The Johannine Comma

Whether or not you sign up to the doctrine of the Trinity (understanding is not really an option), it’s reasonable to assume that somewhere in the Bible there will be a verse that spells out exactly what it is that is to be believed. And indeed there is, in I John 5:7–8. In Misquoting Jesus, biblical scholar Bart Ehrman (2005:81) describes this passage as a favourite among Christian theologians, “since it is the only passage in the entire Bible that explicitly delineates the doctrine of the Trinity, that there are three persons in the godhead, but that the three all constitute just one God.”

So, that’s all right then? It would seem so, certainly to most Christians who have no reason to suspect that anything’s amiss when reading these verses in, say, the King James Version. After all, what could be wrong with the actual (and English!) Word of God?

Well, nothing, by definition, if that’s what the Bible is, but for those of us who think the Bible is a human creation rather than the Word of God then here is where it gets interesting, since we’re about to see just how creative that human process was.

In 1515, the Dutch scholar Erasmus began work on the first published edition of the Greek New Testament (the so-called editio princeps). When he came to I John 5:7–8, the crucial phrase — “Father, the Word, and the Spirit” — was nowhere to be found in any of his source manuscripts, so he left it out.

Theologians were outraged. They “accused Erasmus of tampering with the text in an attempt to eliminate the doctrine of the Trinity and to devalue its corollary, the doctrine of the full divinity of Christ.” They had grown familiar with this key passage of scripture from the Latin Vulgate, perhaps forgetting that Latin was not the language in which the gospels had been written (nor was Greek the language spoken by most of the inhabitants of first-century Palestine, but that’s another matter).

Anyway, Erasmus agreed to put back the missing verse so long as someone produced a Greek manuscript with the verse in place (82):

And so a Greek manuscript was produced. In fact, it was produced for the occasion. It appears that someone copied out the Greek text of the Epistles, and when he came to the passage in question, he translated the Latin text into Greek, giving the Johannine Comma in its familiar, theologically useful form. The manuscript provided to Erasmus, in other words, was a sixteenth-century production, made to order.

The significance of this deception for readers of English Bibles is that the editio princeps of Erasmus provided “the inferior textual form of the Textus Receptus that stood at the base of the earliest English translations, including the King James Bible, and other editions until near the end of the nineteenth century” (83).

For any other document, this kind of revision would be of marginal academic interest. Discovering that such and such a phrase in Hamlet was not actually authentic Shakespeare would make not the slightest difference to most people’s enjoyment of and admiration for the play.

However, Christians make very different kinds of claim for their Bible, and these are surely undermined by the discovery that such key doctrines as the Trinity and the divinity of Christ “entered into the English stream of consciousness merely by a chance of history” (82).

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Review of The Importance of Being Earnest

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

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The Importance of Being Earnest – Richmond Theatre, London

However much the theatregoer is aware that this is not an altogether conventional production of Oscar Wilde’s great, final play, it is still something of a shock to see Nigel Havers walk onstage as Algernon Moncrieff in a pair of red trainers. His period costume is otherwise immaculate, and entirely in keeping with William Dudley’s magnificent set design (a meticulous re-creation of a house built in the 1890s in the Arts and Craft style). In fact, this is Nigel Havers playing Richard (Dicky) Oldfield playing Algernon Moncrieff, and we are watching a rehearsal by the Bunbury Company of Players in George and Lavinia Spelman’s delightful house in the village of Morton St Cuthbert.

The framing device of the Bunbury Players is a playful conceit that takes the lid off theatre, giving us a brief glimpse of how it works, and how it sometimes doesn’t (watch out for the famous cucumber sandwiches). Also revealed are the ambitions and emotions that are usually safely tucked away backstage. The actors themselves, it seems, have lives of their own, and their own back stories: the aftermath of Dicky’s affairs with several of the female Players, for example, is still a cause of some upset. There are prima donnas even in the provinces: Cherie Lunghi plays the confident Maria Clifford (imperious as Gwendolen Fairfax), who denies she’s put on weight (the costume must have shrunk) and likes to remind anyone within earshot that she once worked at the National.

