Review: Twelfth Night

Review: Twelfth Night
Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Twelfth Night is a frenetic comedy of tomfoolery and excess. Everything is purposefully ridiculous—a satire of previously written farces, reveling in itself. While in As You Like It Shakespeare gives us, for once, a genuinely convincing picture of love, in Twelfth Night he is back to his old sardonic ways. Shakespeare was perhaps as cynical as Proust or Freud on the subject of love, since he seems to savor its arbitrariness. Olivia falls in love with Viola on false pretences, and then easily transfers her feelings to the (strangely willing) Sebastian. Duke Orsino, on the other hand, after pledging his undying love for Olivia, instantly falls in love with Viola once he finds out that she is a woman and not a boy. And this is not to mention that, as so often with Shakespeare, we end with a supremely strange match: the witty and lively Viola with the melodramatic and melancholic Duke Orsino. It would be depressing were it not so funny.

Shakespeare crosses the line from comedy to sadism in the subplot of Malvolio. While at first the unctuous prig’s comeuppance is wholly satisfying, his imprisonment and mockery cannot help but spark outrage from the audience—especially considering that his torturers are drunkards and fools, not half as compelling as Malvolio (insufferable as he is). On the other hand, Shakespeare gave us a perfect picture of wisdom in Feste, the fool, who brings a warmth and sanity to every scene he takes part in. Though neither Viola nor Malvolio nor Feste can compare as characters with the likes of Rosalind, the complete cast abounds in lively contrast. And this is not to mention the abundance of memorable lines, scattered with Shakespearean generosity. In sum, then, I think that this is easily among the stronger of Shakespeare’s comedies.



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Review: Much Ado About Nothing

Review: Much Ado About Nothing
Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Much Ado About Nothing is generally held to be one of Shakespeare’s lighter comedies, as the title seems to indicate. Its plot is generally ridiculous—full of meaningless intrigues and manufactured drama—again, as the title seems to indicate. It survives through the charming story of Beatrice and Benedick, whose dueling wit evolves into antagonistic love, preserving all of the fire and (almost) none of the misogyny of Petruchio and Katherina from The Taming of the Shrew. The plot involving Hero and Claudio is silly stuff, and only maintains interest through providing a context for Beatrice and Benedick to further woo and war.

It is difficult to read much Shakespeare without coming to the conclusion that he was a hopeless cynic when it came to love. Both plots in the play reinforce this conclusion. Beatrice and Benedick are fooled into love through appeal to their self-love; they agree to wed without any romantic illusions; indeed, Benedick ends the play with a crude cuckoldry pun. Meanwhile, Claudio is ready to drive his beloved to suicide at the thought that she is not a virgin, and then is ready to marry anyone, even “an Ethiope,” to repent when he finds out she was falsely accused. If only more romantic comedies has such a saving touch of nihilism.



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Review: The Art of Worldly Wisdom

Review: The Art of Worldly Wisdom
Oráculo manual y arte de prudencia

Oráculo manual y arte de prudencia by Baltasar Gracián

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cada uno habla del objeto según su afecto.

This little book is one of the most read and translated works of the Spanish Golden Age. It has been surprisingly influential. Schopenhauer was a famous devotee, and even learned Spanish so that he could produce a translation (which went on to commercial success). Two English translations have been best-sellers, the first in 1892 and the second in 1992. Advice typically does not age well, but Gracián’s has stood the temporal test.

Yet for the reader of the original Spanish—especially the non-native reader—the book can be perplexing. Gracián was a major writer in the conceptismo movement: a literary style in which a maximum of meaning was compressed into a minimum of words, using every rhetorical trick of the trivium to achieve a style that seems to curl itself into a ball and then to explode in all directions. This can make the experience of reading Gracián quite akin to that of reading poetry—except here, unlike in poetry, you can be sure that there is a sensible meaning laying concealed underneath. When the antiquity of Gracián’s Castilian is added to the mix, the result is literary dish that is difficult to digest.

