Saturday Apr. 23, 2016

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Sonnet 116

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no, it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come.
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out ev’n to the edge of doom.
      If this be error and upon me proved,
      I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

“Sonnet 116” by William Shakespeare. Public Domain.  (buy now)

On this day in 1635, Boston Latin School, the first public school in the United States, was founded. It is also the oldest school still in existence in this country, and still requires its students to study four years of Latin. Inspired by the Free Grammar School in Boston, England, the Reverend John Cotton was instrumental in establishing this repository for the sons — and later daughters — of Boston’s elite. In its 381-year history, the school has produced four Harvard presidents, four Massachusetts governors, and five signers of the Declaration of Independence. It names among its dropouts Benjamin Franklin and Louis Farrakhan.

It’s the birthday of American poet and translator Coleman Barks (books by this author), born in Chattanooga, Tennessee (1937). He grew up in the South and ended up teaching for many years at the University of Georgia. He’d already published two books of poetry, The Juice (1972) and New Words (1974), when fellow poet Robert Bly showed him some literal translations of poems by the 13th-century Sufi mystic, Rumi. Bly told him, “These poems need to be released from their cages.” Barks teamed up with a Persian linguist and set to work translating the poetry into English. Since then, he’s published 15 collections of Rumi’s poetry, including The Essential Rumi (1995).

Today is the birthday of Roy Orbison (1936), born in Vernon, Texas. One day, during a songwriting session with his partner Bill Dees, Orbison asked his wife, Claudette Frady Orbison, if she needed any money for her upcoming trip to Nashville. Dees remarked, “Pretty woman never needs any money.” Forty minutes later, Orbison’s most famous hit, “Oh, Pretty Woman,” had been written.

It’s the birthday of novelist James Patrick (J.P.) Donleavy (books by this author), born in Brooklyn, New York (1926). He was in the Navy in World War II, then went off to Trinity College, Dublin, on the GI bill. His first novel, The Ginger Man (1955), was published in France, by Olympia Press, the same press that published Lolita, also in 1955. It was included in the Modern Library’s list of the 100 best works of fiction of the 20th century; it has sold more than 45 million copies and has never been out of print. Dorothy Parker said nobody could write a better novel than The Ginger Man — which she called “a rigadoon of rascality, a bawled-out comic song of sex.”

It’s the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Barry Hannah (books by this author), born in Meridian, Mississippi (1942). He said, “I didn’t have a bookish home, except for the Bible.” Instead, he listened to his aunts tell stories late into the night. During high school, one of his teachers played recordings of Dylan Thomas reading his poetry, and then Hannah went to college and read The Sun Also Rises, and he loved it. His father wanted him to be a doctor, but he realized that he was terrible at his premed courses but talented at writing, so he switched to English. He started publishing stories in college, and then his first novel, Geronimo Rex (1972). He went on to write seven more novels and five books of short stories, including Airships (1978) and High Lonesome (1996).

Hannah said, “I loved the life, the secret life, of the typewriter when the house was quiet.”

And: “Writers maybe just stare, like cows — just staring. Most people don’t stare. A writer is unembarrassed to just keep looking.”

Today we celebrate the birthday of playwright William Shakespeare (books by this author), born on or near this day in Stratford-upon-Avon (1564). The records for Holy Trinity Church mark the baptism three days later of “Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspere”: William, son of John, Shakespeare.

The facts about Shakespeare’s life are slim. His father was a glovemaker, and the boy probably got a good education until he was about 15 or so. In 1582, 18-year-old Shakespeare married 26-year-old Anne Hathaway, who was pregnant with their first child, Susanna. This wasn’t a particularly unusual circumstance — it’s estimated that one-third of women in Tudor England were pregnant when they got married. In 1585, Anne gave birth to twins, Judith and Hamnet. After that, nothing definitive is known for seven years, when the records show that in 1592, Shakespeare was living in London as a playwright and actor. The first mention of him, in fact, is a mocking review by a fellow playwright, who wrote: “There is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers [...] supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you.”

The exact chronology of Shakespeare’s plays is unknown, as well, but many place his first as The Two Gentlemen of Verona, written some time between 1589 and 1591. It’s not widely considered to be a very good play, but it has some of the elements that he would return to again and again in later works: a woman dressed as a boy, the bonds of male friendship, and a love triangle. In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Shakespeare wrote: “Didst thou but know the inly touch of love, / Thou wouldst as soon go kindle fire with snow / As seek to quench the fire of love with words.”

A few years ago, a handful of scholars theorized that Shakespeare was a tax evader who illegally hoarded grain during years of famine and then sold it at inflated prices. That may or may not be true, but there’s no doubt that he was a savvy businessman. He invested in real estate around Stratford, and he owned a one-eighth share of the Globe Theatre.

The Globe Theatre was built in 1599 by Shakespeare’s theater company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. It was located just outside of London, south of the Thames, because London had banned public playhouses in city limits. Not only did the city discourage crowds because of the threat of disease, but they also considered plays highly immoral. The preacher Thomas White gave a sermon and said: “The cause of plagues is sin, if you look to it well, and the cause of sin are plays, therefore the cause of plagues are plays.” The area where the Globe was built already attracted masses of people to drink beer, go to brothels, and watch bears baited by dogs. The Globe was an open-air theater; rich people could pay more to sit on a cushion in the balcony, while most people thronged together in the open pit at the center. Those regular audience members were known as “groundlings” or “penny stinkards.”

In 1613, during a performance of Henry VIII, material from an on-stage cannon lit the thatched roof on fire and the entire theater burned to the ground. The only serious injury was to a man whose pants caught on fire, but someone dumped a bottle of beer on his pants and put out the fire. The Globe was rebuilt on the same site and reopened the following year — this time the roof was tiled, not thatched.

The first of Shakespeare’s plays to be performed at the Globe was probably Julius Caesar in 1599. In it, he wrote: “But I am constant as the northern star, / Of whose true-fix’d and resting quality / There is no fellow in the firmament.”

In As You Like It, which was also performed at the Globe, he wrote: “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players; / They have their exits and their entrances, / And one man in his time plays many parts.”

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®