The most intriguing thing I read about Shakespeare today (in a fascinating article that I have read several times, Andrew Gurr's "Hearers and Beholders in Shakespearean Drama," from Essays in Theatre):

Reading silently is, it seems, a relatively new development in English history. Elizabethans were much more likely that we are to consider hearing as a vital part of learning, and thus:

Hamlet, who enters before his "To be or not to be" soliloquy reading silently, was exceptional in this as in so many of his habits. (35)

The implication, of course, is that Hamlet's silent withdrawal in a book (which he is reading while wandering about, a dangerous practice that may be familiar to some of us) is in fact an expression of his extreme self-absorption. Or isolation. Or a carefully calculated pose of nonchalance.

Oh, Hamlet! Will your motivations never be clear, you wily Dane?


And yet, that is not my favorite literary reference of the week. Ah no, my favorite was infinitely more inept. It comes from an interview Karl Rove did on Fox News (you can read about it in this New York Times article), in which Mr. Rove shows evidence of how enriching his book-reading contest with the president was:
“Let’s face it, I mean, I’m a myth,” Mr. Rove told Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday” when asked about his critics. “You know, I’m Beowulf, you know, I’m Grendel. I don’t know who I am. But they’re after me.”
(Thanks to A for passing this along. It did cheer me up!)


It occurred to me that some of my readers might be experiencing sonnet fatigue (or possibly even Sidney fatigue, as hard as that is to imagine) after the last two days. So today, a modern poem on an age old problem (that of sloth and work), in honor of my continuing struggle with my ^$%# dissertation.

Elizabeth Alexander's "Blues" (link is to the full poem, which is well worth a look) begins with a long description of the speaker's laziness - of daytime sleeping that leaves puffy creases on her face, of the free form of her verse, of devil-may-care eating habits and the "curdy belly" that is born of no exercise. She then reflects on the seeming paradox (or perhaps just obvious explanation for her later sloth) of her industrious upbringing, filled with moralizing about work: "There is no sin but sloth. / Burn the wick and keep moving."

But she ends on this note, both more troubled and more hopeful:
I avoided sleep for years,
up at night replaying
evening news stories
about nearby jailbreaks, fat people
who ate fried chicken and woke up
dead. In sleep I am looking
for poems in the shape of open
V's of birds flying in formation,
or open arms saying, I forgive you, all.

There is so much delightful conflict and ambiguity here, as we are given on the one hand an image of tormented insomnia (the enjoyment of her indolence troubled and even deferred by nightmares about the consequences of sloth and gluttony), and on the other an image of artistic renewal in slumber that reconciles her childhood's emphasis on work with her need to rebel against it. But there are several lovely verbal knots in the midst of these pointed simple line, their very ordinariness disguising their meaningful illogic: How does anyone (besides an anxious insomniac?) ever "wake up [pregnant pause created by line break] dead"? Furthermore, how can we interpret the poem's last word ("all")? Does it indicate the forgiveness of a group of people, or a blanket absolution for all sins, or both? What does it do to the rhythm or the meaning of the line to insert a grammatically unnecessary comma before the "all" (one of my favorite touches)?


I have a long line of movies I want to review here, but lately I have just been too tired from my work-struggles. What can I say? I'm Beowulf, I'm Grendel - I don't know what I am but this chapter is after me. While eating lunch today I finished Cinema Paradiso and found it pleasing, if sentimental (self-consciously so - it is basing its model for emotional expression on classic cinema). Now, in my continuing battle with the demon of TiVo fullness, I am moving on to the Czech film The Shop on Main Street. Onward!

8 Responses so far.

  1. Carrie K says:

    I'd read it as I forgive you all [you've done] but hmm. That is a nice touch.

    We were constantly admonished about waking up dead but then I come from crazy folk.

    Reading silently as an act of isolation & self absorbance, eh? Audiobooks won't get snubbed by the Elizabethans then.

    Wasn't group reading much more prevalent in the days when there were far fewer books to go around?

  2. I wish I knew more about the history of reading so that I could answer that question, carrie k! But it certainly seems like the logical assumption to make about Renaissance reading culture. Your question also made me think about what a weird thing silent reading is for a dramatic character to do - it is such an immensely introverted action, and thus rather uncommunicative (in the sense of being untheatrical - not giving the audience a lot of information). All in all, it is a much more interesting moment in the play than I had thought before.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Re: Rove:




    Thank you so much for passing that on!

  4. Heather -
    I know, isn't that a delight? I LOVE that he conceives of himself simultaneously as the exceptional hero-outcast turned king and the reviled monster who rips off warriors' arms and eats people. D's comment: "Hey, at least he didn't say he was Grendel's mother."

  5. If I remember right, Augustine of Hippo read silently so that his servants wouldn't hear his scholarly books and be confused by them. This was recounted as a sacrifice on his part. But this is only my vague memory, so I need to find the reference.

  6. Yikes, that is a not altogether admiration-inducing story about Augustine of Hippo. I would love to hear if you find out anything more about it, Veronica!

  7. Melwyk says:

    I like the added motivation for that scene in Hamlet. I love Hamlet most of all of Shakespeare and your tidbit adds a little more to think on!

  8. I know how you feel, Melanie - Hamlet is a play that just gives and gives and gives. Every time I read it or see it I find out something new.

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