What is Evil?

I know. If this were a graded project, I’d be failing. But every time I start to write, I come up with a different idea. So I stopped for a bit to let my thoughts settle. This is one subject that has kept coming up over and over, so hopefully it sticks.

How do we define evil? In truth, evil, like good, is one of those words often defined by an opposite, such as light/dark or tall/short. Such words and concepts are dependent each other and on the context in which they are used. The common definition of evil is dependent on our culture and personal mores. My or your evil might differ slightly from someone else’s evil, or, when compared, it may be far fetched.

I bring this before you because in a few days we will recognize the ten-year anniversary of 9/11. Certainly, our culture and the majority of cultures around the world define the tragedy of 9/11 as an act of pure evil. Thousands of innocent people died, people of various religions and cultures and races, all for someone else’s idiom. However, the men who planned and performed the attack believed THEY were right. They believed they were striking a blow at a country that has done more to degrade the moral center of the world than any other. In their minds, they were doing God’s work by killing those who do not embrace the “correct way.” How is their belief any different from those of our ancestors who spent generations fighting in the Crusades, killing innocent people as well as armed combatants, all in the name of religious conviction? So, I ask again: How do we define evil?

What of wars in general? America refused to enter WW I until it was apparent to a majority of the American populace that the European conflagration really was a matter of “national security,“ and WW II not until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. We were willing to allow others to fight what we now see as an ultimate evil, sacrificing their lives and homes in the process. We became involved only when our own military installations, both in Hawaii and in the Philippines, were bombed, and the national motive was in no small part revenge. Even here, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, an act designed to cripple the U.S. forces in the Pacific, was done in the name of what the Japanese thought was “right.” They believed it was their manifest destiny to conquer the Pacific world. Their ideas of superiority were no different from those of American settlers who slaughtered thousands of Native Americans in the name of a manifest destiny. This country was not ours when we arrived. We conquered, we displaced, we murdered. Is this not evil? How were our ancestors any different?

We also dropped the worst of modern weapons on Japan in order to end the war, arguing that it would be better for hundreds of thousands of civilians to die than millions counted among our soldiers, Japanese soldiers, and Japanese civilians. That debate continues as one of the great moral conundrums of our age. But is the loss of millions truly more evil than the loss of hundreds of thousands? Is one soldier’s life worth any more than a civilian? Are two lives worth more than a single one? So again, what is evil?

Like all greats in the humanist disciplines, Shakespeare never offers an answer to such large and philosophical queries. Instead, he merely expands the questions. In Macbeth, he gives us not an evil incarnate to oppose a hero, but rather a descent into evil that should be pitied. He argues and justifies his descent into evil, just as we have often done with our own descent.

Macbeth begins as the archetypal hero. He has just conquered a traitor, that is, treason against a king, a sin worse than any other in Shakespeare’s time. While returning from the battlefield, unaware of his newly earned title, he encounters three witches who make predictions regarding his current and future titles. Macbeth scoffs at these sisters until he receives news that he is now “Thane of Cawdor” (1.3.055), just as the sisters predicted. Our Western minds, molded by centuries of teachings that witches are a form of evil, are quick to judge the grotesque women as the focus of evil in the play. However, the witches never perform a single act of evil. To the contrary, they merely make predictions, and Macbeth responds with murder and a plot against those who stand in his way. Macbeth, who began in the image of a hero, is revealed in possession of an evil mind seizes on murder as a solution, despite his initial declaration, “If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me, / Without my stir” (1.3.143-144).

Other critics argue that Lady Macbeth is the epitome of true evil within the play. After all, it is she who first places the thought of murdering the king in her doting husband’s head. Yet, her burgeoning guilt eventually drives her to insanity and suicide. We find Lady Macbeth so compelling because we so easily resonate with her guilt. The purest evil is little troubled with guilt. Nevertheless, the image of Lady Macbeth with which we are left is that of a tortured soul, rubbing her hands, madly demanding,

Out, damned spot! out, I say!—One: two: why,
then, ’tis time to do’t.—Hell is murky!—Fie, my
lord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? What need we
fear who knows it, when none can call our power
to account?—Yet who would have thought the old
man to have had so much blood in him?

The thane of Fife had a wife; where is she now?—
What, will these hands ne’er be clean?—No more o’
that, my lord, no more o’ that: you mar all with
this starting.

Here’s the smell of the blood still. All the
perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this
little hand. O, O, O! (5.1.35-40, 42-45, 50-52).

Lady Macbeth’s hallucination-filled rambling comment not only on the deeds of the Macbeths, but also on her extreme guilt in their aftermath. Is she evil incarnate? Or is she merely a weak soul overcome by evil and left to be pitied?

