others could participate. And towards what end? An influence. Suppose that Mr. Cattelan came into your living room, duct-taped a banana to your wall, and told you he’d just done you a $120,000 service? Wouldn’t you rather have Di Vinci swinging by with a Mona Lisa? You’d call the funny farm on Mr. Cattelan asking them to get down here because there is a madman on the loose. His little gag of ‘Comedian’ — for that is what this is — only works for him in a certain setting, having set everybody up with his prankishness for more deviltry, and then inviting them to get in on the joke. And to what end? What is Mr. Cattelan’s influence with all of this? Why, it’s to make everybody a fool along with him. His ilk impoverishes us all, and in particular true artists, for what if you were a latter-day Di Vinci who showed up to Art Basel Miami with a Mona Lisa, only to find out that pranksters started a run on bullshit and on grade-school refrigerator finger-paintings?

Mr. Cattelan’s endeavor, then, is an usurpation of artists, of art, of artistry itself. The antagonist may counter, “Oh, but can’t you admire the artistry of the gag?” I suppose, but by the same coin will you admire the artistry of a terrorist? What is that difference? What would you call a man who would deploy art against art itself, but an anti-artist? Indeed, a terrorist of sorts! Ultimately always the influence of any artwork is its raison d’etre, its reason for being. Properly, that end needs to be for the good, for truth, for improvement of the soul as its final influence. 

The wily antagonist would then naturally counter, “Oh, but then we only have art that ends in fairy tales and puppies and kittens, the constraint of goodness is too limiting!” But is this a too-narrow conception of the good, the beautiful and the true, for truth includes terror and fear. Grim realities are a part of truth, a part of life, a part of great art. Dr. Johnson reports that the ending of William Shakespeare’s King Lear shocked and upset his very soul to its core, it’s deeply upsetting. What is that play if not one of the very greatest ones that anybody has ever penned? Can we face these truths which tax us and grieve us to bear?

Or, shall we tape bananas upon the wall and call it a day? What kind of damned cop-out is that? 

The wily antagonist might say to us at this point, “But maybe you just don’t understand the artist. Maybe that language of his art, the one you mention, is simply one you cannot hear. But others can!” True, this always a possibility. How many great artists of every type died a pauper racked in misery, only to have their reputations soar to great heights after they had left us? Too many to count!

Vincent Van Gogh is one of these. Did you know that his first fame came not from his paintings, but from his letters? Yes, after his death his letters were published and they became a bestseller. That image of Van Gogh as a stammering madman eager to rip off his own ear in fits of delirium, a man “suffering for his sanity” as Don McLean tells us, is one mostly of legend, not reality. For Van Gogh’s letters reveal a nimble, cogent and skilled mind at work. Those letters are high quality literature all to themselves and are enough to make Vincent notable even without all his paintings.

One of Van Gogh’s aims in these letters was to convince his beloved brother, Theo, that his art was not crap. I don’t know if Vincent ever really found success on that front, but the effort paid off when the public read it. The public now had a language to understand Van Gogh’s artwork and his struggles, and he got a second look. And now equipped to participate in Van Gogh’s art, humanity has raised the man to the empyrean airs of one of the greatest artists of all time.

Van Gogh tells us in those letters, “there is something good in all labor.” And it’s true! Even, I suppose, in taping a banana to a wall. But I am afraid we’d need a better artist than Mr. Cattelan to find that goodness here. Ralph Waldo Emmerson, perhaps! He saw a ploughman in the field and said that act, wordless, by itself, was a prayer. I bet you we could have asked Emmerson to write a poem about taping a banana to a wall and he’d have something! 

But not Mr. Cattelan. He has a golden calf. 

(Below are two instances of artworks that illustrate aspects of art that I’ve mentioned:

  • Significant Skill
  • Setting
  • Production
  • Language
  • Participation
  • Influence

I had hoped initially to go over all of these aspects in greater detail. But not now — perhaps in later posts!!!)

