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Home :: Archive :: 2003 :: January ::
Re: Shakespeare Usurped
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.097  Tuesday, 21 January 2003

[1]     From:   Bill Arnold <
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        Date:   Monday, 20 Jan 2003 06:29:50 -0800 (PST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.090 Shakespeare Usurped

[2]     From:   Kristen McDermott <
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        Date:   Monday, 20 Jan 2003 09:41:50 EST
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.090 Shakespeare Usurped

[3]     From:   Karen Peterson <
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        Date:   Monday, 20 Jan 2003 06:57:19 -0800 (PST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.090 Shakespeare Usurped

[4]     From:   Ted Dykstra <
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        Date:   Monday, 20 Jan 2003 10:44:00 EST
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.090 Shakespeare Usurped

[5]     From:   Todd Lidh <
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        Date:   Monday, 20 Jan 2003 10:54:54 -0500
        Subj:   RE: SHK 14.090 Shakespeare Usurped

[6]     From:   Marcia Eppich-Harris <
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        Date:   Monday, 20 Jan 2003 09:56:45 -0600
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.090 Shakespeare Usurped

[7]     From:   Chris Whatmore <
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        Date:   Monday, 20 Jan 2003 16:06:26 +0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.090 Shakespeare Usurped

[8]     From:   John W. Kennedy <
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        Date:   Monday, 20 Jan 2003 11:37:33 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.090 Shakespeare Usurped

[9]     From:   Jan Pick <
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      Date:     Monday, 20 Jan 2003 20:06:13 -0000
      Subj:     Re: SHK 14.090 Shakespeare Usurped

[10]    From:   Sophie Masson <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 21 Jan 2003 08:11:15 +1100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.090 Shakespeare Usurped

[11]    From:   James McNelis <
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        Date:   Monday, 20 Jan 2003 18:40:33 EST
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.090 Shakespeare Usurped

[12]    From:   Brian Willis <
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        Date:   Monday, 20 Jan 2003 20:04:51 -0800 (PST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.090 Shakespeare Usurped


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Bill Arnold <
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Date:           Monday, 20 Jan 2003 06:29:50 -0800 (PST)
Subject: 14.090 Shakespeare Usurped
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.090 Shakespeare Usurped

Sam Small writes, in part, "This popularisation of this silly concept of
evil is a danger to public morals far more than internet porn, rap music
or even international terrorism.  To iconise evil as a two dimensional,
non-human, pantomime character is moral cowardice that could take us all
to hell.  Shakespeare lovingly and painfully tracked the disintegration
of characters like Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet and Richard III so that we
could personally identify with this process.  We can see that if we were
in a slightly different social position we too might succumb to some of
those terrifying pressures...Shakespeare himself called those plays
tragedies - not a 'jolly good fight against evil'.  They were as much
about the tragedy of the main character as they were of their victims."

Excuse me, but "Shakespeare Usurped," indeed.  I fail to read Hamlet the
character in Will Shakespeare's play as a "disintegration of character
[the 's' has been intentionally deleted to make my point]"--as suggested
in this gloss on the play Hamlet, itself.  In stark contrast, I read it
as an "integration of character" play, quite the opposite as is
suggested, and find that Hamlet rose to the occasion and became the Good
Prince and overcame Evil in a triumph of Good on behalf of the people of
the kingdom; in other words, I believe Hamlet was a martyr to the cause
of good leadership.

Bill Arnold
http://www.cwru.edu/affil/edis/scholars/arnold.htm

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Kristen McDermott <
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Date:           Monday, 20 Jan 2003 09:41:50 EST
Subject: 14.090 Shakespeare Usurped
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.090 Shakespeare Usurped

Sam Small notes that "'taking over the world' [is] . . . something that
never appears in Shakespeare".  He's right about its not being a major
theme (though one could argue the dream is alive in Caesar -- and, in
parody, Dromio's desire to possess the globular Nell), but the idea does
occurs to at least one Shakespearean character.  Emilia suggests to
Desdemona (perhaps facetiously, but the thought is still there) that
adultery would be acceptable if it would win one's husband "the whole
world."  She deliberately twists Desdemona's cliche to contemplate "who
would not make her husband a cuckold to make him a monarch?"  Her
logical "a wrong is but a wrong i' the world, and . . . in your own
world, you might quickly make it right," is exactly the thinking of the
world-coveting villains of traditional fantasy.  It's not just dominion
that the Saurons and Voldemorts covet -- it's the ability to remake the
world in their own moral image.