Cultural differences across the globe make narrow definitions of evil impossible. I’m reminded of the climax of Boondock Saints, where Murphy declares, “Do not kill, do not rape, do not steal, these are principles which every man of every faith can embrace.” However, even these crimes are not embraced by every faith as evil. In fact, within some cultures, murder and rape are used to punish what some perceive as worse sins. So can we, as a human race, truly embrace any singular definition of evil? And if we can, can we also acknowledge our own evil as well as the evil of others?

Our Supreme Court might argue that, like porn, we cannot define evil, but we know it when we see it. By that reasoning, Macbeth is truly evil, and Shakespeare forces us to witness a good man’s descent into evil. And, as evil as Macbeth and Lady M become, it can also be argued that Banquo is equally evil. After all, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” However, for all three, they receive what we might call their just desserts. Is such a conclusion our answer to evil? Or should we conquer it with pity and compassion instead? Is that possible?

Let us apply the view of a descent to evil towards the hijackers of 9/11. We label these men as evil. Yet, they were seduced by words and rhetoric of zealots in their own religion. They laid their own lives and the lives of thousands of innocents on the altar of the rhetoric of their leaders. Does their memory deserve condemnation or pity?

Perhaps the answer is both. History is filled with leaders whose gift of blarney inspires others to commit evil acts. These doers of evil become mere marionettes of their silver-tongued leaders. Perchance, we should strive for a condemnation of their acts and leaders while simultaneously reacting to these poor puppets with compassion and pity for their downfall. After all, Shakespeare ends Macbeth with a mixture of grotesque celebration and dismissal of the evil when, while seeing Macbeth’s head displayed, Malcolm declares he “shall not spend a large expense of time” on Macbeth’s actions before embracing his loyal countrymen in grateful arms.


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Shakespeare’s Kitchen

     It has taken me a while to decide on a topic for my newest entry. In fact, I have partially written several blogs in my head while walking Tug in the quiet nights. A few were rants, inspired by the various idiots in government speaking on radio and TV. In fact, I nearly wrecked my car screaming at the radio when one particular politician was interviewed. However, I don’t intend this blog to take on a politic tone. There are far too many of those around lately, though, I’ll admit, Shakespeare’s plays lend themselves rather nicely to the current political climate. It’s funny how things haven’t changed much over the centuries.

But I digress. Actually, I’ve just always wanted to say that and never seem to catch myself speaking to my classes when I actually do digress. The topic I finally decided on is one everyone can relate to, that is, food.

To begin, I find it absolutely amazing that so many people in the world have never tried my grandmother’s blueberry pancakes, yet claim they know what a good blueberry tastes like. The best blueberries come from Michigan. All the others are far too small or too seedy. The Michigan blueberries of my childhood were always large and juicy with tart skin and sweet flesh. And they never had the annoying habit of depositing seeds in my teeth. Yet, as good as they were fresh, they reached their peak in my grandmother’s pancakes. Her pancakes were large and fluffy with berries cooked just to the bursting point. Instead, they would explode in your mouth or under your fork, mixing with the butter and syrup, which created the most intoxicating of substances. She had several other blueberry recipes, but her pancakes surpassed them all. She taught me herself how to make them, yet somehow mine still aren’t quite as excellent as hers.

Food invokes memories, which is why most modern scientists believe it can bring about the same feelings as other more dangerous drugs. Marcel Proust called it “involuntary memory.” That is, the taste and smell of the food involuntarily stimulates memories, which, as scientist have determined, triggers the release of various chemicals in the body, thus producing an effect similar to that of some drugs. Thus, no pancake I can make will ever be as perfect as my grandmother’s, simply because each time I eat my own, I remember hers and inevitably compare them. Yet, within those memories I also find a comfort from my childhood, remembering those mornings around the table with Papa’s commentary, Grammy’s clinking and clanging in the kitchen, and my older brother stumbling up the stairs toward the kitchen from his basement bed.

The first time I ever really linked Shakespeare and food was as an undergrad when my lovable and eccentric professor surprised us by celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday with homemade goodies baked from Elizabethan recipes. She brought fresh strawberries, clotted cream, short cakes, Shrewsbury cakes, marmalade, and pound cake. It was a very tasty two hours.

