Post-Arthurian Apocalyptic Fantasy: The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Failure of Sir Gawain by William Morris

The Failure of Sir Gawain by William Morris

I’ve struggled for two days with what to say about The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel.  I guess I will begin here:  it’s a knights and dragons fantasy, an Arthurian romance, a Medieval adventure, a journey, a treatise on love and loss, an allegory, a meditation on war and peace and success and failure.  It’s beautiful, it’s sad, it’s occasionally funny.

As the best novels do, The Buried Giant begins with a journey.  Axl and Beatrice emerge from a barely-remembered and undefined term of darkness in their buried city with a plan to take a journey.

“You’ve long set your heart against it, Axl, I know.  But it’s time now to think on it anew.  There’s a journey we must go on, and no more delay.”

“A journey, princess?  What sort of journey?”

“A journey to our son’s village.  It’s not far, husband, we know that.  Even with our slow steps, its a few days’ walk at most, a little way east beyond the Great Plain.  And the spring will soon be upon us.”

The journey is prompted by the couple’s wish to remember.  Not only Axl and Beatrice, but their entire country, where Britons live shoulder to shoulder in an uneasy peace with Saxons, is surrounded in a mist of forgetfulness.  “We can’t even remember [the days when we were foolish young lovers].  We don’t remember our fierce quarrels or the small moments we enjoyed and treasured.  We don’t remember our son or why he’s away from us,” Beatrice frets.

The setting of the novel is somewhere in Southern England between the fall of the Roman empire and the driving out of the Celtic tribes by the Anglo-Saxons in the seventh or eighth century.  To me, a big fan of King Arthur, Queen Guinevere and the Knights of the Round Table, I imagine that Ishiguro chose Glastonbury as the setting for The Buried Giant.  Glastonbury has long been linked to Arthurian legend and particularly to Avalon, the isle of the dead, where the spirits of the deceased would dwell.  In a story told by Caradoc of Llancarfan, Melwas, king of the “Summer Country,” kidnapped Guinevere while she was a-maying.  It took Arthur an entire year to find her and then he and his army attached Melwas’ stronghold but it was not until Gildas, the Christian cleric said to reside in Glastonbury, negotiated a peace treaty with Melwas that she was released.  (Another version has Lancelot responsible for her rescue and thus begins their affair).  King Arthur and the Gods of the Round Table, David Dom (lulu.com 2013).

This becomes more important, perhaps, when the first person Axl and Beatrice meet on their journey is a boatman and one of his former, would-be passengers.

“Good lady, the island this old woman speaks of is no ordinary one.  We boatmen have ferried many there over the years, and by now there will be hundreds inhabiting its fields and woods.  But it’s a place of strange qualities, and one who arrives there will walk among its greenery and trees in solitude, never seeing another soul.  Occasionally on a moonlit night or when a storm’s ready to break, he may sense the presence of his fellow inhabitants.  But most days, for each traveller, its as thought he’s the island’s only resident.  I’d happily have ferried this woman, but when she understood she wouldn’t be with her husband, she declared she didn’t care for such solitude and refused to go.”

Their next stop, in a Saxon village, brings them in contact with Wistan, a Saxon soldier, and Edwin, a Saxon teenager, recently rescued by Wistan from something terrible which may or may not have involved a dragon’s unhealing wound.  Wistan and Edwin will travel with Beatrice and Axl to find none other than Sir Gawain, King Arthur’s nephew and the last surviving knight of his realm. As they quartet commences to fulfill a quest which now includes slaying a dragon as well as finding a son, they meet crones, monks, secret fortresses, pixies, hidden tunnels, treacherous allies, and ultimately, one very sad dragon.  Essentially, one episode of Game of Thrones, I take it.

From Disney's Sleeping Beauty

From Disney’s Sleeping Beauty

Ishiguro is a master storyteller and draws the reader through the landscape with increasing anxiety for our protagonists.  First Wistan, then Galahad, claim to recognize Axl from the distant past.  Axl himself seems to remember a time before the mist when he may have been a man of some importance, a man negotiating a peace as suggested by the meaning of his name.  Beatrice, whose own name means traveler, recalls the journey of Dante’s Beatrice in The Divine Comedy, where Beatrice guides Dante through the celestial spheres of Heaven.

