“Crawling Between Earth and Heaven:” A Reading of Hamlet

Hamlet is a deeply puzzling and unsettling play. It remains elusive, alluring, cryptic, macabre, and mysterious: it is Shakespeare’s drama par excellence (contrary to T.S. Eliot’s unimpressive criticism of the play). On the surface, Hamlet is a classic revenge story that mirrors the theatrical works of classical antiquity. However, upon closer investigation Hamlet draws on uniquely modern qualities that are divergent from the works of Aeschylus or Sophocles. In the play, almost as if awakening from a dream, Prince Hamlet is haunted by the ghost of his father, a war hero who is also named Hamlet. The elder Hamlet’s ghost is apparently trapped in Christian Purgatory yet he is also familiar with the river Lethe and other classical markers of the underworld (in James Joyce’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom offers the theory that the ghost of Hamlet’s father is actually intended to represent Shakespeare, himself). The ghost claims that while he was poisoned while resting in his orchard and then usurped by his luxurious and incestuous brother, Claudius. We are dropped into the plot of Hamlet approximately two months after the death of the elder Hamlet. In that short timespan Claudius (Prince Hamlet’s Uncle) has been crowned king of Denmark and he has wedded the widowed queen, Gertrude (Prince Hamlet’s mother). Prince Hamlet has returned home from his education in Wittenberg (Northern, Germany). He is forbidden to return to school. As directed by his father’s ghost, Hamlet’s task is to avenge his father’s death and claim the rightful crown of Denmark.

Horatio, Hamletm and The Ghost by Hnery Fuseli (1789)

Hamlet’s 13th century world is a cosmopolitan hub linking Denmark with France, Germany, Norway, Poland, and England. The geography of the play informs some of its central themes. Hamlet’s homeland of Denmark is a borderland between opposing values (similar to the metaphorical borderland of Scotland in Macbeth or Cyprus in Othello). North of Denmark lies Norway – a heroic nation where King Hamlet won a victory over the elder Fortinbras (the elder Hamlet killed the elder Fortinbras and now Norway is governed by the elder Fortinbras’s feeble brother). Norway is an old world that is comparable to Homer’s Achaea. South of Denmark on the Continent lies Paris, France and Wittenberg, Germany. Paris is a city of fashion -it is where Laertes desires to go (Polonius advises him to be honest with himself before leaving: “to thine own self be true”). Paris is a city of fancy and pleasure, where young men learn the skill of fencing, while in Norway men learn to use the battle-axe. Wittenberg is strongly associated with Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. It is the embodiment of the modern world, a world of students and scholarship. Wittenberg is linked with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern -the sycophantic young scholars and friends of Hamlet. Norway is the fringe, it is the past; while Paris and Wittenberg represent the future. Meanwhile, Denmark is caught between these two polarities: the old world and the new world. The frustrated and restless youth of Denmark feel compelled to go elsewhere, away from Denmark, particularly to mainland Europe. This cosmopolitanism of the Renaissance world stands in opposition to classical notions of commitment to one single polis (i.e. patriotism). Lastly we learn of England -the place where Hamlet is sent to die (the unnamed king of England owes Claudius a favor). However, Hamlet escapes while en route to England and instead Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are killed in England. Ironically, Shakespeare associates England with death in Hamlet.

Why would Shakespeare choose Denmark as the primary setting of Hamlet instead of England? Is there something uniquely illustrative about Denmark? The Danes were once the fearsome raiders of medieval England. Their viking longboats were the terror of river towns. However, Denmark as featured in Hamlet is no longer the expansionist regime of bygone years. Now, it struggles to be sure of itself and its own kingship is easily usurped. The contemporaneous English context of Hamlet also informs the setting of the play. Prior to the rule of King James I in England, Queen Elizabeth’s court was also elderly and cautious, neither aggressive nor expansionist -England was not yet a great power like France, the Hapsburgs of Spain, or the Ottoman Empire. This same tension between aging leadership and active young men is apparent in the play. The court of Denmark is elderly and there is some discussion about whether Denmark should pursue a policy of diplomacy, expansionism, or war. The central problem of an indecisive and elderly ruling class is: what to do with thumotic and rivalrous young men? How should leaders direct the energetic youth outward toward public good? The goal is to prevent young men from becoming destructive -to prevent them from seeking private revenge and personal gain. At any rate, King James I’s mother (Mary Queen of Scots) was married to the murderer of her husband (he was murdered in his garden much like the elder Hamlet in the play). Also James I’s wife was Anne of Denmark and Norway (Denmark and Norway were united as one single country at this time). James and Anne were married in Oslo and honeymooned at Elsinore Castle (the primary setting of Hamlet). Shakespeare is thus directing the court of James I to pay attention to particular dilemmas in Hamlet that echo the challenges facing 16th and 17th century England (as well as universal questions pertaining to political philosophy).

In the same way that Denmark represents a confluence of opposing worlds, Hamlet is also the locus for a variety of tensions: classical and modern, pagan and Christian, Orthodox and Reform. In light of these tensions, Prince Hamlet is a troubling hero. He represents an exploration into (and perhaps an inversion of) the classical heroic archetype. In Hamlet, the outward battle has turned inward. Hamlet is a prince who is called to exact revenge on a usurper (his uncle Claudius) and claim the rightful throne of Denmark, but in a modern context he finds the classical idea of revenge deeply troubling. In a decidedly Christian world, where souls are immortal, what profit is it to kill Claudius if his soul will simply be sent to heaven or perhaps purgatory? Should Hamlet simply ‘turn the other cheek’ to his nemesis? Can Denmark even be redeemed? In Act III scene iii, Hamlet finds an open moment to kill Claudius. He sneaks into Claudius’s room but just before committing the deed he stops himself because Claudius is praying. Claudius is on his knees asking for divine forgiveness of his sins, and thus by killing Claudius, Hamlet would merely send Claudius’s soul straight to heaven – and in this way the modern “conscience does make cowards of us all.” Instead, Hamlet must take into account vengeance on Claudius’s soul. This is an entirely distinct concept from the vengeance Achilles exacts on Hector in Homer’s Iliad where vengeance on Hector’s body is all Achilles desires. The immortal soul, in Shakespeare, emerges as a modern concept. The great difficulty, however, is in seeing the true intent of one’s soul without ‘shuffling off this mortal coil.’ Hence, why there is so much sneaking around, hiding, and scheming in Hamlet. There is a desire to reveal what is deeply hidden (i.e. “catch the conscience of the King” when characters like the aging counsellor, Polonius, hide behind a curtain not unlike Gyges in Herodotus’s Histories). Thus, Hamlet feigns madness in order to truly conceal his own personal intentions.

