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Handmaid’s Tale

Back in the 90’s when I worked at Northern Secondary and we had something called OAC to replace Grade 13, one of our novels for study was Handmaid’s. Even now I shudder at the brilliance of teaching a novel so ahead of its time, a work that stood at the crossroads, linking and drawing from actual documented Totalitarian events in the past- for each storied event in the book: from the wall hangings that occurred as warnings in Auschwitz to the prescribed dress and demeanour of women covering their bodies and faces. Child stealing, Salem witch trials, even women betraying women, and male-  dominations been lived out again and again.

At the same time, the book was prophetic in terms of banning travel, allowing for toxic waste, or in our present day, the pollution of air. At the heart of the novel is the control over women’s bodies, as seen by the laws that have passed in the US, supported and driven by Vice President Pence and his sanctimonious brethren, rights to abortion at the heart of the issue.

I don’t think my students recognized the book as momentous back then, for along with Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure or Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage, these were the texts that the english department had decided were important to the development of thinking, critiquing and engaging curriculum. But clearly our department head was way ahead of his time. The themes covered in these prescribed studies were the farthest reaching in terms of power structures, freedoms, approaches and interpretations of moral structures, rebellions, silence, repression…

The test of a book is its ability to transcend time, to keep it current and relevant and so the book Stoner, or the authors Orwell, the Bard, Copperfield and many others are names ever recognizable to our young populations. Interestingly as I read David Shribman’s column this morning in the Globe, he encourages Trump to read: Robert Caro on Lyndon Johnson, Tyler Anbinder on City of Dreams, Barbara Tuchman ‘s Guns of August, Buchman’s Pilgrims Progress along with presidential biographies that reflect on the difficult tasks a president must encounter. In Offred’s forced tryst with the Commander, her jaw falls open to see his walls lined with books, a commodity now burned and vanished from society for their dangerous power to assuage, critique, demonstrate and change minds. Wicked, wicked books, pen to paper that empowers. How can one not think back on the book burnings pre and during the holocaust, and revisited in Fahrenheit 451 or the destruction of the Buddhas in Bamiyan by the Taliban…as if beauty and wisdom like a viral infection will corrupt. But of course, it does.

The timeless quality to transcend has made The Handmaid’s Tale a thrilling television production with Elizabeth Moss. Perfect as Offred, she embodies the repressed but still hopeful personality of the protagonist. Her name although a prefix to the name of the commander, Fred, also suggests she is “ offered”, and of-red, the colour of the clothing she must wear as a potential bearer of children, signifying first blood or the onset of fertility.But mostly a possession, deserving no name. Standing by a window, she murmurs her own real name, longing to resume an identity of her own, untouchable by forces that would diminish her.

The society shown in the television production appears at first far fetched with its restrictions, each class of women delineated by colour.Simple freedoms such as Offred’s game of scrabble is a delight made palatable. That she is still able to resist, as she spits out the macaron offered to her by Serena Joy, the commandeer’s wife, in defiance, bolsters her/ our hope she may be able to escape. Yet almost as quickly as her spirits soar are they extinguished when she realizes her walkmate has been exchanged, or more likely silenced in a nefarious way. She is precariously perched on a tenuous tightrope of emotions twisting her as she attempts some independence where there is none.

 Along with Handmaid’s in OAC, we taught Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and. Lawrence Thornton’s Imagining Argentina that spoke to methods of resistance in terrible times. In most, it was the mind that allowed one to survive the here and now: so to live in the head, obliterating the slings and arrows set against the body provided the escape hatch. Just as Nelson Mandela somehow resisted in his 17 years in Roblen island, with a few smuggled in books such as Shakespeare as his treasured companions .Those dangerous, dangerous books that preach and teach. Mandela’s favourite poem by Henley from 1875 Invictus inspired him:

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the Pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll.

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

Hopefully we the viewers, the  population who still cares about liberties, can chant – even today- with the  mantra of the Handmaids,” Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

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Shakespeare

Truth be told, I always had a hard time understanding Shakespeare’s language. Although I would tell my own students, it was the rap music of the day, I could as much understand rap as the bard. In high school, I would hunt a copy of Coles’ notes to read the plot summary so in class the next day I would appear knowledgeable.

