Scholarship

All Is True

Monday, May 27th, 2019

Last night I went to see All Is True, the new Kenneth Branagh movie written by Ben Elton.  I was motivated by curiosity more than expectation, wondering where the creator of the hilarious and erudite “Upstart Crow”  BBC sitcom series would go in revisiting the life and works of Shakespeare.

During the first fifteen minutes I found the somber lighting, lugubrious pace and bleak expressions of the familiar sprightly characters alienating, but at a certain point I got oriented to the genre and recognized Elton’s earlier constructions of Will, Anne, Judith and Hamnet presented behind tragic instead of comic masks.

By the scene of the encounter between Ian McKellen’s Southhampton and Branagh’s Shakespeare that concludes with the double recitation of sonnet 29, “When in Disgrace with Fortune and Men’s Eyes,” my tears flowed along with theirs. I was stirred by its enactment of a “marriage of true minds” for whom the approach to immortality brought human limitations into highest relief.

By the end of the film this seemed its central tone and idea, brought home by the titles that followed the happy ending insisted upon by the Ben Jonson character–titles stating that the three sons of Judith, who seemed to fulfill Will’s obsessive wish for a male heir, all died as children, and by the song from Cymbeline behind the final credits:

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Fear no more the frown o’ the great;
Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke;
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak:
The scepter, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust.

Quiet consummation have;
And renownèd be thy grave!

As I left the theatre I felt that “All is True” achieved the aspiration uttered by its protagonist: with a patent fiction to express reality–in this case the notoriously elusive reality of the author’s personality. It did that by combining the few known facts with astute readings of his work to imagine the inner and outer life of his last silent years. In the words of Jonson’s tribute, it made “My Shakespeare rise!”

Shakespeare Reading Paul: Heavenly Fraud in The Winter’s Tale

Saturday, May 27th, 2017

A couple of days before the conference in Jerusalem for which this paper was written, I woke up before dawn to avoid the crowds and went down to the Old City to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Under a dark and cavernous rotunda, before the shrine covering the tomb from which Jesus is said to have been resurrected, priests in splendid vestments swung censers, sang prayers and placed communion wafers in the mouths of the few worshippers in attendance. During the performance of that ceremony I sensed the tangible power of their faith. Though I didn’t share it, I was alerted to the gravity of the subject of my upcoming talk. (more…)

Dharma and Darwin

Saturday, November 5th, 2016

Introduction

My talk today follows in the tracks of fellow sangha members who’ve given us presentations on the convergence of scientific inquiry and the insights of traditional Buddhist precepts in the area of neurobiology and brain science. I want to explore the ways the theory of evolution that has provided a framework for all biological research during the last 150 years illuminates and is illuminated by my experience of meditation and my rudimentary understanding of Buddhist doctrine. (more…)

Book review: The Bible in Shakespeare by Hannibal Hamlin

Wednesday, October 8th, 2014

[published in Renaisssance Quarterly, Fall 2014]

This book begins with the assertion that “no one has yet published a full-length critical study of Shakespeare’s practice of biblical allusion and the implications of biblical allusion for our understanding of the plays.” Its author is eminently qualified to remedy what he calls this “deficiency,” having published several books on aspects of biblical culture in Early Modern England and co-curated an exhibition celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Impressive in its learning and packed with original discoveries of biblical and extra-biblical Shakespearean references, the book is written in concise, lucid and lively prose. Its “argument” is incontrovertible: the Bible is a pervasive source and object of reference in Shakespeare’s plays. The recognition and contextual reframing of hundreds of biblical allusions was part of the experience of earlier audiences, whose familiarity with the Bible was guaranteed by their cultural environment. The book’s task is to restore such experience to the modern reader lacking this familiarity.

Part I, titled “ Shakespeare’s Allusive Practice and its Cultural and Historical Background” opens with a vast array of evidence for the saturation of Shakespeare’s culture with Biblical narratives, characters and language. Chapter 2 traces discourse about the Bible and Shakespeare from early editorial glosses through 19th century elevation as paired pillars of British Civilization to recent debates about Shakespeare’s religious beliefs. (more…)