Misunderstood Shakespeare: “Star-cross’d Lovers”

Just like ‘Wherefore art thou Romeo?”, this commonly misunderstood famous line comes ‘Romeo and Juliet’

I have witnessed so many people talking about Romeo and Juliet as “star-cross’d lovers” in the sense of their meeting and relationship being their destiny, and that the two were somehow fated to be together. 

This couldn’t be more wrong. 

The actual meaning of the term becomes clearer if one thinks of it in terms of the stars actually crossing them. 

Romeo and Juliet were never meant to be together. The fates were against them, right from the start, and it was never going to work out well. 

It’s important to remember that ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is a tragedy, not a comedy or romance. In Shakespeare’s tragedies, the main characters always die. There are no happy endings. That’s a convention of the genre, and it is pointless to expect anything else. 

Not only that, but Shakespeare gives us the spoilers right there in the prologue, the opening speech of the play, which is where the phrase comes from. They’re going to die, and as they are laid to rest, so too will be buried the feud between their families, which is what made their love forbidden in the first place. 

The prologue to Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare.

If, as some believe they do, the stars were to control one’s fortunes in life, the last thing you’d wish for is to be “star-crossed” in any way. 

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Well… That Ended Badly.

I read a book this week that I was really enjoying. It kept me hooked right to the end, and then came the death blow: a sudden, out-of-nowhere, poorly executed ending. Without warning, or even the slightest hint that it was coming, the story just stopped. 

I hate that. I hate it so much that I am deferring writing my review until I’ve got over my annoyance at it. The story was so good, and the characters so interesting, that I was completely absorbed in it. And then? Suddenly, POOF! It’s all over. 

I dislike cliffhanger endings to books at the best of times. 
This one was not even the best of times.
It wasn’t really a cliffhanger, either. It was more like the whole book got snatched out of my hands and thrown over the cliff, and might never be seen again. 

It was possibly the worst sudden ending to a story I’ve ever experienced. It made me think that maybe the author did not know how to properly end a story, even though they obviously knew how to write the rest of one. 

I fully understand why authors design those suspenseful endings – they want to keep readers guessing and anticipating what comes next so they’ll read the next book. 

Here’s the thing, though: if the book is good, I’m going to buy and read the next one anyway. If the writing or editing is poor, or the storyline is weak, a cliffhanger isn’t going to make me buy or read the next one. 

If there has to be a sudden ending, or a cliffhanger, there should at least be enough resolution in the final chapters to answer some of the questions raised in the book. By all means, leave questions unanswered. Just— not all of them. 

I do quite like suspense and anticipation.
I love the sensation of looking forward to the next book.
I do not enjoy an ending that leaves me wondering if the author’s computer crashed and the final chapter was irretrievably lost. 

I read a lot of books, and for me, a quality conclusion is as important as the opening paragraphs. You can win or lose readers right there, regardless of how good the rest of the book might be. 

My Kind Of Person.

Today my brother, sister-in-law and I took our elderly and increasingly frail Dad out for lunch. 

We went to one of our favourite local places: Lake Edge Cafe on the shore of Lake Purrumbete. The view is lovely in any weather, but it was nice and warm inside. 

While we were waiting for our lunch, another family group came in and took the table next to ours. It looked to be a man around my own age, three boys, and the boys’ grandparents. 

“Shall I tell you a bit about the menu?” the waiter asked. 

“Could you wait a bit, please?” the guy responded. “My wife will be in in a moment… she’s just finishing the final few pages of a book.” 

I smiled. Anyone who stays in the car to finish a book before lunch is my kind of person. 

In case you were wondering, I ordered the pumpkin, prosciutto, pine nut and cherry tomato fettuccine. It was amazing. 

The Power of Historical Fiction

I love a great historical fiction read, so when I discovered this article yesterday, I thought it well worth sharing.

I fully agree with the author’s comments about what distinguishes excellent historical fiction from the rest. There is no substitute for research and ensuring that a story is entirely consistent with the time, place and people involved.

