Shakespeare and Douglass: Giving Speech to the Soul

In the eighth chapter of his autobiography, Frederick Douglass describes the loneliness that alone attends his grandmother in her final days. Continue reading Shakespeare and Douglass: Giving Speech to the Soul

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The Wisdom of Nick Bottom

One of Shakespeare’s most poetic speeches is spoken by a character who spends half the play turned halfway into a donkey. The play is A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the character is the very foolish Nick Bottom. Always pay attention to Shakespeare’s fools. Often, they possess wisdom which escapes the wits of more refined men.

The main plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream involves four young people having troubles with love. In defiance of the authority figures, they run off to the forest and, unknowingly, into the realm of the fairy king and queen. The fairies try playing matchmakers and merry madness ensues. Meanwhile, in the ordered world of the city, the duke’s wedding night approaches. And as a comic sort of sideshow, Shakespeare adds a band of rustics to the  mix who are preparing a play in honor of the duke’s marriage.

The men have chosen to act out the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe. This is an absurd choice for the duke’s wedding party: Pyramus and Thisbe are star-crossed lovers who both end up committing suicide. Shakespeare pokes fun at himself and his playwriting profession in his portrayal of these lovable fools. I highly recommend that you watch the scene below in which Shakespeare introduces us to the troupe. Plays are meant to be performed and watched, and it’s hard to pick up on the humor if you only read the text.

If Peter Quince is the bumbling ringleader, then Nick Bottom is the main attraction in the whole silly circus.

The actors go off to practice in the woods where they, too, get caught in the fairies’ mischief-making. In the middle of rehearsal, a fairy named Puck enters and decides to turn Bottom’s head into the head of a donkey. Bottom’s friends flee from him in fright, but poor Bottom has no idea why. He cannot see his donkey’s head, nor can any of us (except rarely) see our own absurdities. Bottom concludes that his friends must be playing a trick on him. “I see their knavery: this is to make an ass of me,” he says, unaware of how truly he speaks.

Abandoned in the woods, Bottom sings a song to himself and happens to wake the fairy queen. Earlier, the fairy king cast a spell to make the queen “madly dote upon the next live creature” she sees. Consequently, Bottom—donkey’s head and all—finds himself swept through the midsummer night with the queen of the fairies doting on his every utterance. She tells Bottom:

I am a spirit of no common rate;
The summer still doth tend upon my state;
And I do love thee: therefore, go with me;
I’ll give thee fairies to attend on thee,
And they shall fetch thee jewels from the deep,
And sing while thou on pressed flowers dost sleep;
And I will purge thy mortal grossness so
That thou shalt like an airy spirit go.

Bottom’s comical sort of union with the fairy queen is more than mere farce. Shakespeare describes the scene with beautiful language that suggests something almost magical in the meeting of the low, earthly nature and the high, spiritual nature. It recalls an historical account of when the low earthly nature and high spiritual nature met in a town called Bethlehem, and that, too, was attended by rough beasts and uneducated men.

As with most comedies, the dreams and revels of the night give way to dawn and the daylight of reason. The four young people resolve their troubles and return to the ordered society of the city, the fairy king frees his queen from the love spell, and Puck restores Bottom to his natural state.

But before everything returns quite to normal, as Shakespeare shifts us from the wild wood to the structured city, in the misty morning twilight hours where distinctions remain a bit hazy, Bottom awakes. He is back to his old self, and yet he is not quite his old self. He says:

[Awakening] When my cue comes, call me, and I will
answer: my next is, ‘Most fair Pyramus.’ Heigh-ho!
Peter Quince! Flute, the bellows-mender! Snout,
the tinker! Starveling! God’s my life, stolen
hence, and left me asleep! I have had a most rare
vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to
say what dream it was: man is but an ass, if he go
about to expound this dream. Methought I was–there
is no man can tell what. Methought I was,–and
methought I had,–but man is but a patched fool, if
he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye
of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not
seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue
to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream
was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of
this dream: it shall be called Bottom’s Dream,
because it hath no bottom; and I will sing it in the
latter end of a play, before the duke:
peradventure, to make it the more gracious, I shall
sing it at her death.

In the beginning of the play, we hear Bottom brag about his abilities. But now, after he has been treated like royalty by the queen of the fairies herself, Bottom curiously refrains from boasting. Or if he boasts, he boasts about the “most rare vision” and not about himself. Bottom concludes that it is past the wit of man [including himself] “to say what dream it was,” and that man [including himself] “is but an ass, if he go about to expound this dream.”

Bottom treats his “vision” as something which has come from completely outside himself. He suggests that the dream is too real—so deep that it has “no bottom”—for his physical senses to make sense of. He expresses a reverence for the vision: he desires to commemorate it in a ballad and feels it appropriate for the solemn event of Thisbe’s death (which we may laugh at, but Bottom takes very seriously).

