Saturday 31 October 2015

Mein Kampf by Adolf Hilter

"Today I consider it my good fortune that Fate designated Braunau on the Inn as the place of my birth."

Written in 1925, Hitler crafted his biography while serving time in a German prison for his political crimes during his Putsch, or coup attempt of the Nazi party, in November 1923. Apparently he wanted to title his work Viereinhalb Jahre (des Kampes) gegen Lüge, Dummheit und Feigheit, or Four and a Half Years (of Struggle) Against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice.  His publisher wisely got him to shorten the title to Mein Kampf (My Struggle).

Hitler first covers the period of his childhood, and then moves to his years in Vienna, where he initially aspired to be an artist, but after a number of discouragements, began to focus more on the political sphere of the city.  As early as chapter 3, we see that certain aspects of his ideology are already strongly rooted:

Chapter 3
  • No man should take an active part in politics before 30
  • Leaders who change their mind or admit their previously held views to be wrong, give up their leadership qualities and become political "bedbugs" who hang onto their positions only for personal gain, seeing every new movement or every man greater than themselves as a threat.
  • The German-Austrian is the only person who has benefited Austria in various social and political settings --- he also disparages Negros in this diatribe
  • Social Democracy contributed to the de-Germanization of the State of Austria
  • the Austrian parliament is undignified because all the political members do not speak German, "a gesticulating mass, speaking in all keys."
  • Democracy of the West forsters Marxism and is a universal plague
  • Regrets that with the parliamentary system, that no one is held responsible for any decisions

The Alter Hof in Munich (1914)
Adolf Hitler
source Wikipedia
After Chapter 3, I gave up my note taking.  Hitler is, if nothing else, repetitive, and his increasing virulent hatred towards anyone or anything Jewish, was hard to stomach.  It was educational to learn that his anti-Semitism was shared by others at the time, and he was influenced by anti-Semitic organizations.  Much of his book is a thesis against them, with Hitler providing supporting evidence for the Jews being dirty, liars, sneaky, dishonest, culturally bankrupt, dangerous, avaricious, etc.  They were, in effect, social parasites and, in Hitler's eyes, entirely expendable.  In fact, he felt the superior races duty-bound to rid the world of their inferior presence.

As for political ideologies, Hitler eschewed both Marxism, which he saw as a tool of the Jews, and Socialism.  For him, the democracy of the West was actually the forerunner of Marxism.  Yet Hitler invented his own style of Democracy.  The "true German democracy" consists of one leader who "take(s) over fully all responsibility for what he does or does not do.  There will be no voting by a majority on single questions, but only the decision of the individual who backs it with his life and all he has."  Rather scary, don't you think?  One perfect individual, perhaps? Who would judge this individual?  Who would hold him accountable?  A recipe for disaster, I'd say.

Learning from other statesmen, whom he admired, Hitler strove to give Germany an ideology that the common people would ascribe to and be willing to defend to the death.  Hitler himself said, "Every attempt at fighting a view of life by means of force will finally fail, unless the fight against it represents the form of an attack for the sake of a new spiritual direction.  Only in the struggle of two views of life with each other can the weapon of brute force, used continuously and ruthlessly, bring about the decision in favor of the side it supports."

Hitler as a soldier during WWI
source Wikipedia
Of Hitler's participation in World War I, my book's notes have the following to say:  "Concerning his military record, the following facts are known; that he served as a messenger between regimental headquarters and the the front; that he was a good soldier who refused to the very end to join in criticism of the way things were being run; that his temperament made his commanding officer doubt the wisdom of promoting him to any sort of non-commissioned rank above that of corporal; and that he occupies a modest but honorable place in the history of the Regiment List, to which he belonged.  The particular exploit for which he received the Iron Cross is shrouded in secrecy, but most biogrpahers agree that there was no reason why it should have been awarded."

There is a interesting chapter on war propaganda ..... how it has been used effectively and ineffectively and Hitler's proposed fine-tuning of it.  He felt that during WWI, the German methods were simply too sophisticated and failed to concentrate on appealing to popular emotion.  Hitler believed that the most important tactic was to ascertain what would invoke the support of the masses.