Siân Phillips is Lavinia Spelman, formidable grande dame and a founding member of the Company, who naturally takes the part of Lady Bracknell and fits it like a glove. She is practicing the handbag line when she first enters (and already has it nailed), and then switches smoothly out of character to issue orders to her husband (Phillips creates a subtle difference in delivery even though, in many respects, the characters of Lavinia and Lady Bracknell are identical).

In any other production, Martin Jarvis would be gloriously miscast as the 29-year-old John Worthing, but here, as Anthony Scottney, ‘the guiding spirit’ behind the Bunbury Players and an amateur actor so versatile he can commandeer roles as diverse as John Proctor and Widow Twankey, he is perfect. In his programme essay, a brief history of the Players, Scottney is not afraid to compare the growing pains of his Company with those of the National Theatre, and, inevitably, he quotes the ‘immortal Bard’ to illustrate the importance of  ‘Bunburying’ – the art of inventing characters whose ‘lights flicker for a few short nights on a stage and then are seen no more.’

As rehearsals go, this one is very impressive, and lovers of Wildean wit will not be disappointed: the aphorisms are here in abundance and carried off with verve and élan. Even Scottney would have to admit we have caught his Company on a very good night.

The play’s subtitle is A Trivial Comedy for Serious People and Simon Brett’s additional material definitely veers towards the trivial side of the equation (there’s even good old-fashioned physical comedy as the Assistant Stage Manager carries a ladder across stage, for no particular reason, pausing to swing it 180° so the whole cast has to duck, twice). The conceit is brilliantly accomplished in every detail (down to the typographical solecism of the shadow font used in one of the programme’s fake ads). Brett’s satire of a Home Counties drama group, however, and perhaps not surprisingly, pales besides Wilde’s satire of the aristocracy and late Victorian society. As a result, and despite a wonderful cast and Lucy Bailey’s direction, the overall effect is somewhat less than the sum of its parts.

(See also The Importance of Being Earnest.)

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Review of A Quartet of Chekhov Farces

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

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A Quartet of Chekhov Farces – theSpace on the Mile, Edinburgh

Directed and performed by sixth formers from Magdalen College School, four absurdist pieces by Chekhov are cleverly combined to produce an enjoyable show. The dozen or so performers all look the part in period costume, and although they are not always entirely convincing in their roles (a teenager playing an old man is a tough challenge) their enthusiasm and Chekhov’s lines have the audience laughing.

The quartet begins with The Dangers of Tobacco, a lecture ahead of its time delivered by a curmudgeon who’s had his. With typical Chekhovian humour, it’s a scientific talk given by a superstitious man who can’t help moaning about his wife. Wearing a huge, flamboyant bow tie, completely out of keeping with his character, Nyukhin admits to being nervous (handy for an actor having to cope with first-night nerves). He’s also prone to digressions, breaking off to make room for the three other farces – an ingenious framing device.

The first interruption is The Proposal. Lomov has come to propose to Natalia and so, like Nyukhin, he’s also rather nervous. He too is easily distracted. Natalia is a feisty young woman who holds her ground in argument, and who knows when to swoon hysterically on the chaise longue. The two of them are soon bickering like an old married couple.

Another woman who won’t be intimidated by a man is Popova, a widow with an estate and dimples and dressed in black, or mardi gras as Smirnov calls it. In The Bear, he’s come to collect a debt, and ends up exposing Popova’s romantic pretensions (she’s buried herself alive but hasn’t forgotten to powder her nose). Naturally, they end up fighting a duel.

The Wedding Party turns out to be anything but, and descends into mayhem, the stage clearing for the final return of Nyukhin, who now informs us, mournfully, that his “wife is waiting in the wings”. His time is up.

With a large, young cast, there’s a range of talent on display, some of it still a little raw. The structure imposed on what are sometimes presented as isolated pieces, ties them all altogether to make a satisfying whole, bringing out Chekhov’s peculiar yet brilliant dark humour.

(See also A Quartet of Chekhov Farces.)

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Review of The Player’s Advice to Shakespeare

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

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The Player’s Advice to Shakespeare – C Too, Edinburgh

David Warburton gives a tremendous solo performance as an unnamed actor in Shakespeare’s company, with only a carrot, a table and a joint-stool as props. Naturally, he begins with Hamlet’s advice to the players, to “not saw the air too much” and to temper the “whirlwind of passion” with a “smoothness” so as not to offend the soul. Hamlet goes on to say that the groundlings are largely “capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise”, a condescending attitude to the hoi-polloi that gets right up this particular player’s nose. He wants Shakespeare to write about real life, about the families being thrown into poverty as a result of the enclosure of the commons.

