Tag Archives: drama

Underworld

Below is the section in which the speaker meets his guide. [From the “Underworld” part of *The New House of Fame* by Paul “Whitberg” Burgess]

“Meeting My Guide”

Inside a bare, depressed, neglected room,
Were nameless graves with labels ‘one through nine’.
I came across a shade beside a tomb
Whose sunken eyes appeared to softly shine
and momentarily dispel the gloom.
His eyes, which gazed intensely into mine,
Suggested that he hoped I’d stay to talk
To him about the place the pallid walk.


His voice, which sliced the silence like a sword,
Then said, “Though once a legend of the stage,
For many years, I’ve mostly been ignored
Or mentioned briefly on a ref’rence page.
With England’s finest troupes, I often toured
And earned the highest honors of my age.
Who’d think an era’s great celebrity
Would be consigned to long obscurity?

Before he* held a gentlemanly staff
And fame had pushed his head to tops of trees
Beyond the reach of any tall giraffe
(or whatever novel idiom you please),
I was inducing Shakespeare’s crowds to laugh
Until they begged for breath upon their knees.
Together we were Joves to Adam’s wife:
What Will designed, I galvanized to life.

[As if displaying his ability to clown,
His language was, at times, an awkward blend
Of phrases from a modern urban town
And others from the sixteenth cent’ry’s end.
He’d call a beard “a bed of facial down,”
Then speak of “twerking” or another trend.
He knew as much of newer slang above
As Cupid’s ever known of making love.]

What’s most remembered from our Much Ado?
Why—by the heathen rites of popish mass—*
The constable who never had a clue!*
I was a hit with high to lower class,
But later Will declared, “You never grew.
You’ve always played the part of brainless ass.
I’m weary of the roles you’ve been assigned
And long for jests more gentle and refined.”*

Is William Kempe a name thy ears have heard?
I was, as modern Yankees call it, “cool.”
Before the days that Willie was “yes-sirred”,
I played the part of clown and rustic fool
[When Will required a scene or two absurd
Enough to make the groundlings grin and drool.]
But by the time he was composing Lear,
He’d caused the roles for me to disappear. “

“If you’ll remain a moment by my side,”
(He whispered in a pleading, hopeful tone
I think would pierce a tyrant’s armored hide
And soften stainless steel or solid stone)
“I’ll tell you more whilst serving as a guide
To wonders living men have never known.
…But, first,” he said, excited as a dog,
“I wish to share a witty monologue.”

Although he’d never let me have my say,
I thought with pity, “Time has done him ill.
Provided I’ll not have to give him pay
Or find a sacrificial beast to kill,
I’ll let the lonely actor lead the way…”
My thoughts were broken by these words from Bill:
“I’ll now begin my witty, pretty speech,
In which, like Horace, I’ll delight and teach.”

“Will Kempe’s Monologue
“Who’d think that Death could take so many souls
across the river Greeks once knew as Styx?
The Reaper reaps the carriers of coals.
He buries builders skilled at laying bricks
and people smiling when the cam’ra rolls
[but, when it’s off, assaulting aides with kicks].
Of spirits dead there’s such a high amount
that I’d not try to take a thorough count.

“That hair, those lashes curled by skillful hand
Will fall one day from your decaying skull.
That skin you have so diligently tanned
Will fade until it has become quite dull.
Your famous frame, your sunken ship unmanned,
In time, will be a rotting, hollow hull.
For many decades, your body will endure
without a perm or proper pedicure.”

It seemed his monologue would never stop.
I cut him short, which caused his eyes to tear.
“Cuttest thou my mind’s unripened crop?
This cut, unkind as that of any spear,
Hath made my sinking spirit drop.
…yet, mark my final pretty couplet here:
Though ‘fame’ and ‘glory’ are appealing terms,
They’ll keep no man from being food for worms.

“In Bessie’s age*, an actor who was hired
Would win the fame of being dutiful
(And other names to which he had aspired)
With lines as filled with what is beautiful
As babes are filled with grace when nobly sired
Or ships of pirates are of booty full.
But if you fancy speeches short and plain,
I’ll bind my wit with cold Concision’s chain. “

NOTES:

*He=Shakespeare. For the sake of meter, I have taken grammatical liberty with “He” and its antecedent. I realize that a possessive form, like “Shakespeare’s,” does not serve as a proper antecedent to “he” because “Shakespeare’s” is functioning here as an adjective that modifies “crowds”. In any case, readers need not assume that the stylistic quirks of characters are also those of the author;)

*Tensions between Protestant England and the Catholic world made similar irreverent oaths common in England. ]
*Dogberry—played by William Kempe, the stanza’s speaker
*Robert Armin, known for more sophisticated humor, replaced Will Kempe in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

*Bessie was an affectionate nickname for Queen Elizabeth I.