Kristen McDermott
Central Michigan University

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Karen Peterson <
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Date:           Monday, 20 Jan 2003 06:57:19 -0800 (PST)
Subject: 14.090 Shakespeare Usurped
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.090 Shakespeare Usurped

I must thank Sam for initiating a topic that has roused me from my
SHAKSPER-related lethargy, inspiring me to post.

>Shakespeare's inordinately detailed deconstruction
>of evil is being
>usurped by ignorant and pompous writers like Rowling
>and Tolkien and it
>scares me.

I'm not sure I understand in what sense Shakespeare, or more precisely,
Shakespeare's concept of evil, has been "usurped" by Tolkien, Rowling,
their respective books, or the recent films of said books.  Perhaps Sam
could explain a bit further?  My understanding of the word "usurp" (in
its transitive form) is "to appropriate wrongly to oneself" or "to seize
or obtain possession...in an unjust or illegal manner".  OED gives one
secondary usage to the latter definition, "to occupy or take the place
of, physically; to encroach or trench upon."  Is it in this sense that
you meant, Sam?

The "wrongful appropriation" group of meanings don't seem, to me at
least, to really apply here.  I haven't read the Rowling books, nor have
I seen the films, but I do know Tolkien quite well, and have seen the
first installment of the film cycle.

Tolkien may have been many things, and yes, his writing could be, and
often was, very pompous indeed.  But he certainly wasn't ignorant.  I
don't think he was wrongfully appropriating Shakespeare, or even
encroaching on him.  Tolkien's Middle Earth books (*The Hobbit*, *The
Lord of the Rings*) consciously drew on different, earlier sources, and
separate genres: specifically, Norse and Anglo-Saxon mythologies, and
(especially) Anglo-Saxon through early medieval epic.  If one studies
those sources, one sees that their concept of evil *was* quite simple,
monolithic, and often embodied in non-human form (monsters, dragons,
demons and the like).  And, as Sam says, this is what one gets in the
Middle Earth books, and in the film(s).

I'm not sure this is cause for any great concern, however.
Shakespeare's plays are, obviously, more sophisticated in their
conceptualization of evil than is, say, *Beowulf*.  *The Lord of the
Rings* is in the *Beowulf* tradition, not the Shakespeare tradition, and
as such it trades in absolutes.  This only makes it (generically and
genealogically) *different* from Shakespeare, not (at least insofar as
its representation of evil is concerned) better or worse.  Western
culture is enriched by *both* the earlier epic/mythic vision of evil,
and the later, more subtle vision of *human* evil to which Shakespeare
contributed.

In my humble opinion, at least.  And now, I shall once again retreat to
my "lurker" status.

Cheers,
Karen Peterson-Kranz

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Ted Dykstra <
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Date:           Monday, 20 Jan 2003 10:44:00 EST
Subject: 14.090 Shakespeare Usurped
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.090 Shakespeare Usurped

>Shakespeare's inordinately detailed deconstruction of evil is being
>usurped by ignorant and pompous writers like Rowling and Tolkien and it
>scares me.

Gee, Sam, don't take it so personally. Lord of the Rings is just a
story, one that resonates (clearly) with almost everyone in the world.
Shakespeare and lovers of Shakespeare will not be affected or reduced in
numbers because of its success, please sleep tonight... Shakespeare
would certainly have written about taking over the world, but in his day
that was science fiction, not remotely possible. As global awareness and
technology grew, the world became smaller: writers naturally started
seeing global dominance as possible. The United States are not far from
it, after all.

The reason LOTR works is because all the "small people" (read people who
do not feel they have any power over the forces that shape their lives)
in the world get great comfort from a story which introduces the notion
that victory over evil is impossible without someone just like them. The
fact that this is never the case in real life is irrelevant, it is a
tale that is as old as mankind and will ALWAYS work if told with skill,
from Davey and Goliath to LOTR. Truth be told it is BECAUSE of the
simplicity that the story resonates.  No one is interested in how Darth
Vader's mother treated him as a child, any more than the people of Iraq
are interested in the "psychology" of the United States and how the
country came to be what it is today. It just represents EVIL to them,
end of story. The power of this should never be underestimated or
laughed at.

As for the lead actors having British accents (something which really
seems to bother you): In Canada, where I live, everybody knows that an
English Accent makes an actor better instantly.

Ted Dykstra

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Todd Lidh <
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Date:           Monday, 20 Jan 2003 10:54:54 -0500
Subject: 14.090 Shakespeare Usurped
Comment:        RE: SHK 14.090 Shakespeare Usurped

Sam Small says:

"To iconise evil as a two dimensional, non-human, pantomime character is
moral cowardice that could take us all to hell."

