Sunday, June 19, 2011

$hakespeare and T-Rex

Today we're gonna take a detour through Internet pop culture here. I know, it's a scary place, filled with the buzz of technology, the minor explosions created by rapidly-evolving memes, and the squelching sounds emitted by Charlie Sheen gifs. In this land, it is not the well-turned phrase but the visual gag that receives adulation, and anyone . . . I mean anyone . . .  (and I'm looking at you, Double Rainbow guy) . . .  can be famous. Terrifying, right? But I promise that by the end, we will make it back to the safe haven that is the main topic of this blog: early modern literature'n'stuff.

I love Dinosaur Comics, a web-comic created by Ryan North, whose name even my non-comic-reading boyfriend knows because I talk about him so much. The basic layout is simple and virtually unchanging: six panels showing clip-art dinosaurs talking to each other and stomping on stuff. The main character is T-Rex, whose opinions, ideas, daydreams, and social interactions make up the bulk of the comic. His friends Dromiceiomimus and Utahraptor are there, too; other (usually off-panel) characters include God, The Devil, Morris the Bug, some creepy raccoons and cephalopods, Edgar Allan Poe, and our man Shakespeare, who appears as a character in 15 Dino Comics, but is mentioned in at least 33 of them (I don't think all of the comics have been transcribed yet. LAYIN' DOWN ON THE JOB, FANS!).

If you've just completed high-school English (or, let's face it, even a graduate-level literature class), you probably have a conception of Shakespeare as some distant, dusty old dude who wrote plays with the specific purpose of having students turn around and scan his verse ("See his use of iambic pentameter, utilizing the natural rhythm of the human heartbeat?"), analyze his metaphors ("Now the Bard uses the universal metaphor of the sun in the sky to emphasize how crucial Romeo has become in Juliet's life"), and memorize his quotes ("Call me butt-love, and I'll be satisfied").

Shakespeare's name has become synonymous with all that is beautiful, clever, and artful in the English language; he's the Platonic ideal of good English writing. So we often use his writing as a litmus test, comparing other writers to his genius, and as a tool to teach about literary tropes and devices, ignoring his authorial failures and divorcing his authorial successes from any personal or cultural context. Shakespeare, the way he is spoken of today, is larger than a man; he is the Ghost of Literature past, present and future. Of course this is not helped by the fact that we know very little about his life or  personality. So, instead of being this great writer whose art is clearly linked to (and limited by) his life, like Dickens or Thoreau or Cather, Shakespeare becomes a name, an idea, a hovering disembodied genius waiting to pounce on unsuspecting LIT2000 students with a "Aha! Now you must do a video project translating one of my works into modern times, and post it on YouTube, because I am the World's Best Writer! Aha!" *rapier flourish*

In this light, North presents us with a welcome imaginative difference. Shakespeare often appears in Literary Technique Comics," an ongoing series in which T-Rex attempts to explain and model a literary device. So far, you might think, par for the course--the Bard is again being used as a boring literary example. But North twists it, because usually the person T-Rex is advising about literature is Shakespeare himself. He's either telling him about the correct usage of the trope--"It's a little thing called a metaphor, Will. Man! Study literary techniques much?"--or trying to get Shakespeare to write one of his great works differently--to spell "assume" differently in order to circumvent years and years of terrible jokes, or to include elephants as human companions in his plays. Or, sometimes, he's just trying to insert himself into Shakespeare's canon, by writing Shakespeare prequels and telling Shakespeare to create a dinosaur character named "Utahraptor" and then have Hamlet tell him off.

Shakespeare himself only ever talks, from off-screen, to T-Rex. Given T-Rex's special relationships with other disembodied or imaginary figures, such as God, The Devil, and Batman, it's reasonable to assume that the voice of Shakespeare we read in the comic is actually the voice of T-Rex's imagination. Shakespeare becomes a stand-in for certain aspects of T-Rex that we already know and love--his hubris, pettiness, and belligerence. In this way, North invests Shakespeare with a personality, and it's like our good friend T-Rex's personality--full of flaws, full of fun.

This dichotomy is crucial to North's presentation of Shakespeare. He's a character who makes fun of T-Rex and who, unlike the Shakespeare we meet in class, can be made fun of in turn. We chuckle when he uses early modern colloquialisms like "alack" and "forsooth," and laugh when he tells T-Rex it's "racist" to assume that early modern folk talk like that all the time. We know that when T-Rex talks to Shakespeare, he keeps confusing the dude by mentioning car keys, and blasting into space, and guns that shoot chainsaws. And we laugh when Shakespeare retorts, "T-REX. LISTEN. I have like no context to understand any of this," because, like, Shakespeare just said "like," man! He's alternately timely and anachronistic, and it's great.

