Thursday, November 21, 2013

Disney's Debt to Shakespeare

Today's Notes from the Ivory Tower are being pulled from Shakespeare and tossed into a shaker with Disney. That's right: Disney made Hamlet with Lions and Romeo and Juliet with Lions.

People at large are pretty comfortable with The Lion King as the comedic, Disney version of Hamlet. So comfortable, in fact, that we have images like this:

Yes, the Lion King is Hamlet and The Avengers and The British Monarchy. We got it, internet. That'll do.

What we don't got, as a general rule, is that this
is actually Romeo and Juliet. With Lions.

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In the fair Pride Lands, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where lion blood makes lion paws unclean.
From forth the fatal lions of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their marriage bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their comedy-mark'd love,
And the continuance of their parents' rage,
Which, but one of their end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

 In the same way The Lion King looks like Hamlet, we have the Lion King 2. If this were a Disney adaptation checklist, they have indeed hit all the main points.
1. Feuding Families?
In one corner we have the Pridelanders! Or rather, Capulets- Simba is daddy Capulet, Nala is mommy Capulet, and miss Kiara is Juliet. In the other corner, we have The Outlanders! -er, Montagues. Daddy Montague was eaten by Hyenas in the last movie, but mama Montague has a grudge to settle, and Romeo got rechristened as Kovu.
Feuding families? Check. Also, one of the great Disney Villain songs:
2. Star Crossed Lovers?
Scar's son and Simba's daughter. If I really need to explain this one, then you really need to revisit your childhood.
Star Crossed Lovers? Check.
3./4. Totally Creepy Pseudo-Suitor?/ Best Friend who dies?
Shakespeare gives us Tybalt, who is actually Juliet's cousin, and Tybalt is who Juliet's parents try to set her up with. Since this isn't Aladdin, Simba isn't actually trying to marry his little girl off. In a weird inversion/mixation with Mercutio, Disney gives us Nuka. Nuka is actually Kovu's brother, and he is such a screwball creep... well, I'll let this clip do the talking:
Aaaaaaand in case you thought Disney forgot the "who dies" part of the Best Friend role, well:
Ok, I apologize; this is actually in Croation. Apparently YouTube doesn't have this scene in English, but I think it's pretty clear from the video: Nuka dies via being crushed to death by dead trees, which, for Dinsey, is actually not too gruesome.
Totally Creepy Pseudo-Suitor?/ Best Friend who dies?
5. Moment of Death?
A huge part of the R&J story is the scene where Romeo discovers Juliet dead and kills himself. Obviously this is Disney, so we get one scene where Kovu finds an unconscious Kiara in the middle of a burning field. Way to sanitize that for the kids, Disney. Kovu then pulls her out of the burning field, but there's a moment where it looks like he might open her throat, and the original plan was to let her burn to death. What on EARTH did my parents let me watch??
Moment of 'Death'?
So, overall, Disney owes a tremendous debt to Shakespeare in terms of story outline. Obviously they don't match up exactly- Disney was making children's films, not tragic murder-fest flicks. But the uncanny resemblances are highly reminiscent of Shakespeare's own habit of borrowing and adapting plot devices (Read: blatantly stealing other people's work).
Hopefully you've enjoyed these Notes from the Ivory Tower! We have no idea what we'll be doing next, but it should be entertaining.
Honorable Mention:
Disney didn't JUST steal from Shakespeare... they can be judgmental and sliiiiiiiiiiiightly classist/racist all on their own. Which is why THIS SONG exists:
Thank you Disney.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The King, The Knight and the Queen

Today's Notes from the Ivory Tower are being pulled from Arthurian Legends and Musical Theatre. That's right folks: we're talking Camelot!

Let's start with His Royal Highness, King Arthur. Arthur is the original Good Guy; given a chaotic England, rapacious knights running rampant and a reluctant queen, he comes up with an order of Knights whose catchphrase is "Might For Right". And were it not for a little incestuous nookie, and a too-good-to-be-true-except-for-the-whole-banged-his-best-friend's-wife-thing Knight, that could have been epic for all time. Arthur's role in musical theatre was originated by the wonderful Richard Burton, and was played twice by Richard Harris.

