Slang for the Sophisticate: Macbeth

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A bit verbose, perhaps, but “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” never sounded cooler.

I don’t believe it’s any secret that English as a whole has gone a bit downhill in the past century or so. As we descend into the cavernous Language Trench, monstrosities such as “yolo” and “on fleek” begin to be heard constantly and are even seen in professional writing. It’s almost enough to cause physical pain. I am not condemning slang by any means. I readily confess to using such terms such as “noob”, “legit” and “pwned” when the occasion calls for it. And as a child of two Californians, I have addressed practically everyone I know as “dude” at some point.

However, among these terms there is still room for the occasional classy one-liner to really make one’s statements pop. On Slang for the Sophisticate, you will learn expressive and amusing phrases from classic books, plays, poems and films that can be injected into any conversation. This segment is all about making speech classier and cooler at the same time.

As Shakespeare contributed so much to his own era’s slang, I thought we’d take a line from him first. Let’s start with a line from one of my aforementioned favorite works, Macbeth.

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Macbeth, your party’s lit, bro. But you like, killed me, man. Not cool. 

LADY MACBETH: …Are you a man?

MACBETH: Ay, and a bold one, that dare look on that
Which might appal the devil.

There’s bad, and then there’s ‘appall the devil’ bad. This line, used by Macbeth to describe the haunting, bloody vision of the man he has just had murdered, perfectly expresses a breathtaking horror which adjectives such as ‘ugly’ or ‘nasty’ simply leave lacking. Thrown into casual conversation, the line is sure to get amused laughs of just the right kind from Shakespeare Nerds and Shakespeare Noobs alike. Ugly shirt you found at the store? It would have appalled the devil. Grandma painted her bathroom in mustard yellow? That color would appall the devil, dude. Bonus points are awarded if you can manage to work in that you’re bold for looking upon the object in question.

There seems to be a surprisingly slim range of phrases to properly express horror and disgust in modern speech. You can say something is “horrible” or “terrible” and that is about where the average vocabulary seems to reach its limit. With this line from the classic tragedy, however, our troubles are over.

Examples:

I’ve seen the new modern sculpture they put up in the park, and I’m telling you, that brass atrocity would appall the devil.

I let my niece do my makeup for fun, and by the time she was finished, my face would have appalled the devil.

You saw my ex? Well, you’re a bold one, to look on that which might appall the devil.

Can you think of a recent conversation where this line might have been useful?

Classy Days in History: Happy 531st Birthday, Katherine of Aragon

There are important days in history. There are sad days in history. There are just plain cool days in history. But this is Mind Vitamins, so when I mark a day, it’s going to be because it is classy. Today is the birthday of several historically classy people, but my favorite one shall take precedence.

December 16th, 1485

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Katherine in her youth

Let us give a large slice of Historical Birthday Cake to a most impressive woman: Katherine of Aragon, Queen of England and first wife of Henry VIII. I confess that I am a bit of a fangirl for Queen Katherine, a historical hero of strong womanhood. While usually remembered as simply being the poor sap who got booted by Anne Boleyn, she was so much more.

In a time when ideal womanhood consisted of being blonde and shutting up, Queen Katherine stood apart. As the daughter of the powerful, though definitely controversial, Queen Isabella of Spain, Katherine had a strong female role model from the beginning. Differing from many of the European nobility of the day, she and her three sisters received just as excellent an education as their brother, John. From her childhood, Katherine was thoroughly educated in arithmetic, literature, philosophy, law, theology and more alongside the all of the domestic skills women learned in those days. Besides her native Spanish, she achieved mastery over French, Latin, Greek and eventually English. She was almost certainly one of the most educated and impressive people, especially women, in Europe at the time. Even without her title and position as a Princess of Spain, she was a fit spouse for a king.

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Katherine as Queen of England

At first, Katherine was married to Henry VIII’s older brother, Arthur. When Arthur died of an illness, they decided Katherine should marry Henry, next in line for the throne. This arrangement was a bit irregular, but Katherine gave her word that her marriage to Arthur had never been consummated, so they were able to receive a special dispensation to marry from the Pope.

Katherine proved to be an excellent queen. She was a patron of education and the arts, and was known for her charity to the poor and her mercy to the condemned. The English people adored her. Whenever her husband crossed metaphorical swords with her father, the King of Spain, she gave her allegiance to her husband and her new country of England. Several times, she even performed her husband’s duties for him. She once acted as regent for six months when Henry was in France. During this time, a very important battle took place, and rather than let down the troops, Katherine rode to the battlefield while pregnant and in full armor. There, she gave them a reportedly superlative and memorable speech, which spurred them to a great victory.

