Act II of The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov begins with these lines by Charlotta: “I haven’t a real passport. I don’t know how old I am, and I think I’m young. When I was a little girl my father and mother used to go round fairs and give very good performances and I used to do the salto mortale and various little things. And when papa and mamma died a German lady took me to her and began to teach me. I liked it. I grew up and became a governess. And where I came from and who I am, I don’t know. . . . Who my parents were–perhaps they weren’t married–I don’t know. I don’t know anything.” Charlotta is a woman with an uncertain past.
Shortly thereafter, Epikhodov speaks these lines: “I’m an educated man, I read various remarkable books, but I cannot understand the direction I myself want to go–whether to live or to shoot myself, as it were. So, in case, I always carry a revolver about with me. Here it is.” Epikhodov is a man with an uncertain future.
(Although Charlotta caries a hunting rifle in this scene and Epikhodov shows his revolver to the audience, neither gun goes off by the end of the play. This scene is the exception that proves the rule of “Chekhov’s gun”: “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.”)
Charlotta and Epikhodov present the audience with two questions that are central to the play: What is our past? and What is our future? These questions, although presented by two separate characters, are inseperable; our futures are intimately tied to our pasts.
This principle is easy enough to recognize. What is more difficult is determining just how much the past dictates the future. To over-emphasize the past is to abdicate one’s own volition and agency. (“I must do such-and-such because I am fated to do so.”) But to ignore the past is to give up our most valuable teacher, experience. As they say, those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.
We must find a way to learn from the past without becoming slaves to it. And that sounds a lot easier than it is.
Beer of the week: Rewind Hefeweissbier- This brew comes from Chicago’s Around the Bend Beer Co. The name is a reference to the fact that Rewind is a classic German-style wheat beer. THe brewers at Around the Bend clearly intend to learn from the past. It is orange and cloudy, with a nice foamy head. The aroma is totally classic for the style, with very prominent banana notes. The flavor is packed with banana and spice, and finishes very smoothly.
Reading of the week: The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov – Chekhov called this play a comedy, but it is actually a sad story about the demise of a once-prominent family. At the end of the play, the bank forecloses its mortgage on the family’s estate–including the titular orchard. This week’s reading, from the end of Act II, is a very charged discussion of how the characters have to reckon with the legacy of Russian serfdom before they can move forward as members of an increasingly egalitarian world.
Question for the week: Are there times when it actually is best to completely forget or ignore the past?
This is the forty-seventh in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XLVII: Elizabethan Drama 2
“Let the wine be plentiful as beer, and beer as water. Hang those penny-pinching fathers that cram wealth in innocent lamb-skins.” Thus Simon Eyre, the mayor of London, opens the feast at the end of Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday. But very few coffers are deep enough to long sustain such a prodigious flow of libations, and the play is somewhat ambiguous on the virtue of thrift.
Earlier in the play, before Eyre was mayor, he promised his workmen a dozen cans of beer. But when he placed the order, he slyly told the errand boy to purchase only two. When the delivery came up ten cans short of the promised dozen, Eyre feigned surprise, but was clearly glad to get twelve cans’ worth of good cheer from his workers for the price of two.
At the beginning of the play, another character relates how his nephew wasted a veritable fortune, reveling his way across Europe:
A verier unthrift lives not in the world,
Than is my cousin; for I’ll tell you what:
’Tis now almost a year since he requested
To travel countries for experience.
I furnished him with coins, bills of exchange,
Letters of credit, men to wait on him,
Solicited my friends in Italy
Well to respect him. But to see the end:
Scant had he journey’d through half Germany,
But all his coin was spent, his men cast off,
His bills embezzl’d, and my jolly coz,
Asham’d to show his bankrupt presence here,
Became a shoemaker in Wittenberg,
Of course, the time spent as a shoemaker ends up serving the young man very well, but one can hardly argue that carousing to the point of bankruptcy is sound policy.
If The Shoemaker’s Holiday has a lesson regarding thrift, it seems to be that one should be willing to spend money for the sake of enjoyment, particularly the enjoyment of others, but not to live beyond one’s means. Lacy was wrong to waste so much of his uncle’s money in Europe, and Eyre was arguably justified in buying his men less than the dozen beers he promised. But once Eyre’s fortune was made, he quite laudably spent a great deal of it on feasting the shoemakers.
So let the beer be as plentiful as water… so long as you can cover the bar tab.
