A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Midsummer Night's Dream

Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream has aged relatively well, but I find that it is the silliest of all of his comedies. I enjoyed it, but it is almost too silly. Humour is fickle – what one person finds uproaringly hilarious is to another simply amusing and to another disgusting. Most of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is indeed hilarious, but it feels disjointed.

After all, this is a play about fairies romping in the forest, love potions getting mixed up, and silly commoners trying to put on a grand play for the elite. It goes well because the King of the Fairies gets what he wants. Yes, nearly everyone is happy in the end, but it is a bit uncomfortable to watch. Also, magic is too much of a plot device to be enjoyable. Most of Shakespeare’s comedies are not dependent on magic at all – they are usually just based around misunderstandings. This was clearly a stretch from Shakespeare’s comfort zone.

As a result, the “serious” plot – that of the lovers – feels out of place. The characters are too serious for the otherwise silly play. Their predicaments are indeed dire. It is not as though they are talking about something serious while in a silly situation. There really isn’t anything funny about it anymore. (Indeed, I’m not sure how funny it would have appeared to Elizabethan audiences either.) Hermia is running away from a death sentence to marry Lysander – once she is in the woods, she can’t go back – and her beloved suddenly spurns her in favour of her friend, who turns on her because she thinks that she is mocking her. Helena’s reputation has been ruined by being spurned by Demetrius in favour of Hermia, which also wrecks her friendship with Hermia, and she follows him into the woods in the hope of getting him back. She has nothing to risk by running off in the woods with a man. Then she feels that both Demetrius and Lysander, as well as Hermia, are mocking her. Both of the men nearly come to blows over Helena.

None of their dialogue is particularly funny, and neither is the situation.

That said, the rest of the play is hilarious and it is one of the few Shakespeare plays that feels genuinely fun. The actors playing the mechanicals and the fairies can ham it up immensely. The characters can interact with the audience without detracting from the play. We are all left with a feeling of having had a jolly good time and a restful dream.

The fantasy genre is not Shakespeare’s forte though. I can see why he didn’t write very many plays like this one.

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Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar

julius-caesar

My class seems to have been one of the few that didn’t read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in high school. Because this play contains a lot of famous lines, I knew how it went (not to mention that I had at least a Wikipedia knowledge of Roman history). Therefore, I admit that I found the play somewhat lacking in depth.

The plot is very exciting: Julius Caesar is conspired against and then killed; the conspirators are then drawn into a civil war with Caesar’s supporters and those who want to exploit the power vacuum for themselves; and we are left with a bit of a cliffhanger that Shakespeare would resolve in Antony and Cleopatra.

Furthermore, the motivations of the characters are intriguing – which is undoubtedly why this play is studied so often. Some are motivated by the need for personal gain, some because they are jealous of Caesar, and still some because they genuinely find Caesar’s growing tyrannical popularity to be worrisome.

Shakespeare wrote at a time when monarchy was absolute and few questioned it as the best form of government. Yet Elizabethan England also held up Ancient Roman leaders like Julius Caesar as heroes. Ancient Roman and Greek culture were being revived and reintroduced, but with Elizabethan morals. Thus this play ultimately reaffirms the common sense notion (of the time) that a strong state needs a strong ruler, as otherwise the society will fall into warring factions and the people cannot be trusted to make good decisions. At the same time, it was introducing ancient Roman political figures to a wide audience.

Unlike his comedies or tragedies, Shakespeare’s historical plays have not aged well. We have grown used to portrayals of history in the media that take liberty with the facts for the sake of a good story, but we have improved upon our expectations of accuracy. We have created better plays, books, and films about Rome in the past four hundred years. Furthermore, the moral of Julius Caesar is somewhat lost on modern audiences. Are we supposed to sympathise with Brutus, who kills Caesar out of a sense of duty for the state? Are we supposed to sympathise with Cassius, who feels that Caesar is no better of a man than himself and thus refuses to submit to him? Are we supposed to sympathise with the confused common people? With Caesar?

I enjoyed the play and it was fun to finally hear popular lines in context. Compared to Shakespeare’s historical plays about more recent history, it was fairly accurate. But as it was history, it also didn’t really finish properly. We are left with the conspirators dead and Octavian being proclaimed the new Caesar, much to the consternation of Marc Antony. We know what happens next (or we could check Wikipedia if we don’t).