Bottom feels the urge to explain his experience, yet cannot find the right words. His speech captures the dilemma between experience and expression which is the dilemma of the human condition. As C.S. Lewis put it: “as thinkers we are cut off from what we think about; as tasting, touching, willing, loving, hating, we do not clearly understand. The more lucidly we think, the more we are cut off: the more deeply we enter into reality, the less we can think.” Bottom demonstrates the humor in this, and we chuckle when he interrupts himself and confuses the sense organs, but this humor is tinged with tragedy. A sense of loss attends every attempt to speak about experience. How often do you begin to tell your friends some story and end by throwing up your hands and saying “you just had to be there?”

Bottom realizes he cannot fully relate his experiences; he also cannot help but try. And so it is with us: we know we’ll never be able to explain everything. We know we’ll never be able to speak the whole truth about, say, God. But we try to say something true about the truth anyways. After struggling to say what he means, Bottom says that perhaps Peter Quince can capture the vision in a ballad. I love that! Bottom concludes that art can help connect us to the mysteries of experience. We turn our wonder and our confusion into songs and stories and poetry and paintings. We carve huge chunks of marble out of the mountains to try to communicate some human emotion. We compose symphonies to try to capture a sense of the seasons passing. We build big churches to try to say something about the infinite nature of God. Perhaps this makes us, as Bottom says, patched fools. But true wisdom begins with humility and accepting the position of the fool.

Shakespeare gives other characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream sharp wits and keen eyes. But he gives the most profound vision to one of the dullest characters (Bottom is the only human character who sees the spirit world of the fairies), and he speaks the most profound truths through one of the simplest voices. This suggests that the conclusions Bottom reaches are not reserved for intellectuals in ivory towers. They are fundamental truths of human experience. And it also reminds us that truth can come to us in the humblest of guises, for “power is made perfect in weakness.”

Shakespeare’s Little Autumn Song

Fallen leaves dry and crunch in the cool mornings. Night comes quicker and crisper. Autumn approaches. ‘Tis the season for Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73.

This post will provide a close reading of Sonnet 73. “Close reading” a work means carefully considering the sounds and structures and senses of language that the writer chooses to convey his meaning. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 is one of the richest works I’ve encountered, and its imagery fits perfectly into this fall season.

First, here’s some background on the sonnet form:

Sonnets are tightly structured rhyming poems that traditionally speak about love. The term “sonnet” comes from the Italian sonetto which means “little song.” Sonnets first appeared around 1200 and were popularized by Francesco Petrarch (born in Tuscany in 1304). In an Italian or ‘Petrarchan’ sonnet, the first eight lines present some problem and the last six lines offer a solution. A shift or turn between problem and solution, called the “volta,” occurs around line nine.

By the early 1500s, the sonnet made its way to England and acquired there a slightly different character. The fourteen lines of an English sonnet break down into three four-line sections (quatrains) and end with a rhyming couplet. While Italian sonnets put the volta near the middle of the poem, English sonnets often wait till the last two lines to introduce the shift in thinking.

Sonnets are exciting to me because of their limits. They embody what G.K. Chesterton has called “the wild romance of prudence.” Chesterton uses that phrase to describe Robinson Crusoe, and the best poets, like Crusoe, waste nothing. They treat their words like treasures rescued from a wreck and put them to use in surprising and sometimes amusing ways. The strict limits of the sonnet form challenge the poet to be even thriftier with his words—as Chesterton says, “thrift is poetic because it is creative.”

Here’s Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73. Try reading the poem out-loud to get a feel for each word and phrase. I also recommend listening to this audio version.

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
AAAThis thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
AAATo love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Shakespeare writes most of his sonnets in iambic pentameter. This term used to baffle me, but it’s not so intimidating if you break it down.

An iamb is a unit of sound that contains an unstressed and then a stressed syllable. You might not realize it, but you hear iambs all the time – it’s the rhythm of the human heartbeat: ba DUM.

Iambic pentameter means five (penta) iambs per line, so each line has a total of ten syllables that alternate from unstressed to stressed:

ba DUM ba DUM ba DUM ba DUM ba DUM

Shakespeare writes the first line of Sonnet 73 in perfect iambic pentameter:

that TIME of YEAR thou MAYST in ME beHOLD

  ba  DUM   ba   DUM  ba   DUM  ba  DUM ba DUM

The second line’s rhythm also follows iambic pentameter, but there’s something unusual about the sense of the line:

when YEllow LEAVES, or NONE, or FEW, do HANG

First we have yellow leaves—fall—then no leaves—winter—then we’re back to a “few” leaves—late fall? For such a wordsmith as Shakespeare, the odd order is no accident. Shakespeare uses these clauses to play a bit with time. It’s as if the speaker is saying “I’m old, but wait, I ain’t dead yet!” The line suggests that time is not quite constant, and the aging speaker insists he still has something to say.

