Sunday, February 28, 2010

Magpie Entry #3

I’m sure you’re aware of Willow’s Magpie contest. The idea is, you are given an object to write about and a couple of days to come up with a short piece of fiction having to do with that object. It’s all done just for the fun of it.
I took part in the first two weeks: to start off, there was a creamer to write about and the second object was a box of matches from a Bratislava hotel.
This week is a bit different. The object is below:

I stared at this thing, whatever it is, for quite a while. I came up with no ideas. My poor powers of creativity and/or imagination didn’t seem up to the task. But then I thought, well at least I should try.
So, here goes…

Title: “If Big Ed Ever Hears About This…”
“Let’s go over this again. You gave the money to this guy – what’s his name again?”
“Joe. Joe Muriani.”
“You gave him the five grand?”
“Right. And he said he’d set the whole thing up – provide the boat, install the corpse, the whole deal.”
“Look at it, Sal. Look at the boat. It’s a ROWBOAT, for God’s sake.”
“When he said boat I naturally assumed it would have a motor. I think we got screwed.”
“No, Sal. WE didn’t get screwed, you did. You rented a rowboat for five thousand dollars! If Big Ed ever hears about this…”
“Listen, Vinnie, it’s not all bad. At least we got a boat and the stiff is in it, there under the blanket. We can do what has to be done. No need to tell Big Ed about this.”
“Who is this Joe Muriani anyway?”
“He’s a guy I used to know years ago. From Secaucus.”
“What! You dimwit! Don’t you know we have nothin’ to do with nobody from the Secaucus family?”
“Look, Vinnie, I’ll do all the work. I’ll row the damn boat. I realize I may be partially to blame…”
“Partially! This is your show, Sal. The spotlight is on you. You’re gonna get full credit, believe me. If Big Ed ever hears about this…”
“Don’t keep saying that, Vinnie. Makes me nervous.”
“You got a lot to be nervous about.”
“Look, we row out to the spot, tie the weight on the body and dump him in. He’ll sink right down to Danny Jones Locker.”

“What’s this, Sal? This is supposed to be the weight we’ll use?”
“Yeah, he said it was a full kilogram. That’s – that’s heavy, right, Vinnie?”
“God you’re dumb. It’s nothin’; it’s a pound or two. This would be like tying a tiddleywink on the stiff and expecting that to cause him to sink. Don’t you get it, Sal? If this body pops back up and bobs about in the water out there for a day or two someone’s gonna spot it and it’ll get back to Big Ed. You can’t imagine what’ll happen then!”
“I can imagine it. Maybe I can look around for a big rock to use for the weight.”
“We’re supposed to be professionals, dammit! We finally got an important assignment and we’re expected to handle it like we know what the hell we’re doing. And you, you rent a rowboat for five grand and now you’re gonna look around for a big rock! I’m tellin’ ya – if Big Ed ever hears about this…!”

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Magpie 46

This week's prompt reminds us of the very important part gloves played in the life of William Shakespeare.
This bumpkin from a country town, who had started out on life’s ladder on one of its lowest rungs, went on to become the most prominent playwright of the London theatre as well as the greatest figure in the history of English literature.
You don’t usually hear much about his dad’s career, but in its own way it too was amazing. John Shakespeare, an illiterate farm laborer, was driven and ambitious. His business -- making gloves -- became successful.

There was a need on the part of the English gentry for gloves, exquisitely made gloves, often of white leather, and John specialized in such items.
He was known as a “whittawer,” someone who whitened leather, but that was just one of the irons in his fire; he came to be what we would call an entrepreneur, involved in quite a number of money-making deals. He must have achieved, over the years, a certain degree of literacy.

