Exit, Pursued by a Bear

Apart from being Shakespearen click-bait, the title of this post reflects a present-day fear.  We live on the edge of rural Pennsylvania.  If you’re not familiar with the state, let me assure you, there are tons of woodlands and rural communities.  You can drive for hours in a straight line and seldom leave the forest.  When my wife sent me a warning email—I go to bed early and can’t seem to sleep late—I paid heed.  A bear has been ambling through our town.  My usual morning jog is along a trail at the edge of the woods.  Bears are crepuscular.  I watch horror movies.  Put it all together and a Shakespearean level of anxiety quickly builds.  It wouldn’t be so bad, but the photos show the bear romping through backyards and one of the reasons I jog the way I do is to avoid other people.

I see wildlife on my jogs.  I see deer frequently, along with feral cats, rabbits, and, in season, ducks.  I’ve seen raccoons, foxes, groundhogs, and even snapping turtles and salamanders.  It’s not much of a stretch to think a bear could be lurking there.  So instead I took to jogging the human streets.  The danger out here, of course, is the human-borne kind.  Covid-19 lurks, and even though I jog at 5 a.m. there are other elderly out and about.  I hear a cough and wonder whether my chances might be better with the bear.  The broken sidewalk’s a problem too.  I have tripped before in the half light, but without Superman’s knack for flying.  Or at least landing gracefully.

Thinking back, I wonder what has happened.  As I child I lived in truly rural Pennsylvania.  My brothers and I used to sleep on our open porch in the summers, even though we could occasionally hear bears going through the trashcans around the side of the house.  Our place was hard up on the woods, right at the edge of town.  I didn’t worry about the bears back then, though.  We’ve perhaps become more afraid of nature because we know we’ve not been good to it.  The episode of the X-Files we watched before bed last night had Scully saying that nature’s always out to get us.  Perhaps we’ve drawn too solid a line between ourselves and brother or sister bear.  We’re not above nature; we are nature.  But still, I’d rather not be pursued, or eaten by a bear, no matter how much I like Shakespeare.  So I’ll jog in town for awhile, taking my chances with the dangers of my own kind.

Photo credit: Manitoba Provincial Archives, via Wikimedia Commons

For It Is Written

“The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose,” William Shakespeare wrote in his controversial Merchant of Venice. He was, in fact, using the Bible as the basis for this line. The story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness famously has Satan quoting the Good Book at him. It comes as no surprise, then, that Sarah Huckabee Sanders, following Jeff Sessions, uses the Bible to justify cruel and unusual practices of the Trump administration, according to a story in multiple media outlets. Trump himself doesn’t know the Bible well enough to quote it, but his minions feel that it can be summarized in one principle—obey the government. Oh, hi, Mr. Orwell, please take a seat over there; I’ll be with you in a minute.

Back in the days before leopards could change their spots, evangelical Christians tended to say that Jesus came to free them from the law. It seems that what they really meant was that Jesus came to allow them to cherry-pick the parts of the law that make the best cudgels against those they don’t like. Those who actually read the Bible know that it can generally be used to support either side of most arguments. Ironically, matters such as adultery *ahem, ah, Ms. Daniels, we weren’t expecting you here; please wait next to Mr. Orwell* are non-negotiable. Even Jesus said so. But let’s not talk about that—we’re too busy trying to pry children from their mother’s arms. Doesn’t the Bible say Rachel can’t be consoled because she’s lost her children?

That which is most holy is most horrible when it’s profaned. The Bible can hardly be called “holy” when found in the mouth of habitual liars. If Jesus were a gentile I’m sure he’d agree that whites have the right to do whatever they want in his name, right? Separating families because it’s the law is robbing Peter to pay Paul, then blaming Thomas. Sanders, Sessions, and their ilk pander to the biblically illiterate who like the sound of the phrase, “the Bible says.” Prooftexting, as anyone who takes the Bible seriously learns the first day of class, is cheating. Ah, Rev. Luther—I didn’t see you come in. What’s that you say? “Sin boldly”? Now there’s a message our government can live with. Especially if you let the Devil into the room. Yes, he’s welcome at the White House these days. And yes, he knows the Bible very well.

