Religious Texts

The Female Experience in a 16th C. Play

Image result for sarah and hagar 1500
The Story of Abraham (1543), Georg Pencz

Circa 1500, a 50,000 line play appeared called Le Mistére du Viel Testament [The Mystery of the Old Testament]. Although it has never been translated into modern French (let alone English), it appears to have influenced a few 16th century playwrights. I recently finished reading the section on Abraham because I am writing a term paper on Theodore Beza’s 1550 play Abraham Sacrifiant.

I was particularly struck by the female representation in the Viel Testament version of Isaac’s birth. Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant, gets a surprising amount of attention in the play. Although God promises to care for Hagar and Ishamael in the Biblical story, the Viel Testament Hagar demonstrates more agency than in the original. After Isaac is born, Hagar repeatedly asks Abraham to remember the promise he made to her and her son. Classism is also evoked in the play. Abraham and Sarah try to silence Hagar by bringing up her social class.

Abraham: “c’est ma femme, /Qui doit estre maistresse et dame,/ Et vous sa simple serviteure” [My wife must be mistress and lady, and you her simple servant.]

But later, Abraham allows Hagar back into his home and promises to care for Ishamel. When Sarah finally becomes pregnant at the end of the play, Hagar offers to help her deliver Isaac. She also comforts Sarah, who fears the pain of childbirth:

Sarah: “Bien, m’ayme, vous me ayderez,/ Car je craing la douleur terrible” [I would definitely like you to help me, because I fear the terrible pain].

After Isaac’s birth, Sarah is relieved that she will no longer experience societal shame:

 Sarah: “Et plus en la communite/ N’auray de brehaine l’injure” [And in the community, I  will no longer be insulted for being barren]

Even though this play is terribly obscure, I couldn’t help but share a few passages with you because it is rare to find medieval and Renaissance texts that mention the female experience.

I hope to read the other sections of the play in the future. Evidently, Le Viel Testament describes the deaths of Adam and Eve, as well as the fall of Lucifer. Sounds intriguing!

Plays, Shakespeare, William, Taming of the Shrew

The Taming of the Shrew: Some Thoughts

Image result for taming of the shrewOn BookTube (the book section of YouTube), a group of us are participating in a read-along of all of Shakespeare’s plays. We will be reading one play a week. This week’s play is The Taming of the Shrew. I didn’t enjoy Shakespeare when I studied his major plays in high school, but after watching a Masterpiece Theater adaptation of Richard III, I’ve decided to give Shakespeare another go. I’m excited to participate in this read-along, but it’s easier for me to organize my thoughts in a blog post than in a video. So here are some of my thoughts about The Taming of the Shrew. There will be spoilers, but I don’t think this should really matter since Shakespeare’s audience already knew the stories.

Thoughts about The Taming of the Shrew

The great Shakespeare scholar Marjorie Garber has published a massive commentary of all of the Bard’s plays called Shakespeare After All. I have been reading the appropriate sections of Garber’s book to gain a better understanding of each of the plays. Garber’s commentary on The Taming of the Shrew focuses on the role of disguise in the play. Highborn people disguise themselves as lowborn people, and men disguise themselves as women (both the actors and the characters).

Christopher Sly is a drunk tinker whose made to believe that he is a lord. Lucentio and his servant Tranio exchange places so that Lucentio can woo Bianca, the modest daughter of a wealthy gentleman. A pedant pretends to be pseudo-Tranio’s father Vincentio. Although Petruchio never physically disguises himself, he disguises his true intention in marrying Katherina. He claims to love Katherina, but he’s only interested in proving to his friends that he can tame the shrew. Garber shows the parallel between Sly and Katherina. Both are the butt of a joke, and both are told to believe the opposite of what they believe to be true. However, Garber insists that unlike Sly, Katherina changes into a different person by the end of the play. We never learn about Sly’s fate. Kate, on the other hand, becomes the submissive wife that Petruchio wanted all along.

Garber’s commentary not only highlights the major theme of disguise in The Taming of the Shrew, it also argues rightly that disguise was a device employed in many medieval plays. It was also common for a play to feature another play as a subplot. The Kate story is a performance put on by Sly’s captors.