At any rate, despite his inner quandary Hamlet is not a wimp (contra Goethe’s assertion). Hamlet kills nearly half the characters in the play whether directly or indirectly. He has thumos -he is a political man. Similar to the political situation in Macbeth, in Hamlet a group of leaders led by Claudius plans to appoint Hamlet as the inheritor of the throne of Denmark but Hamlet is unsatisfied with this arrangement (“Sir, I lack advancement”). His standards of a political hero are classical, and thus he looks to Norway for courage because his home state of Denmark has lately become “rotten” and ruled by an aging gerontocracy (notice how many errors of judgment and false predictions Polonius makes in the play).

Hamlet is not a one-dimensional classical figure. He is a popular prince among the people of Denmark (hence why Claudius cannot simply have him executed). He is an unusually thoughtful hero, capable of examining things from multiple perspectives. He is not a single-minded avenger like Laertes (son of the old counsellor Polonius -note: Laertes was also the name of Odysseus’s father) and yet Hamlet is also distinct from his good friend, Horatio, who calls himself “more an antique Roman than a Dane” (his name is a combination of two Latin words ratio “reason” and orator or “speaker”). In many ways, Horatio is the most crucially important character in the play. He stands alongside Hamlet during the most critical scenes in the play and he is also one of the few characters to survive to the end of the play (he tries to commit suicide but Hamlet begs him not to). Hamlet’s character is somehow split between these two figures: Laertes and Horatio. Hamlet’s tragedy is that he cannot simply embrace one or the other. He is the tragedy of modern or Renaissance man -a man who tries to be too many things all at once and becomes trapped in paralysis. The crux of Hamlet is an interrogation of the possibility of a philosopher king in a Christian/modern context (i.e. a synthesis of a theoretical and practical kingship). Shakespeare seems to offer an example of a modern heroic warrior king in Henry V, yet even King Henry V faces the problem of the church -an established religion of peace which competes for authority with the expansionist state. The impossibility of Plato’s modern philosopher king becomes a tragic impossibility in Shakespeare. There is hope in Horatio, a man with Greco-Roman virtues in the modern world who doubts the fanciful claims of modern theology (“…there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”). However, Horatio is not destined for kingship.

The great hope of the Renaissance was to synthesize two antithetical value systems: Christian and Classical. In an effort to examine this tension, Shakespeare offers us Hamlet -a very modern European, who is dropped into a Norse feudal saga with a twist: Hamlet is tasked with a supernatural quest for vengeance and requital. Hamlet admires the classical virtues of his father, yet he is also restrained by what he has learned in Wittenberg (not least of which concerns the Protestant Reformation). He is constrained and haunted by notions of a life after death. Meanwhile, Denmark has embraced a secular court. There are no bishops or archbishops like those found in Shakespeare’s History plays wherein the church emerges as a troublesome political force contra the warrior kings of England. While in Hamlet the state of Denmark is not beholden to the church, Hamlet explicitly agrees with the theological doctrine that the world is fallen and sinful. This causes him to have a problem with politics. Everywhere he looks he sees corruption. He believes women are inherently corrupt -a product of ‘original sin’ and he calls Ophelia a harlot and commands her to “get thee to a nunnery!” Women are either chaste nuns or licentious whores according to Hamlet. In this way, virtue for Hamlet is akin to absolute sexual purity. Indeed, Hamlet possesses a certain type of absolutism that is not present in Shakespeare’s Roman plays. This view of virtue also causes Hamlet to despise everything around him, including his own country. Hamlet is a modern thinking man and he longs for the monastic or ascetic ideal (he embraces a Christian interpretation of a Roman appropriation of Greek things). The irony of Hamlet is that he is a modern Christian man but he is also aware of the tension between ancients and moderns, and he embraces certain Homeric virtues as well. In fact, Homeric epithets are found throughout Hamlet (around the time of Hamlet’s first performance George Chapman had just completed the first English translations of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, circa the 1590s). At any rate, Hamlet finds it disgraceful that the task is left to him to restore order to his chaotic and fallen world (in The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche likens Hamlet to the Dionysian man). Hamlet’s disposition is somewhat philosophical -he resents the custom of his own people (particularly Claudius’s heavy drinking) and he despises the whole of humanity itself:

“What a piece of work is a man!
How noble in reason, how infinite in
faculty! In form and moving how
express and admirable! In action how
like an angel, in apprehension how
like a god! The beauty of the world. The
paragon of animals. And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust? Man
delights not me: no nor woman neither…”
(Act II scene ii -Hamlet speaking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern)

In his Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud links Shakespeare’s Hamlet with Sophocles’s Oedipus cycle, however in many ways the better contrast is between Shakespeare and Aeschylus. While Oedipus becomes tragically aware of his horrifying circumstance at the end of Oedipus Tyrannus, Hamlet becomes aware of his situation at the beginning of the play. In a certain light, Hamlet is better understood as Shakespeare’s response to Aeschylus’s Oresteia. In Aeschylus, we find a tale about the tragic cycle of revenge. Orestes returns home from exile to avenge his father, Agamemnon, who has been murdered and usurped by Clytemnestra (Orestes’s mother) and her lover Aegisthus. Whereas in Aeschylus’s Oresteia we are offered a deus ex machina in the form of Athena delivering a trial to release Orestes from his guilt, in Hamlet no such divine trial arrives to save the hero.

Hamlet spends a great deal of time contemplating his future actions, even though his actions will depend on a veiled illusion whether it be supernatural or not (Samuel Taylor Coleridge dismisses Hamlet as a flawed man who simply thinks too much, however this is far too simplistic an assessment). Hamlet is a man of thought who is contemplating actions (i.e. he embodies the conflict between thought and action), but the difficulty in the play is that it incorporates a vision of classical heroism (i.e. a man of action) coupled with a Christian critique of that heroism (a man of thought). His inner dilemma leads to stasis and eventually nihilism -it becomes an ontological question: ‘to be or not to be.’ Is it better to be and simply suffer at the hands of his enemies? Or else take up arms against a sea of troubles and surely die? But what is death if life merely continues on and on into a future world? Either way Hamlet will end up in heaven, purgatory, or hell. In contemplating the macabre, Hamlet notes that all men must die and disintegrate into mere “dust” -even the skull of Sir Yorick, the late court jester. Despite being a man of “infinite jest” Yorick’s finitude is likened to the meaningless sophistic trappings of Osric, a current Danish courtier. All of life becomes tragic for Hamlet (he notes the beauty of something anatomical like a skull). Beauty is ugly and life is empty for Hamlet.