Beer of the week: Broegel Bock Beer – One way to stretch the beer budget is to buy “store-brand” beer. Aldi grocery stores sell a few beers that appear to be “knock-offs” of better known (and slightly more expensive) beers: Kinroo Blue (Blue Moon), Independence Harbor (Sam Adams), Cerveza Monterey (Corona). Based on the label of Broegel Bock, I assumed that this was simply Aldi’s version of Shiner Bock. The packaging is extremely similar. However, I was pleasantly surprised. Broegel is brewed by Brouwerij Martens NV, a prominent white-label brewery in Belgium. The beer is dark amber with a tan head of very large bubbles. The aroma is of bread and caramel. The flavor matches the smell, with sourdough notes to go with the sweet dark malt. This is a much better beer than Shiner Bock.
Reading of the week: The Shoemaker’s Holiday by Thomas Dekker – To be a minute late to this play would mean missing some very important plot points. The opening conversation establishes the forbidden relationship that drives the action of the play.
Question for the week: The balance between quantity and quality is difficult to establish. Is an $18 six-pack really twice as good as a $9 six-pack?
This is the forty-sixth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XLVI: Elizabethan Drama 1
Part of the problem of deifying or vilifying political leaders is that each approach dehumanizes its subjects. History’s greatest and most powerful men were, after all, only human. None were gods; none were devils. To think of them as anything but human is misleading and dangerous.
The classic example is Hitler. He was a bad guy, to say the least. But to think of him as evil incarnate or some other non-human abstraction is particularly dangerous because it creates the false impression that such a man could not come to power again. By ignoring Hitler’s humanity, we lower our guard against the next Hitler, and perhaps inadvertently foster the conditions under which such a person may come to be.
For the same reasons, it is dangerous to deify leaders that we like. No matter who your favorite political figure is, that person is, underneath it all, an ordinary person. And like everybody else, that person is subject to passions, temptations, and personal flaws. And when a political hero is a living person, there is the dangerous temptation to grant them unlimited power on the assumption that they can and will wield it with superhuman competency and trustworthiness.
Beer of the week: Smithwicks Red Ale – When the nobles pressured Edward II of England to exile his favorite, Gaveston, he made him Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. This red-brown ale comes from that very island. It has an aroma of toasted malt. The flavor is nicely balanced between that toasted malt and a bit of hops bitterness.
Reading of the week: Edward the Second by Christopher Marlowe – This scene shows Edward II of England as neither saint nor devil. He is misled by ambitious underlings and lets his affection for his favorites interfere with his decision-making. But that does not render him totally incompetent. The rebellion that ultimately leads to his downfall is a back-and-forth affair; at one point Edward captures and executes several of the leading nobles, nearly ending the revolt.
Question for the week: What is the best defense against the worst people coming to power?
This is the thirty-third in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXXIII: Voyages and Travels
If you are looking to stir up a bit of controversy without recourse to politics or family secrets, casually opine that William Shakespeare was no more than an actor and frontman, and that the plays attributed to him were clearly the work of someone else. The Shakespeare authorship question provides plenty of grounds for argument. More likely than not, you’ll find that your interlocutors are firm believers that Shakespeare actually authored Shakespeare, but even if they are open to the possibility of a non-Stratfordian author, you can still disagree on who, exactly, did write Shakespeare.
The basics of the authorship question are as follows: The actor William Shakespeare’s education is quite suspect. His parents both signed with a mark instead of writing their names, suggesting that they were illiterate. (Keep in mind that literacy was not nearly so universal at the turn of the 17th century.) There is no record of his attending school, including a surprising lack of claims by his teachers or classmates. The 6 surviving authenticated signatures of Shakespeare are exhibit such poor penmanship that they do little to convince that he was a prolific writer.
While Shakespeare’s own background was fairly obscure, his plays dealt with a number of topics that would seemingly be beyond his ken. Many of the plays exhibit a familiarity with royal courts and exotic locales. William Shakespeare, however, would have no firsthand knowledge of either. The plays also contain accurate details of sailing and travel, though Shakespeare himself is not known to have left England. Similarly, he wrote with some familiarity on legal procedure and thought, although there is no evidence that he had any contact with any courts of law until a minor lawsuit late in life.
And if William Shakespeare was merely an actor and a frontman for an author who needed to remain anonymous, who actually wrote the plays? Many, many alternative authors have been proposed throughout the years. A few of them seem plausible.
The Oxfordian Theory:
Seemingly the most popular candidate is Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Oxford was a patron of the theater and was known to be a poet and playwright. His time at court and in Italy provided him with the knowledge needed to write plays set in such locales; knowledge William Shakespeare would not have had. Oxford had to publish his plays under a pseudonym because it would be unseemly for somebody of his high birth to write for the common stage. Or, even better, he had an affair with Queen Elizabeth and for some reason that made it even more important that he not publish under his own name.
