Accidentally Quoting Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s language has a reputation for being hard to understand. To our modern ears (or eyes if we’re reading instead of watching the plays), it can sound outdated, flowery, convoluted, or just plain ridiculous in some cases. No one actually talks like that anymore, at least not “normal” people. Right?

Well, actually we do (at least to a certain extent). It’s just that most of the time when we quote Shakespeare, we’re not doing it on purpose.

Accidentally Quoting Shakespeare | marissabaker.wordpress.com

perhaps a bit melodramatic, but I had fun stringing together Shakespeare quotes for the featured image

When this new live-action version of Beauty and the Beast came out, I started listening to the soundtrack and caught some lines I hadn’t in the animated version. I suppose I was just too familiar with the one I knew from childhood to really notice the lyrics. I’m thinking in particular of “The Mob Song” when Gaston sings, “Screw your courage to the sticking place.” Considering Gaston mocks Belle for reading, it’s ironic that this line is a quote from Macbeth (and it’s particularly noticeable in this version, where the book he insults is another Shakespearean play, Romeo and Juliet).

We fail?
But screw your courage to the sticking place,
And we’ll not fail.”
— Lady Macbeth, Act 1, scene 7

Gaston isn’t the only person who accidentally quotes Shakespeare. You yourself may have already done so this week. Have you talked about a “wild goose chase” (Romeo and Juliet, 2.4), spoke of the “green eyed monster” (Othello, 3.3), or waited with “bated breath” for something (The Merchant of Venice, 1.3)? That’s Shakespeare. And if someone has been “eaten out of house and home” (Henry IV, Part II, 2.1) or “seen better days” (As You Like It, 2.7), you’re using phrases we only have because Shakespeare used them first. Continue reading

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Tale As Old As Time

Beauty and the Beast has always been my favorite fairy tale. Favorite Disney movie, favorite Robin McKinley fairy tale retelling, favorite original tale … basically, I’m a fan. So you can imagine that I was beside myself excited when Disney announced their live-action remake of my favorite fairy tale. And yesterday, I finally got to see it.

It’s been a while since I wrote about fairy tales, so many of you probably don’t know that I’m not just a fan of Disney. I love the original tales as well. In many cases, I like them more than the lighter, tamer, happier versions. It’s hard to believe there was a time when it was considered normal to read children bedtime stories where stepsisters hack their own toes off, children throw witches in ovens, and princes fall from towers into thorns that blind them.

They weren’t just creepy stories for kids, though. Fairy tales represent a rich folkloric tradition passed along and refined by both male and female storytellers. And plenty of research has gone into documenting these stories’ histories, discussing their role in society, and cataloging the different styles. Beauty and the Beast, for example, is 425C in the Aarne–Thompson classification system. It’s one of a surprisingly large number of animal groom fairy tales and most likely has it’s roots in the story of Cupid and Psyche.Tale As Old As Time: Thoughts on the origins, meaning, and newest adaptation of my favorite fairy tale | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Fairy tales have always generated discussion and debate. This time around, people are talking about bestiality and wondering why this “tale as old as time” has endured for so long with such twisted ideas at its roots. But if we equate the Beast with an animal we miss the point of the tale. Psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim believed the “animal groom” stories were “intended to reassure virginal brides about sex” (i.e. he seems scary, but once you get to know him he’s not so bad).

Beauty and the Beast goes deeper than most tales of this sub-type, though. What we know as Beauty and the Beast was first written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve and published in 1740. In this earliest version, as in subsequent versions, the Beast has to prove himself worth loving. Continue reading

Reading Henry IV

Warning: English nerd content ahead.

I’ve been quite fond of Shakespeare since high school. Freshman year I watched Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V and then read the play for extra credit. I loved it so much I choose to read it again the year we studied British literature, along with Taming of the Shrew (my mother’s choice) and As You Like It (recommended by a teacher).

Since homeschoolers can pick their own curriculum and my mom hated reading Shakespeare’s tragedies when she was in school, I didn’t get a hold of those until college. There, I discovered Hamlet was almost as good as Henry. Almost, but not quite. When I took a Shakespeare class where the professor included Henry V on his syllabus I was in literature nerd heaven.henriad

The only strange thing (to me at least) about this whole Henry obsession is that it took me so long to read Henry IV, Part One and Henry IV, Part Two. In these plays, the character I knew as noble King Henry V is the riotous Prince Hal. I did put them on my Classics Club book list, but I probably wouldn’t have read these plays for another year or so if I hadn’t decided on a futuristic/sci-fie re-imagining of Shakespeare’s Henriad for my NaNoWriMo novel (click here to learn more). I’d seen them, though, in BBC’s The Hollow Crown.