On Nation and Race, Hitler observed that no other animal in nature cross mates; finches mate with finches, foxes with foxes, etc. so therefore why should humans?  Cross mating simply weakens the race.  Once he sorted out the races, he turned to Darwin's "survival of the fittest" ideology, in that the stronger weed out the weaker (ie. kill them), until the strongest is on top.  It's quite bizarre logic, because Germany lost WWI and therefore should have been considered the weaker race, but Hitler has a myriad of excuses for their loss.

Munich Marienplatz during the Beer Hall Putsch
source Wikipedia

The book also gives a chilling account of how ordinary people can get caught up in evil.  Of Hitler's putsch of 1923 (his attempt to seize power in Munich), my book's notes say, "The Hitler putsch of 1923 made the (Nazi) Party more popular in the city than it had been before.  When the Nazis drove dissenters --- or imaginary dissenters ---- from their meetings with cudgels, their audiences grew larger.  Few people in Germany were at the bottom anti-Semitic, but the joy large number felt in promises of blood curdling treatment to be meted out to the helpless minority made them responsive to the suggestion.  Smashing windows and street fighting were relied upon to win the crowd.  The propagandists encouraged them all.  'We shall reach our goal,' declared Goebbels, 'when we have the courage to laugh as we destroy, as we smash, whatever was sacred to us as tradition, as education, as friendship and as human affection.'  In the Vienna of March, 1938, ordinary citizens who had hitherto gone about peacefully, confessed to a strange delight in the sufferings visited upon the Jewish group."  This description was one of the most chilling parts of the book for me.  I cannot imagine human beings, not only wanting to enact such suffering on others, but enjoying it as well.

I started this read this biography, with great anticipation, hoping to gain some insight into the mind of one of the most villainous characters in modern history. Yet, as I read, I soon realized that it was going to be difficult to understand someone who was mad, if you are not mad yourself.  The narrative became a strange compilation of rather astute and insightful commentary, often hidden and mixed in amongst his mad ravings and bizarre ideas.  Hitler makes mostly nonsense, but with a sprinkling of rather astute sense, the combination making some of his accounts strangely compelling.  It's rather alarming.  Yet his rambling diatribes and racist invective soon began to become wearing and while I didn't fall asleep like Ruth, I quickly developed a distaste for much of what he had to say.  As an historical document, it was moderately interesting, but as for my attempt for a personal connection with Hitler, that was a complete fail.  And I must say, that it was a very pleasant fail.  Personally, I was very glad to say goodbye to Adolf Hitler.

With regard to the translation of my edition, it is an annotated and unexpurgated edition sponsored by a number of people including Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Published in 1939, after the First World War, yet just at the beginning of the second one, the perspective it offers with regard to the annotations is indeed a unique one, and very valuable to understanding the mindset of the times.  I cannot see an official translator noted, but it is published by Houghton Mifflin, in case anyone wants to search it out.

Wednesday 28 October 2015

Hamlet ~~ Act III Scene I

Statue of Hamlet from the monument to
William Shakespeare, Stratford-Upon-Avon
source Wiki

Hamlet  ~~  Act III  Scene I

Claudius and Gertrude cross-examine Guildenstern and Rosencrantz as to Hamlet’s state of mind.  Claudius senses a purpose in Hamlet’s mad responses and the friends somewhat confirm his suspicion.  The king and queen are delighted that Hamlet has taken interest in the players, unaware of his duplicitous plot.  When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern take their leave, Claudius reveals that he is plotting with Polonius to spy on Hamlet & Ophelia to see if his madness has sprung from his love of her, or if there is another possibility.  Polonius gives Ophelia what appears to be a prayer book, so she looks natural, then muses how often pious actions cover up devious intentions.  His words stir up Claudius’ guilt.  They hide and Hamlet enters, delivering the most famous speech in the play:

To be or not to be?  That is the question ---
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And, by opposing, end them?  To die, to sleep ---
No more --- and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to --- ‘tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished!  To die, to sleep.
To sleep, perchance to dream  --- ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.  There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th' oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
the pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th' unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin?  Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment 
With this regards their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action. ---- Soft you, now,
The fair Ophelia! ---- Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remembered."

