Job’s question, the Death of a Child and Ben Jonson’s poetry

Job asking “Why?” Asking “How much more?”

Last year, a friend of my sister had a 4-year old child drown in a neighborhood swimming pool.  One would think that was enough for any parent to bear.

Last week, the very same woman’s 4-month old baby died in her crib—a case of SIDS.

This is a Job-like battering.   How much more can two people take?  How much more? They can’t be looking to sense, or reason, or “God’s plan.”  None of that can help, certainly not at the moment.

Lately, I have had a number of friends and relatives  who have lost aging parents. Sad as that is, it is reasonable and acceptable—part of the pattern of life.  But the death of a child?  No.

And there are thousands of children all over the world who die every day of disease, mal-nourishment, war, violence, and mere accident.

Statue of Father and Son
Vatican Museums. ©1999 A. Jokinen.

I used to teach a poem by Ben Jonson. If Shakespeare had not come along the era would have probably been known as “the Age of Jonson.”  He was much more successful, much more popular than Shakespeare was during his life.  And yet, he is not really part of the common culture today.  Shakespeare has pushed him aside.  But he is good and he is important. Here is the poem in which Jonson tries to deal with the death of his son: 

On My First Son
by Ben Jonson

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy ;
    My sin was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy.
Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
    Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
Oh, could I lose all father now ! For why
    Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon ‘scaped world’s and flesh’s rage,
    And if no other misery, yet age !
Rest in soft peace, and, asked, say, Here doth lie
    Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such
    As what he loves may never like too much.

Jonson’s first son—also named Benjamin, which in Hebrew means “Son of My Right Hand”—died when he was seven years old. Jonson, renowned and celebrated for his poetry and drama, puts it all in perspective and rates this dead son as the best thing he has ever created.  One can feel the father’s pain in the final two lines–the fear of “liking too much” that which one loves.


“Love Poem” by John Frederick Nims…all the toys of the world would break.

Love Poem
(by John Frederick Nims)

John Frederick Nims (1913-1999)

My clumsiest dear, whose hands shipwreck vases,
At whose quick touch all glasses chip and ring,
Whose palms are bulls in china, burs in linen,
And have no cunning with any soft thing

Except all ill-at-ease fidgeting people:
The refugee uncertain at the door
You make at home; deftly you steady
The drunk clambering on his undulant floor.

Unpredictable dear, the taxi drivers’ terror,
Shrinking from far headlights pale as a dime
Yet leaping before apopleptic streetcars—
Misfit in any space. And never on time.

A wrench in clocks and the solar system. Only
With words and people and love you move at ease;
In traffic of wit expertly maneuver
And keep us, all devotion, at your knees.

Forgetting your coffee spreading on our flannel,
Your lipstick grinning on our coat,
So gaily in love’s unbreakable heaven
Our souls on glory of spilt bourbon float.

Be with me, darling, early and late. Smash glasses—
I will study wry music for your sake.
For should your hands drop white and empty
All the toys of the world would break.

I once read this poem in public to a group of twenty to twenty-five people. Afterwards, a woman came up to me and said that I had brought her to tears.  Although it was a nice compliment, I knew surely that it wasn’t I that did it.  For who could hear those final lines “For should your hands drop white and empty/All the toys of the world would break” and not get a catch in their throat?

I love this poem because it is an anti-ideal love poem.

Shakespeare did the same thing 400 years ago with his Sonnet 130 (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.)

My favorite portrait of Shakespeare

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

Here too, the poet celebrates the flaws and the humanness of his beloved. In embracing her reality–and announcing that he has no need to “belie her with false compare” as so many other poets did–he claims a superior, purer love… “a love as rare” in Shakespeare’s words.

Both men, separated by four centuries, are similarly battling against a constructed “ideal.”  Whether it was the “ideal woman” presented by the Renaissance sonneteers or the “ideal woman” fashioned by Hollywood and Madison Avenue, it was a false image.  And both men knew it.  Their love, they claim, is special because it is grounded in the real world, not in an imaginary, air-brushed, wish-fulfillment world.  Their love exists in the everyday, “everyman/everywoman” world that most of us mortals inhabit.

