National Poetry Month 2015: Day 1, Billy Shakes and a Defense of Poetry

Large-Blue-RGB-National-Poetry-Month-LogoI got into a tiff recently with a friend about my textual purism when it comes it Shakespeare. To reproduce the argument would be tedious: suffice it to say that we disagreed about the consequences of changing Shakespeare’s original text when birthing new incarnations of old works. While we can leave the finer points about the difference between adaptation and interpretation for another day, I will offer the anecdote I always recount when defending my adherence to Shakespeare’s (or any other poet’s) text:

When I was involved in a production of The Tempest (I played Stephano), we reached the scene where the drunken butler Stephano, the buffoon Trinculo, and the monster Caliban come across beautiful costumes in the magician Prospero’s cell (spoiler alert: it’s a trap). Stephano says to Trinculo (text from the Arden edition):

Stephano: Mistress line, is not / This my jerkin? Now is the jerkin under the line: now, / Jerkin, you are like to lose your hair and prove a bald / Jerkin.

Trinculo: Do, do; we steal by line and level, an’t like / Your grace.

Say what? We wondered about all these “line” references. Did it refer to a clothesline that the costumes were lying on? Or some other kind of “line” we weren’t catching? Our director (to my dismay) consulted a copy of No Fear Shakespeare: The Tempest. She said: “The ‘line’  they keep referring to is a ‘tree,’ as in the clothes are hanging from a tree. So you are referring to a tree.” And that was all.

Shockingly, I wasn’t convinced, and I went home and consulted my Folger edition of The Tempest. The note for that segment of the text reads:

Stephano puns on line: The jacket is “under the line” in that it has been taken from the tree, but the phrase also means “on the equator” (i.e., in the tropics). Jokes about sailors losing their hair from tropical diseases were common…We steal by line and level: i.e., we steal in proper fashion (By line and level was proverbial; level refers to a carpenter’s level and line means “plumb line”–another pun on “line”).

So…in one short exchange, Shakespeare uses one word to provide his audience with the imagery of a tree, a clothesline, the Equator, a carpenter’s tool, and a popular proverb. But if you listened to No Fear Shakespeare, you would have a direct “translation” of line = tree. Nothing more.


Alfred Molina as a delightful Stephano (

Do you see why No Fear Shakespeare troubles me so? I don’t believe anyone thinks it is a 100% accurate, academic portrayal of the 400 year-old text. But these tidy “modernizations” do dangerously suggest that there is one correct way of interpreting Billy Shakes’ text. They imply that one meaning can be wrested from musty, antiquated language no one speaks anymore. They do not allow room for interpretation, wordplay, or art.

So call me a stuffy purist…but I actually think I support the sheer versatility of Shakespeare’s text when I champion it as being presented without modernization, literalization, or simplification. Shakespeare is one of the greatest poets in the English language: he didn’t get those laurels by offering works that could be cannily “solved.”

So today, on the first day of National Poetry Month, I would discourage you from thinking about poetry as something to “figure out.” Poetry is something to play with, to mouth and swill and savor (and occasionally spit out). Don’t look for some single solution to a riddle: read the poems and see what about the words speak to you at this given moment in your life.

I also hate the title of those books: No Fear Shakespeare? Embrace the Fear! No one should feel they don’t have the tools to enjoy and understand great poetry, but no one should be deluded into thinking they can take shortcuts to appreciate great art. Embrace the fear: roll up your sleeves and get messy with the 30 poems I will post over the course of this month.

Don't forget: April is also Billy's birthday month!

Don’t forget: April is also Billy’s birthday month!

Without further ado, here’s Billy Shakes to start us off this month (with one of my favorite monologues, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Titania says to Oberon:

These are the forgeries of jealousy:
And never, since the middle summer’s spring,
Met we on hill, in dale, forest or mead,
By paved fountain, or by rushy brook,
Or in the beached margent of the sea,
To dance our ringlets to the whistling wind,
But with thy brawls thou hast disturbed our sport.
Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge have suck’d up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which, falling in the land,
Hath every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents.
The ox hath therefore stretch’d his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attained a beard;
The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
And crows are fatted with murrain flock;
The nine-men’s-morris is fill’d up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green
For lack of tread are undistinguishable.
The human mortals want their winter cheer:
No night is now with hymn or carol blest.
Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound.
And thorough this distemperature we see
The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Fall in the fresh lap of the crimson rose;
And an old Hiems’ thin and icy crown,
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery set; the spring, the summer,
The chiding autumn, angry, winter, change
Their wonted liveries; and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which.
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension;
We are their parents and original.

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