The performance of Shakespeare has fascinated me for years. The writing of Shakespeare, being several centuries old, has several grammatical differences with contemporary English, despite being considered the same language. It is difficult for some people to understand what the characters in a Shakespeare play are saying unless the acting is done well enough to convey or suggest the meaning where the audience's book-knowledge of renaissance grammar falls short. Shakespeare gives actors a gift, though, when it comes to memorization: many of his characters' speeches are unrhymed verse written in iambic pentameter.
Of course, being an actor isn't all fun and games. You do have to spend a lot of time silent backstage, waiting for your cue. And with Shakespeare, my experience reminds me of a lot of people missing their cues.
How a director handles corpses is a tricky question. It is not always practical to the story to drag a corpse offstage, and if the character was slain onstage, a dummy will not work either. When I played the title character in the Palouse Highland Players' 2011 production of Julius Caesar, I learned firsthand how it is required of the actor playing that role, after the stabbing scene, to lie on stage stone-cold dead for fifteen minutes, as the conspirators bathe their hands and swords in the fallen dictator's blood and discuss their next plan of action. I got an itchy nose after a while.
At the cast party for Macbeth, I learned swing dancing from some actresses there who knew it. Swing dancing is an artful social activity, and my knowledge of it has proved a good skill to have ever since.
An oft forgotten form of poetry is the heroic epic. It is tragic that modern writers no longer treat the epic as a form of art for the ages, a type of story meant to be a masterpiece. Some of the finest writing in the English language comes from Milton's Paradise Lost, and Homer's tales of the Trojan War served as the founding mythos of the ancient Greeks and Romans. It was G.K.Chesterton, the great British writer, who wrote the Ballad of the White Horse in modern times, the epic of Alfred the Great, the famed English king who battled against the Danes. The epic combines the beauty of verse with the recounting of a tale of inspiration and virtue, and stretches to the length of a full novel. The bards, in times where literacy was rare, certainly spent much effort into remembering the words of epic poetry, that it might be remembered by future generations.
The forest of the Kaniksu country, the Selkirk Crest, in the far north of Idaho is vast and wondrous. It is that sort of place that creates a budding romanticism in the writer, a longing for a lost beauty. It is there that one can peer into and see a little of that which is truly wild, can smell the dust and the dew on the leaves. Mushrooms grow, brown and white, along the forest floor, while the soft needles of fallen spruces are squelched by the feet of travelers. All is silent, the wind the only song to which the birches dance.
A small pond lies in the hills, a fishing hole, where small trout are caught by campers. The leaf-bedecked path leads to the muddy banks, where the bushes spread above the shallows. Dragonflies and water-striders skim across the surface of the pool, while beyond a miniature island stands, completely covered in gnarled trees. Beyond it lies a fallen log, a bridge under which the fishes swim, and near it a tiny trickle of water pours into the pond. Around the pond lie cold swamps of sorts, pools here and there guarded by the pillars of mossy stumps. It is truly a peaceful place.
But it is not merely nature that inspires the romanticist. It is the glory of the deeds of great men, the tales of those who came before. What sort of inspiration can be drawn from this? There is a philosophy to this, which one might weigh and consider before venturing too far into romanticism's realm.
For there are some wish for their thoughts of wonder to be founded upon emotion, that their minds might dwell in emotion and be guided by it. It is often such feelings that lead to rash decisions, the weaknesses that caused the great heroes of the past to fall: the wrath of Achilles, the sorrow of Alexander. But for the poet who does not merely feel, but thinks, and strengthens his thinking through his emotion, the heroism of the past creates inspiration to not falter or let one's spirit be spoiled by the affluence of modern society. It is to look past illusions of civilization and to see the indisputable hardships of life that no amount of technology can hold back, but not to give up, but rather to endure and still have joy. For those who truly understand the inevitable troubles of the world, and have a path to greatness laid before them, for them there is a chance at glory, to live up to and repeat the deeds of the hero.
What is a hero, one may ask? Many people are called “heroes” for being willing to sacrifice themselves for others. But is that all there is to heroism? Or is there more to it than that? Who is it from times long past that are still remembered in our age as heroes? Great men who shaped the future with their actions. Figures whose lives played out as well-written epics, who formed their own legends in their time, and many myths sprang up around them in future generations. George Washington is a Hero; a farmer, warrior, and philosopher, a king even in the first modern republic. Napoleon, although an enemy to the rest of the world, was certainly a hero to his people. The life of Alexander the Great was a life of victory, yet filled with the same longing held by the romanticist, the ineffable yearning for something lost. “Pothos” the Greeks called it. Alexander united all the known world in his youth, but fell so far into the depths of his own sorrow that he died too young to rule what he had conquered. It is this that was one of the classical definitions of tragedy held by the Greeks and by many later playwrights, the fall of the hero not by the hands of others, but rather by his own moral failings and weakness.