Ophelia by John Everett Millais (1852

Hamlet also explores the problem of suicide. Does Ophelia commit suicide? In Act V scene i the two gravediggers debate the merits of a Christian burial for Ophelia. They decide that if she had intentionally ended her own life, then she does not deserve a Christian burial (the key question is whether she knowingly drowned herself -the possession of knowledge is a fluid problem throughout the play). In contrast in the classical world, suicide was sometimes the honorable thing to do (i.e. the suicide of Ajax; see Sophocles’s Ajax). However in the modern Christian world, suicide is a sin. Since there is no honor in suicide Hamlet must find another way out of his problems. The beginning of his “to be or not to be” soliloquy is a praise of the easiness and simplicity of the Pagan world. It begins with the idea of death in the ancient world, with echoes of Socrates and Cicero. The end of life in the ancient world meant the end of everything: ‘the end of heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks the Flesh is heir to’ -but things change in the modern world. Life truly begins after death and we perchance to dream in “the undiscovered country.” The Christian notion of an afterlife is described as a ‘calamity’ by Hamlet. If life never truly ends, what is the point of the politics of revenge?

“To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; aye, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes Calamity of so long life:
For who would bear the Whips and Scorns of time,

The Oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s Contumely,
The pangs of dispised Love, the Law’s delay,
The insolence of Office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’unworthy takes,
When he himself might his Quietus make
With a bare Bodkin? Who would Fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of Resolution
Is sicklied o’er, with the pale cast of Thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment,
With this regard their Currents turn awry,
And lose the name of Action. Soft you now,
The fair Ophelia? Nymph, in thy Orisons
Be all my sins remember’d”
(Act III scene i)

In this way Hamlet is a play about modern reformulations of heroism. The politics of Hamlet are guided by supernatural revelation coupled with a particular conception of the afterlife. Everything in Hamlet’s world is haunted by a vision of the next world. It makes the world appear to be irredeemably corrupt. Ultimately, Hamlet chooses to “take up arms against a sea of troubles” in an effort to end them, knowing that he marches toward his own death -there is not even redemption through art for Hamlet. His play “The MouseTrap,” which is a version of The Murder of Gonzaga, is not the dramatic conclusion of the play. It merely reveals Claudius’s guilt. Instead Hamlet must end his troubles by fighting to the death in a farcical parody of a duel (fencing is a more delicate way to settle disputes than, say, a proper sword-fight). No characters die by means of violence at the conclusion. Instead they die by trickery (i.e. poisoning). It is not a hero’s death and Denmark is not redeemed -perhaps Hamlet saw this fatal end coming.

Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard by Eugène Delacroix (1839)

At the conclusion, Hamlet’s Denmark is contrasted with Fortinbras’s Norway. Both young men have uncles who have claimed the kingship of their respected countries. For Hamlet the battle has turned inward on his own country, whereas Fortinbras extends outward conquering the worthless lands of Poland (against his enfeebled uncle’s demands). The Norwegian army has been allowed full rights to march across Danish lands toward Poland and the army of Fortinbras arrives at Elsinore just as Hamlet dies. With his dying breath Hamlet offers his “vote” for Fortinbras, his rival, to take the throne of Denmark (the message is conveyed by Horatio to Fortinbras). As is often the case in Shakespeare, the final speech in the play is delivered by the highest ranking person: in this case it is Fortinbras -a foreign man who will be the future king of Denmark (hopefully the accession will solve Denmark’s ‘rottenness’). Hamlet is given a hero’s burial by the Norwegian army, though few readers of Shakespeare will suggest that Hamlet is truly a noble hero -he is the tragedy of modern man, paralyzed while “crawling between earth and heaven.”


For this reading I used the impressive Arden edition of Shakespeare’s Hamlet along with Paul Cantor’s excellent lectures.

On Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”

“Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon” -fictional proverb

The year was 1948. The New Yorker Magazine was celebrating its 23rd anniversary when it published a disturbing little story called “The Lottery.” The story was to cause decades of controversy. At the time, The New Yorker apparently did not distinguish between works of fact or fiction and, as a consequence, they received more angry letters than any other publication. “The Lottery” was written by Shirley Jackson, a troubled writer of horror stories who hailed from the Bay Area before settling in the town of North Bennington, Vermont to start a family. North Bennington is a tiny town in southern Vermont and it bears a great deal of resemblance to the town in “The Lottery.”

The story begins in a beautiful, bucolic summer scene:

“The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green. The people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o’clock; in some towns there were so many people that the lottery took two days and had to be started on June 26th, but in this village, where there were only about three hundred people, the whole lottery took only about two hours, so it could begin at ten o’clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner.”

However, the horrifying nature of “The Lottery” occurs precisely because it takes place in a comfortable, safe, familiar setting: summertime in small-town America, in a village not much larger than 300 people. The story distorts this feeling of security and monochrome innocence. By the end, the truth about the lottery is revealed and a gruesome or macabre sense of dread overpowers the reader. In a crude plot twist, the townsfolk gather and draw lots (i.e. a “lottery”) but unlike in a typical lottery, nobody wants to win this contest. Like a heartless pagan ritual, the townsfolk of “The Lottery” gather each summer to select one person to be stoned to death, perhaps to purge the town of evil. The story ends as a woman known as ‘Mrs. Hutchinson’ is selected to be killed. The frenzied townsfolk quickly gather piles of stones while Mrs. Hutchinson screams, “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right!” The story concludes just as she is about to be stoned to death.

Upon its controversial publication, “The Lottery” spawned an onslaught of public criticism. Almost immediately, The New Yorker received hundreds of angry letters decrying its portrayal of a cult-like small town America. To add some context “The Lottery” was published shortly after the end of World War II, on the heels of the Cold War and the accompanying cultural anxieties related to impending nuclear warfare. In a world where nuclear warfare was an ever-present possibility, a return to innocence in Middle America captured the Zeitgeist however “The Lottery” shockingly localized some of these anxieties and redirected these fears inward toward the safest places in American culture.


