Gayle Madwin (queerbychoice) wrote,
Gayle Madwin

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Shakespeare's Biographies of My Ancestors

I stayed up late last night reading Shakespeare's comedy Cymbeline online, and then tonight I read the history King John. Since I'm a direct descendant of the real Cymbeline, king of the Cattuvellauni in the 1st century A.D. (provided you trust that every single baby down the entire line of descent since the 1st century was really fathered by the man the mother claimed), by way of Cymbeline's younger son Arviragus (also a character in Cymbeline - an extremely boring character, since his entire character development consists solely in being absolutely perfect in every imaginable way) and a direct descendant of King John by way of his son King Henry III (Prince Henry in the play King John), I sort of felt I ought to bother reading the plays about my ancestors - though I still haven't read Julius Caesar yet and I'm supposedly directly descended Caesar's great-nephew, Caesar Augustus (who, incidentally, declares war on Cymbeline in the play Cymbeline). They're all from basically the same family line - Cymbeline's and Caesar's families intermarried to make peace, and a thousand or so years later King John emerged as the descendant of both of them, and nearly another thousand years later here am I, bearing approximately one 4,294,967,300th of King John's DNA and one 302,231,454,903,657,300,000,000th of Cymbeline's and Caesar Augustus's DNA. (I'm not making up these numbers; I don't feel like counting the exact number of generations but I figured an average of four generations per century and raised 2 to the power of that number of generations to find the approximate number of ancestors I'm directly descended from that many generations back.)

Anyway, while reading these plays about my ancestors I had a shocking realization: Shakespeare was a terrible writer. On what do I base this judgment? Well, it's like this: history has recorded that Prince Henry had just turned nine years old barely a month before his father, King John, died. Now let's consider the lines that Shakespeare puts into this nine-year-old child prodigy's mouth at his father's deathbed:
PRINCE HENRY: O vanity of sickness! fierce extremes
In their continuance will not feel themselves.
Death, having prey'd upon the outward parts,
Leaves them invisible, and his siege is now
Against the mind, the which he pricks and wounds
With many legions of strange fantasies,
Which, in their throng and press to that last hold,
Confound themselves. 'Tis strange that death
should sing.
I am the cygnet to this pale faint swan,
Who chants a doleful hymn to his own death,
And from the organ-pipe of frailty sings
His soul and body to their lasting rest."
Honestly, I'm trying to make allowances here for the changing languages of different eras and the exceptional education of a prince - but what kind of nine year old spouts lines like "I am the cygnet to this pale faint swan" at his father's deathbed?
Tags: books
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