Ophelia reveals that she has mementos of Hamlet's to return, but Hamlet claims that he has no memory of them.  His words become harsh to her as he tells her he didn’t love her and, since all men are knaves, become entangled with none.  He entreats her to go to a nunnery, since her womanly form and wiles only will cause complications for all.  When Hamlet exits, Ophelia laments his state of mind, and the contrast of his previous self to this madman, which, in her, stirs regretful emotion.

Claudius, with clear insight, concludes Hamlet is not mad for love, but that his actions spring from unknown intent that could be dangerous, therefore, he decides to send him far away to England.  Polonius, however, still believes that Hamlet is lovestruck, and suggests that Gertrude attempt to discover the truth from him.
Hamlet - the "play-with-a-play" (19th century)
Pascal Adolphe & Jean Dagnan-Bourvet
source Wiki


Ophelia (1910)
John William Waterhouse
source Wikiart
We now have Ophelia reading a book, once again bringing the theme of words again into the play.

While Hamlet’s “lunacy” has appeared rather benign and sometimes silly, Claudius has come to the conclusion that it is dangerous, evidence that he believes that it is cloaking another intent.   While (in the last scene) Hamlet is preparing to set a trap for Claudius, Claudius now sets a trap for Hamlet by spying on him.  Part of Claudius’ suspicions of Hamlet, appear to stem from his own guilt.  When Polonius remarks that people who appear good can act badly, Claudius agonizes:

                       Oh, ‘tis too true!
How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience!
The harlot’s cheek, beautied with plastering art,
Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it
Than is my deed to my most painted word.
O heavy burden!”

So both Hamlet and Claudius have set or are setting traps, and both have guilt and are struggling with their consciences.

Hamlet’s “To Be” speech is electrifying.  The fear of death keeps people in a life of drudgery and toil and prevents him from commiting suicide.  The unknown is more fearful than the known.  Again he mentions conscience.

Hamlet’s words to Ophelia seem severe and hurtful, but one must remember that Hamlet is so encased in his troubles that Ophelia, being a woman, is, in effect, Gertrude to him, and he has transposed all his mother's perceived wicked qualities to this young woman. 

Hamlet and Ophelia (1883)
Mikhail Vrubel
source Wikiart

Tuesday 27 October 2015

Hamlet ~~ Act II Scene II

Poster for the premiere of Hamlet
at the Paris Opéra, 1868
source Wikipedia

Hamlet  ~  Act II  Scene II

Claudius summons Hamlet’s two good friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to attempt to find out what ails the young prince.  They promise to obey the king’s wishes and set off to complete their charge, whereupon Polonius enters, claiming to have discovered Hamlet’s ailment, but first Claudius must hear what the ambassador to Norway, newly returned, has to say.  The king of Norway, upon learning that Fortinbras intended to attack Denmark, has had him arrested.  When Fortinbras repented, the king gave him money and has employed his soldiers to attack Poland, asking for passage through Denmark for this task, and promising them protection.  Claudius is pleased with the news.

With much prevaricating. Polonius announces that Hamlet is mad with love for Ophelia.  He suggests setting up a meeting between them, while he and Gertrude hide behind an arras to see if his supposition is valid.  When Hamlet enters the room he asks leave to speak with him alone, which the king and queen grant.  He then tries to draw Hamlet into a conversation, his replies of which appear to be madness to Polonius, but are they?  Some of his comments, while on one hand are strange, on the other are quite pointed, and even Polonius appears to pick up that 'though this be madness, yet there is method in 't.'

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern appear and Polonius directs them towards Hamlet, who questions why they have been sent to a prison such as Denmark. Before they respond, there is a little talk about dreams and ambitions, and beggars and monarchs, then they profess they are only there to see Hamlet. The prince seems as if he judges their answer suspect and quizzes them if their presence might not have been encouraged by another party.  He finally persuades them to be sincere, and it is Hamlet who says that he will relate who has engaged their services and why, but then he digresses with descriptions of the heaviness hanging over him and his disinterest in men. Rosencrantz hopes that is not the case because he has brought a troupe of players with him to amuse the prince.  Hamlet is cheered and seems particularly interested in their aptitude and how big an audience they will draw. He banters with Polonius, using his crazy-fashion again, yet within this section utters a very telling statement:

"I am but mad north-north-west.  When the wind is southerly,
I know a hawk from a handsaw."

