"This isn't the casual weekend I agreed to."

Get Out… Before You Meet the GF’s Parents

(Get Out of this page if you don’t want any spoilers.)

Yes, the Armitage family is cool. So hip! Rose (Allison Williams) is a knockout AND willing to stick up for her black boyfriend, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), when a white cop gives him a hard time. They arrive at her parents’ estate where her parents don’t disappoint. They have created an environment where their kids are comfortable swearing in front of them. And talking about sex! Hell, Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener) even let them stay in the same bedroom. So chill! Despite Dean’s clumsy (but genuine) praise of Obama as opening conversation with a black man, their coolness is still intact by nightfall. Should we be worried yet?

No.

(Note: Boblius is rarely invited to studios’ critic screenings therefore at Get Out he found himself seated near an older couple with a 4 year old girl. Yes, these grandparents brought their granddaughter to Get Out. More on this later.)
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Literature You Should Know: Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde

It’s a mistake to call Geoffrey Chaucer a (proto-)feminist, if only because doing so would tend to align him with ideas about women’s role in society that would never have occurred to even the most liberal medieval writer.  But there’s no mistaking where his sympathies lie in Troilus and Criseyde, his retelling of a classical story that he explicitly dedicates to women who don’t have a voice.  While medieval chaucerhoccleveconvention prevents him from changing the most important points of the plot, Chaucer rejects the tendency of every other version—later including Shakespeare’s—to make Criseyde the villain of the piece.  Instead, he challenges readers to rethink their assumptions about an otherwise strong woman caught in a no-win situation with no power to decide her own fate.

Chaucer first introduces the reader to Criseyde, the most beautiful woman in Troy, and then to Troilus, son of King Priam and a jerk who constantly makes fun of lovers.  Finally, Eros gets mad and shoots Troilus just as he spies Criseyde at a public celebration.  She sees him staring at her and frowns, which sends him into paroxysms of lovesick silliness.

But Criseyde is a widow in a society with strict standards of decorum and in which women have no rights and few freedoms.  Worse, her father is a traitor recently banished from Troy for aiding the Greeks, and all his kin are sentenced to death; only her plea to Hector gains her clemency.  Though she cherishes what independence she has, her livelihood is entirely dependent on the protection of her uncle Pandarus, who is a member of the royal household.

Pandarus is also a master manipulator who will stop at nothing to stay on Troilus’ good side.  And if that means bullying Criseyde into an affair with the prince, he has zero qualms about doing so.

483-Troilus-and-Criseyde-II-In-May-picture-q75-500x375Chaucer hints at this ruthlessness toward the end of Book II, when Pandarus takes Criseyde a letter from Troilus.  She tries to refuse it, but he brushes off her objections and stuffs the letter down the front of her dress.  When she succumbs to his insistence that she reply, Troilus pressures Pandarus into pushing the courtship even further… until at last, one dark and stormy night, Pandarus all but throws them into bed together and sleeps outside the door to ensure the tryst is both secret and successful. Criseyde curses Pandarus the next morning for putting her in this position, but she has finally convinced herself that she’s in love with Troilus.

Then, during a prisoner exchange in Book IV, Criseyde’s father asks Agamemnon to trade Antenor for her.  Hector objects that Criseyde’s not a prisoner, but popular opinion persuades Priam to agree to the proposal.  Troilus is understandably distraught, but he rejects Pandarus’ advice to move on or to rape Criseyde, declaring (for once) that he won’t do anything against her wishes.  She likewise rejects any option other than going through with the exchange and escaping back to Troy as soon as she can.  Both lovers pledge to remain true to each other while they’re apart.

chaucercambridgeBut Criseyde’s father prevents her from leaving camp to meet Troilus, and Diomedes decides to win her love for himself, offering her friendship and service at first.  He doesn’t press when she tells him she can’t consider accepting a Greek lover, although he does continue to court her.  And while Chaucer argues that she’s never really in love with Diomedes, he has to concede that she does eventually begin to favor Diomedes with gifts that had belonged to Troilus.

Yet when Troilus learns of Criseyde’s apparent unfaithfulness and Pandarus disavows her, Chaucer states that he’s writing this poem “most for wommen that bitraysed be / Through false folk.”  And it’s not hard to see why.  Hector and Diomedes appear to be the only men in Criseyde’s life who have any desire to look after her best interests rather than their own, and Pandarus, in particular, betrays her trust to coerce her into a relationship based solely on a prince’s lust.  Even today, in the age of #NotAllMen and #YesAllWomen, Chaucer’s take on this story can prompt useful discussion about situations where true consent becomes impossible.

Literature You Should Know: The Works of John Donne

I mentioned Shakespeare’s sonnets last time, but it’s impossible to discuss Renaissance poetry without touching on the Metaphysical Poets, chief of whom was John Donne.  Enlightenment figures like Samuel Johnson disdained Donne’s tendency to bring philosophical topics into love poetry, but Samuel Taylor johndColeridge and Charles Lamb revived his reputation among the Romantics.  Contemporary Thomas Carew went so far as to claim in an elegy that English poetry had died with Donne because no other poet would dare achieve the same level of originality and creativity.  Nor was Donne renowned only for his poetry.  After he was named a Royal Chaplain and later Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, he became known as one of the greatest preachers of his day.  And Meditation 17 from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (“No man is an island, entire of itself”) has inspired writers from Ernest Hemingway to Brad Bird.

