Honor in Richard II

December 9, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's blog.

Last week was the first of four scheduled discussions of Harrison Middleton University's film course on The Hollow Crown series. Ben Whishaw portrays Richard II in Shakespeare's play by the same name. In it, Bolingbroke (Henry IV) steals the throne from Richard II. Shakespeare grants beautifully sad speeches of longing to Richard as he falls from grace. Whishaw delivers these lines with excellence. As the play progresses, the viewer comes to understand Richard's fragility and gentle nature. The movie reinforces his character while brilliantly adhering to the text. It also delivers a host of excellent actors, rich landscapes, costumes and settings.

More than all of these excellent traits, however, the viewer sees the development of Richard's complex character. The struggle for honor begins from the very first scene when Richard's path undeniably intertwines with Bolingbroke's (the future Henry IV). As soon as Richard banishes Bolingbroke, their honors are joined. It seems clear that from this point forward neither can be totally honorable, but also that they must gain honor only at the other's expense. Cleary, Richard does not understand the meaning of honor at the beginning of the play. When Bolingbroke accuses Mowbray of treason, Richard does not fully grasp the severity of the situation. Further, when Bolinbroke and Mowbray agree to settle the dispute via joust, King Richard intervenes at the last possible moment. In other words, in their moment of glory (or death), Richard has stolen their ability to attain honor. It is unclear from the play and the movie, why exactly he stops the fight. When he speaks to them in his private tent, Richard decides that banishment is the best course of action. Richard's behavior thus far is highly irregular for a king. It is not until the third act, after Bolingbroke returns with an army, that Richard begins to understand the frailty of his position.

It is true that Richard was unconventional, and by all accounts, not a very good king. He was a bit amoral, proven by the fact that he wished for Gaunt's death (his own uncle), in order to take his money and land without a fight. Furthermore, he drained all of England's funds without replenishing the source of money. At the very least, people were dismayed at his leadership, but until Bolingbroke returned with an army, Richard was the unquestioned, divinely appointed king. One could say that Richard's lack of honor was his undoing.

Ironically, then, Bolingbroke's intense desire to maintain his reputation and honor, causes destruction of another kind. It is nearly the inverse of Richard's lack of care regarding reputation. For one, reputation has been maintained via integrity and struggle. For the other, divine rights have always granted him position, title, money and prestige. Richard did not struggle and therefore, does not understand the cost of its loss. And yet, with his fall, Richard fully grasps what he could not previously understand. In that fall, then, Richard attains a kind of honor only possible through a struggle of this kind.

In beginning to comprehend his loss, Richard claims that the grasp for honor reaches through a hollow crown and cycles endlessly. Richard says,

“For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground/ And tell sad stories of the death of kings:/ How some have been deposed; some slain in war;/ Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed; / Some poison'd by their wives; some sleeping kill'd;/ All murder'd: for within the hollow crown/ That rounds the mortal temples of a king/ Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits/ Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,/ Allowing him a breath, a little scene,/ To monarchize, be fear'd, and kill with looks,/ Infusing him with self and vain conceit,/ As if this flesh which walls about our life/ Were brass impregnable, and humour'd thus/ Comes at the last and with a little pin/ Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!”

A little too late, Richard realizes power's fragility and his own mortality. Richard mistakenly assumed that honor was his without the need to grasp at it. Death sits atop this crown, no matter who wears it. As he fully comprehends the weakness of his situation, he understands the shame that he is to bear and in bearing it, gains a bit of honor.

In a later scene, Richard is forced to publicly crown Bolingbroke. Here, the viewer sees Bolingbroke's hand grasp the metallic crown in the same way that it grasps a sword or lance. He fights and in fighting gains reputation and prestige. This honor is different from Richard's, yet bound up in the same name, in the same hollow circle, adorned and empty, death lurking. King Henry IV comes to find that he cannot trust others and that fighting now defines him. In handing the crown to Bolingbroke, Richard says,

“Here, cousin, seize the crown;/ Here cousin;/ On this side my hand, and on that side yours/ Now is this golden crown like a deep well/ That owes two buckets, filling one another,/ The emptier ever dancing in the air,/ The other down, unseen, and full of water:/ That bucket down and full of tears am I,/ Drinking my griefs, whilst you mount up on high.”

This image of a bucket balancing in the air can be filled by anyone, as Richard now knows. Bolingbroke believes that honorable leadership will grant him peace and stability. He does not envision the damage that he has caused by unnaturally usurping the throne and, moreover, by causing such a rift within his own bloodline. And yet, if Bolingbroke had not tried to reclaim his lands and possessions, he would be bound by dishonor and poverty. All this because Richard did not see the repercussions of an argument of treason, and because he could not stomach the fight between two kinsmen.

