Shakespeare Without Tears – 2021

Apparently, Shakespeare’s birthday was a couple of days ago (nobody really knows for sure when it is) and I missed it.  That’s okay really; I don’t care when Shakespeare was born.  Nor for that matter do I care to wander into the great discussion about whether he wrote his own plays or not.  As far as I’m concerned, they could have been written by Fetchin’ Gretchen, the German barmaid at the Golden Hind Hotel.  Shakespeare’s plays exist: if a local boy from Stratford didn’t write them, so what?  Somebody did.

Actually, the only reason there’s any debate at all about who quill penned what for whom is scholars can’t figure out what else to do with Old Bill, now can they?  It’s not like there’s a nerdy little war going on in the Ivory Towers about whether Shakespeare is crap or not.  Rhetorically speaking what do Shakespearean scholars do all day — sit around telling each other how great he was?  That’s the point: Shakespeare is the greatest writer in the English language and nobody disagrees except sophomores trying to be difficult and people who’ve never seen the plays.  Everybody knows Shakespeare is the best, but I would venture to guess that 8 people out of 10 haven’t got a clue what he’s talking about.

Shakespeare appreciation runs into a bunch of trouble in the 21st century.  First of all, unless your education was terminally New Age, you got stuck with the guy sometime in your high school career.  Since modern education means kicking the delight out of everybody but the janitor, chances are good Macbeth was ruined long before Macduff got hold of him in Act V.  Besides, I’d bet even money that the person running the show in Lit. 12 probably didn’t know much more about the Bard than you did.  In those days, Cliff Notes worked both ways.

The other problem is Shakespeare wrote his plays in Shakespearean English, and we don’t speak that language anymore.  A lot of the clever stuff and the beauty of it is simply lost in translation.  For example, “But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?/ It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.” doesn’t mean much if you don’t know anything about courtly love.  And that’s the major problem: Shakespeare is talking about things people in the 21st century know nothing about – love and power.

These days, we have reduced love to its lowest common denominator: the relationship.  This is a cerebral little device that cuts our emotional well-being off at the knees.  Having a relationship is akin to owning a small kitchen appliance like a juicer.  You buy the thing, make juice at every opportunity for six weeks or so, but slowly by slowly, it ends up largely unused, sitting in the kitchen, getting in the way.  Occasionally, if guests come over, you might crank it up again, but eventually it gets stored somewhere out of mind until it’s time for the yard sale.  Shakespeare didn’t think that way about love, neither did his audience.  They knew love for what it is and wanted to hear the words that spoke its name.  They didn’t talk about “having feelings” for someone or “taking the relationship to another level.”  (What is this crap?  Angry Birds™ with benefits?)  No!  The Elizabethans were engulfed by love; that’s where “swept off your feet” comes from.  They felt it: they didn’t think it.  They looked forward to it and mourned its passing.  To them, it was what life was made of.  Even though we proclaim our sensitivity at the drop of a puppy, we just can’t get there from here; we don’t know anything about it.

Nor, for that matter, do we know anything about power.  In a world that no longer recognizes obscenities, the mere mention of power can still cause an embarrassed hush.  Power is to us what sex was to the Victorians: a slightly icky necessity of life that nobody should ever speak of.  It’s considered ill-bred to publically pursue power, so we dress it up in altruism and team-building.  Demonstrations of power are the last faux pas in our society, and people who have power are somewhat suspect.   They are always the villains in our stories.  They weren’t in Shakespeare’s time.  His four great tragedies are all about power.  They show the obligation powerful people have to wield it wisely and the consequences if they do not.  It’s not power itself that corrupts Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear and Othello; their demise comes from a deep flaw in their own character.  Their tragedy is magnified by the height from which they fall, not caused by it.  At the end of each play, they die, but the institutions of power are cleansed with their blood.  It is the province of the powerful who remain to set things right again.  In the Elizabethan Age, power was, for the most part, a benevolent force sometimes corrupted by the people who manipulate it — not the other way around, as we see it today.

