Sunday, July 7, 2013

Shakespeare's Richard III - aka The Victors Get to Write The Story

Still working on my Shameful Shakespeare Catch-up (shameful because it's shameful that so much of my life has gone by without me reading any Shakespeare at all - it's been since college, which, sadly, was fifteen years ago) and today I read Richard III.  I've been so offended with Shakespeare recently, I was thinking I might go for A Midsummer Night's Dream, thinking there would be less to be offended with in that, but I'm due for a history play, and I just watched the documentary on how they found Richard III's skeleton in a car park in Leicester, so I thought I'd give it a whirl.

I expected Tudor propaganda simply because everyone thinks Richard was such a terrible person, and there wasn't any lengthy biography of him written before Shakespeare wrote his play, so that must be where the impression of him came from.  I don't blame them; certainly Richard was a ruthless man, and they would have wanted to cement the basis of Henry VII's rule as something guided by God, rather than a lucky Welshman who happened to be able to collect a lot of people who didn't like the unpopular king, and was able to kill him on Bosworth Field.

To understand why the Tudors wanted Henry VII to be seen as the start of this Godly dynasty, you have to go back and have some understanding of the Wars of the Roses.  If you really want to get picky about it, you go back to Agincourt, the high point of England's successes in France.  Henry V seemed unstoppable in France, and it seemed as if the Norman Conquest of 1066 might finally be avenged 350 years later.  Had Henry not died when he did, maybe the French would all be speaking English and would have bad teeth nowdays.

But Henry V died, and his son Henry VI was a minor.  He wasn't a strong guy, and he got pulled in lots of directions, depending on who was talking to him at the moment.  He wound up losing most of the gains of his father (by the time of the Tudors, 60 years later, all that remained of the great dream of England taking France was Calais, a little fort directly across the English channel).

So Henry VI marries Margaret of Anjou. She's a willful high strung French girl who really doesn't like England, and doesn't care who knows about it.  So here's this really powerful woman (who may or may not have had her son via adultery) married to this simpering dolt of an idiot husband who has spells of insanity, is losing land left and right, and is more interested in praying than being a husband to her.  She's been Queen Consort since she was 15 years old, she's stuck in a country she hates, and she's rash and takes way too many chances.

Given her husband's incompetence, some people start talking about rebelling.  One of those people is Richard, Duke of York.  He talks openly.  In fact, he has Henry VI declared insane, and he gets himself named the Lord Protector.  He even had an agreement drawn up saying that he would become King after Henry VI died.  But then he himself died before he had any chance of pressing his case.  Interestingly enough, he's the father of Richard III.  So, you know, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.  

Ok, so all of this winds up leading to the Wars of the Roses, whereby the House of Lancaster (Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI, their family) fight the house of York (Richard, Duke of York, and his family).  There weren't really a lot of battles, most notably Tewkesbury and Barnet, but it did consume people for a generation, and England's economy continued to fail while all the nobles were busy killing each other.

So the Tudors come out of this from left field.  Way back when Henry V dies, his widow, Catherine of Valois, marries a squire in her court, Owen Tudor.  This is Henry VII's grandfather and the great Queen Elizabeth I's great great grandfather - a squire at court.  Catherine and Owen had more children together; half-siblings of the house of Lancaster.  Henry VI had them recognized as legitimate as an act of kindness to them, and tried to bring the blended family together.  So the Tudors get their royal lineage on their mother's side, and it's fairly tenuous as well, but they start to rise through the ranks of the nobility, and by the time of Richard III, Henry Tudor was seen as a real threat to the Yorkist, and was hiding in the Netherlands or Brittany or somewhere across the Channel.

Richard III was the brother of Edward IV, who was Richard Duke of York's son (and Richard III's brother).  He wound up winning the title of King by fighting for it, and had the Lord Mayor of London proclaim him King while Henry VI was far away from the city.  The whole thing was really messy.  

Edward dies suddenly in 1483 and all hell breaks loose.  His children are still minors, and his brother, the future Richard III, is supposed to protect them until they reach the age of majority.  Instead, they disappear and Richard becomes King.  Yeah, he probably murdered them.  It was so much more convenient than simply asking them nicely to step aside.  