However, I think that Sly and Kate are even more similar than Garber allows. True, there’s no evidence of sarcasm in Kate’s final speech to Petruchio and his friends. She has sincerely come to believe that women are the weaker sex and should therefore be submissive to their husbands. But Kate’s relationship to Petruchio is far from ideal. Petruchio is not a good husband. He is abusive. He starves his wife and psychologically manipulates her. Kate ultimately falls in love with her abuser, but she isn’t ever free to say no. Like Sly, Kate is the slave of another. While I agree with Garber that Kate is sincere in her speech, the final scene is highly ironic. I think that even Shakespeare’s misogynistic audience would consider the relationship problematic. Petruchio is not the model husband.

Garber writes:

Her final performance is for him [Petruchio], and seems to represent not an abandonment of her earlier independence, but a revised understanding of what freedom means, in sexuality and in marriage.

But even if Kate has come to believe that she is independent, anyone can see that she isn’t. Kate has no choice but to obey her husband. If she disobeys Petruchio, she is abused. Therefore, Kate’s final speech, while sincere, is also a testament of what an abuser can do to his victim. An abuser can convince his victim that his oppression is true freedom. Sly too comes to believe that he is a lord, but his freedom is an illusion. He has come to believe that he’s an actual lord, but the people who are fooling Sly are truly the ones in power. At the end of the play, Petruchio wins his bet. He was never concerned about Kate’s well-being or his marriage. It was all a game. Even if Kate’s final speech is supposed to be marriage wisdom, on the lips of Kate, the speech is ridiculous. Kate has been brain-washed into believing that she should be obedient to her husband. This is not wisdom that she freely came to. How long will this last? The dialogue between Hortensio and Lucentio at the end of the play suggest that Kate’s taming may not be complete:

HORTENSIO: Now, go thy ways; thou hast tamed a curst shrew.
LUCENTIO: ‘Tis a wonder, by your leave, she will be tamed so.

But Garber rightly points out that the ambiguous ending lends itself to numerous, even contradictory interpretations. Indeed, modern productions of the play try to downplay the apparent sexism in the final speech by having Kate wink at the audience. Garber argues (and I agree) that the speech is supposed to be taken seriously, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there is only one way to read the play or that a modern production shouldn’t re-interpret the ending. We will never know Shakespeare’s true intentions.

Indeed, it is one of Shakespeare’s brilliant gifts as a dramatist to provide, in almost every case, a credible contrary argument, onstage, to what might seem to be a prevailing viewpoint. The “philosophy” of Shakespeare’s plays is offered, always, contrapuntally, with opposing ideas placed in explicit juxtaposition.

It’s possible that I disagree somewhat with Garber’s assessment of Kate’s speech because I want The Taming of the Shrew to be more than a comedy praising misogyny. I want Shakespeare to at least acknowledge that the relationship is abusive. Kate claims that “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,/ Thy head, thy sovereign; one that/cares for thee” but where do we see Petruchio caring for Kate?

If you have read the play, let me know what you think. How do you interpret the end of the play?

Cervantes, Miguel de, Literary Miscellanea

Don Quixote and Aristotle

In Chapter III of the Second Part of Don Quixote, Bachelor Sansón Carrasco, Don Quixote, and Sancho Panza discuss the First Part of Cervantes’ work. One of the questions addressed is the difference between poetry and history.

“Even so,” responded the bachelor, “some people who have read the history say they would have been pleased if its authors had forgotten about some of the infinite beatings given to Señor Don Quixote in various encounters.”

“That’s where the truth of the history comes in,” said Sancho.

“They also could have kept quiet about them for the sake of fairness,” said Don Quixote, “because the actions that do not change or alter the truth of the history do not need to be written if they belittle the hero. By my faith, Aeneas was not as pious as Virgil depicts him, or Ulysses as prudent as Homer describes him.”

“That is true,” replied Sansón, “but it is one thing to write as a poet and another to write as a historian: the poet can recount or sing about things not as they were, but as they should have been, and the historian must write about them not as they should have been, but as they were, without adding or subtracting anything from the truth.”

The debate that these three men are having centers on an Aristotelian question, treated heavily by 16th and 17th century humanists. In chapter 9 of his Poetics, Aristotle writes:

But it is evident from what has been said that it is not the province of a poet to relate things which have happened, but such as might have happened, and such things as are possible according to probability, or which would necessarily have happened. For a historian and a poet do not differ from each other because the one writes in verse and the other in prose; for the history of Herodotus might be written in verse, and yet it would be no less a history with meter than without meter. But they differ in this, that the one speaks of things which have happened, and the other of such as might have happened.