We know little of Shakespeare’s beloved except for what she looks like: dark hair, pale-lipped and dun-skinned, bad-breathed, clunky-walking and shrilly-voiced. Nims, on the other hand, gives us more information about the object of his love.  She deftly handles those who are ill-at-ease, exiled or drunk; she moves easily with words and people and wit and love. Certainly, she has her frenetic failings–and Nims recounts them with affection– but that is not what makes her unique; that makes her human.  She is much more than that.  She is unique in the welcoming warmth of her love, in her compassion for and embrace of life.

Nims truly appreciates and loves her for what she is. And isn’t that what all of us is looking for?

Titus Andronicus…A Shakespearean Bloodbath!

I had never seen it before.  I had never read it before. But I got cheap tickets to see Titus Andronicus Wednesday night at The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theater.

Not knowing anything about it, I took out my Penguin Collected Plays to read the editor’s introduction. Here’s what it said:

Titus Andronicus is a ridiculous play. This gallimaufry of murders, rape, lopped limbs, and heads baked in a pie, lavishly served with the rich purple sauce of rhetoric, may have been to the taste of the Elizabethans, but what is one to make of it to-day?”

Another comment I saw said to imagine it as if Shakespeare had written Pulp Fiction.

My god, what did I get myself into…all because of the lure of a $10 ticket.

The performance was electrifying. A group of seven actors who were engaging and competent, a dozen or so hand puppets, shadow-puppets, and lots and lots of blood presented what resembled a petite guigonol more than what we think of when we think of a Shakespearean play.

Some say that Hamlet is Shakespeare’s deadliest play, but it pales next to Titus, and the violence here is so much more gratuitous than the violence in the former play. To give you an idea, lying about the stage at the end of the last scene are an evil queen murdered by Titus,  her emperor husband murdered by Titus’ brother,  Titus’ daughter–who Titus kills shockingly by breaking her neck–and Titus himself. Yet the body count doesn’t even begin to describe the depravity.  The queen and emperor are dead, but only after Titus had fed them a pie made with the bones and entrails of the queen’s sons whom Titus has killed. He has slain these two sons because they  had raped his daughter, cut out her tongue, and cut off both her hands.

Had enough?  It is even stranger.  In an earlier scene, Titus is a broken man. His poor daughter sits next to him, unable to speak of or point at her attackers. Her husband has been murdered by the queen as well, and her two brothers (Titus’ sons) have been set up and charged with the crime.  In this particular scene, the queen’s henchman makes a deal with Titus.  He will return the sons to their father in exchange for his hand.  Titus chops off his hand and gives it to the man, who promptly returns with three bell jars, one containing Titus’ hand, the other two containing the heads of his sons.  As the scene ends, Titus leaves the stage with one of the containers that holds his son’s head, his brother (who has found Titus in this pitiful condition) carries the other, and his poor daughter, with no hands of her own, carries the container holding her father’s hand in her mouth. This is perhaps the only pitiful scene in the play because the rest is so “over-the-top” violent that it become cartoonish.  (I tried to count the number of dead, but kept losing track.  Not counting his twenty-one dead sons that Andronicus is returning to the family grave in Rome when the play begins, I come up with 14 corpses, three dismembered limbs and two beheadings. Geeesh!)

Titus Andronicus comes early in Shakespeare’s career. It is his first attempt at tragedy, and he was capitalizing on the Elizabethan penchant for these bloody, revenge tragedies.  And he was learning on the job. There seems to be little of the “interiority” in the characters, that self-awareness that will come later and that makes the characters of Hamlet, Macbeth, and Lear so human, and so tragic.  He is working through the language, the germs of genius are evident, but he has not yet the confidence to take the linguistic leaps that he demonstrates as early as a year later.

As I walked out of the theater, I mentioned to the usher that I couldn’t believe that I was chuckling and smiling after what I had just witnessed.  Maybe there IS something cathartic about it…but I don’t think so. Maybe it was the sheer boldness, the cleverness of the production, the wit of the design.  I don’t know.  I do know it was a very good night of theater and the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theater should be quite proud.