The irony of this statement is almost too palpable for explication.
Would Mr. Small argue that the Biblical Satan is three-dimensional and
human? That the dichotomy between Heaven and Hell is open to lots of
interpretation and 'wiggle-room?'

The presence of "big bad evil" is a concept not new to this generation
of moviemakers and moviegoers, nor does it hail the cataclysmic
deterioration of human sophistication and thought. What Mr. Small fails
to point out as that each character in these movies (more LOTR, I would
argue) wallows in the ongoing conflict between good and evil; beyond
that, characters make agonized choices in the face of this conflict,
showing an audience that there are no purely 'good guys' nor purely 'bad
guys.' Characters who start good end badly and vice versa. How is that
moral cowardice?

I'm not here to defend movies (and I realize my email is not really on
Shakespeare), but I'm not sure you can put Goneril and Regan next to
some of the characters depicted in the movies Mr. Small critiques and
make a convincing argument about how 'fleshed out' they are.

Todd M Lidh
Chair, Department of English
Flagler College

[6]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Marcia Eppich-Harris <
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Date:           Monday, 20 Jan 2003 09:56:45 -0600
Subject: 14.090 Shakespeare Usurped
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.090 Shakespeare Usurped

Mr. Small writes:

>This popularisation of this silly concept of evil is a danger to public
>morals far more than internet porn, rap music or even international
>terrorism.  To iconise evil as a two dimensional, non-human, pantomime
>character is moral cowardice that could take us all to hell.

Sauran, the evil Lord in LOTR, is clearly a representation of the devil,
which people even in Shakespeare's days have represented as a non-human,
horned, tail wagging demon -- who cares what his accent is? Don't blame
Tolkien for picking up on a classic icon and using it.  There are plenty
of Christian symbols in LOTR. Read the books.

Tolkien's books make it far more clear than the movie does that there is
what we might call original sin -- or the tendency toward sin and/or
evil -- in each and every person. In no one else is this more clear than
in Frodo's case (Frodo is the ring bearing "hero", who becomes seduced
by and in the end controlled by the power of evil, ie, the ring). So
even the "cute, slightly daft hero" faces the struggle that someone like
Macbeth faces, but Frodo's struggle is much more internal and perhaps
more organic (instead of standing in the middle of a field and
proclaiming how much he is struggling, solioquy-like, Frodo shows his
struggle through his interactions with other characters. This is a
matter of genera [heard of show, don't tell in fiction?], not a critique
of Shakespeare), which I don't think comes across in the film well --
especially not in the first film, Fellowship.

World domination is obviously not as much of a sham as Mr. Small would
like us to believe. He uses Hitler as an example of a person who is
neither good nor bad (but thinking makes it so), and yet wasn't Hitler
in for world domination? Or at least creating his own little world of
German perfection?  The idea of world domination is not so silly as Mr.
Small would like us to believe -- in fact, if you'd like to check into
Tolkien's work, you'd find that Tolkien was writing LOTR in DIRECT
responce to WWII, at which time German world domination might have
seemed like an outright possibility for a professor in England.
Nonetheless, LOTR is a work of fantasy and we should keep that in mind
when judging it.

But Tolkien's work has been around for about fifty years. Why be so
upset about it now? Sure the movies may reach a larger audience than the
books, but the books have been and still are very popular, and have
served as THE model for fantasy writers across the last fifty years. And
as for the Harry Potter books -- I love them, but they don't touch the
absolute genius of Tolkien. Tolkien created his own world, Middle Earth,
that resembles our world, but it has its own culture, creatures, and
values. Shakespeare was writing about historical figures -- that seems
to me to be pretty restrictive writing. How much of a new world, new
values, and new culture can you create if you are writing about
historical figures? Because the genres are very different (FANTASY and
HISTORICAL drama), it seems to me that that the values of the characters
and representations of good and evil would necessarily be different.

Marcia Eppich-Harris

[7]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Chris Whatmore <
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Date:           Monday, 20 Jan 2003 16:06:26 +0000
Subject: 14.090 Shakespeare Usurped
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.090 Shakespeare Usurped

While agreeing completely with Sam Small's assessment of the portrayal
of evil (or of anything else, for that matter) in Harry Potter and its
ilk, I would have to take issue with him when he says:

>"Taking over the world" has always been a mysterious
>concept to me and something that never appears in Shakespeare for good
>reason.

