Thursday Apr. 23, 2015

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That time of year thou mayst in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self that seals up all in rest.
In me thou seest the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed, whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.

"73" 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 376-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 Vladimir Nabokov (books by this author), born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1899. He was the first of five children; his father was a lawyer and politician, and the family were well-to-do members of the minor nobility. He grew up with access to a lavish library, and was trilingual, fluent in English and French, as well as his native Russian, from an early age. When he was 17, he inherited an estate from his uncle, but he lost it the following year in the Bolshevik Revolution, and he was never to own a house again. The family fled St. Petersburg during the revolution, and in 1919 they settled in Western Europe: first England, where Nabokov attended Cambridge, and then Berlin, where his father was shot and killed at a political rally in 1922.

Nabokov left Berlin in 1936 with his wife, Vera, who was Jewish, and their son; they moved to Paris but left again in 1940 to escape the Nazi advance. They settled in the United States, where he wrote and pursued the life of the academic nomad, moving from rented house to rented house and teaching at a series of colleges. In 1961, the success of his famously controversial novel Lolita (1953), and its subsequent film adaptation, enabled him to retire and write full time, and the Nabokovs moved to a hotel in Switzerland, where they lived until his death in 1977.

He wrote his first nine novels in Russian and then began writing in English, although he mourned the loss of his native language. He wrote in the afterword to Lolita, “My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English.”

Today we celebrate the birthday of playwright and poet William Shakespeare (books by this author), born in Stratford-upon-Avon, England (1564). Stratford was a small market town about 100 miles northwest of London. His mother came from a farming family, and his father was a glove maker. He probably attended a local grammar school, where he would have received a decent education: some Latin, a little Greek, and reading the classics. For a few years, there are regular records of his life. When he was 18, he married Anne Hathaway, who was pregnant with their first child, Susanna. Two years later, they had twins, Hamnet and Judith. Then there is no mention of Shakespeare for seven years after that, but at some point during those years he left his family behind and moved to London to work as an actor and writer.

In 1592, playwright Robert Greene mocked Shakespeare in a popular pamphlet. He wrote: “There is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tiger’s heart wrapped in a Player’s hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you.” Greene was referencing Shakespeare’s line “Oh, tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide” from one of his early plays, Henry VI Part 3. Soon after Greene published his pamphlet, all theaters were closed because of the plague, and Shakespeare spent that time writing poetry: Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, and sonnets.

When the theaters reopened, Shakespeare joined an acting troupe called the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later, the King’s Men), where he remained a member for the rest of his career. Soon after he joined the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Richard II, and probably earned a decent income from them, because in 1597 he bought the second-largest house in Stratford. The theater scene was changing rapidly in those days. Theater was still considered wicked by many, particularly religious authorities — both for the content of the plays themselves and for the rowdy crowds they drew. A few years before Shakespeare arrived on the scene, the writer Stephen Gosson warned: “At plays in London, you shall see such heaving and shoving, such itching and shouldering, to sit by women [...] such ticking, such toying, such smiling, such winking.” One Puritan leader suggested that attending a play would teach its audience to become (among many other things) hypocrites, liars, traitors, cheaters, rapists, drunkards, murderers, and atheists. Powerful officials, including Queen Elizabeth (and later, King James I), protected the acting troupes. Actors were accustomed to a life of constant touring, but in 1576, actor James Burbage built the first permanent English theater since the Roman era, a thousand years before. Shakespeare and several other company members built their own theater, which they called The Globe. There were actually two versions of The Globe — the first caught fire from a cannonball during a performance of Henry VIII and burned down. Most of Shakespeare’s plays were performed there during his lifetime.

He revised his will in March of 1616, and died less than a month later. He left almost everything to his eldest daughter. He left his wife only his second-best bed, although some people speculate that the best bed would have been for guests, and therefore the second-best bed would have been the marriage bed.

He wrote 38 plays, including Richard III, Hamlet, Twelfth Night, Macbeth, and The Tempest. He also wrote more than 150 sonnets.

He said, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

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