Birth of the Semicolon

A semi-colon forms part of a highly symbolic tattoo on my inner wrist. Like many others who bear the symbol on their skin, I chose it because I, too, have struggled with depression, mental illness, self-harm and suicide. It’s a reminder that “this” is not all there is, and it’s not the end of the story. 

As a punctuation mark, I am a big fan of the semicolon. It has the power to make someone wait momentarily, to hold a thought or their breath for a moment, and to anticipate what is to come next. It’s the symbol that tells the reader that there is more to come.

I really enjoyed this article by Celia Watson which discusses how the semicolon came to be.

And if you’re a grammar nerd like me, you’ll understand the appeal of Watson’s book on that wonderful, versatile little punctuation mark, simply titled ’Semicolon’, which I discovered via Stan Carey’s review

A Celebration of Reading

download.pngThe article titled The Birth of the Semicolon published in The Paris Review (August 1, 2019) by Cecilia Watson is not to be missed. Here is just the beginning to whet your appetite for arcane knowledge offering clues to the development of formal language.

The semicolon was born in Venice in 1494. It was meant to signify a pause of a length somewhere between that of the comma and that of the colon, and this heritage was reflected in its form, which combines half of each of those marks. It was born into a time period of writerly experimentation and invention, a time when there were no punctuation rules, and readers created and discarded novel punctuation marks regularly. Texts (both handwritten and printed) record the testing-out and tinkering-with of punctuation by the fifteenth-century literati known as the Italian humanists. The humanists put a premium on eloquence and excellence in writing…

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Two More Reasons Why History is Not Boring

I’m always a bit lost for words when people remark that history is boring. Not because I have nothing to say— far from it— but because I know they are never going to be anywhere near ready for the conversations I want to have with them.

I accept that in the past, some teachers have been guilty of making history very, very dull, but it was not the history that was boring: it was the teacher. 

I’ve had some of my own students question, “Why do we need to learn about this? How am I ever going to use this in real life?”
My responses vary depending on the topic at hand, but they are consistently positive and enthusiastic about how interesting and inspiring history can be. 

I have recently discovered two new examples to offer to students or friends who complain about history. 

A week or so ago, I read a story of a 14th century nun named Joan who faked her own death to get out of the convent she was living in.
How’s that for dedication?

Apparently, she wasn’t the only one who wanted to escape either. Having studied medieval history and knowing the lifestyle adhered to by monks and nuns of the time, I can’t say I blame any of them.

Faking your own death is definitely taking it to the next level, though, so I feel that Joan deserves a bit of recognition and applause for her commitment to the performing arts. 

Original painting: Jan Van Helmont Portrait of the Sisters of the Black. Public Domain
The clever edits are my own. 

Then, today, one of my favourite History blogs on WordPress posted about “the mythical animal with a deadly rear end”. I followed the link to the full story about the Bonaccon, and did a little more research after that.

I now know more about this amazing creature than my friends will ever think beneficial. You can bet I’m going to tell them all about it, and I know my Year 9 boys are going to love it, too. I almost can’t wait until they complain again, so that I have a good reason to get the story out and share it. 

Seriously, take a look at this beast. This picture from a medieval bestiary, or book of animals, portrays this particular bonnacon as being rather pleased with himself and his toxic poop. He’s never going to be sorry. 

Go on. Tell me now that history is boring. I dare you. 

Tuesday Trivia: Who Played Mark Antony in an 1864 Production of ‘Julius Caesar’?

‘Julius Caesar’ is a play by William Shakespeare about the assassination of Caesar by a group of his senators.

Given that the play clearly demonstrates that the assassination was morally wrong, and that the conspirators did not prosper as a result of their actions, you might be tempted to think that anyone who knew the play well enough to perform the role of Mark Antony would know better than to assassinate someone. 

And if you thought so, you’d be wrong. A famous actor and a member of a prominent family among theatre circles,  John Wilkes Booth played Marc Antony while two of his brothers played Cassius and Brutus in a production of Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ at The Winter Garden theatre on November 25, 1864, just four months before he assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. 

Obviously, his decision to shoot the president brought his acting career to a screeching halt. What a shame that he took more inspiration from Brutus than he did from Mark Anthony. Less violence and more brilliant rhetoric might have served us all well. 

Not Wrong.

My friends and I were standing in front of a portrait of Oliver Cromwell at the Tudors to Windsors portrait exhibition at the art gallery in Bendigo. .   

As I often do, I added my own commentary. In a posh English accent and lower vocal register, I quipped, “Look at me being all godly and humble and unroyal and stuff before I go and kill a bunch of people and destroy all the monasteries… you know, on God’s behalf.”