Finally, mostly because I don't know how to end this blog entry except by devolving into abject adoration of Ryan North and T-Rex, you should definitely read Dino Comics, if only T-Rex describes Hamlet as "stabbin' dudes and havin' broods." Also, because making links makes me feel like I'm awesome at the Internet, check out the two Edgar Allan Poe comics. (See what I did there?)

Whirlwind Tour to Get Us Back On Track

I have written down that I am supposed to blog about religion, Spenser, travel/discovery narratives, and Sidney. The problem is, I don't really feel like writing about those things. I want to start writing about drama, which is what I'm supposed to spend my time reading anyways. Ugh, Norton. Why you gotta be so big? Okay, here goes:

1) I read the Faith in Conflict section a while ago and basically think what I thought before: the Reformation was a dangerous and interesting time in English history. So many different motives for the move away from the Catholic church and the creation of the Anglican. Even after a Protestant held the throne for a while, there was still a lot of dissent, but when a Catholic came back on the throne, many English were true Anglicans. Thomas Cranmer wrote the Book of Common Prayer, which is lovely. Printing presses made it hard to suppress different religious opinions and factions. Tyndale's translation of the Bible, John Foxe's Book of Martyrs--I just don't have a lot to say about this, because it's too large, multi-faceted, and truly interesting, and I have other things I need to get to. I can't be distracted by you right now, English Reformation.

2) Spenser? Geez, that guy. What's to say? He consciously wrote in an older English style, modeling himself after Chaucer. Some of the stuff he wrote was cool; some of it wasn't. I like some of his sonnets, but I'm not interested enough to go back and figure out which ones I liked, and comment on them. I read The Fairie Queene and mildly enjoyed it. It's a chivalric romance, with knights, fairies, damsels in distress, sorcerers, fight scenes, love scenes, magic, etc. It's basically a tour through The World of Fantasy but it's hella long and I'm bored already thanks Spenser okay bye.

3) The exploration narratives . . . now there's some stuff. Both interesting and angering. Basically stories of getting all up in the business of the natives, and screwing them over. White man lands, makes "friendly" overtures towards natives in form of trinkets that white man acknowledges in his journal to be cheap and worthless. Many natives take white man for a god, shower him with gifts. Attempts to communicate. Some natives do not love/trust the white man and prophecy that more will come and kill them and take their land. (Freelz.) When natives get sick, probably from European diseases to which they are unaccustomed, these unfriendly natives are blamed. An altercation. White man establishes dominance, natives are cowed. Endless descriptions of the oddities and backwardness of the natives (they believe in many gods! their boobies hang out! they don't conquer huge tracts of land and build enormous cities! they sleep in their own excrement! [really? I doubt this.]). White man leaves, taking some of the natives with him, who, after being shown off around London, get sick and die in a far-off country where they have no friends, do not know the language, and will be buried without the traditions or even knowledge of their tribe.

The Norton's last two sentences of Drake's exploration (and this must have been edited with some eye to irony) are: "For a more kind and loving people there cannot be found in the world, as far as we have hitherto had trial." (Wait for it.) "We brought home also two of the savages, being lusty men, whose names were Wanchese and Manteo." Oh. I see. Blah blah blah natives cool blah blah blah hospitality blah blah blah oh and also kidnapping and ultimate death.

(Reading this really gets my social justice ire up, if you can't tell. I'm not sure where to put those feelings, because 1) it happened a long time ago and I can't do anything about it, and 2) isn't remarking on how stupid and terrible these Europeans were the same as the Europeans remarking on how "backward" the natives were? Shouldn't we judge people within the context of their culture? Or should we judge them from our privileged position of future knowledge? Anyways, all this is besides the point, so . . .)

4) And finally, Sidney!!!!!! In Defense of Poesy, ya'll! This is a really good piece of early literary criticism. It's very quotable and still influences us today when we discuss genre, although not so much when we discuss the point of literature. I was just talking about it in the hot tub the other day (weird sentence) to Jen Kanke Schomburg as we discussed those annoying postmodern poets who assert that poetry doesn't need to mean anything. For Sidney, literature's reason for being is to delight and instruct . . . meaning, MEANING. Literature should have meaning; it should uplift and direct its readers. In it, we imitate the excellency of God and show the righteous downfall of the wicked. He tells us about the different kinds of poetry, too: Pastoral, Elegiac, Comic, Tragedy, Comic, and Heroical.