No, really.  Watch The Incredibles with the subtitles on and pay attention to the name of Syndrome’s hideout.  You’ll laugh.

What’s startling about Donne, however, is sometimes where his works don’t show up when they are expected.  Take, for example, one of the best character introductions in television history, from the fifth season of Supernatural:

I cannot speak highly enough of Julian Richings’ portrayal of Death.  He’s regal.  He’s powerful.  He’s old.  He’s composed.  He doesn’t get angry, though he will get snarky.  He’s seen it all and has a taste for Chicago-style pizza and fried pickles.

And yet I keep waiting for someone like Sam Winchester to look him in the eye and say:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those, whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy picture be,
Much pleasure, then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou’rt slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

For Death is proud in Supernatural.  He claims that neither he nor God can remember which of them is older and that, once all other life has reached its natural end, he will eventually reap God.  Gnostic as it sounds, that may be true in that universe, given the number of other heresies that have made their way into the show’s underlying theology.  But so far, the viewer has only Death’s word for it—and in a universe as riddled with unreliable narrators as Supernatural’s is, one character’s word counts for very little.  Yet to date, not even Sam and Bobby, the show’s most scholarly characters, have thrown Holy Sonnet X at Death, and I’m not sure why.

Even so, whether a Donne quote turns up where you least expect it or doesn’t where you most expect it, his poetry and prose alike give us important ideas to ponder as well as examples of what a skilled author can do with the English language.  And whatever you think of Donne’s philosophy and theology, his writings may inspire you to try to prove Carew wrong.  English poetry was not done for with Donne’s death, any more than his soul was.

Literature You Should Know: The Works of William Shakespeare

Remember that “hopeless lute player” I mentioned last time?*

Did you know he had a direct effect on the composition of The Lord of the Rings?

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Mathew Baynton and the cast of BILL

In “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien gives Macbeth as an example of the incompatibility between fantasy and staged drama and argues that it’s “a work by a playwright who ought, at least on this occasion, to have written a story, if he had the skill or patience for that art.”  He specifically mentions the Weird Sisters there, but he confesses in a letter to W. H. Auden that he felt “bitter disappointment and disgust from schooldays with the shabby use made in Shakespeare of the coming of ‘Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill,’” and though he never says so that I’ve found, I suspect he also felt let down by the use of the idea that “no man of woman born” could harm Macbeth.  (SPOILER: MacDuff, who was delivered by C-section, orders his men to hide in Birnam Wood and disguise themselves as trees before attacking Dunsinane.)  Thus, in The Two Towers, Tolkien shows Fangorn Forest—the trees themselves—marching on Isengard, and though it’s said that no living man can kill the Witch-king of Angmar, he meets his fate in The Return of the King at the hands of Merry and Éowyn.

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The stars of BILL (L to R): Laurence Rickard, Simon Farnaby, Mathew Baynton as Bill Shakespeare, Martha Howe-Douglas as Anne Hathaway, Ben Willbond as King Philip II, Jim Howick

 

Love him or hate him, you need to know Shakespeare’s works simply because their influence on the English language and on Western culture as a whole is incalculable.  For example, no less a playwright than Friedrich Schiller adapted Macbeth for the German stage, and Hamlet and Much Ado about Nothing have even been translated into Klingon.  Cinematic and television versions abound; IMDb lists over a thousand, ranging from an 1898 short of Macbeth to Joss Whedon’s version of Much Ado, with dozens more in various stages of development and production, and that’s not counting loose adaptations like The Lion King, Kiss Me, Kate, and McLintock!  (My current favorite is the recent Royal Shakespeare Company rendition of Hamlet with David Tennant and Sir Patrick Stewart.)  And then there are commonplace phrases that originate from Shakespeare’s plays.  “To be or not to be” is obvious, of course, but “sound and fury signifying nothing,” “all the world’s a stage,” “brave new world,” and many, many more show up in everyday conversation without our even realizing where they came from.

Then there are the sonnets, a form Shakespeare made uniquely his own.  Many of these have also become commonplaces—“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments,” “That time of year thou mayest in me behold,” and more—but they’ve also served as a model for sonneteers ever since.  There’s even a Tumblr account dedicated to recasting pop songs as Shakespearean sonnets!

Not too bad for a 450-year-old “upstart crow,” eh?

* The Bill Facebook team tells me a preview should be out sometime around Christmas.

Something Wicked-ly Awesome This Way Comes

Complete Works Premieres on April 23 on Hulu
Complete Works Premieres on April 23 on Hulu

Shakespeare on television? Could it be true? Not since BBC Television Shakespeare has the bard’s work been packaged for your episodic viewing pleasure.  But Hulu’s new show “Complete Works” brings Shakespeare to modern day.  The show follows Hal (played by Joe Sofranko, who also wrote and directed the series alongside Adam North), a nerdy, Shakespeare-obsessed finalist in the National Shakespeare Competition.  Sofranko’s creation of the character is likely based on his own life, having been crowned champion out of over 16,000 competitors in the 2004 National Shakespeare Competition.

As a bit of a Shakespeare junkie, I’m geeking-out in anticipation of the show, which looks extremely well done.  All episodes are set to premiere on April 23 (William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday) and I will definitely be tuning in.  Click here to watch the trailer, it certainly got me interested; as did the recently released teaser. Friends, Shakespeare fanatics, those of you who are intellectually condescending, lend me your ears! Catch “Complete Works” on April 23rd.

The Cast of Complete Works
The Cast of Complete Works