After a meaning is beaten out of Gracián’s twisted words, however, the result is some surprisingly straightforward advice. “Prudent” is the operative word, for Gracián manages to be idealistic and realistic at once, walking the fine like between cynicism and naïveté. Admittedly, however, the bulk of this advice is directed towards the successful courtier, and so is difficult to apply to less exalted positions. There is, for example, much advice concerned with how to treat inferiors and superiors, but in a world where explicit hierarchies are increasingly frowned upon (or at least tactfully concealed), the poor reader wonders what to make of it.

But much of the advice is timeless and universal. Make friends with those you can learn from (but not those who can outshine you!). Don’t let wishful thinking lead you into unrealistic hopes. Never lose your self-respect. The wise man gains more from his enemies than the fool from his friends. Know how to forget. Know how to ask. Look within… As any reader of Don Quixote knows, Spanish is a language exceedingly rich in proverbs; so it perhaps should come as no surprise that this language—so rhythmic and so easy to make rhymes with—is also an excellent vehicle for maxims. Gracián exploits the proverbial potential of Castilian to the maximum, expressing a sly but respectable philosophy in 300 pithy paragraphs.

Despite all the wit and wisdom to be found in these pages, however, I found myself wishing for amplification. Montaigne, though short on practical advice, is long on examples; so by the end of his essays the reader has a good idea how to put his ideas into practice. Gracián, by contrast, has no time for examples, and so the reader is left with a rather abstract imperative to work with. Needless to say I will not become a successful courtier anytime soon.



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Review: As You Like It

Review: As You Like It
As You Like It

As You Like It by William Shakespeare

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


As You Like It is unquestionably my favorite of Shakespeare’s comedies. This is mostly due to the love story being, for once, rather enjoyable. In the majority of Shakespeare’s works I find the romantic relationships to be, at best, an easy engine to move the plot along, or a ready vehicle for the poet’s sallies. Seldom do I find myself in sympathy with the lover or the beloved, mostly because Shakespeare’s most lovable or fascinating characters—King Lear, Iago, Hamlet, Falstaff—are usually not of the amorous sort.

But Rosalind is a great exception, for she is both fascinating and lovable. It is very easy for me to sympathize with Orlando’s passion; and though Orlando is no match for Rosalind in wit or wisdom, he is brave, kind, and loyal. As in any Shakespeare play, the lovers expend their great verbal acuity upon one another; though here, for once, the barbs are purely benign, the relationship free of secret malice. For Rosalind and Orlando, raillery becomes a way of showing affection and of keeping attraction alive; and theatricality is not use to deceive or to ensnare, but to enchant.

Shakespeare set his play in the fictitious forest of Arden, thus suggesting a kind of pastoral romance. But the mood of the play is subtly anti-pastoral. Silvius, the poor love-sick shepherd, represents the original pastoral tradition of pinning lovers in an original Eden; thus he speaks exclusively in nauseating verse. Rosalind, by contrast, expresses herself in prose; and her love is never pinning or pathetic, but playful. I would say that ‘play’ characterizes her whole attitude towards life. She does not, like Silvius, fall victim to her emotions; nor does she, like Jacques, cynically deny her feeling. Instead, she indulges in her feelings while staying one step ahead of them, turning every genuine drama into a game. In the process she gives us a model for how to be madly in love without being maddeningly dull.

What else need be said? The plot is absurd and flimsy, of course. Jacques and Touchstone are excellent counterpoises to Rosalind, though neither half so delightful. The music and the natural setting help to make the play itself, like the forest of Arden, a space of escape and delight—a transitional space, where the norms of society are inverted or suspended, and from which we return refreshed and subtly transformed. At the very least, it is impossible for me to watch this play and remain in a sour mood.



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Global Classrooms: Part 1

Global Classrooms: Part 1

My school year thus far has been dominated by the Global Classrooms program. This is an educational initiative that resulted from a collaboration between the Comunidad de Madrid, the British Council, the United States Embassy, and the Fulbright program, in which students in their third year of secondary school (American 9th grade) participate in a model United Nations conference. The program has grown every year since its inception; this year well over 100 high schools took part.

Each year it is one language assistant’s job to implement the program in their school—and this year it was my job. This meant preparing my students for the first conference, which took place the third week of January. This gave me about twelve weeks of class to work with the students.

