Monday, June 25, 2007

We went up to see Shakespeare last night, at Boscobel, across the river from West Point. We could sit , plastic glasses of fine wine in our hands, and contemplate from our picnic chairs the lair of the brutally disciplined cadets where not a month ago the spectral Dick Cheney did deliver a commencement address. And it was not altogether irrelevant to the matter at hand, the fate of one Richard the Third.

There's a quote in this play that immediately struck me and released some poison in me from its spike. At one point later in the play the widow of the king, the king whose throne shall soon be usurped by Richard through his devious machinations, says, "So now prosperity begins to mellow, and drop into the rotten mouth of death." The metaphor is of fruit on the vine. Something ripe, something full of sugar and overripe, in fact; something past its prime. What happens? It falls, inevitably, from its weight; its fullness of pulp and syrupy nectar. It falls into the void. Where? Into putrefaction, into death. This is more than just a description of the sad and ironic cycle of life. That we all know. It's a frightening reproach to cozy complacency. Literally in the play, prosperity is the bounteous opportunity afforded all by Edward's death. Someone shall be King, and someone shall be his wife, and so on and so on. And that prosperity is "mellowed," in other words ripened, aged – here the term takes back its perhaps original negative connotations, those that point towards decay rather than the graceful burnishing of a fine old jewel, say, or the complex improvement of a wine or spirit. No, here "mellow" means "weaken." The way a fruit does before it loses hold of life and succumbs to gravity, then decay, then death. The way a serendipitous event is twisted and corrupted by egotism, selfishness, envy and spite. And we may apply a more contemporary negative connotation of the word "mellow" too – our tendency to soften, to betray our youthful passions, to rationalize, to accommodate. That, too, points to death. And it is when we are prosperous, glad of ourselves, sedate and sated, that we succumb most easily to this easy thinking. We mellow and we drop – before our time – into the rotten mouth of death. To fall into the mouth of death, after all, is not exactly to die. But once we do we are promised to it, and life is finished. It is a process she describes – prosperity begins to mellow, it hasn't already mellowed. So there still is hope, as of course there is hope for the characters in this play that in fact ends well. It's Shakespeare's version of Dylan Thomas raving, "Don't go gentle into that good night." It's Shakespeare saying, "Rage against the dying of the light."

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