A well-dressed elderly gentleman had come to stand beside me. When I finished speaking, he added in a crisp, upper class accent: “Bastard.”
He was not wrong. 

A Favourite Shakespeare Play: Richard III

I enjoy many of Shakespeare’s plays, but I do have a few particular favourites. 

At the top of that list would be Richard III. one of the history plays and part of the series that explores the conflict between the Lancaster and York branches of the Plantagenet family tree which we call The Wars of the Roses. 

Shakespeare’s characterisation of Richard as the ultimate villain is so masterful that it shaped how Richard was viewed for centuries afterward. The fact that the history was severely distorted and, at times, entirely fabricated, and that Shakespeare’s representation of Richard was hardly realistic, has nothing to do with it. Shakespeare was a playwright, not a historian, after all, and therefore not inclined  to let the truth get in the way of a great story. 

Of course, it was in his interests to cast Richard in a less than positive light. Shakespeare was very conscious of the fact that his Queen, Elizabeth I, was the granddaughter of Henry Tudor who defeated Richard in battle at Bosworth to become Henry VII. Making Richard less worth of the crown further legitimised Henry’s claim to it, and therefore reinforced her own. In a time when conspiracies and plots against Elizabeth were numerous, the validation of her place on the throne of England was essential for any playwright hoping for royal approval, and patronage from among the upper classes. 

Thus, Shakespeare’s Richard is a man who not only recognises his evil nature but delights in it and determines to see how much he can achieve with it. 

Richard’s choice to pursue evil rather than good from the very start sets the tone of the whole play, and the audience knows they are in for one hell of a ride. His soliloquies deliver profound insights into the evil mind of a villain. They are absolutely fascinating, crafted with intrigue and malice that horrify and enthrall the audience at the same time. It’s riveting stuff. And as Richard puts his schemes into action and celebrates his own cleverness and cunning when they succeed, the audience is acutely aware that they are watching an evil genius in action. 

My favourite character, though, is Margaret, the former queen of Henry VI. She is strong, she is angry, and she is hell-bent on justice. Margaret speaks vitriol and hurls insults and curses so effectively that Cecily, Richard’s own mother, asks Margaret to teach her how it’s done. She attains a level of Shakespearean Insult proficiency that nobody else ever quite managed, not even Richard himself.

The language of the play is magnificent. From the insult competitions to the curses that burn with the brimstone of hell itself, there is not a word wasted in this play. The imagery is incredibly powerful, and the emotive language is so clever and subtle that while the audience may recognise that the characters on stage are being deceived, they don’t realise until after the fact that that they, too, have been positioned and manipulated by a master of the art. 

It is only at the end of the play, when one realises they feel a little sorry for the villainous Richard, that the audience understands how the language and drama of the play have seduced them.   

To take a man from the pages of history, craft him into something hateful, and have the audience still feel something other than hatred for him— albeit, while most likely feeling hatred for him at the same time— is testimony to Shakespeare’s genius as a wordsmith and playwright. 

A Favourite Classic Novel: ‘Don Quixote’ by Miguel de Cervantes

While Shakespeare was writing plays and fancy sonnets that made him incredibly famous, Miguel de Cervantes was sitting in a jail cell for getting his accounts wrong while working for the Spanish tax department, writing this work of comic genius that would bring him, too, worldwide fame.

As always, the comedic examines important issues and ideas in ways that no other form feels free to do. Think of medieval court jesters and today’s stand-up comedians – they make their mark on the world by saying things nobody else feels free to say and making people laugh at the same time. That’s exactly what Don Quixote does. 

Don Quixote is a story about a man who is so obsessed with stories of chivalry, romance and adventure that he loses his mind and sets off on his own missions of derring-do and knightly behaviour. He is a man who cannot separate the imaginary from the real world, so in his version of reality, he rescues damsels, fights giants, and seeks to solve the problems and wrongs that beset the people he meets. Everyone else, including his own faithful sidekick Sancho Panza, thinks he’s nuts. 

It’s a story that could be sad and pathetic, but it’s written with a strong sense of comedy and powerful wit that enable the reader to empathise with Don Quixote, who is a man living his dream in every sense of the word. There are some “Groundhog Day” elements, with some scenes being relived and reinvented long after the fact, which emphasises both the delusion and the intelligence of Don Quixote as the creator of his own reality.

As the story progresses, it poses an interesting dilemma: if you can’t actually do what you’d most like to do, and if your imagination can take you there and allow you to do it- is it crazy to pursue your dream, or madness to forego the pleasure? 

It’s a fascinating and fun read that, like Shakespeare’s works, has inspired musicals, ballets, films, and countless other stories and novels in the 400+ years since its publication. 