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Queen Katherine (detail from The Great Matterby  Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze

Then, in came the event for which Katherine was sadly best known: the infamous divorce. As a woman, I find complaining needlessly about sexism to be a sign of weakness. However, the treatment Katherine of Aragon received is a truly disgusting testament to the misogyny of the Tudor Era. Her protests of her royal validity meant nothing to the court of Henry VIII. Discounting all of her intelligence, accomplishments, virtue, and the decision of the church on the validity of her marriage, she was cast aside for the simple reason that she could not produce a male heir. Henry, now self-proclaimed leader of the English Church, declared that their marriage had never been valid. This proclamation now made the great Queen Katherine little more than a mistress and her daughter, Mary, a bastard. To make matters more humiliating, Katherine’s replacement would be Anne Boleyn, her lady in waiting:  inferior in rank, education and every other way besides.

But it was done. How he could do this to a woman who had done so much for him is beyond comprehension, but Henry cast Katherine aside and took her daughter away from her. After all of the rejection and humiliation, she was exiled to an isolated home in the English countryside. She was offered better treatment and the ability to see her daughter Mary if only she would acknowledge Anne Boleyn as rightful Queen. But the truth and her dignity was more important to Katherine than her own comfort, and she never conceded her title and status as long as she lived. She died in banishment without any of her family. She had every reason to hate Henry and never wish to see or speak to him again. No one would have thought any less of her if it had been so. But, being a devout Catholic, Katherine chose to be “the bigger man” as it were and forgive him. This, her final letter to Henry, is witness to the nobility of her heart.

My most dear lord, king and husband,
The hour of my death now drawing on, the tender love I owe you forceth me, my case being such, to commend myself to you, and to put you in remembrance with a few words of the health and safeguard of your soul which you ought to prefer before all worldly matters, and before the care and pampering of your body, for the which you have cast me into many calamities and yourself into many troubles. For my part, I pardon you everything, and I wish to devoutly pray God that He will pardon you also. For the rest, I commend unto you our daughter Mary, beseeching you to be a good father unto her, as I have heretofore desired. I entreat you also, on behalf of my maids, to give them marriage portions, which is not much, they being but three. For all my other servants I solicit the wages due them, and a year more, lest they be unprovided for. Lastly, I make this vow, that mine eyes desire you above all things.
Katharine the Quene.

For a woman of such strong and bold character, this letter is surprisingly gentle. But all of the love, forgiveness and concern she expressed for Henry were lost on him. Both he and his new Queen, Anne Boleyn, were reported to have openly and callously celebrated her death and Henry would not give Katherine any funerary honors more than was due to a “Princess Dowager”, referring to her marriage to his brother Arthur.

It would have appeared that Katherine would be wronged forever. However, history has happily justified her. Although she was stripped of the title of Queen in life, in the 19th century, her grave was re-marked by the will of the people to read “Katharine, Queen of England” in golden letters. A historical jab if ever I heard one. And well-deserved. Katherine of Aragon was a pillar of strength and dignity. She was and is truly an inspirational figure of history. She was loved by her people and respected by all and is represented in books, plays and cinema almost always with grace and majesty. Even her enemy, Thomas Cromwell could not help but admire her, and said of her: “If not for her sex, she could have defied all the heroes of History.”

Happy Birthday, Queen Katherine! You will be remembered forever.

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Katherine’s grave at Peterborough Cathedral adorned with pomegranates, a symbol of power and sovereignty

Featured picture: Calendar by Johannes von Gmunden, 1496

The ἰδιώτης’s Guide to Greek Drama

greektheaterdionysiswowIf entertainment had a great great (lots more greats) grandmother, she’d be wearing a chiton instead of a sweater and feeding you samali instead of cookies, because that grandmother would be the Greek Drama. The shows that started them all. All your favorite movies, television shows, and stage productions owe a huge debt of gratitude to ancient Greek men in big dresses, Elton John shoes and creepy masks. It sounds goofy, but really, Greek Dramas were and remain some of the most sophisticated contributions to Western literature and entertainment which we still possess. With their finely crafted stories, characters and language, Greek Dramas could be the poster children for the phrase “Oldies, but Goodies”. Of course, one can easily pick up a book of Aeschylus or Aristophanes and simply enjoy, but it’s always more fun to understand the background of a thing before digging into it. So let’s begin…

Greek Dramas, as far as we know, started being written in about the 6th century BC, making them some of the oldest works still regularly enjoyed today. The very oldest surviving of these is “The Persians”  by Aeschylus, composed and performed in 472 BC. In the beginning, these dramas were only tragedies, but eventually, comedies came into practice as well. They were usually composed for competitions held at religious festivals to honor the gods. The winners of the competitions would often receive a laurel wreath, a symbol of Apollo that represents one of the greatest honors a Greek could attain.

