The silent wife – Part 1

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In a previous post (here), I stated that I would be writing exclusively about Shakespeare’s Coriolanus during the month of January. Here is my first attempt to deliver on that promise! 🙂 This post will be split into a part 1 and part 2 because it just got too long!

Virgilia is Coriolanus’ wife and, admittedly, she doesn’t really have a big role in the play.

Here is the extent of her lines in the play:

Act 1 Scene II: This scene is where she speaks the most, but all her lines express the worry she has for her husband or her desire to remain at home until his return.

Act 2 Scene I: She has three lines during this scene, which is the scene of her husband’s homecoming. Oddly she goes completely silent when Coriolanus appears. This impels Coriolanus to call her “my gracious silence” (2.1.180) when he sees her crying instead of rejoicing at his return.

Act 4 Scene I and II: Once again she has a mere three lines, even though these scenes encompass Coriolanus’ departure from Rome after being banished and a confrontation with the tribunes for the people whose actions ultimately led to the banishment.

Act 5 Scene III: Again she has a few lines in this scene where Volumnia, Marcius’ son, and Virgilia try to convince Coriolanus not to sack Rome.

So, what gives? Is Virgilia just a secondary, under-developed, character in this tragedy or does she argue a point (albeit almost as quiet as a mouse)?

It seems that Coriolanus describes Virgilia best as “my gracious silence” (2.1.180). For she is his; she is referred to throughout the play almost exclusively as Coriolanus’ wife (vs. by her name). She appears to belong to him in more ways than that, as her lines are overwhelmingly dedicated to worrying over him (as in act 1 scene II), or exclaiming at his return or change of fortune. Gracious is also an accurate representation of who she is, as she graciously allows Coriolanus to make social faux pas after faux pas. He also leaves her to raise their son (Shakespeare claims they had one, Plutarch says they had two) with Volumnia, a domineering mother-in-law. She endures all this emotional turmoil without uttering hardly anything. Consequently, of course, silent seems to be most befitting her as she utters little to nothing throughout all the most intense plot points. Even despite Volumnia’s initial plead for her to “…sing, or express (her)self in a more comfortable sort” (1.3.46-7). Coriolanus’ might also call her “my gracious silence” because he views her as being gracious in her silence or, in other words, he is thankful that she neither honors him with praises (which, being the weirdo he is, he hates) or tries to persuade him to do something his “noble virtue” tells him would be wrong.

Virgilia’s absence and lack of expressiveness is a criticism on Shakespeare if it is not read as intentional. I see this absence as a deliberate with drawl from social and political life.  I believe that she does this for her own preservation, as well as the preservation of her son. Virgilia is as much Volumnia’s counterargument as she is Coriolanus’.

Tune in to see why in my next post! Thanks for reading!

 

 

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How a free e-book can help you read Shakespeare’s Coriolanus

I remember reading A LOT of Shakespeare in high school and college. I think that many, if not all, of us have cracked open one of Shakespeare’s tomes and wondered why they are so highly esteemed. For me, as a younger reader, I struggled with the archaic language and the inevitable essay that followed. Boromir lends his hand in helping summarize this feeling (thanks Bor, come not between a hobbit and his magical evil ring though…).

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It wasn’t until my last year of college that I got a taste of what Shakespeare really was and it changed my perspective about his work.

The college course I took on Shakespeare was titled Shakespeare’s Rome. This course also yielded the beginning of a project I have re-ignited on this blog as the reader’s notebook. Turns out Shakespeare had one and pulled quotes from it at will! In the course, we read Coriolanus, Titus Andronicus, Antony and Cleopatra, as well as a whole host of texts that Shakespeare himself used as inspiration. Not only did it reveal (to the uninitiated) Shakespeare’s great skill at rehashing the popular works of his time, it provided an academic study of his sources, in language that was often much easier to understand. It also exemplified a belief characteristic of Shakespeare’s time: that reading ancient texts and more contemporary literature made a student a better person, and that a higher level of moral consciousness could be achieved through this act.