He banters with the first player, showing a surprising propensity for acting and invention, and a first rate memory.  Before the player leaves, Hamlet ensures that the troupe will be able to perform a particular play and deliver lines that he himself will write.  Yet when everyone leaves, Hamlet returns to his brooding introspection.  He is disturbed that the actor can arouse passionate feeling from nothing but a play, yet he has vehement emotions swirling within him, but has not acted upon them.  He muses that people have been emotionally affected by performances, so much so that they have been moved to confess to crimes.  He plots to have the players perform a murder like his father's and observe Claudius' reaction.

"............    The play's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king."

Children acting the play scene from Hamlet (1862)
Charles Hunt
source Wikimedia Commons


Good heavens!  Would you trust a country who has recently been prepared to attack you, to deploy their armies throughout your nation, based on good faith?!  Is this an indication that Claudius is completely foolish or is there more to this than first seems?

Ah, a touch of humour is added to the play!  Polonius, while stressing the importance of getting to the point, does anything but, and his prevaricating and excessive discourse becomes annoying not only to the king and queen, but to the reader as well.  As Hamlet later calls him, he certainly appears a 'tedious old fool.'

The part about Denmark being a prison was rather telling.  Laertes had already emphasized Hamlet's responsibility to his country, given his position, and now he also has a perhaps deeper responsibility to the ghost of his father. No matter how he might want to escape these problems, both political and filial duty prevent him, and he is indeed a prisoner.

While Hamlet's actions may appear mad to those around him, reading behind his words, so far he appears quite sane.  His reason is powerful as he uses it to plot revenge, while confounding his friends and family.  His madness is a smokescreen to hide his true intentions.  Yet in this scene we see another emotion from Hamlet.  Guilt.  He has been commanded by the ghost of his father, and perhaps also his own conscience, to enact revenge, but he has not been able to bring himself to act.  Will this new sensation destabilize him, or make him more focused on his task?

Hamlet & Polonius
Eugene Delacroix

Monday 26 October 2015

The Canterbury Tales ~~ The Nun's Priest's Tale & Epilogue

(Note:  The Word of the Knight to the Host at the end of The Monk's Tale in my edition [the Penguin Classics edition] in other editions is counted as the Prologue to this tale, the Nun's Priest's Tale.)

The Nun's Priest's Tale

An old widowed woman lived very meagerly with her three daughters, three sows, three cows, a sheep called Molly and a very fancy, and elegant rooster, Chanticleer.  This burnished cock lived with his lady, Lady Pertelote, and their song was a delight to the ear.  Yet one dawn, Chanticleer had an horrific nightmare, a prophecy of sorts, in that a red beast was hunting him, intending his death.  Upon hearing about the dream, Pertelote disparaged Chanticleer, calling into question his roosterly-fortitude.  How could she love such a lily-livered scaredy-cat?  Everyone knew that dreams were not to be depended on, including the wise Cato.  The nightmare must have come from vapours and her husband need only take a laxative to purge himself of them. Chanticleer countermanded her argument by providing several examples of dreams which came to fruition.

Rooster (1900)
Ivan Bilibin
source Wikiart
Then one May day, Chanticleer with his seven wives, was busy praising the sun, but Fate had a surprise in store for him.  A wily fox had managed to find his way into the barnyard.  Upon spotting the sly predator, the rooster felt as if he should flee, but the fox worked his wiles, praising the majestic voice of Chanticleer with honeyed words of deceit.  His ego inflated past sense, Chanticleer did not notice the fox move, and he was soon in his jaws as the fox leapt away with him.  Alerted by the noise, the whole household saw the fox with his prey and engaged in pursuit, but all looked bleak for our rooster until a clever thought came into his head.  He convinced the fox to yell insults at his pursuers and gloat upon his victory, whereupon when the fox opened his mouth to do so, Chanticleer escaped his clutches by flying up to the tree-tops.  The fox tried to convince him to come down again and they jeered at each other, but Chanticleer wisely stayed put.