“Shakespeare in the Underworld” [Complete: Parts I-III]

Selections from The New House of Fame by Paul “Whitberg” Burgess

A chat with England’s bard will make it clear
that death for stars is still a thing to dread.
I trust you’ll recognize this person here
[Unless you’ve got no brain inside your head].
That’s William Shakespeare–Britain’s treasured dear,
A man among the greatest of the dead.
Now have a conversation with the Bard
To see that death’s a fate that’s always hard.


Before the Bard could say a single word,
He was approached by Richard Number Three
(A king who’s also known as “Rick the Third”).
The Bard inquired, “What dost thou want of me?”
The Third replied, “Thou sland’ring boorish bird,
Thy song hath brought me lasting infamy.
Thy play–a dreadful toy, a trivial thing–
Hath made me seem the worst of any king.

I thank thee–balding, bitter, whoreson, hack–
For making sure that all posterity
Would think me evil with a crooked back.”
Said Will, “To thee, I gave eternity.
A famous name–which many hate to lack–
I gave thee as an act of charity.
Without my widely-read and studied play,
How many would recall your name today?”

Richard glared and turned to walk away.
Then, William took a seat and breathed a sigh
And said these weary words I’ll now relay:
“A second death I’d volunteer to die.
I deeply loathe this place of gloomy gray,
And passage out of here I’d gladly buy.
Although my body long ago decayed,
It seems my spirit’s not allowed to fade.”

I never rest. Each moment seems to bring
Complaints from ev’ry lady and her lord,
From ev’ry princess, baron, queen, and king
Whose fame on page and stage has ever soared—
Instead of being some forgotten thing
That future ages knew not and ignored.
If I had known they’d never let me be,
I never would’ve written history.”

“Thou’ hast not come, I hope, with foul design…
In other words, to ask about my work:
‘The plays and poems–are they truly thine?
Above the questions never cease to lurk.’
Some claim that visions from a source divine
Reveal the Bard was Russian or a Turk,
While others say he served our Holy Lord
Or was a pirate living by the sword.”

“Another says, ‘Well, ev’rybody knows–
As royal flower comes from royal bud–
No lowly peasant ever could compose
Those works that hint at none but noble blood.
Our culture’s greatest poetry and prose
Was fathered only by a noble stud.
He who composed those lines we read today
Was never making gloves to earn his pay.’

‘Perhaps the credit Will so long has taken
Belongs to Earl of Oxford, Ed de Vere—
If not a king, a queen, or Francis Bacon.’
Said Will, “For love of peace, I’ll shake no spear
At silly theories that they’re fond of makin’,
But lies have harmed old Ed and Frank, I fear—
They both believe they wrote A Winter’s Tale,*
And their debate has grown a little stale.”

*De Vere, believed by some conspiracy theorists to have been “Shakespeare,” died several years before the composition of A Winter’s Tale.

“I’d also keep the scholars out of here:
[‘If Bottom turned by magic to an ass
Is, like I think, a bawdy pun on “rear,”
I’ll teach my Early English Drama class
That Will was saying slyly, “I am queer”
And scenes in drag express his inner lass.’]
[‘Does Lear suggest it’s choice or iron fate
That makes a person bi, or gay, or straight?’]

“One critic claims I had a proto-commie’s voice,
While others say that freer enterprise
Was doubtlessly my economic choice.
He thinks I served the state with pretty lies,
She says rebelling made my heart rejoice.
They make me what they love or most despise…
The real “me” critics think they can define
Is not contained in any written line. “

“Another blow from fickle, frightful fate
Are bards I often am assaulted by.
How deep’s the well of bitter rivals’ hate!
I’d thought with death that jealousy would die,
But writers foul, along with writers great,
Despise that I’m one critics deify.
Although the fault is surely none of mine,
It irks them that my name’s become divine.”

Although there’s truth in much of what he said,
It seemed he wanted only to complain.
His whiny ways began to hurt my head.
As much as this confession causes pain,
I admit that, from England’s bard, I fled
As people flee from falling acid rain .
I went in search of other famous ghosts
And hoped they’d serve as better spirit-hosts.

