Saturday, February 13, 2021

2021 Reading Projects

It's time to undertake some reading projects for 2021.  I think the focus might be poetry.

  • What I have in mind first is tackling Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene.  I recall reading at least the first stanza in college – I associate it with Professor Kent Cartwright's course on Medieval and Renaissance literature – but I am quite sure we did not read the whole thing.  If I read one canto per day, it should take 74 days.  (Six books of 12 cantos each, plus the 2 cantos of mutabilities.)
  • I'd like to finish reading "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" in middle English.  The poem has 101 stanzas, of which I've read the first 22.  So if I read one stanza per day, we're talking 79 days.
That seems entirely doable!  After that, who knows.  Other targets might include "The Pearl" and "The Dream of the Rood."  I also want to go back to some of Tolkien's poetry, esp. "Light as Leaf on Linden-tree."  And probably Tennyson's "Idylls of the King."

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Altering the Previous Scheme for All Remaining Time

@alas_not_me was reflecting recently on fate and free will in Middle-earth (as one does), and he mentioned this sentence which I've highlighted in bold:

[O]ne of the Eldar would have said that for all Elves and Men the shape, condition, and therefore the past and future physical development and destiny of this ‘earth’ was determined and beyond their power to change[...].  The Downfall of Númenor was ‘a miracle’ as we might say, or as they a direct action of Eru within time that altered the previous scheme for all remaining time.  (Tolkien 185)

What gripped me was the idea of a divine intervention that permanently altered the prior scheme; it reminded me immediately of this passage from Perelandra:

If he [Ransom] now failed, this world also would hereafter be redeemed. If he were not the ransom, Another would be. Yet nothing was ever repeated. Not a second crucifixion: perhaps--who knows--not even a second Incarnation . . . some act of even more appalling love, some glory of yet deeper humility. For he had seen already how the pattern grows and how from each world it sprouts into the next through some other dimension. The small external evil which Satan had done in Malacandra was only as a line: the deeper evil he had done in Earth was as a square: if Venus fell, her evil would be a cube--her Redemption beyond conceiving. Yet redeemed she would be.  (Lewis 126)

Tolkien seems to be describing a divine intervention, in response to human sin, that resulted in a permanent change in the physical nature or essence of Middle-earth itself (as I recall, the straight way to the Blessed Realm was bent, so that humans could no longer get there or even see it, no matter how far they sailed).  This cutting-off of mortals could potentially be seen either as a punishment or as a means of physically enforcing a prohibition or quarantine (since mortals don't always do well with willed obedience or compliance).  Or both.  But it does not appear to be a redemptive act.

Ransom's reflections in Perelandra seem to me almost the flip side of Tolkien's comment.  Lewis is focusing on the ever-increasing evil, to which Maleldil will respond in what can only be increasingly scheme-altering ways.  Of course, Lewis is not looking at changes to the physical make-up or structure of the world, but the enormity of the divine interventions necessary to redeem fallen hnau in different worlds.


Lewis, C. S. Perelandra. 1st Scribner Classics ed, Scribner Classics, 1996.

Tolkien, J. R. R. “Fate and Free Will,” edited by Carl Hostetter. Tolkien Studies, vol. VI, 2009, pp. 183–88.

Friday, January 01, 2021

Two Echoes of 'The Hobbit' in 'The Lord of the Rings'

I've noticed two passages from the opening chapter of The Hobbit that seem to be echoed in The Lord of the Rings, albeit significantly reworked and repurposed.  Here are some initial thoughts, which I may refine further.

I. Dismissal of the Unwelcome Visitor

A. Good Morning!

In the opening chapter of The Hobbit, Bilbo's initial friendly greeting to a passing stranger (eventually revealed to be Gandalf) prompts an oddly literal-minded interrogation into what exactly Bilbo means by "good morning."  A carefree Bilbo good-humoredly agrees to all the suggested meanings and more.  But as the stranger introduces a more disturbing topic – the prospect of sending Bilbo on an adventure – our hero resorts back to the same polite formula once more, this time as a clear dismissal: 

“Good morning!” he said at last.  “We don’t want any adventures here, thank you!  You might try over The Hill or across The Water.”  By this he meant that the conversation was at an end.