In keeping with the encouragement to pick up a work of historical fiction, I’d like to recommend some that I have found to be excellent.

  • To Be A Queen by Annie Whitehead
  • Miriamne the Magdala by J.B. Richards
  • A Daffodil for Angie by Connie Lacey
  • Blood and Ink by DK Marley
  • The Artist by Lyra Shanti

I do hope you enjoy this excellent post by Steve Cochrane.

The Power of Historical Fiction

Encounters of Faith in Asia: Past, Present and Future

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I love to read. For the past 20 years plus, I’ve read on average 150 books a year. I even keep a list in my journal of all those books, so could prove it to you if you wanted! Books on history always figure prominently on that list, but not only non-fiction. I also love the genre of historical fiction. My latest one is titled Cutting for Stone by Indian-American writer Dr. Abraham Verghese.

This book has the elements of what I value in historical fiction. It is set in Ethiopia over a period of about forty years, dealing with issues of immigration from India and set in a hospital in the capital of Addis Ababa. The first element I value is what this book has in rich measure, a well researched context. Historical context must be accurate, or the book should rather be in the science fiction…

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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. 

A Favourite Classic Novel: ‘Barchester Towers’ by Anthony Trollope

Anthony Trollope has quite a few novels to his name, of which I have enjoyed most, but ‘Barchester Towers’ is the pick of the bunch. If you are only ever going to read one of his works, choose this one. 

While Dickens was writing novels that exposed the social issues and injustices of his time, Trollope was doing the same thing in a slightly different way. Trollope’s ‘Chronicles of Barsetshire’ turned the readers’ attention to the structures and conventions of the church hierarchy in Victorian England, framing clerical life in a comedic way that highlighted the hypocrisy and manipulation that plagued the upper ranks of the church. His Palliser Novels series focuses on political life and the machinations of Parliament and government, once again with a good degree of satire and cynicism.

Trollope’s characterisation is every bit as clever and masterful as Dickens’, and the humour with which he wrote is just as engaging. I find it most disappointing that Trollope is not as widely read or renowned as Dickens. The reason for that lies in the fact that Dickens’ books made him the champion of the lower classes, giving him very widespread appeal and ensuring a loyal readership, while Trollope tended to write more about the challenges faced by the middle and upper classes as society changed. Those issues were just as real, but far less relatable and interesting to the masses. 

‘Barchester Towers’ is a gem of a book. It’s quite easy to read, and very entertaining. While The Guardian listed it as one of the 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read’it is much higher on my own list,  hence its inclusion among the novels featured on this blog as one of my top 25 classic novels. 

A Favourite Classic Novel: ‘The Three Musketeers’ by Alexandre Dumas

The ultimate story of friendship, loyalty and chivalry, ‘The Three Musketeers’ is full of the adventure, swordfighting and drama that was life for the king’s Musketeers of the Guard. This book transports the reader to early 17th century Paris and all the intrigues and machinations of courtly and public life.

I always felt a bit sorry for d’Artagnan that the book wasn’t called ‘The Four Musketeers’, but on the other hand, Athos, Aramis and Porthos were exactly the kind of men that a swashbuckling heroic adventure story should be named after.

I guess d’Artagnan could be satisfied knowing that many people would know his name even if they couldn’t name the others.

The Musketeers’ catch cry, “All for one and one for all!” has been adopted and echoed many times by groups of friends the world over, including my beloved Indie Fabs, six author friends bound by friendship, support and loyalty.

This is still a tremendous read which I highly recommend. Of the movies and TV adaptations I have seen, the black and white movies I grew up watching almost did the book justice, and the recent BBC TV production The Musketeers is brilliant, but they aren’t quite the same as reading the book.

A Favourite Classic Novel: ‘Les Miserables’ by Victor Hugo

Set in France during the first decades of the 19th century, this is a story of the struggles of the lower classes — the miserable, the dispossessed, and the dissatisfied. 