"St. Paul himself, a saint of great discerning
Says that all things are written for our learning;
So take the grain and let the chaff be still.
And, gracious Father, if it be thy will
As saith my Saviour, make us all good men,
and brings us to his heavenly bliss.

Middle English:

For Seint Paul seith that al that writen is,
To oure doctrine it is ywrite, ywis;
Taketh the fruyt, and lat the chaf be stille.
Now, goode God, if that it be thy wille,
As seith my lord, so make us alle goode men,
And brynge us to his heighe blisse! Amen.

A mid-19th century Victorian stained glass window
source Wikipedia

The Host commends the Priest for his merry tale and likens him to a grand cock with many pretty hens if only he'd been secular, pointing out his many manly features.  He then turns to the next pilgrim, although we are not told who it is.

Scholar are not quite certain whether to interpret this tale as a parody or an allegory, once again highlighting Chaucer's merry aptitude for confusion.  Is it supposed to be funny or serious or both, and why can no one tell which?  It's also the only one of the tales to allude to a 14th century event, the Peasants' Rebellion of 1381, when it refers to Jack Straw, it's notorious leader.

Thursday 22 October 2015

The Canterbury Tales ~~ The Monk's Tale

In the Words of the Host to the Monk,  the Host laments that his wife is not nearly as patient as Dame Prudence in The Tale of Melibee, preferring to take the guise of a nagging fishwife who likes to challenge him, rather than a tolerant spouse.  But enough of that, the Host encourages the Monk to begin his tale, but then proceeds to characterize him as a pale, but well-cared for monk who is discreet yet wily.  He thnks the Monk’s profession is misplaced as he would be better off helping to populate the world.  Without taking offence at the Host’s unwanted comments, the Monk chooses the genre of tragedy and begs pardon if he gets any of the events chronologically mixed up.

The Monk’s Tale

The Monk states that he will relate of the griefs of people who plunged from high esteem, with no luck to regain their position:

Lucifer:  Although he is an angel and not a man, the Monk places him first.  Through sin, he fell and in Hell he still remains. 

Adam:  He was distinguished above all, being made directly from God and not procreated, yet he could not follow one simple decree.  His actions brought untold misery and torment.

Hercules fighting the giant Antaeus (1819)
August Couder
source Wikipedia
Samson:  Although from birth he was marked for God, he allowed his wife to deceive him.  Some of his exploits are related but then we get to his downfall; he trusted his wife with the secret to his strength and she betrayed him.

"A warning from his story, old and plain:
Men should keep counsel and not tell their wives
Secrets that it concerns them to retain,
Touching the safety of their limbs and lives."

Hercules:  Hercules' strength and fame are beyond renown, and we hear of his famous feats, but his wife, Deianira, made a shirt with poison woven within its strands and Hercules, as his flesh began to rot, died.

Nebuchadnezzar (II):  This conquering king met his match in Daniel, who refused to bow to his idol of gold.  Because Nebuchadnezzar put himself above God, he lost his sanity, living like an animal for a time until his wits were restored and he recognized God's sovereignty.

Belshazzar's Feast (1635)
source Wikiart
Belshazzar:  He fashioned himself as a proud king, but during a feast, he was astounded to see an armless hand writing a script on the wall. The writing said: Mene, Tekel, Peres, which Daniel interpreted as his kingdom was about to fall because of his self-pride.  Because he used vessels from the temple of Jerusalem to assist in revering his Babylonian gods, punishment followed.  In fact, he was slaughtered that very night and we learn:

"That there's no lordship but is insecure.
When Fortune flees a man is left forsaken.
Of glory, wealth and kingdom; all's past cure."

