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

A Sophomore History Of The World – Part 3

Everything was going along just fine — until the Europeans learned how to build boats.  For the next 300 years, they sailed around the world being total dicks to everybody.  They’d show up uninvited at various pristine locations and start cutting down the trees and peeing in the rivers.  Then, when the locals, who were invariably running near-utopian civilizations — tidy, peaceful, and cultured — calmly suggested they stop, all hell would break loose.  The Europeans would go for their guns (products of the early Military-Industrial Complex) and start shooting people and stealing their best stuff.  Somehow, this always came as a complete surprise to indigenous peoples — even though the pattern was repeated over and over for 20 generations (1492 – 1776.).  (It should be noted that, although women have always made major contributions to the world, they had absolutely nothing to do with this nasty business and only concerned themselves with the good parts of history.)

In 1776 (although nobody knew it at the time) there was a major shift in world power when a bunch of rich, Virginia farm boys decided they didn’t want to be Europeans anymore: they wanted to be something even nastier – Americans.  They succeeded beyond their wildest expectations – but more about that later.

In the rest of the world, things were pretty much status quo.  Europeans were running around raping, pillaging, raiding, plundering, exploiting, kicking widows, spitting on orphans and staying awake nights, thinking up other horrible things to do to the planet and the people on it.  Eventually, they came up with the Industrial Revolution.  Wow!  What a game-changer!  Suddenly, raping, pillaging, raiding, plundering, exploiting, kicking widows and spitting on orphans wasn’t just a hit-and- miss proposition anymore; it was part of the system.  And here’s the nastiest bit!  The sneaky bastards called it “capitalism” and convinced the entire world it was a good thing.  Anyway, the Military-Industrial Complex loved capitalism the way a French pig loves truffles, and that kicked both systems into high gear.  Pretty soon, Europe was spewing arms and ammunition like a freshman at a frat party.  But it was a case of too many weapons and nobody left to kill.  By the 20th century, Europeans had already fought everybody — including the Maoris, the Nepalese, the Bhutanese and the Ethiopians. There was only one thing left to do: fight with each other.  Which leads us to World War I, World War II and Adolf Hitler – the meanest man in history.

But wait!  There’s more!

Remember those Virginia farm boys?  They’d been hiding out in North America, quietly practicing their own brand of nasty on anybody they could get their mitts on for 150 years.  They took one look at the Europeans going at each other, thought, “Hey! Here’s our chance! That Charlie Chaplin lookin’ sucker can’t be that tough.” and proceeded to kick his ass.  Suddenly, nasty had a new Numero Uno: America.

So here we are in the 21st century, the peak of human knowledge and social understanding, with a bunch of problems created by dead Europeans and America is busy making them worse.

The End

Disclaimer:  Folks! – please!  Before you send me that email questioning my knowledge, my ancestry and my sanity, remember: this is satire!  It’s meant to lampoon simple interpretations of complex problems.

Life On Mars

It’s been 40 days and 40 nights since New Year’s– when we finally kicked 2020 to the curb.  And even though every person on this planet shouted “Goodbye and good riddance!” (I know I did) we’ve largely forgotten about it.  The hats have been thrown away, the champagne bottles recycled, and the resolutions … well … the resolutions really didn’t stand a chance this year, did they?  But not to worry.  You can renew those resolutions with a clean slate and a fresh start all this week– because last Sunday was also New Year’s Day – on Mars.

I’ll grant you, unless you’re a NASA scientist, it’s not something you think about, but now that you are, it definitely makes sense, doesn’t it?  After all, Mars has a different rotation from Earth and a different orbit around the sun, so our time – 24 hours/365 days – just doesn’t apply.  Actually, the Martian day, called a sol (pronunciation still in doubt) is 24 hours, 39 minutes long.  (That 43-minute difference is just enough to screw things up.)  And it takes Mars 687 days to get all the way around the sun – a Martian year.  So, since Mars has four seasons (just like us) a quick pen and paper calculation and you have 12 months (BTW, you can name them anything you want; nobody’s done that yet!) and there’s your Martian calendar.

Of course, none of this really mattered before we started sending our machines to Mars to have a look around.  But the minute we did, we discovered we needed a way to keep track of them: Earth time just wasn’t going to do it.  For example, right now in the Pacific Time Zone, it’s about 5:30 p.m. and the sun is going down, but on Mars (where the Rover is) that same sun is shining in the middle of the afternoon.  So far, so good.  But tomorrow (relative to me) Martian time is going to slide backwards 43 minutes, and it’ll do it again the next day, and the next.  By this time next month, me and Mars are going to be out of sync by nearly a whole day!  Oops!  So what NASA did was lengthen the Martian second by (approx.) 1.027.  Then they chose the Martian Spring Equinox as Day One of the Martian year. That allowed them to measure and schedule Martian time accurately from that fixed point.  (FYI, this is no different from Great Britain setting up Greenwich Mean Time in the 19th century, Pope Gregory XIII rebooting the calendar in 1582, or Julius Caesar naming the 7th month after himself when he was running the show.)  Anyway, for some reason (I can’t find out why) NASA decided to backdate Martian time to begin with Year Zero on Earth Year 1955.  That makes this Martian Year 36!

Ever since humans dropped out of the trees and looked up into the sky, the Red Planet has captured our imagination.  It’s our nearest celestial neighbour.  We can see it flickering red with the naked eye.  It has mysterious canals, polar ice caps, volcanos and canyons.  It’s been part of our literary culture for two centuries and part of our scientific world for nearly as long.  So, go ahead and celebrate the hell out of this Martian New Year — cuz the next one isn’t going to happen until December 26th 2022!