Saturday, October 21, 2006

RE2: Richard III - Richard and Language

John, et al (actually, I'm not sure any of us are named Al),

I am in sympathy with John's characterization of the long choric lament for deceased Yorks (II.ii) as overwrought. First, it seems unseemly to show a competition among The Duchess of York, Queen Elizabeth, and Clarence's two children on who has the right to the most – and how much – grief. The lead into the stichomythic (perfectly identified, John) ritual mourning is already fragile when Clarence's children pose a zero sum supply of tears (aunt, you didn't weep for our father, so we will not weep for your husband) and also twisted as the Duchess thinks she has the greatest maternal right to grief because she has lost a husband and two sons, while she curses her remaining son ("one false glass/ That grieves me when I see my shame in him" – thanks, Mom, I love you, too).

Perhaps the patterned lamentation is excessive because, as my previous posting explored, high art and classical rhetoric is the texture of the whole play, and how can one raise the volume if it is already at highest pitch. I don't immediately remember any similar passage in Shakespeare. My original marginal note says "reads sort of like Fielding's Tom Thumb," subtitled "Tragedy of Tragedies," which ends when the hero, Thumb, is (tragically) eaten by a cow. My other association is to a play I much admire, John Dryden's Antony and Cleopatra play, All for Love. Poor Antony is constantly being pulled between Rome and Egypt, passion and duty, love and honor. He changes sides five times, so I refer to him as zig-zag Antony.

In Act III, his friend Dolabella and the loyal Roman general, Ventidius, have brought Antony's wife Octavia ("your much injured wife") and his two little daughters from Rome, to appeal to his duty as soldier, husband and father to abandon Cleopatra ("that ba[aaa]d woman"). Duty…honor…virtue…merit…" [daughters] hang upon his arms/ clasp about his waist." Here the children go to him.

Was ever sight so moving? – Emperor!
I am vanquished; take me" [another decasyllabic line with four speeches]

My marginal note for both Shakespeare and Dryden is "can the play survive this?" The connection, apart from my queasy stomach, is the choric ritual, where even Shakespeare – and Dryden – nods.

John, we had some wise/ stupid citizens in 2 Henry VI, as part of the Jack Cade rebellion (no, don't go back), and we will have some meaningful citizens in the future in Julius Caesar and Coriolanus. But the cluster of proverbs in II.iii.31-47 seem to me choric, received wisdom, and proverbs – culture has always known this – impose an archaic perspective. But as these "pithy observations" stack up, the sheer repetition leeches insight out of them. Beyond the Fringe has a sketch "I'd rather be a judge than a miner" in which the miner characterizes conversation down the mine as "boring…it's boring down the mine…the word boring, leaps to mind…if you ask anyone about conversation down the mine, boring is what they'd say…I mean, it's really boring down the mine." Intentional fallacy, yeah, yeah, but my Shakespeare is poking fun.

Hoo, boy! I've waited decades for someone to ask me about anacoluthons, the failure to complete a sentence according to the syntax or structural plan on which it was started. It usually characterizes informal or colloquial error – "vulgar" (as in speech of the common folk). The example I remember from school is "I was going to the market I was." However, John correctly casts Hamlet's first soliloquy as anacoluthon, here, within the speech, there is obvious incoherence among the parts. It's not stream of consciousness, as much as three different subjects competing for focus: "within a month…frailty…Niobe." Artless, perhaps, overwhelmed, certainly. But either way, in perfect contrast to the artful order of Richard's opening soliloquy.

I leave others, perhaps Ernst's envoy, to consider Shakespeare's "spin" except to say that Shakespeare's sources Moore, Hall, and Holinshed had already spun Richard to death. If Washington's Senator Cantwell votes for the war because all the intel she has been given insists that WMD's exist and are pointed at us…?


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