The Baconian Theory:
Bacon is the classic alternative to Shakespeare. Francis Bacon served as Lord Chancellor, the highest court official in England. He had the legal and political background to write competently and realistically about courts royal and legal. He also was familiar with codes and cyphers, which makes it extremely tempting to search for hidden meanings in everything he wrote.
Adherents of the Baconian theory included Friedrich Nietzsche and Mark Twain. In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche wrote, “to make a confession; I feel instinctively certain and convinced that Lord Bacon is the originator, the self-torturer, of this most sinister kind of literature (Hamlet)… We do not know half enough about Lord Bacon—the first realist in all the highest acceptation of this word—to be sure of everything he did, everything he willed, and everything he experienced in his inmost soul…. Let the critics go to hell! Suppose I had christened my Zarathustra with a name not my own,—let us say with Richard Wagner’s name,—the acumen of two thousand years would not have sufficed to guess that the author of Human, all-too-Human was the visionary of Zarathustra.” Mark Twain was less certain than Nietzsche: “I only believed Bacon wrote Shakespeare, whereas I knew Shakespeare didn’t.” Percy Shelley, perhaps unintentionally, lends some weight to the conclusion that Bacon was the Bard. In Shelley’s opinion, Bacon was the most sublime writer since Plato. “Lord Bacon was a poet,” Shelley wrote in his Defense of Poetry. “His language has a sweet and majestic rhythm, which satisfies the sense, no less than the almost superhuman wisdom of his philosophy satisfies the intellect; it is a strain which distends, and then bursts the circumference of the reader’s mind, and pours itself forth together with it into the universal element with which it has perpetual sympathy.”
The Marlovian Theory
Christopher “Kit” Marlow was a successful poet and playwright, born only two months before Shakespeare. But he was also allegedly an athiest. At the height of his powers, and soon to face capital charges of heresy, Marlow allegedly died on May 30, 1593. Within a fortnight, Shakespeare’s first publication, Venus and Adonis, went on sale. What if Marlow faked his death and had Shakespeare publish his works under his own name? By faking is death, Marlow was able to avoid the headsman and continue writing.
The Group Theories
One of the problems with most of the theories is timing. For example, the Earl of Oxford died several years before the last Shakespeare plays were published. And although Walter Raleigh was born before and died after William Shakespeare, he spent so much time traveling, fighting, and imprisoned that it is hard to make sense of a timeline where he also wrote all of Shakespeare’s corpus. Enter the group theories. By attributing Shakespeare to a group or cabal, one eliminates the timing problems, accounts for some of the unevenness of quality in Shakespeare’s writing, explains the tremendous vocabulary in the plays, and responds to the objection that no one author could produce so much excellent work.
Nobody knows for sure who wrote the works attributed to Shakespeare. The academic consensus is clearly in favor of William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon. But that explanation is boring. It is more fun to think of Shakespeare as a centuries-old mystery, and to stay on the lookout for clues and messages hidden in “his” work.
Beer of the week: Corona Familiar – When Homer Simpson visited the Duff brewery he learned that Duff, Duff Lite, and Duff Dry were all bottled from the same line. For a while, it was rumored that that joke was a reality for the makers of Corona. Allegedly, Corona Familiar was simply Corona Extra in a 32 oz. bottle. However, as Constellation Brands has rolled out Corona Familiar in more markets and in new 12 oz. bottles, it is now clear that it is a different beer than Corona Extra. It is clear gold, and plenty carbonated. There is some malt in the aroma and the flavor is a bit fuller in both hops and malt than Corona Extra. Familiar is a serviceable but unremarkable lager.
Reading of the week: The Discovery of Guiana by Sir Walter Raleigh – As mentioned above, Raleigh is one of the proposed authors of some or all of Shakespeare. This prose account of the discovery of the mythical city of El Dorado does little to confirm that claim. It is an interesting story, including an account of natives covering themselves with gold dust “from the foot to the head” and then drinking for a week straight, but it does not have any of the irrepressible beauty that Shelley saw in Bacon.
Question for the week: What is your favorite controversial/heterodox position?
This is the twenty-sixth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXVI: Continental Drama
What do John Wilkes Booth, Marcus Junius Brutus, and William Tell have in common? That question would hardly need answering if not for the fact that so many people only remember William Tell for shooting an apple off of his son’s head. Aside from that spectacular display of marksmanship, Tell’s truly remarkable act was the assassination Hermann Gessler, the Austrian governor in Switzerland. And like every other political assassin, Tell had his reasons.
