Friday, December 24, 2010

The Season

Four decades ago, as I was about to leave the English Department office late on the last day before the winter break, I noticed out of the corner of my eye one of the few remaining persons on the premises, our sweet, diminutive work-study student, a native of Sierra Leone. “Merry Christmas, Mohammed,” I called over to him.

As I walked in the gathering darkness towards the parking lot to retrieve my car, I thought: How weird was that! A Jew wishing a Muslim a Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Fancy That!

"The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons."
Ralph Waldo Emerson

A despiser of “this weak piping time of peace . . . these fair well-spoken days,” our first speaker, A, is a distinguished warrior, a nobleman of royal blood, unlike every noble and courtier in the room he has just entered:

Because I cannot flatter and speak fair,
Smile in men's faces, smooth, deceive and cog,
Duck with French nods and apish courtesy,
I must be held a rancorous enemy.
Cannot a plain man live and think no harm,
But thus his simple truth must be abused
By silken, sly, insinuating Jacks?


Speaker B is another man renowned for his military prowess. Though not of royal blood, he is the heir to a substantial earldom. Here he relates his version of an interruption on the field of battle by a courtly messenger from the king:

I remember, when the fight was done,
When I was dry with rage and extreme toil,
Breathless and faint, leaning upon my sword,
Came there a certain lord, neat, and trimly dress'd,
Fresh as a bridegroom; and his chin new reap'd
Show'd like a stubble-land at harvest-home;
He was perfumed like a milliner;
And 'twixt his finger and his thumb he held
A pouncet-box, which ever and anon
He gave his nose and took't away again;
Who therewith angry, when it next came there,
Took it in snuff; and still he smiled and talk'd,
And as the soldiers bore dead bodies by,
He call'd them untaught knaves, unmannerly,
To bring a slovenly unhandsome corse
Betwixt the wind and his nobility.
With many holiday and lady terms
He question'd me; amongst the rest, demanded
My prisoners in your majesty's behalf.
I then, all smarting with my wounds being cold,
To be so pester'd with a popinjay,
Out of my grief and my impatience,
Answer'd neglectingly I know not what,
He should or he should not; for he made me mad
To see him shine so brisk and smell so sweet
And talk so like a waiting-gentlewoman
Of guns and drums and wounds,--God save the mark!


Speaker C is very high up the hierarchal ladder. The previous speaker was “pester'd with a popinjay”; when speaker C is approached by a young courtier, he asks his companion, “Dost know this waterfly?” and then deliberately mimics the “holiday and lady terms” of his interrupter:

Sir, his definement suffers no perdition in you; though,
know, to divide him inventorially would dozy th'
arithmetic of
memory, and yet but yaw neither in
respect of his quick sail.
But, in the verity of
extolment, I take him to be a soul of great
and his infusion of such dearth and rareness as, to
true diction of him, his semblable is his mirror,
and who else would trace him, his umbrage, nothing more.

Another military man is speaker D, but he is the equivalent of a modern non-commissioned officer, while the person whose manners offend him is the equivalent of a graduate from Officers Training School:

He takes her by the palm .
. . . Ay, smile upon
her, do; I will gyve thee in thine own courtship.
. . . it had
been better you had not kissed your three fingers so
oft, which now again you are most apt to play the
sir in. Very good; well kissed! an excellent
courtesy! 'tis so, indeed. Yet again your fingers
to your lips? would they were clyster-pipes for your sake!


Speaker E, a relation of the ruling family of the area, despises a certain member of a noted town family:

The pox of such antic, lisping, affecting
fantasticoes; these new tuners of accents! 'By Jesu,
a very good blade! a very tall man! a very good
whore!' Why, is not this a lamentable thing,
grandsire, that we should be thus afflicted with
these strange flies, these fashion-mongers, these
perdona-mi's, who stand so much on the new form,
that they cannot at ease on the old bench? O, their
bones, their bones!

Speaker F loyally serves his master, the King; he hates the arrogance and airs of those (noble and otherwise) who abuse the trust of his lord:

Sir, 'tis my occupation to be plain:
I have seen better faces in my time
Than stands on any shoulder that I see
Before me at this instant.
And like speaker C is quick to mock a fanciful mouther of words:

Sir, in good sooth, in sincere verity,
Under the allowance of your great aspect,
Whose influence, like the wreath of radiant fire
On flickering Phoebus' front . . . .


The identity of the speakers:
A—Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later, King Richard III);
B—Henry Percy (Hotspur) in I Henry IV;
C—Hamlet (speaking about, then addressing Osric);
D—Iago (speaking about Michael Cassio) in Othello;
E—Mercutio (speaking about Tybalt) in Romeo and Juliet:
F—Kent in King Lear, speaking to the Duke of Cornwall.


The plain speakers versus the fancy. The blunt, straightforwardness of the former set against the rhetorical flights (indeed excessiveness) of the later. And shown also in the plainness of dress and manners opposed to the peacockery and mannerisms of the fashionable courtiers.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this opposition is the fact that it does not break down into an easy dichotomy of good guys versus bad guys. Look at the plain speakers: Richard III, a usurping, murderous villain; Hotspur, a gallant warrior, but a rebel against the crown; Hamlet, a good guy; “honest” Iago, a treacherous deceiver; Mercutio, a lively, fun-loving good guy; and Kent, an honorable servant of Lear, even when banished by the foolish king.

In a competition between “plain, honest speaking” and affected rhetorical flourishes, we would probably all back the former. But, as we see from Shakespeare’s examples, plainness does not guarantee honesty or honor.

In fact, we need not go back over 400 years for examples of this. Compare two “plain speakers” of about a half-century ago: the honorable “Give ‘em hell” Harry Truman and Richard (“I am not a crook”) Nixon, who resorted to plainness in the “Checkers” speech, which saved his political career (“Well, that's about it. That's what we have and that's what we owe. It isn't very much but Pat and I have the satisfaction that every dime that we've got is honestly ours. I should say this—that Pat doesn't have a mink coat. But she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat”).

Patriotism, as Dr. Johnson so famously proclaimed, “is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” Perhaps the first refuge of a scoundrel (or of many of them) is plainspokenness. It is, of course, the perfect camouflage. And we don’t even have to duck back into the last century for a perfect example of this. The pretense of being “natural,” “real,” “honest” is easy to adopt: drag yourself out of the northern tundra, wink a lot at “people like us” and lie through your teeth (“Death Panels, anyone?).


It may very well be that the most over-the-top, campy, and affected person in the room could just be the most trustworthy.