These two characters, these two opposites, beautifully demonstrate honor's fluid nature. To be human is to err. Shakespeare uncovers an important truth in the comparison of Bolingbroke and Richard: that our fortunes are bound inexorably with one another's. Bolingbroke's path is set in motion by an unthinking Richard. And Richard gains honor only in his fall at the hands of Bolingbroke.

You will not regret dedicating some study to these plays. If you have the time, please join us for our next discussion of Henry IV, Part 1, on January 12, 2017. Email for more information.

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Saturating Green

December 2, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Does a single word contain a saturation point? In other words, at some point, does a word begin to lose meaning simply because it has accumulated too many definitions? Translation can be a tricky business when we understand that a simple word can carry the weight of a contemporaneous discussion. For example, today's blog leads us through a few examples of the evolution of the word “green”.

Green is not only a color. In the words of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, green is now a container that holds a “concept we live by”. In fact, green holds many concepts, which leads to the fact that if someone understands a phrase like “the green movement” to indicate a desire for more of the color green, they would miss ninety percent of the phrase's point. In many instances, green means more than simply color. Green's ability to either explicitly state or implicitly allude to a certain argument can lead to confusion. Moreover, the choice of green for today's blog is ironic since it literally grew too many meanings. Yet, in order to understand the irony, one must know that green originates from the Old English word “growan”, meaning “to grow”. The important point with word saturation is that it changes literacy in a profound way. No longer are we looking to educate reading alone, but we must be able to interpret metaphors on top of that. In other words, reading the word green will not get you closer to understanding the sentence. Word choice is about more than pronunciation and spelling, but about context also.

Here are a few examples with the word “green”, which offer a variety of definitions for such a seemingly simple term.

1] Youth, Child, Sprout:

“In the great green room/ There was a telephone/ And a red balloon/ And a picture of – the cow jumping over the moon.” - Margaret Wise Brown, Goodnight Moon


2] Hopeful or Alluring:

“And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock…Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter - tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.... And one fine morning -

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. ” - F Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby


3] Lively, full of life. Springtime.

“In time of silver rain/ The earth/ Puts forth new life again,/ Green grasses grow/ And flowers lift their heads / And over all the plain/ The wonder spreads/ Of life,/ Of life,/ Of life!

- Langston Hughes, “In Time of Silver Rain”


4] Novice, beginner, youth

“Green Children's House” is a small preschool, one of many modeled after the ideas of Maria Montessori.


5] Natural, attached to nature

“The sweetness of the air and the greenness of the leaves daunted him. Already, on the walk from the station, the May sunshine made him feel dirty and etiolated, a creature of indoors, with the sooty dust of London in the pores of his skin....Surely somewhere near by, but out of sight, there must be a stream with green pools where dace were swimming.” (This is the point – both place and time - at which Winston falls in love Julia, and first indulges his desire for attachment and love.) George Orwell, 1984


6] Nauseating

Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss


7] Slightly wild, untamed

The “greenbroke horses”, Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses


8] Desire, adventure

“The gypsy girl was rocking/ on the rain-well's face./ Green flesh, green hair/ and eyes of cold silver./ An icicle of the moon/ holds her over the water./ The night became as intimate/ as a village square./ Drunken Civil Guards/ were pounding on the door./ Green I want you green./ Green wind. Green boughs./ Ship on the sea/ and horse on the mountain.” - Federico García Lorca, “Sleepwalking Ballad”


9] Greed, jealousy

Iago's speech to Othello: “Oh, beware, my lord, of jealousy!/ It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock/ The meat it feeds on.” - William Shakespeare, Othello


10] Healthy ecology and environment

Green politics is devoted to protecting the environment. Green marketing – which stems from Green politics – puts environmentally friendly products on the shelves of our local stores.

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Thanks for the Dialogue

November 25, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

"Thanksgiving is the greatest example of what a great dinner should be: a meal that welcomes people of all religious, political or ethnic persuasions. The table is the great equalizer, and everyone around that table gets along with one another and enjoys life with family and strangers alike."- Jacques Pepin

According to Merriam-Webster, "gratitude" is the "state of being grateful". According to the same, "thanks" means "kindly or grateful thoughts". The difference is profound. To offer thanks, one does not necessarily have to be in the state of mind of gratitude. Instead, thanks is a simple acknowledgement of appreciation. It is momentary and unembodied whereas gratitude, an entire state of being, is every bit about the present moment. Do thoughts pass as quickly as a state of being? Is a state of being the same thing as an emotion? Are thoughts developed from our state of being?