And he began climbing the local social and political ladder. He was on the town council; one of the first positions the town gave him was as ale-taster – which sounds like a joke, but it was a serious position. Everyone drank ale (you shouldn’t drink the water), so it was important that it be of safe quality.
John S. went on to rise rapidly: from making gloves to chamberlain to alderman and right on up to the highest rank, bailiff. The bailiff was the equivalent of mayor of the town.
What a time that must have been for his son! 11-year-old Will must have stood in awe when his dad prepared to go to the guild hall. The bailiff didn’t just stroll to work; this was Elizabethan England, which meant ceremony. John Shakespeare would wear his expensive scarlet gown and official ring and would wait by the door for the arrival of two colorfully uniformed sergeants, who would then escort the mayor through the streets, the whole town watching in admiration.
John had moved on up; he could now apply, and he did, to the Court of Heralds in London to be granted the coat of arms that would make him a gentleman.
But he never got it. Something happened.
What happened is one of those fascinating Shakespearean mysteries. Young Will Shakespeare was 13 or so years of age and had to stand by and watch as his dad’s marvelous career crashed and burned. And no one today is sure why.
The records show that his parents began selling things, including the acres of land John had received as dowry, and before long they didn’t have anything else to sell. Shakespeare senior was unable to pay his debts. The man who had been mayor of Stratford didn’t go to church – although church attendance was a legal requirement for everyone – because his creditors could get at him there. He didn’t even pay the four pennies a week for poor relief, which he had always paid before.
There are theories. When it comes to the Shakespeare story, there are always plenty of theories.
John had become an alcoholic, and spent most of his time dead drunk – except there isn’t a shred of evidence for such a supposition. A gambler? No evidence. He had a stroke, a heart attack? Again, no such evidence. He was a secret Catholic who had decided to proclaim his religious belief openly (which would have been a fatal mistake, politically speaking, in that Puritan town as well as in Elizabeth’s Protestant England)? But that too is just a guess. Or perhaps he was the victim of a general recession -- sounds familiar – the market for beautiful gloves having dried up.

Fortunately for his son, young Will, the grammar school, the King’s New School of Stratford, one of the best schools of its kind in the country, was free.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Magpie Entry #2


“Come in, come in, Colonel. Sit down. It’s a pleasure to see you again.”

“The pleasure is mine, Ma’am. I hope you’re comfortable here in the hotel.”

“Oh, yes. The Forum is a great hotel. By the way, we’ve known each other for quite a while; call me Anna.”

“Oh, no, Ma’am. I mean, the General’s wife…”

“Couldn’t we forget all that General’s wife thing for a while? I feel almost as though I was here on vacation. You see, Colonel, I know Bratislava well; I went to school here as a teenager. And now, here I am staying at the famous Hotel Forum.”

“Wait, there’s something I want to show you. Here it is. This is a matchbox of this hotel that I kept from those days. It’s a memento of some of the happiest years of my life.”

“Ma’am, I do apologize for bringing this up, but Major Hertzog has put out an official proclamation doing away with the old name of this city, Brato...”


“Yes. Since March of ’39, this city has a new name, a proper German name: “Pressburg.” That is the only name that we can use when referring to this city in either conversation or in writing.”

“And that is on the orders of – Major Hertzog?”


“Colonel, I’m a little puzzled. My husband placed you in command here until he arrives next month. You certainly outrank a major. Why is this Hertzog giving orders?”

“Well, Ma’am, it’s a bit complicated. I realize you are new to the army and it must be confusing at times. It’s just that this is the way things are done”

“Is Major Hertzog SS?”

“Yes, but that has nothing to do…”

“I see. I think I understand. Don’t worry; I’ll say no more about it.”

“Perhaps that would be best.”

“Look at this picture, Colonel. Someone slipped it under my door back in Berlin. We were told that the Slovaks welcomed us when we came in ’39. Now here’s a picture of a woman who was forced to give the Nazi salute and she was crying as our troops marched in.”

“No, not at all, Ma’am. That’s a famous picture. Those are tears of joy. She is happy at the thought of her country becoming part of the Third Reich and that it will last for the next thousand years.”

“I see.”

“Is there anything else I can do for you, Ma’am?”

“Well, yes, Colonel. There is something; I wanted to ask a favor of you. I thought it wouldn’t be difficult – (she laughs) – but that’s before I heard about Major Hertzog! You see, I have a friend here in…uh…”


“Yes. Her husband has been arrested and is being held somewhere here in the city; they won’t tell her where. She swears he has done nothing wrong. This woman is an old school friend of mine, a very close friend, Colonel. I wonder if you could allow the man to be released to go home to his wife and family.”

“I wish I could be of help, Ma’am.”

“It would certainly mean a lot to me. It’s why I made the trip here.”

“I’ll submit the request to the proper authority and we’ll see what can be done.”

“The proper authority – that would be Major Hertzog?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“And that means there is little chance that this will happen?”

“Very little.”

“Perhaps there is a way that you could do this without having to bother friend Hertzog, without having to notify him of it?”

“Perhaps I should explain. I could easily do this. I could sign a paper and your friend’s husband would be home with her in a couple of hours. But Ma’am, I would be a dead man! Do you know how the SS handles people they regard as traitors?”

“I have tried not to think about it, actually.”

“Well, think about it for a moment. They use a hook, a huge sharp meat hook that they place here, see, right under the chin – and they HANG YOU LIKE MEAT!”

“Good heavens.”