Zenobia before Emperor Aurelianus
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
source Wikiart
Zenobia:  Queen of Palmyra, she is what one would call a tom-boy.  She is able to rent a bear apart and beat grown men in a wrestling match.  She refuses to marry but is eventually convinced. and the marriage, though "bland" is a happy one.  While nearly always refusing to have sex with her husband, she does manage to bear him two sons.  Her learning is broad and with her husband they conquer many lands.  Upon his death, she held her kingdom together by force of will.  Yet when the Emperor Aurelian assumed power in Rome, he dared to wage war upon her, routing her and taking her in chains through Rome, much to her everlasting shame.

King Peter of Spain:  Peter of Castile (also known as Peter the Cruel, or Peter the Just) is betrayed and murdered by his own brother.  This story is only two stanzas but the second stanza is chock full of information, offered in the form of a riddle, the references emblematic of the details of Peter's betrayal and death.  The words would have probably needed no explanation to Chaucer's audience but modern readers would need to consult the notes in their text to make heads or tails of it.

King Peter (I) of Cyprus:  Because of his success in battle, his liegemen envied him and plotted his death.

" ....  Thus Fortune with a light 
Turn of her wheel brings men from joy to sorrow."

It is noted that Chaucer's Knight seems to be in service to him.

Bernabo Visconti of Lombardy:  This Duke of Milan appears to be despised for his "indulgence".  His own nephew "wrought (his) misery" and death.

Torre della Muda (1865)
Giovanni Paolo Lacinio
source Wikipedia

Count Ugolino of Pisa: Because of lies told by the Bishop Ruggieri, Ugolino was imprisoned in a tower outside of Pisa together with his children, three of them barely five years old.  One day their jailer shut up the tower and their supply of food ceased.  Ugolino is condemned to watch his children perish of hunger before his eyes until he, too, also expires.  Chaucer suggests a reading of Dante, where this story too, has been told and the great poet (Dante) has all his facts in order.  I know Count Ugolino well, as I've met him once before in The Inferno.

The Remorse of Nero after the murder of his mother (1878)
John William Waterhouse
source Wikiart

Nero:  Proud of his outward display of finery, he took great joy in burning, and killing his senators simply for amusement.  And that's not the worse of it.  He lay with his sister, murdered his brother and carved up his mother's womb, just to find out where he had resided as a baby.  But the height of his depravity was that he showed no remorse for his crimes, treating them as daily common occurrences.  Seneca was Nero's wise teacher in youth, but because he condemned his wicked actions, Nero disposed of him as well.  Well, Nero's treacherous behaviour caught up to him at last, and one night, all the citizens decided to mutiny.  Nero search for a friend to shield him, yet all doors were closed on him and even the gods did not deign to hear his prayers.  Finding two peasants in a garden, he begged them to behead him and protect his corpse but in the end, he was forced to slay himself and so:

" ..... Fortune laughed, for she had had her joke."

Judith beheading Holofernes
Artemisia Ghentileschi
source Wikipedia
Holofernes:  A respected captain, never had one won so many battles or subdued so many enemies.  He was not only conqueror, but he forced people to renounce their beliefs and accept Nebuchadnezzar, his king, as their god.  But then, disaster happened. One night, brave Judith separated his head from his body and Holofernes was no more.

King Antiochus the Illustrious:  Replete with an enormous ego and a mean spirit, he hated "God's own people," promising to clear Jerusalem of the Israelites.  But God visited a hideous disease upon him, with a wrenching of his guts and an infestation of worms, which created such a stench that no one wanted to come near him.  And so, he perished.

Alexander:  The famous Alexander with his dazzling persona, conquered the world.  No other can compare with his brilliant command and Fortune followed close at his heels.  Yet after twelve years, the fickle Fortune deserted him and he died of poison at the hands of his men.

Vercingetorix throws down his arms
at the feet of Julius Caesar
Lionel Royer
source Wikipedia
Julius Caesar:  An admirable conqueror, Caesar got on the wrong side of Fortune.  After his triumph over Pompey, he returned to Rome to don the laurel-wreath, but Brutus conspired against him, jealous of his fame.  Upon the Capitol, the traitor and his conspirators stabbed him, yet he died with dignity.  Chaucer recommends reading this story from Lucan, or even Suetonius or Valerius.  And as for Dame Fortune:

".......................... she grew
To be their foe.  No man may trust her long,
Beware of her in everything you do
And think of these great leaders, once so strong."