Iambic Pentameter is a poetic form consisting of ten-syllable lines. It is used by Shakespeare in his plays and sonnets. It has just enough space to squeeze a thought into a line or two, while retaining a poetic, easily memorizable rhythm. Indeed, some Shakespearean actors are said to have learned this meter so well that should one of them fail to remember their lines or cue, they are able to continue impromptu while allowing their language to completely imitate that of Shakespeare's own writing: a slight modification of sorts to the script.
A more natural sounding form of poetry, closer to the rhythm of prosaic speech, is the traditional Ballad form: eight syllables in the first line, and then six more syllables in the second. Or all fourteen at once: then it is called Iambic Heptameter.
Theatre and writing were not my only experiences with the arts. I have also over time learned various forms of music, a type of entertainment which I enjoy watching and partaking in, although I am by no means an expert in its performance. I can play classical piano with reasonable proficiency, and sang for two years in Bella Jazz Ensemble while in High School. We competed in the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival at the University of Idaho, but did not win in our division in either of those years.
It was around this time that I began to appreciate the older styles of jazz music. Swing dancing is quite easy and natural when one is a fan of the music being danced to. Singing, of course, is very similar to poetry: each relies on rhyme and meter, and many poems are sung as songs, or songs recited as poetry. Although many more modern musicians do not always indulge in the art of their lyrics, the epic poems were often sung or accompanied by instruments in their rhymes. Singing can be a form of poetry given twice the life through twice the beauty.
I was raised in Idaho. It is a unique place, a corner of the world often unthought of, between the rich and rainy coast and the Great Plains. It is the West of the West, an eternal frontier. It is here that rugged individualism still remains in the hearts of many. The mountains are high and dotted with trees, an untold number of lakes and streams nestled away in their heights. Atop the Selkirk Crest, gazing down from Mount Roothaan, a vast canyon lies below, elk country, filled with little creeks and marsh-ponds, yellow grass all around. Across the expanse lies Idaho's own Chimney Rock, a hundred yards high, a landmark visible for miles around. In the other direction, downwards along the mountain slope, the deep blue of Priest Lake is visible in the distance. It is these sorts of reveries that have often sparked the Muse within me, urging me to write poems and legends.
I wrote a limerick for a poetry competition once, while I was in 6th grade. I actually didn't even realize it would be entered in a competition. It didn't win.
The legends of Shakespeare say that Macbeth is a cursed play. To speak the word “Macbeth” aloud in a theatre, other than when reciting one's lines, is to invite sure calamity upon the performance. Many superstitious actors speak of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth only as “Mr. and Mrs. M.,” and the play itself as the “Scottish Play,” lest they invite the curse upon themselves. If “Macbeth” is spoken aloud by accident, one must perform strange rituals, often involving reciting quotes from Hamlet and spitting over one's shoulder, before it is too late.
The romantic image of “North” is a powerful one. It is from the North that the Vikings come to pillage, clad in furs and steel helms, bringing war and legend with them as their footprints. Wild beasts stalk the woods, and it is difficult to grow the best crops. The North is a frozen place, of snow, where one must endure through strength and perseverance. Hardship, with glory to those who overcome, are the meaning of the North. The United States has its own North: Alaska, and the heights of northern Idaho and western Montana.
“Stage Fright” has always been something I've gotten over easily. Having to speak in front of an audience is a part of life that everyone will have to get used to, be it for class presentations, political speeches, or discussions and proposals at one's job. Of course, there's plenty of bad things that can happen onstage other than stage fright. I remember being onstage in the final scene of The Taming of the Shrew when an actress forgot her cue entirely, leaving the entire scene drowned in a rather awkward silence for at least a minute, before someone finally remembered the order of events in the scene and covered for her. I've had my own blunders, too. Second performances of plays that last three nights in a row tend to be the weakest, due to overconfidence from the first night, yet no motivation to do things perfectly for a final time. The second performance of Julius Caesar was no exception to this rule. As Caesar's ghost, haunting Brutus, I walked backwards at one point to drift off the stage. My incorporeal form collided into a Greco-Roman column with a solid thud.