Taming Shakespeare

It hardly seemed credible, from what I heard in high school, that anyone would read Shakespeare if it weren’t required. I’m not completely naive, but I do wonder if we insist on introducing kids to the Bard before they’re ready for him. The real stumbling block is the unfamiliar words from the Elizabethan period. With enough regular reading they’re less of an obstacle to adults. Or should be. Or not to be. In any case, one of this year’s reading challenge books required that I read The Taming of the Shrew. I’d never read it before and kind of shied away from it because of the chauvinistic theme—Katherine has to be “tamed” by Petruchio so that her poor, sweet sister Bianca can be married. The overall theme is biblical—Rachel can’t be wed before Leah, so Laban declares. The play’s a comedy at the expense of women.

Those who know Shakespeare better than I question whether the playwright’s motives were as undeveloped as all that, but it is in keeping with the time. That’s not to excuse such patriarchal thinking, but we can’t rightfully blame people for thinking in the terms of their time. Yes, we now realize (except on Pennsylvania Avenue) that women and men deserve equal treatment. We are all human beings and should be treated as such, not as if one gender were somehow more important or better than another. In the Tudor Era, however, that idea had not yet caught on. The Taming of the Shrew contains clues as to why.

Perhaps the most reviled part of the play is Katherine’s closing speech as to why women should be subjected to men. Her reasoning is distinctly biblical. Indeed, the edition of the play I was reading took pains to point out the biblical allusions in the speech—primarily to letters of the New Testament. The fear, unaccountably real after all these centuries, is that we might go back to such thinking. The Bible, after all, doesn’t change much. The most conservative of society still read it in the King James, although the Bible Shakespeare’s contemporaries knew best was the Geneva translation. And, like the schoolchild reading Shakespeare, such conservatives need a little help with the language since words have changed their usages over time. They also may need some assistance realizing that not only words evolve, but so does our understanding of what it means to human. It’s not women who need to be tamed, Mr. Shakespeare. No, it’s quite the opposite.

The First Weak

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave. When first we practise to deceive!” I always thought this couplet came from Shakespeare, but in fact it’s from Sir Walter Scott’s poem “Marmion.” The quote has been in my head all this first week of the new administration as alternative facts, lies, and statistics have flooded out of the White House. Along with gag orders slapped onto federal agencies. I’ve worked for people who rely on gag orders. This obvious lack of transparency signals loud and proud that they have facts to hide. Then they will feed the public alternative facts and later claim they never did. Mission accomplished. Sir Walter Scott may not have been William Shakespeare, but he sure got that web analogy right. At times like this we need our writers. Of course, Trump bragged in pre-inauguration interviews that he didn’t like to read.

Since last weekend sales of George Orwell’s 1984 have spiked. From the first words out of Sean Spicer’s mouth (or any words out of the mouth of Kellyanne Conway}, many of us knew the only thing Orwell got wrong was the date. Frankly I’m surprised the government hasn’t tried to ban 1984 yet. It was required reading when I was in high school and that date was still in the future. The press—what still exists of it anyway—passed along stories that Trump had ordered photos of the inauguration day crowds hung in the White House in his first week. Such pressing matters of state! The photos had the wrong date on them. Facts are cheap. This should be good for the economy. You can get them in any flavor you like—true facts, false facts, alternative facts, statistics. Arachne has returned to her loom.