This brilliant adaptation is remarkably faithful to both Part One and Part Two (it leaves out more scenes and changes a few parts of Henry V, but that play’s not the topic of our post today). I enjoyed reading the Henry IV plays, in part because of associating the on-paper scenes with what I’d seen in The Hollow Crown. Here’s a small clip of Tom Hiddleston as Henry, but you should really check out the series and watch it for yourself.

For reading Part One, I picked up a copy without annotations or notes. I was rather pleased with myself that I didn’t feel like I needed them. This is also the play I enjoyed most. It feature a more straight-forward and active story line, and more scenes with Prince Hal. I tend to prefer Shakespeare’s main plots and noble characters to the sub-plots and more comedic characters, and that held true for these history plays.

Part Two follows the Henrys less and I’m glad I had a Folger edition to read for that. There were whole sections of Falstaff’s speeches that left me puzzled (the notes made me feel better, though — apparently scholars can’t figure out some of his lines either). You need this play to get from Part 1 to Henry V, but it’s my least favorite of the three.

Whether or not you already love Shakespeare, I’d recommend starting with The Hollow Crown if you’re interested in these plays. They’re really meant to be seen and heard more than read. I suspect the man who begged pardon of his 17th century audience for daring “On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth / So great an object” as Henry’s life would approve of the scope film provides for storytelling (Henry V, 1.1.11-12).

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Becoming “Noble Harry”

Check out this article I wrote for Femnista’s Shakespeare issue (and perhaps a few of their other articles while you’re at it)! It’s always a pleasure to write for and read this online magazine/blog.

I have no trouble answering the question, “What’s your favorite Shakespeare play?” (though it sadly isn’t asked very often). My answer has been Henry V since I first read it in high school. I grew up immersed in classical tales of adventure and heroism–stories by Robert Louis Stevenson and Jules Verne, legends about Robin Hood and King Arthur. In that context, my affection for Henry V comes as no surprise.

“Noble Harry,” as Shakespeare dubs the character, is the quintessential heroic figure. He’s a man of action, a brilliant soldier, a king committed to justice only where he cannot show mercy, a believer in God’s sovereignty, and a romantic figure in his wooing of Kathrine. Shakespeare is far too talented a storyteller to leave even his heroic figures one-dimensional, though. There’s much more to Henry’s character than being a perfect king.

Continue Reading: Becoming “Noble Harry”

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Classics Club: Anna Karenina

At 817 pages, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy is the most daunting book I’ve yet read for The Classics Club. I chose the translation by husband-and-wife-team Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Their work translating Russian literature is highly acclaimed, and I liked the idea of a native Russian speaker and a native English speaker working so closely together on the translation. I found their Anna Karenina very readable.

It took me quite a while to read Anna Karenina, but I did enjoy it. The book was just so large it was hard to take everywhere, and I finished several thinner books for more portable reading. I think ‘intermittently’ was probably the best way for me to read Tolstoy. Usually I would read whole Parts in a chunk, but when it switched between different character arcs (and there were several), I needed a short break.

The main reason I was excited to read Anna Karenina was because my creative writing professor always talked about Russian writers as examples of superb character building. In this regard, Tolstoy did not disappoint. My sister, who’s reading War and Peace, said she noticed the same thing. The characters, especially his male characters, are nuanced people with depth of personality. I particularly enjoyed Levin and his story.

Three couples are at the centers of the novels main plots: Stepan and Dolly Oblonsky (Anna’s brother and sister-in-law), Kostya and Kitty Levin (Kitty is Dolly’s sister), and Anna Karenina with Alexei Karenin (her husband) or Alexei Vronsky (her lover). I know why Tolstoy chose Anna Karenina’s name as the title — she’s the only character which connects and influences all the others — but I was a little surprised not to see her play a more prominent (or at least more active) role in all the main plots.

Anna makes one decision — to enter an adulterous relationship with Vronsky — and then everything else just sort of happens. Her affair takes Vronsky out of Kitty’s life, which leads to Kitty’s very wise decision to marry Levin, but that’s the only affect Anna has on that plot line. Her main influence in the Oblonsky family storyline takes place at the beginning of the novel, before she even meets Vronsky. As relatives they cross paths throughout the book, but don’t influence each other much. For all the talk about her strong personality, Anna may be least active main character I’ve read. She takes the easiest road from the moment she throws her life in with Vronsky. She tells her husband only when she can’t bear not to. She won’t accept Karenin’s forgiveness because the self-awareness, growth and repentance necessary is too daunting. She doesn’t accept a divorce because it seems like such a final step that would separate her from her son. She refuses to take an interest in her daughter. She throws herself under a train because she can’t stop sabotaging the one relationship she has left, with Vronsky.