It is a good thing that the third and final performance went better. While the middle performances are usually riddled with incompetence, the final performances tend to be the best of all, where actors dive into their roles with all their vim and vigor. If lines are said wrong, they are covered up immediately with extempore phrases or extrapolations. All the mistakes of previous nights are watched for, and actors tend to stretch themselves to their limits to give the audience as great a show as they can hope to grant them. The final performances of plays are often the ones where the actors have the most fun, and which come across to the audience as the most entertaining. It is therefore recommended for anyone wishing to see an amateur theatre production to make a point of going to watch it on its final night.
C.S. Lewis' The Pilgrim's Regress describes the journey of the romanticist, and in a way, Lewis' own journey, towards the lost beauty that is always sought. He represents this beauty in a wondrous island that can always just be seen through the trees, but always at the rarest and most precious of times, and only when it is not chased after through illicit means. In the manner of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, the protagonist searches across a land of allegory to find this island, to grasp fully this lost loveliness of life. At the end of this weary journey, after trying to have many false things become that beauty and failing, he finds that the beauty is an aspect of God to be sought by all mortals. The longing of the romanticist, the The Pilgrim's Regress suggests through its allegories, is to be cherished, and fulfilled by the happiness of the trials and triumphs of a life physically fading away, a life yet still made eternal with good faith. The beauty sought by the romanticist is the perfect essence of the place God has given us in the cosmos.
In the olden days, before the invention of the pen, quills dipped in ink were used for handwriting. Many famous poems, plays and other literary works must certainly have been originally written by quill.
Is it strange to fear failure? One must take risks in life, learning from mistakes while rejoicing in successes. To be a hero, or even to write of the heroism of others with proper honor and longing, to embrace one's potential and one's place in the cosmos, to become a chapter in the beauteous tale longed after but never found: what if one fails at this? Then that is that person's tale, however meager it may be. But a life lived well is still worth continuing by all means; for although one may falter, if he cannot be a hero, do not other contentments still remain? So let each and every man who would aspire to greatness never despair in his failure, but rather fight on, being all that he can be.
Shakespeare wrote over a hundred sonnets in his day. The Elizabethan Sonnet, the style that he wrote, is often considered a stringent form of poetry. It is written in Iambic Pentameter, with fourteen lines each and a specific rhyme scheme.
How often have myself and others felt great anger over tiny things? This is certainly a flaw of character. Why should one give note to a mere inconvenience? In former centuries, there was true hardship in life; death and suffering were commonplace. Now we feel sorrow at the slightest nuisance, and pure shock and horror at greater things. For how long can such a society endure, a people who do not know pain until it is too late?
It is said the Alexander the Great never lost a battle. He is truly a tragic figure in the poetic sense; a brilliant man, whose deeds changed the world forever, yet who died sorrowful in the prime of his years.
The world is unimaginably vast. And one man is but a tiny sliver of all that exists. It is this burden that is placed on the shoulders of the aspiring hero; to alter a cosmos far greater than himself. This task is grave to the degree that it is attempted; if Alexander seeks to rule the world, than every threat in the world may come at him. To die is the fate of every human being; only a fool believes himself invincible in the face of all that exists. The successful hero must therefore acquire true strength to master the threats that come his way, and not be swayed along the way by the temptations and weaknesses of character that hammer away at the rock of his spirit.
In the Iliad, it is the wrath of Achilles that is his undoing. His anger at Agamemnon's slighting of him leads him to fight no longer, and invoke the gods themselves in treachery against his own brothers in arms. The Greeks come within a hair's breadth of defeat, and Achilles' closest friend Patroklos even falls in battle while fighting in Achilles' place. It is only then that Achilles arises, and with great fury battles the Trojans, slaying the great prince Hektor to avenge Patroklos.
It is wise to master one's flaws. The classical means by which a hero enters a state of tragedy, the sins of wrath and hubris, will bring about the fall of every great figure who keeps them too long. Indeed, should one carry such flaws before their time of greatness even comes, they may even burden themselves down, living a life of misery and never accomplishing that which they sought in the first place. Those who would seek to carry heroism of similar gravity must cast aside the trivial worries of contemporary life and embrace personal strength.
The Greek hero Xenophon wrote down a long and true story of his adventures: trapped in a distant land with his army, he fought back, tooth and nail, for years, to make his return. Though his name is not well known, his strength was very real.
It is strange to think that as I write this, I am a quarter of the way, at the most, through my life on this earth. I have been given this time; how will I spend it?
The whirls of the wind are a music in their own way. Even they can inspire the poet.