“If I may offer some advice, Ma’am. Take the sightseeing tour of the city and then go back to Berlin and plan for what you might do when the war ends – and it looks like that might not be all that far in the future.”

“The news has been so bad lately. Colonel – do you think we might lose?”

“I bid you good day, Ma’am.”

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Laid-Back Shakespeare #4

Will Shakespeare's Social Climb

“We’re movin’ on up to the east side,
To a deluxe apartment in the sky.
Movin’ on up to the east side;
We finally got a piece of the pie.” (Theme song of “The Jeffersons”)

The story of Will and his father, John Shakespeare, is the story of two men who struggled to leave the low position they had been born into and to “move on up” to a higher class. To that degree they were both lifelong social climbers.

Let’s talk for a moment about social class in Elizabethan England. The rank both Will and his dad sought was “Gentleman.” That word did not then mean someone who held doors open for ladies. “Gentleman” was a legal rank. If you were born into it, you were fortunate. If you weren’t, if you were born into a lower class – as were both Will and his father – moving on up to that grade was extremely difficult.

John Shakespeare spent a good portion of his life trying, but he never made it.

The Elizabethan hierarchy was rigid, and carefully spelled out. The pecking order went like this: the Sovereign at the top, followed by Duke, Earl, Viscount, Baron and Knight. That was the nobility.

Below this came the rank the Shakespeare men aspired to: Gentleman. Legally, a gentleman was a person of good birth and independent means, and neither Shakespeare, pere or fils, fit that description. You could officially became a “Gentleman” when a coat of arms was granted to you by the College of Heralds.

As far as “good birth” was concerned, William Shakespeare knew well that if anyone were to investigate his family, the truth would come out: his father had begun life in a very low position – in fact, at just about the bottom of the barrel.

John Shakespeare had been a farmer, but not really. The word “farmer” implies someone with a farm; young John S. had been merely a share-cropper, a farm hand, working on a rich man’s farm. There had been no school in John’s home town, Snitterfield, so he was probably illiterate.

Not content with raising crops and pasturing herds, John left the farm and moved to Stratford to learn a trade and open a business. To work as a craftsman you had to spend seven years as apprentice; John did this to become a glover, a person who made and sold gloves and all kinds of leather goods.

Once more or less settled, he looked about for a bride. He aimed high. He began courting the daughter of the wealthy man whose farm he had worked: her name was Mary Arden. She was to become Our Will’s mother.

Shakespeare's dad really moved on up. The Ardens possessed one of the most important and respected names in Warwickshire. In ordinary circumstances, an illiterate farm hand would never have been considered by the Arden family. However, Mary’s father, Robert Arden, had eight daughters and he had to find husbands for them; John had a chance.

It would seem that Mary, the youngest of the daughters, had been her dad’s favorite: when she married Shakespeare she was provided with a large dowry. John not only improved his social standing by marrying into the Arden family, he greatly improved his financial situation too.

He opened a shop in town. He was now a tradesman, which meant he was a solid step above his former position: the lowest, laborer class. He also became active as a member of the town council. But he was not yet a “Gentleman.”

Was John Shakespeare’s son, William, able to make it to that exalted rank? Stay tuned. All will be revealed in future installments. :-)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Willow's Magpie Contest

(To the tune of Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer”)

Beautiful creamer, pour in my cup.
I need lots of coffee to really wake up.
Sounds of the rude world are heard in the street;
There’s ache in my head and pain in my feet.
So pour, old friend creamer, queen of my song,
But not all that much cream; I like it strong!
This morning you’re used, as you should be, for cream,
But later today – well, I have a dream.
After you’re empty I’ll fill you with beer.
Bright future for you: a whole new career!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Laid-Back Shakespeare #3

Here's today's Shakespeare trivia. I'll call this: "Will's Kids."

William Shakespeare had three children: his first-born was a girl. It was on Sunday, the 26th of May, 1583, that Will’s daughter Susanna was christened.

She may well have been the apple of his eye. After her death her epitaph said she was “Witty above her sex,” and a local writer, years later, described her in this wise: “Something of Shakespeare was in her.”

Less than two years later Anne Hathaway Shakespeare gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl. So Will’s family was complete. He hadn’t yet made it to the age of twenty-one and he had acquired a wife and three kids.

(By the way, the picture above is not of the Shakespeare children; as you may have guessed, there is no picture of them. This is as close as I could come to one.)

Susanna may have been a lively, witty girl, but she settled down. She married John Hall, the most successful doctor in town. She would have had to settle down because Hall was a solid, no-nonsense Puritan.