The player tells of his early experience touring shows. Life on the road could be hard, especially if it meant spending three days with Burbage. He soon learns of another kind of hardship. In Northamptonshire and Warwickshire, landowners are turning arable into pastoral land and turfing off their tenants, replacing them with sheep. The wool trade is a profitable business, although not for the newly impoverished families.

After his own adventures in the rebellion, he sees clearly that this is what Shakespeare should be writing about. On the way back to London he hears of a new play, Coriolanus, which seems to address these issues. Will Shakespeare have come good or will this player be disappointed?

The idea that Shakespeare was a “bumboy to the rich and powerful” does not sit comfortably within heritage hagiography. This could be dismissed as the opinion of a disgruntled actor who wasn’t getting enough parts (and who is in any case fictional), but it is also a fascinating perspective on a turbulent period of English social and political history.

(See also The Player’s Advice to Shakespeare.)

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Review of Lear’s Daughters

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Lear’s Daughters – C Nova, Edinburgh

Christmas in Lear’s pagan household has been celebrated with the usual carnage: the table is strewn with wine bottles and glasses, and the three daughters are slumped, playing cards. The Fool sings (Sophie Grant is the vocalist, wearing a nurse’s uniform) and pushes an empty wheelchair. Goneril (Charlotte Quinney) gets a grip on the situation and begins the necessary family discussion: what to do with the old man? In this all-female version of Shakespeare’s great tragedy, the king is invisible (an elderly parent beginning to lose the plot – the old are often unseen), Cordelia (Olivia Emden) sticks around, and all three get to speak some of Lear’s lines as well as their own. It’s an ingenious adaptation, very well performed.

Cordelia agrees with her sisters that the “bow is bent and drawn” and that something needs to be done. Their father’s “all-licensed fool”  is bad enough, his hundred knights a whole lot worse. The daughters rehearse their lines: who’s going to say what about how much they love him. It’s a pain, and Cordelia’s not playing ball. Goneril stands in for their father and declares that nothing will come from nothing, but her little sister will not budge.

This is one family gathering that isn’t going to end well. The plaintive, desperate mood is deepened as the Fool sings gospel, ominously shaking a bottle of pills in time with the beat. The lyrics are those of Lear on the heath: “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!”

Anyone squeamish about that scene should be warned that the pot of strawberry jam that’s been on the table since the start now comes in handy, in a brilliantly executed piece of eye popping, performed on the poor Fool by Regan (Kim Jarvis) with an ordinary kitchen fork.

The excellent verse speaking and soulful singing combine to intensify the atmosphere of this family drama, which broils away in this claustrophobic and subterranean venue. Stripped of the dynastic complications of Shakespeare’s text, this speaks even more powerfully to a contemporary audience (apart from the business with the jam).

(See also Lear’s Daughters.)

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Review of No Belles

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

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No Belles – Sweet Grassmarket, Edinburgh

More spoken word than drama, this show tells of that “rare breed of women” who overcome discrimination and the intrinsic difficulties of their chosen field to win a Nobel Prize. As we enter, the three performers catch us off guard by introducing themselves, shaking hands and asking how we heard about the show and so on. Don’t they realize that some of us may be English, and rather taken aback by such openness? We forgive their friendliness upon discovering that they’re Americans, and on reflecting that openness is a virtue in science: hold nothing back, and work for the good of the world and not for the self.

The lights stay up as Jade Hobbs, Melissa Schenter and Kimberly Wilson launch into their stories about some very remarkable women. Naturally, since this is all about women in science, there’s a bearded man in the corner playing a ukelele. (Michael Phillips is the Artistic Director of Portal Theatre and his musical accompaniment is a perfect balance for the narrative, enhancing the performance and setting a subtle emotional tone.)