"Avalon? Please. Hogwarts is where it's AT."

For the Richard Burton Fans out there, here is the man himself, singing 'Camelot':
Richard Harris gave two very different performances of this song. One was in the 1960's movie version, which is absolutely a seduction of Vanessa Redgrave. This is a king looking for a queen, and he is willing to use the sheer awesomeness of his lands to get her. The second Harris performance was a 1980's stage version. Twenty years changes the performance significantly. The more mature Arthur is expressing a joy absent of base sexuality when describing Camelot to Guenevere. So the older Arthur is a more childish portrayal, and the younger Arthur is more politically minded, so to speak.
The 1960's Version
His entire manner is just SCREAMING about how awesome he is, and by extension, how awesome he's made Camelot. Right down to the weather...
The 1980's Version
Ok, yes, this is the entirety of Act I. Enjoy.
Essentially, we see three different King Arthurs. His Lancelots have been just as varied, however.
The role was originated on Broadway by Robert Goulet, and the song that made his musical career is a phenomenal little number called 'If Ever I would Leave You'. This song is essentially his love letter to Guenevere, comparing her in each season and concluding that there isn't a season where she is ever unattractive enough to leave, despite her being another man's wife. Now, courtly love made the worship of the queen by the king's knights almost a requirement; they could even hang out naked together, provided it was "courtly" (read: not sexual, although kissing was apparently also allowed). Learner and Lowe, depending on the cut of the script, can either declare the Lancelot-Guenevere relationship as chaste, sexual, or ambiguous, but however you cut the script, this particular song leaves the audience in no confusion about Lancelot's passion for Guenevere.
First, we have the original Robert Goulet:
Just for funsies, let's look at some of Lancelot's other numbers, as performed by other actors.
First of all, we have 'C'est Moi', Lancelot's opening number, alternatively titled 'Look How Awesome I Am'. In 2008, Nathan Gunn sang Lancelot in a staged performance of Camelot with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. The music is phenomenal, as one would expect from a world-class orchestra, but Gunn manages to bring the funny by playing up the comedy in a song that other actors have taken so seriously that the audience can't take the character seriously. By hamming it up, Gunn invites the audience to laugh with Lancelot, as opposed to laughing at him.
Sam, darling, this one's for you.
Alternatively, we have Actor Franco Nero in the 1960's film version of "Camelot", also singing 'C'est Moi'.
Could the man be taking this more seriously? The 1982 film version of Camelot saw Richard Muenez as Lancelot, and he follows the Nero vein as far as performing 'C'est Moi' goes. You can see his performance in the very long clip above.
Now we get to the object of these two men's affections: Guenevere.
Guenevere is a problematic character; in the Arthurian canon, she is painted as everything from 'token woman' to 'demonic whore who turned down the best man ever and caused the fall of Camelot'. How she is portrayed is greatly dependent on how the author wants to portray Lancelot. It is very hard to be sympathetic to Lancelot (or the concurrent and phenomenally beautiful Tristan) without also painting Guenevere in a light that is, at least, not slightly neutral. In the very earliest Arthur stories, Guenevere has nothing to do with the fall of Camelot; she has no illicit relationship with Lancelot. The French Arthurian legends are the first ones to mention the adulterous affair, and then it spread like wildfire, and another woman was demonized.
The role was originated by the lovely Julie Andrews, and we'll be listening to her rendition of 'Before I Gaze at You Again'.
Julie Andrews was not the only actress to sing Guenevere. Vanessa Redgrave performed with Richard Harris, and Marin Mazzie sang with Nathan Gunn. Unfortunately, not a lot of clips of the Marin Mazzie performance exist, so the next clip is of Mazzie and Gunn, in the scene where Lancelot and Guenevere get caught.
For the Vanessa Redgrave example, we'll be looking at her sing 'The Lusty Month of May'.
Obviously, Redgrave was not chosen because she can sing.
And there you have the King, the Knight and the Queen.
Obviously there are other characters in Camelot, and the two Honorable Mention numbers are as follows:
1. Mordred, Arthur's son with his sister Morgause, sings 'The Seven Deadly Virtues'
2. The Final Ultimo, as sung by Richard Harris (1969)
A NY Times review of the Marin Mazzie Camelot is linked here.
Hopefully you've enjoyed these Notes from the Ivory Tower! We'll be back next time with another fun topic.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

A Dalliance (Or: A Random but Awesome Bunch of Sonnets)

Today's Notes from the Ivory Tower come straight out of general Poetry, with an emphasis on Sonnets.