Jackson, Shirley. “The Lottery,” The New Yorker, June 26, 1948.

“Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow” Considered

In Act V, scene 5 of Shakespeare’s Macbeth we encounter Macbeth’s famous nihilistic soliloquy: “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.” The speech comes at a critical juncture for Macbeth in the play. All his Thanes have left him, and a united army of English and Scottish forces are advancing on his castle at Dunsinane. The English are led by Siward (whose character is based on a historical earl of Northumberland) and the Scottish are led by Macduff, Thane of Fife, whose family has recently been butchered at the behest of Macbeth. Macduff is joined by Malcolm, son of the assassinated king Duncan and heir to the Scottish throne. Up until this, point Macbeth has placed his faith in delusional supernatural prophecies -revelations which he believes have transformed him into a kind of ubermensch -exempt from death by any man ‘born of a woman.’ He remains sheltered in his castle until and unless the forests of Birnam descend upon the hilltop of Dunsinane, while also awaiting the advancing armies.

However, as Macbeth’s tragic downfall unfolds, we witness his maddening obsession with the future and at the same time he order more people killed in order to support his false understanding of fate. At the beginning Macbeth was a war hero who lived mostly in the present moment, but after receiving a dark prophecy, he begins to believe that all human actions are pre-determined by some supernatural fate. His belief turns to obsession, and his futurism stands in stark contrast to the ancient view of time as cyclical, rather than the modern view of time which is apocalyptic. Therefore, Macbeth’s nihilism grows out of a modern apocalyptic expectation. He rarely focuses on his troubles today, only on an endless forthcoming “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.” For Macbeth, “today” is merely the ignorant present -in fact, today might as well be history since it has been predetermined according to the witches. With an eye for what is to come, Macbeth incessantly slaughters his allies -he sets out to kill Duncan, and then he must kill Banquo but Banquo’s son Fleance escapes, and then he must also kill Macduff’s family. His mind becomes ensconced in a philosophy of the future -a philosophy of becoming rather than being. His hope is for some future state of perfection, which is one classical characteristic of a tyrant. In Book IX of Plato’s Republic when discussing the soul of a tyrant with Glaucon, Socrates draws a distinction between a tyrant and a philosopher. According to Plato, a tyrant is a man who follows his base pleasures and is unwilling to be virtuous. When this “private tyrant” becomes empowered as a “political tyrant” the city suffers in disharmony. However, the soul of a tyrant is different from a philosopher because a philosopher is focused on the things that are (i.e. the things that have being). In Macbeth, his particular form of tyranny is characterized by a modern pursuit of a state of purity and perfection, free from threat or blemish -a desire to see the city ‘speak together as one’ rather than to encourage the various parts of the city to grow together in harmony a la Aristotle’s Politics. Perhaps there is a certain degree of modern genocidal tendencies hidden in Macbeth’s form of tyranny, as well (i.e. ‘if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off’).

At any rate, in his famous soliloquy in Act V Macbeth suddenly sees meaningless in his unending futurism. His speech comes immediately after a report from his sole remaining loyalist, Seyton (whose name mirrors “Satan”). A cry is heard and Macbeth remembers a time when he would have been afraid of horrors in the night -a normal fear for a man but not for a tyrant dabbling in dark mysticism like Macbeth. Seyton re-enters and announces the death of Lady Macbeth. She has apparently committed suicide offstage. Upon learning of her death, Macbeth is hardly sorrowful -he suggests that she would have died anyway “hereafter” at any other time “for such a word.” Her time would have come now or at another time in the future -it makes little difference to Macbeth. He launches into his famous soliloquy bemoaning the meaninglessness of life as a mere “shadow” filled with “sound and fury.” It is an apocalyptic speech which notes the “last syllable of recorded history” (i.e. an end of history in the Hegelian and Christian sense) and yet it also makes mention of the past “all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death” (i.e. history is a a predetermined series of revelations that merely lead to death). Ultimately, all of life for Macbeth ultimately ‘signifies nothing.’ Mirroring the book of Ecclesiastes, all is vanity for Macbeth. Life becomes a mere “shadow” and a “poor player” or a pawn of powerful supernatural forces.

Unlike the Poet-Philosopher-King of Prospero in The Tempest, Macbeth sees no glory in human greatness -no cloud capp’d towers, no gorgeous palaces. Macbeth is not a true leader like Prospero because he has no inspiration, no poetics, no vision to guide his fulfillment of the future. His reign is purely destructive. He believes that if he can eliminate enough people who pose a threat to his regime and hopefully fulfill his future prophecy, then his kingship can become perfect. Macbeth’s struggle in his soliloquy is not with a concern that human greatness is all for nought, like Prospero, but rather his struggle is with time. He laments endless tomorrows, all of which lead to an end of history. Similarly, in the life of a single human, every yesterday merely leads to death. Life is characterized as mere theatrics, filled not with reason and beauty, but rather with animalistic noises like “sound and fury.” The frivolity of life signifies nothing and he calls for life to be snuffed out like a “brief candle.” The only way Macbeth sees a return to an ontology of being is in death.

“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”


For this reading I used the 3rd Edition Arden of Shakespeare’s Macbeth

The Haunting Waters of A River Runs Through It

“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing”
opening lines

Anyone who has ever gone fly fishing knows it to be a complex art -almost spiritual in nature. Fly fishing forces a man to slow down, find rhythm, and discover patience and harmony with nature. In Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, which was mysteriously denied the Pulitzer Prize in 1977, Maclean offers a short story that mines the depths of this delicate art. In the story, fly fishing serves as a kind of metaphor for the imperfect nature of human beings (a theological notion propounded by Maclean’s father).

The novella is less about the panoramic “big sky country” and more of a meditation on Maclean’s upbringing and his family, especially his relationship with his brother. Maclean works for a newspaper in Helena where he hones his writing craft. We meet his Presbyterian minister father who teaches his boys how to fly fish, and his brother Paul who is often-drunk and gambling while maintaining a strict fishing regimen. A significant portion of the story is an extended recollection of a fishing misadventure with Maclean’s frivolous brother-in-law who winds up laying drunk, sunburned, and naked with a prostitute beside the river. The story highlights both Norman’s and Paul’s sacred connection to the river and its fish, in contrast to an outsider who disgraces and disrespects it. The river serves as the one constant in Norman’s life -it continues flowing while he continues fishing.