I've always imagined that one of the principal attractions of classical
history for Shakespeare was precisely the opportunity it afforded for
exploring the idea of individual 'players' taking over the world. Right
from Act 1 Sc 1 of Titus Andronicus, we have the hero refusing the offer
of "a sceptre to control the world", and of course A&C and other Roman
plays deal with the same idea explicitly on a number of occasions.
Pompey, for example, in A&C II.7, is twice offered the chance of being
"lord of the whole world" - all he has to do, according to Menas, is
slit the throats of the "three world-sharers" on board his ship. I'm not
saying it's a huge Shakespearean theme but the question of one man
ruling the world is definitely raised in these works (and more obliquely
in others such as The Tempest) and on each occasion it is more-or-less
definitely seen as a Bad Thing. Thus far, and no farther, can the
creators of Prospero and Potter be said to tread the same path.

Chris Whatmore

[8]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           John W. Kennedy <
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Date:           Monday, 20 Jan 2003 11:37:33 -0500
Subject: 14.090 Shakespeare Usurped
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.090 Shakespeare Usurped

I don't really see what this curious screed has to say about
Shakespeare, but....

Sam Small <
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 > writes,

>In terms of Shakespearean philosophy

Shakespeare was not a philosopher, he was a playwright.

>all this is a dangerous moral
>contradiction.  "Lord of the Rings" has infinite details of wizards,
>great battles, weird characters and magic rings but the core plot is
>simple.

I am not aware of a "core plot" that is not.

>A red-eyed, canine-toothed, psychotic-brained, six foot six
>male with an English accent wants to take over the world.  Just what
>he'll do with this power is never fully explained.

Probably about the same as Attila or Genghis Khan, if it were not for
the fact that Sauron isn't human to begin with.

>"Taking over the world" has always been a mysterious
>concept to me and something that never appears in Shakespeare for good
>reason.

The main reason being that Marlowe had already done it.

>The other part of the above mentioned plot is that a cute,
>slightly daft hero wins against the power of the monstrous Englishman.

Frodo Baggins is not particularly cute, and not at all daft.  He's a
middle-aged rural bourgeois drafted into a war he cannot understand,
whose courage cracks at the end, and who is saved only by chance.

>Shakespeare himself called those plays tragedies - not a "jolly good
>fight against evil".  They were as much about the tragedy of the main
>character as they were of their victims.  In modern times the regimes of
>Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, Saddam and the rest are tragic derelictions of
>human nature.  There is no such thing as good people and bad people.

I say you lie, sir, for I have known both.

>Shakespeare's inordinately detailed deconstruction of evil is being
>usurped by ignorant and pompous writers like Rowling and Tolkien and it
>scares me.

Let's see.  You condemn one of the major works of the 20th century by
watching part of a movie, based on one-third of the original novel, that
original novel itself only part of a larger corpus, and proceed to call
the author "ignorant and pompous".  Have you looked in a mirror, lately?

[9]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Jan Pick <
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Date:           Monday, 20 Jan 2003 20:06:13 -0000
Subject: 14.090 Shakespeare Usurped
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.090 Shakespeare Usurped

Oh dear!  I suggest Sam Small gets a life.  What a pity so many great
Shakespearian actors are in the film.  The simplistic concept of good
and evil forms the basis of the Morality Plays many of which were used
to base later ideas on - then there is the devil of course. Rings is
based on a simplistic concept of the evils of industry and the
comradeship and horror of the trenches.  It is not to everyone's taste,
but frothing about it - and the Harry Potter books - is silly and not
worthy of an intelligent mind.

Jan

[10]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Sophie Masson <
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Date:           Tuesday, 21 Jan 2003 08:11:15 +1100
Subject: 14.090 Shakespeare Usurped
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.090 Shakespeare Usurped

I don't think that is the case, Sam; there has always been the two
visions of evil, in Shakespeare's time as well. (Think of 'out-Heroding
Herod', for instance). Rowling and Tolkien maintain the dualist view of
evil, but that has a long and respectable pedigree. And what of Gollum?
Where does that ambiguous character fit into this supposedly simplistic
vision? Or Sirius Black, in Rowling's HP and the Prisoner of Azkaban?