“What a lot of things you do use Good morning for!” said Gandalf.  “Now you mean that you want to get rid of me, and that it won’t be good till I move off.”

“Not at all, not at all, my dear sir!  Let me see, I don’t think I know your name?”

“Yes, yes, my dear sir – and I do know your name, Mr. Bilbo Baggins.  And you do know my name, though you don’t remember that I belong to it.  I am Gandalf, and Gandalf means me! To think that I should have lived to be good-morninged by Belladonna Took’s son, as if I was selling buttons at the door!”  (The Annotated Hobbit 33, footnote omitted)

As I described it in my essay on etiquette humor in The Hobbit:

Bilbo tries to dismiss Gandalf and end the conversation by saying “Good morning!” and “thank you!” in quick succession (H 6). As Shippey notes, this “insincere politeness [...] is socially coded to mean its opposite” (9), but when Gandalf points out what Bilbo is doing, Bilbo denies it. Obviously, it would be impolite for Bilbo to acknowledge in so many words that Gandalf’s presence is unwelcome, and as a result he is too embarrassed to admit that Gandalf’s interpretation is correct. Thus, Bilbo’s own concern for the appearance of proper behaviour traps him into a conversation that he finds more and more alarming, until the only way that he sees to escape is to invite Gandalf to tea.  (Smith 118)

In other words, Bilbo's attempt to signal to Gandalf in a socially acceptable manner that he is unwelcome and should buzz off not only fails, but completely backfires as it gives Gandalf an excuse to return (with friends!) and railroad him into a most alarming adventure.

Bilbo's utter ineffectiveness in dismissing Gandalf is naturally played for comedy in The Hobbit.  But much of the humor, and its significance for setting the plot in motion, stems from Gandalf's deep familiarity with the social conventions that constrain Bilbo, and his working or flouting them, at will, to his own advantage.

B. Good Night and Good-Day to You! 

Once again in The Lord of the Rings, we see hobbits signaling to passing strangers that they are unwelcome with words of greeting socially coded to indicate dismissal.  Except this time, the strangers in question just happen to be Black Riders (most likely Khamûl in both instances) on a mission from Mordor.

In Book One, Chapter 3, Frodo overhears "voices, just round the corner by the end of Bagshot Row."  He recognizes one as the Gaffer's, while the other one is almost inaudible but "strange, and somehow unpleasant."  The Gaffer "seemed put out" by the stranger's questioning, but Frodo can only hear the answer portion of the dialogue:

‘No, Mr. Baggins has gone away.  Went this morning, and my Sam went with him: anyway all his stuff went.  Yes, sold out and gone, I tell’ee.  Why?  Why’s none of my business, or yours.  Where to?  That ain’t no secret.  He’s moved to Bucklebury or some such place, away down yonder.  Yes it is – a tidy way.  I’ve never been so far myself; they’re queer folks in Buckland.   No, I can’t give no message.  Good night to you!’ (LotR 69)

Throughout the conversation, the Gaffer seems to be providing the socially minimal appearance of "helpfulness" that at best only thinly veils his annoyance at the stranger's nosiness.  Even his explanation that Frodo has gone "to Bucklebury or some such place" at first sounds like an old man's vagueness about matters of little import to him.  But this seems to be a bit of deliberate misdirection while avoiding the lie direct, as the Gaffer later flatly tells Sam "I've sent him on to Bucklebury" (LotR 75).  Crickhollow is another few miles to the north and east of Bucklebury, and more isolated.

The Gaffer's final comment – "Good night to you!" – is a dismissal.  Whether or not the Black Rider is familiar with the convention, the tone and delivery surely makes clear to the Black Rider that his questions are unwelcome and the evening "won't be good till [he] moves off."  Unlike Gandalf, the Black Rider then leaves without demur, as "Footsteps went away down the Hill."  A crotchety old hobbit has successfully baffled a Black Rider.