Although “Marmion” wasn’t written by Shakespeare, I can still say it was because I need a segue to Harold Hecuba. Hecuba was a Hollywood producer who accidentally landed on Gilligan’s Island. After he insulted Ginger the castaways put on a performance of Hamlet to showcase her acting skills. Hecuba, the unelected president of the island, awoke during rehearsal and, like other narcissists we know, took over. He says that Shakespeare was a hack and that if he were alive he’d have him working on a complete rewrite. Of course, he doesn’t know what Hamlet’s about. Or “Marmion.” Actors only mouth the words. They make us believe what is not true. We’re in for a period when we’re going to rely on the authors for the true story. I suggest we all start with 1984.

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

Cryptology 46

From Wikimedia Commons

From Wikimedia Commons

Four centuries ago this year William Shakespeare died. In the literary world there have been lots of commemorations going on, and all the fuss reminded me of a post I’d written some years back concerning Psalm 46. While teaching at Nashotah House, one of my students told me that William Shakespeare had covertly been involved in the translation of the King James Bible. The King James Version appeared in 1611, and Shakespeare was the prominent writer of England in that era. If you look at Psalm 46 in that version and count the 46th word from the beginning, you find “shake,” and the 46th word from the end is “spear.” I mentioned in my post that I’d not found any academic treatment of the issue and I’m happy to announce that I finally have. Of course it would be in an Oxford University Press book.

I’ve not read Hannibal Hamlin’s The Bible in Shakespeare, but I am able to glance through it at work. It turns out that I didn’t have the full details of this biblical urban legend. Apparently if you find the sixth and seventh words of verse 10 of that Psalm you find “I am.” The sixth and seventh words from the end are “will I.” Will.i.am would be proud (pardon the capital W). As much fun as all this evangelical exegesis might be, Hamlin calls shenanigans on it all. He demonstrates the literary history of the tale, pointing out that—not to spoil our fun—the cryptographic mentions of the Bard in the Bible are creative efforts of those of later generations. The interesting thing is, however, that the Bible is so closely scrutinized for codes that all kinds of hidden messages may be found. Look, for example, at what I discovered:

“For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first.” I don’t know about you, but to me this is clearly Paul warning the first Thessalonians of the present day’s troubles. When Trump is elected the dead will walk. Could anything be more prophetic than that? I haven’t done the math yet, but I’m just sure if you count the millions of letters in the Bible, you’ll find the name “Donald” spelled out somewhere. Scripture, after all, is the repository of all truth. One thing you won’t find, however, no matter how deeply you look. The billionaire’s tax returns are something God himself will never be able to see.

Free Words

Just over a couple of centuries ago on this date, Edgar Allan Poe was born. That auspicious moment is an inspiration for those of us who write, and not just those of us who like scary stories. Poe was one of the first Americans to try to support himself by his writing—an occupation that has remained difficult to replicate and attain, even centuries later. There had, of course, been earlier writers. Mostly they wrote as an avocation to their jobs or they had family wealth, but Poe knew his own talents well enough to believe that writing was his occupation. He still stands out as an icon to those who are hopefully of making some kind of mark in the literary world. The surface is, however, much harder than we anticipate. It is like diamond, which may be marked only by another diamond. It is worth stopping to think of literature today.

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Over the long weekend, celebrating the human spirit in the person of Martin Luther King, Jr., I decided to read William Shakespeare’s King Lear. Probably not the source of as many famous quotes as some of the Bard’s other plays, it was nevertheless fitting as a tribute to writing. King Lear is sometimes cast as Shakespeare’s most thoroughly tragic works. The mood of misfortune hangs over the entire play. And although Lear is likely a fiction from the mind of Geoffrey of Monmouth or his sources, his name recounts the Celtic god of the sea, Llyr. Historians and grammarians tell us that Lear is not directly derived from the god’s name, nevertheless, there is a divine madness about the drama that unfolds as love and power vie for control in ages long past. In the present day the tragedy is that love seems no longer to be part of the equation and raw power is left to mark those who would be kings.