In the month of January I plan to post exclusively about Coriolanus. Coriolanus has been dubbed Shakespeare’s most political play, which often makes it even more difficult to wade through. I would argue that Coriolanus is very relevant and that he might even have some similarities with our current president (more on that to come!). Coriolanus also gives a perfect example of how reading from Shakespeare’s library grants us increased access to his plays.

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The selection I refer to, in regards to dissecting Coriolanus, is Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s lives, a book that Shakespeare read. Plutarch’s lives is, by itself, a brick in the foundation of the western canon and can be read in order to illuminate a variety of different texts or just for the heck of it. Plutarch was an academic with stamina and has blessed modernity with an enlightening view of Roman culture, history, and storytelling. So, being the cheap, resourceful reader that I am (refer to this post here) I headed over to google books to find myself a copy of Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s telling of Coriolanus.

Quite frankly reading the 43 some pages of North’s translation has made Coriolanus much more comprehensible to me. You can get the version I read here and bookmark it for future use. The text that was scanned in order to make the e-book has been written on, but the notes give the e-book format more character (in my opinion) and doesn’t really interfere with the words.

My experiences with Shakespeare’s sources, I believe, beg the question of why I (and all the others who have passed through high school in the U.S.) wasn’t shown these texts as a fledgling in my literary career. North’s translation is not difficult to read, in fact it is much easier to digest than Shakespeare. I think that a curriculum change is in order!

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Thanks for reading! And look out for more posts about Coriolanus in the month to come.

 

 

 

Seven places to get your classics fix without breaking the bank

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The Bookworm by Carl Spitzweg. Photo source here.

I am a classics fanatic, give me anything published before 1923 and I’ll be happy (though I know, books considered classics have been written past that date). And here’s the important thing about this moment in time, most books published in the U.S before 1923 are in the public domain, i.e. these books can be bought for little to nothing if you are willing to forfeit a physical copy for a digital one. As a budget conscious reader, this has been helpful in granting me immediate access to complete works without having to spend a dime. This might seem like borderline piracy but don’t worry, it’s completely legal and since these authors have already shuffled off this mortal coil they are not loosing any royalties.

Here are a few of my go to places where you can get these digital editions:

1. The Gutenberg Project – Go here before the other options on this list. If you have never heard of these crusaders for learning, they are a dedicated group of volunteers who meticulously comb through works whose copyrights have expired and offer them up for online consumption. They boast 54,000 digitized texts and an easily navigable website all for free. Here is the link.

2. Amazon kindle – I have downloaded the complete works of Jane Austin, the Brontë Sisters, Herman Melville, and Henry James from this source. For all these enriching texts I have shelled out a mere $5. I have also downloaded Plutarch’s lives of the noble Grecians and Romans and part 1 of Dio’s Rome for free. I like this option because I can put the works on the Kindle app on my phone, making note taking and highlighting a manageable task.

3. Google books – As with the other resources listed here, this is another place to download classics and other important works. I recently downloaded Madam Campan’s text detailing her time with Marie Antoinette from this digital storeroom. You can read my post about that here. I also downloaded Wharton’s Ethan Frome. Like with Amazon, I can download these works onto the google play books app on my phone or read them online. Note taking and highlighting are also easily done on this app.

BUT WAIT! What if you are not willing to part with the sacred physical text just to save a buck. Then there are also many places I go to buy classic literature without lining the pockets of the publishing scoundrels.

1. My local used bookstore (and all other used bookstores in my general area and anywhere I travel.) – I am lucky enough to have a used bookstore some 20 miles from my house. Books are fairly priced (about $8-10 a pop) and they offer a store credit program if you bring in books. Most used bookstores have a credit system, take advantage of one near you. I also actively seek out bookstores where ever I visit. For example, I regularly frequent a bookshop in San Luis Obispo, California called Phoenix Books. This bookseller has a substantial collection from all genres. There are some drawbacks to going this route, most used bookstores (but not all) don’t have a catalogue of books and so you are obligated to browse. If you are looking for something specific, you may be disappointed, but you’ll have the opportunity to discover some hidden gem instead.