“Shakespeare in the Underworld”

[Part I: a selection from The New House of Fame by Paul “Whitberg” Burgess]

“A chat with England’s bard will make it clear
that death for stars is still a thing to dread.
I trust you’ll recognize this person here
[Unless you’ve got no brain inside your head].
That’s William Shakespeare–Britain’s treasured dear,
A man among the greatest of the dead.
Now have a conversation with the Bard
To see that death’s a fate that’s always hard.
 

Before the Bard could say a single word,
He was approached by Richard Number Three
(A king who’s better known as “Rick the Third”).
The Bard inquired, “What dost thou want of me?”
The Third replied, “Thou sland’ring boorish bird,
Thy song hath brought me lasting infamy.
Thy play–a dreadful toy, a trivial thing–
Hath made me seem the worst of any king.

I thank thee–balding, bitter, whoreson, hack–
For making sure that all posterity
Would think me evil with a crooked back.”
Said Will, “To thee, I gave eternity
A famous name–which many hate to lack–
I gave thee as an act of charity.
Without my widely-read and studied play,
How many would recall your name today?”

“Hamlet”: a limerick

While not exactly a masterpiece, the following piece combines two of my favorite things: Shakespeare and limericks.

There once was a depressing young Dane.
It appeared he was wholly insane,
But he’d planned to seem mad
While avenging his dad
Who[m] his evil old uncle had slain.

a limerick by Paul Burgess

“Reflections on Milton’s *Comus*” by Paul Burgess

Since I share so much nonsense and insanity, I thought I might share a brief sample of the type of ‘intellectual masturbation’ academic work I was trained to do and did…once upon a time. [I rarely did “close readings” of texts; I am sharing this because it is so much shorter than other pieces.  Much of my academic work–though taken at face value–parodied the type of work done by cultural and literary critics and historians].

                                                        Gay Rhetoric and Mere Moral Babble:
Comus and the Lady’s Argument
Most readers would agree that John Milton’s Comus celebrates chastity—and other forms of temperance—while rejecting excess. The action of the masque demonstrates virtue’s power to withstand the assaults of vice: Comus, the tempter, fails to corrupt the chaste Lady who, like her virtuous brothers, earns “a crown of deathless Praise” for triumphing “o’er sensual Folly and Intemperance” (974, 976). But, while events argue for temperance’s superiority, the arguments offered in favor of virtuous behavior are not as convincing, powerful, and logical as those presented in defense of sensual indulgence. By providing the Lady with feeble responses to Comus’ eloquent speeches, Milton has—in the words of the “Spirit”—“let the false enchanter scape” (815); while “Chastity” remains intact, and therefore undefeated, indulgence also “survives” and retains much of its appeal.

From a Miltonic perspective, resisting sin would deserve little praise if sin were unequivocally repulsive. To merit praise, the masque’s heroine must prove chaste when confronted with temptation. Testing the Lady, and perhaps the audience, Milton has Comus make an alluring case for indulging in “all the pleasures/that fancy can beget on youthful thoughts” (670-71). The enchanter argues primarily that people—and especially the young and beautiful—should actively enjoy the delights that Nature has provided. Failing to use Nature’s gifts leaves the “all-giver…unthank’t” and “unprais’d” (724). Making use of the “carpe diem” convention, Comus emphasizes that some of Nature’s gifts—such as “Beauty,” which is “nature’s coin”—“must not be hoarded” because these gifts lose value and fade as one ages. Regardless of Milton’s probable intentions and despite the common perception that Comus speaks in favor of excess, the enchanter’s speech is more a refutation of the idea that abstinence is virtuous than an argument in favor of overindulgence.* Comus does not say that one should feast, literally or symbolically, like a glutton but rather says that one should not ungratefully waste Nature’s bounty. Even if “immoral” and unsound, Comus’ argument appealingly suggests that gratifying oneself praises the “all-giver;”* recognizing that Comus rationalizes sin does not necessarily render his reasoning unattractive.