In the very next chapter (I.4), Farmer Maggot recounts his own encounter with a Black Rider who was trespassing on his property.  In this instance, the initial greeting is clearly a dismissal.  Indeed, it cannot be mistaken for a polite welcome, as the hobbit immediately tells the stranger to exit his property and get back to the public road:

‘“Good-day to you!” I says, going out to him. “This lane don’t lead anywhere, and wherever you may be going, your quickest way will be back to the road.”  I didn’t like the looks of him; and when Grip came out, he took one sniff and let out a yelp as if he had been stung: he put down his tail and bolted off howling.  The black fellow sat quite still.

‘“I come from yonder,” he said, slow and stiff-like, pointing back west, over my fields, if you please.  “Have you seen Baggins?” he asked in a queer voice, and bent down towards me.  I could not see any face, for his hood fell down so low; and I felt a sort of shiver down my back.  But I did not see why he should come riding over my land so bold.

‘“Be off!” I said.  “There are no Bagginses here.  You’re in the wrong part of the Shire.  You had better go back west to Hobbiton – but you can go by road this time.”

‘“Baggins has left,” he answered in a whisper.  “He is coming.  He is not far away.  I wish to find him.  If he passes will you tell me?  I will come back with gold.”

‘“No you won’t,” I said. “You’ll go back where you belong, double quick.  I give you one minute before I call all my dogs.”

‘He gave a sort of hiss.  It might have been laughing, and it might not.  Then he spurred his great horse right at me, and I jumped out of the way only just in time.  I called the dogs, but he swung off, and rode through the gate and up the lane towards the causeway like a bolt of thunder.  What do you think of that?’  (LotR 94)

Here, of course, the Black Rider does not immediately depart on being good-nighted.  Farmer Maggot has to dismiss him three times (a traditional approach when dealing with creatures of Faërie), the third time rejecting a proffered bribe and threatening to sic the dogs on him.

The hiss at the end is wonderfully ambiguous in this passage – is the Black Rider hissing with annoyance at this belligerent, uncooperative hobbit, apparently foolishly unaware of the danger he's courting?  And/or hissing with amusement at the threat of calling "all my dogs" when the first dog slunk off in fear?  Although when we recall that he hissed at the Gaffer, too – "Hissed at me, he did" (LotR 75) – I'm inclined to think it's frustration or annoyance more than anything else. 

So, in both these hobbit-Rider encounters, the hobbits ultimately prevail, apparently by sheer spunk, while far mightier folk (e.g. the armies of Gondor) have quailed.[FN*]  Of course, it helps that the Riders apparently are not permitted to exercise their full powers while seeking information in the Shire.  

But it would seem that Khamûl perhaps also lacks the deep familarity with social conventions and hobbit psychology that allowed Gandalf to win a war of words against Bilbo.  He therefore lives (if that is the right word) to be good-nighted and good-dayed by an elderly gardener and a country farmer, as if he were selling buttons at the door.

II. Startled By a Wizard's Light Trick 

This is one I noticed in February 2018.  In both The Hobbit and in The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf suddenly strikes a light and one of his interlocutors, startled, falls to the floor.

Bilbo is shaken by the prospect of an adventure from which he might not return.  He shrieks, startling the dwarves and causing them to knock over a table.  Gandalf strikes a light to bring order to the chaos: 

Gandalf struck a blue light on the end of his magic staff, and in its firework glare the poor little hobbit could be seen kneeling on the hearth-rug, shaking like a jelly that was melting. Then he fell flat on the floor, and kept on calling out “struck by lightning, struck by lightning!” over and over again; and that was all they could get out of him for a long time.  So they took him and laid him out of the way on the drawing-room sofa with a drink at his elbow, and they went back to their dark business.   (The Annotated Hobbit 47) 
Since Bilbo starts from a kneeling position when he falls flat on the floor, it seems most plausible that he falls forward, onto his face.  His cowardice, his comically over-exaggerated reaction to the wizard's practical light-trick, sidelines him from the action (amusingly termed the dwarves' "dark business") for a while.

Then this scene in Book Three, Chapter 6 of The Lord of the Rings seems to hearken back to it, although the context is quite different, as Gandalf is making a display of his power to command everyone's attention.  Especially Théoden's, since after an initial exchange of greetings between them, it is Wormtongue alone who has spoken, as if undertaking the burden of conversation with Gandalf on Théoden's behalf.  Gandalf soon has had enough of this.  Drawing himself up, he says:

‘[...] I have not passed through fire and death to bandy crooked words with a serving-man till the lightning falls.’ 