 

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By the Water

copyright 2016

Peaceful and quiet
The sun sets behind the hills,
Reflecting off the waves
That lap softly onto the shore.

Alone upon the rock,
She gazes up into the sky.

Here, now, she sits.

There is nothing of the past,
Of the future – it is unknown,
It is timeless by the water.

What brought her here
No longer matters,
For this could be a fitting final resting place.

The flames dance up to the sunset,
Fire joining its mother in the sky,
Keeping her light shining as the night falls,
Keeping vigil as the darkness takes hold,
Leading into a world unknown,
A world of dreams and memories.

This is home.

DSCF9424

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A Good Fish & Chips

20160813_145204What makes a good fish & chips?

Obviously, good fish and good fried potatoes, perhaps with flavourful seasoning, but what else?

I have embarked on a bit of a quest, ordering fish and chips at various restaurants and trying to determine which is best. While it does prevent me from ordering other equally potentially scrumptious dishes, I have decided that it has been an overall successful venture. I started by tasting the various editions of fish and chips in my local area, but I soon decided to branch out to every restaurant that I ventured into over the summer that had that item on the menu. I will eventually do a comparison of these restaurants, but first, I must determine what actually constitutes a “good” fish and chips.

At the very least, the fish has to be cooked well and not covered in too much batter. There definitely should be more fish than batter! Where it is cod or haddock or halibut or any other type of fish is really up to individual taste. Furthermore, the fries/chips should be hefty and actually taste like potato, with more seasoning than salt. (Alternatively, the seasoning and salt could be added by the customer to individual taste.) Lemon needs to be served on the side, as well as tartar sauce.

These are all fairly basic aspects of fish and chips. Aside from these, the side dish(es) matters. Obviously, a chip truck or fast food-style location can get away with no sides. It is called “fish and chips”, after all. But a restaurant, particularly one serving the dish as an entrée, needs to bring more to the plate.

So far, my favourite side dish still has to be mushy peas. Something vegetable goes well with the fish and chips. (Yes, chips are fried potatoes, but those are not strictly vegetables.) The side of choice in North America seems to be coleslaw. I admit that I am not a fan of coleslaw, hence why mushy peas were such a welcome relief. But there are lots of varieties of coleslaw, some of which are almost edible and taste vaguely of vegetables. Vegetables definitely complement the rest of the dish, adding to the meal’s overall flavour (and nutrition content). They also make it feel more like an entrée. I would prefer some different choices of vegetable – even canned or thawed mixed veggies, depending on the restaurant in question – to break the monopoly of coleslaw.

I admit, the best item is the drink – the marking of a good fish and chips is ultimately how well does it go with any alcoholic beverage, depending on the customer’s choice, and how well does it stand up without alcohol? Any good fish and chips must be able to be enjoyed with any drink including just water.

In fact, especially with just water.

So far, the tally for “best” is:

Best fish: O’Donaghue’s Irish PubMiramichi, NB

Best side dish: Knotted Thistle PubRegina, SK

Best chips: still waiting on that…

Best overall: still waiting on that too…

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Lack of Written Words

I have been thinking a lot lately about historical evidence. In the study of history, much focus is put on the written word. Usually, the term “prehistory” is used to refer to events that took place prior to the adoption of writing in any given area, and certainly before the first known invention of writing itself. Other artefacts are deemed to be part of archaeology and anthropology rather than history, with the written evidence being prized over an object. There is a great weight put on a description of an object in a text, even if we have plenty of evidence from the object itself. It is helpful to have historical context for things – especially if we have no idea what things are – but the written word can only capture so much, and can also be entirely fictional.

But what I find bothersome (although it isn’t anyone’s fault) is that so much of our human story has been lost. We have put so much faith in written evidence that we have virtually given up on studying “prehistory”. Those who do – namely, archaeologists, historical linguists, anthropologists, etc. – are making inferences about the past that are not conclusive, but nonetheless paint a murky and real picture of a world without writing.

Much could be said about this work, but it does feel disjointed. Without written words, it can feel like the peoples of the distant past are voiceless. They don’t feel as relatable to us as when we can read what they left behind. This is rather disheartening, because of course, they were real and relatable people, even if the world that they lived in wasn’t.

