The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Hamlet’

The Wonders of Czech Book Design, and Other News

December 1, 2015 | by

An illustration by Josef Čapek in Nové zpěvy : kniha lyrických průbojů, 1918.

  • When Germans like to dramatize their politics, imbuing the theater with metaphors to suit the times, they always turn to one play: Hamlet. Over the centuries, the Dane has survived a dizzying number of interpretations and representations on German stages—they’re obsessed with the guy. “The 1970s West German Hamlet was shown as powerless to affect his corrupt society, reflecting the experiences of intellectuals and theatre directors who failed to influence the politics of the 1960s revolutions … East German interpretations of Hamlet were unsurprisingly very different. In his speech at the 1964 Shakespeare festival, Cultural Minister Alexander Abusch praised Hamlet’s socialist ideals and lambasted the corrupt society that prevented him carrying them out … The frequent revival of this old, familiar play does not signal a retreat in German theatre from innovative drama. In fact, the nation’s changing role has sparked an exciting new phase in the depiction of the dithering protagonist … In a radical 2005 production in Munich, director Lars-Ole Walburg incorporated quotations from George W Bush and Michael Moore and references to the Rwandan genocide and the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York.”
  • The English major is in decline, and who can even rouse himself to defend it? There’s no utilitarian value to it. It doesn’t seem to make students more ethical or to improve their decision making. People would very probably still read books without it. So … uh … Adam Gopnik has a thought: “The best answer I have ever heard from a literature professor for studying literature came from a wise post-structuralist critic. Why was he a professor of literature? ‘Because I have an obsessive relationship with texts.’ You choose a major, or a life, not because you see its purpose, which tends to shimmer out of sight like an oasis, but because you like its objects. A good doctor said to me, not long ago, ‘You really sort of have to like assholes and ear wax to be a good general practitioner’; you have to really like, or not mind much, intricate and dull and occasionally even dumb arguments about books to study English.”
  • Good spelling has always had an uncomfortable correlation with good breeding—before the advent of spell-check, and even to some extent after it, to spell well was to signify one’s belonging in the upper classes. In the nineteenth century, two men tried to level the playing field with an ambitious overhaul to the language: “On December 5, 1846, in the first issue of a newspaper called Di Anglo-Sacsun, an introductory letter to readers heralded the day when ‘bad spelling, the monster that scares, and grins at, and harasses the people, will fall into fits, like the Giant Despair of Doubting Castle, and will die outright of his spasms’ … S. P. Andrews and Augustus Boyle, the editors of the Di Anglo-Sacsun, believed that they could end poverty by making literacy less time-consuming and more accessible, particularly for poor immigrants and slaves. As the written language formalized over the course of the first half of the nineteenth century through innovations like the steam press and energetic lexicographers like Noah Webster, standardized spelling had become a newly erected barrier between the upwardly mobile and those who had neither the time nor the resources to crack the code of literacy. Andrews and Boyle wanted to simplify the process by making spelling entirely phonetic.”
  • In the early twentieth century, Czech book design drew its influences from a surprisingly broad array of artistic movements—and a singular, stylish form of publishing emerged as a result. “One popular trend during the turn of the century was to embellish literature with elaborate, local ornamentations that were mostly Romanesque in style, as exemplified by Josef Mánes’ illustrations in a manuscript of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Bohemian poems and songs. Floral motifs also became popular Czech symbols … However, artists later dismissed floral and other ornate symbolism as medieval decorations, especially as Czech culture was increasingly exposed to foreign influences that fueled widespread experimentation … Some found the decorativeness of beautiful book illustrations extravagant, preferring to shape the appearance of books with bold and often stark photomontages.”
  • Reminder: your M.F.A. program is the product of specific political circumstances, and to write “well” is essentially to play by the rules of the state: “Less than a lifetime ago, reputable American writers would occasionally start fistfights, sleep in ditches and even espouse Communist doctrines. Such were the prerogatives and exigencies of the artist’s existence, until M.F.A. programs arrived to impose discipline and provide livelihoods. Whether the professionalization of creative writing has been good for American literature has set off a lot of elegantly worded soul-searching and well-mannered debate recently … Sponsored by foundations dedicated to defeating Communism, creative-­writing programs during the postwar period taught aspiring authors certain rules of propriety … Certain seemingly timeless criteria of good writing are actually the product of historically bound political agendas.”

Fat Hamlet, and Other News

September 22, 2015 | by

Picture this guy, but fatter. Pedro Américo, Hamlet’s Vision, 1893.