He raised his staff.  There was a roll of thunder.  The sunlight was blotted out from the eastern windows; the whole hall became suddenly dark as night.  The fire faded to sullen embers.  Only Gandalf could be seen, standing white and tall before the blackened hearth. 

In the gloom they heard the hiss of Wormtongue’s voice: “Did I not counsel you, lord, to forbid his staff?  That fool, Háma, has betrayed us!”  There was a flash as if lightning had cloven the roof.  Then all was silent.  Wormtongue sprawled on his face.  (LotR 514)

So what Gandalf does here in Théoden's hall is considerably more elaborate than merely turning on a wizardly light for the company to see by.  Here, he is working multiple light and sound effects to sideline Wormtongue:  First, he implies that lightning will soon fall, setting the mood and preparing his audience.  Second, he creates the sound of thunder and darkens both the sky (as if generating an eclipse) and the hall (the fire fades to embers).  Third, there is a great flash, as if lightning has broken through the roof.  All this is done in order that Théoden might "hearken to" Gandalf directly, rather than allowing Wormtongue to serve as intermediary and buffer (id.).

Seeming to wield the powers of a storm and/or an eclipse are, I believe, traditional calling-cards of a magician.  I'm virtually certain these effects are a powerful illusion and Wormtongue was not, in fact, struck by lightning.  So why is he sprawled on his face at the end of this passage?  I think it shows Wormtongue's lack of courage.  He was, until now, "sitting upon the steps of the dais" (LotR 513).  Either he has risen in an attempt to flee, and stumbled and fallen in terror, or he has thrown himself forward on to the floor to be absolutely sure that he will not be high enough to draw a feared lightning bolt.  Since Wormtongue "remained lying on the floor" as Éowyn helps Théoden stand (LotR 515), it seems likely that Wormtongue has managed to knock himself out either way.[FN**]  

Wormtongue's cowardice is different from Bilbo's, of course; it is a realisticly depicted cowardly response to a wizard's apparent unleashing of a lightning storm indoors.  It not only confirms our already low opinion of Wormtongue, but it helps communicate the same view to Théoden (and all the others present who were somehow able to face the terror of an uncanny storm without falling or throwing themselves on the floor).  Plus, Wormtongue appears to be out cold.  It thus has the effect of completely sidelining the serving-man, so that Gandalf can speak with the king.  Wormtongue does not appear again for several pages, after Théoden has started to recover himself and his strength and to take better counsel; and even then, Wormtongue  comes out following Háma and "cringing between two other men" (LotR 519).

The cowardice revealed in Bilbo, by contrast, is played for pure comedy.  In The Hobbit, Gandalf has not simulated a lightning storm, so Bilbo's fear that he was "struck by lightning" is, in essence, a wildly over-exaggerated reaction to someone turning on a light unexpectedly.  He, too, is temporarily sidelined – though he will surprise himself when he recovers.  And curiously, it does not undercut our affection for our hero, as we recognize that he is a most unassuming and unadventurous hobbit ... who is being prepared for far greater things than he can imagine.


FN* Boromir at the Council of Elrond: "We were outnumbered, for Mordor has allied itself with the Easterlings and the cruel Haradrim; but it was not by numbers that we were defeated. A power was there that we have not felt before.  Some said that it could be seen, like a great black horseman, a dark shadow under the moon. Wherever he came a madness filled our foes, but fear fell on our boldest, so that horse and man gave way and fled."  (LotR 245, paragraph break omitted)

FN** It's theoretically possible that Wormtongue merely fainted without attempting to flee or throw himself out of danger, but I don't find that likely.  He was on probably the third step of the dais, at Théoden's feet, so unless he was already leaning very far forward, it seems implausible that he would have ended up "sprawled on his face" after fainting from a seated position.  There is also precedent for Tolkien's characters to throw themselves down when frightened.  In the dell on Weathertop, for example, "Terror overcame Pippin and Merry, and they threw themselves flat on the ground" (LotR 195).  


