Tuesday, November 30, 2010


“T” is for “The Tempest”

I’d like to tell you about a tragic event, a shipwreck that happened some years ago – quite a number of years ago, actually; it was in 1609.
A ship named the “Sea Venture,” which was on its way to Virginia, was caught in a tempest, something that we today would recognize as a hurricane, and crashed on a dangerous island, a spot feared by all sailors of that day because of the rocks that surrounded it – they called it the “Isle of Devils.”

The ship was destroyed on the rocks, but all hands – 150 people and one dog – got ashore and lived to tell the tale.
They had landed on, of all places, Bermuda.

I have to admit that the place has changed a bit since then.
At any rate, the ship’s passengers learned, since they spent months there, that it wasn’t an isle of devils at all; in fact, it was a pretty great place to spend the winter. There was plenty of food: all kinds of edible animals and birds, and the sea around the island was chock-full of fish. The future governor of Virginia was in that group, as was the future husband of Pocahontas.

The ship’s crew used the timbers from their wrecked ship to build a different, much smaller ship, which they named “Deliverance.”
They waited till spring to set sail for Jamestown, Virginia.
Try to picture this situation. It was assumed by everyone, after nine months passed, that the folks on the “Sea Venture” had all died, and then they sailed into Jamestown, hale, as the saying goes, and hearty.
It would be as though we in our time were to lose a large crew in a spaceship that crashed on the dark side of the moon, and then they were to arrive back home, half a year later, in fine condition.

The news about the Sea Venture, when it got back to England, created a sensation. Will Shakespeare read about it and sat down to write a play, named, as you may by now have guessed, “The Tempest.”

For the playwright, the island was a magical, mysterious and enchanting place…
And he filled it with magical, mysterious inhabitants.

The main character of this play is Prospero, who lives with his daughter on this island. In exile, far away from everyone, he has somehow managed to acquire the power of magic to help him in his daily existence.

Beautiful young Miranda, his daughter, sees the shipwreck. She will fall in love with a young man, a survivor of the wreck. Why shouldn’t she? He’s just about the only man she’s ever seen, except for her father.

“The Tempest” is one of the most original and wildly creative of Shakespeare's productions. The human and imaginary characters, the dramatic and the grotesque, are blended together in a genuine work of art. Some scholars suggest that Prospero is really Shakespeare; when he gives us his thoughts and beliefs, he is speaking for the playwright. Well, I suppose it’s possible.
At any rate, this is the last play Will S. wrote, so when Prospero “signs off” at the end, it does indeed sound like Shakespeare saying good bye.
Prospero: “I have be-dimm'd the noon-tide sun, call'd forth the mutinous winds, and 'twixt the green sea and the azur’d vault set roaring war. But this rough magic I here abjure; I'll break my staff, bury it certain fathoms in the earth, and deeper than did ever plummet sound – I’ll drown my book.”
And some time later that’s just what William Shakespeare did: as in “The Tempest,” he drowned his book, writing no more plays and retiring to his home in Stratford.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Magpie 42

“What does it say?”
“What does what say?”
“On the cup. The words on the cup.”
“Oh. ‘Winner, First City-Wide Dance Contest, Huaraches, Texas.’”
“So it definitely says ‘winner’? Then we’ve got a problem.”