Or maybe I am digging too deep or imprinting my own interpretation.  Alex Preston wrote in his review for The Guardian:

It is possible to construct specific interpretations for Ishiguro’s novel. One thinks of Primo Levi in 1948, feeling that If This Is a Man, his memoir of the Holocaust, was a “discourtesy” in the forward-looking postwar world. We can view the “buried giant” as the way history has been swept over any number of genocides, from Armenia to Rwanda. It may even be an explanation for the disappearance of the Britons – killed not by marauding Saxons, but by their own guilt.

Focusing on one single reading of its story of mists and monsters, swords and sorcery, reduces it to mere parable; it is much more than that. It is a profound examination of memory and guilt, of the way we recall past trauma en masse. It is also an extraordinarily atmospheric and compulsively readable tale, to be devoured in a single gulp. The Buried Giant is Game of Thrones with a conscience, The Sword in the Stone for the age of the trauma industry, a beautiful, heartbreaking book about the duty to remember and the urge to forget.  http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/mar/01/the-buried-giant-kazuo-ishiguro-review-game-of-thrones-conscience

Neil Gamian, master storyteller himself, reviewed The Buried Giant for The New York Times:

Alfred Kappes, 1880

Alfred Kappes, 1880

Ishiguro is not afraid to tackle huge, personal themes, nor to use myths, history and the fantastic as the tools to do it. “The Buried Giant” is an exceptional novel, and I suspect my inability to fall in love with it, much as I wanted to, came from my conviction that there was an allegory waiting like an ogre in the mist, telling us that no matter how well we love, no matter how deeply, we will always be fallible and human, and that for every couple who are aging together, one or the other of them — of us — will always have to cross the water, and go on to the island ahead and alone.  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/01/books/review/kazuo-ishiguros-the-buried-giant.html?_r=0

My recommendation:  read it.  I think you will enjoy it.  And I think there is quite a bit to discuss.  Lots of symbolism.  And meaning of life.  And if you have married couples, you can debate whether you will be able to both cross the lake and be able to stay together once you reach the island.  Just don’t blame me for the fight!

MENU

I’m choosing a menu taken directly from the pages of the book.  Beatrice and Axl are guests of village elder Ivor at the Saxon village.  He serves them bread, honey, biscuits, jugs of milk and water and a tray of poultry cuts.

Bachelor Biscuits — my favorites (and easy)

2 c. self rising flour
1/4 c. shortening
1 c. milk
Preheat oven to 450 to 475 degrees. Place flour in mixing bowl; add shortening. With pastry blender or blending fork, cut shortening into flour until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.Gently push the flour mixture to the edges of the bowl, making a well in the center. Blend the milk with a fork until dough leaves sides of bowl. Do not overmix.

Turn dough onto lightly floured surface. Knead gently 10 to 12 strokes. On lightly floured surface, pat or roll dough to slightly more than 1/2 inch thickness. Cut with 2 or 2 1/2 inch cutter, dipping cutter into flour between cuts.

 Drop dough from tablespoon onto greased baking sheet; bake 6-8 minutes til golden. Makes 12.
Bourbon-Honey Chicken
1/2 Cup Bourbon
1/2 Cup Honey
1 Tablespoon Soy Sauce
Black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons olive oil
Increase marinade in proportion if necessary for increased amount of chicken.  Marinate chicken for 6-8 hours in the refrigerator.  Then grill if possible, or oven cook at 375 degrees for 20-30 minutes (without bone) and finish with a couple minutes under the broiler to get caramelization.
MUSIC
My choice would be the soundtrack from 1994’s Excalibur.  Trevor Jones’ compositions written for the film were a mix of post-Romantic and new age material, interspersed with and decidedly antiquated folk-based sounds, pieces for tin whistle juxtaposed with works for eerie female chorus and strange musical oscillations; other works intermingle folk and classical material of extraordinary density and power, according to reviewer Bruce Eder.  There’s also some Wagner in there!
CASTING
Given that this is the 7th or 8th century, 50 would be ancient.  So . . .
AXL — Daniel Day-Lewis
Beatrice — Ah, you know who would be perfect for this?  Vivien Leigh.  Alas.  Helena Bonham Carter.
Wistan — Alexander Skarsgard
Edwin — Isaac Hempstead White (from Game of Thrones)
Sir Gawain — Sean Connery (who else?)
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My Dogs’ Life

