At the risk of sounding too highfalutin', too hoity-toity, too much of a culture-vulture, I've always been a huge fan of Billy Shakespeare. For the love of Romeo and Juliet, it doesn't take a Fulbright Scholar to see that the quintessential poet and playwright had absolutely no problem telling one end of the quill from the other.
I'm not at all embarrassed to admit wasting my unemployed youth and father's money memorizing the great Shakespearean speeches: Mark Anthony's obit to Caesar ("Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears."); Henry V's pep talk at Agincourt ("We few, we happy few, we band of brothers."); Macbeth's regretful tribute to his old lady ("It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.").
Once I could declaim in front of the mirror with all the passion and skill of Laurence Olivier and Richard Burton. Now I can't even remember my password to Amazon.
So it should surprise no one that I raised several cups of mead and flagons of ale last month commemorating the 400th anniversary of the Great Bard's death. It was the least I could do despite petty reservations, fleeting moments of annoyance.
Nothing really. Just little glitches of genius, minor flaws surely covered by his time-honored artistic license. Please, forget that I even brought it up.
OK, if you must know, I hate it when the guy randomly deviates from a perfectly good plot just to take a fancy-word potshot at beef consumption. Maybe Shakespeare wasn't exactly a closet vegan. But I'd been willing to bet my tights and codpiece that a disproportionate number of English majors currently eat on that side of the street. Connect the dots as you will.
Let me give just a few examples of what I mean straight from the Globe Theater playbook.
In "Twelfth Night," Sir Andrew Aguecheek, one of the greatest fools in Shakespeare's impressive stable of idiots, explains to a friend exactly why he's so stupid: "Methinks sometimes I have no more wit than a Christian or an ordinary man has: but I am a great eater of beef and I believe that does harm to my wit."
Just in case his audience had been dulled by too many burgers during intermission, W.S. repeats this mental health warning in the play "Troilus and Cressida" when the bitter slave Thersites snaps at this foolish (again with the foolish) master Ajax: "The plague of Greece upon thee, thou mongrel beef-witted lord!"
Beef-witted? Really? You'd think such trash-talk would be unworthy of such a wordsmith.
And then there's the famous fatty named Falstaff (who "lards the lean earth as he walks along"), the great comic foil of Henry IV (Parts I and II) who has a much greater appetite for meat and food than honor and danger. Though Falstaff is portrayed as a general glutton with a specific liking for fish, the implication at the end of Part II seemed to be that the rotund clown died "cloyed with fat meat."
I suppose some Shakespearian carnivores will want to counter by quoting from the closing scene of Henry V when a French nobleman speaks in admiration of the English fighting spirit: "Give them great meals of beef and iron and steel, they will eat like wolves and fight like devils." While that may be fine for as far as it goes, I've also heard vegetarian extremists offer the same line as proof that meat consumption fuels overly aggressive social behavior.
Actually, much of this highbrow musing was sparked last week by an article describing a distinctively European approach to the threat of global warming. What the approach lacked in literacy subtlety, it made up for in ambitious statism.
According to a small Scandinavian nation's Council on Ethics, the country has a moral obligation to fight climate change. That's why it's calling for a "climate tax" on red meat. Citing old and much-disputed data from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, the council insists that 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions -- more than the total exhaust from all forms of transportation -- comes from animal agriculture.
Uncritically expanding on unfounded assumptions, this tiny group further stated that raising cattle not only contributes 10% of those emissions, but it also takes 11,360 gallons of fresh water to produce just over two pounds of beef. Beef also requires 28 times more land and 11 times more water to produce than pork or chicken, and it emits five times their climate-changing gases.
Our country is "ethically obligated to change their eating habits," the council concluded, but they won't lower their red meat consumption just because it's the "right thing" to do. "An effective response to climate-damaging foods that will also contribute to raising awareness of climate change must be united, which requires that society sends a clear signal through regulation."
Any guesses on the country-of-origin of this excessively dour assessment coupled with an excessively dour remedy? Here's a hint: "To tax meat, or not to tax meat? That is the question."
Arguably Shakespeare's crowning achievement, "Hamlet," is the gloomy tragedy of the Prince of Denmark and his imploding family. Not unlike the Council of Ethics, the melancholy Dane becomes unrealistically overwhelmed by situations and developments beyond his control, some of which are clearly exaggerated. The final scene is a real Hallmark moment when 95% of the entire cast dies in a breathtaking slaughter.
I'm not about to suggest that the Bard either anticipated the wisdom of the meat tax by four centuries or that his modern incarnation would necessarily cheer on the Council of Ethic. Yet I wonder if he scripted one of his darkest plays in Denmark on purpose, a land long known for limited sunlight and bouts of depression.
At the point of the play when it becomes evident that Hamlet has self-destructively committed himself to complete revenge, Horatio says he "waxes desperate with imagination."
Catching a related whiff, his friend Marcellus replies, "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark."
Maybe it was just taxed meat gone bad.
John Harrington can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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