“I really don’t think you should be blaming me for this, Ken. I had nothing to do with it. This was Bill’s project.”
“Well, where is Bill? He should be here, for God’s sake.”
“He’s sick. Had to take the day off.”
“Very convenient. He was placed in charge of this project, given very detailed instructions as to how to handle it, and now it seems he’s screwed it all up and has gone off to hide.”
“I can get him on the phone, set up a conference call.”
“First let’s go over this carefully again. The whole point of this dance contest was that it would be great publicity for Mabel Carswell, who may be our next mayor. Her daughter Stella was to win and the two of them, Mom and daughter, would be writ up in our weekly Tribune and be seen holding the winner’s cup.”
“Right, and everyone understood that.”
“Evidently not everyone. Then, once the election was held, I was assured that I would be appointed City Manager. But now someone – Bill or you or whoever – has messed up and allowed somebody else to win! You simply can’t depend on people any more; that’s what’s wrong with this country!”
“Well, it wasn’t that they were allowed to win. That girl Sissie Hasenpfeffer and her partner were simply the best dancers.”
“What has that got to do with it? My job – and yours, as far as that goes – depends on Mabel’s daughter Stella winning that cup. Now, start thinking; how can we fix this?”
“Phil has an idea.”
“I never thought I’d be saying this, but okay, I’d like to hear Phil’s idea.”
“Well, that girl Sissie’s partner is named Martinez. Maybe, with a bit of luck, he could turn out to be an illegal alien.”
“No dice. Joe Martinez’ family has lived here since before the gringos arrived.”
“Okay then, how about this? Those cups only cost thirty-five bucks. We could buy another cup, inscribe on it ‘Special Award’ or some such thing and give that to Sissie and her partner. The winner’s cup would then go to Stella and Mabel would be happy.”
“But Stella didn’t win. An unimportant point to us, but it’s of great interest to the residents of our fair city.”
“Well, who let this happen? Who were the judges? Don’t they know anything about politics? We spent thousands of dollars putting this dance contest together for one reason, as support for Mabel Carswell’s campaign, and we didn’t blow all that dough to give an award to someone named Sissie!”
“Let alone someone named Hasenpfeffer.”
“Thanks, Phil. You’ve made your contribution. Now go sit over there.”
“Suppose we let it leak out that someone has stolen the cup, since it is so valuable. So the dance festival authorities, who are you and me by the way, have decided that the only fair thing to do is to acquire another cup and award it to both Sissie and Stella. They’ll be co-winners. Sissie will ultimately get the cup to keep and Stella in the meantime gets her photo op, holding the dam’ thing with her Mom for the local media.”
“You don’t know much about Mabel Carswell, do you? I have a feeling that the only thing that would mean anything to her would for her daughter to win – which is what I pretty well guaranteed her would happen. Way things are going, someone else is going to wind up as City Manager and I’ll be back to convincing folks that they may be able to save fifteen percent on their car insurance, like that little green rodent on TV.”
“Well, as far as I can see, that ‘co-winner’ solution is all we’ve got. How about it, Phil? Have you got anything else to suggest?”
“Well, in tight situations like this it was always encouraging for me when I remembered what my Dad used to say: when the tough get going – or when you go getting tough – something like that, whatever – but it was always encouraging.”

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


“S” is for “Shylock”
A New York theatre critic recently wrote: “A snoozy Broadway season has been bolted wide awake by the arrival of a play drenched in juicy timeless issues -- racism, revenge and romance for dollars.”

“Forget that the work is 400 years old. The cause for cheers is the stirring version of ‘The Merchant of Venice,’ starring Al Pacino, a supernova you already know, as the moneylender Shylock, and Lily Rabe, a rising star you should, as the heiress Portia.”
No matter what you think of Al Pacino playing Shakespeare, “Merchant” is a fascinating play. But what the play means is even more interesting.

After all, the plot is fairly well known. Shylock is a Jewish moneylender who lends dough to a Christian, Antonio, setting the security at a pound of Antonio’s flesh if the loan isn’t repaid on time.

Later Antonio, bankrupt, can’t pay back the loan so Shylock demands his pound of flesh. At the trial, the beautiful leading lady of the play, Portia, switches gender to play a “doctor of law” who tries to save Antonio’s life, arguing for mercy in a famous speech.

Portia: “The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”

Shylock, however, “wins” the case and gets set to collect his pound of flesh. But Portia, at the last minute, points out that the contract only allows Shylock to remove the flesh, and not one drop of blood, so Antonio’s life is saved and the money-lender is defeated.
(By the way, the actual “merchant of Venice” is Antonio, not Shylock.)
As I suggested, what the play “The Merchant of Venice” has meant to audiences throughout the past few centuries is kind of fascinating. Is it an anti-Semitic play? Does it reflect not only the general anti-Semitism of the Elizabethan age but Will Shakespeare’s own anti-Semitism?
Or is it Shakespeare’s plea for tolerance?
The history of the play’s productions is of interest. In some versions Shylock has been presented as a cruel caricature: heartless, hateful, greedy. In others, he is a more sympathetic character.
The Nazis, by the way, loved the play. At the beginning of World War II, “Merchant” was playing in numerous German cities. They changed it a bit: Shylock’s daughter, who was of course Jewish, did not marry a Christian, as Shakespeare had written.

