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Home :: Archive :: 1996 :: February ::
Re: Funeral Elegy by W.S.; Cross-Dressing
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 7, No. 0092.  Saturday, 3 February 1996.

(1)     From:   John Boni <
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        Date:   Thursday, 1 Feb 1996 16:45:39 -0600 (CST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 7.0089 Re: FE

(2)     From:   Terry Ross <
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        Date:   Friday, 2 Feb 1996 13:22:39 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Funeral Elegy by W.S. (long)

(3)     From:   Michael Yogev <
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        Date:   Friday, 2 Feb 1996 17:16:53 +0200 (WET)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 7.0085 Re: Cross-Dressing


(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           John Boni <
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Date:           Thursday, 1 Feb 1996 16:45:39 -0600 (CST)
Subject: 7.0089 Re: FE
Comment:        Re: SHK 7.0089 Re: FE

Richard J. Kennedy's remarks on a computer's esthetic taste (judgment?) in
regards to the quality of *A Funeral Elegy*, remind me of an incident of a few
years ago.

I was a member of an English Department at a university other the one where I
currently serve.  We had a lively department colloquium series. On one
presentation a colleague did a computers and poetry presentation in which he
showed rather proudly how he had programmed a computer to write a program
arrayed as an E. E. Cummings poem would appear.  This achievement told us
something about Cummings' work, and given the state of "computer literacy" at
the time, was no small feat.

However, a colleague in the audience attacked the mechanistic nature of the
proposal, concluding that the computer would be unable to comment on the
difference between "after many a summer dies the swan,"  [I hope I've recalled
it accurately] and "after  many a winter dies the duck."   He had (and still
has) a point.

Once we acknowledge our subjectivity, we can then compare judgments. Wasn't is
Pope who wrote, "Wits, like watches, go no two alike."

(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Terry Ross <
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Date:           Friday, 2 Feb 1996 13:22:39 -0500 (EST)
Subject:        Funeral Elegy by W.S. (long)

I'm disappointed that, despite Foster's request, there hasn't been more
discussion of the Funeral Elegy attributed to Shakespeare.  Most of what I've
seen has been either blanket dismissal or qualified approval.  I posted some
remarks about the elegy to the Shakespeare newsgroup, but there was no response
to speak of, so I'll reply to the recent attack in this forum.  I apologize to
those who have already seen much of this.

I don't know whether the elegy is by Shakespeare.  I don't find the evidence
some have seen in the apparently autobiographical nuggets in the poem (see
lines 137-148, 205-244, 539-572), but then I haven't found attempts to mine the
sonnets for Shakespearean autobiography very persuasive either.  I haven't
reviewed the stylistic evidence for Shakespeare's authorship, but my own
impression is that if it's Shakespeare it must, judging by prosody alone, come
quite late.

Yet I find myself coming around on the question of the elegy's quality. At
first I found it flat and uninspired, and certainly it has passages that are
quite weak: "Now therein lived he happy, if to be / Free from detraction
happiness it be" (49-50).  However, as I read the elegy again, I find passages
of considerable power.  Consider these lines (463-74):

    Birth, blood, and ancestors, are none of ours,
    Nor can we make a proper challenge to them
    But virtues and perfections in our powers
    Proceed most truly from us, if we do them.
    Respective titles or a gracious style
    With all what men in eminence possess,
    Are, without ornaments to praise them, vile:
    The beauty of the mind is nobleness.
    And such as have that beauty, well deserve
    Eternal characters, that after death
    Remembrance of their worth we may preserve,
    So that their glory die not with their breath.

This is certainly not pedestrian.  My first time through, I thought "if we do
them" a clumsy anticlimax (we don't "do" virtue the way one might "do"
windows), but now it seems quite skillful.  The placement of "do them" makes a
moral imperative out of what might otherwise be an easy sententiousness. Even
stronger is the placement of the word "vile"--the disgust expressed is
certainly of a kind we are familiar with in late Shakespeare (or in Ben Jonson,
though had he written this Elegy, it would have been better).  Yet the best
line in this passage is surely the last.

There has been comment in SHAKSPER on the remarkable enjambment in the poem.
One of the most powerful examples is in these lines (483-86):

    Look hither then, you that enjoy the youth
    Of your best days, and see how unexpected
    Death can betray your jollity to ruth
    When death you think is least to be respected!

There is always at least a slight expectation that a line of poetry is a
syntactical unit--a phrase, a clause, a sentence.  When we read verse, even
enjambed verse, we often insert a pause even if there is no punctuation at the
end of a line.  There is no punctuation after the word "unexpected"  in the
passage above, and the first word of the next line, "Death," comes as a
surprise, just as (so the poet warns us) it may in life.

There are many other passages worthy of an excellent poet:

       Not in the outside of disgraceful folly,
       Courting opinion with unfit disguise,   (91-92)

       those weak houses of our brittle flesh (189)

       low-leveled in a narrow grave (194)

       the current of besotted passion (274)

       time's strict flinty hand (552)

Or consider this wonderful, almost Miltonic description of Christ (367-70):

       he, who to the universal lapse
    Gave sweet redemption, offering up his blood
    To conquer death by death, and loose the traps
    Of hell


In short, this poem, though admittedly uneven, is not the work of a hack or a
bumbler.  I believe this poem would be worthy of our attention even if we knew
it were not by Shakespeare.

(3)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Michael Yogev <
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Date:           Friday, 2 Feb 1996 17:16:53 +0200 (WET)
Subject: 7.0085 Re: Cross-Dressing
Comment:        Re: SHK 7.0085 Re: Cross-Dressing

Once more into this cross-dressing breach.  On a more contemporary level, I was
truly intrigued by the visible audience response to the Cheek by Jowls
company's performance of AYLI here in Tel Aviv last year.  An all-male cast,
the actors first all took the stage in an ordered series of rows, all
half-dressed in evening wear (white ruffled shirts, dress black trousers,
suspenders).  At this point, one of the actors who would play Jacques began to
declaim the "All the world's a stage, and the men and women..." upon which
those actors who would play women in the play shifted to a group stage-right,
and the men shifted stage-left.  They all exeunt here, and Act 1, Scene 1 began
with the two men playing Rosalind and Celia, dressed in long clinging silk
gowns, sitting on cushions and caressing one another through the opening
dialogues.  There was no attempt to give them breasts, and Rosalind was played
by a short-haired black man who wore a silk scarf banded around his head and
trailing down his side.  The combination of homoeroticism and racial difference
left many of the male spectators visibly squirming.  Just one of the many
superb bits put in by the director, Terry Donohue (I think??--don't have my
program here at the moment).

My point is that the audience reaction, then as now, to such cross-dressing
hinges very much on the contemporary conception (or lack of same) of
conventional vs. unconventional or even unnatural sexual conduct. I am not
convinced that the staging I describe above would have been nearly as
unsettling to Shakespeare's contemporaries as it was to my macho fellow
Israelis.

Michael Yogev
University of Haifa
 

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