The portrait of Tolstoy currently on view at London’s National Portrait Gallery as part of the ‘Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky’ exhibition shows the writer sitting at his desk, pen in hand, head bowed. Only six years after Anna Karenina was first published as a complete novel, Tolstoy had already cast aside his career as a professional writer in favour of proselytizing his ethics-based brand of Christianity.
Although Shakespeare employed disguises in many of his plays for the sake of comedic effect — take Sir Falstaff dressed as the obese aunt of Mistress Ford’s maid, for example — many more of his characters are entangled in other serious, deceptive plots. The majority of disguises are assumed with the sole purpose of concealing the individual’s true identity, many times for the assurance of his or her safety.
‘I don’t like disparagement of the Nineties,’ W.B. Yeats told the Oxford classicist Maurice Bowra towards the end of his life. ‘People have built up an impression of a decadent period by remembering only, when they speak of the Nineties, a few writers who had tragic careers. They do this because those writers were confined within the period’. But, as Yeats explained, those who survived the decade and ‘lived to maturity’ were the principal authors today. ‘The Nineties was in reality a period of very great vigour,’ he concluded, ‘thought and passion were breaking free from tradition.’
I’m 15 years old and I have just thrown up in the lavatory at the movie theater. Shaking too hard to reach the paper towels, I need to hide out there for the entire intermission of the third installment of Sergei Bondarchuk’s epic 1967 film adaptation of War and Peace.
The ‘disappearance’ of booksellers from Hong Kong in recent months reminds us that the free circulation of print can be very directly challenging to the powerful. Within social movements ranging across civil rights, disability, anti-apartheid, socialism, and anti-colonial nationalisms, books, print presses, and bookshops have been central to the movements’ intellectual development and comradeship. The women’s movement has had a similarly close relationship to print; bookshops, periodicals, and presses were a thriving presence within Edwardian women’s suffrage circles.
In a dynamic demonstration of the motivating power of the written word, a ladies’ literary discussion group read The Subjection of Women in 1883. As soon as they had closed the book, they set up the Finnish Women’s Association to campaign for women in public life. It is not coincidental that in 1906 Finland became the first European country where women had the vote. J.S.Mill’s book is, with Marx’s Capital, one of the two most important political books written in Britain in the nineteenth century.
There is a wonderful Christopher Rush novel, Will (2007), in which Shakespeare says that what he does best is death: “I do deaths you see. And I can do the deaths of children. Their lips were four red roses on a stalk… – that sort of thing.” From the death of young Rutland in 2 Henry VI to the unexpected death of Mamillius in The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare’s plays are full of loss.
In early modern England, social violence and recurring diseases ensured death was a constant presence, so it is only natural to find such a prominent theme in Shakespeare’s plays, especially his tragedies. His characters died at the hands of one another more often than from natural causes, whether stabbing, poisoning, or beheading (or a combination of the three!).
Season Six of Game of Thrones is about to air. One of the great pleasures of watching the show is the way in which George R. R. Martin, the author of the A Song of Ice and Fire series, and the show-producers, David Benioff and Dan Weiss, build their imagined world from the real and imagined structures of medieval history and literature.
Forever demanding new performers to interpret them for new audiences under new circumstances, and continuing to elicit a rich worldwide profusion of editions, translations, commentaries, adaptations and spin-offs, Shakespeare’s works have never behaved like unchanging monuments about which nothing new remains to be said.
His words still shape our consciousness, even if we fail to read him. This is not due to some hackneyed idealism (“tilting at windmills”), but rather to his pervasive impact on the genre that taught us to think like moderns: the novel. He pioneered the representation of individual subjectivity and aspiration, which today undergirds the construction of agency in any narrative, whether in novels, films, television, or the daily self-fashioning by millions of users of social media.
In 2012, when the world tuned in for the opening ceremony of London’s Olympic Games, they were witness in part to a performance of one of Shakespeare’s most famed speeches, delivered by one of today’s most revered Shakespearean actors. Kenneth Branagh, dressed as English engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, offered lines from The Tempest in the spirit of the ceremony’s larger theme, “The Isles of Wonder”.
To celebrate the life of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, who died four hundred years ago today, here is an extract taken from Don Quixote de la Mancha.
How did it come to this? How was evolution transformed from a scientific principle of human-as-animal to a contentious policy battle concerning children’s education? From the mid-19th century to today, evolution has been in a huge tug-of-war as to what it meant and who, politically speaking, got to claim it.
It’s 1608. You are passing by the bookstall of the publisher Thomas Pavier on Cornhill, a stone’s throw from the elegant colonnades of London’s Royal Exchange, when something catches your eye: a sensational play dramatising a series of real-life gruesome domestic murders. A Yorkshire Tragedy has that enticing whiff of scandal about it, but what persuades you to part with your hard-earned cash is seeing the dramatist’s name proudly emblazoned on the title-page: “Written by W. Shak[e]speare”.
Certain facts surrounding Shakespeare, his work, and Elizabethan England have been easy to establish. But there is a wealth of Shakespeare knowledge only gained centuries after his time, across the globe, and far beyond the Anglophone realm.