  • If you’re like me, you spend most of your free time imagining what Hamlet might look like: the pallid cheeks, the heavy eyelids, the ruminating brow, the svelte silhouette, the dejected posture … But what if he was fat? What if the hero of the greatest tragedy of all time was a portly slob? His own mother believes he is—“He’s fat and scant of breath,” she says to Claudius—and an inspection of Shakespeare’s fat usage provides some troubling evidence.
  • Women read more crime fiction than men, supposedly because they “savor the victim role.” But Vera Caspary, a midcentury crime novelist, did just the opposite: “On the page, Caspary had almost supernatural powers of bemusement; she turned her sorrows into triumphs. She liked to joke about her attractiveness to ‘macaroni salesmen.’ Her husband, whom she met when she was forty, was a movie producer, but she earned more than he did, and he resented it. She tried to ignore his resentment, and corrected people at parties who called her Mrs. Goldsmith.”
  • My grandfather’s favorite place to walk was the mall, and in this he was not alone—shopping centers are apparently “the second most popular venue for walking in the country, just behind neighborhoods.” Mall walkers, or Mall Stars, tend to be older, and they’re admirably immune to the commercial aspects of the space, especially when they walk early in the morning: “Since nothing’s open you don’t have to worry about what you’re going to buy,” one mall walker said. “Plus, all the stores sell clothes for young people.” The Mall of America boasts some 250 Mall Stars. There is something to live for.
  • Fiction in England “flourished for centuries before that of any of its neighbors”; even so, one of its earliest practitioners, Geoffrey of Monmouth, couldn’t bring himself to admit he was making shit up. His History of the Kings of England was full of invented royalty, but “Geoffrey considered himself a historian, and presented himself as such … Even at the time there were people who thought he was taking the mickey; one commentator, Gerald of Wales, remarked that demons would flee when the gospels were read, but flock round to listen to Geoffrey’s fibs (there was, for instance, no ‘Emperor Leo’). Nevertheless, his work was hugely popular, and more than two hundred manuscripts survive.”
  • Now that the scandal surrounding Michael Derrick Hudson and Sherman Alexie has died down, let’s revisit another ruse, from 2012: that time when a guy said he was John Ashbery just because his e-mail address was, and a prominent lit mag believed him.

Secret Erotica, Jane Austen, and Other News

August 13, 2013 | by


Photo Credit Sean Malone

  • A tribute to the Blackwing 602, the favored pencil of many a writer, including Nabokov.
  • The saga of the Jane Austen ring continues! Now, an anonymous donor has given £100,000 to prevent Kelly Clarkson from spiriting the gold and topaz bauble off to America.
  • “All had a little twinkle in their eye that suggested a colorful, lively imagination!” The secret lives of erotica writers
  • The British Library’s Wi-Fi blocks Hamlet on grounds of “violent content,” fixes it.


    To Be or Not To Be? And Other News

    August 8, 2013 | by


  • “I don’t want to kill you”: a summer camp based on The Hunger Games
  • To Be Or Not To Be: That Is the Adventure is, yes, a choose-your-own-adventure take on Hamlet.
  • George Saunders’s much-lauded Syracuse graduation speech is being turned into a book.
  • “What this does is that it immediately puts my writing into the category as a hobby. As in, are you still taking piano lessons, doing macrame, have a parrot? I don’t have a huge ego about my work, but let’s face it, for me it is a job. Yes, for heaven’s sake, I am still writing.” Danielle Steel sounds off


    The Tournament of Literary Friends

    July 29, 2013 | by


    We’re tournament people, my husband and I. The way some people climb rocks or brew beer (I don’t know: What do other people do?), we draw sloppy 64-berth brackets in coffee-stained spiral-bound notebooks then set to vigorous, regimented discussion, rationally whittling down the field until an undisputed champion emerges. Notable competitions past include Most Intriguing City (Helsinki def. Buenos Aires) and Favorite Animal (Polar Bear def. House Cat). Most times, Matt is the tournament master, the committee of one who conceives and presents the field to me, which I then imperiously adjudicate, usually while reclining on a couch or airplane seat and eating something packed with butterfat. It’s a good arrangement, because he is a historian who likes categories and I am a writer who likes making things up.

    For tournament people, the next bracket is always a gift. Matt’s mom visited last month, and she brought with her a 32-person field of literary characters for each of us to complete. Our champions were to be not the greatest or most iconic or most influential figures, but the characters we’d most like to have as friends.

    “Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?” Claire Messud had recently demanded of Publishers Weekly.

    She had a point. We took Alexander Portnoy instead. Read More »


    Book Shopping with the Best-Read Man in America

    December 28, 2012 | by

    We’re out this week, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2012 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!

    I was dragging my five-year-old daughter through the musty stacks of my favorite used bookstore last spring when a middle-aged man, squatting in the Sci-Fi section next to a brimming cardboard box, caught my eye and reminded me of someone.

    “Excuse me,” I asked, “are you a writer?”

    “I am,” he said, standing up and straightening his glasses. His eyes were deep set and hard to read. He was bashful.

    “Are you Michael Dirda?” I asked.

    “I am.”

    It was him: the book critic and author, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, known apocryphally as the best-read man in America, whose essays had enticed me to read everything from Little, Big to Three Men in a Boat—and here he was, squinting his way through the lowest shelves in the same crusty bargain dungeon I came to all the time.

    “Amazing. Nina, this is the man who wrote that little letter that we have in your George and Martha,” I told my daughter. Nina was nonplussed.

    “When I was eight, in 1992,” I explained, “I wrote a letter to the Washington Post when James Marshall died and you printed it in the Book World section and even wrote a sweet little response. And her grandpa put a photocopy of that letter in The Complete George and Martha for her.”

    Read More »