Thursday, February 15, 2024

Book Note: The Two Noble Kinsmen

Shakespeare, William, and John Fletcher. The Two Noble Kinsmen. Ed. Lois Potter. Walton-on-Thames: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1997. Arden Shakespeare.

Every ten years or so, I re-read The Two Noble Kinsmen. I first read it toward the end of my graduate work. I had a vague idea of writing my dissertation on madness in female characters in Shakespeare, and the play has one notable example.

It's also likely to be Shakespeare's last play, though not his last individually-authored play. 

It's also a good play with a lot of fun material, and it's also one of the few places where Chaucer serves as a major source: The plot of The Knight's Tale is the foundation of The Two Noble Kinsmen.

The setting is a war between Athens (led by Theseus—technically, he's the same Theseus from A Midsummer Night's Dream) and Thebes. During the war, Palamon and Arcite, two close friends fighting somewhat unwillingly but still honorably for Thebes, are captured and imprisoned.

The scene between the two of them is one of my favorites in the play. They pledge eternal loyalty to each other and are happy in prison because they're together in prison. When Palamon asks, "Is there record of any two that loved / Better than we do, Arcite?" (II.ii.12–13), Arcite replies "Sure there cannot" (II.ii.13).

And then . . . enter Emilia.

Palamon sees her first and falls immediately in love with her. Arcite sees her next and falls immediately in love with her. Then they get to argue comically about whose love should have the priority. Here's that scene:

It's all great, compelling material that sorts itself out through the rest of the play.

As that develops, we learn that the Jailer's Daughter (he's unnamed, and so is she) has fallen in love with Palamon—but when he fails to return her love, she goes mad. Act IV, scene iii shows us her madness and the plan for alleviating it:

There's more good, rich material there—including a rare (for Shakespeare) reference to barley-break (about which you can learn more here).

It's not the best play in the canon, but it's still quite interesting and quite readable. The scenes I like best are usually attributed to Fletcher—which makes sense if Fletcher is the up-and-coming new dramatist and Shakespeare is the author about to retire.

I recommend reading it—though once every ten years is sufficient. But let me know if you learn of a staging of the play! I'd love to see it in production.

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Thursday, February 8, 2024

Overreaction to a New York Times Crossword Puzzle Clue

Sarah and Rafael Musa. "The Door's Open." New York Times Crossword Puzzle. Edited by Will Shortz. Friday, January 26, 2024. "Tricky Clues" note by Deb Amlen. 

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Harold Jenkins. 2nd. ed. London: Arden, 1982.

Note: There will be a spoiler for four-across in this post. But you can see the clue and the blank space on the image to the right. Read on at your own risk.

I haven't been doing crossword puzzles for long, but, like far more seasoned puzzle-doers, I can already complain about the clues.

As you might suspect, I particularly revel in the not-infrequent Shakespeare clues. It's nice to find a balcony or a last word Hamlet utters or the occasional fool. But then there are the less-straightforward clues—the ones that border on the controversial or at least that require more explanation.

Such is the case with the clue for 4A in a recent puzzle: "The 'handsaw' in Hamlet's 'I know a hawk from a handsaw.'" And the answer, as you can see below, is "Heron."

The most reasonable response to this is, of course, "Huh?" And the explanation in the "Tricky Clues" section doesn't really help much:

At times like these, there are worse things to do than turn to Harold Jenkins' Arden edition of Hamlet. Here's his brief note on the line:

Being Jenkins, we also have a comprehensive LN (Long Note) that tells us more:

Thank you, Harold Jenkins! The "Tricky Clues" explanation made it seem like everyone should automatically know that when Hamlet says "handsaw," he really means "heron." It's more complicated than that.

And I agree with Jenkins' general reading that no such stretching is necessary. Putting the two terms into the same class (two kinds of birds or two kinds of tools) empties the phrase of its vitality and its import. Hamlet isn't saying that he can tell two very similar things apart ("I can tell the difference between a 200-thread-count and a 220-thread-count pillowcase" or "I can tell a 40-watt bulb from a 45-watt bulb"). That would give the spies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern too great a reason to watch him even more closely. Instead, he's saying he knows the difference between a mountain and a molehill or an elephant and an earwig—something that takes no special insight or intelligence. 

It reminds me of the people who insist that when Jesus says it's as easy for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven as it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, he isn't talking about a literal needle but about a very small gate called "the needle's eye." You could just get a camel through that gate if you unloaded it and did a lot of convincing and cajoling: it would be difficult, but not impossible. Interpreting it in that way takes away its power and its humor.

"I can tell a hawk from a handsaw"—I can tell the difference between a living, breathing, feathered bird found in the wild and an inanimate object found on a carpenter's workbench—says everything by saying nothing. Let's leave it with its power and humor. The answer to 4A should be "small saw."

Links: The puzzle in the NYTimes archives.

Click here to purchase Harold Jenkins' edition of Hamlet from
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Bardfilm is normally written as one word, though it can also be found under a search for "Bard Film Blog." Bardfilm is a Shakespeare blog (admittedly, one of many Shakespeare blogs), and it is dedicated to commentary on films (Shakespeare movies, The Shakespeare Movie, Shakespeare on television, Shakespeare at the cinema), plays, and other matter related to Shakespeare (allusions to Shakespeare in pop culture, quotes from Shakespeare in popular culture, quotations that come from Shakespeare, et cetera).

Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Shakespeare's works are from the following edition:
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
All material original to this blog is copyrighted: Copyright 2008-2039 (and into perpetuity thereafter) by Keith Jones.

The very instant that I saw you did / My heart fly to your service; there resides, / To make me slave to it; and, for your sake, / Am I this patient [b]log-man.

—The Tempest