It’s a shame that a lot of the contemporary “feelings” we have for Shakespeare are just talk.  Unfortunately, it’s too difficult for most people to enjoy Shakespeare these days.  However, it`s not impossible.  But start slowly; Shakespeare’s plays are a big chunk to take in one chew.  You don’t have to sit through an entire play to begin with.  Just go to YouTube and check out Marlon Brando delivering Mark Antony`s “Friends, Romans, countrymen…” speech, or Kenneth Branagh (as Henry V) calling his troops “a band of brothers,” or anything Shakespearean Lawrence Olivier ever opened his mouth for.  Me?  I like to curl up with a bag of Doritos™ and watch The Lion King which is Hamlet without the blood bath.

Originally written – 2012

I Love Commercials

I love commercials.  I think TV ads are cute, little, itty bitty movies.  So it doesn’t bother me that, for the most part, they’re lying to us.  Look, folks!  Like SkyfallTerminator and Iron Man, they’re fiction!  Sit back and enjoy the show.

The thing that I don’t understand, though, is how TV commercials ever actually SELL anything.  The ads all exist in these weird-ass Never-Never-Land dystopias that can’t be a good idea to showcase the product.  For example:

Household Cleaners – The houses in these ads are filthy.  They’re disgusting.  Who lives there — trolls?  The furniture and floors look the family pet is a buffalo.  The kitchens are the greasiest, greasy combination of greasy-spoon diner and salmonella experiment known to humanity.  And the bathrooms!  OMG!  They’re covered in so much crud Gollum wouldn’t poop in there.  Even the worst hillbillies I know don’t live like that.  If you live in this kind of squalor, you don’t need “Extra-Strength” anything to clean it up; you need a match to burn it down before the Health Department shows up and does it for you.

Feminine Hygiene – Menstruating women are not that happy.  They just aren’t.  And if they do smile, it’s a lot more evil-looking than in the ads.  It’s not a good idea to remind women of this.

Automobiles – Everybody knows the internal combustion engine is a dick to the environment, and car ads prove it.  First, they drive the SUV through a stream, turning the fish habitat into mud pies.  Then, it’s up the mountain, in a 4-wheel-drive rampage to catch the sunset from the summit.  Perfect view!  Except they parked their three tons of automotive junk on a hundred-year-old lichen that just got its endangered species life smeared into the tread of an all-season radial.  Yeah, we’re not destroying our planet fast enough.  I want one of those.

Drugs – I don’t care what wonders the newest wonder drug does, the “side effects” litany scares the hell out of me.  Honestly, “may cause dry mouth, tremors, depression, heart attack, vomiting, internal bleeding, external bleeding, massive bleeding and your tongue’s going fall out” leaves me a little reluctant to try taking it for “occasional arthritis pain.”

Condiments (ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise etc.) – Nobody puts that much mayo on a sandwich.  It’s like they’re painting a barn — with a trowel.  The bread would be slimy, for God’s sake.  And take one bite and you’d have white crap shooting up your nose, down your chin and all over the room.  You’d look like a werewolf who just murdered an albino.

Snack Food – I don’t know anybody who delicately puts one potato chip on their tongue like it’s a communion wafer.  Nor have I ever seen anybody put chocolate in their mouth and suck it to death.  Nobody chews in slow motion, and not one person — ever! — eats just one cookie. Honestly, if people ate snack food like they do in the ads, they wouldn’t eat snack food at all.  why bother?

And finally:

Yogurt – There isn’t a man alive who doesn’t wish some woman would look at him the way all women look at yogurt – in the advertisements.

Originally written – March 2015

I’m An Addict!

They say that the first step on the road to recovery is admitting you have a problem.  Well, here goes!  My name is WD, and I’m an addict.  Hard to believe, but it’s true.  Despite what you see, I’m stuck in a secret cycle of abuse.  Oh, I’m good at hiding it, denying it.  I only use it to relax – unwind.  I can quit anytime I want to.  But no, I can’t.  I’ve tried.  I’m an addict.  For me, one is one too many and even a whole series is never enough.