Anderson, Douglas A. The Annotated Hobbit. Revised and expanded edition. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002.

Shippey, Tom A. J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

Smith, Laura Lee. “‘This is of course the way to talk with dragons’: Etiquette-Based Humour in The Hobbit,” in Laughter in Middle-earth: Humour in and around the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Thomas Honegger and Maureen F. Mann. Zurich and Jena: Walking Tree Publishers, 2016.  107-132. 

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings. 50th Anniversary One-Volume Edition, HarperCollinsPublishers, 2005.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Sleeping Under Trees

I always think of Old Man Willow as Tolkien's invention, and it may well be, but Gerald Durrell relates some intriguing tree sleep-danger folklore from Corfu in the mid-1930s: 

"I will tell you something, little lord," he said; "it is dangerous for you to lie here, beneath these trees."  
I glanced up at the cypresses, but they seemed safe enough to me, and so I asked why he thought they were dangerous.  
"Ah, you may well sit under them, yes. They cast a good shadow, cold as well-water; but that's the trouble, they tempt you to sleep. And you must never, for any reason, sleep beneath a cypress." 
He paused, stroked his moustache, waited for me to ask why, and then went on:
"Why? Why? Because if you did you would be changed when you woke. Yes, the black cypresses, they are dangerous. While you sleep, their roots grow into your brains and steal them, and when you wake up you are mad, head as empty as a whistle."
I asked whether it was only the cypress that could do this, or did it apply to other trees. 
"No, only the cypress," said the old man, peering up fiercely at the trees above me as though to see whether they were listening[...].

My Family and Other Animals at 31.

(Edition: Durrell, Gerald. My Family and Other Animals. Penguin Books, 2004.) 


Monday, September 07, 2020

Henry V: "though we seemed dead, we did but sleep"

A connection between 2 Henry IV 4.3 and Henry V 3.6, which I don't recall noticing before.

Starting at 3.6.115:

MONTJOY: You know me by my habit.
KING HARRY: Well then, I know thee. What shall I know of thee?
MONTJOY: My master's mind.
KING HARRY: Unfold it.
MONTJOY: Thus says my King: 'Say thou to Harry of England, though we seemed dead, we did but sleep. Advantage is a better soldier than rashness. [...]'

I'm thinking this might hit Henry rather hard, since he mistook his own sleeping father for dead in 2 Henry IV 4.3. When his father awakens to find himself alone, sans crown, he demands to know why Harry walked off with it.  Harry's initial response, "I never thought to hear you speak again," is not well-received; Henry IV replies "Thy wish was father, Harry, to that thought. / I stay too long by thee, I weary thee." and continues in this vein for another 40+ lines.  Harry kneels and moves his father to reassess the situation with a humble and apparently heart-felt speech.

Friday, August 14, 2020

The Road Not Taken

For present purposes, let's say I left The Firm at a phase when associates are expected to start working harder and longer to take a shot at becoming a partner.  But what I knew for sure was that I wanted to be working shorter hours – and that I had no interest in owning a law firm. 

I've never regretted this decision.  

In today's Carolyn Hax column, I get a glimpse of what my life could have been like had I forged ahead on the traditional path: 

I recently resigned from my position as a partner at a law firm where I have worked for many years. I killed myself to make partner but once I made it, I began to realize that it just wasn’t worth it. I’m so burnt out that I’m not even looking for another position at this point in time; I want to take the next six months or so to recover. My husband is ecstatic about my decision since he’s seen what this job has been doing to me but everyone else in my life is questioning my decision[.]

The main difference is that I would have burned out completely alone.   

Sunday, August 09, 2020

OED Visualizer Tool

Just learned about this cool new tool, and a nifty idea for using it, from Idiosophy:

"A research team at the Oxford English Dictionary has released a visualization engine for text analysis. This is fun: give it a text (up to 500 words, for the moment) and it will make a graph showing how common the word is in English (vertical axis), the year the word entered the English language (horizontal axis), the frequency of each word in the sample (size of the circle), and the language group from which we got the word (color).
This can be used for lots of things. We can test (for example) J.R.R. Tolkien’s success at excluding any word from later than 1600 from his prose."

