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This week for our cultural article we will be looking at the Now is the Winter of Our Discontent soliloquy from William Shakespeare’s Richard III.
The play, which was first published in 1597, deals with the rise and fall of the Machiavellian king, Richard III. It follows Richard as he lies, cheats, manipulates, and ultimately murders his way from the position of Duke of Gloucester to the Kingship of England. Then, finally, it follows his fall from power as he struggles to keep his kingdom unified, and ends with his death at the Battle of Bosworth field and the declaration of the Tudor dynasty.
William Shakespeare is one of the most important figures of the English Renaissance, living through the reign of Elizabeth I and the early years of James I. Over the course of his life, he published over thirty plays, as well as numerous poems and sonnets.
William Shakespeare was born on April 23rd, 1564 in Stratford-Upon-Avon. His father, John Shakespeare, was an alderman and successful glove-maker. His mother, Mary Arden, was the daughter of an affluent farmer. Young Shakespeare probably received an education at Edward IV Grammar school in Stratford. There he would have become familiar with the Roman dramatists, Latin, and the basics of Ancient Greek.
At eighteen, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, a woman eight years his senior. Together, the couple would have three children: Susanna, Judith, and Hamnet (who would die in childhood). He would die at the age of fifty-two on April 23rd, 1616.
RICHARD III – CHARACTER
Countless villains, from Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine to Lord Voldemort, owe their existence to Shakespeare’s infamous character. Shakespeare presents Richard to us as a murderous psychopath, a Machiavellian villain driven by jealousy and a mad lust for power.
The word “now” implies that the play is taking place in the present. Similarly, “sun” is a pun referring to both warmth and brightness of summer and to the son of the Duke of York. Ultimately, Richard is referring to the brief period of peace brought about by his brother’s, Edward IV’s, ascent to the throne of England.
Here Richard tells us that all the hardships his family had endured have been buried in the “deep bosom of the ocean.”
The Yorks have won the War of the Roses (for now) and wear the laurel wreaths of victorious heroes upon their heads. The weapons they used have been hung on the walls to memorialise their victory. And now, with peace and order restored, the call of battle has morphed into the sound of people chatting and being friendly with one another. There is even a little dancing. If war were a person, Richard tells us, his gruff facial features have been smoothed out into something kinder and more pleasant.
King Edward, Richard informs us, is no longer riding into battle and commanding his army to put the fear of God into his enemies. Instead, he is making love to music in a lady’s chamber.
Once a week, King Alfred Press will be examining a work of Western Culture. These works can include literature, poetry, film, art, music, or anything else considered ‘cultural.’
This week we will be examining the poem To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time. The poem was published in 1648 as part of a volume of verse entitled Hesperides, written by lyrical poet and cleric, Robert Herrick (1591 – 1674). (It was one of twenty-five-hundred poems Herrick would write in his lifetime).
Over the course of his eighty-three years, Herrick lived through the reigns of Elizabeth I (1533 – 1603), James I (1566 – 1625), Charles I (1600 – 1649), and Charles II (1630 – 1685), as well as the English Civil War (1642 – 1651) and the subsequent English Commonwealth (1653 – 1660) under Oliver Cromwell (1599 – 1658).
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
To-morrow will be dying.
The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.
That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.
Then be not coy, but use your time,
And, while ye may, go marry:
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.
The opening line, “gather ye rosebuds while ye may”, provides clues to the poem’s influences. In the Wisdom of Solomon (chapter two, verse eight), the phrase: “Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they wither.” The closing line of De Rosis Nascentibus, attributable to either Ausonius or Virgil, is:
“Collige, virgo, rosas, dum flos novus et nova pubes,
et memor esto aevum sic properare tuum.”
In English, this translates to: “Maidens, gather roses, while blooms are fresh and youth is fresh, and be mindful that your life-times hastes away.” Edmund Spenser (1552 – 1599) the Faerie Queen has a young man in the Bower of Bliss sing:
“Gather therefore the Rose, whilest yet is prime,
For soone comes age, that will her pride deflowre:
Gather the Rose of love, whilest yet is time,
Whilest loving thou mayst loved be with equall crime.”
Whilst, Shakespeare’s (1564 – 1616) sonnet eighteen begins with the couplet:
“Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease has all too short a date.”
Interestingly, the title of Herrick’s poem may provide us with a clue as to its intentions. The poem’s title addresses itself to ‘the virgins’ – young, beautiful woman – and advises them ‘to make much of time’ – use their beauty and their youth while they still have the chance.
Herrick’s poem is one of the most famous examples of ‘Carpe Diem’ type sentimentality. The term, ‘carpe diem’ or ‘seize the day’, is a Latin sentiment attributable to the Roman lyrical poet, Horace (65BC – 8BC). We are asked, by Herrick and Horace, among others, to understand the brevity of our lives and to make the most of what ever precious moments happen to be presented to us. In this sense, to the Virgins is an advisory poem, an attempt by Herrick to impart some wisdom to us. “The sun is only going to shine on you for a brief moment”, Herrick appears to be telling us, “so make the most of it.” Even beauty and youth fades: “and this same flower that smiles today/ to-morrow will be dying.”