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The holiday weekend afforded the opportunity to visit a local bookstore and to ask the owners what to read. It would give Poe, I’m sure, some hope to know that despite the difficulties there are those who still strive to live by their words. Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of a better way of celebrating freedom than to indulge oneself with the written word. Words lead to liberty. Although Poe’s life was short, and often tragic, Martin Luther King, Jr. lived to about the same age, and through his often tragic life, changed the world with his words. In this day of money hunger and electronic stimulation, it is good to set aside some time to reflect on the words that have made us who we are. Words are our ultimate freedom.

Creating English

From Wikimedia Commons

From Wikimedia Commons

The seventeenth century was a portentous time for the English language. Well, I suppose every day is portentous in some way, but in the year 1611 the King James translation of the Bible was published, and it still has considerable staying power in the English-speaking world. Quotes from it show up regularly among the modern media with many readers (and likely a few writers) having no idea of the origins of the phrases they use. Just five years after the King James Version made its debut, William Shakespeare died. Many languages can point to formative individuals or literatures that codified their forms of expression. In English the honor is shared by the forty-seven translators of the KJV and William Shakespeare. This four-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death is set to be a year of celebration among Anglophiles worldwide. We will gladly acknowledge that the words we write and speak owe much to the Bard and his lasting influence that still has high school students griping all the way through English class their senior year. I have read a Shakespeare play or two that I was never assigned in school, as many come to do. This year, among my reading goals, is at least one more of the works I’ve never read.

As with the text of the Bible, there is doubt about some of Shakespeare’s plays. Scholars scrutinize. (That’s what we’re supposed to do.) And scrutiny raises doubts. The seventeenth century was a time of generally acknowledged authorship. Some great English epics, such as Beowulf, have no author we can cite by name. Over time, however, quality came to be associated with the person who produced the literature. Even today a name often sells a book far more readily than the contents do. Some of Shakespeare’s plays may not go back to William himself, but the English language wouldn’t be the same without them, in any case. We are heirs to this legacy. Spelling began to be standardized. Grammatical expressions were codified. Classic stories predating Shakespeare became endlessly replicated and copied by those who know there’s no replacing an original.

A story on NPR notes that the First Folio—the first bound copy of all of Shakespeare’s plays—is being sent around the country this year by the Folger Shakespeare Library. Each state will host the first edition during the course of the year. The article by Susan Stamberg notes that this folio is the literary equivalent of the Holy Grail. Shakespeare is nearly as canonical as the biblical canon itself. Even if the Bard’s authorship is in doubt, it is still holy writ. Those of us who’ve spent considerable time with religious texts recognize the hagiography readily. No, these aren’t signed editions. Some of the work may have been done by someone else. Nevertheless, four centuries ago, through a combination of Bible and what we would today call “fiction,” the English language as we know it, was itself becoming canonical.

Inventing Concepts

A neologism is an invented word. Of course, it is impossible to be certain about the origins of many words, and even the many neologisms attributed to William Shakespeare may have been overheard by the bard at the local pub. Still, one of the things I sometimes dream of is inventing a word that will come into wide circulation. I think it must be easier to do in fiction than in non-fiction writing. When I first wrote my book, Weathering the Psalms, I chose what was, at the time, a neologism for the subtitle. “Meteorotheology” was a word I’d never read or heard before and, quite frankly, I’m not sure how to pronounce. Although the world-wide web existed when the book was written, scholarly resources were still few, and tentative. Amazingly, that has changed very rapidly. Now I’d be at a loss to find most basic information if I were isolated from a wifi hotspot. In any case, the web has revealed that others beat me to it when it comes to meteorotheology.

I suppose that some day, when I have free time, I might go back and see if I can trace the web history of the word. It is used commonly now to refer to God taking out wrath on people through the weather. For example, when the Supreme Court decision on the legality of gay marriage was handed down this summer, there were various websites—more popular than mine!—asking a “meteorotheological” question: when was God going to send a hurricane to punish the United States for its sin? These were, as far as I can tell, all tongue-in-cheek, but there can be no question that some people treat meteorotheology that way. It is a sign of divine wrath. My own use of the word had a wider connotation. When I was invited to present at talk at Rutgers Presbyterian Church in Manhattan a few weekends ago, I was reminded of my line in the book: “To understand the weather is somehow to glimpse the divine.”