Later, when I got home I discovered that the play had  been made into a film by Julie Taymor, Titus. I vaguely remembered this now.  I guess it will be next on my movie list.  But then that poses a question: Why?

Why, in recent years, has there been a major motion picture by a major director? Why does a small local theater choose to do a Shakespeare play that very few people are aware of?  It had been all but forgotten until the mid-20th century when Peter Brooks famously staged it for the RSC with Vivian Leigh as the put-upon daughter, and then it took on a new life. In recent times, there have been many productions in the UK, in the US, in Japan, productions that emphasize the political…ones that emphasize the family dysfunction.  (Click here for an interesting article on the history of the play’s performances.)

But the question remains: why? Why has it been reborn in our time?

Have we become inured to violence? Completely desensitized?  Or does the extreme violence of the play now reflect our own violent world? Our own shattered realities?  I wonder about my own experience at the performance–the violence of the play was not upsetting or revolting; it was, in fact, silly–and I am a person who for the most part shies away from violence in the films and books that I choose. As I said, the production was cartoonish and even slapstick.  But then what does that say about us?

If  art is supposed to make us think beyond our initial reaction, then my experience with Titus Andronicus was a success.  I can’t get it out of my head.

Movie Review: The Footnote: fathers and sons, parents and children

Juliet being bullied by her father

I have always been fascinated by the importance of parent/child relationships in Shakespeare. As school children, one of the first plays we read is Romeo and Juliet and aside from the love story, the second major story is Juliet’s relationship with her parents. The mother is cold and aloof and the father, while seemingly sensible in the beginning, shows himself an insensitive brute. Then there is Hamlet–a psychiatrist’s field-guide to dysfunctional parenting. In the histories, there is Henry IV, parts 1 and 2; the tragedies also give us King Lear–a tragedy of parenting if ever there were one; the romances give us The Tempest with the sorcerer Prospero manipulating his daughter’s–and everyone else’s–life. Throughout the canon, there are lovers blocked by parents, young nobles obeying the edicts of  fathers, and even a childless woman declaring what violence she would wreak on her children if she had them.

Hamlet berating his mother

And then I thought how much all of literature is tied in with this theme. From the earliest fairy-tales like Snow White, Cinderella, and Rumpelstiltskin to the Greek plays–where does one begin with Oedipus?–the dynamic between parent and child is in the foreground. As for the great epics: The Odyssey is really a tale of a son trying to find his father, as is its modern counterpoint, Ulysses,where “fatherless” Stephen is cared for by Bloom who mourns the death of his own infant son; and what is Paradise Lost but a father punishing his errant children?  In Great Expectations Pip is orphaned and raised by a beastly sister and her kind and understanding husband. In Huck Finn, Huck is trying to survive in spite of the obstacles that the disreputable Pap has put in his way. And even a modern potboiler like the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy is founded on several perverse father/child relationships.

Lisbeth Salander and her father from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

So I thought of all of this as I left the theater Sunday after watching The Footnote. An Israeli film, The Footnote follows a father and son, both Talmudic scholars through their strained relationship. The father’s career–rightly or wrongly–stalled early in its course. The son, on the other hand, is immensely successful. The film opens with an award ceremony where the son is being inducted into the Academy of Sciences. In his thank-you speech, the son focuses on what an inspiration and model his father was, but the father is so filled with envy, anger, and bile that he walks out of the theater.

Son and father from The Footnote

Later, the father receives a telephone call informing him that he has won the prestigious Israeli Prize, an award given by the President of Israel to an important scholar. The call is actually a mistake and was intended for the son who naturally has the same last name.  The son is informed of the mistake and told that he must be the one to tell his father. What ensues is riveting, heartwrenching, and sad.

The soured relationship between the two is echoed with the son’s strained relationship with his own adolescent child. At times, it seems the women are holding things in place, but I am not completely sure. There is a lot of dishonesty, a terrible lack of communication, and an underlying egoism that is poisoning the family dynamic.

The film is very good.  It is one of those films that you talk about long after, and think about much longer than that.