The poet’s job is to relate what might have happened while the historian’s job is to give an account of what actually happened. But what does Aristotle mean? During the Renaissance, writers try to systematically describe a verisimilitudinous play (i.e. a play that presents events as they might have happened). The 17th century humanist Nicolas Boileau even applies Aristotle to non-theatrical poetry in his Art Poétique (Art of Poetry). The debate concerning the difference between a poet and a historian is also a debate about the role of the public. What does the public expect from a poet vs. from a historian?

Don Quixote, as part meta-fiction, is not only a satire on courtly romance but also a commentary on Renaissance values such as verisimilitude. What does the public expect from a history of Don Quixote? If the story is about a knight errant, should it follow tropes found in the courtly romances that Don Quixote‘s audience know so well? How should Don Quxote act? Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are at once ignorant and self-aware. They behave irrationally, but they know what readers of courtly romance expect. They try to realize in their own lives what a knight or a squire never did historically but might have done poetically. What is ironic about the above conversation is that Don Quixote seems to know that the heroes in his favorite stories were idealized and mythologized, yet he attempts to imitate them anyway. Sancho Panza definitely knows what the public (i.e. Don Quixote) expects because he frequently lies about events to fool and please his master.

Adventure, Cervantes, Miguel de, Satire/Comedy

Review of Don Quixote

Image result for don quixote edith grossmanPerhaps, I am being generous in my 4-star rating. Don Quixote could have been half the length. Still, most of the stories were entertaining, and our knight and his squire were pretty compelling characters. The brilliance of this work is in its narrative style. Don Quixote is a story within a story within a story. Cervantes published the first part years before the second part. Between the publication of the two parts, Cervantes was imprisoned. The story of Don Quixote was continued by Avellaneda without Cervantes’ permission. The narrator as well as the characters in the real story ridicule Avellaneda’s account. The narrator insists that the only true story about Don Quixote is the one we are reading. It was translated from the Arabic by the Moor Cide Hamete Benengeli. And of course there is Don Quixote himself who tries to imitate the knights errant described in popular Spanish courtly romances. To deceive Don Quixote, the other characters have to play into our knight’s delusions.

Don Quixote is a satire on Renaissance Spain. The speeches of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are almost literally lifted from the writings of the Renaissance humanists. Despite Don Quixote’s insanity, his speeches are often quite moving. Sancho Panza loves stringing proverbs together, but he often cites them out of context. While this is certainly an entertaining work, it is also somewhat tragic. People take advantage of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza to serve their own selfish ends. But who can help Don Quixote? Most tragically, Sancho Panza believes in some of his master’s hallucinations and promises. Don Quixote means well, but he resembles a cult leader. Courtly romance and hagiography were two popular literary traditions in Renaissance Spain. By exploring the theme of heroism in both tradition, Don Quixote addresses the purpose of historiography.

Because this work is as much about the writing of Don Quixote as the story of Don Quixote itself, I cannot ignore the role Edith Grossman played in translating it from the Spanish. This is an astounding accomplishment. Based on the quality of the footnotes it is clear that Grossman spent a lot of time researching the literary and historical references in Don Quixote. My edition included an interview with the translator as well as an introduction by the literary critic Harold Bloom.

I do wish Don Quixote was shorter, but I know that I won’t forget Don Quixote or Sancho Panza anytime soon. With its commentary on truth vs. falsehood and wisdom vs. folly, the work feels particularly relevant to our social media age.

Favorite Quote

“In short, our gentleman became so caught up in reading that he spent his nights reading from dusk till dawn and his days reading from sunrise to sunset, and so with too little sleep and too much reading his brains dried up, causing him to lose his mind.”

Erasmus, Satire/Comedy

Review of Praise of Folly

Image result for praise of folly penguinWhat was it about?

At the start of the 16th century, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam writes an encomium on folly from the perspective of Folly herself. Inspired by the satires of Lucian whom Erasmus translated with his friend Thomas More, Praise of Folly is a critique of late medieval society and religion. School theologians concern themselves with nonsensical questions and parish priests are barely literate. Popes and princes go to war. Mendicants are known for their wealth, arrogance, and greed. The satire begins with the genealogy of Folly before moving to a description of her role in the ancient world. Folly argues that humanity is indebted to her. Although philosophers generally condemn folly, life would be unbearable without some foolishness. In fact, folly holds a special place in the Christian tradition. Praise of Folly (trans. Betty Radice) is both a social satire and a commentary on true wisdom.

What did I think of it?

I read Praise of Folly at the right time. Last semester I took a course on medieval philosophy, and I am currently reading Don Quixote. Therefore, late medieval theology and Renaissance/early modern aesthetics are all I think of these days. There’s nothing like reading Praise of Folly after a semester-long course on the scholastics! Reading this book  was therefore quite rewarding.