A question that has often been asked is, what did Will Shakespeare feel about the character he created named Shylock? Will lived in a society – 16th-century England – that was, from our twenty-first century standpoint, almost incredibly anti-Semitic. So his Shylock was seemingly greedy and heartless, as his audiences would have expected, but it’s worth noting that in the play the money-lender also had pride, energy, even a sense of humor. He could be seen as a person more sinned against than sinning: a loving family man, scarred by years of never-ending persecution and discrimination.
Shakespeare wrote some of his best-known lines for Shylock to deliver:
“Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, senses, affections, passions? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.”
An anti-Semitic play or a plea for tolerance? What’s your opinion?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Magpie 41

“What on earth! Fred, I’m embarrassed. I can’t accept this.”
“Nonsense. It’s just a little gift. A token of a special day.”
“What day?”
“What day? Why, the day of our first date, March 11 of last year.”
“So that’s what the X and the I mean? And, good Lord, they’re in diamonds?
“Right. I mean, no, not real diamonds. Though they do look like that, don’t they? (Laughs) They were expensive enough to be real.”
“Fred, we weren’t on a date then; we had a cup of coffee together.”
“Sure, but it was the first time we were out together. It was the beginning; it had tremendous meaning. I realized I had found the person I wanted to be with forever.”
“Forever is a long time. When I told you this past Monday it was all over, I meant it – it’s all over. Our forever lasted about a month.”
“But that’s why I had to see you today. Not just to give you a pedant with a diamond-encrusted Roman numeral…”
“I think you mean pendant.”
“Whatever. But also I wanted to let you in on a big piece of news. I’ve changed, Dolores! I’m not the guy you knew in the past.”
“That’s good. I didn’t care much for him.”
“And he’s gone! Gone with the wind! Look. I used to be a good-natured goofball, always making jokes. And I have to admit, maybe with some jokes I stepped over the line a bit.”
“Like that dinner with my parents. You didn’t step over the line, you tripped on the line and fell flat on your face.”
“Well, in my defense, that family of yours has precious little in the way of a sense of humor. I was just trying to be friendly and cheerful, to keep everyone entertained.”
“My Mom didn’t find it entertaining when she served her best dish, sesame chicken, and you called it ‘sesame sicken’!”
“Well, that wasn’t my best effort. But hey, Derek Jeter doesn’t hit one out of the park every time either.”
“Derek who?”
“Doesn’t matter.”
“And that crack about us enjoying carnival knowledge of each other – was that your idea of something appropriate to say to my folks?”
“I know, I know. It may seem that at times I shoot myself in the foot…”
“It’s a wonder you’ve got any foot left.”
“Listen, we seem to be getting off the point. I wanted to apologize and to tell you that I really tried, with your folks. But your Dad’s remark about my job, how I drove an ice-cream truck, that didn’t sit well with me.”
“He didn’t mean anything by it. He just didn’t understand what it is you do.”
“Well, somebody should tell him that I’m a CEO, and of a pretty important corporation. We have eight ice-cream trucks, at least six of which are on the streets at all times during the summer. The logistics of the operation are staggering.”
“Fred, I hate to be blunt, but I have to say it again – it’s over. So many of the things you do and say rub me, as well as my family, the wrong way. It wouldn’t matter if you had ten ice-cream trucks. Here, take back your, er, pedant. Sorry it didn’t work out between us. Now I have to get back to work. Bye.”

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Magpie 40

When I was traveling in India a few decades ago, I was told the story of Lord Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god.
He had been born as a monkey to serve Lord Ram and he spent all his hours in the service of Rama. Hanuman had incredible powers.

He could cross the ocean simply by uttering the words “Ram-Nam” and he conquered all difficulties that tried to stop him because of his courage, patience and undaunted spirit. He was never selfish; all his actions were offerings in service to Lord Rama.

He became the supreme head of Pundits, and the commander of heroes and warriors.
Where Hanuman is, there is Sri Rama and wherever Sri Rama is praised and his deeds recited, there Hanuman is.

Glory to Hanuman, the blessed devotee of Lord Rama. May India have such heroes for ever more!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


“Q” is for “Queen”
Queen Gertrude, that is.

Do you like murder mysteries? Well, here’s one for you to consider.
It’s the story of a queen whose husband has recently died. Protocol requires that, after the death of a king, his widow should remain in mourning for at least a year. But Queen Gertrude has married all too soon after the death of her husband.