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It felt like the first day of spring.  Saturday, April 11, 2015.  Eliza, my 11 year old blonde cocker spaniel-golden retriever mix, and Abra, my 5 year old border collie mix, had woken me at 7 a.m. for a quick trip out to the front porch and then all three of us trooped back upstairs to my queen size bed, found a comfortable spot and slept for another two and a half hours.  At about 9:25, Eliza unfurled herself from the crook of my legs and hopped off the bed.  Abra shook her head and poked it out from beneath the covers next to my left side.  She did her little morning Down Dog yoga pose, waited for a bit of a belly scratch and then jumped down, tail wagging, waiting for me to put my slippers on and walk downstairs to let them outside.

It was a beautiful day.  Clear blue sky, warm sun.  I would get dressed and we would go for a long morning walk, maybe the farmers market.  The girls loved Saturdays because it meant three or four long walks.  One through Sayre School and around Central Christian Church to Esplanade and then Main Street and back up Limestone.  One down Second Street hoping to see and chase Abra’s friend Sassy before going to Georgetown Street and back down Short.  One around the campus of Transylvania and their home turf of Gratz Park where squirrels are most plentiful.

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Abra, left, and Eliza: winter in Gratz Park

As I’ve done a thousand times, I let them into the back yard.  I got a glass of water, a protein bar, the newspaper from the front porch.  I called for them at the back door and they didn’t come so I gave them another minute.  When they didn’t come the second time, I went into the driveway, calling for them in my nightgown.  That was when the unthinkable occurred.

Four people stood in my driveway.

“Are you looking for a couple of dogs?”  The woman asked me.  She was someone I’d never seen before.

“Yes.”

“We hit them.”

“You hit them?”  I asked.  I heard her, I don’t know why I repeated it.  My brain wanted to reject the information.

“Yes.  They were chasing a cat.”

A slim woman in black pushing a baby carriage came closer.  Her face showed great sadness.  I looked from her to the first woman.  The two men hung back.

Please.

“Please tell me they’re not dead.”

The first woman nodded.  “We saw the cat.  The cat got away.  We stopped for the cat.  But we didn’t see the dogs.”

“They’re dead?”  My voice rose in a quiver.  “They’re dead?”

The woman with the baby carriage approached me.  She whispered, “Can I give you a hug?”  I clung to her.  I didn’t know her, but she was my mother and my sister and my best friend in that moment.  “They are dead?  They can’t be dead.  They are all I have in the world.  Please tell me they’re not dead.”

Her husband, young, tall, capable.  “We saw it happen.  I — ”  He checked his wife’s eyes.  “I picked them up off the street and carried them to the sidewalk.  I checked their pulses first thing.  They were both killed instantly.  They didn’t suffer.”

“They are dead?  Dead?  My babies.  My poor babies.”  I cried.  I wailed.  I have heard the word keen but never knew what the sound was until I heard it coming from my own chest.  I needed to see.  I released myself from the bounds of this woman’s arms and walked toward the street and saw a swath of blood and gore several feet wide.  “Oh my God.  My babies.”  From where I stood, I could see the familiar curve of Abra’s soft, black fur covering her curled back, her tail tucked habitually between her front paws.  I couldn’t see her face or her distinctive ears or her bright, curious, loving cinnamon eyes.  I couldn’t see any of Eliza at all:  not her kind, devoted deep brown eyes, or her Grinch-feathered toes or her soft, floppy ears.

Abra, the Doodle, Abra Doodle, the Poodle, the Poo-Poo, Doodle Fus.  Eliza, Eliza Jane, Liza Jane, Smushy-Face, Grinchy Toes.

“I have to call someone.”  I stumbled into the house.  I called my mother, no answer.  My father.  No answer.  On the second ring, my sister answered and within three words, my brother in law was on the way to help.  Within ten minutes, my mother and best friend had arrived.  Then my sister.  Then more friends.  Shock, sorrow, sadness.

Throughout the week, I’ve had cards and letters and flowers and words of comfort from friends and neighbors and even people I barely know but who know me from seeing me walking with the neighborhood with Abra and Eliza.

“Where are the girls today?”

I’ve explained several times and without exception, have been met with real, compassionate tears.

My neighbor across the street called me on Sunday.  “I barely knew them and they always barked at me when they saw me as if they’d never seen me before,” he said, his voice muddy with tears, “but I loved those dogs.  They were the sweetest things.  I miss them already.  I know I’m supposed to strong for you and I’m failing in that.  I’m so sorry.”