2. Antique stores – Antique stores are not just good for old china and rocking chairs, some antique stores are quite accomplished in book terms. I once snagged a copy of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities for $1 (ONE DOLLAR), published in the 70s and in fairly good condition. I have also had the privilege of adding to my collection of older books. As with used bookstores, browsing is the only option. The antique stores you look into may not have exactly what you are looking for, but the quest for the perfect read can still be equally as enticing.

3. Amazon book sellers – When all else fails, or you’re looking for something specific, I have had success with Amazon. Look at the more buying options for any classic you might covet and, of course, buy used to save the most money. Chances are you will be supporting a small bookseller in some distant part of the country.

4. The library (WHAT?!) – Of course, the most logical option, a modest temple in which we pay homage to the literary gods, is always at your disposal when it comes to free classics. I love my library, have engaged in meaningful banter with its guardians, and am its qualified cartographer. Most libraries also have an inter-library loan system, meaning that you can checkout books from most libraries in your vicinity. Options are endless.

Hopefully this list of free or modestly priced places to buy books provides a safe harbor from all those bookselling giants that want to sell you a reprint of Homer’s The Odyssey for $35…. And, to top it off, being the Christmas season and all, some of these locations offer great ways to buy meaningful gifts for all those deserving people on your Christmas list without having to serve off brand soda at your holiday function in order to foot the bill. I mean seriously who wouldn’t want to unwrap a gently used version of Spenser’s the Faerie Queene on a wintry Christmas morning?

Thanks for reading!!

 

The best in 20 words or less

“I minded him how royal ‘twas to pardon/ When it was less expected.” (Coriolanus 5.1.18-9)

Amaze all your friends with the perfect quote, plucked from literature and organized by category, here.

(1869 painting by Soma Orlai Petrich of Coriolanus’ wife, mother, and son begging him not to slaughter the citizens of Rome.)


Worthy words

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Angry mob forms to demand bread at Versailles. Photo source here.

Rabblement (noun) 1. A class or category of people conceived of as forming a mob… 2. A disorderly, disorganized, or unruly crowd… (This definition was retrieved from here and are not my words.)

I originally found this word in Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon: “I hope that this book does not turn out to be an elegy for the Western Canon, and the rabblement of lemmings will cease to hurl themselves off cliffs.” (p. 4)

In the context of his sentence, Bloom refers to the academics who work to overthrow the Canon as the rabblement. Bloom demonstrates his propensity for nuance in the use of this word; he represents this group of people with new ideas with a semi-archaic term.

Madame Campan

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Madame Campan. Photo source here.

This will be my first post in a long time. I am a school teacher and getting started with the year is always hard! That being said, I have had some time for reading (that’s not from a teacher’s manual). Currently in my hand is The Lost King of France by Deborah Cadbury.

It’s my second read through of this griping realization of the fate of the French monarchy (the first being on a turbulent, anxiety producing plane ride back to the U.S from France.) The book begins with a recounting of Marie-Antoinette’s arrival in France, her marriage and life at Versailles, and then the bloody recklessness of the revolution and the ultimate demise of the royal family. The book’s central purpose is, however, telling a more modern story: science’s power to unravel the mysteries of time. DNA testing was performed on a dried heart, rumored to have belonged to Marie-Antoinette’s son Louis-Charles. I certainly won’t spoil the ending here, but greatly recommend the read!

Another aspect of the book that I greatly enjoyed was Cadbury’s quoting of various primary sources. It made life at Versailles and the revolution truly palpable. In my eternal efforts to come closer to the source, I looked up these works (mostly diaries and correspondence) in google books because, well, who doesn’t like public domain books!