Glenn Close, as Gertrude.
However, the people of her realm, Denmark, don’t hold it against her because the man she married, Claudius, was the brother of the late king. The general feeling is that now the country will have new rulers whom everyone admires and who will bring stability and prosperity to the land.
In fact, everyone seems to be happy with the marriage – except for one guy who doesn’t go along with it at all.
That would be Gertrude’s son, Prince Hamlet.

Laurence Olivier as Hamlet.
Hamlet has his reasons. He despises his uncle, Claudius, and he hates the idea that his mother is now living with him. He’s also upset that his mother, defying tradition and respect for the late, beloved King, has rushed into the marriage. In addition, Hamlet suspects that Claudius had something to do with his father’s death.
We who are sitting in the audience, watching the play, are gradually made aware that Claudius did indeed kill his brother. And it also seems to be true that Gertrude had been having an adulterous affair with Claudius while her husband was still alive.

In the Olivier film, Gertrude was played by Eileen Herlie. The Queen doesn’t understand why her son cannot join in the general feeling of good-will.
In Act Three there is an extraordinary scene: Hamlet visits his mother in her bedroom to tell her just how angry he is. His anger turns to rage.

He steps over the line; he says things few sons have ever said to their mothers. He shows his disgust, his very nausea, at the thought of her sleeping with Claudius.
Hamlet: “To live, as you are doing, in the rank sweat of a greasy bed, stewing in corruption!”
Queen: “Oh, Hamlet, speak to me no more! These words are like daggers!”
Hamlet: “He’s a murderer and a villain! A slave that is not a twentieth part of your precedent lord.”
Queen: “Have you forgotten who I am?”
Hamlet: “No, you are the Queen, your husband’s brother’s wife. And – though I wish it were not so – you are my mother.”

Hamlet is so angry that Gertrude fears for her life. The scene ends as her son finally calms down and tries to convince her that what he had said was for her own good; he had been “cruel only to be kind.”
All of the foregoing leads to some fascinating theories about the Queen.
Question number 1. Did Gertrude have any idea, when she married Claudius, that he had murdered her husband?
Question number 2. Is it possible that the Queen was aware of this but went ahead with the marriage anyway?
Number 3. During the adulterous affair, did Gertrude learn that Claudius was planning to kill the King?
Number 4. Is it possible that there was complicity on her part, that she played a role in the killing?
Number 5. Or is it possible that Gertrude was completely innocent of having anything to do with the murder of the late King?
(It’s interesting that there are scholars who have written that the play “Hamlet” should really have been named “Gertrude” because the whole plot revolves around her. Whatever any of the other characters do during the action of the play, everything seems to be tied in one way or another to the Queen.)
Depending on how familiar you may be with “Hamlet,” what’s your opinion as to the correct answer to the questions about Queen Gertrude listed above?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Magpie 39

This week’s Magpie prompt hit me with a sudden memory of what is probably the most famous “chicken” speech ever made.
Picture this: it was December 26th, 1941, just a couple of weeks after Pearl Harbor. These were the darkest moments of World War II.

It was on this date that Prime Minister Winston Churchill made an address to the American Congress. He certainly felt he had a right to be there; he was part American. His mother had been Jennie Jerome, born and brought up in Brooklyn, N Y.

Churchill: “I wish indeed that my mother, whose memory I cherish, could have been here to see. By the way, I cannot help reflecting that if my father had been American and my mother British instead of the other way around, I might have got here on my own. In that case this would not have been the first time you would have heard my voice.
“The United States have been attacked and set upon by three most powerfully armed dictator states, the greatest military power in Europe, the greatest military power in Asia-Japan, Germany and Italy have all declared and are making war upon you, and the quarrel is opened which can only end in their overthrow or yours.”

Just a couple of days later, in Ottawa, Churchill made his famous “chicken” speech. He said the military leaders of France were misled by their generals at the time of the French collapse, adding that when he warned them that Britain would fight on alone, their generals told their Prime Minister, "In three weeks England will have her neck wrung like a chicken.”
You can catch the speech on YouTube. Churchill’s mastery of the art of public speaking, how and where to pause and how to deliver a punch line, was very much in evidence.
After he quoted “England will have her neck wrung like a chicken,” he paused dramatically.
“Some chicken!” he shouted. The audience burst into applause.
Churchill waited carefully till all sound had died down. “Some NECK!” he thundered.
That brought the house down with cheers and a standing ovation.
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