One of my neighbors around the corner dropped off a card last night that brought me to tears again.  “I’ve been thinking of you and your pals.  I’m so sorry.  If they could talk, they would thank you for the years of love and for taking such good care of them.”

But you see, it was the other way around.  They took such good care of me.

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Next! The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

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Just how many wives does one guy need?  When it came to Brigham Young, one of the “founding fathers” of the Mormon youngchurch, the answer was never very clear, at least according to David Ebershoff’s novel, The 19th Wife.  Perhaps, more accurately, Brigham Young was clear on the number of wives he had, but no one else was because the number changed so frequently depending on how many were active wives.  As one of the characters in the novel notes, it is likely he had 52-55, but “removed from the total tally were the wives who had died, who were barren, or whom Brigham no longer had sexual relations with.”  (Photo of Brigham Young, courtesy of PBS)

In Ebershoff’s 2008 novel, the title The 19th Wife refers to Ann Eliza Young, one of Brigham’s wives and a staunch opponent of polygamy, and to BeckyLyn Scott, the 19th wife of a modern polygamist from a fundamentalist sect of “First Saints” who live in Mesadale, Utah.  Mr. Scott turned up shot to death after leaving a note indicting BeckyLyn on a chatroom:

Manofthehouse2004:  hang on

DesertMissy:  phone?

Manofthehouse2004:  no my wife

DesertMissy:  which one?

Manofthehouse2004:  #19

Enter Jordan, BeckyLyn’s gay son, who was forcibly removed from Mesadale by the Prophet’s guard at the age of 14 and told to make his own way in the world.  Over the course of the novel, Jordan teams up with another homeless Mesadale teen, meets a great guy, tries to clear his mother’s name and learns more about his father than he ever wanted to know.

Ebershoff takes reams of historical information about the real Brigham and Ann Eliza Young and meshes these into a head-spinning variety of fictional accounts:  private journals, published books, correspondence, research papers, deposition testimony, newspaper articles. Without ever actually interweaving the narratives, the two segments of the book complement and comment upon one another.  The New York Times’s review of the book said, “In a less talented writer’s hands, The 19th Wife could have turned into a Rube Goldberg contraption. But in the end the multiplicity of perspectives serves to broaden Ebershoff’s depiction not only of polygamy, but also of the people whose lives it informs. And this gives his novel a rare sense of moral urgency.”  http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/31/books/review/Thomas-t.html?_r=0.  Frankly, as I read the book myself, I was astounded at the different voices Ebershoff created and his ability to fictionalize so many different aspects of history and combine them with a significant and compelling modern story.

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One of Ebershoff’s resources was Ann Eliza’s own book, Wife Number 19.

Jordan’s quest to clear his mother’s name of course returns him to his Mesadale roots, where he must confront the demons of his past.  It’s a great story.  But my favorite part of the novel, I believe, other than Jordan’s dog Elektra who is one hoot after another, is Jordan’s romance with Tom.  Jordan, understandably, is a hard case.  After what he expects to be a one-night stand with Tom, Tom wakes him to attend church with him on Sunday morning.  They drive for two hours to a church in Las Vegas which welcomed everyone:  “the blind dyke; the six-foot-four inch tranny; the hairy bear ravaged by HIV; this kid, Lawrence.”  And after a sermon in which the pastor simply read children’s definitions of love — they give you the last bite of their eye cream and you give them yours, when my doggy licks my face even though I’ve left her outside all day long — Jordan finds his feelings growing, almost against his will.

I don’t know about you, but I hate the phrase nicest guy in the world.  As in, I just met the nicest guy in the world.  As if.  But now it seemed to true.

It’s a stark contrast between Jordan and Tom’s sweet love story and the snakes’ nest of relationships that grew out of both the 19th century and 21st century polygamy as depicted in The 19th Wife.   

This is a dense, long, historically fascinating novel.  Should your book club choose to read it, make sure that you do so with plenty of time devoted to the reading and the discussing.  And enjoy!

