Apr. 23, 2012

Sonnet 116: Let me not to the marriage of true minds

by William Shakespeare

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
     If this be error, and upon me prov'd,
     I never writ, nor no man ever lov'd.

"Sonnet 116" by William Shakespeare. Public domain.. © Louisiana State University Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of musician Roy Orbison (1936), born in Vernon, Texas.

It's birthday of Vladimir Nabokov (books by this author), born in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1899. His family fled St. Petersburg during the Bolshevik revolution, and in 1919 they settled in western Europe: first England, where Nabokov attended Cambridge, and then Berlin, where his father was shot and killed at a political rally in 1922.

Nabokov fled the Nazis in Berlin in 1936 with his wife Vera, who was Jewish, and their son; they moved to Paris but left again in 1940 to escape the Nazi advance. They settled in the United States, where he wrote and taught at a series of colleges. In 1961, the success of his famously controversial novel Lolita (1953), and its subsequent film adaptation, enabled him to retire and write full-time, and the Nabokovs moved to a hotel in Switzerland, where they lived until his death in 1977.

Today we celebrate the birthday of William Shakespeare (books by this author), born in Stratford-upon-Avon, England (1564). We don't know his birthday for sure, but he was baptized on April 26th, and since infants were usually baptized about three days after their birth, his birthday is celebrated today.

We know almost nothing about Shakespeare's life. His father was a successful glover and farmer, and the family was comfortable. Shakespeare probably went to the local school, King's New School, where he would have studied Latin, classic literature, and history. The next record of Shakespeare finds him at the age of 18 applying for a marriage license with 26-year-old Anne Hathaway. The records show that the marriage was rushed, and six months into it, Anne gave birth to a daughter named Susanna. Two years later, Anne had twins, Judith and Hamnet.

No one knows exactly when or why Shakespeare left Stratford for London. There are rumors that he was in trouble for poaching deer from the estate of a local squire, and escaped to London to avoid prosecution. Others think he ran away from an unhappy marriage — when he died, he left Anne only his "second-best bed." Still others think he was simply an ambitious young man and that London was the center of theater. In any case, by 1592, a fellow playwright named Robert Greene published a book that described Shakespeare as "an upstart Crow, beautified by our feathers, that with his Tyger's hart wrapped in a Player's hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you."

Greene's warnings about Shakespeare didn't dampen his success. Two years later, Shakespeare was writing his plays exclusively for a theater troupe called the Lord Chamberlain's Men, which was owned by a group of actors, including Shakespeare. The troupe performed most of his plays at the Globe Theatre, and he acted in many of them himself. We don't know what roles he played, although he is often said to have played the Ghost in Hamlet. But we do know that unlike some playwrights, Shakespeare remained an actor throughout his life.

The Globe Theatre was closed down in 1642 by the Puritans, and demolished two years later, so no one knows for sure what the Globe looked like. But through excavation, sketches, descriptions, and contracts, much of it has been pieced together. We know it had 20 sides and a diameter of 100 feet, and could accommodate about 3,000 people. The open section of the theater, in front of the stage, had no seats and no roof. For a cheap ticket, people could stand in this open section and watch the plays — these people were called "groundlings." They were free to drink, eat, shout at the actors, and generally do whatever they wanted. Along the outside were three levels of roofed seating for patrons who could afford a chair.

In Shakespeare's time, plays were not published for readers. If they were written down in one place, it was usually as a "prompt-book," an official copy for actors. When plays were reproduced, it was often without the consent of the writer. Twenty-two of Shakespeare's plays were published during his lifetime, but they are very different than the versions that were published just after Shakespeare's death, with the support of his theater troupe — those new versions became the standard texts. No one knows how much of any of these versions was reconstructed from stage notes or from the memories of people who had seen the play performed.

Shakespeare wrote poems, including his famous sonnets, and 38 plays. He died on this day in 1616 at the age of 52.

Although he is often considered the best or most popular writer in English, not all writers have felt the same way. George Bernard Shaw called worship of Shakespeare "bardolatry," and he wrote: "I have striven hard to open English eyes to the emptiness of Shakespeare's philosophy, to the superficiality and second-handedness of his morality, to his weakness and incoherence as a thinker, to his snobbery, his vulgar prejudices, his ignorance, his disqualifications of all sorts for the philosophic eminence claimed for him." Leo Tolstoy wrote: "I remember the astonishment I felt when I first read Shakespeare. I expected to receive a powerful esthetic pleasure, but having read, one after the other, works regarded as his best: King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Macbeth, not only did I feel no delight, but I felt an irresistible repulsion and tedium. [...] The unquestionable glory of a great genius which Shakespeare enjoys, and which compels writers of our time to imitate him and readers and spectators to discover in him non-existent merits — thereby distorting their esthetic and ethical understanding — is a great evil, as is every untruth." Voltaire wrote about Shakespeare in a letter to a friend: "He was a savage who had some imagination. He has written many happy lines; but his pieces can please only at London and in Canada. It is not a good sign for the taste of a nation when that which it admires meets with favor only at home."

Shakespeare wrote: "Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them."

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