The ‘Tudors to Windsors’ Exhibition

This afternoon I visited the Bendigo Arr Gallery to see this amazing exhibition of royal portraits and memorabilia from the English royals dating from 1485 to the present day. 

In one way, it was a little surreal: I have seen these paintings in history books, and the more recent photographs were familiar because I had seen them online or in magazines, so it was really strange to think I was seeing the originals. 

In addition to being a most enjoyable and interesting gallery experience, it made me feel more connected to the history I have read and studied for so many years. 

I really loved seeing the Tudor portraits, especially Elizabeth I whom I admire enormously, but found them all quite fascinating. Some of the portraits definitely felt more intimate and personal, while others had that sense of grandeur and formality that one might expect from a royal portrait. There was a good representation of men in stockings and garters, and some fabulously royal big hair. 

It was a wonderful way to spend the afternoon among royalty without having to dress up or curtsey to anyone.

If you get a chance to see this exhibition, I highly recommend it.

A Favourite Classic Novel: ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Emily Bronte

When this book was published, Victorian audiences didn’t know what to make of it. It wasn’t the light, fluffy romance and romp that they were accustomed to. Instead, it was dark, violent, and stormy, and there was no happy ending for most of the characters. 

‘Wuthering Heights’ is about love, but it’s not romantic. It’s about dysfunction, selfishness, misunderstanding, bullying and manipulation. Much like Heathcliff and the Yorkshire moors on which the novel is set, it’s a bit dismal and morose most of the time, but it has power and substance that are fascinating and somewhat spellbinding. 

I love the power of the writing and the tempest that inhabits the characters and their relationships. I am fascinated by the cleverness of the intrigue and mystery woven into the narrative. I enjoy the fact that the narrators, Nellie Dean and Mr Lockwood, tell the story as though they are objective onlookers, but when you delve into the story, you can see that neither of them is innocent or objective as the story develops. All the characters are flawed and selfish and broken in one way or another, and I remain unconvinced that we’re meant to actually like any of them. It really is a fascinating study of human psychology as much as it is a compelling work of fiction. 

Even so, the story works because it is expertly written. The storytelling and the imagery are profound and beautifully constructed. The story appeals to our human nature, and to those voyeuristic tendencies that make people watch on with interest as things go wrong, take satisfaction in the misery of others, and slow down to get a better look at car accidents or natural disasters.  

I have read ‘Withering Heights’ more times than I can remember, and I know I will read it again. It may have been published in 1847, but it’s a story that, for me at least, will never get old. 

A Favourite Classic Book: ‘Animal Farm’ by George Orwell

This novella is a genius piece of political satire based on the events leading up to the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the rule of the dictators who followed. 

The allegorical use of animals on a farm enables the author to be critical and insightful without making direct accusations. Indeed, the most effective use of insinuations and suggestions is a trait that Orwell shares with Snowball and Napoleon, the two most prominent characters in the book. 

As the plot moves from incitement to revolution and then tyranny, each phase of influence and control is cleverly and powerfully exposed as those in charge exert their will over the rest of the characters.

Although it was published seventy years ago, this brilliant work retains a great deal of relevance today because, in all honesty, politics and politicians haven’t really changed that much. 

A Favourite Classic Novel: ‘Anne of Green Gables’ by L.M. Montgomery

Among its feisty, quirky main character Anne Shirley and the entire delightful cast of characters, the wonderful story and animated storytelling, and the magnificent Prince Edward Island settings which I have visited in person, there is nothing about this book that I do not adore. 

Anne taught me that it was a wonderful thing to love books and poetry more than anyone else I knew, and that it was better to be myself than to try to be someone else. She showed me how to embrace my quirks and to disregard the criticism of those made uncomfortable by them. 
This is a wonderful story, beautifully told, which I have loved since I first read it when I was seven years old. Yes, I was a prodigious reader even then, having started reading for myself at the age of three! Like Anne, I started out in the way I was destined to continue.

My vintage copy of ‘Anne of Green Gables’ and the postcards I bought at Green Gables on Prince Edward Island.

This vintage copy came to me courtesy of my favourite book rescue shelter, Spectrum Books in Warrnambool. It is the same vintage as the set I inherited from my mother although, sadly, her copy of ‘Anne of Green Gables’ has been lost.

I remember that her book had an original bookplate inside the front cover which she had drawn and painted before adding her name and the date. For me, that is the saddest part of losing her book: her art is lost, too. This is her work inside the cover of the sequel, ‘Anne of Avonlea’, which she received along with the first book for Christmas when she was thirteen years old. 
Her full name was named Shirley Anne – named after both Shirley Temple and Anne Shirley of ‘Green Gables’ fame.