Here's what I got from running some descriptions of Orthanc (taken from with citations omitted):

The purple dots are "tower" (circa 1000) and "ent" (circa 1900) - I think we can discount the visualizer's categorization of the latter.

The yellow dots are "pier", "cut" (verb), "wrap" (verb), and "tall."

Thursday, August 06, 2020

Misquoted Prophecies in Macbeth

I've become very aware of characters in The Lord of the Rings misremembering others' words, so I was interested to see that Macbeth likewise misquotes two of the prophecies he receives.

When you look at it, the Second Apparition's prophecy is a two-parter; it consists of some really bad advice (here in italics) followed by a "true" but highly misleading statement of the future (here in bold):

Be bloody, bold and resolute; laugh to scorn
The power of man, for none of woman born
Shall harm Macbeth.
In essence, the bad advice is based on the intended misunderstanding of the true statement.

Here's what Macbeth remembers:

The spirits that know
All mortal consequences have pronounced me thus:
"Fear not, Macbeth; no man that's born of woman
Shall e'er have power upon thee."

He's got the gist, I suppose, but he's shortened it and he doesn't remember the rhyme (scorn/born).  The apparition speaks of "harm" (coming from any source, since "none" is gender-neutral); he remembers "power" (and apparently worries specifically about a "man" having power upon him).  So his remembered protection is both broader (a prediction that others will not have even the power to hurt him) and narrower (as it's restricted to men, rather than everyone).  Though perhaps he's saving the rhyme for his encounter with Young Siward: "Thou wast born of woman. / But swords I smile at, weapons laugh to scorn, / Brandished by man that's of a woman born." (5.7.11-13)

Likewise, the Third Apparition says:

Be lion-mettled, proud; and take no care
Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are:
Macbeth shall never vanquished be until
Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill
Shall come against him.

And Macbeth again shortens it and loses the rhymes; he quotes it as 
"Fear not, till Birnam wood 
Do come to Dunsinane

I would note that he's also substantially shortened each line this time; he's turned the Third Apparition's iambic pentameter into iambic trimeter.

Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?

The scene where Macduff learns of the slaughter of his wife and children is absolutely heartbreaking.  But to me, there's always a question about how to read Ross's lines when he first responds to Macduff's inquiry.  The words are true enough, from a certain point of view, but they are surely intended to deceive – at least to put off the revelation.  So: Is Ross breezily cheerful, almost cavalier, as if nothing is wrong?  Does he speak heavily, solemnly?  Is there something about his manner that belies his words, something that alerts us and makes Macduff a little uneasy?  Here's the dialogue:

MALCOLM: What's the newest grief?
ROSS: That of an hour's age doth hiss the speaker:
Each minute teems a new one. 
MACDUFF:  How does my wife?
ROSS: Why, well.
MACDUFF: And all my children?
ROSS: Well too.
MACDUFF: The tyrant has not battered at their peace?
ROSS: No, they were well at peace when I did leave 'em.  
MACDUFF: Be not a niggard of your speech: how goes 't? 
(Macbeth 4.3.174-180)

Ross then goes on to describe how things are going generally (no longer focusing on Macduff's family).  So one reading is that the Macduff is satisfied about his family and has changed the subject. 

One thing I noticed on this re-reading that Ross's words here actually hearken back to something Macbeth said seven scenes earlier: 

MACBETH: ... Duncan is in his grave; 
After life's fitful fever he sleeps well; 
Treason has done his worst: nor steel, nor poison,
Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing, 
Can touch him further. 

This is clearly the same sense in which Ross is speaking.  Of course it's not an unusual sentiment, then or now, to say that someone who died is "at peace" – but it is not, I believe, customary to say this to someone who isn't aware that the person in question has died. 

Now I suppose the lines in 4.3 can be played for dramatic irony, to heighten the horror of the subsequent revelation by delaying it and giving false hope; but it's a bit thorny if we are trying for some naturalism in the scene and not making Ross a complete monster.  

After watching Ben Crystal's syllable-conscious pacing in 2.2, it occurred to me that these short lines might not necessarily follow each other immediately; we could have pauses – even quite long ones – to fill out one or more 10-syllable lines.  And that opens some interesting possibilities for the actors' faces and body language to do a lot of important work.