I have long been fascinated with historical linguistics. Specifically, I have often wondered about the Indo-European languages and how they became so widespread. There are many hypotheses as to how this occurred. One was simply that there was a lot of conquest by a powerful group, while another supposed that some peoples outbred others and expanded, gradually replacing populations. Still others, particularly recently, have posited that there was a high degree of desirability in learning Indo-European, likely for socio-economic reasons, and there was thus little actual population replacement or conquest.

At this point, there is little archaeological evidence to support any of these hypotheses. It cannot be agreed upon even which archaeological remnants belong to whom. Thus the mysterious Indo-Europeans are primarily known through what can be determined from the languages inspired by and descended from theirs, as well as common cultural traits found in cultures that spoke Indo-European languages many centuries later and bothered to write them down.

What is thrilling about the mystery is that there is a lot of freedom to interpret existing evidence. The world of the fourth millennium BCE, when historical linguistics would suggest the Indo-Europeans existed, is an uncharted place. It is where history meets science fiction again. There are no written stories from the era to find, but there are lots to create from the pieces that we do have.

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How I Live Now (2013)

How I Live Now

Based on the 2004 young adult novel by Meg Rosoff, How I Live Now is a war story set in a near-future version of England. Starring Saoirse Ronan as teenager Daisy, it tells the story of an American girl sent to live with her English cousins shortly before a major world war breaks out.

What then ensues is anything but a stereotypical film of either the action or romance genre. Instead, this is a poetic film that tells a harrowing and poignant tale of survival. There is romance, there is the feeling of alienation that most teens experience, and there is a lot of violence – albeit the latter is mostly offscreen, with only the aftermath being shown.

howIlivenow

There are lots of bizarre things that take place. Daisy falls in love with her cousin, to start with, and the film doesn’t even blink at that. (Not that I am implying that it should – but most stories would.) Instead, we are to simply accept their romance and relationship and move on to more important matters. Modern audiences of the film, at least according to many reviews, had trouble getting past this plot development – despite all of the horrors of the war that Daisy faces, which are most definitely wrong in the moral sense and terrifying in the visceral sense, it is the fact that Daisy falls in love with her cousin that disgusts them. If anything, this demonstrates that we have been conditioned to place sexual mores above others, much like how nudity strikes the ire of censors moreso than violence. We feel powerless in the face of a war, so we focus on the propriety of a romantic relationship instead. That is something that we think we can control. Really, when people are being killed brutally, who cares who is sleeping with whom in a consensual manner? Extend that question to our world at large, even in peacetime.

Also, continuing in the vein of the bizarre, Daisy’s cousins are very independent and close to nature, almost in a magical sense. In the style of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, Daisy is sent to their farm because she is motherless and ill (in her case, with anorexia), both physically and spiritually, and she is healed by spending time outdoors. Gardening, tending animals, and spending time with her cousins is only part of Daisy’s healing, however. The first half of the film seems like it will be a simple story of a bratty teenage girl from the city being healed by a stay in the countryside and learning more about herself and her family. But the lyrical and quirky coming-of-age story is soon violently interrupted.

Daisy’s aunt disappears and circumstances of the war soon cuts off the children/teenagers from much of the outside world. There is a short in-between time, when there is deprivation and a sense of foreboding mixed with idyllic charm, but reality soon ensues. Soldiers commandeer their farm, the boys and the girls are separated from each other, and they are sent to evacuation centres and work camps a fair distance away.

From there, the film grows increasingly dark as Daisy and her young cousin, nine-year-old Piper, attempt to return to the farm and reunite the family. They fight for survival and make their way through the war-ravaged countryside, not sure where to turn and who to trust. They have to survive roving soldiers, bandits, environmental hazards, and other hostilities. Even finding their home would not be a guarantee of safety, as the community’s entire infrastructure has collapsed.