For those of you who aren't fans of poetry or sonnets or Shakespeare, I'm just going to leave this here:
Why yes, yes that IS Professor Snape reading Shakespeare, and yes, we are going to look at that, and other sonnets more carefully.

Logistics first: What is a sonnet?

A Sonnet (Sonnetti, for "little song" in the original Italian) is 14 lines of poetry, with a rhyme scheme from either the first, second or third circle of hell, depending on whether you were English, Italian or Edmund Spenser. English sonneteers (Read: Shakespeare) wrote sonnets using 3 quatrains and a couplet. In plain English, that means the poem can be divided up into three sections of four lines, and one section of two lines. These sections are delineated by the rhyme scheme. Italian sonneteers (Read: Petrarch) wrote using an octave (eight lines) and a sestet (six lines). Edmund Spenser, being English, used three quatrains and a couplet, but if you look at the rhyme schemes of the three, you'll see the difference:

Sonnets were also written in iambic pentameter, which is a kind of metrical time. Basically, each "foot" of time has a stressed and an unstressed syllable in it. Aurally, this makes a heartbeat sound with the rhythm.

The next logical question is: Why were sonnets written? According to this article, sonnets were odes to beautiful women. This is true for Petrarch, and for Shakespeare and Spenser to some degree, but as time progresses, forward, we'll see that this does not necessarily continue to be true.

Ok, enough background details, let's look at some sonnets!

Starting, of course, with Shakespeare Sonnet 130:
My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
   And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
   As any she belied with false compare. 
This sonnet is an ode to a woman, certainly... but no gal is going to love being told that her hair is wiry, she's pale (before sparkly teenage vampires somehow made it cool?) and her breath stinks. What Shakespeare is doing here is reacting to the tradition of sonnets where the object of the poet's affection is held up as superhuman and therefore unattainable. An example of this kind of pedastaling of a woman is here is Petrarch's sonnet:
Sonnet 90
She used to let her golden hair fly free.
For the wind to toy and tangle and molest;
Her eyes were brighter than the radiant west.
(Seldom they shine so now.)  I used to see
Pity look out of those deep eyes on me.
("It was false pity," you would now protest.)
I had love's tinder heaped within my breast;
What wonder that the flame burnt furiously?
She did not walk in any mortal way,
But with angelic progress; when she spoke,
Unearthly voices sang in unison.
She seemed divine among the dreary folk
Of earth.  You say she is not so today?
Well, though the bow's unbent, the wound bleeds on.
 Petrarch is very much idealizing the woman in this sonnet, using adjectives associated with wealth as well as aesthetic beauty. For a Spenserian sonnet in this tradition (for those of you who want to dabble in some middle English; think Chaucer!), I'll leave this here:

Sonnet 64

Comming to kisse her lyps (such grace I found)
Me seemd I smelt a gardin of sweet flowres
That dainty odours from them three around
For damzels fit to decke their lovers bowres
Her lips did smell lyke unto gillyflowers
Her ruddy cheeks lyke unto roses red;
Her snowy browes lyke budded bellamoures,
Her lovely eyes lyke pincks but newly spred,
Her goodly bosome lyke a strawberrry bed,
Her neck lyke to a bounch of cullambynes;
Her brest lyke lillyes ere theyr leaves be shed,
Her nipples lyke yong blossomd jessemynes.
Such fragrant flowres doe give most odorous smell,
But her sweet odour did them all excel.
Basically, Spenser took a woman and compared her to a flower shop back before spelling counted.