While many people in the 21st century know the story because of the highly popular and quite magnificent musical theatre show, most have never read the book. It is a large novel: epic in its scope, powerful in its storytelling and heartbreaking in its story and drama. 

Many of the key events of the novel were based on events and circumstances that Hugo witnessed personally, adding a depth of detail and authenticity that immerses the reader in the settings and makes them feel as they are right there, watching the events and listening to the characters’ conversations. 

Admittedly, there are some passages that are moral reflections rather than narrative, but they do add depth of understanding to the social issues and conflicts experienced by the French people of the time, and cause the reader to reflect on the responsibility of those with wealth and power to ensure that those under their rule are able to live without despair. Given that it is not possible to separate a work of literature from the society and environment in which it was written, Hugo’s thought-provoking digressions remain relevant to the story overall.   

One can simply watch the musical or a film adaptation, but they will not deliver the full impact of the story as it is told in the book. It’s a magnificent, wide-reaching story with themes of social justice, equality and personal redemption that are still really powerful and resonate with readers today. 

A Favourite Classic Novel: ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens

I have always enjoyed Dickens’ knack for transporting the reader to the grimy streets of London, or to the interior of a neat little Victorian house, and have them understand exactly why they had been taken there. His imagery and characterisation are vivid and his wit is razor sharp. 

I have several favourites among his novels, but ‘A Christmas Carol’ would have to be at the top of that list. In addition to its searing social criticism and powerful message about what actually matters in life, it is infused with some really well written macabre and Gothic horror scenes that have a profound effect on both Scrooge and the reader. It’s a short read with a huge impact. 

Poem: ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ by Thomas Gray

An elegy is a formal poem that usually delivers a lament for  someone who has died, but there is also an element of praise or reflection that makes it positive, even while it’s sad. It’s different to a eulogy – a speech given about someone’s life, usually at their funeral, and also to a dirge, which is entirely mournful.

In this poem, Thomas Gray paints a picture of a mourner, alone in a church yard as evening falls. Left to his contemplation, he reflects on those buried nearby and what their lives may have been. Because this poem is about people who were unknown to him, and not specific to one particular person, Gray’s poem is actually more of an ode than an elegy, but given that he was the poet, he was free to call it whatever he wished.

The imagery of the evening scene before him is breathtaking. The reader can almost feel the weariness in the way the first stanza forces them to slow down and contemplate, alongside the poet, by the use of assonance on long vowel sounds in words like ‘curfew’, ‘lowing’, ‘plowman’, ‘home’, ‘leaves and ‘world’, and alliteration on the ‘m’ and ‘l’ sounds that do, indeed, evoke the plodding of the plowman. Gray continues using these devices throughout the poem, maintaining careful control of the pace and rhythm and ensuring that the reader’s reflections will not be rushed. 

The poem leaves the reader with the understanding that death really is the great equaliser – it doesn’t matter whether one is nobly or humbly born, famous or not: eventually we’ll all end up the same way.

Like Donne’s ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’, this is another classic poem from which another author took a line as the title for a novel. Far From The Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy was published in 1874, 23 years after the poem was published by Gray in 1751.

Although it is likely Gray had written at least part of this poem before taking up residence there, the churchyard referred to in the title is that of St Giles Church in Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire, England.  In 1788, thirty-seven years after self-publishing  this poem, Thomas Gray was himself buried in the very same churchyard. 

Image: Used with permission. St Giles Church, Stoke Poges
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Mark Percy – geograph.org.uk/p/5571063

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,          
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea, 
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,          
And leaves the world to darkness and to me. 

Now fades the glimm’ring landscape on the sight,        
And all the air a solemn stillness holds, 
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,          
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds; 

Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tow’r          
The moping owl does to the moon complain 
Of such, as wand’ring near her secret bow’r,          
Molest her ancient solitary reign. 

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,          
Where heaves the turf in many a mould’ring heap, 
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,          
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep. 

The breezy call of incense-breathing Morn,          
The swallow twitt’ring from the straw-built shed, 
The cock’s shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,          
No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed. 

