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On this Date in 1767 August Wilhelm von Schlegel was Born

September 8, 2017


On this date in 1767 August Wilhelm von Schlegel was born in Hanover. The following are some notes I used for my Historical Dictionary of Romanticism in Literature:

The German Romanticist, critic, and philologist was known primarily in England for his translation into German, with the assistance of his wife and others, of the plays of Shakespeare. He also became famous for his lectures: Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature, published in 1815. William Wordsworth and William Hazlitt praised the lectures dealing with Shakespeare, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge almost certainly borrowed from them for his own Shakespeare Lectures. Schlegel was also, with his younger brother Friedrich, the editor of The Athenaeum Magazine (1798-1800) a manifesto of German Romanticism. He died in1845.

Here is a sample of A. W. Schlegel’s work, from his commentary on Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors. As a critic, Schlegel’s ideas still matter greatly in Shakespearean scholarship.

August Wilhelm Schlegel
from Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature (1808)

Of all the works of Shakespeare this is the only example of imitation of, or borrowing from, the ancients. I cannot acquiesce in the censure that the discovery is too long deferred: so long as novelty and interest are possessed by the perplexing incidents there is no need to be in dread of wearisomness. And this is really the case here: matters are carried so far that one of the two brothers is first arrested for debt, then confined as a lunatic, and the other is forced to take refuge in a sanctuary to save his life.

In a subject of this description it is impossible to steer clear of all sorts of low circumstances, abusive language, and blows; Shakespeare has however endeavored to ennoble it in every possible way. A couple of scenes, dedicated to jealousy and love, interrupt the course of perplexities which are solely occasioned by the illusion of the external senses.

A greater solemnity is given to the discovery, from the Prince presiding, and from the reunion of the long-separated parents of the twins who are alive.

The exposition, by which the spectators are previously instructed while the characters are still involved in ignorance, and which Plautus artlessly conveys in a prologue, is here masterly introduced in an affecting narrative by the father.

In short, this is perhaps the best of all written or possible Menaechmi; and if the piece be inferior in worth to other pieces of Shakespeare, it is merely because nothing more could be made of the materials.

Paul Varner

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The Ultimate Tale of Romance: Romeo and Juliet Meet each Other for the First Time

February 14, 2017


Happy Valentine’s Day to all lovers. What more beautiful way to think about romance, love, and how you feel about your Valentine. To celebrate love and romance here is the passage from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet when Romeo first casts eyes on Juliet.

It’s at the masquerade party at the Capulet which Romeo has crashed. Across the way he sees young Juliet and immediately is striken with Cupid’s arrow—as is she. He asks the passing server:


[To a Servingman] What lady is that, which doth
enrich the hand
Of yonder knight?


I know not, sir.

No name, but he stares across the way anyway, and his fiery passion begins its consummation of his heart.


O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear;
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows,
As yonder lady o’er her fellows shows.
The measure done, I’ll watch her place of stand,
And, touching hers, make blessed my rude hand.
Did my heart love till now? forswear it, sight!
For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.

But on the other side of the hall some of the Capulets begin to notice the young Romeo, son of their bitter enemy. Romeo edges closer. They watch as he confronts his newfound love in a way only young lovers have. He touches her hand. She too has been watching him and she feels his hand with similar ardor.


[To JULIET] If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.


Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.


Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?


Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.


O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.


Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.


Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take.
Here Shakespeare gives speech to the young lovers in the form of a sonnet. A sonnet from the master of love sonnets. These are the first words exchanged between the lovers. Romeo is dressed as a pilgrim.

What is it that makes this passage stand out so much from the hurly burly of the party? What makes this speech so special that it is remembered by all as one of the greatest moments in dramatic history?

Look at the basic metaphor employed in the sonnet, and notice how it affects the tone of the relationship flaring into flame between the lovers. And then, ah yes, there’s that famous play on words first with “and palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss” and later with

“Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake./ Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take.”

As their palms kiss and as both realize the turmoil within their breasts for this very moment of their lives, so you, lovers young and old, take your beloved and kiss as if for the very first time in your lives. Happy Valentine’s Day.



On this Date: Charles Darwin Was Born

February 12, 2017


On this date Charles Darwin was born in 1809 in Shropshire, England. He died in 1882.

Before the fame brought on by his books The Origin of Species in 1859 and The Descent of Man in 1871, Darwin had begun to develop his reputation as one of the most influential naturalists in history with the publication in 1839 of The Voyage of the Beagle.

The Voyage of the Beagle is a delightful and readable account in journal form of Darwin’s original voyage to the South Pacific.


In commemoration of Charles Darwin’s birthday here is a short clip in which Darwin describes his original visit to Tahiti. Sit back with a cup of coffee and read this glimpse of paradise from 1835.