There are some startling figures upfront: out of the 566 individual Nobel Prize winners in the sciences, only 15 have been women, and few of us have heard of any of them beside Marie Curie. This show focuses on four of these relatively unsung heroines: Rosalyn Yalow, Rita Levi-Montalcini, Rosalind Franklin and Gertrude Elion (it’s widely assumed that Franklin would have won the prize along with Crick and Watson had she not died tragically young).

These are all women who had to work twice as hard as their male counterparts, and their lives are full of incident and achievement. Particularly moving is the testimony of one dying AIDS patient, before the advent of anti-retroviral drugs: “Thank you, not for me, for the others”. He’s thanking Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, who made the breakthrough that would come too late for him but would save countless other lives.

Don’t lock up your daughters, or lock them out of science – take them to see this show.

(See also No Belles.)

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Review of National Loaf

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

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National Loaf – Paradise in The Vault, Edinburgh

Wartime posters are plastered on every available surface of this army rationing office, with stirring slogans such as ‘Food is a weapon’. The dense, brick-sized object wielded by Henrietta Baker could certainly knock out a Hun or two, but it’s actually meant to be eaten: this is the national loaf.

None of the four female characters in this play likes the loaf: it’s stale and inedible, and everyone knows that wholemeal bread is “not good for the digestion”. (In fact, its staleness was so that people wouldn’t eat their ration too quickly, but this historical nuance is absent.)

Treated with even less respect than the loaf, if that’s possible, are the two male army officers: the officious Colonel Huffkins, a “pompous little man” promoted beyond his ability, and Captain Johnson, who is so laid back he might as well be horizontal. His assistant, Private Baker, is the one who “runs the entire show” and she also has a comically loud and commanding voice (Jessica Flood has great control of an impressive vocal range), as if she’s usurped the traditional sergeant major role.

Women proving they can do men’s work is an admirable theme, and Laura Witz succeeds in creating female characters who aren’t afraid of male authority. Less inspiring is when assertiveness shades into truculence: these women don’t seem to be contributing very much to the war effort. Liz is a black marketeer who sells a melon to Johnson for £4 (really?) under the nose of his boss, but there’s no sense of jeopardy – Johnson holds the melon in full view of Huffkins. It doesn’t make sense, until we realize that Johnson must actually be quite dim. This is classic Dad’s Army territory, but just lacking that little bit of sharpness in script and performance.

There are some fine comic ingredients here (including the writer’s cameo as “Spam-addled” Molly, channelling Terry Jones in drag), but unfortunately, like the national loaf itself, they fail to fully rise to the occasion.

(See also National Loaf.)

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Pair banding

The five acts in Winter’s Rages included speeches and songs from five Shakespeare plays (and excerpts from more plays were scattered in between). The range of characters and situations were, as you would expect, impressive, and the challenges to finding true love more than most of us will ever have to meet. Romeo and Juliet, Helena and Demetrius, Rosalind and Orlando, Miranda and Ferdinand — all are couples who are more or less perfectly matched (even if they don’t all share the same happy ending) and who illustrate the following analysis from Pinker (1997:417):

Unsentimental social scientists and veterans of the singles scene agree that dating is a marketplace. People differ in their value as potential marriage partners. Almost everyone agrees that Mr. or Ms. Right should be good-looking, smart, kind, stable, funny, and rich. People shop for the most desirable person who will accept them, and that is why most marriages pair a bride and a groom of approximately equal desirability.

Shakespeare himself has Rosalind (as Ganymede) reject Phoebe with the reminder that she is “not for all markets” — an unromantic, if practical, intrusion into that most romantic of plays. Tim Minchin’s If I Didn’t Have You has a similar effect, crushing the romance with a statistical argument: if I didn’t have you, someone else would do. As Pinker puts it (418):

Murmuring that your lover’s looks, earning power, and IQ meet your minimal standards would probably kill the romantic mood, even though the statement is statistically true. The way to a person’s heart is to declare the opposite—that you’re in love because you can’t help it.

Shopping for mates is of course only part of the psychology of romance: “it explains the statistics of mate choice, but not the final pick.” And it is that final pick that provides the compelling focus of so many of Shakespeare’s great scenes, in which we see the following analysis dramatized over and over again:

How can you be sure that a prospective partner won’t leave the minute it is rational to do so—say, when a 10-out-of-10 moves in next door? One answer is, don’t accept a partner who wanted you for rational reasons to begin with; look for a partner who is committed to staying with you because you are you. Committed by what? Committed by an emotion. An emotion that the person did not decide to have, and so cannot decide not to have. An emotion that was not triggered by your objective mate-value. An emotion that is guaranteed not to be a sham because it has physiological costs like tachycardia, insomnia, and anorexia. An emotion like romantic love.