I was lucky. For one, the program has been running for many years in my school, so the teachers are very supportive. I had also seen the program in action already, during the past two years at my school, so I knew what to expect. What is more, instead of the required two hours per week with students, I had three hours to work with them. But I did have one slight disadvantage: my number of students was higher than average. I had four class groups, each with nearly 30 students, so almost 120 in total.

My Global Classrooms team

Despite the extra time, I still felt rushed. The students need to master quite a number of skills before the conference. First I had to explain what Global Classrooms is, which meant explaining what the United Nations is. Then there is public speaking. Most people—let alone teenagers—do not feel comfortable speaking in front of a large group; and when you add a second language into the mix, you can see why this would be quite a challenge. Another difficulty is teamwork, since the students must work in two-person “delegations,” doing their best to share the responsibilities equally.

Voting in the conference

After the class is divided into delegations and assigned countries, they must write papers and speeches from their country’s perspective. This means doing research. For most of these students, this is the first time that they are asked to diligently search for reliable sources and cite these sources in the proper format. Believe me, it can be a struggle trying to get students to not use Wikipedia (especially since I use it so much). Added to this, the temptation to plagiarize is especially strong in a foreign language, since paraphrasing can be quite difficult for a non-native speaker.

The dais

The two major pieces of writing the students must produce are the Opening Speech and the Position Paper (a short research paper). The former is essentially a shortened version of the latter, since the students need to be able to read their speech in 90 seconds. In both, they must examine a global problem from a domestic and an international perspective, explain what their country has already done to address the problem, and then propose solutions for the future.

This year the problem assigned to my school was Gender Violence—a very timely issue. Thus, the students had to wrap their mind around the forms and causes of gender violence—both in the world and in their own countries—in order to come up with persuasive solutions.

The chair checking the remaining time to the unmoderated caucus

The last piece of the puzzle is parliamentary procedure. The students need to learn the different sections of a conference (formal debate, moderated caucus, unmoderated caucus), how to make a point or a motion or to yield their time (and all the different ways of doing so), and how to write a proper resolution (a proposal to solve the problem).

Teaching these things may sound dry (and can be); but it was made somewhat more engaging by teaching it through a “Zombie Conference,” in which the students had to find a solution to the impending zombie apocalypse.

Two delegates giving their speech, with the evaluator listening closely

The effort to impart all of these skills is rewarded when you see the students in action. By December, my students (well, most of them) were able to operate within a formal environment, speak in public, write a properly-researched paper, debate a global issue, and in general impress all of the adults in the room with their poise and maturity. It is quite a payoff.

Because so many schools are participating in the program, each school may only send 10 students to the first conference in January. I admit I was a little disappointed by this, since it meant choosing between several deserving candidates. But in my school (as in many others) we compensated by having our own conference in December, in which every student could participate. This may have been the most rewarding part of the whole experience for me. It is the middle-range students, the ones who do not normally excel, whom an educator most hopes to reach—since the ones who do normally excel hardly need your help—so it was gratifying to see so many of these students improve.

After this conference in December we picked our team of 10 and began preparing them for the January conference. This meant re-writing position papers and opening speeches, brushing up on parliamentary procedure, and discussing the program of gender violence in greater depth. It can be a nervous time for the students, since they know that only about a third of the schools advance to the next conference (which takes place in late February). Is it important, then, for the students to see the conference, not as a cut-throat competition, but as a learning experience—which it is.

The list of speakers

This year so many schools participated that the conference had to be spread out over six days. It is a big operation, and so each of the Global Classrooms language assistants is required to help run the conference. My job was to be a photographer. It was my first stint as an events photographer, though hopefully not my last. At least now I can reap the benefits of my work, since I have a stockpile of photos that I can use to illustrate the event.

Self-portrait

The conference took place at CRIF Las Acacias, a labyrinthine old building (now a center of “innovation and training”) which had been a state orphanage for nearly 100 years (1888 – 1987). I had the privilege of being taken on a small tour of the old church. It sits empty nowadays, cavernous and deconsecrated, beside the main building. The old altar still stands, the virgin presiding over empty benches. Nearby is a theater—now shrouded in darkness—that the orphans would use to stage plays. Few places I know have such a delightful feeling of being abandoned and even haunted by past lives.