November 15th. — At daylight, Tahiti, an island which must for ever remain classical to the voyager in the South Sea, was in view. At a distance the appearance was not attractive. The luxuriant vegetation of the lower part could not yet be seen, and as the clouds rolled past, the wildest and most precipitous peaks showed themselves towards the centre of the island. As soon as we anchored in Matavai Bay, we were surrounded by canoes. This was our Sunday, but the Monday of Tahiti: if the case had been reversed, we should not have received a single visit; for the injunction not to launch a canoe on the sabbath is rigidly obeyed. After dinner we landed to enjoy all the delights produced by the first impressions of a new country, and that country the charming Tahiti. A crowd of men, women, and children, was collected on the memorable Point Venus, ready to receive us with laughing, merry faces. They marshalled us towards the house of Mr. Wilson, the missionary of the district, who met us on the road, and gave us a very friendly reception. After sitting a very short time in his house, we separated to walk about, but returned there in the evening.

The land capable of cultivation, is scarcely in any part more than a fringe of low alluvial soil, accumulated round the base of the mountains, and protected from the waves of the sea by a coral reef, which encircles the entire line of coast. Within the reef there is an expanse of smooth water, like that of a lake, where the canoes of the natives can ply with safety and where ships anchor. The low land which comes down to the beach of coral-sand, is covered by the most beautiful productions of the intertropical regions. In the midst of bananas, orange, cocoa-nut, and bread-fruit trees, spots are cleared where yams, sweet potatoes, and sugar-cane, and pine-apples are cultivated. Even the brush-wood is an imported fruit-tree, namely, the guava, which from its abundance has become as noxious as a weed. In Brazil I have often admired the varied beauty of the bananas, palms, and orange-trees contrasted together; and here we also have the bread-fruit, conspicuous from its large, glossy, and deeply digitated leaf. It is admirable to behold groves of a tree, sending forth its branches with the vigour of an English oak, loaded with large and most nutritious fruit. However seldom the usefulness of an object can account for the pleasure of beholding it, in the case of these beautiful woods, the knowledge of their high productiveness no doubt enters largely into the feeling of admiration. The little winding paths, cool from the surrounding shade, led to the scattered houses; the owners of which everywhere gave us a cheerful and most hospitable reception.

I was pleased with nothing so much as with the inhabitants. There is a mildness in the expression of their countenances which at once banishes the idea of a savage; and intelligence which shows that they are advancing in civilization. The common people, when working, keep the upper part of their bodies quite naked; and it is then that the Tahitians are seen to advantage. They are very tall, broad- shouldered, athletic, and well-proportioned. It has been remarked, that it requires little habit to make a dark skin more pleasing and natural to the eye of an European than his own colour. A white man bathing by the side of a Tahitian, was like a plant bleached by the gardener’s art compared with a fine dark green one growing vigorously in the open fields. Most of the men are tattooed, and the ornaments follow the curvature of the body so gracefully, that they have a very elegant effect. One common pattern, varying in its details, is somewhat like the crown of a palm-tree. It springs from the central line of the back, and gracefully curls round both sides. The simile may be a fanciful one, but I thought the body of a man thus ornamented was like the trunk of a, noble tree embraced by a delicate creeper.

Many of the elder people had their feet covered with small figures, so placed as to resemble a sock. This fashion, however, is partly gone by, and has been succeeded by others. Here, although fashion is far from immutable, every one must abide by that prevailing in his youth. An old man has thus his age for ever stamped on his body, and he cannot assume the airs of a young dandy. The women are tattooed in the same manner as the men, and very commonly on their fingers. One unbecoming fashion is now almost universal: namely, shaving the hair from the upper part of the head, in a circular form, so as to leave only an outer ring. The missionaries have tried to persuade the people to change this habit; but it is the fashion, and that is a sufficient answer at Tahiti, as well as at Paris. I was much disappointed in the personal appearance of the women: they are far inferior in every respect to the men. The custom of wearing a white or scarlet flower in the back of the head, or through a small hole in each ear, is pretty. A crown of woven cocoa-nut leaves is also worn as a shade for the eyes. The women appear to be in greater want of some becoming costume even than the men.

Nearly all the natives understand a little English — that is, they know the names of common things; and by the aid of this, together with signs, a lame sort of conversation could be carried on. In returning in the evening to the boat, we stopped to witness a very pretty scene. Numbers of children were playing on the beach, and had lighted bonfires which illumined the placid sea and surrounding trees; others, in circles, were singing Tahitian verses. We seated ourselves on the sand, and joined their party. The songs were impromptu, and I believe related to our arrival: one little girl sang a line, which the rest took up in parts, forming a very pretty chorus. The whole scene made us unequivocally aware that we were seated on the shores of an island in the far-famed South Sea.

