Archive for January, 2009




Hello, everyone — As promised, here is the essay on The Winter’s Tale by Dr. Betty Sue Flowers:

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            Like all of Shakespeare’s plays, The Winter’s Tale has inspired many volumes of critical commentary. A number of readers have pointed out that the structure of the play mirrors the Christian “divine comedy” in moving from sin and loss to transformation and redemption. But while this structure may be felt behind the action, Shakespeare’s focus is on the psychology of the characters—and of the audience. 

            In each “movement” of the play, we see different aspects of love, forgiveness, and wisdom. In Part One (Acts I to III), we observe the “sickness” of the brain that leads to fatal errors of the heart. In Part Two (Act IV), we witness the transformations that make forgiveness and reconciliation possible. And in Part Three (Act V), the wisdom of love and forgiveness that redeems the past is dramatized in one of the most remarkable scenes in all of drama.

            The sickness of the brain that is explored through the character of King Leontes is jealousy. Far from being a proof of love, as some believe, jealousy is a product of fear, constricting the heart and blinding the eyes to reality. Leontes sees his queen, Hermione, in friendly conversation with Polyxines, his best friend, and through the eyes of jealousy, uses even the most innocent of actions as “proof” in the construction of a case against her. This case, or story, leads to a trial in which the jealous king banishes his blameless wife and daughter because he cannot accept a story that contradicts what his sick brain has concocted. As Hermione points out in her defense, it shall scarce boot [assist] me / To say, “Not guilty”; mine integrity / Being accounted falsehood, shall, as I express it, / Be so received.”

            Act IV begins: “Enter Time, the Chorus.” Sixteen years have passed, and Leontes’ lost daughter is grown. Time itself has created this transformation, just as winter has become spring. We, the audience, move from witnessing a trial in winter in a formal court to observing scenes of springtime country life and young love. Part One seemed dark and realistic and could almost have served as the beginning of a tragedy: Two key characters die, the queen is banished (and her death is announced), and a daughter is abandoned (and presumed dead). But in Part Two, we seem to be in a fairy tale, where time itself produces the agents of redemption in the grown-up daughter of Leontes and the son of Polyxines.

Having faith in the healing power of time is a form of wisdom—even when, out of fear, we distrust the future. Like time, nature itself is also transformative, and through the fable-like simplicity of the love story of Part Two, we are reminded that in spite of the human propensity to treat tragedy as more realistic than comedy, spring is just as real as winter.

            After witnessing the familiar romantic fable of a high-born prince falling in love with a low-born girl whose true identity is noble, we are prepared for Part III, which rises above both tragedy and romance to a scene of love and forgiveness that the characters themselves can scarcely believe possible. And yet, it “really” happens, in spite of their expressed disbelief. If we are watching the drama on a stage, we see the statue of Hermione, whom we thought dead, come to life and step down to take the repentant Leontes’ hand. Through the power of drama, we experience this miracle for ourselves and are deeply moved. What was once dead can come to life again. What was once lost can be found. As The Winter’s Tale helps us understand, through the dramatic experience we undergo, faith in the possibility of transformation is a form of wisdom.


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I hope this essay has helped to frame the story for you. As I mentioned at our last meeting, next week’s class will be enhanced by a presentation of the forgiveness scene from Act V of  The Winter’s Tale, performed by actors from Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama. The actors will also give some background information on the characters in the play. After the presentation, Heather will share her insights, and then we’ll hold our regular discussion.

NEXT MEETING: Thursday, February 5th, 6:00pm – CLP -MAIN

See you then!

Exit, pursued by blinding snow flurries,








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Brush Up Your Shakespeare!

200px-shakespeare2Good morrow! I’ve borrowed the title of today’s post from the 1948 Cole Porter musical Kiss Me, Kate, which is based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Brush Up Your Shakespeare was a real show stopper! Brush Up Your Shakespeare! is also the title of a book we have at CLP — it’s a little gem of a book, discussing many of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets with wit, and helping readers appreciate Elizabethan language and manners.

So, to our current challenge: How do we 21st century readers dive into The Winter’s Tale? Although I’ve seen plenty of Shakespeare’s plays performed on stage (including one particularly memorable interpretation of The Taming of the Shrew, performed outdoors in Montana featuring Petrucchio as a swaggering cowboy and Katherine as a lusty saloon girl!) — it’s been many years since I’ve read one of his plays, and I suspect some of us are in this same situation.

First of all, I suggest reading a synopsis of the play. Learn the names and relationships of the characters, something about the setting, and of course, what happens.200px-perdita_anthony_frederick_augustus_sandys1 What the story is about is important, certainly,  but it’s Shakespeare’s language that brings the story to life. At the same time, it’s the language that often trips us up. Secondly, read the play aloud, either by yourself or with a partner. You’ll be surprised how musical the language becomes when you hear the words spoken, and how an initially confusing passage comes to life when read aloud. Finally, don’t rush.  Sip a cup of tea or a pint of ale.  Or two. Take your time and enjoy the journey.  I’m anxious to hear how this Shakespeare experience is for all of you.  Keep me posted.