The Voynich Manuscript

The Voynich Manuscript is a 600 year old mystery ! It’s a book written in a strange, unkown language and filled with ornate, intricate illustrations. People have puzzled over what it could possibly be, over what secrets or mysteries it might reveal, over whether it’s an elaborate hoax, or what it is exactly. But most people agree on this, that the book is a beautiful work of art.

 

How can that be? How can a book that no one can read possibly speak to us, what language does it speak that we can understand?

 

But it yet speaks to us, even though the text cannot be understood! We see it immediately as a fine book, and we know “bookness”. This book is the product of great passion and careful work by someone over a long period of time. That strikes us at once. Its illustrations are labored over, containing skill and detail. For even that script which we cannot read, we can see the beautiful form of its calligraphy, we can see the unknown words on their march. These are the footprints of a foreign mind a journey somewhere, recording something.  

 

The Vietnam Memorial

When the design of the Vietnam Veterans’ Memoral was unveiled, enormous controversy erupted. The monument spoke a new language for military monuments. Where was the glory, the heroism, the sacrifice, the sacred duty? Where were all the trappings of triumphalism that mark such things as the Arc D’Triomphe or the Ara Pacis? Where is the art? Initially many Vietnam veterans took offense, describing the design as “a great gash of shame.”

The language spoken by the monument is not obvious, until you participate in the monument. It is indeed a great, black-marble gash in the earth. As you approach it you descend. Your descent into the earth is wreathed by names, thousands of names, over 58,000 names are written in the marble. Just names, they are crying out to you, each one belonging to a brother who lost everything he had in that conflict. You can know each name if you care to look at them all, but you cannot. That task is too overwhelming, for one thing, but also too painful for each new name brings another serving of loss and tragedy to place upon a growing pile.

Most Vietnam veterans have swung their opinion to the opposite of the initial opposition against the monument. It is not the worst war memorial, it is the best one. It is not a great gash of shame, it is a great gash of sacrifice, honor and tragedy, You can walk all around Washington, DC and see all of the many classically styled monuments and buildings, but none of them will touch you and move you like the Vietnam Memorial does.

It is a powerful work of art that seizes you unawares. It has justly inspired other monuments now. 

 

How Did I Miss This?

I didn’t watch the inauguration, I only read Joe’s speech. So that’s how I mercifully missed the poem of one Amanda Gorman, America’s first “Youth Poet Laureate.” Egad, it’s bad! It’s a free verse composition called “Over This Hill” – I think. The CNN article that provided the text forgot to provide the title! 

Free verse poems don’t have regular meter, so their first advantage that leaps to mind is that they must be easier to write. You don’t have to worry about meter nor rhyme!! But in practice free verse poems are exceedingly difficult to write well. You’ve got to have an ear for melody and pattern, even if they aren’t regularly imposed you’ve still got to employ poetic and rhetorical elements. 

Here’s a side-by-side of Gorman’s “Over This Hill” and Walt Whitman’s “This Compost”.

You can tell how badly in trouble Gorman is right off the bat. “When day comes we ask ourselves / where can we find light in this never-ending shade?” umm, from the sun? The day just came, the light finds us. Okay, perhaps that’s a trick and disjoint image to keep in mind strategically! But no. It’s just one in a long stream of disjoint things that follow, discordantly. Even though the title is about climbing a hill, a hill appears only in one line of the thing and randomly. She could have picked any other line. It could have been titled Wading a Sea, or seriously pick any other line. 

Bad Free Verse!

