23 May 2013: A Horse! A Horse! My Kingdom for a Horse, or, Grand High Shakespeare ReRead Complete

I have finished re-reading the complete corpus of Shakespeare’s works for the first time since 1962, as long as I don’t have to read The Two Noble Kinsmen or Sir Thomas More. No other play in my Oxford Complete Works was skipped; I should have skipped Edward III which is not a “Shakespeare” play at all; Edward III is a pastiche of Froissart by several of the lads including an overly agreeable Will.

To me, Will is like a great programmer whose single-authored compilers are works of wonder who nonetheless works on a team or even, as I did at the end of my career, in the intense practice of pair programming where you mind-meld, as Shakespeare did with Middleton, with another practitioner.

I have also re-read the deathless Sonnets, the lovely Venus and Adonis, the grave Lucrece, and “various poems” including some of the most trivial poems ever written, the turkey “Shall I fly?” which is at best a technical tour de force which should have toured de forced right out the door, and the magnificent “Phoenix and the Turtle”.

I have recaptured morning moments after morning Mass at St Mary’s church and school, reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the first time while eating a delicious chocolate long john. Walking down the street in New York City to discover a “bold new film” by one Kenneth Branagh. Watching the canon on DVD in 2000, checking out the DVDs remastered from 1980s videos made by the BBC from the Evanston Library, and feeling enriched rather than drained after work.

For I have read th’immortal Shakespeare again
Nothing stales, it’s always new, a Tear or Grin.

[God that sucks.]

I have re-learned valuable lessons in reading a book from this. First of all, get a nice marker for your place and never fold pages down to mark your place as does Innogen in Cymbeline, which contributes to her downfall. Keep the book in an obvious place. If you can, don’t read Oxford hard bounds in bed or while eating since Oxford University Press trades on its marque to avoid paying bookbinders. Its bindings look good, but don’t stand up to daily use.

Oh yeah. Get a Kindle ASAP and until then read books on your computer. Dead trees are unsustainable. I yearn to again hold The Cambridge History of 17th Century Philosophy in my hands, but I yearn more for my eldest son, who is gone. Our lives are defined by lost things.

Accessing the Complete Works of a writer, musician, or (thru travel or high quality reproductions) painter can be a life changing experience. Actually reading a play, bringing it to life in your mind, is a struggle today since modern media never says “piece out our imperfections with your thoughts” as does Chorus in Henry V. But it’s a rewarding struggle.

Piecing-out “our imperfections with your thoughts” was meaningful in Shakespeare’s time given what a Marxist would call the then-obtaining, low development of productive forces. A wooden stage could not hold a single horse and the setting off of antique bombards and pistols risked assassinating audience members in a theater surrounded by the audience, as well as the sort of fire which destroyed the Globe in 1613.
It was also meaningful in 1944 and immediately thereafter in “Austerity Britain” where its “higher development of productive forces” had been thrown somewhat into reverse, with wilder regions in Scotland and Britain regressing in some respects to Victorian or even earlier standards of living. While Britons had TV before we did in America, TV having been invented in Britain in 1939, a child, watching the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in the early 1950s, had to “piece out” TV’s “imperfections with” his “thoughts”.

Medium Cool? Whatev.

It’s almost forgotten as the years go by, that the Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan thought that the very limitations of TV in the 1960s were permanent virtues, that made TV, permanently, a “cool” medium to be opposed to the “hot” mediums of movies and books of the time, which did more work for the viewer or reader, this being an implicit fault.

McLuhan witlessly created a crude “binary opposition” easily deconstructed because without saying so, he implied, strongly, that crude low definition TV and video would be appreciated by the cognoscenti.
What actually happened: ignoring McLuhan completely, engineers strove constantly to give consumers excuses to upgrade this all-powerful appliance by constantly increasing its analog definition, and then, of course, TV became all-digital. “Snow” and slow or fast rolling bands mysteriously disappeared unmourned from American TV screens along with pictures of Indian chiefs (when TV started to broadcast 24/700, and local standards no longer needed Red Men to send a test pattern just before the broadcasting day.

Black and white TV sets likewise disappeared from the shelves circa 1980. With my self-image as a thrifty consumer, despite the fact that even as such I’d contrive to go broke, I bought the last black and white set at Macy’s at the Stanford mall in 1983. My children, living with their Mom, constantly clamored for color TV until my former wife found an affordable unit. I never did since given my commitment at the time to 24/7 programming the major appliance in my apartment wasn’t a TV, it was a computer.

Technical “progress” was driven by the constant need to sell new units, to keep soaking the American consumer who never took responsibility for his anomie and boredom. Marshall McLuhan died uncelebrated save by a few “digerati” at Wired whose pretense was that if one was simultaneously a great programmer and a person who’d had some random exposure to books outside computer science, such as McLuhan’s Understanding Media or Bob Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, one wasn’t a dork like one’s workmates from Daly City.