You might be noticing a trend here: all the sonnets so far seem to cover similar ground. That was very much a think for great poets, and since sonnets were written in cycles, it's pretty easy to match up sonnets by subject.  The Spenser, Petrarch and Shakespeare sonnets above all focus on the love aspect of the sonnet.

Once we get to Milton though, we see things getting a little more weighty:
When I consider how my light is spent,
   Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
   And that one Talent which is death to hide
   Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
   My true account, lest he returning chide;
   “Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
   I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
   Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
   Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
   And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
   They also serve who only stand and wait.”
Milton is considering how time is spent, and since light is often a metaphor for sight, he is also considering how his time with his sight was spent (by the end of his life, Milton was blind). Compare that to John Keats's famous sonnet:

When I have Fears That I May Cease to Be

When I have fears that I may cease to be
   Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-pil├Ęd books, in charactery,
   Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,
   Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
   Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
   That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
   Of unreflecting love—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.
 Few things are weightier than considering one's own mortality, and here we have Keats's oft-assigned sonnet doing just that.

But, you may say, Keats and Milton are still old and stodgy, sonnets can't possibly be fun.

I'm just going to put this here:

Fairy-tale Logic

Fairy tales are full of impossible tasks:
Gather the chin hairs of a man-eating goat,
Or cross a sulphuric lake in a leaky boat,
Select the prince from a row of identical masks,
Tiptoe up to a dragon where it basks
And snatch its bone; count dust specks, mote by mote,
Or learn the phone directory by rote.
Always it’s impossible what someone asks—
You have to fight magic with magic. You have to believe
That you have something impossible up your sleeve,
The language of snakes, perhaps, an invisible cloak,
An army of ants at your beck, or a lethal joke,
The will to do whatever must be done:
Marry a monster. Hand over your firstborn son.
This sonnet was written by A.E. Stallings in 2010, and is possibly my favorite poem ever. It's modern enough to appeal to today's readers, is loyal to its poetic roots, and takes the genre in a new direction by flying into fancy.

Finally, I'm going to leave these here:
Why Petrarch Hates Shakespeare
Irreverent phrasing! Insouciance!
He writes to his Mister, his “Dark Lady”;
He takes this poetic form, makes it shady!
I’ll throw him into Mount Vesuvius!
He writes of love in a way most dubious,
No blondes, eyes of blue or matters weighty,
But dun breast and black wire; the “Bard” is crazy.
A young man clearly less than studious,
Mistaking sheer volume for quality,
To read his sonnets puts me in a malaise.
With brass, earth, sea, it speaks of frivolity
Which denies me give any sort of praise
To this man in his writer’s fantasy.
He should have stuck to simply writing plays.

This is an original piece by me, written for an intro to poetry class in 2011.
Shakespeare’s Zombie
Shall I compare thee to a zombie Hoard?
Wrinkled grey skin falling from rotten bones,
The entrapping scent and discordant chords.
Craven creatures munching children and crones.
Shrieked cries of hunger edge the northern wind,
While the south wind whispers “wherefore art brains?”
Beautifully bright blood bleaches snowy hill’s skin
While the lovely bones line the silent plains. 
But thou, my Zombie queen sublime surpass
Infrequent lovers, the dead mortals past. 
Your cries for brains intrigue and tease in blasts
I stumble close for true love at the last…
Entrapped in your arms, together at last
My brains ripped out, your final repast.

This is another (slightly better) original piece by me, for a mixed-genre creative writing class in 2010.

Hopefully you've enjoyed these Notes from the Ivory Tower! We'll be back next time!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Platonic Ideals and Audiences in The Seasons

Today's Notes from the Ivory Tower are getting pulled from 18th Century Poetry and College Composition Pedagogy. These notes are coming to you in direct preparation for a grad school essay,  so bear with me for some rambling thoughts through The Seasons with lightning bolts from Plato and pedagogical theory.