The orphanage’s deconsecrated church

But on the days of the conference, present lives were what attracted the most attention. Students in suits and ties, dresses and high heels, gave impassioned speeches in excellent English about complex and controversial issues. The day would typically start off somewhat tense, with the students nervously eyeing those from other schools, and doing their best to outshine their opponents. But the atmosphere noticeably mellowed as the conference went on (it runs from 8:00 am to 3:00 pm), until by the end of the day each student has accumulated dozens of new instagram followers. Now, that is what I call success.


Images of Sevilla

Images of Sevilla

Recently I returned to Sevilla for the third time, to show my brother the enchanting city. (For my original post, click here.) I used the opportunity to take pictures with my new camera.

Our first stop was the Plaza de España, a place so attractive that anyone with any camera can take a fine photo.

The plaza was built for the 1929 Ibero-American exposition to showcase the wonders of Spain. The architectural style is a cross between Spanish Baroque and Neo-Mudéjar. Along the semi-circular building there are nooks with ceramic images of every Spanish province, accompanied by illustrations of important events in Spain’s history. Running parallel to the building is a little moat in which you can rent a boat and paddle about.

Next we went to the Alcázar—Seville’s Moorish palace. Curiously, the most famous part of the palace was not built under Muslim rule, but under the Christian king Peter (alternatively called “the cruel” or “the just”). He employed Muslim workmen to construct a kind of homage to the Alhambra in Granada. Later kings added to the palace, and maintained the large and lush garden surrounding the building complex.

The lion guarding the entrance
An inner courtyard, where the Dorn scenes from Game of Thrones were filmed
The ceiling from the Hall of Ambassadors
A detail from a doorway
Fish in the pond behind the palace
The cistern under the palace
A structure in the gardens

After the Alcázar, we went to Seville’s famous cathedral—one of the biggest in the world.

The underside of Christopher Colombus’s tomb
The enormous, and enormously detailed, main altar

Nextdoor to the cathedral is the famous Archivo General de las Indias (General Archive of the Indies). The building was designed by Juan de Herrera (also respondible for El Escorial and the palace in Aranjuez) in the 16th century, to be used by the merchant guild, it was later converted to be the central storehouse of documents pertaining to Spanish colonization. As such, it is now a repository of immense value to historians, and was thus included in Seville’s UNESCO designation.

The building itself is stately and restrained, consisting of two stories around a central courtyard. Every wall is lined with binders on glass-covered shelves, containing millions upon millions of pages.

The building also contains some delightful paintings by Murillo.

Because went in December, outside the cathedral the streets were full of stalls selling nativity figurines.

Our next stop was new for me: the Monasterio de la Cartuja (Carthusian Monastery, or charterhouse). This is an old religous complex, located across the Guadarrama River, that was also used to manufacture ceramics—which explains the conical chimneys that stick up all around the central religious buildings.

More recently the center has been converted into a modern art museum. It was completely free to visit. Outside, in the courtyard, a band was playing rock music (with the volume turned up a bit too loud) while children danced on the grass.

Some of the permanent artworks (see below) were charming. But the temporary exhibition spaces (housed in the empty church and among ornate graves) were extremely disappointing—self-important post-modernism at its worst.

The Tower of Seville, the tallest building in the city, as reflected in a pool near the monastery

After this, we crossed the Guadarrama River again, and went to see Setas de Sevilla (“Mushrooms of Seville”)—enormous, bulbous wooden figures that sprout from the center of the city. These were constructed in 2011, and have succeeded in becoming one of the city’s most distinctive sights.

Later, we decided to visit the Basilica of Macarena, which is famous for housing the Virgen de la Macarena. This is a wooden devotional figure, considered the patroness of bullfighters, widely known through the Catholic country.

On the way there, we dipped into another church, where we witnessed another wooden Virgin playing its role in worship. Congregants lined up to kiss the Virgin’s hand, after which a young man would patiently rub away the saliva with a rag, thus preparing the hand to bless the next devotee.

The Virgin of the Macarena did not disappoint. She is ensconced high in the altar, looking omnipotent and tragic. But the dedicated believer can go behind the altar and ascend some stairs, to examine the blessed figure up close.

Our final stop was a flamenco show in the center of town. As usual, I loved every minute of it. Seville never disappoints.