In Friedrich Schiller’s dramatization of the Tell legend, Gessler is a cruel despot. The law that drives the plot of the story is one which makes it a capital offense not to kneel before Gessler’s hat, hung upon a pole. It is the enforcement of this draconian rule that brings Gessler and Tell into conflict.
By the way, the word “draconian”, like so many other words, enjoys popular usage without its origin being generally well-known. Draco was a legislator, but not a tyrant. Just about 2,600 years ago, he promulgated the first written legal code for the city of Athens. And the Draconian Code was a doozy.
According to Plutarch, “Draco’s laws… were too severe, and the punishment[s] too great; for death was appointed for almost all offences, insomuch that those that were convicted of idleness were to die, and those that stole a cabbage or an apple to suffer even as villains that committed sacrilege or murder. So that Demades, in after time, was thought to have said very happily, that Draco’s laws were written not with ink but blood; and he himself, being once asked why be made death the punishment of most offences, replied, ‘Small ones deserve that, and I have no higher for the greater crimes.'”
Anyway, Gessler was cruel, particularly in his treatment of fathers. For failing to kneel to a hat, Tell was forced to choose between execution and shooting an apple off of his son’s head. Another father was blinded for not informing on his son. It’s clear that to Schiller and the Swiss who regard Tell as a hero, one’s allegiance to family is far more important than one’s allegiance to civil authority. A hierarchy of values that Gessler, like most civil authorities, resented.
Beer of the week: Wolters Pilsner – Tell was Swiss and his son was called Walter. This beer is German and is called Wolters. Close enough? I want to like Wolters more. The brand was acquired by the international beer behemoth InBev a while back, but has since become independent once again. Unfortunately they make a pretty average German pils. It is pale gold, with a quickly fading head of large bubbles. The aroma is faint, and primarily of malt. Nothing special. Also, it’s been a while since I complained about the “German Purity Law” as a marketing gimmick, but this beer is another offender. “Hops extract” was almost certainly not invented yet when the Reinheitsgrebot was enacted, yet it is an ingredient in this beer that is purportedly “brewed in strict accordance to the German Purity Law.” (Which, by the way, is not draconian, because it is not enforced at all.)
Reading of the week: William Tell by Friedrich Schiller, Act One, Scene One – Although Gessler is clearly the villain of the play, the Swiss may have driven him to his cruelty. The first act of defiance by Tell is helping the murderer of a government official escape justice. (To be fair, we learn that the murder was committed in response to “unseemly overtures” the official had made to the killers wife, which lends further support to the reading that the real moral of the play is to prioritize familial loyalty over obedience to civil authority.) But everybody that the murderer encounters in this scene approves of the killing and is willing to aid him in making his escape. Gessler must rule with an iron fist if the people will not even consent to the prosecution of an axe murderer. (Did I mention that the murder was committed by cleaving the official’s skull with an axe?)
Question of the week: Criminal penalties generally serve four purposes: rehabilitation, retaliation, prevention (preventing the offender from offending again by being incarcerated, incapacitated, or dead), deterrence (setting an example to deter others from offending.) How does one even begin to balance those objectives?
This is the nineteenth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume IXX: Faust Egmont, Etc., Goethe, Doctor Faustus, Marlow
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution states:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
In that one sentence, the framers memorialized several of the “inalienable rights” central to the premise of the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the nation. Yet, despite how concise the amendment is, people seem constantly to misapprehend its significance. Here are a couple of critical points where people are often mistaken.
1. The amendment only applies to government action. People constantly confuse their right to free speech with a right to be free from the private consequences of that speech. A speech code by a company or private school is not subject to First Amendment analysis. Likewise, a private club may have religious requirements that a government actor may not.
2. That doesn’t mean that other laws do not matter. Some people on the internet hold the idea that “the First Amendment stops the government from infringing on your free speech, but it doesn’t stop me from punching you in the mouth.” Although that statement is technically accurate, punching somebody in the mouth violates laws independent of the First Amendment. Additionally, civil rights laws, government licensing requirements, and so forth may create obligations for private individuals or companies not to discriminate based on the exercise of certain First Amendment rights.
3. The amendment applies to all government action, not just the federal government. The plain of the first amendment states that “Congress shall pass no law…”; it does not mention state governments. However, a long series of Supreme Court cases has established that the First Amendment (and most of the rest of the Bill of Rights) applies to state action through the “incorporation doctrine”. Even so, the First Amendment is probably redundant in most cases. Each state has its own constitution, and each state constitution includes free speech clause. The New York Court of Appeals, for example, has held that the free speech clause of the New York Constitution provides a greater level of protection than the First Amendment.