That’s an idea I still stand by, but it is difficult to move beyond. What exactly does the weather say about beliefs in the divine? There’s plenty of room for exploring that. I know that when I walk outside to fetch the paper on a clear fall morning when the moon and stars are still out, I know that I’m experiencing a kind of minor theophany. The brilliant blue of a cloudless October sky can transport me to places unlike any other. What exactly it is, I can’t lay a finger on. That’s why I came up with the word meteorotheology. I many not have been the first person to use it. I may even be using it incorrectly. But the weather, in my experience, has many more moods than just anger. Any autumn day is enough to convince me of that.

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Hidden Messages

Symbolic gestures are among the simple pleasures of life. Unobserved, and certainly unappreciated, they comfort only those who perform them most of the time. Nevertheless, sometimes I just can’t help myself. Upon being summarily released after long-term employment at a certain institution of higher education, the day I left campus for the last time, I left a note with a Shakespeare quote tacked to my office door before literally brushing the dust from my feet as I drove through the gates never to return. The quote was from Julius Caesar, a play to which my niece had taken me that summer for a Shakespeare in the Park performance:

Let me have men about me that are fat
Sleek-headed men, such as sleep a-nights.
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.

I have no doubts that my symbolic gesture was overlooked and the chit summarily discarded as the detritus of a warped (i.e., liberal) mind. The act, however, had been done.

Due to a booking accident, I once found myself flying first class. Those who know me will understand just how vexing this was for me. I fly quite a bit for work, and I am a populist through and through. Airlines set apart special bits of feet-darkened carpet for premium-class passengers to tread upon. They cordon off a special “lane” for the pampered class that is a nothing more than a matter of a jump to the left and a step to the right away from where those of us who wear last year’s (or decade’s) clothes board the same vehicle headed for the same destination and to which we’ll all arrive at the same time. I don’t disparage those who like receiving drinks while on the tarmac and hot towels to freshen up, and actual food on real plates while those of us before the curtain insist that there is no wizard hiding up there after all. I’m just not one of them.

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So I found myself in a leather seat with an entire cow’s worth of skin to myself. I had never been so kindly treated on a plane, with perhaps the exception of flying economy on Virgin Atlantic. I knew from the in-flight magazine that those behind me received only little pretzels and overpriced snack boxes while I was offered warm food and champagne. I pulled out my reading for the flight, The Hidden Injuries of Class by Jonathan Cobb and Richard Sennett. I’m sure nobody else noticed. But wasn’t that precisely the point?

Witches or Prophets?

Some things never change. My daughter’s English class has finished its Shakespeare unit and this year’s selection was MacBeth. I recall the play from my own high school days, perhaps one of the hidden attractors that eventually drew me to Scotland. Shakespeare’s use of Holinshed’s Chronicles, however, was news to me. Raphael Holinshed was a 16th century chronicler of world history and his work gave Shakespeare the outline of MacBeth. The passage from Holinshed that stood out, concerning the witches, reads: “But afterwards the common opinion was, that these women were either the weird sisters, that is (as ye would say) the goddesses of destinie, or else some nymphs or feiries, indued with knowledge of prophesie by their necromanticall science, bicause euerie thing came to passe as they had spoken” (page 269 of volume 5, Scotland).

Being in the midst of courses on both prophecy and mythology, this passage ties a number of popular concepts together. Clearly the clairvoyance of magical females is simply accepted, and the easy association with classical characters such as the Fates or nymphs is evident. This is a world of mythical literalism. The weird sisters are able to predict the future with their necromancy. In a more nuanced view of prophecy, the concept actually incorporates effective speaking rather than future predicting. If a prophet speaks the words of Yahweh, in the Bible, then those words must of necessity transpire. When the stated events take place, it looks like prediction. Here Holinshed suggests the source of such knowledge for the women was more suspect.