Thanksgiving is an entire day set aside to dwell on the idea of thanks, but also on the fact that we exist together and depend upon each other – as one society. This is still as true today as it was in the beginning, so why does it always bring up quaint images in our minds? We still decorate the table with turkeys and we still talk of pilgrims. Of course, because it refers to an actual event in American history, our brains automatically think of the first Thanksgiving. There is something to be said for honoring the original event, of course. Thanksgiving is meant to pull on our emotions a bit, to make us remember the people or things that we are grateful for. Which is why I find it odd that Thanksgiving does not also have a strong musical tradition. Holiday music seems to be targeted at the much more commercial holidays like Christmas or Hannukah. These holiday songs ask that we be present, enjoy the moment, celebrate our families, health and resources. And yet, it is this holiday season that often creates more stress in an American lifestyle.

The entire holiday season is daunting for a number of reasons. First, winter always causes delays and unknown weather patterns. People generally receive work and school breaks, which may disrupt schedules. There are parties and family events and friendly gatherings, which are wonderful, but can overwhelm us because they demand additional time. And so we have this one day, this day of gratitude, to wonder about the years of human history, our own ancestors and where we fit into it. I think it is nice to have a quiet moment to enjoy music dedicated to holidays, to enjoy the family, to celebrate with wine and rich food. Whether your version of Thanksgiving is silly, like Adam Sandler's Thanksgiving song, or more solemn, like Johnny Cash's Thanksgiving Prayer, we wish you the best.

Either way, Thanksgiving is about people and sharing. Celebrate with those we love. Celebrate with strangers. The point, I think, is to celebrate. In the case of Harrison Middleton University, we celebrate your participation in discussion and great ideas. We are grateful for the fact that you enjoy dialogue of complicated issues and ancient texts. Enjoy the holiday and we look forward our next discussion!

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Film Review: Little Dorrit

November 18, 2016

Thanks to Peter Ponzio, Doctor of Arts, Harrison Middleton University, for the following film review of the 2008 BBC production of Little Dorrit.

Charles Dickens was a prolific author, penning some fifteen  novels, hundreds of articles, editing two periodicals (Household Words and All the Year Round) as well as editing two newspapers, Bentley’s Miscellany and The Daily News.  In addition to his authorial and editing duties, Dickens gave numerous speeches and spent the last several years of his life touring Great Britain and North America giving readings of his most popular works.

The sheer complexity of his novels, their length (an average of some 800 pages), as well as the profusion of characters makes the transition from novel to screen a difficult undertaking.  A number of adaptations have been attempted with varying degrees of success.  Three of his mature novels, Bleak House, Little Dorrit and Great Expectations, have been adapted by the BBC to critical and commercial success.  The current review will focus on the BBC production of Little Dorrit in 2008, which was originally released for television in fourteen episodes.

A listing of the primary characters and the actors who portray them, will provide a feel for the complexity of the novel and the profusion of Dickensian characters: 

Actor                                   Character

  1. Claire Foy                           Little Dorrit
  2. Matthew Macfadyen           Arthur Clenham
  3. Tom Courtenay                  William Dorrit
  4. James Fleet                       Frederick Dorrit
  5. Emma Pierson                   Fanny Dorrit
  6. Judy Parfitt                        Mrs. Clenham
  7. Andy Serkis                      Rigaud/Lagnier/Blandois
  8. Alun Armstrong                Flintwinch
  9. Eddie Marsan                  Pancks
  10. Amanda Redman            Mrs. Merdle
  11. Anton Lesser                   Mr. Merdle
  12. Sebastian Armesto         Edmund Sparkler
  13. Russell Tovey                 John Chivery
  14. Ron Cook                       Chivery
  15. Georgia King                  Pet Gowan
  16. Alex Wyndham              Henry Gowan
  17. Bill Paterson                  Mr. Meagles
  18. Janine Duvitsky             Mrs. Meagles
  19. Maxine Peake                Miss Wade
  20. Freema Agyeman          Tattycoram
  21. Zubin Varla                    Daniel Doyce

The novel explores a number of themes that recur throughout Dickens novels, and indeed, in a number of other Victorian novels.  These themes include the lack of proper parenting, the class distinctions that permeate Victorian society, the deplorable conditions of the debtors’ prisons, the almost slavish worship of money as a panacea for society’s ills, the uselessness of charitable societies and organized religion to ameliorate the conditions of the poor, and the nepotism masquerading as an effective political structure in Victorian England.

Given the number of characters and themes present in the novel, it would seem that the BBC production would have a difficult time capturing the complexity and tone of the novel.  Yet despite its relatively modest run time of approximately eight hours, the BBC production manages to convey the atmosphere of early Victorian London while adhering to Dickens’s sometimes labyrinthine plotline.

