by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif.
July 14, 2005
THE SCEPTER'D ISLE
LOS ANGELES, July 10, 2005 - In this murderous week and on this little-noted anniversary, we are reminded of the enduring power of language and of the legacy of one man to define a civilization.
In the Los Angeles area alone, there are currently nine plays by William Shakespeare in performance. As to the anniversary, it is of July 10, 1940, not ordinarily a Shakespearean moment, but carrying a certain emotional connection about which we shall have reason to speak later.
Around town, "Macbeth" is playing in Hollywood and "Hamlet" is playing in North Hollywood. "Othello" is being performed by two different companies in San Pedro and Topanga Canyon respectively. "The Merchant of Venice" also has two different interpretations going on, one rather novel approach by the Los Angeles Women's Shakespeare Company getting excellent reviews.
The popular comedies are getting their due. "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "All's Well That Ends Well," "The Merry Wives of Windsor," "Measure for Measure" and "The Tempest" continue to live, even in this corner of the New World so far from the Old Globe.
Some five of these productions are being performed outdoors. We seem to have developed a cultural tradition all over this country to do summer Shakespeare In The Park, or On The Lawn, or, in one case, on a tennis court.
Another three plays that adapt from Shakespeare's titles or texts are also on the boards. Of these, "Lend Me a Tenor" is Shakespeare twice removed, a romantic comedy about Giuseppe Verdi's rendition of "Othello." There is also an adaptation of "Macbeth," set in Africa, called "Mocbet." There is another piece of which I know nothing except that it is titled "Two Gentlemen of Corona." For those who aren't knowledgeable about California geography, Corona is a modest sized city slightly to the east of Yorba Linda, unlike Verona, which is an Italian city to the west of Venice.
There is a remarkable staying power in these Shakespearean texts. In a week where Shakespeare and his imitators take up fully a tenth of all the stage performances listed in the entertainment pages, it ought to be sobering to the young playwright to note that "Othello" is now in its 401st year.
There is particular meaning in these performances this grisly week. For what but the words of Shakespeare better define that place which is more than place, that attitude and tradition and spirit we call England? "Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more; Or close the wall up with our English dead! In peace there's nothing so becomes a man As modest stillness and humility: But when the blast of war blows in our ears, Then imitate the action of the tiger; Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage; Then lend the eye a terrible aspect."
Thus said King Henry V, at least in Shakespeare's version. A little
later in the same play come these lines, spoken again by King Henry, in
celebration of the battle that was to come on the fields of Agincourt:
This day is called the feast of Crispian: He that outlives this day, and comes safe home, Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named, And rouse him at the name of Crispian. He that shall live this day, and see old age, Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours, And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian:' Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars. And say 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day.' Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot, But he'll remember with advantages What feats he did that day: then shall our names, Familiar in his mouth as household words - Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter, Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester - Be in their flowing cups freshly remember'd. This story shall the good man teach his son; And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by, From this day to the ending of the world, But we in it shall be remember'd; We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he to-day that sheds his blood with me Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile, This day shall gentle his condition: And gentlemen in England now a-bed Shall think themselves accursed they were not here, And hold their manhoods cheap whilst any speaks That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
Our language, even the way we think, would not be the same were it not for these plays. I once attended a showing of "Romeo and Juliet," and it seemed like every fifth line had come down into our culture as A Quotable Quote. It is only six lines into the prologue before we learn of "star-cross'd lovers." Everything from "a rose by any other name" to "A plague o' both your houses!" is to be heard. For a brief moment I was thinking that this playwright had gathered up all the cliches and quotable lines in existence, until I realized that he himself had penned them - fresh and original at the time - for this one play.
The effect on our language has been summarized humorously by Bernard Levin in a piece that goes back to the 1980s, but which has been getting play all over the Internet (most recently a few days ago in Arianna Huffington's blog).
It begins, "If you cannot understand my argument, and declare 'It's Greek to me,' you are quoting Shakespeare; if you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you recall your salad days, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you act more in sorrow than in anger; if your wish is father to the thought; if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare... ."
You can find the whole piece - one extended sentence actually - at http://www.mines.edu/~jamcneil/levinquote.html, and find supporting material including original sources by googling "then you are quoting Shakespeare."
But what of July 10, 1940, its connection to the week of July 7, 2005, and thence to Shakespeare? The significance of July 10, 1940 is that it was the beginning of the Battle of Britain. Luftwaffe bombing attacks commenced against shipping and coastal towns along the English Channel. The attacks continued for three more months, severely damaging English cities and killing thousands. (Overall, British civilian deaths from bombing raids were over 51,000, with another 9000 due to the V1 and V2 attacks later in the war. Including the wounded, total British civilian casualties are estimated at 147,000.)
As to the connection, it is more as a family story than a history lesson, but perhaps it is worth telling. It took place in Chicago sometime perhaps late in 1940 or early in 1941. The relative who told the story could embellish a yarn with the best of them, but I have every reason to believe that what he said is accurate.
The old yarn begins with a visit to a discount ticket broker. The guy had a ticket he would let go cheap, for something whose title he read off as "Richard number two."
Shakespeare's Richard II was being performed in the American midwest right at the moment in history when Britain stood alone against the Nazi beast. England had just recently survived the Blitz. Accounts from that time describe the London summer as one of discomfort, fear, squalid conditions and inadequate shelter from the air raids.
The English survived as a people.
America was not yet in the war.
There is a little more context that the story requires. Richard II is a historical tragedy. At the beginning, King Richard is arrogant and naive, subject to flattery and bad advice (some things don't change, apparently). He eventually comes to a bad end, losing first his crown and then his life, but in the beginning he is portrayed as still having options.
Early in the play, the king's uncle John of Gaunt, near death himself, speaks to the king. The speech is analogous perhaps to Old Testament prophecy. He rebukes the king for his folly and warns of tragedies yet to come if the king does not reform. The speech is not meant to be triumphal, but ominous. In the play, Richard ignores the warnings and proceeds to his own doom.
But there is a part of the speech that taken out of context has a message all its own. This internal language has come down to us by itself, words of such grace that they are inscribed in books and even form the titles of modern works these four centuries later.
On that night nearly 65 years ago, the audience interrupted the
performance midway through the speech, cutting it in half as it were,
effectively destroying the continuity, but saying something these
Americans felt they had to say. They rose in standing ovation, not in
tribute to the actors or even to the play, but to a people beleaguered
then, as now.
This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle, This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, This other Eden, demi-paradise, This fortress built by Nature for herself Against infection and the hand of war, This happy breed of men, this little world, This precious stone set in the silver sea, Which serves it in the office of a wall, Or as a moat defensive to a house, Against the envy of less happier lands, This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.