FOOD

The Church of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) does not allow alcohol, tea, coffee (or piercings or immodest dress) — all of which pretty much would put my book club at a loss for everything.  The novel is a little spare on food details, but there is a mention of donuts at the Las Vegas church service, and a fairly icky turkey buffet served by the pound.  But the LDS did bring bees and honey west with them when they came to Utah and Ann Eliza Young’s former home was called the Beehive House.  So honey would be a good addition.  I also found a website that lists Utah’s favorite foods, http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/lifestyle/51637367-80/aggie-amet-bear-burgers.html.csp, chief among them apparently is green jello.  Why?  I have no idea.  But my grandmother has a wonderful green jello recipe.

Menu

Green Jello Salad

1 large carton Cool Whip

1 small carton small curd cottage cheese

1 small can crushed pineapple, drained

1 large package green jello, dry.  Do not add water.

Beat all ingredients except Cool Whip.  Fold in Cool Whip.  Coconut and nuts can be added if desired.  Pour into large flat dish and refrigerate.

Pastrami Burgers (see article above)

French fries with fry sauce

Fry Sauce is the state condiment of Utah, I take it.  Here’s a recipe from http://www.onegoodthingbyjillee.com/2014/05/utah-fry-sauce-a-state-treasure.html

  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • 1/2 cup ketchup (roughly a 2 to 1 ratio)
  • 1/2 tsp onion powder
  • 3 to 4 teaspoons pickle juice (add one teaspoon at a time & check for taste)
  • Mix all ingredients together in a bowl and serve with fries.

Vanilla Ice Cream with Honey

MUSIC

This may be the easiest music suggestion ever.  The Mormon Tabernacle Choir has a website that has a 24/7 live streaming service.  http://www.mormontabernaclechoir.org/listen-to-music?lang=eng

MOVIE CASTING

David Ebershoff’s novel The 19th Wife has already been adapted to film by the Lifetime Movie Network.  It will be shown next on April 26, 2015, at 6 a.m.  Set your DVRs!

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Happy Reading!

A Necessary End: Mad Men’s Final Episodes. What Would Shakespeare Do?

mad-men-silhouetteThe by-now iconic silhouette begins each show.  The head and shoulders of a man, relaxed against a low-profile sofa, his white collar and cuff stark against the vacuum surrounding him.  Don Draper/Dick Whitman sits alone, just as he sat in second one, minute one of show one, season one of Mad Men.

I’ve been amusing myself over the past couple of days staving off my mourning by re-watching some of the classic shows — Carousel, Betty shooting birds, Goodbye Mr. Cooper — and trying to figure out how it all will end.  Expert, on-line theories range from the obvious, Don is the falling man in the credits at the top of the show, to the highly improbable, each cast member dies and turns into an omnivorous zombie.  http://www.wsj.com/articles/how-will-mad-men-end-the-pros-predict-1427395373. Another:  Don dies in an airplane crash and Neve Campbell returns to be the angel of death to whisk him away.  http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/04/14/all-the-signs-that-don-draper-will-die-on-mad-men.html.  Time magazine actually has the audacity to suggest that Mad Men will have a happy ending!  http://time.com/119072/mad-men-don-draper-finale/.  (In 1970?  Didn’t they read 1970?)

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I have dusted off my own crystal ball (in the shape of The Riverside Shakespeare) and as an alternate, and mostly amusing theory, propose that Mad Men is a Shakespearean tragedy with all the elements thereof, and occasionally even, some of the actual dialogue and plot lines.  (For example, I rewatched an episode last night named “The Quality of Mercy”!)  In service of this theory, therefore, I give you the following:

There are many elements common among tragedies in general, a tragic hero, a lofty theme, the intervention of fate/supernatural, the commentary of a chorus, humor via word play or the unexpected and spectacle.

Mad Men contains each element.

Don Draper, the Tragic Hero.  An articulate, social authority, someone who is important within his own society and has one weakness or fault — a tragic flaw — that during the course of the drama grows until it overcomes his virtues and leads to his downfall and the destruction of his world.

Theme:  Ambition, Desire.

Intervention of Fates/Supernatural:  The fire that allowed Dick Whitman to become Don Draper.  Don’s meeting with Roger leading to his job with Sterling Cooper.  The LSD in season five and the marijuana in season six and all the way back to season one and two.