The narrative voice changes throughout the work. The first part is clearly from Folly’s perspective. She is not beyond ridiculing 16th century humanists for their learning. But the voice changes mid-way through the work. Folly’s criticism of the Church is clearly Erasmus’. It no longer reads as a satire but as a diatribe. I wish Erasmus’ had maintained Folly’s perspective throughout the work. I wonder what she would have said. The final part is on the place of folly in Christianity. Here, Erasmus shares his philosophical and social views with the reader.

My Penguin edition came with a good introduction and thorough footnotes. Because Praise of Folly is a highly intellectual satire, the footnotes are indispensable. Thanks to the editor, it is quite accessible to the non-specialist. Erasmus’ Colloquies are (in my opinion) superior to Praise of Folly, but Praise of Folly was more influential. It voiced the criticisms of countless intellectuals on the eve of the Reformation. Erasmus never wrote for the lay person, but his writings inspired educational and religious reforms in 16th century Europe. I am glad I read it when I did.

Once I finish and review Don Quixote, I hope to make at least one post comparing it to Praise of Folly.

Favorite Quote (!)

“Nothing is so foolish as mistimed wisdom, and nothing less sensible than misplaced sense. A man’s conduct is misplaced if he doesn’t adapt himself to things as they are, has no eye for the main chance, won’t even remember that convivial maxim ‘Drink and depart’, and asks for the play to stop being a play. On the other hand, it’s a true sign of prudence not to want wisdom which extends beyond your share as an ordinary mortal, to be willing to overlook things along with the rest of the world and wear your illusions with a good grace. People say that this is really a sign of folly, and I’m not setting out to deny it – so long as they’ll admit on their side that this is the way to play the comedy of life.”

Church, Medieval History

Review of Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of Her Age

What was it about?

Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of Her Age by Fiona Maddocks is a creative nonfiction work about the life of the 12th century mystic, abbess, and now saint Hildegard of Bingen. The 12th century was a very important time in the history of Western Europe and the Latin church. Scholasticism emerged at the end of the 11th century and conflicted with the older monastic theologies. The powerful and famed cistercian Bernard of Clairvaux founded monasteries, mentored a pope (Eugene III), and was influential in the careers of numerous religious and theologians. Universities also started popping up in major cities. Kings fought against the pope for more independence and power over their people.

Hildegard started her life as an anchorite at the age of 8 or 12, under the direction of a girl only 4 years her senior Jutta of Sponheim. She had visions from a young age but kept them hidden for many years at the abbey of Disibodenburg. When she finally revealed them, Jutta had already died and Hildegard had been made abbess of a community of noble sisters. Over the next several decades, she founded a monastery (Rupertsburg), composed chants, and authored several books covering topics ranging from medicine to spirituality. Because she was mostly illiterate, her books were written and edited by her secretaries Volmar and (later) Guibert of Gembloux. Hildegard was not afraid to write to the Archbishop of Mainz or the pope to get what she wanted. Well-researched and in straightfoward language, Fiona Maddocks tells the story of one of the most powerful and controversial women in history – only canonized a saint in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI.

What did I think of it?

I am usually not a fan of creative nonfiction. I prefer academic works because they have a clear thesis and are peer-reviewed. But Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of Her Age lacked the enthusiasm I often encounter in creative nonfiction. It is not a hagiography in either the religious or the secular sense. Hildegard is portrayed with her faults and is nothing like the way she has been portrayed by feminists or New Age writers such as Matthew Fox. She was powerful but also quite conservative – holding some views that would be considered today as unacceptable in any circle. My favorite parts of the biography were the passages from Hildegard’s books and letters. I also appreciated Maddock’s commentaries about the authenticity of the source material.

Maddocks does not attempt to analyze Hildegard’s visions, which would seem to be a great weakness since Hildegard is famous for her visions, but Maddocks is a Classic Music critic for the Observer, so she probably does not have the theological background to do justice to Hildegard’s visions. The sections about medicine and sexuality are so amusing. Our understanding of these fields have definitely improved a lot in the past 800 years. I have admired Hildegard of Bingen for so many years and remember being excited when she was canonized in 2012. I am glad her story is being told, and I look forward to reading soon her most important book of visions Scivias. I currently own a Hildegard of Bingen reader that I dip in and out of. Even if you are not religiously inclined, you will enjoy Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of Her Age. It gives a good overview of her  life and thought.