Here we get back to my caveat about Tolstoy’s really great characters mostly being male. I liked Kitty, I sympathized with Dolly, I partly understood Anna, but I didn’t empathize with them and they didn’t always feel real. Or maybe they were realistic, but I just didn’t like Anna and Dolly much? I’m not sure.

Plot wise, it did seem odd to me that the book continued so long after the title character’s death. These last chapters did tells you the main things that happened to Anna’s Alexies after her death, but didn’t follow them closely. Instead, it switched to wrapping up Levin’s subplot of spiritual awakening, which had absolutely nothing to do with Anna. Ending on that note made me wonder if the main point Tolstoy wanted his readers to take away wasn’t the tragedy of Anna’s unhappy families, but the beauty of Levin’s spiritual quest. Levin is also tempted by suicide, but he doesn’t take that route, and instead finds hope in his newly re-awakened faith in God that sits apart from any organized religion. Perhaps Tolstoy hoped his readers would progress on a path of faith, hope and happiness as well.

Fairy Tales

I love fairy tales. When I was little, my exposure to fairy tales was mostly through Disney films (my favorite is Beauty and the Beast, just in case anyone is wondering). I started seriously reading fairy tales just a few years ago, when my favorite English professor loaned me a collection of Celtic Fairy Tales. Since then, I’ve read all the Brothers Grimm tales, many of Andersen’s fairy tales, more Celtic folklore, and collections of French fairy tales including Perrault’s writings.

I’ve been reading some of C.S. Lewis’s essays collected in the book “Of Other Worlds.” I’ve enjoyed reading his fiction (Narnia and the Space Trilogy), as well as Mere Christianity, so it was nice to get insight into his mind and writing process. For the blogt I wrote to post on my writing website tomorrow (yes, I write under a pen name), I turned to one of these essays for inspiration. I liked writing it so much, that I decided to post it here as well.

C.S. Lewis on Children’s Writings

By tracking down a quote on Pinterest, I came across C.S. Lewis’s essay “On Three Ways of Writing For Children” (full text online here). Though I don’t write specifically for children, I like to think that my fantasy novels would appeal to (and be appropriate for) some young people. After all, I can’t be the only child who was reading Jules Verne by age 10 and searching for other stories of the fantastic.

The essay becomes most interesting to me when Lewis addresses the question of what kinds of stories are worth reading as children. Since he wrote children’s fantasy — not because he set out to write for children, but “because a children’s story is [sometimes] the best art-form for something you have to say” — he spends much of the essay defending fairy tales.

If I have allowed the fantastic type of children’s story to run away with this discussion, that is because it is the kind I know and love best, not because I wish to condemn any other. But the patrons of the other kinds very frequently want to condemn it. About once every hundred years some wiseacre gets up and tries to banish the fairy tale. Perhaps I had better say a few words in its defence, as reading for children.

Just as when Lewis was writing (in 1952), modern parents have been banning classic fairy tales. Hansel and Gretle and Little Red Riding Hood are not read because they are “too scary,” but there are other reasons as well. More than 50% of parents wouldn’t “read their kids Cinderella because the heroine spends her days doing housework. Many felt that this theme of female domesticity didn’t send a good message.” The politically incorrect word “dwarves” disqualifies Snow White from polite society. Rapunzel’s kidnapping and imprisonment is “too dark” a theme (actually, it is darker than they think– in the Grimms version she’s not actually kidnapped. Her father gives her to a witch to save his own life).

Whether or not to read fairy tales (and which ones to read) to children is a choice that will vary from parent to parent and also depends on the child. There are plenty of fairy tales I wouldn’t read to a very young or sensitive child (like The Little Mermaid, where she is in agony the entire time she has legs and dies at the end). But on the whole, I tend to agree with Lewis when he said,

Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker. Nor do most of us find that violence and bloodshed, in a story, produce any haunting dread in the minds of children. As far as that goes, I side impenitently with the human race against the modern reformer. Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end the book. Nothing will persuade me that this causes an ordinary child any kind or degree of fear beyond what it wants, and needs, to feel. …

It would be nice if no little boy in bed, hearing, or thinking he hears, a sound, were ever at all frightened. But if he is going to be frightened, I think it better that he should think of giants and dragons than merely of burglars. And I think St George, or any bright champion in armour, is a better comfort than the idea of the police.

As a child who was deeply afraid of things that go bump in the night, I can wholeheartedly support Lewis’s claim that a “bright champion in armour” is a far better comforter than the police. And if my mind had not been filled with fairy tales, fantasy, and knights in shining armor I would never have dreamed up Jamen and Karielle or Bryant and Aelis (who now live in my in-progress and finished novels) or invented Ves’endlara.

Which fairy tales would you read, or not read to children? As an adult, do you enjoy reading fairy tales?