At the moment I am reading through the Memoirs of the private life of Marie-Antoinette, queen of France and Navarre by Madame Henriette Campan, which was published just a year after Campan’s death in 1822. Madame Campan became the femme de chambre to Marie-Antoinette in 1770. This position, in my understanding, was a powerful one, but amounted principally to setting out the queen’s clothes and helping the queen dress. However, Madame Campan was an accomplished woman, she could speak many languages and had experience running in the circles of high society (despite humble beginnings). She remained with Marie-Antoinette until 1792, when the Tuileries Palace in Paris was overtaken by angry, violent mobs and she was extracted from the queen’s presence. Madame Campan was an educated, self-sufficient, resourceful woman who bestowed upon modernity a detailed account of how hard monarchy falls.

She writes,

“The private history of royal personages …are too much disguised by formality, and restricted by ceremony, to afford any insight into their inclinations or personal character. In order to reach these elevated mortals, we must strip them of the lustre which dazzles us, and of the pomp in which they are enveloped.”

In that first sentence alone she does what the people of France and the revolution never  accomplish. She made the royal family, which she greatly respected, human. She goes forwarded with one of the greatest lessons of history: no one is untouchable or immune to suffering.

White Washed Walls

I have had the opportunity to read Jane Eyre three times. Once, begrudgingly, in high school, again, slightly less begrudgingly, in college, and now. Thankfully, after all the drudging I did to get through the volume the last few times, I’m very much enjoying the novel this go around. (Perhaps because this time I didn’t have to write an essay after.)

If you’ve never read Jane Eyre, you might not ever feel the need to, but Charlotte Brontë had admirable motives for birthing this work. These are revealed in a line from her introduction to the second edition. She writes:

The world may not like to see these ideas dissevered (i.e. those discussed in Jane Eyre), for it has been accustomed to blend them; finding it convenient to make eternal show pass for sterling worth – to let white washed walls pass for clean shrines. 

I’m sure some literary critic, or expert on the 19th century novel, might come along to correct me, but I understand these lines as a critic of the treatment of the poor by the rich. I am reminded of Mrs. Reed (Jane’s first benefactress) locking her up in the red room, the poor conditions that Mr. Brocklehurst allowed at Lowood School, and the actions of Mr. Rochester, perhaps not to Jane, but to his wife. While the rich, synonymous with pretenders and hypocrites, live on pedestals, the poor and oppressed take the brunt of all punishment and scrutiny. These same poor who are, as Jane often states, only trying their best and are generally genuine and kind. It’s not a wonder why this revelation would upset people in the mid-1800s (or even today!).

I am enjoying this story by means of a 1943 reprinting of the second edition. The publisher, Random House, produced a large number of these volumes, so they are pretty easy to find. I came to possess this particular edition through my mother, who received it as a gift from a neighbor many years ago. Particular to this reprinting are the wood engravings by Fritz Eichenberg. It is always nice to have illustrations breaking up long runs of text. These illustrations are done in a somewhat exaggerated style, that is almost caricature-ish. They do an excellent job at communicating the cold snobbishness and perceived righteousness of the upper class, the solemn acceptance of the poor, and the sweeping romance between Jane and Mr. Rochester.

Below are a few shots of the illustrations. Thank you for reading!

Front Cover (Pupils of Lowood)

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Cover Page

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Mr. Brocklehurst Reprimanding Jane with his Wife and Daughters (in Full Pomp)

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Kind Mrs. Fairfax

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Jane and Mr. Rochester

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The Aspern Papers by Henry James

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Henry James looking pensive. Photo source here.

One of my favorite authors is Henry James (when he’s not writing from a woman’s perspective that is). He definitely has a way of setting the scene, of building suspense, and of either gratifying his reader with the perfect conclusion or plummeting his reader into a chasm of disappointment. The latter is exactly what he does to us poor readers in his short story (some might say novella) The Aspern Papers.