By the way, while The Winter’s Tale has not given us as many quotable speeches as other Shakespearean works, it does boast one of the most memorable stage directions in history.  (Hint: Act III.) Anyone?

Until next time, Jane

NEXT POST: The Love, Forgiveness, and Wisdom essay on The Winter’s Tale  from Dr. Betty Sue Flowers.

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Good morning! I hope you all enjoyed last night’s discussion of The History of Love as much as I did. thumbnailcawzb3ku THANK YOU to Heather McNaugher for guiding us through the literary waters. And another THANK YOU to all of you — it’s your attendance and lively participation that make this group such a delight. It’s always interesting to hear varying points of view, isn’t it? Some random thoughts from last night’s discussion:

  •  All the major characters are hiding something or pretending something. Do we all do this in our own lives?
  • To love is to grieve. True? All love affairs, all loving relationships end at some point in time, either through death or betrayal or mutal accord. Are we setting ourselves up for grief when we chose to love?
  • The purpose of poetry: “To make us laugh, to make us cry, to give us chills.”

There’s a short interview with Nicole Krauss from 2005 at  BookPage.com. Sure enough, there’s a movie in the works, due for release in 2010. If you were the casting director, who’d be your choice to play Leo? Alma? Bird?

If you are interested in reading Krauss’ other novel, Man Walks into a Room, it’s available at the Carnegie Library. And Heather mentioned a favorite book of hers, Davita’s Harp by Chaim Potok. Yep, also available at CLP.

NEXT POST: A few words about Mr. William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale, and some suggestions on how to read the play with maxium enjoyment and minium frustration.  

Until then, parting is such sweet sorrow, Jane

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The Fetzer Institute

Good morning. I thought some of you might be interested in learning a bit more about The Fetzer Institute, the granting agency that has funded our Love, Forgiveness, and Wisdom book discussion this winter.  Through the grant administered by the American Library Association, we’ve been able to purchase materials for the library, provide copies of our selections for some of our participants, and attract a scholar of the caliber of Heather McNaugher. When you visit the Fetzer Institute website, please take a moment to read the biography of  John E.  Fetzer.  It’s a wonderful reminder how one man’s vision can help change the world.The Fetzer Institutes’s Campaign for Love and Forgiveness has sponsored the production of three films on the topic of forgiveness, and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh has two of these films in its collection.  The Power of Forgiveness features interviews with Desmond Tutu, Elie Wiesel, Thich Nhat Hanh, and an examination of the aftermath of the shooting at the Amish schoolhouse here in Pennsylvania in 2006. The Mystery of Love is a wonderful documentary about the various faces of love. It reminded me of the words of Truman Capote: “…love, having no geography, knows no boundaries.” The third film, Unforgivable? will be aired on PBS sometime later this year.

Warm thoughts for the weekend, Jane

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 Hello, again — As promised, here is the essay from Dr. Betty Sue Flowers on the many facets of love and forgiveness in The History of Love.


The History of Love – Nicole Krauss

            Like a Dickens novel, The History of Love moves through so many revelations of identity and coincidences of plot that we never lose the sense that we are in a fiction. And yet, the depiction of feeling in the characters seems very realistic indeed.

            The old man Leo and the young girl Alma undertake a journey toward each other that begins, on Leo’s part, with his first love (also named “Alma”—Spanish for “soul”), and on Alma’s part, with her love for her parents, whose courtship centered on a book called, like Krauss’s novel itself, The History of Love. Each complication of the plot throws more light on what it means to be loyal not just to the memory of a person but also to the love for that person. 

Alma’s mother, yearning for her dead husband, fails in her love when she is sad and distant from Alma and her younger brother. But when she translates the fictional “History,” or plants her garden, she moves into the realm of creation, where love is kept alive and even renewed.       

Leo suffers misfortune and betrayal, but the novel he writes in order to survive is written not out of despair but out of love. And it is the love expressed within his novel that leads to a sequence of deeds of love that bring him both a connection to his lost son and also a relationship with another young woman named Alma at the end of his life. 

            Overcoming many obstacles, Leo and the young Alma, each driven by love, persist in their individual quests for the original Alma, the one who inspired the fictional “History.” Over a long period, a quest undertaken for the sake of love may not remove the sorrows of life—but it does create the possibility of blessings that dignify what would otherwise be, for Leo, a sad, undignified, and pitiable existence, and for Alma, an unbearable loneliness. Their actions create a new world, one that leads them to seem as angels to each other.