The film is painfully realistic. The war is both immediate and distant, with the offscreen violence having severe and visible consequences for our characters. There are many enemies and the war exists on multiple fronts. The war-ravaged English countryside could stand in for many countries. Daisy, with all of her insecurities, ideas, hopes, dreams, desires, and dislikes, feels like an average relatable person. We want her to succeed even as we want her to obey rules, since we are lulled into believing that those rules will keep her safe. Above all, we understand that she wants to save her family and that she does not want to die. No matter how one feels about the larger political problems of migration, refugees, immigration, and cultural differences, one can appreciate the desire of individuals to survive and live a normal family life. Daisy breaks rules, but she does not die.

I describe this films as poetic and lyrical because the story focuses on the one character’s journey of healing and discovery; the cinematography reflects the emotions of the character and the changing of the countryside itself; and it is fairly clear from the first few minutes that the motive behind this film is the art and provoking thought much more than it is to entertain. We are meant to feel uneasy. We are meant to reflect on the devastation of war. We may feel that, like Daisy, our lives are worth living no matter what. Daisy is not a lovable heroine, but we are forced to follow her on her journey with little distraction. Hopefully, we can look past the awkwardness and learn some universal and timely truths about ourselves.

Even a whimper of one individual’s life is worth living and is worth fighting for.

HowILiveNow

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Putting Panem Back Together

The Hunger Games Mockingjay 2 (2015)

At the end of The Hunger Games trilogy, the question is posed as to whether a final televised bloodthirsty Hunger Games contest should be staged; this time, the Capitol’s children would be forced to participate while the Districts watched and the Capitol could get a taste of its own medicine. The question is asked of the seven remaining survivors (I would hardly call them victors) of the previous Hunger Gameses, since they are the only ones who know firsthand what such a competition is like. From this limited pool of seven people, some are vehemently opposed to the idea of holding another contest (even a “contest to end all contests”), while others are out for revenge. (It is further implied that even if the seven had all voted against holding another Hunger Games, the new president would have overruled them anyhow.) Those who are vengeful are more intrigued at the possibility of watching Capitol children kill each other than actually getting revenge.

Rewatching this scene in the last film recently, I was reminded that this type of question is not limited to the world of The Hunger Games. How to approach “righting the wrongs” of history is a common dilemma, both in teaching about events of the past and in attempting to live with the results of said events. Too often, instead of working toward fixing inequalities, societies’ responses have been of vengeance or of flipping existing inequalities. Furthermore, there are attempts to erase uncomfortable pasts, rather than acknowledging what has happened and changing the present.

To return to the story, the concept of the Hunger Games was a bad idea to begin with – no matter who was competing against whom, and no matter the intentions behind them. Likewise, persecution, racism, and systematic injustice are not good ideas, no matter who is involved and their intentions. Sure, they may have positive outcomes for certain peoples lucky to be in a privileged position, but there is no doubt that these are bad ideas. While those accustomed to privilege may see any loss of it as oppression and thus react badly to change in the status quo, if the scales are tipped the other way and they lose their power and privilege entirely, the same actions would indeed be oppression. The Capitol’s children being forced to be slaughtered in the killing game that they had passively watched the Districts’ children participate in is an example of an extreme version of a loss of privilege, but it is not impossible.

It was obviously intended of an example of a loss of privilege being taken too far. After the war ends in Mockingjay, the Capitol citizens have already lost their privileged positions in Panem. Things are back at zero, and the killing needed to stop. Yes, some might not be satisfied and it is arguably true that the Capitol citizens had not suffered as badly or for as long as their counterparts, but murder of children is still morally wrong. Or else, the whole war was pointless.

Current trends in North America are still farm from the extremes of The Hunger Games. We have a system that is unequal on many fronts. There was a lot of killing (intended or not) and oppression in the past. All of the bloodshed in the universe cannot bring any of the dead back to life, let alone cancel he domino effect that one death causes. For every lost soul there are further losses – possible descendants, contributions to society, art, inventions, discoveries… Imagining a world without the slave trade or without the loss of 95% of indigenous North Americans is mind-boggling. And also simply imaginary.

Righting the wrongs of history cannot mean to forget or simply apologise. It also does not mean that there is an easy solution that will please everyone and satisfy all grievances. Simply renaming can bring up a host of problems, let alone addressing inequalities.

What is most difficult about moving forward into the future is that no matter how much we want to fix the past, it is gone, and no matter what has happened, what, who, and where we have now are what we have to work with.

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