I remember reading The Aspern Papers for the first time in college. The story completely engrossed me, as I sat surrounded by the dinginess of my dorm room. I was transported to a dilapidated Venice buzzing with expectation and exasperation, a place so hot I imagined the canal water might boil.

The story is about an un-named historian ( perhaps James entended us to insert our own names) who goes in search of letters a famous, ficticious author wrote to a lover in his youth. Aspern’s lover, who is now ancient, is named Juliana and she lives with her niece, Tita, in an old gray and pink palace. The palace has a garden attached, which gives the protagonist the perfect excuse to go bother the women, who have decidedly shut themselves away from the world. He secures a room in the palace (only after forking over a large amount of rent money) and then the waiting begins. His hope was to befriend Juliana or make Tita fall in love with him, and then snatch the papers (those letters the deceased Aspern wrote to Juliana) from them or, perhaps in his wildest dreams, be given them. Without spoiling much of the ending, it doesn’t work out well for this nameless fellow.

After my original Dover edition got lost in a series of moves I made after college, I bought James’ complete works on Kindle… I can’t help but think that reading this story from a physical book was so much better. And that wouldn’t a first edition be all the more appropriate.

A quick look at Abebooks revealed the there is a first edition for sale, with a beautiful blue cloth cover adorned with silvery gilt. According to the bookseller’s description the volume was published in England in 1888 and is in fairly good condition. You can check it out here. My excitement was high until reading the price tag ($475!!). I’m not surprised. I guess in this case I’m a lot like the un-named protagonist, despairingly close to the object of my literary desires but forever barred by some insermountable keeper. My Juliana is money.

Thank you for reading!!

My Grandmother’s Book of Sonnets

My grandmother grew up on a cotton farm in Greer County, Oklahoma. Her father was the first to use irrigation in the county. She was the middle child of three. She attended the University of Oklahoma in Norman where she studied literature and met my grandfather. She worked as a secretary for many years before becoming a home maker.

Though my grandmother appeared to live a life typical of her time, she carried progressive ideals that have transferred down through three generations. My grandmother believed in being educated and in being well read, despite being a woman born in 1925. (She was also an advocate of bilingualism and wanted her children to learn French. Though her children never secured this chance, my sister and I did because of the importance she placed on being bilingual.) These ideas are immortalized in an old book of hers that rests stiffly on a stack of much newer titles in a small wooden cabinet.

The book is sheathed inside a decaying gray dust jacket, taped at various points in its life. The front and back cover of the book are dingy, but intact, with only some fraying at the corners.  It’s obvious she read the entire volume, as she left notes throughout in an extinct antique cursive. The publisher is The Peter Pauper Press, the city of publication is Mount Vernon. There is no date accept for a handwritten note on the flyleaf of the book that reads Wanda Sue Smith Feb 46. (What a name, right?!)

A quick look at the publisher’s website revealed that, in 1928 at the age of 22, Peter Beilenson began the printing company in his father’s garage. According to Beilenson’s son, the printer produced books “that even a pauper could afford,” despite being very finely crafted, displaying the work of many “acclaimed artists,” and being printed on hand-made paper (Quote source here). In fact, the last page of my grandmother’s book claims that the text is printed on “specially-made Peter Pauper Press Paper.”  This “discount edition” seems to resonate with my grandmother’s modest rural upbringing and lofty literary ambitions. In 1935, the Peter Pauper Press was moved to Mount Vernon. Between this time and 1946, my grandmother’s volume of Shakespeare’s Sonnets was born. (All information about the publisher can be found here.)

In 1972 my grandmother died of lung cancer (scarcely 26 years after her first read of Shakespeare’s Sonnets). She had been a smoker all her life. She left behind her three children, one of which was my mother (only 17 at the time). Her book of Sonnets connects her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren to a deeply private inner life, one that kept the gravity of her illness a secret until the very end. It is a treasured family relic, that I am honored to inherit.

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