Chorus

:  Mad-Men-Season-7-Promo-Photos-Part-2 (9)These guys.  All of them but Ginsburg have been there from the beginning.  There’s also another chorus, Don’s extra-marital women over the years, commenting on Don himself, in order of their appearance, with thanks to Vulture.com:  Midge, Rachel Menken, Bobbie Barrett, Joy in Palm Springs, Shelly a flight attendant, Sally’s teacher Suzanne Farrell, post-separation Bethany Van Nuys, sex worker Candace, Dr. Faye Miller, post-Clio diner waitress, Sylvia Rosen, Megan’s Cali friend Amy.  http://www.vulture.com/2015/03/women-of-don-draper.html.  This list does not include the woman who raised him, the woman who gave him the Hershey’s bar in the whorehouse, Anna Draper or her niece Stephanie.  Or Joan Harris.

Humor:  Check.  Roger Sterling’s famous for it.

Spectacle.  As the most recent example, Bert Cooper’s swan song and dance.  Also the My Old Kentucky Home episode, and the tractor episode.

sally and donIf Don is the tragic hero — I was originally thinking Hamlet, but that really doesn’t work.  Othello maybe?  MacBeth?  Or a mixture of all of them.  You know who Don most reminds me of is Oberon, who is not a tragic hero because he is in a comedy.  But Oberon is a king, he has lots of women trouble and lots of women.  He has an assistant who likes to make trouble.  Oberon is definitely a creative and emotional type.  He actually flooded the earth out of anger with his woman, Titania, when she got angry with him for his peccadilloes all the while blaming it on her.  Very Don.

Moving on to cast the rest.  Having gone back to season one, it seems to me the primary trio of the show are Don, Peggy and Pete.  Now, I can’t stand Pete.  But as much as I hate to admit it, this show seems to be as much about Pete’s journey as anyone else’s.  I’m going to save Peggy till the end.

Pete Campbell — the archetype of the malign influence, who causes trouble out of hatred, jealousy or temper.  Iago from images-4Othello, Tybalt of Romeo & Juliet.  Says Iago:  “We cannot all be masters, not all masters cannot be truly follow’d.”  Pete may appear to follow Don’s lead, but only for a time.

Betty — It seems to me Betty is so Ophelia, driven mad by her love for Don.  And Ophelia’s father died, just as Betty’s did.

tumblr_lsrsnuhljj1qaj4pxo1_500“She speaks much of her father; says she hears There’s tricks i’ the world; and hems, and beats her heart; Spurns enviously at straws; speaks things in doubt, That carry but half sense.

Roger Sterling – At first, I was considering Roger as Polonius in Hamlet.  Full of trite platitudes.  But that’s not right.  Roger is deeper than his platitudes. Nor is he simply Puckish, though full of him. I think he is Mercutio, the one friend of Romeo’s with ties to the Capulet house in R&J.  Mercutio has the invitation to the Capulet ball that allows Romeo entry.  He is witty, with a wicked sense of humor and can be moody and tempermental.

Freddy Rumson – Freddy started Mad Men as a creative who lost his job due to his drinking.  Over the course of several seasons, Freddy got sober and in the beginning of Season 7, it was Freddy who Don turned to to advance Don’s own pitches under cover to the firm.  In King Lear, the Fool is the only one allowed to criticize the King or to speak frankly to him, all the while appearing as a fool.  Freddy is just such a wise fool to Don.

Joan  – I love Joan so much.  But Shakespeare apparently didn’t share the appreciation.  Very frequently, the Bard would write a powerful woman as a malign figure, someone to fear. In tragedies, she always dies, (Cleopatra, Lady MacBeth) Joan Harrisand in comedies she will usually come under the influence of a male character in some way (Titania). Within the first ten lines of the Antony and Cleopatra, the men define Cleopatra as a lustful “gipsy,” a description that is repeated, a “wrangling queen” (I.i.50), a “slave” (I.iv.19), an “Egyptian dish” (II.vi.123), and a “whore” (III.vi.67); she is called “Salt Cleopatra” (II.i.21) and an enchantress who has made Antony “the noble ruin of her magic” (III.x.18).

In the Season Five shocker episode titled “The Other Woman,” Pete Campbell even calls Joan “Cleopatra,” after she agrees to trade her body for a night so that the firm can get the Jaguar account, and she can get a partnership.  At the end of the first half of Season Seven, Joan had just received a marriage proposal from none other than Bob Benson, to be carried off to Detroit, as his “captive wife,” to charm the natives.