The tearful book ends in sorrow. Maclean, his father, and his brother all go fishing one last time together, and they observe Paul’s superior skills as he catches his “limit” (his biggest fish) in the river. Maclean reflects on the enthusiasm of the trio in one glimmering moment of nostalgia. Little did the trio know it was the last time they would ever fish together. The final words of Paul echo in Maclean’s mind: “just give me three more years before I can learn to think like a fish… just give me three more years…” Shortly thereafter Paul is found dead, the result of an apparent bar room fight. Paul’s death leaves Maclean and his father burdened and fatigued. Norman’s father suggests writing fiction because “only then will you understand what happened and why. It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us” (104).

The concluding paragraphs are the most darkly beautiful in the whole novella:

“Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand when I was young are dead, but I still reach out to them.

Of course, now I am too old to be much of a fisherman, and now of course I usually fish the big waters alone, although some friends think I shouldn’t. Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and the memories of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

I am haunted by waters”
(104).


There are many other deep and penetrating passages in A River Runs Through It. Here are a few that have stuck with me:

“‘Remember,’ as my father kept saying, ‘it is an art that is performed on a four-count rhythm between ten and two o’clock'” (4).

“Fishing is a world created apart from all others, and inside it are special worlds of their own -one is fishing for big fish in small water where there is not enough world and water to accomadate a fish and a fisherman” (40).

“The cast is so soft and slow that it can be followed like an ash settling from a fireplace chimney. One of life’s quiet excitements is to stand somewhat apart from yourself and watch yourself softly becoming the author of something beautiful, even if it is only floating ash” (43).

“…part of the way to know a thing is through its death” (62).


The 1977 Pulitzer Prize Controversy
A River Runs Through It was widely praised it upon its release. According to several news publications at the time, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction jury’s primary recommendation was for A River Runs Through It. The second choice was October Light by John Gardner. However, the Pulitzer Advisory Board denied the jury’s recommendation and no official Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was awarded in 1977.

There was speculation that the prize was not awarded due to a health emergency. One of the three fiction jurists, Jean Stafford, a novelist who won the Pulitzer herself in 1970, suffered a stroke while the jury was studying entries.

Richard T. Baker, a long-time journalism professor at Columbia University who succeeded John Hohenberg as Secretary of the Pulitzer Advisory Board, administered the prizes on behalf of Columbia University and said that no prize was given in the Fiction category because no recommendation “was clearly leading the pack.” He described 1977 as a “thin year, not a banner year” for both fiction as well as international reporting (a second category for which no award was given in 1977).

However, a special Pulitzer Prize was awarded in 1977 to Alex Haley in recognition of his best-seller, Roots, which traces seven generations of a black family in America.


Who Is Norman Maclean?
While A River Runs Through It offers the best insight into the life of Norman Maclean, I offer a terse overview of the author’s life below. Norman Maclean (1902-1990) was considered by some to be the patron writer of the state of Montana. He was born in Iowa and grew up in Missoula. In his early years he worked for the U.S. Forest Department, an experience he later wrote about in two of the stories featured in the A River Runs Through It and Other Stories.

Maclean graduated from Dartmouth College in 1924 and married Jess Burns in 1931. He enrolled in graduate school to study English at The University of Chicago, earning a doctorate in 1940. He taught courses on the Romantic poets and Shakespeare, before earning to a full professorship and becoming Dean of Students in Chicago. Many prominent Americans took classes with ‘Stormin’ Norman’ and his classes were often highly sought-after (some have grouped him among the neo-Aristotelians of the 20th century at The University of Chicago). U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens once credited professor Maclean as “the teacher to whom I am most indebted.”

Upon his retirement in 1974, Maclean’s two children encouraged him to write down the stories he often told them. In 1976, he published A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, a collection of three short stories, but the most prominent of the three is his memoir novella, “A River Runs Through It.” The book was the first work of fiction published by the University of Chicago Press.

Maclean spent his later years attempting to complete a book about the 1949 Mann Gulch Forest Fire, a wildfire that destroyed thousands of acres in Helena National Forest along the upper Missouri River. The book was published posthumously as Young Men and Fire (1992). Norman Maclean died in Chicago in 1990. In 1992, following Maclean’s death, the film rights to A River Runs Through It were purchased by Robert Redford and it was made into a Hollywood film starring Brad Pitt. The film version is entertaining and nostalgic, but it takes significant departures from the novella in order to expand the narrative.


Maclean, Norman. A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition. University of Chicago Press, 2001.

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Love and War In For Whom The Bell Tolls

For Whom The Bell Tolls is the novel that was supposed to win Ernest Hemingway his first Pulitzer Prize in 1941. However, like Sinclair Lewis before him, Hemingway was denied the prize by the President of Columbia University. As the story goes, the 1941 Novel Jury recommended several books for the Pulitzer Prize including, but not primarily, For Whom The Bell Tolls. Upon receiving the Jury’s recommendations the Pulitzer Advisory Board favored the critic’s choice For Whom The Bell Tolls. However, before the Board could complete a vote on the matter they were blocked by one man: the President of Columbia University, Nicholas Butler Murray. He was ex-officio Chairman of the Pulitzer Advisory Board and he objected to the ‘lascivious’ content in the novel (Sound familiar? Nicholas Butler Murray also blocked the Pulitzer Prize from being bestowed upon Sinclair Lewis in 1921 for his novel Main Street. Instead, the 1921 prize was awarded to Edith Wharton for The Age of Innocence).