            While The History of Love does not belong to the genre of magical realism, it does evoke a sense of magic in showing how love leads to creative action outside the realm of the ordinary. These actions, in turn, foster the synchronicities that form the architecture of the novel. As if to emphasize the connection between love and its creative, powerful consequences, the novel we are reading—The History of Love—often refers to the fictional novel of the same name that functions as the “grail” or impetus for the quest for both Leo and Alma. For example, when Alma comes to the park bench where Leo is lying, she is there at that place and time because before she was born, her father had given her mother the fictional “History” and had later named her after its main character. She is also there because her brother yearns to become a “lamed vovnik”—one of the thirty-six righteous ones in Jewish mysticism who are often hidden. In his desire to perform a hidden good deed, he has written a letter to her that he has signed “Leo”—and sent the same message to Leo, signed “Alma”: “Please meet me at 4:00 on Saturday on the benches in front of the entrance to the Central Park zoo. I think you know who I am.” 

      In the context of The History of Love, these ordinary words resonate with significance, just as, in the context of the “history of love” in each person’s life — that sequence of acts of love given or received — ordinary life is charged with significance. Seen from this perspective, The History of Love serves as a complex parable about the power of creative love.




Well…that’s quite a bit to consider. I’m anticipating another great discussion next Thursday (January 22, 6:00pm, Quiet Reading Room).


Until then, GO STEELERS!



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First of all, let me thank all of you for your wonderful participation in last Thursday’s inital meeting of the Love, Forgiveness, and Wisdom (LFW) book discussion. I think we all can agree that Heather McNaugher‘s enthusiasm for teaching and for Jane Austen was infectious and illuminating.  I’ve been thinking about Jane Austen this week, and especially about the relationship between the two sisters (sorry, Margaret Dashwood — there just wasn’t much for you to do in this story. If Austen were writing in the 21st century, do you think she’d give Margaret her own sequel?) I am lucky to have a wonderful sister of my own, and it’s always interesting to ponder how innate personality, life experience, and birth order can make two genetically similar  siblings so temperamentally different.

As I mentioned last week, Dr. Betty Sue Flowers of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in Austin, Texas, is the Project Scholar for the LFW series.  She has written a series of essays for these discussions, and here’s what she has to say about Sense and Sensibility:

Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen

Novels often display the way wisdom disappears in the presence of romantic love. Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, the two sisters whose fortunes are chronicled in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, are portrayed as embodiments of these paired opposites: Elinor, the oldest, displays good, sound sense; Marianne, in contrast, is full of sensibility, a quality much prized by the Romantics.In Austen’s world, sense is not simply rationality or objectivity, although it partakes of both. It also includes a proper regard for propriety, a skepticism regarding first impressions, and a cautionary self-awareness of the human tendency to read a situation from the perspective of our own self-interest. Sensibility, in contrast, is a heightened sensitivity to sense impressions and feelings. Marianne judges Elinor’s suitor, Edward, to be deficient, saying that his eyes lack “all that spirit, that fire, which at once announce virtue and intelligence.” Her own suitor, the more responsive Willoughby, reads poetry with feeling, delights in music, and romanticizes the landscape and the humble cottage in which the sisters live.The danger in acting from sensibility is that it is inherently subjective. When Elinor confronts Marianne about breaking propriety by going alone with Willoughby to explore a house, Marianne responds that “if there had been any real impropriety in what I did, I should have been sensible of it at the time, for we always know when we are acting wrong . . . .” The rules of propriety may be confining and arbitrary, but they are externalized and not as susceptible to wishful thinking.
While the narrative is told from a third-person point of view, the narrator speaks from Elinor’s sensible perspective. Elinor’s implicit criticisms of the excesses of sensibility are underscored when Marianne’s romantic illusions lead to disaster. The novel does not let Marianne sink to a state of utter ruin, however, for after suffering emotionally and physically, she marries a man much superior to Willoughby in character as well as wealth. And Elinor herself, while not outwardly expressive of romantic qualities, has been shown to be inwardly full of sensibility.

Through suffering and an objective review of her past actions, Marianne grows in wisdom to the point that she can both forgive the lover who has wronged her and open her heart to a man of superior character she had earlier scorned. Sense may be “the elder” to sensibility, as Elinor is the elder to Marianne; but sensibility has led Marianne through experiences that change her—the “road of excess” has indeed led to “the palace of wisdom.” Marianne is the character most significantly transformed. It is by observing her through the commentary of her sister that the reader can see what allows love and forgiveness to flourish: the capacity to see the world objectively; the humility that leads to gratitude; and the willingness to open the heart rather than to close it in self-absorption or bitterness.

Feel free to leave any comments you’d like — I think this blog may be a good way for us to continue our conversation between meetings.
Thanks again for your support for this series and for the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh!

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