Pinker concludes his section on Fools for Love with (419):

The contradiction of courtship—flaunt your desire while playing hard to get—comes from the two parts of romantic love: setting a minimal standard for candidates in the mate market, and capriciously committing body and soul to one of them.

It is those contradictions that fascinated Shakespeare, and that our emotions don’t always get it right. Phoebe falls in love at first sight with Rosalind when she might have been better with the statistically more suitable match, Silvius (whom she ends up with anyway). Pair bonding is a tricky business at the best of times, and it’s not made any easier for Phoebe when she steps outside her particular bell curve band.

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The stats are staggering

In this interview with Phil Zuckerman (The Frontiers of Secularism), Zuckerman clears up the confusion that surrounds the terms “secular”, “secularization” and “secularism”. For example:

[Secularism] is an ideology that is often embraced by both religious and secular people. And it most definitely is not the same thing as “atheism.” In this instance, “secularism” is a political or ideological position concerning the relationship between government and religion (keep them separate!), whereas “atheism” is a personal absence of belief in gods.

He goes on to describe how levels of religiosity have changed over the past century in English-speaking countries:

I don’t want to barrage you with endless numbers, but the stats are staggering when it comes to people in the West who are abandoning religion. Consider just these tidbits: A century ago in Canada, only 2% of the population claimed to have no religion, whereas today nearly 30% of Canadians claim as much, and approximately one in five does not believe in God. A century ago in Australia, less than 1% of the population claimed no religious identity, but today approximately 20% of Australians claim as much. A century ago in Holland, about 10% of the population claimed to be religiously unaffiliated; today more than 40% does. In contemporary Great Britain, nearly half the people claim no religious identity at all; the same is true in Sweden.

Perhaps religiosity has not weathered as much in other European countries? Not according to these figures:

Furthermore, 61% of Czechs, 49% of Estonians, 45% of Slovenians, 34% of Bulgarians, and 31% of Norwegians do not believe in God. And 33% of the French, 27% of Belgians, and 25% of Germans do not believe in God or any other sort of universal spiritual life force.

But of course, the religious might say, this is all down to the insidious effects of secularization in the West, and religion is still important in the more “spiritual” East! Not according to these figures:

In the East, the most recent survey information from Japan illustrates extensive secularization over the course of the past century: Sixty years ago, about 70% of Japanese people claimed to hold personal religious beliefs, but today that figure is down to about 20%. Such levels of atheism, agnosticism, and overall irreligion are simply remarkable—not to mention historically unprecedented.

At least Latin America remains a hotbed of superstition? Apparently not:

I just got the latest data on Latin America: 37% of people in Uruguay, 18% in the Dominican Republic, 16% in Chile, 11% in Argentina, and 8% in Brazil are non-religious. These are all unprecedented levels of secularity. And Jamaica is currently at 20% nonreligious! Gabon and Swaziland are at 11%! (While that may seem small, keep in mind that only 8% of people in Alabama are non-religious).

Given that it must be harder to go from 1% to 2% than from 10% to 11% or from 20% to 21% (if you’re the one-in-a-hundred non-believer, you’re up against a huge majority and a huge pressure to conform), over the next century the likelihood is that there will be even bigger increases in irreligion the world over.

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Winter’s Rages: Shakespeare in Speech and Song

By William Shakespeare Adapted and directed by Sophie Kochanowska Presented by the Rose Playhouse on 9 December 2014

Shakespeare fragments are fused with new material and classical song in this devised theatre piece for actress, soprano & piano which explores the blistering power of the human voice. The intimate stage of The Rose Playhouse with its cavernous backdrop and brooding expanse of water covering the remains of the original Elizabethan theatre provides the ideal setting for this work of stark contrasts in which characters play before the audience as apparitions of a fevered dream.