In grade 11, I was taught by a Mr. Thomas, an English man- at least that’s how I remember him, a slightly bent over man in tweeds. A kind personable fellow who cast me as Lady MacBeth in the class reading of the text. I recall the embarrassment of having to recite” Take my milk for gall… and come to my woman’s breasts ” out loud.Not finding anything whatsoever sexual about me, the class must not have even chortled as I was about as present as a saucer of milk to them. Eyes downcast, I do recall my voice shaking as I read the lines.

Poor kind Mr. Thomas, as he was killed on a highway up north by a car driving on the wrong side of the road. I recall him fondly and his attempts to enrich the class although his choice in casting was truly terrible.

Back in the 60’s we had “ PROVINCIAL EXAMS which meant that all students across the province wrote the same exams in every subject at the end of Grade 13 at the exact same time. Some department head must have misread the course calendar at the collegiate because we wound up studying Macbeth in both Grade 11 and Grade 13. Perhaps that is why some of the lines have stuck so strongly in my head: “False face must hide what false heart doth know…Look like the gentle flower but be the snake under’ t”. How smart was Shakespeare! When one actually thinks about the meaning of the lines, not just parroting them by rote, one appreciates the wisdom and insight based on thoughtful observation in multiple levels of society. How well did he know the human condiditon-even before Facebook and Iphone!

So much of his language comes to me unexpectedly . When I am hurt or angered by my children, it is Shakespeare’s voice that floats up into my ears. I hear poor old Lear refer to “nothing “…as painful as the sharp pangs of children as he feels abandoned by his daughters, but particularly his
heart’s delight, Cordelia. He moans, “Nothing will come of nothing”. And any parent’s pain of betrayal is best described as ” sharper than a viper’s tooth” as their child throws hurtful remarks at the cowed parent who has tried but perhaps failed to comprehend their child’s needs. So many venues for discussion, so many levels of interpretation and fantastic metaphors and similes to further expend meaning .

I took my daughter’s name Ariel from The Tempest. I loved that magical sprite, did not care what gender Ariel was, so plucky, so resilient. The name suggested to me “ airiness”, lightness and mischief and she is all that and much more. I love Miranda at the end, her mouth hanging open as she murmurs in delight “Brave new world” anticipating a new future, a bright new beginning. Huxley also put his spin on that phrase, twisting it into a frightening view of a distorted society, but Miranda’s awe and wonderment at the possibilities for a strange fresh world remain. The Tempest is a shining play about so many things: freedom, colonialism, repression, silliness, parental relations, outcasts, magic! and especially hope.

I taught Measure for Measure to my senior students at Northern Secondary and loved the politics of love and power, particularly as the antagonist Angelo tempts and taunts saintly Isabella, but she a worthy opponent, a 21st Century woman who challenges his deceit. What I loved best -and was no surprise for me- the paradox of how Angelo might be spinning out his role or Isabella w(holily) into herself, ignorant or not of Angelo’s manipulations. Last year at Stratford, the play was catapaulted into the 40’s and it stood its ground perfectly.

It is the timelessness of Shakespeare, from the 16th century ,whether the sonnets ( think of sans teeth …sans everything) and the plays and the language that have persisted and speak to every time, every person, every situation reveal such acute observation of people’s fears, contemplations, interactions, relationships and foibles, especially in pusuit of their coveted desires in the bed or boardroom. And not surprisingly, interest even today has not waned when a portrait resurfaces or the debate over authorship is raised by a disbeliever regarding Shakespeare’s brilliance.

If it is true that I did not comprehend the prose until I pondered it later, now I grasp the meaning deeply and darkly. And although Angels in America is a triumph, a force that grips you to your core, I wonder if it will have the enduring effect that Shakespeare’s plays have and what of our days will be put into revivals once we are long gone? I’m sure Shakespear had something to say about that too.

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