MALCOLM: What's the newest grief?  [5 syllables, following on immediately for a complete line]
ROSS: That of an hour's age doth hiss the speaker: [10 syllables, with "hour" as monosyllable]
Each minute teems a new one.  [6 syllables]
MACDUFF:  How does my wife? [4 syllables, following on immediately for a complete line]
ROSS: Why, well. [2 syllables]
MACDUFF: And all my children? [5 syllables]
ROSS: Well too. [2 syllables]
MACDUFF: The tyrant has not battered at their peace? [10 syllables]
ROSS: No, they were well at peace when I did leave 'em.  [10 syllables, if we ]
MACDUFF: Be not a niggard of your speech: how goes 't? [10 syllables]

So, looking at the syllable count, we can see that even if we concatenate the three bold lines, we only get 9 syllables – an incomplete line.  But we don't have to concatenate them, do we?  Again, we could string them out and fill out the 10-syllable lines with pauses.

Here is one possibility:

Each minute teems a new one. / How does my wife? 
[beat] [beat] [beat] Why, well. / And all my children?
[beat] [beat] [beat] [beat] [beat] [beat] [beat] [beat] Well too.
The tyrant has not battered at their peace?
No, they were well at peace when I did leave 'em. 
Be not a niggard of your speech: how goes 't? 

In this reading, Ross takes a 3-beat pause to figure out what to say about Macduff's wife, realizing the enormity of he doesn't know.  Ross may look very pained, knowing what is to come.  Macduff notices, and immediately asks about his kids. This is even harder to answer, as it is cruel to withhold or disclose the truth.  Perhaps Ross's eyes well up during an 8-beat pause; perhaps he is visibly working to control his voice and expression.  Now, in these conditions, Macduff knows something's up, so he immediately asks two follow-up questions, both focused on his family – though Ross deliberately misinterprets the second question as a general one about the situation in Scotland to stall for time.  This works, because Ross then has a short back-and-forth with Malcolm about the general cause (4.3.181-91) before revealing there is an unspeakable grief in store to be disclosed.  Again, if the actor playing Ross has allowed these long pauses to occur, and has given cues in body language and expression, it makes sense that Macduff immediately pounces on this, and his own exchange with Ross suggests his increasing certainty that it will go straight to the heart, culminating in "Hum! I guess at it" (4.3.203).  And now, only now, does Ross disclose it.

There are lots of other possibilities, of course, if we're inserting pauses.  For example, we can give Macduff some time to process the strangeness of the two answers he's just received and frame his next question:

Each minute teems a new one. / How does my wife? 
[beat] [beat] [beat] Why, well. / And all my children?
[beat] [beat] [beat] [beat] [beat] Well too. [beat] [beat] [beat] 
The tyrant has not battered at their peace?
No, they were well at peace when I did leave 'em. 
Be not a niggard of your speech: how goes 't? 

So this is all speculative, of course, but I like the way it opens up the text.

Saturday, July 04, 2020

The Wages of Sin?

Curiously, in the opening and closing scenes of King Lear, there is mention of the begetting of Edmund.  It is passed off as a joke, initially, but becomes quite bitter by the end.

In 1.1, Gloucester says to Kent (re Edmund, who is present):
Though this knave came something
saucily to the world before he was sent for, yet was
his mother fair, there was good sport at his making
and the whoreson must be acknowledged.
I would note this is structured as prose (not iambic pentameter) and is uttered in Edmund's presence, without any regard for the young man's feelings.

Then in 5.3, Edgar says to Edmund (re Gloucester, who is absent/dead):
The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us.
The dark and vicious place where thee he got
Cost him his eyes
Here, we have iambic pentameter interspersed with significantly shorter lines.  I find it natural to read both of the short lines with just two stresses, though the first one could – and perhaps should – be read as iambic trimeter, to make the final line all the more jarring: Cost him his eyes.

* * *

Side Note: I don't think Edmund ever claims that he'd have been what he is had he been begotten (or at least born) in wedlock, but he does disclaim any astral influence, noting "I should have been that I am, had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing" (1.2).