Croesus receiving tribute from a
Lydian peasant (1628)
Claude Vignon
source Wikimedia Commons
Croesus:  Croesus (king of Lydia) dodged death once .......... he was led out to be burnt at the stake, but such rain poured down that it quenched the fire and he was able to escape.  Yet his escape did not make him wiser and he became so arrogant that he thought he would reign forever.  He dreamed that Jupiter was washing him and Phoebus toweling him dry.  What more could a king ask than to have the gods as servant?  But his daughter, Phanya, interpreted his dream for him, saying that Jupiter symbolized snow and rain, and Phoebus the sun, all who would beat upon his dead body after he was hanged.  Her words came to fruition.

"Tragedy is no other kind of thing
Nor tunes her song save only to bewail
How Fortune, ever fickle, will assail
With sudden stroke the kingdoms of the proud,
And when men trust in her she then will fail
And cover her bright face as with a cloud ......."

"Ho, my good sir, no more!"  The Knight interrupts the Monk's story in the Words of the Knight and the Host.  He is entirely displeased with the tone of the stories and much prefers to hear the opposite: a man of little means, rising in status and prospering.  The Host agrees with this protest, saying that he has been so bored that he almost has fallen asleep.  Why hear of things that are past care?  And if one puts his audience to sleep, who remains to listen to him?  He begs him to tell a tale of hunting, but the Monk declines, saying that he is in no mood for fun and that he will tell no more tales.  The Host then spots a Priest beside a Nun and states that even though his horse his weak and measly, he must be able to tell a tale of cheer.  The Priest promises to do his best.

Garrick between Tragedy and Comedy (1760-61)
Joshua Reynolds
source Wikiart

In The Monk's Tale, the theme is obvious:  do not trust to Fortune as she is just as likely to deserted you as help you.  Whether you are an admired leader, like Alexander, or a despised tyrant, such as Nero, your end could be identical. Yet even though the ancient song of Fate echoes through the story, shaping a destiny that is out of human control, there is a definite tension between God's judgement and Fortune.  It's actually quite bizarre.  You can think of it two ways:  luck can stave off God's judgement, or, when God comes to judge, Fortune will flee.  The latter would make more sense.  I don't quite know what to make of this intermingling of ancient beliefs and Christian faith.  I'll have to give it some further thought .....

Wednesday 21 October 2015

Hamlet ~~ Act II Scene I

John Austen

Hamlet Act II  Scene I

Polonius sends his servant, Reynaldo, to France to give letters to his son.  He then gives very specific instructions as to how Reynaldo is to find out information about Laertes and how he conducts himself in the city.  Polonius is very insistent and detailed in his commands, and his suspicions about Laertes drinking, whoring and gambling is apparent. 

When Reynaldo takes his leave, Ophelia enters and relates some strange events.  Hamlet appeared to her all in disarray, almost mad in his appearance.  He made some dramatic and pained gestures that quite concerned her, before he departed her presence and she does not know what to make of his behaviour.  Polonius is certain that Ophelia’s spurning of Hamlet has made him mad with love for her and suggests that they speak with the king.

Polonius & Ophelia (1830)
H.C. Selous


Why is Polonius almost over-zealous in his curiosity about Laertes?  Reynaldo is certainly a spy sent to report on him.  This scene says more about Polonius’ character, even though the focus is on Laertes.  Polonius is obsessive in his desire to know about his son, and his words and actions are not balanced.  He obviously doesn't trust him, but why?  Does his unusual inquisitiveness stem from political or paternal concerns?

He also shows himself an astute politician, or perhaps manipulator, when he decides to tell Claudius of Hamlet’s actions, noting that if he keeps them hidden, it might cause trouble for him in the long run.