Providing “virtue” with “tongue to check” vice’s “pride” (760-63), Milton has the Lady attempt to refute Comus’ argument and to prove that the “Juggler” has not deceived her with his “false rules prankt in reason’s garb” (757-59). Deigning to “unlock” her lips in the “unhallow’d air,” the Lady briefly defends the “holy dictate of spare Temprance” (767). She argues powerfully that
If every just man that now pines with want
Had but a moderate and beseeming share
Of that which lewdly pamper’d Luxury
Now heaps upon some few with vast excess,
Nature’s full blessings would be well dispens’t
In unsuperfluous even proportion,
And she no whit encumber’d with her store,
And then giver would be better thank’t,
His praise due paid, for swinish gluttony
Ne’er looks to Heav’n amidst his gorgeous feast
But with besotted base ingratitude
Crams and blasphemes his feeder. (768-78)
Her speech attacks Comus’ idea that nature becomes overburdened with its unused abundance. Aristocrats, she suggests, indulge so excessively that they deprive others of resources; nature’s resources, in her view, are only sufficient for all if people refrain from taking more than their “beseeming share.” Satisfied with herself, the Lady asks rhetorically, “Shall I go on?/Or have I said enough?” (779-80). But her self-satisfaction is unjustified. Although an effective critique of some forms of overindulgence, the Lady’s argument makes sense only in reference to the use of “consumable” resources. She has proven that Comus’ analogies are flawed, but she has not made a logical case against sexual intemperance. According to her reasoning, “gluttony” is harmful because it impoverishes others. But indulging in the sexual equivalent of gluttony does not deprive anyone else of the pleasures of sex. Each time one has sex, he or she is sharing the “resource” of “beauty” with another person. And, in any case, abstinence is more like fasting than temperate consumption.

Rather than strengthen the case for chastity, the Lady devotes the remainder of her speech to insulting Comus and insisting that—if arguing with a virtuous, reasonable person—she could make a case for chastity so strong that her words would move “dumb things” and “the brute Earth would lend her nerves and shake” (795-96). After little discussion, she has come to the conclusion that speaking about the “Sun clad power of Chastity” would be useless because Comus has “nor Ear nor Soul to apprehend/ the sublime notion and high mystery/that must be utter’d to unfold the sage/and serious doctrine of Virginity” (782-87); in other words, she could only “convince” those who already agree with her. And proving herself yet more unwilling—and perhaps unfit—to evangelize, she decides that Comus is not “worthy” that he should “know/More happiness than this” his “present lot” (789-90). By the time she has finished speaking, the Lady has spoken much about what she could say in defense of chastity but has provided little—if any—substantial argument for adhering to the “serious doctrine of Virginity.”*

       Elements of performance— such as costumes, gestures, props, and delivery of lines— could make the Lady more appealing than Comus*. But, when read, the enchanter’s speeches are attractive, while the Lady’s self-righteous speeches suggest that she avoids logically defending chastity either because she does not know how to or because few compelling arguments exist for adherence to the “virtue.” Many Miltonists would likely insist that the poet wants readers to arrive, after struggling, at the conclusion that sin will sometimes appear more attractive than virtue. The same critics would perhaps claim that Milton says less in defense of virtue because the good of chastity is self-evident and needs no defense; the Lady also speaks less than Comus, some might say, because she is “temperate” and refrains from using excessive words.* Regardless of what Milton intends, I would argue that the masque, or at least its text, makes an appealing case for indulgence and that this case is never thoroughly refuted and never rendered entirely repulsive; the Lady’s argument, on the other hand, combines clear and powerful rhetoric with “mere moral babble” (805).

 

* By the time he writes Paradise Lost, Milton—or at least his epic’s narrator—seems to consider abstinence unnatural. The narrator suggests that sex with one’s husband or wife is a gift from God. Perhaps reacting to Catholic veneration of abstinence, many Protestants expressed the view that abstinence—as an extreme form of behavior—is intemperate.

*I would suggest that Comus’ ideas resemble those of some Christians. For many Christians, Earth and everything provided by nature belongs to man; in keeping with Christian terminology, I have used the term “man” intentionally. Failing to use resources could be considered an affront to the God who has so generously provided for his chosen beings; some anti-environmentalists have continued to believe that everything on Earth has been provided for the benefit of God’s elect—i.e. those belonging to their group. Comus’ argument differs primarily in its application of the idea to matters of sexuality. Without denying that temperance is a Christian virtue, I would point out that the temperance cherished by Renaissance Christians was influenced profoundly by Aristotle and other classical authorities.

* The phrase “doctrine of Virginity” sounds curiously Catholic. If the phrase were not found in the text, one could perhaps assume that chastity, in the context of the masque, means—as it does for Spenser—not abstinence but rather enjoying sex only with one’s (own) spouse.

*Readers should, however, keep in mind that Comus was originally intended to be a “closet drama,” i.e. to be read rather than performed.

* But one could more accurately describe her speeches as full of words but—at times—devoid of substance. She could have actually defended chastity rather than devoting so much energy to expressing the power with which she could defend chastity. I anticipate scholars arguing that events demonstrate the superiority of chaste action to “lewd” words; actions are the tools of the virtuous while words are the tools of the sinful deceiver.