Why did no member of the Pulitzer Advisory Board stand up to Nicholas Butler Murray? How was he able to railroad the whole process? His story is worth mentioning as he was a fascinating American figure. Nicholas Butler Murray was viewed as something of an autocratic ruler at Columbia University, often wantonly dismissing staff and faculty, prohibiting entry for Jewish students, in a word – he ruled Columbia with an iron first, and yet he was also a respected American statesman. He was the former running mate of William Howard Taft in the Presidential election of 1912. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931 along with Jane Addams, for his efforts as President of the Carnegie Endowment For International for Peace. He helped to negotiate peace in Europe using his elite relationships with leaders like Kaiser Wilhelm II. Nicholas Butler Murray was also a popular cultural figure. Each year The New York Times printed his annual Christmas Greeting to the nation. He is recognized today as the longest serving President of Columbia University (43 years), a tenure which first began with his role as Interim President in 1901 before he was officially elected President of Columbia, serving from 1902-1945. So when Nicholas Butler Murray stood in the doorway of the Pulitzer proceedings refusing to move or relent on the Hemingway question while shouting “I hope you will reconsider before you ask the university to be associated with an award for a work of this nature!” -no one dared to stand against him. The full details of the confrontation were later brought to light in 1962 by Arthur Krock, a New York Times journalist and Pulitzer Board member at the time. As a consequence of the fight, no novel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1941.

That year, the Novel Jury welcomed a newcomer: Dorothy Canfield Fisher, to replace Robert M. Lovett from the previous year. Dorothy Canfield Fisher is perhaps best known for bringing the Montessori School system to the United States, but she also achieved other important cultural milestones. She was praised by Eleanor Roosevelt as one of the most influential women in America. Alongside Fisher, two veteran Novel Jurists also reprised their roles on the Jury in 1941: Jefferson B. Fletcher (Literature Professor at Columbia University), and Joseph W. Krutch (Literature Professor at Columbia University and naturalist writer). For the Pulitzer Prize the trio also considered several other novels aside from For Whom The Bell Tolls including The Trees by Joseph Conrad, The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, Native Son by Richard Wright, and Oliver Wiswell by Kenneth Roberts. The Jury apparently reluctantly favored The Trees by Joseph Conrad before the Pulitzer Board unilaterally selected For Whom The Bell Tolls until Nicholas Butler Murray blocked its nomination.

Of course, despite being robbed the first time, Hemingway later won the coveted Pulitzer Prize in 1959 for The Old Man And The Sea (feel free to read my reflections on The Old Man and the Sea here).


For Whom The Bell Tolls is as tense a novel as it is tender. It is the story of love and war -a soldier’s duty contrasted with a lover’s embrace. The book takes us covertly behind enemy lines during the destructive Spanish Civil War of the 1930s (a war which lasted from 1936-1939). The book spans approximately four days, and within that narrow timeframe a lifetime occurs: we gain a profound and complex glimpse into the nature of heroism and cowardice among ordinary people. Amidst the chaos of war and the looming specter of death, For Whom The Bell Tolls also pulls back the curtain on a budding romance between an American soldier and an innocent Spanish girl.

For context, during the Spanish Civil War, battle lines were drawn between a coalition of conservatives, nationalists, and Catholics, led by the military dictator Francisco Franco; and on the other side, a loose-knit federation of republicans, liberals, communists, and anarchists. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy supported Franco, while Soviet Russia and Mexico supported the communists, but the United States, England, and France maintained a public stance of neutrality. After years of violence in every major Spanish city, the Spanish Civil War was eventually brought to an end in 1939 with the fascists taking over the country under Francisco Franco. During the war writers like George Orwell pleaded with the West to support the republicans against the fascists (see Homage To Catalonia). The war was later dubbed a “dress rehearsal” for World War II by Claude Bowers, U.S. Ambassador to Spain.

In the novel, Hemingway introduces us to Robert Jordan, a Montana-native and Spanish language professor. Robert Jordan has unfortunately found himself in the midst of the Spanish Civil War while on leave in Spain during the outbreak of the war. He is a volunteer in the International Brigades (a international coalition of fighters organized by communists). During this time Robert Jordan has become an experienced soldier and dynamiter. He is tasked with destroying a key strategic bridge inn order to block supplies and munitions from reaching the fascists through the Sierra de Guadarrama. The order comes from Golz, a Soviet officer.

En route to complete his mission, Robert Jordan encounters an old man named Anselmo who takes Robert Jordan high up into the mountains outside Segovia in central Spain (north of Madrid) where a band of guerrilla warriors is hiding out in a cave from the fascists below. While there, Robert Jordan meets Pablo, a jaded rebel who once led the revolt against fascism but now spends his time ignobly drinking wine and sarcastically deriding the war. He also meets Pablo’s wife, Pilar, a strong-willed woman who serves as the de facto leader of the group in Pablo’s abdication (“Pilar” was a nickname for Hemingway’s third wife, Pauline, and also the name of his fishing boat); a gypsy named Rafael; and several other soldiers like Agustín, El Sordo, Fernando, Andrés, Eladio, Primitivo, and Joaquín. The group exists there by a “miracle” according to El Sordo. The fascists are unaware of their presence. The group quickly grows accustomed to Robert Jordan and they call him “Inglés” or simply “Roberto” (the whole novel is rife with Spanish idioms, including edited obscenities). However, the people in the cave are strange and unfamiliar. All throughout his days in the cave the reader asks: can Robert Jordan really trust these guerrilla fighters? How can we be certain they are not going to sabotage the mission?

The most important character Robert Jordan meets in the cave is María, a young Spanish girl whose town was ravaged by the fascists. She taken alive by the fascists -her hair was hacked off and she was raped, but she was then rescued and cared for by Pilar. Robert Jordan and María quickly strike up a romance, and Pilar essentially gives María to Robert Jordan as his lover with the promise of marriage. Robert Jordan calls María his little “rabbit” and they spend most evenings together in Robert Jordan’s sleeping bag just outside the cave.

While introducing us to the tenderness of Robert Jordan’s new love, the first half of the novel also delivers an extraordinarily tense series of moments. The impending mission to destroy the bridge plagues the reader’s mind. Will the weather be good? Will the fascists retaliate? Will they find the cave before the bridge can be blown? Will Golz call off the mission? Who will die? Who will live? Filled with hope and worry, Robert Jordan hides out with the rebels in the mountains while trying to keep a low profile, careful about what information he reveals. At the same time, skepticism grows regarding Pablo’s loyalties, and Robert Jordan places his faith in Pilar.