Also according to Sidney, stop sucking, drama! Stop telling the audience that we're in a garden, and then on a ship, and then in Africa or Asia or any of these other crazy and backward places (savages live there!). Sidney's like, "Duh, you guys. I'm obviously looking at a stage, not at a battlefield! Are those swords even real? Leontes, you're obviously some dude from down the street, and not from Sicilia! And that guy over there has obviously had too much beer to drink! Are you trying to tell me that sixteen years have passed while I've been sitting here? Somebody invent the watch so I can prove them wrong! Also, gimme my ducats back." ("Oh, my daughter, O, my ducats!" Ha. Don't worry about it. Inside joke between me and Shakespeare.) Man! Drama! Amirite?

Finally, Astrophil and Stella. If there's one thing I love, it's reading love poetry between two people who are long dead. And if there's one kind of love poetry between two people who are long dead that I love the most, it is the sonnet.

If by love I mean HATE! Ha! Psyche! Got you, Sidney! I so got you! You were like, "Oh, great, she's probably going to love my poems," and then you were totally zinged! Okay, okay, though. Your poems are pretty. (Pretty lame!) They are well-written. (Well-written . . . um . . . lame!) And I really don't know much about poetry so somebody else is going to have to tell me why these are so great sometime. Preferably sometime before I teach them in the fall, because I really have nothing to say about them.

For now, I'm off to read Doctor Faustus. Marlowe's next, y'all!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Writings of the Tudor Court

A week or so ago, I finished reading some poems by Thomas Wyatt the Elder. His poetry, paired with that of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, Sir Thomas Hoby's translation of Castiglione's The Courtier, and several letters and speeches by Mary Tudor, Jane Grey, Elizabeth I, and Mary, Queen of Scots, has really impressed me with a sense of the drama, danger, and precarious nature of the Tudor court . . . or even just of royal courts in general.

You get a sense of this with The Tudors, of course. People rising, people falling. The glorious power-grab of the Boleyns and their ignominious demise, in which Thomas Wyatt himself was implicated and tried, though not executed. Some of his poetry, specifically the translation of Petrarch's Rima 190, seems to speak to an infatuation, if not a relationship, with Anne Boleyn. "There is written, her fair neck round about, Noli me tangere, for Caesar's I am." He writes about the dangers of seeking advancement as a courtier in "Who list his wealth and ease retain:" "These bloody days have broken my  heart. My lust, my youth did then depart, and blind desire of estate. Who hastes to climb seeks to revert. Of truth, circa regna tonat [it thunders around thrones]." (Interestingly for me, he writes about women as hunted deer more than once, in beautiful lyrical words. Must explore this later.)

Surrey (I can never get used to calling people by their title, not their last name) was actually executed, at thirty, because of the danger he posed to the throne as a possible claimant. He, like his friend Wyatt about whom he wrote a poetic epitaph, also translates Petrarch and hints at the dangers of court.

The Courtier makes it all too obvious that being at court is like playing a game (GRRM's A Game of Thrones, or the Cairhienin Daes Dae'mar [Game of Houses] from RoJo both spring to mind here. In fact, with their plucked and powdered foreheads, I wouldn't be surprised if Cairhien is supposed to be analogous to Elizabethan England). Words and actions have multiple meaning and the most prized attribute of a courtier is that of "grace," which means saying and doing all the right things with an unstudied, spontaneous air as if they flowed naturally from you.

And finally, the letters and the histories of the four women emphasize the risks and rewards of grasping at royal life. While religion separated them, the unpopularity and failure of three (Mary Tudor, Jane Grey, and Mary Stuart) of them were not solely because of religious conviction. They made hasty and ultimately wrong political moves. But how were they to know ahead of time that they were wrong? Each had to alternate groveling and standing firm, and when Jane Grey gambled on standing firm when her future relied on groveling, she was executed.

QEI, the one success out of the four (success being measured, I guess, by longevity, autonomy, popularity, and historical legacy), won because she played the game of court as well as any trying to court her favor. She made herself the Queen of Hearts and supplanted the Virgin Mary. Her "cult of love," as the Norton terms it, was as much about her protection as it was her popularity. And her letters use this rhetoric heavily, terming herself married to the realm of England, a mother to her English subjects, calling her subjects loyal and faithful and thereby making them so. Love is a jewel to her, and in all images she is covered in, dripping with jewels. She was able to manipulate her image by suppressing representations she thought impolitic, and encouraging representations that make her iconic (Golding's Metamorphoses, Spenser's The Faerie Queene, etc., on which more later).

At any rate, the wheel of fortune metaphor has never been more clear in my mind than in reading about the tumultuous and dangerous nature of court.