WINTERS-RAGES-castWe were glad we made the last-minute (6 p.m.) decision to give this a go, and brave the low temperatures inside the Rose. Sophie Kochanowska has created a spacious five-act structure to accommodate a selection of Shakespeare in speech and song (the clue’s in the title of the piece), each connected by a dark thread of death and despair strung with a few pearls of comedy. Wrenching familiar scenes out of context is always a risky business, but compensating for the loss of depth of character was the gain through seeing each jostle for position as the scenes roll by. The real highlight, however, was hearing the songs take centre stage. A talented cast of three covered an impressive repertoire, and soprano Sophie Kochanowska herself was outstanding.

Blioux Kirkby comes on and begins, as if practicing in front of her mate for an audition, an earnest rendition of “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun” as Kochanowska wanders across the stage making wry comments. The heat of the sun is hardly the problem, it’s bloody freezing! Kirkby soldiers on as Guiderius, whose second line of the song (spoken here) — “Nor the furious winter’s rages” — gives the title to Kochanowska’s adaptation. Kochanowska suggests it’s a bit ambitious — she just wants the Equity minimum, not necessarily a starring role in Cymbeline.

This sets just the right tone, and tension, and the first act, from Twelfth Night, provides a perfect launchpad for the evening. Sir Toby and Sir Andrew are larking around, and Kochanowska becomes Feste with a clown’s red nose, joking that if she holds her peace there will be no song. To make music, we must break the silence, and the Malvolios of this world must remain offstage.

Kochanowska sings “O, mistress mine” with its line “Youth’s a stuff will not endure” that echoes the couplet from Cymbeline:

Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

This is followed by “Under the greenwood tree” and we’re into Act 2, The Tempest, and Prospero and Ariel. Sonnet 18 comes next, with the two voices of Kochanowska and Kirkby combining to bring its intimate meaning as one verse spoken to another more alive than a single voice reciting it could do.

For Act 3 Kirkby sits down with legs outstretched to deliver the lovelorn Helena’s soliloquy from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.

This is an astute piece of psychology, in that it recognizes, first, the importance of the mind in matters of the heart and, second, the peculiar failure of free will in this most personal of choices. Although few today will namecheck the mythological son of Venus to describe their experience of falling in love, in How the Mind Works Steven Pinker writes (1997:418):

…it is a glance, a laugh, a manner that steals the heart. … we fall in love with the individual, not with the individual’s qualities. The upside is that when Cupid does strike, the lovestruck one is all the more credible in the eyes of the object of desire.

In Cautionary Tale, Marlee MacLeod sings:

She swung at his heart like it was a pinata
And the blindfold made her aim that much truer…

For the Interlude, featuring snatches of Othello, a cracked and fragmented opera soundtrack provides an atmospheric soundscape that opens up the dimly lit space.

Kirkby takes on Ophelia for Act 4, and wanders along the far bank, singing:

How should I your true love know
From another one?

Out of the depths of despair, on the edge of madness, she still sings of what we now call cognitive psychology: feelings and emotions are every bit as much about information processing in the brain as is thinking about quadratic equations.

Kochanowska sings Richard Strauss’s Drei Lieder der Ophelia, a revelation to us of the power to move of lyrics we don’t understand.

In Act 5, Juliet delivers the soliloquy in which she reflects, not unlike Hamlet, on the knife edge that separates life and death — a bare bodkin, a sip of poison, either could signal your final breath. One line reminded me of an image (in the current British Museum exhibition on witchcraft) of three witches, all women, digging up mandrakes at the base of a gallows:

And shrieks like mandrakes torn out of the earth…

The speech ends with another reference to “rage” and another echo of Hamlet:

 And in this rage, with some great kinsman’s bone,
As with a club dash out my desp’rate brains?
O, look! Methinks I see my cousin’s ghost
Seeking out Romeo that did spit his body
Upon a rapier’s point. Stay, Tybalt, stay!
Romeo, Romeo, Romeo! Here’s drink: I drink to thee.

GBs. Kochanowska sings the desperately poignant Je veux vivre by Charles Gounod, pulling tinsel out of a box and swigging champagne. But the party can end in only one way, and we return to the “Fear no more” speech, which ends:

Quiet consummation have,
And renowned be thy grave!

All three contribute to the composite epilogue that rounds off the piece, so we’re not left too much on the downer of that final word, “grave”!

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