Sophie Masson

[11]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           James McNelis <
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Date:           Monday, 20 Jan 2003 18:40:33 EST
Subject: 14.090 Shakespeare Usurped
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.090 Shakespeare Usurped

Is it necessary for the list to be troubled with this kind of irrelevant
and uninformed nonsense? Firstly, it is not relevant to Shakespeare.
Secondly, Tolkien was perhaps the most accomplished student of Old
English of his generation, and it is rude impertinence to refer to his
massively learned writing (whether his scholarship or his fiction) as
"ignorant"--such obviously erroneous vituperation should not be
tolerated on an academic list, whether the scholar is still living or
not. The oft-repeated claim that LotR portrays a simplistic and dull
contrast between good and evil has been roundly, and repeatedly,
addressed in many items of first-rate scholarship published over the
years. (And, in any event, even a grossly superficial reading of the
book reveals that the characters caught *between* good and evil, and the
tensions inherent in the grey area, provide the core interest of the
narrative--from Saruman down to Gollum).

Since we are on this tangential topic: for an introduction to Tolkien
criticism, please see http://members.aol.com/ENVOIjrnl for Mike Drout's
excellent article and bibliography (requires Acrobat Reader to view).

James McNelis
English, Wilmington College

[12]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Brian Willis <
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Date:           Monday, 20 Jan 2003 20:04:51 -0800 (PST)
Subject: 14.090 Shakespeare Usurped
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.090 Shakespeare Usurped

Sam Small is quite sadly mistaken about a great many things in his post
regarding Lord of the Rings.  Often, he likes to exaggerate greatly what
he perceives as an artistic injustice into something "that could take us
all to hell". Hyperbole suits him well but exaggerates his own
importance. The success of these films has absolutely nothing to do with
Shakespeare, only Sam's inflated-to-a-Shakespearean-extent ego.

I also don't think Sam takes into account the success of Tolkien's books
long before the film. Mr.  Small's well documented hatred of anything he
perceives as "Hollywood" or of anything that deviates from his Lambian
sense of Shakespeare is offensive to me. I don't like to be preached to
that "those who are culturally enlightened" know far better than I what
is effective literature and entertainment.

Lord of the Rings is simple, but for many people, that simplicity is
part of its charm. The story is indeed about much more than the battle
against Sauron.  If Mr. Small bothered to pay attention, perhaps he
would have noticed that the story is much more about each character's
individual struggle with ultimate power. What if a ring existed that
could do anything?  What would you do? Never is the journey easy for
these characters. Even Gandalf refuses to accept custody of the ring.
The types of character based struggles with ambition, jealousy, power,
and compassion that are featured in the story are quite Shakespearean.
In fact, these are the themes found in Shakespeare's greatest tragedies.
Sam, you cannot possibly tell me that Gollum or Isildur are not tragic
characters.

A small point Mr. Small: this description is wildly inaccurate:

>A red-eyed, canine-toothed,
>psychotic-brained, six foot six
>male with an English accent wants to take over the
>world.

Actually Sauron seems to be much larger than that, he is never visibly
seen, and he never speaks in an English accent. Nor do we see his teeth.
Although his eyes are quite red. And if "he" or it possesses a brain, it
is probably psychotic and most definitely wants to take over the world.

In Harry Potter, I think He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named, although I don't
think the movies have depicted his actual voice, speaks in an English
accent because the stories take place IN ENGLAND and are written by a
British writer.

Taking over the world should be quite familiar to you. Your own examples
have all tried their hand in it: Napoleon and Hitler most definitely
tried, even Saddam's invasion of Kuwait can be interpreted to be a step
in the direction of conquest in his corner of the world. And please
refrain from the following hyperbole:

>This popularisation of this silly concept of evil is
>a danger to public
>morals far more than internet porn, rap music or
>even international
>terrorism.  To iconise evil as a two dimensional,
>non-human, pantomime
>character is moral cowardice that could take us all
>to hell.

This statement does not benefit a reasonable interpretation of
Shakespeare or of much else for that matter. I have enough morality
lessons from Bill Bennett, Jesse Helms and Jerry Falwell. Are you trying
to suggest that by patronising The Lord of the Rings I am far more
dangerous than the four hijacked planes on 9/11? Can you really be
saying that? It offends me greatly that you could trivialize that event
with the above comment. I think that the perversion of Islam (for one!)
is much more dangerous to the world than the enjoyment of Harry Potter
or Lord of the Rings.

Because Rowling and Tolkien chose to write stories differently from
Shakespeare does not detract from them in any way. For what each author
is attempting to do, they succeed quite brillantly. It doesn't
necessarily mean I enjoy them. For the record, I greatly enjoy LOTR and
I view Harry Potter mostly indifferently. But I don't think Shakespeare
or Bin Laden have anything to do with it. For you to assume they are
part of a conspiracy to usurp Shakespeare's depiction of evil does not
make them ignorant or pompous. It makes you so.

Brian Willis

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