Richard III becomes King, no one really bats too many eyelashes at the missing Princes (except for their mother, of course), and life seems to go on as normal.  But then in 1485, Henry Tudor, not content to let Richard pull this charade, decides that he's going to be King, and he sails from wherever it was he was hiding (Brittany, France, Luxembourg, somewhere) with an army he raised, and he lands in Wales, gathering support as he moves through the countryside.  A bunch of Richard's allies, fed up with his hubris, and smart enough to see which way the wind is blowing, switch sides.

Henry beats Richard at the Battle of Bosworth Field, and declares himself King.  He marries a Yorkist woman to unite the two rival houses, and he really wants to reign peacefully for a long time.  Unfortunately his first son Arthur dies as a teenager (he was named Arthur after the great legendary King, and it shows how much Henry hoped to start a new golden age) and his younger brother Henry, who'd been studying with monks up until now, suddenly has to be groomed to be King.

And then of course Henry the Younger has lots of marriage problems that go on for decades, and each of his three children take turns with the throne, young Edward a disaster, Mary I an even bigger disaster, and then Elizabeth, who refused to marry because she probably had some pretty deep psychological trust issues given her history.  So she never had an heir, and never named one.  

All in all, when Richard III was written, just after the trouncing of the Spanish Armada, things were looking pretty good for Elizabeth, and the Tudor story.  But everyone also knew that the Tudors were probably going to end with Elizabeth, since she had no children.  So they wanted to showcase just how awesome the Tudors had been, and make a case for their having taken the throne in the first place, so that after Elizabeth, people wouldn't talk shit about the grandchildren of squires being too big for their britches and becoming King illegitimately.  Mostly, they also wanted to avoid another Wars of the Roses, and make everyone remember just how awful some of the monarchs were back then, especially the monarchs who were on the other side of the Tudors.

So given that history, I'm not surprised that in his opening monologue, Richard goes on about how disfigured he is (he wasn't too much, really - his skeleton shows he had scoliosis and had some curvature in his spine, but he was still well enough to wear armor, no small feat, and fight in battle) and how he scares dogs and children.  He proposes to a woman whose husband he had killed.  He does all sorts of nasty things.  I'm pretty sure no one who gets to be King is that publicly ruthless before he's King.  Maybe after, but not before.   

I'm definitely not joining the Richard III society any time soon, and I'm not really a huge Ricardian, but I do see where they're coming from - Richard wasn't any worse than anyone else from the time, and others did the same sorts of things he did.  

Not according to Shakespeare, though.  But that's why the victors get to write the history books.  And the history plays.  

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

On raising a kick@ss girl

Today I saw an awesome ad for GoldiBlox, a new toy designed to get girls into engineering and building things.  The awesome chick who designed it, Debbie Sterling, is a Stanford engineer herself.  She got discouraged by the low numbers of other women in her engineering programs (something around 11% of engineers are women).  So she spent a year researching why it is that, by middle school, girls aren't into science and math any longer.  Turns out, girls like to read while boys like to build stuff.  Boys are spatial while girls are verbal.  This is why, when J tries to explain something he's building to me, I want him to talk about it, and he wants to draw it.  Also, girls like to know the story behind why something is being built.  Boys just like to build for the heck of it.  This explains why, so often, when J tries to explain mathematical concepts to me, I ask what the point is, and he gets flabbergasted with me, saying there is no point, it's just cool.

So simply making Lincoln Logs pink isn't enough to get girls into wanting to actually build stuff out of them.

Debbie put together a series of books with building tools, with a character called Goldie, an inventor, who loves to build stuff.  As you read along in the books, you get to build the same things that Goldie builds in the stories.  This. Kicks. Ass.

It kicks so much ass that her project was overfunded on Kickstarter in five days last fall.  And GoldiBlox are out and available for parents everywhere to buy now.  They're for children over 3, but I'm still going to order the first set, just to support the movement.

I think about stuff like this because I don't want Hannah to be a Girly Girl.  Well, mostly I want her to be her, but I want her to be really her, and not the her that is influenced by all the pink shit that the stores say she should want.  I want her to be the her who can decide if she loves technology or Lego's, or American Girl Dolls (and maybe love all of the above) without having choices forced on her by marketing people and society.  I want her to feel free to make up her own mind, and if she wants to be an engineer, I want her to feel really free to know that that's an option that's available to her.