Which makes all the more strange the events of 1613.

There was a local neerdowell in town, one John Lane, who had been in all kinds of trouble: he had been sued for riot and drunkenness and for having libeled various aldermen. You couldn’t go around libeling aldermen. Well, this character Lane told folks that the respectable Mrs. Susanna Hall had “the running of the reins (kidneys),” which was his indelicate way of claiming that she had gonorrhea.

He went further; he also claimed that she had been “naught” with a local hatter, Ralph Smith. “Naught,” in that time and in that context didn’t mean “nothing.” It meant “had screwed around with.”

Lively Susanna fought back. She sued Lane for slander.

In some ways, Stratford was a small town. Rumors of a scandalous nature were quick to circulate; it was important to quash them immediately. Susanna quashed effectively. John Lane didn’t show up at the trial and as a result he was excommunicated.

That may not seem like much to us, but in that society it was solid punishment. At any rate, Susanna had her reputation restored. At the back of my mind as I read of this event I had to wonder: was Susanna angry because someone thought she would have extra-marital sex, or that someone thought she would have extra-marital sex with a hatter? :-)

Will’s other two kids, the twins, were named Judith and Hamnet.

Judith had the misfortune to marry a guy pretty much like John Lane: Thomas Quiney. Will Shakespeare didn’t like this son-in-law at all. He had made another woman pregnant while courting Judith, which caused problems because soon after the marriage the woman died, along with her infant – a huge scandal. Quiney was brought before the court for “whoredom and uncleanness.” The marriage was off to a great start.

Will’s only son was named Hamnet. The natural conclusion would be that this name had something to do with the play “Hamlet,” but it seems that it didn’t. The boy (and his twin sister) were named after Will’s close, life-long friends, Hamnet and Judith Sadler.

It’s a sad fact that the playwright’s only son died at the age of eleven. How did Will react to his son’s death? He may have expressed his feelings when he wrote these powerful lines.

“Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts.”

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The 50-Franc Brouhaha

Years ago, I had a wonderful assignment from the Cognac Producers of France.

I was to produce a promotional film on their part of the country, the Charente region, which had been making and distributing cognac for a couple of centuries.
A few decades ago the financial situation in France was quite different from what it is today; things were very cheap. Also, no one had ever heard of a Euro.

A prominent part of that region is the city of Royan, a beach resort, so I decided to use that place as my base of operations. Since it was summer, this allowed me to bring my wife and two kids; I went off to work in the morning and they got to spend the day at the beach.

Ah, those halcyon days and nights…

To get back to business, wherever I went on film assignments, I tried to hire local talent. There was always need for a young person or two, high-school age, to help carry stuff around, etc. I was never quite sure what I should pay such folks.

I was told in Royan that ten dollars a day would be adequate for such unskilled labor, so I hired a kid for that amount. The second day on the job he told me his father wanted to talk to me.

I had felt all along that ten bucks a day was not really enough; now I was going to get a lecture from this boy’s father about rich Americans refusing to pay a decent wage to French labor.

I went to the boy’s home; his father was seated in the living-room, waiting for me with a grim look on his face. Seated next to him were several other gentlemen who later turned out to be his neighbors and friends who were there to offer their moral support in what they evidently regarded as a difficult situation.

I hadn’t realized that my ten clams a day was going to turn into such a federal case. I began by explaining that if the amount of money was the problem…

Of course the amount of money was the problem! answered the dad. Ten dollars then was 50 francs. It was unheard-of for an unskilled teenager to be paid 50 francs a day, so everyone in that neighborhood thought there must be something immoral, something degenerate, going on, and they had held a special neighborhood meeting to discuss it.

It took me a moment or two to understand: at ten bucks a day I was overpaying the kid. I then told them that I was neither immoral nor degenerate, or at least not degenerate, and I had been told that 50 francs would be the right amount to pay for such work. I would be happy to reduce that to, say, 25 francs (there was a howl from the kid, who was standing in the background), if they preferred.

They seemed to be pleased that I had a wife and two children, who were with me on this project. I managed to convince them that there was no hanky-panky going on, though I can’t remember now what French term I used for “hanky-panky.”

So the 50-franc salary turned out to be okay. We all became good friends after that, and even joined in a toast – with cognac – to Franco-American relations.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Laid-Back Shakespeare #2

Here’s today’s serving of Shakespeare trivia.

There are a number of reasons why I’m forced to believe that the marriage of Will Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway was not a happy one. First off, of course, is that it was of the shotgun variety.