Suddenly, Robert Jordan is surprised one morning when an unsuspecting fascist patrolman stumbles onto his outdoor sleeping bag. Robert Jordan quickly leaps up and kills the patrolman. Then a skirmish breaks out across the mountain killing El Sordo’s entire band of fighters. Robert Jordan and the remaining fighters wait a day, and then assault the bridge (undeterred by a momentary lapse of judgment from Pablo when he steals some of Robert Jordan’s explosive equipment in the night, casting it into a ravine. Pablo eventually rejoins the fight in an effort to redeem himself). As the group approaches the bridge, they quietly kill the fascist sentries. Robert Jordan and the old man Anselmo then successfully wire, detonate, and destroy the bridge, but the explosion kills Anselmo along with several others in the process. The remaining guerrillas flee back up into the mountains having completed their mission.

“Dying was nothing and he had no picture of it nor fear of it in his mind. But living was a field of grain blowing in the wind on the side of a hill. Living was a hawk in the sky. Living was an earthen jar of water in the dust of the threshing with the grain flailed out and the chaff blowing. Living was a horse between your legs and a carbine under one leg and a hill valley and a stream with trees along it and the far side of the valley and the hills beyond” (312-313 on the last moments of Sordo’s life during his last stand against advancing fascists before he is killed in a plane raid).

For Whom The Bell Tolls tells the true account of war far greater than mere fact or history: it presents the experience of a soldier in all its complexity. Robert Jordan is a multi-faceted man: he is anxious, confident, distrusting, steadfast, competent, sorrowful, determined, and yet friendly. He is both a lover and a fighter who experiences the great depths of love amidst the heart-pounding threat of war.

“You felt, in spite of all bureaucracy and inefficiency and party strife, something that was like the feeling you expected to have and did not have when you made your first communion. It was a feeling of consecration to a duty toward all of the oppressed of the world which would be as difficult and embarrassing to speak about as religious experience and yet it was authentic as the feeling you had when you heard Bach, or stood in the Chartres Cathedral or the Cathedral at Leon and saw the light coming through the great windows; or when you saw Mantegna and Greco and Brueghel in the Prado. It gave you a part in something that you could believe in wholly and completely and in which you felt an absolute brotherhood with the others who were engaged in it. It was something you had never known before but that you had experienced now and you gave such importance to it and the reasons for it that your own death seemed of complete unimportance; only a thing to be avoided because it would interfere with the performance of duty. But the best thing was that there was something you could do about this feeling and this necessity too. You could fight” (235, on the experience of war).

The question of death, namely what is a good and noble death, also looms large over the novel. Robert Jordan’s father had committed suicide, an act which he considers cowardly. He occasionally reflects on his troubled father throughout the novel. Robert Jordan recalls the story of a compatriot who requested he be shot instead of falling into the hands of the fascists. Instead, Robert Jordan values a man who ends his life fighting without surrender. And Robert Jordan is also contrasted with other characters in the novel, particularly Pablo, who has become cowardly and all-too-comfortable in his hidden cave while drunk in a bowl of wine. Sadly, Pablo’s fear of death has overcome his desire for virtue or honor, and even his own wife does not respect him. In contrast, El Sordo dies bravely in battle. In the end, we are led to believe Robert Jordan dies a good death, as well. Perhaps the most striking moment that discusses a noble versus ignoble death occurs when Pilar recounts the brutal killings of fascists in her town square. Some people go to their death bravely and without fear, while others are weak and cower before the crowd of people.

“‘If you have not seen the day of revolution in a small town where all know all in the town and always have known all, you have seen nothing…'” (106, Pilar sharing a horrific story of anti-fascists, including Pablo, who assassinate sympathetic townsfolk with the fascist cause, one by one. Some die nobly and willingly, while others die in disgrace and dishonor. It is a jarring but instructive scene).

In the end, Robert Jordan ends his life as an honorable man. After blowing up the bridge, and while running back into the mountains, Robert Jordan’s leg is horribly broken in an explosion. He is dragged up to safety by the others but he simply cannot carry on. Knowing his fate, he calmly develops a plan. He says goodbye to his lover, María, and tells Pablo, Pilar, and the others to press on without him. Hemingway dramatically leaves us with this scene in the end: a mortally wounded Robert Jordan waiting beside a tree, feeling his heartbeat against the pine needles on the forest floor, while a fascist cavalry unit turns the corner and Robert Jordan prepares to open fire.

“I have fought for what I believed in for a year now. If we win here we will win everywhere. The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it. And you had a lot of luck, he told himself, to have had such a good life” (467).


Ernest Hemingway was a lifelong lover of Spain, particularly the encierro in Pamplona. He was a supporter of the Loyalist cause in the Spanish Civil War (the anti-fascists) -he served as Chair of the Ambulance Committee for the Medical Bureau of the American Friends of Spanish Democracy. He also publicly supported the Spanish Republic in 1937 when he produced an hour-long pseudo-documentary movie The Spanish Earth together with Jörg Ivens and John Dos Passos (read my review of the film here). Hemingway wrote the script and narrated the film (Orson Welles was originally slated too narrate the film). A beautiful technicolor film version of For Whom The Bell Tolls was released in 1943 (read my review of the film here). Hemingway was also a war correspondent reporting on the Spanish Civil War for the North American Newspaper Association (NANA) between 1937-1938. He left Spain for the last time in 1938 and wrote a series of short stories about the Spanish Civil War before setting himself up at the Hotel Sevilla Biltmore in Havana where he began writing For Whom The Bell Tolls. His writing regimen began at 8:30am and continued until 2pm or 3pm, the same practice he had established when writing A Farewell to Arms.

After traveling in Cuba and Montana, he searched for a title for the novel, first turning to the Bible and Shakespeare, before discovering John Donne’s poem “For Whom The Bell Tolls” in the Oxford Book of English Verse:

“No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man
is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a
Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse,
as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor
of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death
diminishes me me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And
therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.”

The allusion to John Donne’s poem, which was originally published in 1624 from his presumed deathbed, points us to themes of isolation, death, and the need to belong. The Spanish Civil War offers Robert Jordan the chance to find fraternity and purpose in fighting the threat of fascism. If there is no greater love than for a man to lay down his life for his friends, then Robert Jordan finds his deepest love on the battlefield of central Spain. His life is an important piece of an intricate puzzle in a worldwide chain of being. The war in Spain is not an island, but rather a part of a broader global conflict set to explode with World War II. In For Whom The Bell Tolls, the idea of war comes to light as a harsh teacher, a bearer of unforgiving truth, a life-affirming cause of brotherhood and meaning in a meaningless world. Love and death have the power to unveil the hidden character of modern man, by testing his prudence, courage, temperance, and justice. War reveals to us the grandeur and also the limits of mankind.


About Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) led a fascinating and storied life. He was born in Oak Park, Illinois, a small town outside Chicago. He cut his teeth writing as a journalist for the Kansas City Star in 1917. There, he built his signature writing and editing style: concise, direct, and honest sentences that tell the truth above all else.

Hemingway posing for the original dust jacket of For Whom The Bell Tolls

During the outbreak of World War I, Hemingway became a volunteer ambulance driver for the Red Cross on the Italian front but was wounded and sent home. He married his first wife Hadley Richardson and moved to Paris where he joined a circle of post-war artists and critics: Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, and others. In Paris, Hemingway began writing his first collections of poetry and short stories. In 1926, he published his first modernist classic, The Sun Also Rises, a reflection of his years as an expat in France and Spain.

In the late 1920s, Hemingway returned to the United States and published his World War I novel, A Farewell To Arms. He had an affair and divorced his first wife to marry Pauline “Fife” Pfeiffer. He then moved to Key West and Cuba. While traveling widely throughout the world, he wrote books about bullfighting (Death In The Afternoon) and an account of big game hunting in Africa (The Green Hills of Africa). Hemingway had another affair and he left his wife for another woman -he remarried a third time, this time to Martha Gellhorn (he dedicated For Whom The Bell Tolls to Martha Gellhorn).

In the 1930s, Hemingway became an international reporter on the Spanish Civil War, which eventually spawned For Whom The Bell Tolls, and with the growing turmoil in Europe, he hand-delivered the novel manuscript to his publisher Max Perkins at Scribner’s in New York in July 1940 (the book would later be praised by two adversaries and American statesmen: John McCain and Barack Obama). Hemingway then hunted U-Boats in the Caribbean and reported on the European front in World War II. He remarried for the fourth and final time to Mary Welsh who remained with him until his death. In 1952 he wrote The Old Man And The Sea. Shortly thereafter, he won the Pulitzer in 1953 and the Nobel Prize in 1954. At the end of his life, Hemingway’s mental health had deteriorated, particularly after he received electroshock treatment. He killed himself by a self-inflicted shotgun blast in Ketchum, Idaho in 1961 -the same way his father had also died (and the way Robert Jordan’s father died in For Whom The Bell Tolls).

For my full notes on Ernest Hemingway’s life, click here.

To read my reflections upon reading The Paris Review’s famous interview with Hemingway (1958) click here.


Hemingway, Ernest. For Whom The Bell Tolls. New York, Scribner, 2003.

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Trickery and Alchemy in the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale

“But al thyng which that shineth as the gold
Nis nat gold, as that I have herd it told;” (962-963)

Neither the Canon (a priestly administrator of a cathedral) nor his Yeoman are mentioned in Chaucer’s “General Prologue.” Instead, they ride quickly from the previous town and meet up with the traveling group of storytellers at Boughton under Bleam (an English village located between Faversham about five miles from Canterbury). From here, the riders see the towers of Canterbury Cathedral. Thus, their pilgrimage has nearly reached its destination.

The newly arrived Yeoman initially describes his master (the Canon) as a most powerful man, capable of painting the road to Canterbury silver and gold, but the Host is skeptical, noting their shabby clothing. In ‘shame and sorrow,’ the Canon flees and the Yeoman decides to be a little more honest and tell a story exposing his master’s trickery and the deceitful art of alchemy. The Yeoman now describes his lord (the Canon) as ignorant and incapable as a result of spending too much effort toward becoming a failed alchemist. The Canon wears unrefined clothing (even a sock over his head instead of a proper hood), and he spends his time lurking down alleys with robbers and thieves. The Yeoman says his lord is “crafty” and “sly” (655), not unlike Homer’s Odysseus or the Serpent in the Bible. The Canon’s absurd quest into the art of alchemy has forced he and his Yeoman to live like beggars.

The Yeoman proclaims not to be a learned man, but he offers a prolonged description of the various chemicals and odd experiments performed by the Canon in an effort to discover the true elixir of life, or the ‘philosopher’s stone.’ Like Chaucer (the pilgrim), the initial part of the “Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale” is hardly a tale at all, but rather a lengthy diatribe against the art of alchemy and warning against deceitful people. He is a sorely unhappy and disillusioned man.

In his tale, which begins halfway through his section, the Yeoman describes a vicious and evil Canon (though he claims this person is not in any way a representation of his lord because there are evil people in every profession, however we in the audience are skeptical). The Canon in his story claims to pursue the fabled ‘philosopher’s stone.’ One day, he tricks a good-natured priest into lending him money and he repays the priest with a lump of coal (dung) that he claims can easily be converted into silver. The Canon tricks the feeble-minded priest several times, and the tale ends with a series of cautionary warnings from the Yeoman at this “lusty game” which turn a man’s “myrthe it wol turne unto grame (sorrow),” and curiously he concludes with an account of a wholly anachronistic conversation between Plato and a disciple. Perhaps we should be skeptical of story-tellers like the Yeoman. He has been blinded (literally) and jaded by his master’s various plots to grow rich.

On the surface the “Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale” is an attack on the art of alchemy, but it is also aa reflection on certain types of story-telling, namely a journalistic exposé. In the context of the greater ‘Tales of Canterbury’ (a story about storytellers) we are tasked with discovering which tale, and therefore which poet, is superior. In order to understand the “Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale” we require a great deal of context. What is alchemy? Why are alchemists evil people? And what better way to defame a self-proclaimed man of education and mystery than through the medium of literature? Throughout The Canterbury Tales, we discover certain boundaries for good and bad literature, and the “Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale” is a reflection of his own character –he is similar to other resentful story-tellers (such as the Miller, the Reeve, the Friar, or the Summoner) who weaponize their tales in order to defame their enemies. Poetry offers the unique opportunity for a poet to conceal himself behind the facade of mere story-telling. However, in the quest to create a well-balanced story that both informs and delights, the Yeoman offers an excess of education but a dearth of delight.

Though the Yeoman is a stranger to the group, his tale shares kinship with many of themes touched upon thus far throughout the tales, highlighting both the interconnectedness and the universality of literature.


For this reading I used the Broadview Canterbury Tales edition which is based on the famous Ellesmere Manuscript. The Broadview edition closely matches the work of Chaucer’s scribe, Adam Pinkhurst.