I look at 11% of engineers being women, and that worries me.  It worries me because engineers design the products that we all use, and with only 11% o them being women, it means that I'm probably being shoved a bunch of products that marketing people think I want as a woman, rather than things that were actually designed by women.  A big dislike to that.

I want Hannah to have role models in any of her chosen fields.  There are plenty of female role models in teaching or librarianship or any number of caregiving and nurturing roles where women fit in easily.  I want more female role models for her if she wants to be an astronaut, a computer engineer, a theoretical mathematician.

And I'm sick of all the pink crap that fills the aisles these days.  This is a new development.  When I was a kid, I had a kitchen set that was orange and brown (ok, it was the 70's - I think everything was orange and brown).  Yeah, it was a kitchen set, which, you know, has its own gender-role issues.  But it wasn't pink.  Check out the graphic below.  The toys are the same, except for the color.  Freaking pink.  I'm going to do my darndest to make sure Hannah's room is a pink-free zone - I feel like that's my duty to her.  When I was a kid my favorite color was turquoise.  This crap is just wrong.  So go GoldiBlox, and I can't wait to see a future generation of girl engineers kicking ass thanks to these toys!  And if Hannah wants to be one of them, then I will applaud her (while wearing purple).

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Shakespeare Project: Why I'm not inviting Will to dinner

I'm 33 weeks preggo tomorrow, which is rather unbelievable to me.  I never really thought I'd get this far, to be honest.  

Trying to read lots of books on my Amazon wishlist.  After reading Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare a few months ago, I decided it was shameful that I hadn't read any Shakespeare since college.  So I've been catching up, reading a play every week or two.  And here's what's challenging: I really don't like him all that much.  Oh, I can see the beauty in his writing, and the wordplay in the comedies is amazing.  I can appreciate why he's so special.  But Donald Trump is special too; doesn't mean I want to have dinner with him.  

So what I do is rent the BBC productions of the plays (they do the full script - no editing down for time) from Amazon Instant Video - generally a $1.99 rental for a week.  Then I get a kindle edition of the play with good notes.  I watch the film while reading the play on my tablet at the same time.  Then the next day I also pull up a Librivox recording to listen while reading and see what I notice that's different - they do free public domain e-audiobooks, and are tolerable for being free.  It's all done by volunteers, so I shouldn't be judgmental since they're doing something awesome, but some of the parts are really challenging - like a female Benedick or a Lear with a Southern accent.  Anyway, I go through the play again just listening.  

And I've decided something:  I like knowing Shakespeare, but only so that I can make conversation about him and feel like I've joined the world of People who Know Shakespeare.  But I don't actually much like the plays themselves.  Taming of the Shrew made me want to puke.  Merchant of Venice made me want to cry for poor Shylock.  Watching King Lear descend into madness while his daughters plotted was just depressing.  

I wonder how much of this Shakespeare actually believed.  I've read a lot about how he hated the idea of marriage since he was forced into it when he got an older Anne Hathaway preggo when he was still a teenager.  And he went off to London and sort of abandoned her.  So I don't think he really appreciated the idea of marriage much.

And he certainly seems to pander to the antisemitism of the time.  Benedick is debating whether or not he should or shouldn't love Beatrice, talking about her charms, and the most brilliant conclusion he can come to is, "If I do not love her, I am a Jew."  Really?  And then there's Shylock.  The man loses everything, is forced to convert to Christianity, his daughter is applauded for running away and taking so much of his money and jewelry, and at the end it's the Christians who are supposed to look magnanimous and forgiving.  For the time period, I suppose they were.  But for someone as forward thinking as Shakespeare was supposed to be, I'd expect better.  I've heard some people say that he was holding a mirror up and making a commentary, but I don't really buy that.  If so, then Jessica would have had some kind of comeuppance.  Somebody would have felt guilty about something.  But nope, they just drag him off to be baptized.  

This hypocrisy bugs the crap out of me, especially because Shakespeare was supposedly a Catholic who had to cover up his religious leanings.  Surely he could have some more empathy for others of a different religion.  But nope, Shylock gets baptized and loses his livelihood and daughter anyway. 

I'm going to keep reading Shakespeare simply because of the language and the words, but I'm going to quit thinking too much about the plot.  Different era, different kind of man, and I don't have to like him to appreciate him.  It sure would be nice if I could, though.