I guess my story’s the usual one.  It all started innocently enough; just a few schoolboys having a bit of a vicarious adventure.  I don’t remember who tried it first, but by the end of the summer, all my friends and I were doing it every weekend.  For a while, it was all we could talk about.  Fortunately, the habits of the young are fickle, and when school started, most of my friends drifted away to homework and hockey practice.  However, I remained, every weekend, watching black and white back-to-back reruns of Richard Greene’s Robin Hood and Roger Moore in Ivanhoe.  Soon, an hour a week simply wasn’t enough, and I began experimenting on my own – searching for a bigger thrill.  It was then that I discovered … Doctor Who.  I remember thinking, I’ll just try it; I can always change the channel.  But I didn’t.  I couldn’t.  I watched it all, even the credits, in the gathering twilight of an autumn afternoon.  It was a wonderful excitement, exhilarating and confused.  I was too young to truly understand what Time Lords were or the symbiotic relationship Who had with the Companion, but I wanted to know.  I wanted to open my perceptions to the sophisticated storylines, explore the language, and fill my senses with the ideas that I never found on regular TV.  I didn’t know it then, but I think I was already addicted — to British Television.

Emma Peel

From Doctor Who, it was easy to graduate to watching The Saint.  After all, Roger Moore was just Ivanhoe in a tuxedo – wasn’t he?  No, he was more than that — stronger, with deeper plots and worldly situations.  Then it was The Avengers.  Just as my pubescent friends were discovering the hidden fantasies of Barbara Eden’s belly button, I had Diana Rigg all to myself.  For a teenage boy, Emma Peel had a dizzying depth of character, compared to Anthony Nelson’s do-as-you’re-told Jeannie or the submissive Samantha Stevens.  She was my fee verte, and I was a slave to her.  Sated with suggested sex, mystery and espionage, when The Prisoner was broadcast in the early 70s, I was unable to resist.  I wallowed in its nonlinear drama, letting it wash over me, week after week, until — hauntingly unresolved — it ended, and left me empty and cold.

I should have stopped then – gone cold turkey — but I was ready for the hard stuff: Monty Python’s Flying Circus.  Speedball comedy with a walloping high so potent that even today I find myself laughing outrageously in its etherealic flashbacks.  The Pythons opened my mind to non sequitur, the absurd, the tilted storyline, bizarre characterization and oh, so much more.  I don’t know how many traditional motifs I abandoned that winter.  It’s all a blur to me now.  But at the end of it, I knew I was never going back to North American TV.  I was hooked.

Since those heady days, I’ve spent forty years searching, always searching, for more of the roll-off-the-sofa/pee-your-pants highs that the Pythons delivered.  Through Fawlty Towers; Black Adder; Yes, Minister; Red Dwarf; Ab Fab; The Office and so many others.  Even Mr. Bean!  That’s how complete my habit has become.  And it wasn’t just comedy; it was drama, as well.  Mysteries, espionage, political intrigue — I’ve tried them all.  Night after night, I’d tell myself just one episode, but hours later, I’d still be slumped on the sofa — covered in cookie crumbs and stinking of Earl Grey tea.  The only thing that saved me from utter degradation was I’ve always had a violent allergic reaction to Jane Austen.  Otherwise, I would have been up to my eyes in costume drama.  Then along came Downton Abbey and I was lost.

Today, British television is easy to find.  My dealers were always PBS and The Knowledge Network, but now there are so many other ways to feed my habit.  Netflix, Prime, Acorn, Britbox — they’re all there – whole seasons of Sherlock, Broadchurch, Vera (back to the days of David Leon) House of Cards (the original with Ian Richardson) and even Lovejoy and Agatha Christie — if that’s what you fancy.  This year, I watched all ten seasons of MI5 again, 60 years of murder with Morse, Lewis and Endeavor and, of course Top Boy and Shetland.  But it doesn’t end there because late at night when my skin crawls for long vowels, Manchester accents and proper pronunciation, I surf through YouTube for snippets of Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, Cracker, The Inbetweeners and even grainy bits of Jimmy Nail’s Spender.

My name is WD, and I’m an addict.

Originally published 2013, and gently edited for 2020