Realize, of course, that Darwin writes to an English audience with no knowledge of Tahiti or the South Pacific except what they might have read in fancifully exaggerated tales from previous imaginative voyagers. Here is a 19th-century version of scientific description writing aiming at accurate detail.

Notice, though, how Darwin begins by describing specific features of the land, comparing the strange and unusual to the ordinary and well-known from back in England. But then he shifts abruptly to describing the people, in general terms, not specific people. And just like his readers back home, these South Pacific islanders were all about fashion. Their peculiar way of shaving the middle of their scalps while leaving a ring of hair about the edges was essential fashion: “The missionaries have tried to persuade the people to change this habit,: Darwin says, “but it is the fashion, and it is sufficient answer at Tahiti, as well as at Paris.”

“If Music Be the Food of Love, Play On”: Two Songs from Twelfth Night

February 4, 2017

February is the month for lovers, love songs, and love stories, and Shakespeare certainly created some of the best of each. Here is a lecture I gave many years ago at the venerable Shakespeare Club of Oklahoma City. There I had the music performed by some of my colleagues. Perhaps you can find some music for these songs on somewhere YouTube somewhere.

“If Music Be the Food of Love, Play On”: Two Songs from Twelfth Night


Viola, as Cesario, and Orsino (Act 1, scene 4; late 19th or early 20th century) Folger Shakespeare Library

“If music be the food of love, play on”: With these words Shakespeare’s most musical play opens, and in one sense they may be said to embody one of the primary themes of the play—love overcomes all, so much so that one cannot get too much of either love or the music of love. Shakespeare’s songs are among the loveliest Elizabethan lyrics, and these songs sung by Feste in Twelfth Night include some of Shakespeare’s best.

You remember that Twelfth Night is a comedy about mistaken love, misdirected love brought about by disguise. Viola, shipwrecked in Illyria assumes the disguise of a boy and enters the service of Duke Orsino. The Duke is in love with the lady Olivia who will have none of him. So the Duke sends the young boy (Viola in disguise) to Olivia to encourage his suit. Alas, Olivia falls in love with the young boy (Viola in disguise) while Viola, in disguise as a boy, falls in love with the Duke.


Chicago Theater Beat: UIC Architecture Bldg, Thursday March 3, 2016. Osgood Photography

Well, the title of the play is Twelfth Night; or What You Will. It is a play full of merry highjinks and comical mistakes, appropriate for celebration at Twelfth Night, the Christmas and holiday season. So, the first song performed occurs in Act II, scene iii—at night in Olivia’s house. Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek are drunk and getting loud. They ask Feste, the fool, to sing a song. Thus, he sings “O mistress mine, where are you roaming?”

O, Mistress Mine, Where are You Roaming?

O, Mistress mine, where are you roaming?

O stay and hear; your true love’s coming,

That can sing both high and low:

Trip no further, pretty sweeting;

            Journeys end in lovers’ meeting,

                        Every wise man’s son doth know.

The theme of the song reinforces the attitude toward love in the play: love is sweet and life is short, so seize the day:

What is love? ‘tis not hereafter;

Present mirth hath present laughter;

            What’s to come is still unsure:

In delay there lies no plenty;

Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty,

            Youth’s a stuff will not endure.     

The second song occurs in the next scene of the play. The Duke Orsino is in love with love and Viola, disguised as a boy, is in love with the Duke. They talk of love, but for Viola the talk is of love with he whom she addresses. It is a sad love at this point of the play, likely to be unrequited. For the Duke, the talk of love is for a vague abstraction, the unresponsive Lady Olivia. Thus, when they invite Feste to sing a song for them, the song appropriately addresses their melancholy mood of unrequited love.

Come Away, Come Away, Death

Come away, come away, death.

And in sad cypress let me be laid;

Fly away, fly away, breath;

I am slain by a fair cruel maid.

My shroud of white, stuck all with yew,

O prepare it;

My part of death no one so true

Did share it.

The song deals with a lover who is “slain” by the failure of a “fair cruel maid” to respond to his amorous advances. Self-pityingly, relishing the tragedy of his love-death (much as Orsino relishes his own love-sickness), the lover in the song asks that no flowers be strewn on his coffin, and that he be buried in an unmarked grave, since otherwise all the other “sad true lovers” in the world would breathe “a thousand sighs” over the spot.

Not a flower, not a flower sweet,

On my black coffin let there be strown:

Not a friend, not a friend greet

My poor corpse where my bones shall be thrown:

A thousand thousand sighs to save,

Lay me, O, where

Sad true lover never find my grave,

To weep there.

Truly, Twelfth Night is Shakespeare’s great musical comedy and the opening lines perfectly embody the spirit of the play: “If music be the food of love, play on.”

(Indebted to Sandra Gilbert, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1964.)
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