The pacing of the movie is aided by the cinematography which conveys the bustle and squalor of the seamier sections of London, such as Bleeding Heart Yard and the House of Clenham.  The tight shots of the rooms in the Marshalsea help to convey an atmosphere of claustrophobia, reinforcing Dickens’s vision of the city as a prison.  Likewise, the opulence of the Merdle household and the scenes in Venice depict a society that is riven by class distinction.  It is clear from these scenes of London and Italian social life that there is a sharp divide between the rich and the poor, at least when it comes to material comfort.

As the movie nears its conclusion, the scenes in Venice take on a more constricted look, emphasized by the tight shots of the crowd at Mrs. Merdle’s Venetian banquet and William Dorrit’s confinement to his room before he dies.  Similarly, when Mr. Merdle ventures to a public bath which is inhabited by denizens of the poorer areas of London, and with his subsequent death, the viewer is reminded that the apparent differences between the rich and poor in London are somewhat tenuous.  Mr. Merdle, in particular, seems to be a man who is in the public eye but is uncomfortable with his station in society; he inhabits a no-man’s land between the rich and poor, the affluent and destitute.  Several other characters inhabit the same no-man’s land as Mr. Merdle, traveling back and forth between riches and penury.  The list of such characters includes Arthur Clenham, Pancks, Daniel Doyce, Mrs. Clenham, and of course Mr. William Dorrit.

Little Dorrit understands the thin veil that separates the upper and lower classes.  While in Venice, she muses that there is little difference between the Marshalsea Prison and the self-erected prisons of polite society as well as the prisons erected by Mrs. Clenham, Miss Wade and Mr. Rigaud.

As for the attempts of religion to ameliorate society’s ills, the portrayal by Judy Parfitt of Mrs. Clenham makes it quite clear that her rigidity and Old Testament morality leave little room for comfort or spiritual growth for herself as well as for other members of society.  Indeed, Mrs. Clenham cannot grow; she is trapped in a prison of her own making and the final scene of the House of Clenham is of Mrs. Clenham’s wheelchair poised above a ruined domicile.

The ability of governmental institutions to help the poor is also limited.  The Circumlocution Office is depicted as a series of winding staircases leading to nowhere, flanked on all sides by reams of paper scattered haphazardly over everything.  There is no rhyme or reason to the Circumlocution Office; it exists mainly to afford appointment to connected, inept officials who accomplish nothing yet are well paid for their incompetence.

The depiction of Rigaud/Lagnier/Blandois by Andy Serkis is, by any standard, over the top:  Dickens would have loved it.  Dickens had an eye for the macabre and melodramatic; Serkis certainly delivers in these two departments.  The plight of John Chivery, rejected by Amy Dorrit, reads somewhat comically in the novel.  Yet, Russel Tovey’s performance, while emphasizing the bathetic nature of the character, somehow evokes a feeling of sympathy for this heroic-comic figure.  Sebastian Armesto injects the proper degree of innocent incompetence into the character of Edmund Sparkler, while Emma Pierson portrays Fanny Dorrit as a self-satisfied, venal and manipulative social climber who traps the unsuspecting Sparkler into marriage.  Amanda Redmand’s portrayal of Mrs. Merdle is spot-on, combining equal portions of haughtiness, venality and loathing of those in lower social stations. Dickens attacks her character mercilessly in the novel.

The three primary characters in the novel, William Dorrit, Arthur Clenham and Amy Dorrit are admirably played by Tom Courtenay, Matthew Macfadyen and Claire Foy, respectively. Tom Courtenay’s performance as William Dorrit is brilliant, alternating between fawning servility and injured superciliousness often within the same scene.  Matthew Macfadyen strikes the right note as the sensitive, emotionally stunted Arthur Clenham who believes that he has lost the ability to love as a result of his repressive upbringing and advancing years.  Claire Foy imbues the character of Little Dorrit with a self-effacing, kind, and noble character that Dickens so often attempted to portray in his female characters.

It is difficult to effectively present the idea of goodness existing in an evil world, yet the novel Little Dorrit attempts to do just this.  The BBC production of Little Dorrit helps bring Dickens’s creation of a prison world to life; a world inhabited by flawed people, some of whom are truly good.  The novel ends with Amy Dorrit and Arthur Clenham married and inhabiting this flawed world.  They make their way in life in much the same way as Adam and Eve after their expulsion from the garden; inhabiting a fallen world attempting to bring sweetness and light to their fellow creatures.

This review was originally published in Harrison Middleton University's fall 2016 newsletter.

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