No, Shakespeare does not have a play about food. However, his plays are littered with the references to various foodstuffs and drink, and they are placed in a way to invoke those “involuntary memories” in the audience. For instance:

The strawberry grows underneath the nettle

And wholesome berries thrive and ripen best

Neighbour’d by fruit of baser quality:

And so the prince obscured his contemplation

Under the veil of wildness; which, no doubt,

 Grew like the summer grass, fastest by night,

Unseen, yet crescive in his faculty.  (Henry V, I.1.99-105)

So, Shakespeare mentions strawberries, big whoop, right? What he is truly doing is invoking the audience’s memory. Strawberries were a late spring and early summer treat for all classes. They grew in the undergrowth of these “baser quality” plants, yet they provided a perfectly sweet treat for those that searched for them. In the same way, the Prince, now in the “spring” of his manhood, though he has grown under the influence of “baser” men, i.e. Falstaff, will begin to rise and fulfill the ripeness of his promise. Without the memory of the strawberry in the audience’s minds, this reference is no where near as powerful.

Some of Shakespeare’s most powerful food references are to drink. Just as now, some of the most amusing bits of humor tend to be alcohol induced. That’s right, little has changed. Most of Shakespeare’s foolish characters are, at some point, inebriated, causing comic exchanges. One of the most memorable occurs in The Tempest when Caliban, the island savage, is given his first taste of alcohol by the two fools, Trinculo and Stephano. In a raucous scene, Caliban assumes the beverage to be magical, and so, too, its owner.

CALIBAN: Hast thou not dropp’d from heaven?
STEPHANO: Out o’ the moon, I do assure thee: I was the man i’
the moon when time was.
CALIBAN: I have seen thee in her and I do adore thee:
My mistress show’d me thee and thy dog and thy bush.
STEPHANO: Come, swear to that; kiss the book: I will furnish
it anon with new contents swear.[Caliban drinks.] (II.2. 137-143)

Change the time and place, and the scene would resemble a college frat party wherein a brother corrupts one of the innocent pledges during rush week. Vulgar yet funny, as long as you aren’t Caliban/college frosh.

Shakespeare also cleverly uses drink and drunkenness to lighten the terrible darkness of his tragedies. For instance, in Macbeth, we are suddenly introduced to the porter just after the audience has witness Macbeth and Lady M washing their hands of Duncan’s blood:

Here’s a knocking indeed! If a man were
porter of Hell Gate, he should have old turning the
key. (Knock.) Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there,
i’ the name of Beelzebub? Here’s a farmer, that hang’d
himself on th’ expectation of plenty. Come in time!
Have napkins enow about you; here you’ll sweat for’t.
(Knock.) Knock, knock! Who’s there, in the other
devil’s name? Faith, here’s an equivocator, that could
swear in both the scales against either scale, who com-
mitted treason enough for God’s sake, yet could
not equivocate to heaven. O, come in, equivocator.
(Knock.) Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there? Faith,
here’s an English tailor come hither, for stealing
out of a French hose: come in, tailor; here you may
roast your goose. (Knock.) Knock, knock! Never
at quiet! What are you? But this place is too
cold for hell. I’ll devil-porter it no further: I had
thought to have let in some of all professions that go
the primrose way to the everlasting bonfire. (Knock.)
Anon, anon! [Opens the gate.] I pray you, remember
the porter. (II.3.1-21)

Here, Shakespeare lightens the mood with a drunken porter bumbling about onstage; yet he uses the fellow to set the scene. Will the Macbeths be caught by those knocking? Are we still in a Scottish castle, or are we truly in hell? He might have added these thoughts in some more serious form, but the addition of a drunkard allows him to create a multi-layered moment of humor and fear. We are meant to laugh at the porter, but with a tinge of fear in the back of our minds.

For those, like me, who spend their spare and professional time studying Shakespeare’s works, one of the many things that can be noticed about his methods are that he is a master at manipulating the senses and memories of the audience. One method he employed was food and drink. So, next time you go to see Shakespeare in the park, pack a picnic, carry a bottle of wine. As you listen to the actors spotting various references, try taking a bite of those foods or sipping those drinks and reflecting on the memories they invoke in you. Then see how you might link those memories to the scene before you. In the meantime, enjoy this lovely 17th century recipe. Bon Appetit!

To make Clouted Cream:

Take Milk that was milked in the morning, and scald it at noon; it must have a reasonable fire under it, but not too rash, and when it is scalding hot, that you see little Pimples begin to rise, take away the greatest part of the Fire, then let it stand and harden a little while, then take it off, and let it stand until the next day, covered, then take it off with a Skimmer. (Taken from “The Queen-like Closet OR RICH CABINET Scored with all manner of RARE RECEIPTS FOR Preserving, Candying and Cookery” by Hannah Woolley, 1672).