For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,          
Or busy housewife ply her evening care: 
No children run to lisp their sire’s return,          
Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share. 

Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,          
Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke; 
How jocund did they drive their team afield!          
How bow’d the woods beneath their sturdy stroke! 

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,          
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure; 
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile          
The short and simple annals of the poor. 

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,          
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave, 
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.          
The paths of glory lead but to the grave. 

Nor you, ye proud, impute to these the fault,          
If Mem’ry o’er their tomb no trophies raise, 
Where thro’ the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault          
The pealing anthem swells the note of praise. 

Can storied urn or animated bust          
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath? 
Can Honour’s voice provoke the silent dust,          
Or Flatt’ry soothe the dull cold ear of Death? 

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid          
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire; 
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway’d,          
Or wak’d to ecstasy the living lyre. 

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page          
Rich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll; 
Chill Penury repress’d their noble rage,          
And froze the genial current of the soul.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,          
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear: 
Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen,          
And waste its sweetness on the desert air. 

Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast          
The little tyrant of his fields withstood; 
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,          
Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood. 

Th’ applause of list’ning senates to command,          
The threats of pain and ruin to despise,
To scatter plenty o’er a smiling land,          
And read their hist’ry in a nation’s eyes,

Their lot forbade: nor circumscrib’d alone          
Their growing virtues, but their crimes confin’d;
Forbade to wade through slaughter to a throne,          
And shut the gates of mercy on mankind,

The struggling pangs of conscious truth to hide,          
To quench the blushes of ingenuous shame, 
Or heap the shrine of Luxury and Pride          
With incense kindled at the Muse’s flame.

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,          
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray; 
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life          
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way. 

Yet ev’n these bones from insult to protect,          
Some frail memorial still erected nigh, 
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck’d,          
Implores the passing tribute of a sigh. 

Their name, their years, spelt by th’ unletter’d muse,          
The place of fame and elegy supply: 
And many a holy text around she strews,          
That teach the rustic moralist to die. 

For who to dumb Forgetfulness a prey,          
This pleasing anxious being e’er resign’d, 
Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day,          
Nor cast one longing, ling’ring look behind?

On some fond breast the parting soul relies,          
Some pious drops the closing eye requires; 
Ev’n from the tomb the voice of Nature cries,          
Ev’n in our ashes live their wonted fires. 

For thee, who mindful of th’ unhonour’d Dead          
Dost in these lines their artless tale relate; 
If chance, by lonely contemplation led,          
Some kindred spirit shall inquire thy fate,

Haply some hoary-headed swain may say,          
“Oft have we seen him at the peep of dawn 
Brushing with hasty steps the dews away          
To meet the sun upon the upland lawn. 

“There at the foot of yonder nodding beech          
That wreathes its old fantastic roots so high, 
His listless length at noontide would he stretch,          
And pore upon the brook that babbles by. 

“Hard by yon wood, now smiling as in scorn,          
Mutt’ring his wayward fancies he would rove, 
Now drooping, woeful wan, like one forlorn,          
Or craz’d with care, or cross’d in hopeless love. 

“One morn I miss’d him on the custom’d hill,          
Along the heath and near his fav’rite tree; 
Another came; nor yet beside the rill,          
Nor up the lawn, nor at the wood was he; 

“The next with dirges due in sad array          
Slow thro’ the church-way path we saw him borne. 
Approach and read (for thou canst read) the lay,          
Grav’d on the stone beneath yon aged thorn.” 

THE EPITAPH 
Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth        
A youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown. 
Fair Science frown’d not on his humble birth,        
And Melancholy mark’d him for her own. 

Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere,        
Heav’n did a recompense as largely send: 
He gave to Mis’ry all he had, a tear,        
He gain’d from Heav’n (’twas all he wish’d) a friend. 

No farther seek his merits to disclose,        
Or draw his frailties from their dread abode, 
(There they alike in trembling hope repose)        
The bosom of his Father and his God.