I was just as much taken in by this as any one else until the 1990s and 2000s when greater access to chat rooms, Amazon, and Wikipedia, as well as the bullying of Ted “Xanadu” Nelson by editors at Wired and the subsequent bullying of contributors like me at Wikipedia, revealed that if anything, the self-styled digerati were a vicious bunch whose esteem I should not seek (“throw not thy pearls among swine lest they turn again and rend you”).

An Age of Kings

In 1962, my family gathered before the TV to watch the BBC series “An Age of Kings” on a small black and white screen. I recently discovered this series on DVD; in 2007 I had searched for it and found nothing, and I posted a suggestion on the BBC’s Web site that they find the old tapes of “An Age of Kings”. I like to think that the BBC copied the tapes to DVD format for sale because I suggested they so so, but probably quite a lot of Baby Boomers requested this too.

Watching “An Age of Kings” today, the first thing one notices even in black and white format is the prettified Middle Ages with all of the highborn in perfect suits of armor and surcoats indicating the team. This was probably expensive; 20 years on, in the BBC video Shakespeare history plays, the “knights” wear a sort of leathern quilted surcoat which is believable as armor but not “realistic”.
An Age of Kings exposes a problem with McLuhan. On our set it was low-definition not because of any intrinsic problem with analog TV.

Analog technology such as seem low-def and therefore cool to McLuhan actually throws more bits than digital technology despite the latter’s claims. An HDTV screen modified to display an analog movie as continuously varying levels of voltages, or a purpose built HDTV screen the size and modernity of a digital screen, is in terms of information theory, like a modern analog sound reproduction system playing LPs, which are still being made. Analog technology throws an infinite number of bits at the audience.

Whereas if one merely looks at the edges between objects in an HDTV image, the curved edges are made up of blocks of rectangular pixels.

It’s downright fraudulent and a reason not to get HDTV unless one likes big screens. And if one does one should examine one’s conscience for the reason why. “Piece our our imperfections with your thoughts”, chump.

The Problem with Antic Titles

“The First Part if the Contention Between the Houses of York and Lancaster” is far more conveniently known as Henry VI part 2. Wells and Taylor simply don’t realize as sheltered scholars among dreaming spires that the antic title is simply a non-starter. You probably didn’t like it, just now, when I showed off my learning and used “antic title” to mean “old title”, for when Marlowe wrote about dancing the “Antic Hay” he meant an old dance for old men and women who are often antic, if not frantic.

Likewise, general readers of a certain intelligence and literacy find, in my view, “Henry VI part 2” more euphonius and easy to remember. Harold Bloom, the American critic, hates the Oxford Shakespeare and I am beginning to realize why.

Wells, Taylor et al. never decided whether their Collected Works would be a teacher’s and scholar’s kit of tools or something for the general reader to savor with a drink and fine cigar. It’s excellent as the former but with varorium readings to contend with at the end of many plays and the removal of passages that make sense (such as end material concerning the beggar Sly, for whom the play-within–a-play concerning the Taming of one Katherine, a Shrew was staged) it’s rather confusing.

The Oxford Collected Works, alongside its marvelous companion volume, “William Shakespeare, a Textual Companion”, with the complete BBC Shakespeare reissued on DVD, would be a great toolkit for such a one as my friend the redoubtable EnglishTeacherConfessions who needs to teach Shakespeare plays in secondary schools, or a prof who need to teach classes in Shakespeare at university.

This because one of the most irritating things about Shakespeare from the viewpoint of a student just trying to make the grade consists in passages like this one, this, from Measure for Measure in the Penguin editions:


Well, heaven forgive him! and forgive us all!

Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall:

Some run from brakes of ice, and answer none:

And some condemned for a fault alone.

The Oxford edition, sensibly, has Escalus say “brakes of vice”: carts in Shakespeare’s time had brakes, bushes impeding movements were known as “brakes”. “Brakes of ice” makes no sense whatsoever. Clearly, the Folio, which uses “ice” had a simple typographical error in early hand typesetting, which used neither computers nor the older Linotype technology to allow the “typesetter” to key in the text or present the printing press with a PDF.

Few teachers have the scholarship needed to explain such anomalies which can render a student permanently pissed off at “Shakespeare” as cultural icon because of the wreckage to her grade point average.

The scholarship is found in the Oxford collected Works, and in the companion volume (Shakespeare: a Textual Companion). The editing of practically every line in the collected works is explained in the companion volume.

Students have quite enough problems reading Shakespeare’s Early Modern English because written English today is not in poetic form, and Shakespeare’s characters, in revealing so much of themselves in language, tend to confuse readers. Nonsense lines, lines that seem like nonsense, need to be clarified by the teacher confidently.

‘Brakes of ice”, indeed. Brakes of humbug, sir, sheer humbug, hey hey what what.

Change Record

23 May 2012: Draft 1 inserted
23 May 2012: Revisions
24 May 2012: Revisions


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