4. “Speech” consists of a lot more than just talking. Supreme Court cases have held that the First Amendment’s speech clause protects “expressive conduct.” That can mean a wide range of actions, including burning the American flag, nude dancing, remaining silent, or cross burning.
5. The amendment is especially important because it protects those without political clout. As a practical matter, no government would ever need to be restrained from punishing pro-government speech. Likewise, statements that everybody agrees with are under no threat of suppression. It is the provocative, the unpopular, the revolutionary that needs to be protected. Minority religious groups and others who are heterodox in the myriad ways that people may stray from conventional norms are the people who have the most to fear from popular government, and the most need for an amendment that protects, above all, the freedom of the mind.
Beer of the week: Primus – This week’s reading is set in what is now Belgium, with the principle action taking place in Brussels. So despite the constant references to “Netherlands” and “Netherlanders”, the play is best paired with Belgian beer. Primus is a “premium lager” from Haacht Brewery in Flanders, Belgium. It is a standard European lager; it looks good, smells good, and tastes good. It is a well-balanced, if unexceptional, beer.
Reading of the week: Egmont by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – In this scene, we learn that the Spanish governor of the Netherlands, the Duke of Alba, “published a decree, by which two or three, found conversing together in the streets, are without trial, declared guilty of high treason.” He also prohibited discussion on affairs of state and made criticism of the government a capital offense.
Question for the week: How many rights are in the First Amendment?
This is the eighteenth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XVIII: Modern English Drama
For as long as humans have consumed alcohol, its effect on thought, particularly creative thought, has been an important issue.
According to Herodotus, in Book I of his Histories, the Persians made alcohol an essential part of their decision-making. “Moreover,” he writes, “it is their custom to deliberate about the gravest matters when they are drunk; and what they approve in their deliberations is proposed to them the next day, when they are sober, by the master of the house where they deliberate; and if, being sober, they still approve it, they act on it, but if not, they drop it. And if they have deliberated about a matter when sober, they decide upon it when they are drunk.” There are several important features of this comment. In the first place, the Persians applied this practice for “the gravest matters”; the most important decisions require the most complete deliberation. Additionally, the order does not seem to matter; the initial deliberation can be either drunk or sober, so long as the decisions are reviewed in the opposite state. The ultimate decision making is not left exclusively to sobriety.
Two thousand years later, the notion of alcohol as an aide to thought was still common. In Oliver Goldsmith’s 1773 comedy She Stoops To Conquer, the jokester Tony Lumpkin sings a drinking song that starts with the lines:
Let schoolmasters puzzle their brain
With grammar, and nonsense, and learning,
Good liquor, I stoutly maintain,
Gives genus a better discerning.
More important than intellectual training, Lumpkin declares, is the consumption of good liquor. Of course, it is not at all clear that this song should be taken at face value. The song meets with the universal approval of the barflies… a group whose decision making is, itself, questionable.
Shortly before our own day, we have come to better appreciate how alcohol adversely affects our mental processes. H. L. Mencken, although an avid tippler, never mixed alcohol and intellectual work. In his essay Giants at the Bar, he wrote, “I never touch the stuff by daylight if I can help it, and I employ it of an evening not to hooch up my faculties but to let them down after work. Not in years have I ever written anything with so much as a glass of beer in my system. My compositions, I gather, sometimes seem boozy to the nobility and gentry, but they are actually done as soberly as those of the late William Dean Howells.”
Ultimately, it seems that different amounts of alcohol (from zero to tipsy) provide different mental effects. So for each individual, each mental task probably has its own optimal level of intoxication. (Many, if not most, of which are almost certainly stone sober.) I suppose that it would require years of dedicated study to determine how many beers are ideal for any given task. I’d better get to work.
Beer of the week: PC Pils – Founders Brewing Co. makes this “American hopped pilsner.” But PC Pils doesn’t strike me as very pilsner-like. For one thing, it is a bit hazy, while pilsners are most often clear and golden. And without the classic noble hops aroma and taste, it just doesn’t fit the bill. That said, I quite like PC Pils. Although the aroma is faint, it is nice and hoppy. The flavor is primarily of floral hops and a subtle hint of ginger. Whatever style they claim this is, Founders has done a great job with this summer seasonal.
Reading of the week: She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith – This scene sets up the primary story arc of the play. After performing the song introduced above, Lumpkin misleads some travelers into mistaking their destination. A series of misunderstandings ensues. More alcohol may have helped.
Question for the week: Is there any task, mental or otherwise, that you are better at after a beer or two?