"Why endeavor after a long Poem?  To which I should answer—Do not the Lovers of Poetry like to have a little Region to wander in where they may pick and choose, and in which images are so numerous that many are forgotten and found new in a second Reading?"
                       - John Keats, on the Long Poem

Thomson's The Seasons is a very, very long poem.  It's around four thousand lines, in four sections. Obviously it's a bit much to focus on the entire poem, so we'll be focusing on the language that Thomson uses to speak to his audiences. I'll be using Ede and Lunsford's article discussing audiences, so for those of you who aren't familiar with the concepts of audience addressed/audience invoked, the article is linked here.

Thomson's Audiences
  • Audience Addressed: In Thomson's case, the addressed audience is literally addressed in the poem. He names Frederic, Prince of Wales and numerous patrons and friends in the openings and bodies of the four sections. In the case of naming the Prince and his patrons, Thomson is making very obvious political moves. He's basically flagged the poem with big names, the way designer perfumes have names like Justin Beiber, Taylor Swift and Mark Jacobs on them. It's old-school poetic street cred for Thomson. That street cred comes with strings attached, however. You do not want to publish views with which your patron or, god forbid, the Heir Apparent disagrees with.
  • Audience Invoked: The invoked audience is basically the audience that the writer (in this case, Thomson) had in their heads when they were writing. Thomson seems to have had everyone and no one in his head when he began writing. He is clearly drawing from Newton at times in the poem, and the body of the text is thick with classical allusions. This would suggest a wealthy, well-read audience. Thomson also (in keeping with the genre of Georgics) gives his readers extended images of swains going about their humble, rural lifestyle. That suggests an entirely different type of audience.
Once the question of Audience is thoroughly snarled, Thomson throws in these Personified Abstractions. And by that I mean we can finish a section of the poem where Thomson has just explained that light refracting through water causes rainbows, or a poet sits down by the fire in winter to think about heroes, and suddenly Anger or Melancholy walks in the room to vent.

Plato's hierarchy of Forms dictates that we have the single ideal form of something, and anything else in the world that we call, say, anger, is a mere shadow of the Ideal. Thomson would appear to have the Ideal walking into the room, which is of course going to affect the audience, be that audience addressed or invoked.

Let's look at some semi-problematic quotes now, shall we?

Assuming that's not too small to read, let's unpack that 13 or so lines. Thomson openly references Newton and the newly understood scientific theories of the time regarding the formation of a rainbow. Specifically, the words "Prism", "refracted" and "proportion" are used, which are all quite Latinate terms that would have been associated with an educated (read 'wealthy') audience.
In contrast to the science, however, we have the swain wandering in the field to find the end of the rainbow. This sections reads like a ekphrasis of  the scene in Fantasia after Zeus finishes playing darts with lighting bolts. Everyone is entwining with the rainbow in pure ecstasy.
So thus we have a tension in the poem in terms of the audience. The question must be asked: is Thomson being intentionally condescending to the swains among the readership? Or is he rebuking (however gently) the wealthy, educated readers for losing a sense of appreciation and wonder for the world? 

These aren't questions that get answered lightly, and the language is very carefully chosen so that it can be seen as innocuous. 'Swain', for instance, has no adjective attached to it, so the reader isn't being cued by Thomson one way or the other.

Here's the second quote to examine:

Oh good, that's a bit easier to read. This is one of Thomson's Personified Abstractions; Anger has just entered the building, folks.

It seems pretty simple at the outset. The highest Platonic Ideal of anger walks into a bar. So what's the punch line? Well, it would seem (if we follow Thomson's train of thought through the next 28 lines or so, which all readers might not have done, due to skip and dip reading habits in the 18th Century) to be... Something. You got me on this one, Thomson. Anger walks into a bar and then walks right back out again after 28 lines.

Contradictions and Personified abstractions are rife throughout The Seasons; the above quotes are simply two examples taken out of "Spring". The other three sections of the poem are filled with equally contradictory language and personifications, linked together by long list of everything in the world (If you think I'm exaggerating, by all means read the poem. If you get through all of it, good on you! You've read a list of everything in the world.).

Hopefully (although I'm not honestly holding out THAT much hope) you enjoyed these Notes from the Ivory Tower, and if not, we'll be back next time with something a little less dry and dusty. Maybe with more videos too!