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A Greek Chorus. Not creepy at all.

The plays featured very few characters; at first, only one. However, the character/s were always accompanied by a Chorus. The Chorus was a small to large group of people who acted as a single entity (occasionally with a leader) and were responsible for providing perspective and commentary on the actions for the audience, usually in a poetic and dramatic way. As time went on, the more daring and innovative playwrights included two or even three characters and had the Chorus actually interact with the actors, turning it into a sort of character of its own.

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Statue of an ancient Greek actor. Please notice the disco shoes.

All the characters wore the now famous theater masks. Unlike the simplified versions we use for decoration today, Greek theater masks were extremely decorative, colorful and ingeniously designed so that the open mouth functioned like a sort of megaphone, allowing the actor to be heard more easily. The actors also wore long robes, made in bright colors and enormous shoes that would put Lady Gaga to shame. All of the big masks, robes, and shoes were there to make the actors larger than life and therefore visible to even the spectators in the top seats. And not only their appearances, but their movements and voices had to be hugely exaggerated. To make things even louder (and cooler), it is believed that the plays were actually closer to being chanted than spoken, which would have made the words resonate more in the theater. No doubt, if we saw such performances today, we would think the actors insufferable hams, but that’s was what had to be done in those days.  Unsurprisingly, actors in Ancient Greece were all male regardless of the gender of the character portrayed. But to be honest, one would hardly be able to tell what they were anyway with the distance and the elaborate gear.

 

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Greek theater composed of theatron, orchestra and skene.

Plays were performed in large outdoor theaters mathematically designed for maximum acoustic amplification. These theaters were separated into three main parts: the theatron, the orchestra and the skene. The Theatron was the seating area, where the spectators (almost definitely men-only) watched the play. The Orchestra was a circular or semicircular area where the chorus was located and where they would often perform dancing and musical interludes while the actors prepared for the next scene. The Skene was an enormous set usually made to look like a building and before which the action took place. Skenes were made in such a way that natural looking exits and entrances could be made through built in doors and archways. These sets were plain at first, but became more elaborate and decorated as time went on.

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Oedipus and the Sphinx

But with all this grandeur, it was the plays themselves were of course the real reasons for being there. The tragedies were intellectual, philosophical pieces with masterful writing and drama. The comedies, on the other hand, were filled with bawdy and irreverent humor that might be considered both hilarious and vulgar even by today’s standards. The most celebrated of the tragedians were Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, who all won numerous competitions and were beloved by the public. The comedic scene, meanwhile, was dominated by Aristophanes and Menander, the former being far more famous than the latter. Plays by all of these playwrights were celebrated in Greece for centuries and are still popular today all over the world. The most famous of their works include Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, Euripides’ Medea and Aristophanes’ The Frogs. 

Greek influence on modern entertainment is everywhere, especially in dramatic terminology. We draw many words related to entertainment from Greek. The words protagonist and antagonist come from the Greek meaning the first actor and ‘rival’ respectively. ‘Parade’ comes from the word parados, which referred to the marching or dancing entrance of the Chorus onto the stage. ‘Theater’ obviously came from theatron , and the word skene developed into ‘scene’. Interestingly, our word ‘obscene’ is believed to come from the Greek phrase ob skene, translated as ‘off stage‘. Ob skene referred to the rule of Greek theater that any violent or offensive parts of the play must not be performed on stage but instead be described to the audience by a character. For instance, murder and suicide were ob skene events and would happen only offstage. This is why in Oedipus the King, for example, Jocasta leaves the stage to kill herself and her death is reported by a messenger instead.

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On the right is that face you make when your play survives for 2,000 years.

Sadly, countless numbers of plays were lost in time. In fact, most plays not by the playwrights I mentioned above (and many of theirs as well) are gone forever. But their legacy and influence on modern entertainment remains, and those plays which have been preserved are marvelous testament to the civilization and sophistication of ancient Greek society. For while their plays are magnificent, they are only one piece of the enormous inheritance which Western Culture received from the Greek people.