Peggy Olson – The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s more perplexing plays.  It’s labeled a comedy, yet it has disturbing overtones of tragedy.  And it’s heroine, Portia, spends much of the play dressed in drag and advocating on behalf of her beloved while appearing to be a man.  In Season Six of Mad Men, “The Quality of Mercy” episode had Peggy finally equalling Don in creative ability, and then confronting him, mano a mano, in a dramatic conclusion.  The title of the episode derives from Portia’s most famous monologue in The Merchant of Venice:

The quality of mercy is not strained.Millais_-_Portia
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest. It becomes
The thronèd monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings,
But mercy is above this sceptered sway.
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings.
It is an attribute to God himself.
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.

Peggy created her masterpiece St. Joseph aspirin ad, all the while flirting outrageously and openly with the very married Ted.  During the presentation with the client, Don put them on the spot with a masterful use of silence and inference, saying nothing to the client, yet implying everything to Ted and Peggy.  Immediately after, Peggy came into Don’s office on a tear, telling him, “I know what you did.”  As she swept out the door, she said, “You are a monster.”

Sally – It is tempting to cast Sally as Cordelia, and I suppose we must.  The beloved daughter.  And yet, Sally is so very . . . un-Cordelia-like to me.

What Happens to Them

Iago is taken into custody and exposed but his sentence is left unpronounced and Iago himself takes a vow of silence, promising never to explain his own actions.  Tybalt, of course, is killed by Romeo, prompting Romeo’s banishment.  Pete Campbell is already in California.  It may be that his end is to stay there, released from his time with Sterling Cooper & Company, silenced forever, whether by his own choice or simply because no one wanted to listed to him anymore.

Ophelia, driven insane by Hamlet’s cruelty and her father’s death, falls from a tree branch into the rushing current below and dies.  Betty Draper is already gone, transformed into Betty Francis by marriage.  No question she was insane, maybe slightly less so now with Henry.  I’d say Betty stays up there in Rye, New York, part of the swimming current of the 1970s.

Mercutio is the character who challenges Tybalt to a duel and it is Mercutio who is the first to be stabbed by Tybalt, under the arm of Romeo, cursing both Romeo and Tybalt as he dies.  “A plague on both your houses,” he says.  Unfortunately, for those wishing for Roger and Joan to lead a happily-ever-after existence, I don’t think that will happen.   In a show of support for Don, Roger will suffer a heart attack.

Cleopatra was out of options when she raised the asp to her neck and ended it all.  I just don’t see Joan reaching that desperation spot.  But she might buy a snakeskin bag.

Portia ends up on top.  Completely in charge of the entire situation.  d3fc4015e79679f0b1b77dca0f2676bd

Tossing her cap, so to speak, in the air and welcoming in the 1970s.  Peggy‘s come a long way too, baby.

Cordelia – At the conclusion of the play, Lear struggles onstage carrying the dead Cordelia in his arms, finally realizing that she who knew him best, loved him best. So much reminds me of the scenes with Don and Sally when you see Sally truly assessing her father for who he is, and giving him a pass on it and loving him anyway.  Perhaps, symbolically, Sally will become a devotee of The Grateful Dead and follow them around the country.

Don — Having established that this is a tragedy, we know that it must end with the tragic fall of the hero and the destruction of his world.  In other words, Don must die.  Sterling Cooper must die.  Betty has found a new world, so has Megan and soon also will the only other survivors Sally, Peggy and Pete.  The world will be destroyed.  And I think, all in all, that is a good thing.   Would anyone be more satisfied to see Don driving off in a convertible with yet another woman, a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, knowing he’s facing fifty, then sixty, paunch, old age, cancer, liver disease, grey hair, becoming the smarmy old guy in the bar that every woman is trying to avoid?  No.  That is NOT a happy ending.

In the end, Mad Men‘s conclusion may best be stated by Puck:

 If we shadows have offended,
 Think but this, and all is mended—
 That you have but slumbered here
 While these visions did appear.
 And this weak and idle theme,
 No more yielding but a dream,
 Gentles, do not reprehend.
 If you pardon, we will mend.
 And, as I am an honest Puck,
 If we have unearnèd luck
 Now to ’scape the serpent’s tongue,
 We will make amends ere long.
 Else the Puck a liar call.
 So good night unto you all.
 Give me your hands if we be friends,
 And Robin shall restore amends.