The third line continues with iambic pentameter. Listen to the sounds Shakespeare chooses:

uPON those BOUGHS which SHAKE aGAINST the COLD,

“Upon those boughs” has such soft sounds: uh; puh; on; bow. The speaker’s voice sounds physically soft and weak—like a bent bough on a withered tree. But the sounds in the second half of the line change dramatically. We get the hard sounds of ‘k’ and ‘g’ and ‘t’ and ‘d.’ When you read “shake against the cold,” your mouth moves in a way that mimics chattering in the cold. The preposition Shakespeare chooses is also significant. The trees and the speaker don’t just shake in the cold, they shake against the cold. Again, we get the idea of opposition to death.

In the fourth line, Shakespeare departs from iambic pentameter. His steady use of that rhythm up till now sets the reader up for a surprise—sort of like a quarterback who calls a run play and then another run and then another run just to set up the surprise of a long pass (my roommate is watching football right now). The fourth line starts with:

BARE RUINED CHOIRS,

These are three heavy, hard stresses. The voice sounds stark and almost angry, which fits the vision of bare black tree trunks in winter. But the line finishes with this phrase:

where LATE the SWEET BIRDS SANG

The second half of the line returns to something closer to the iambic pattern; the pounding heartbeat returns to something more steady. As the speaker recalls the sweet springs of his past, the language becomes tender and peaceful in both sound and sense.

This fourth line also contains a good example of Shakespeare’s thrift—he often makes words do double and triple duty in his works.

Shakespeare doesn’t call his bare trees simply “bare trees.” Instead, he uses the metaphor “bare ruined choirs.” This is an architectural reference: the choir is the part of the church just before the high altar where the religious sit and sing the Mass responses. The left image shows the location of the choir, and the right shows a choir in a French cathedral:

See how the pillars of the choir stretch and branch like trees? Most modern churches don’t have this structure, but readers in Shakespeare’s day would have been familiar with the choir area. The reference to church architecture also introduces a hint of the spiritual world into the poem—the speaker’s vision of nature contains a sense of the numinous.

I’m going to mostly skip the next quatrain (lines 5-8)—though these are some of my favorite lines and sounds in all of poetry—because I want to point out how Shakespeare returns and develops this tree metaphor in the third quatrain.

In lines 9-12, the speaker compares himself to a dying fire:

In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.

What a metaphor! A man is like a fire whose life passes from energy and activity into ashes—he is gradually but constantly returning to the dust. And the hotter and brighter he burns, the quicker he expires.

What amazes me is how Shakespeare connects this metaphor to the metaphor of the first quatrain. In the first quatrain, we hear the speaker compare himself to trees in fall and then winter. Now in the third quatrain, we hear the speaker compare himself to a fire. And what fuels a fire? Old, dry wood! Shakespeare doesn’t just use a metaphor and move on. He finds one, explores it, reconsiders it from different angles, and connects his ideas all in a kind of subtle and musical unity.

This sonnet moves from the aging of autumn to the fading twilight years and finally to man’s inevitable “deathbed.” The first quatrain suggests a resistance to this progression—the speaker clings to life like an autumn leaf against the coming winter. But the second two quatrains develop an attitude of acceptance towards death. “By and by” black night comes for all, and eventually the fire “must” burn out. It is a melancholy look at growing old and approaching death, but it is not morbid.

The final couplet leaves us with this final shift in the speaker’s view of death:

This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

The person whom the sonnet addresses understands all of this about the speaker, yet loves the speaker regardless. The reality of death does not render love meaningless; instead, it makes love “more strong.” This final couplet suggests that love might be stronger than the separation of death. Death may not be the final word, and so again that hint of the spiritual life enters the poem.

There are many more layers to this sonnet, and the closer you look, the more you’ll notice. I think that is the mark of a true masterpiece—a masterpiece echoes the complexity and mystery of God’s artistry, which can be contained in something as small as a flower of the field or a newborn babe or the fourteen lines of an English sonnet.

I hope you found this close reading enriching, and I hope you try more close reading on your own! At one point in my education, I had got the mistaken impression that poems were full of all sorts of secret meanings and you needed some key to “decode” them. Sadly, many critics do take this approach. But what I’ve learned from the best teachers is that the best poems mean exactly what they say. They just demand that we listen more closely to their language and consider their words as carefully as their creator did—which is not a bad approach to life in general, either.