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Shakespearean Horror

I recently read Bram Stoker’s classic novel, Dracula. I’d say I don’t know why I took so long to read it, after all, I’ve read and reread the other classics like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein, and all of Poe’s tales, but I know the truth. When I was younger, I saw a clip of the classic film, Nosferatu. Frankly, it scared the shit out of me. For over a year, I slept with a clove of garlic on the window frame by my bed, a silver cross around my neck, and my blankets wrapped tightly around my neck and shoulders. Once I outgrew my terror, I did become fascinated by the legends. I’ve long enjoyed the various documentaries on Dracula, as well as the films, including Bela Lugosi’s famed 1931 feature. Yet, I never read the actual story, and I’m sure that in the back of my mind, it would terrify me all over again. And it did, but in a good way. Indeed, I stayed up all evening reading page after page, unable to put it down, even though I had to play nanny at 8:30am. The story was wonderful, intriguing, and exciting. Far superior to anything Ms. Meyer could produce, but I’ll leave that rant for another day. Unlike the various film adaptations, Bram Stoker’s Dracula allows little sympathy for the monster. He is truly evil, and yet, Mina continually reminds the reader and her men that they must pity Dracula’s soul for it has been lost for centuries. It’s a conflict in the book that invades the reader’s subconscious as well. Can such a villain be pitiful? Other versions of the vampire myths have played up their sexiness and their long-lost human side, but the original tales of vampires paint a much different picture. They are truly terrifying and pitying them is the hardest act of all.

The horror genre has gone downhill in the last few decades. Even some of the old B-movie horror films have better plot lines than the current summer blockbuster blood baths. More and more the film makers rely on shock and gore for their ratings and forget the plot line. Perhaps they should read Bram Stoker, or better, Poe. Edgar A. Poe has long been known as the master of horror stories, and it’s true. Even at 25, Vincent’s Price’s portrayal in the film version of Ligeia scares the pants off me. There is very little blood in the entire thing, and the special effects are some of the worst the 70’s ever produced. Yet, every time I find myself startling from sleep having seen that damn black cat in my dreams.

However, Poe was far from the first to produce a good scary tale. Ghost stories and the like have been around to frighten small children when stories were merely an oral tradition, passed from generation to generation. Just read a few classic Irish or German fairy tales if you want proof. Not to mention numerous tales and legends of fallen warriors, haunted woods, evil witches, and cursed lands can be found in nearly every tradition worldwide.

How did Shakespeare use these stories? Well, as the son of a glover, he would’ve heard the old folk tales from customers and suppliers. But he would’ve also known the church’s teachings on the occult since his mother was a member of the Roman Catholic gentry, even though the religion had fallen out of political favor since the death of Mary I. He would’ve also learned the many legends and tales of monsters and the like from Greek and Roman myths in school. Truly, he had a vast array of sources.

But, unlike other playwrights of the time, Shakespeare usually steered clear of the occult. That is, except for one play, Macbeth. Most critics believe that Macbeth was written to gain favor with the new king, James I. The king’s fascination with the occult, especially witchcraft was widely known. He even published the foremost scholarship of the day on the subject. He also had a great interest in his family’s history, as did most of the Tudors. In order to cement his claim on the Scottish throne, he had long claimed a lineage from an ancient Scotsman named Banquo, who helped the supposedly historical Macbeth in gaining the ancient throne. Shakespeare merely altered the story a bit, added the survival of Banquo’s son Fleance and the prophecy of Banquo’s lineage, and boom, instant success, right? Wrong. Or at least, in theatre lore, it’s wrong. While there are many stories on how Macbeth became a cursed play, the two prominent ones feature its first performance. Many actors believe that first and foremost, the play is cursed because Shakespeare used actual witches’ incantations in the play, thus calling their power and curse to the play. The other legend is that after the first performance for James I, the king hated the entire thing, loathed it, actually. There is little historical evidence to back up this claim, but the general belief is that the play flopped. Indeed, the only historical mention of a performance came in April 1611, when it was performed at the Globe. However, since it is believed to have been written between 1603 and 1606, many believe the 1611 performance to be the second. Perhaps Shakespeare hoped that in the intervening years, James might have forgotten his original dislike.

For those outside the theatre world, don’t think you’re being funny and mention Macbeth in a theatre to a theatre nut. We will forcibly remove you, turn you three times, make you spit, utter an obscenity or two, and then wait until you are invited back in. It really isn’t funny to mess with our superstitions.

However, as horror stories go, Macbeth is incredible. It has it all: plotting, murder, witches, dark stormy nights, bloody ghosts, prophecies, and battles. The play even ends with a head on a stake, or sword, depending on the production. But as scary as the weird sisters are, it is Macbeth’s inability to withstand their temptations and the temptations of his wife that produces the most horror. He descends into madness because, at his core, he was a weak man.