Thursday 15 October 2015

The Canterbury Tales ~~ The Tale of Melibee

The Tale of Melibee

A young man named Melibeus had a wife named Prudence and a daughter, Sophie.  One day while he is away from home, three of his enemies enter the house and beat his wife and daughter, giving his daughter five mortal wounds.  Melibeus upon returning, is inconsolable but his wife cautions him to moderate his weeping, using various examples from antiquity.  She counsels him to call all his friends and family, who are wise, and to take their advice, even though Melibeus is ready to go to war with his enemies.

The surgeons claim that their profession commands them to do no harm, and that they cannot support war, but they are willing to help his daughter.  His enviour neighbours and false friends flatter him and counsel war.  The lawyer advises him to guard his person and house, but he will need time to decide whether it is meet to go to war.   The young men cry for vengeance, but an old wise man chastens them for calling for war without truly understanding the consequences of it.   He is shouted down and we are told that Melibeus also has secret advisors that give him guidance out of the hearing of the others.

Prudence sees that her husband is preparing for war and tries to urge caution, but Melibeus shrugs off her opinion, saying that firstly, he is deciding based on the advice of wise men, and secondly, all women are wicked.  She counters his arguments with examples from the Bible and Seneca, saying if he will only listen to her, she will deliver their daughter whole.  Swayed by her long and compelling argument, he consents to be ruled by her advice. 

Prudence seeking to comfort
Melibeus (1884)
E.M. Scannell
Prudence instructs him that he must be governed by God and to dispel three things in his heart that impede good advice and they are: anger, greed, and haste.  Next, he must not show whether he prefers peace or war, cloaking his intent.  He must determine his true friends from false flatterers and then discover if they are discrete and wise and old enough to have gained valuable learning.  After, she gives him examples of people whose advice he must shun if his decision is to be correct. 

Since his wife has described to him the people whose advice he should be accepting and those he should be rejecting, she will now teach him how to examine this advice, according to the precepts of Cicero.  One needs to look at the outcome of the advice taken in order to make the best choice:  what is the root of the advice and what is the fruit.  If you are not certain about advice, don’t act on it.  She continues to tell when and under what circumstances a plan may be revised.

Melibeus claims that he is gratified by her instruction, but if she would please examine the particulars of the case and tell him what should be chosen in the present circumstance.  Instead, though, she asks his patience and then proceeds to list his errors of judgment to the present time.  He agrees to alter his counsellors, and his wife says that they must determine who is most reasonable and has offered the most helpful advice.

From here on Dame Prudence continues to deliver invective against Melibeus' weaknesses and moral instruction for his benefit.  She says that he has allowed the world to rule over his soul and has forgotten his Creator.  With regard to money, she instructs him on how to handle riches and how to dispense forgiveness.  Melibeus finally sees beyond the current issue to the future ills that vengeance might breed, and agrees to forgive those who have done wrong to him and his family.  

The Tale of Melibee (1913)
W. Russell Flint 

With this tale, I received the impression of a trial.  The wife, in ruling her husband, is, in effect, producing witnesses to support her views.  These witnesses are respected men of ancient times, and, given their status and renown, are almost impossible to contradict.

While this tale has often been characterized as a debate, to me it seemed more like a lecture or discourse on the issues of life, with Prudence instructing and Melibeus being cultivated by her wisdom.  Initially, Melibeus is concerned with practicalities, or reality if you will, but Prudence takes those practicalities and turns them into matters of character and the right way of conduct, which does not only cover the present situation they must deal with, but gives guidance in the way one must conduct oneself in life.  She sways him not by womanly emotion but by clear logic and reason, an unusual but powerful technique.

Some scholars think that The Tale of Melibee was originally meant to be a stand-alone tale, yet was later added to The Cantebury Tales.  Given that it is a translation of an original French tale, Livre de Melibee et de Dame Prudence by Renaud Louen, which is also a translation of an earlier tale, Consolationis et Consilii by Albertanus of Brescia, that makes sense.  Its fit into The Canterbury Tales is tenuous at best.  Taken as a tale, it is long-winded and boring, but standing alone and viewed along the lines of a Ciceronian defence, it holds interesting components.  I actually quite enjoyed this tale and, judging from the commentary on it, probably got more out of it than previous readers.