The History of Literature #50: Othello

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One of Shakespeare’s four great tragedies, The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice (ca. 1603) is perhaps the most difficult of them to watch. The malevolent Iago, viewed by some as evil incarnate, has been infuriating audiences for centuries – legend has it that at one performance in the Old West, a cowboy in the audience was so offended by Iago’s machinations he pulled out his pistol and shot him. And theater professionals are well accustomed to the gasps, cries, and occasional screams from the audience as they view the horrendous scene, in which the jealous lead character is finally driven to kill his wife, the innocent Desdemona. What motivates Iago? Why is Othello so susceptible? And what themes in Othello still resonate today?

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Show Notes: 

You can find more literary discussion at jackewilson.com and more episodes of the series at historyofliterature.com.

Contact the host at jackewilsonauthor@gmail.com or by leaving a voicemail at 1-361-4WILSON (1-361-494-5766).

Music Credits:

Handel – Entrance to the Queen of Sheba” by Advent Chamber Orchestra (From the Free Music Archive / CC by SA).

The History of Literature #48 – Hamlet

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Hamlet (ca 1599-1602) has been called the greatest play ever written in English – and even that might not be giving it enough credit. Many would rank it among the greatest achievements in the history of humankind. Jacke Wilson takes a deeper look at the Prince of Negative Capability and his famous soliloquy.

Play

Show Notes: 

You can find more literary discussion at jackewilson.com and more episodes of the series at historyofliterature.com.

Contact the host at jackewilsonauthor@gmail.com or by leaving a voicemail at 1-361-4WILSON (1-361-494-5766).

Music Credits:

Handel – Entrance to the Queen of Sheba” by Advent Chamber Orchestra (From the Free Music Archive / CC by SA).

Aristophanes and Spike Lee

Our History of Literature journey takes us to Aristophanes next.  I’m working on the episode now, which of course will have a heavy emphasis on his play Lysistrata. And then I realize that the play has been adapted to a modern-day setting for a movie (Chi-Raq) by none other than Spike Lee.

I admire Spike Lee and his films, although I probably have only seen about half of them (and none of the recent ones). I’ve always viewed him as someone with a vision and a voice, who fights to get his movies made, sometimes taking on more commercial projects in order to fund his more personal ones, but not really succeeding at that in any clear way. It seems like there’s a parallel to be found between the career paths of Lee and Orson Welles – wildly successful early film, celebrity, a rush of follow-up projects that don’t go as well, and then a whole patchwork career of artistic successes, even more artistic compromises, tangling with the studios, projects done for money, more celebrity, an utter devotion to film and what it can do (even as the film industry and/or viewing public repeatedly disappoints the filmmaker), and still more celebrity. In short, a filmmaker to be reckoned with, and a model for how a person with talent and an independent streak wrestles with the film establishment of his time.

In any case, it’s easy to see Spike as an artist who can appreciate the potential of a story like Lysistrata…although, well, let’s just say that gender relations have never exactly been one of his strongest suits. And after reading this Stranger review I’m a little worried. A taste:

Here we were, the most antisocial people in the writing world, reaching out to share the pain we had just experienced. The pain of Chi-Raq, Spike Lee’s ambitious new film tackling inner-city Chicago violence through the power of the pussy (I wish I were exaggerating, but it’s based on the ancient Greek playLysistrata). A fucking horrible film. This film is so bad, that even after 20 minutes of commiserating with other reviewers, even after bitching about it on my date later in the evening for another 20 minutes, I still don’t know how to pour all my hate for this film into one review.

Ouch. On the other hand, Chi-Raq has also gotten several good reviews. It’s free for those of us who can stream Amazon prime videos.* And–in true History of Literature podcast spirit–we can learn from artistic failures as well as successes. What makes the movie fail (if indeed it does)? What, if anything, does that say about Aristophanes?

I guess I’ll have to watch Chi-Raq to see where I stand on this.

*I was mistaken about this. The movie has been produced by Amazon but is being released in theaters. 

Gore Vidal’s Great Orson Welles Story

I’ve read a lot of Orson Welles stories, but somehow I missed many of the gems in this fantastic NYRB essay by Gore Vidal. Here’s one of my favorites, where Vidal and Welles are analyzing “like a pair of Talmudic scholars” a draft of Rudy Vallée’s memoirs, which Vidal has managed to get his hands on:

As professional storytellers, we were duly awed by Rudy’s handling of The Grapefruit Incident, which begins, so casually, at Yale.

Ironically, the dean was the father of the boy who, nine years later, was to hurl a grapefruit at me in a Boston theater and almost kill me.

Then the story is dropped. Pages pass. Years pass. Then the grapefruit motif is reintroduced. Rudy and his band have played for the dean; afterward, when they are given ice cream, Rudy asks, “Is this all we’re having….”

Apparently one of [the dean’s] sons noticed my rather uncivil question…and resolved that some day he would avenge this slight. What he actually did later at a Boston theater might have put him in the electric chair and me in my grave but fortunately his aim was bad. But of that more later.

Orson thought this masterful. Appetites whetted, we read on until the now inevitable rendezvous of hero and grapefruit in a Boston theater where, as Rudy is singing, “Oh, Give Me Something to Remember You By,” “a large yellow grapefruit came hurtling from the balcony. With a tremendous crash it struck the drummer’s cymbal…” but “if it had struck the gooseneck of my sax squarely where it curves into the mouth it might have driven it back through the vertebra in the back of my neck.” Of this passage, the ecstatic Orson whispered, “Conrad”—what might have been if Lord Jim had remained on watch.

The ecstatic Orson, whispering  the word Conrad….simply sublime.

You can ask the genie to transport you to whichever historical period you want. I’ll use one of my three wishes to go have lunch with these guys.

Onward and upward!

Into the Wormhole with Goodnight Moon

Amazon.com’s “#1 Bestseller in Children’s Rabbit Books” (I did not make that up)

What do parents think about when they’re reading Goodnight Moon for the millionth time? If you’re awake enough to be alert, you might consider Freudian implications of the story (as a professor I once TA’d for used to do to a packed lecture hall). Or if you’re a data-driven sleuth, like the proprietor of the website Burrito Justice, you interrogate the space-time implications of the book.

Maybe the bunny and the old lady are actually in a space elevator, getting closer to the moon as he gets into bed? Or as suggested by @transitmaps, the bunny can bend space and time? I do not have a good answer to this conundrum, but that is what the comments are for.

After performing more calculations, a shocking conclusion is reached: Continue reading