Few of the biblical prophets are female. It is almost as if clandestine knowledge possessed by a woman marked her as a necromancer while a man might legitimately wield esoteric knowledge. This double standard no doubt applied in biblical times, and has lasted in various forms to the present day. The male establishment fears the knowledgeable female. Privilege takes many forms, all of them greedy. In my case I must gladly acknowledge that I would not have learned of Holinshed’s Chronicles if it weren’t for my daughter, and I am pleased for the opportunity to expand my esoteric knowledge.

Friday’s Wednesday

The ultimate stag party?

Mythology never ends. Many people live by it today under its name “religion,” and many in the ancient world endlessly recycled their gods until they ended up looking rather unrecognizable from their earlier forms. I was, therefore, intrigued when a friend asked me about Herne the Hunter. Herne is a mythological character about whom I had not heard. The earliest reference to the stag-antlered deity comes from William Shakespeare, and he has been co-opted by the Wiccan community, nicely tying together many of this week’s posts. So, whence Herne?

Shakespeare seldom invented ex nihilo, but rather adapted. Herne, already an established character, was a wrongly accused poacher who was hanged from a great oak in King Richard II’s England. He had been magically revived after a near-death experience earlier in life and had been crowned with fantastic antlers at that time. The horned head has reminded some Celtic mythologists of Cernunnos, a horned chthonian god attested in mainland Europe but not found in the British Isles. Yet others, by virtue of his being hanged on a tree and the similarity of his name to the epithet Einherjar, suggest Herne may have evolved from Wotan, or Odin himself. Woden was involved in the “Wild Hunt” episode of northern and central European mythology, and since Herne is a hunter, well, isn’t the connection obvious?

Such tales as this are instructive of the way that religions evolve. We know very little of the true origins of the story, but later versions become canonical. The present-day version is perceived to be “historical” and all others are merely coincidence or happenstance. Today Herne is a typical ghost story of Windsor Forest, and those who report seeing him say he still wears his supernatural horns. Those who want to discover his origins are left with a handful of books by publishers of the occult and hundreds of unanswered questions.

Bible Myths

The Bible is the most quoted book never read. That is, many people love to quote it without actually reading it all – yes, even Chronicles and Leviticus! The result is that the Bible itself has become a thing of mystery, a magical source of divine power with which the strong may subdue the weak, or by which politicians might win the most powerful office in the free world. The Bible is more dangerous than any weapon its believers may construct, for it is the source of the mandate, the writing that is so much more than ink and paper.

Over the years so many myths have grown about the Bible that it has become a mythical creature. Students often approach those of us who teach the Bible with amazing stories that defy explanation, or sometimes, that are just fun. This past week a student paper waxed eloquent on how the Bible physically describes Satan. It does not. The Bible tells us very little about what anyone looked like! One Bible myth that I have tried unsuccessfully to substantiate or debunk over the years, however, continues to elude me. It is the story of Psalm 46 in the incomprehensibly influential King James Version.

The KJV was completed in 1611, and William Shakespeare died in 1616. There is no evidence that Shakespeare was among those with any responsibility for translating the Bible, but his influence in England in his own lifetime was enormous. Many years ago a student informed me that Shakespeare made his way into Psalm 46. The forty-sixth word of the KJV translation is “shake.” Counting from the end of the psalm to the forty-sixth word from the end, one finds the word “spear.” So the gematria of the psalm give us the name of the putative translator. This story has all the signs of an apocryphal account of a Bible reader with too much time on his or her hands. If the story is true, I would love to see documentation. Otherwise it is one more monument of the power of book that few dare to read.

More than the sum of its parts