But there’s this, too. Usually, in the sixteenth century, when people from the provinces traveled to London and were successful in an art or profession, it was normal that they brought their family to the Big City so they all could live together.

Shakespeare never did. The above is his home, and he did travel home from time to time – it was a two-day trip – but Anne and the children stayed in Stratford. Will lived in a variety of lodgings in or around London.

Yes, he lived in London, but he didn’t write much about the city; he usually wrote about the countryside, especially about places like towns in Warwickshire where he was born and where he had been raised.

One of the most interesting examples of his life as a boarder was when he lived with a French family named Mountjoy.

The religious wars were then in full swing: the Catholics annihilated Protestants on the Continent and the English Protestants, just to show they could give as good as they got, slaughtered Catholics in England. Amazing battles, when you think of it. They were all Christians, they all believed in the same God and they were all religious, but some worshipped one way, some another, and that was all that was needed to inspire them to massacre each other.

So there were a lot of Huguenots – i.e., French Protestant refugees – in London in Shakespeare’s day.

It seems that Our Will lived with the Protestant Mountjoys like one of the family. This led to an interesting legal brouhaha in which he was involved. It gives us a fascinating glimpse into his private life in London.

The businessman Mountjoy had an apprentice named Stephen Belott, who married Mountjoy’s daughter, and it was Shakespeare who sort of arranged the marriage. So far so good.

But Belott later claimed that he never received the dowry that had been promised: he said he was supposed to get 60 pounds and also to receive an inheritance of 200 pounds on Mountjoy’s death.

What is of interest to us is that Belott claimed that all this had been told to him by William Shakespeare when he lived there.

So Will was summoned to court. He admitted he had encouraged the boy to marry the girl because Mountjoy had asked him to. (One gets the feeling as he testifies that he doesn’t want to get overly mixed up in this; he’d rather not take sides too strongly one way or another.) He told the court he didn’t remember the amount of the dowry and had never heard of the inheritance.

The court’s legal decision: both Mountjoy and Belott were criticized, but Belott was awarded a token payment.

As far as history can tell us, Mountjoy never paid it. :-)

Shakespeare knew French; it’s possible he learned a lot of it while boarding with the Mountjoy family. He uses a lot of French in the plays and there’s a wonderful scene in “Henry V” – read it if you haven’t already read it – where the French Princess, knowing she’s destined to become Mrs. Henry V, has an English lesson with her lady-in-waiting. She tries hard to learn the English words of her lesson and the clever bit is that, as she triumphantly announces that she finally knows them all, she manages to get them all a little wrong.

It’s a great scene.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Laid-Back Shakespeare

Today I’d like to begin a regular feature on this blog.

My hobby is Shakespeare. So every once in a while I’d like to write about the Bard of Avon’s life and times, the Elizabethan era, the plays, with little nuggets of information – odd, whimsical, whatever – that we might call Shakespeare trivia.

I’d like to avoid the serious approach, the heavily didactic; in other words, the boring stuff. Instead, I’d like this to be an entertaining series of posts that will be informal and relaxed, and, I hope, of interest to everyone.

(You don’t have to take notes; none of this will be on the final. :-D)

For example, here’s an odd nugget just to get the ball rolling. I’ll call it “That Whatley Girl.”

In a recent post, we were talking about young Will Shakespeare’s marriage to Anne Hathaway. But there’s a mystery about that marriage that has had scholars puzzled for a couple of centuries. When the clerk of the court wrote out the license, he gave the bride’s name as “Anne Whatley.” Her name – she’s known as the Second Anne – appears there and nowhere else.

Could it be that the clerk was just careless or incompetent? That he had meant to write “Hathaway” but it had been a long day and he was tired? Because it’s a fact that the mistake, if it was a mistake, was corrected and the marriage that finally did take place was definitely between Will S. and Anne Hathaway; she was his wife and the mother of his children.

So novelists have made up a True Romances story; it would make a good TV soap. In their scenario, Teenager Will had as his true love the beautiful Anne Whatley (they might have looked like the couple above); she was the girl he wanted to marry. He went so far as to make application for the marriage with the clerk of the court.
But the Hathaway family, not to mention his own family, told Will that was out of the question. The Hathaway Anne was visibly pregnant and he was responsible so he could just forget about that other Anne, the Whatley girl – who wasn’t even from Stratford.

So Will had to forget about his true love.

Well, that’s the story. It’s all pure speculation, but it makes for a more interesting scenario than the one about the clerk of the court who simply had a bad day and mistakenly wrote down the wrong name.
Blog designed by Blogger Boutique using Christy Skagg's "A Little Bit of That" kit.