When day comes we ask ourselves,
where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry,
a sea we must wade
We’ve braved the belly of the beast
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace
And the norms and notions
of what just is
Isn’t always just-ice
And yet the dawn is ours
before we knew it
Somehow we do it
Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed
a nation that isn’t broken
but simply unfinished
We the successors of a country and a time
Where a skinny Black girl
descended from slaves and raised by a single mother
can dream of becoming president
only to find herself reciting for one
And yes we are far from polished
far from pristine
but that doesn’t mean we are
striving to form a union that is perfect
We are striving to forge a union with purpose
To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and
conditions of man
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us
but what stands before us
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,
we must first put our differences aside
We lay down our arms
so we can reach out our arms
to one another
We seek harm to none and harmony for all
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
That even as we grieved, we grew
That even as we hurt, we hoped
That even as we tired, we tried
That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious
Not because we will never again know defeat
but because we will never again sow division
Scripture tells us to envision
that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree
And no one shall make them afraid
If we’re to live up to our own time
Then victory won’t lie in the blade
But in all the bridges we’ve made
That is the promise to glade
The hill we climb
If only we dare
It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit,
it’s the past we step into
and how we repair it
We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation
rather than share it
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy
And this effort very nearly succeeded
But while democracy can be periodically delayed
it can never be permanently defeated
In this truth
in this faith we trust
For while we have our eyes on the future
history has its eyes on us
This is the era of just redemption
We feared at its inception
We did not feel prepared to be the heirs
of such a terrifying hour
but within it we found the power
to author a new chapter
To offer hope and laughter to ourselves
So while once we asked,
how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe?
Now we assert
How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?
We will not march back to what was
but move to what shall be
A country that is bruised but whole,
benevolent but bold,
fierce and free
We will not be turned around
or interrupted by intimidation
because we know our inaction and inertia
will be the inheritance of the next generation
Our blunders become their burdens
But one thing is certain:
If we merge mercy with might,
and might with right,
then love becomes our legacy
and change our children’s birthright
So let us leave behind a country
better than the one we were left with
Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest,
we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one
We will rise from the gold-limbed hills of the west,
we will rise from the windswept northeast
where our forefathers first realized revolution
We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the midwestern states,
we will rise from the sunbaked south
We will rebuild, reconcile and recover
and every known nook of our nation and
every corner called our country,
our people diverse and beautiful will emerge,
battered and beautiful
When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid
The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it

 

Good Free Verse!

Something startles me where I thought I was safest,

I withdraw from the still woods I loved,
I will not go now on the pastures to walk,
I will not strip the clothes from my body to meet my lover the sea,
I will not touch my flesh to the earth as to other flesh to renew me.

O how can it be that the ground itself does not sicken?
How can you be alive you growths of spring?
How can you furnish health you blood of herbs, roots, orchards, grain?
Are they not continually putting distemper’d corpses within you?
Is not every continent work’d over and over with sour dead?

Where have you disposed of their carcasses?
Those drunkards and gluttons of so many generations?
Where have you drawn off all the foul liquid and meat?
I do not see any of it upon you to-day, or perhaps I am deceiv’d,
I will run a furrow with my plough, I will press my spade through the sod and turn it up underneath,
I am sure I shall expose some of the foul meat.

Behold this compost! behold it well!
Perhaps every mite has once form’d part of a sick person—yet behold!
The grass of spring covers the prairies,
The bean bursts noiselessly through the mould in the garden,
The delicate spear of the onion pierces upward,
The apple-buds cluster together on the apple-branches,
The resurrection of the wheat appears with pale visage out of its graves,
The tinge awakes over the willow-tree and the mulberry-tree,
The he-birds carol mornings and evenings while the she-birds sit on their nests,
The young of poultry break through the hatch’d eggs,
The new-born of animals appear, the calf is dropt from the cow, the colt from the mare,
Out of its little hill faithfully rise the potato’s dark green leaves,
Out of its hill rises the yellow maize-stalk, the lilacs bloom in the dooryards,
The summer growth is innocent and disdainful above all those strata of sour dead.

What chemistry!
That the winds are really not infectious,
That this is no cheat, this transparent green-wash of the sea which is so amorous after me,
That it is safe to allow it to lick my naked body all over with its tongues,
That it will not endanger me with the fevers that have deposited themselves in it,
That all is clean forever and forever,
That the cool drink from the well tastes so good,
That blackberries are so flavorous and juicy,
That the fruits of the apple-orchard and the orange-orchard, that melons, grapes, peaches, plums, will
   none of them poison me,
That when I recline on the grass I do not catch any disease,
Though probably every spear of grass rises out of what was once a catching disease.

Now I am terrified at the Earth, it is that calm and patient,
It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,
It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless successions of diseas’d corpses,
It distills such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor,
It renews with such unwitting looks its prodigal, annual, sumptuous crops,
It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings from them at last.