Speaking of Lady M, she is by far one of the most terrifying characters in literature. Just listen to her words as she begins to hatch a plan to help her husband usurp the throne.

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief! (I.iii.40-47)

Yet that’s tame compared to her hissing retort to Macbeth’s hesitation to kill King Duncan.

I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this. (I.vii.54-59)

That just sends shivers down my spine. In fact, I’ve often wondered if Shakespeare had a little Classical inspiration for his Lady M in the form of the infamous Medea. In Euripedes’s famous play, Medea kills her children after they have delivered a poisoned diadem to the young princess who Jason, Medea’s husband, has recently announced he will marry in place of Medea. She even takes the bloody bodies of her children with her so Jason cannot properly mourn them. Hell hath no fury, right?

All in all, Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a pretty good horror tale. As much as I love him, I wouldn’t say he surpasses some of the other greats of the genre, but he is up there.

“Hell is murky!… Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?” (V.i.36, 39-40).

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Good Fathers

Since Father’s Day was just a few days ago, I’ve been thinking a great deal about them. I have had the privilege of having a wonderful father my entire life. I say privilege because I’m acutely aware that the number of bad fathers in the world outweighs the good ones, and I know I’m lucky that I got a good one. My father has always been there for me but has never been overbearing. He has always been thrilled to let me be myself and to learn from my own falls. He’s the type of father that let me choose my own clothes for school, even when it meant I proudly wore two different colored socks. When I was little and in ballet, he patiently took me to all the practices and recitals when mom worked late, even when it meant he got called a pervert by the other mothers in the dressing room. He simply smiled and straightened my feathered/sequined/whatever-the-costume-was.

While I was walking Tug last night, I witnessed another prime example of a good father. In the humid summer evening air, a father was taking his usual run, but pushing his daughter in a stroller. Now, since she was NOT an infant that meant she added a bit to his load. But there he was, heaving and wheezing, but pushing her along at a good pace in the heat. But even better, he talked to her the whole time. They had complete conversations; he even patiently answered all her toddler questions, like, “why are there stars?”, “do ducks ever sleep?”, “why is that dog so interested in the tree?” etc. Since it was a typical summer evening in Tennessee, there was heat lightning in the sky, and they were counting the flashes. That’s right; he kept count amid his gasps for air. Now that’s a good father. It’s those nights that his daughter will remember when she’s older.

So, what does this have to do with Shakespeare? Old Willy was himself a father and, by all contemporary accounts, a good one although often absent. Indeed, most scholars believe his first pursuits in the theatre were not due to some deep desire but to the need for a simple paycheck since at 21 he was already married and the father of three. Indeed, at the beginning of his career, his contemporaries, like Robert Greene, considered him an “upstart Crow.” Greene himself had had the best of educations, whereas poor old William had only been entitled to an education at the King’s School. It was more than many men in England at the time, but not quite to the standards of Greene. I guess Shakespeare got the last laugh there.

In 1596, Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet, died. What probably compounded this tragedy was not just that he was away so often, but that he was also reaching the pinnacle of his career. Yet, Hamnet’s death perhaps added a bitter taste to an otherwise happy time. Indeed, shortly after he had made enough to not only pay off his own father’s debts but also to buy “The New Place,” a large new house in Stratford. After Hamnet’s death, Shakespeare wrote some of his greatest plays, and unsurprisingly, most concerned relationships of fathers and children. Hamlet in 1600, King Lear in 1606, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest in 1610 all center on the relationships between fathers and children. The closeness of Hamnet’s name and Hamlet’s was probably more of a coincidence as the story of Hamlet was not original. In fact, it was taken mostly from Saxo’s legend of “Amleth”. However, its timing, even though the story was at the time, popular, probably at the very least hit a personal note with Shakespeare. After all, not only did his only son die in 1596, his father died in 1601 after a long decline. Indeed, Shakespeare had probably long felt some degree of guilt about his own father’s decline while he succeeded. Evidence suggests John Shakespeare was probably illiterate, a cruel irony considering Shakespeare’s career.

Shakespeare was by no means a traditional family man since he spent more time in London than at home, not to mention evidence that he was rarely faithful to his wife. Yet, I do believe that he loved his family, wife included, and they were continually on his mind. No artist can write so movingly and convincingly about family tragedies and relationships without knowing that familial love himself. And in this light, a reread of The Tempest or A Winter’s Tale can be seen in a whole new light. Try it and think of your own fathers. I promise his words will reach you.

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