Here are children and teenagers in the Odyssey and ancient Greek tragedies, Canterbury Tales, and six plays by Shakespeare, along with comparable images from Basho. I have removed from the passages sections about people and places not relevant to the children in the passage. As in all throughout this book, my purpose is to make the original more interesting to ordinary people today, though the scholars may not like this so much.
Telemachus is one young person in ancient literature fully portrayed with self-determined action and speech, and one of the few who does not die in tragedy. A baby when Odysseus left to fight in Troy, he grew up without his father, and has every reason to believe him dead. The adolescent Telemachus whines and complains about his lot:
Compare Telemachus’ attitude about his father’s death to that of the 18 year old in this Basho renku pair:
Father died in war when I was small, and I have grown up under the weight of that grief. Now, in the prime of youthful vigor, I look back over those years of dreams constantly reverting to that one moment on a battlefield I have never seen in reality.
Sometimes Telemachas was disrespectful to his own mother. He orders Penelope about and disregards her opinion. At one point he tells her:
Mothers of teenage sons may laugh, or cringe, at this portrait of adolescent male hormones in action. We imagine that Jirobei became more troublesome when he turned 14, living in cramped quarters with three females, one old and dying, and the other two around puberty, and his father dead. Sounds at risk to me. Basho took care to relieve the tension in Jutei’s house. In 1693, he brought Jirobei to live part-time with him. And the next summer he took Jirobei on a long journey With Basho and Jirobei on the road, 13 year old Masa and 11 year old Ofu had to care for their dying mother and also do housework – but it would have been even more difficult for them if they also had to deal with their adolescent brother. We would be mistaken to expect him to do much work around the house – and might be surprised at the trouble he could cause in the Big City. Taking Jirobei away from Masa and Ofu was another Basho act of salvation to his nephew’s family.
As he goes on long journeys, Telemachus becomes stronger and more independent until by end of the story he equals his father in manhood. Jirobei also became a man on his journey with his granduncle: Basho says in a letter to Sora:
Telemachas is the outstanding teenage boy in Greek drama, and Antigone the ultimate teenage girl.
When her uncle, Creon, who has become king, refuses to allow her brother a proper buriel, she defies the law, buries her brother, and is caught. She claims that the gods want his buriel, and he puts the will of the gods ahead of man-made laws, responding with courage, passion and determination seen in some young girls of today.
Many of the problems in understanding this play disappear whren you realise that Antigone is a very young girl. Thus Antigone should be thought of as a 15 year old at most, and possibly as much younger (12 or 13). Her behaviour - wild and defiant is not unheard of in girls of that age. In fact it was recognised as a problem in Athenian culture (as it in in modern cultures).
Thus I find it highly unlikely that the male Athenian audience will sympathise with Antigone at the start of the play. She seems like a typical wild and undisciplined child, defying her elders and making scenes!
So, is she a girl with “courage, passion and determination.” Or is she is “typical wild and undisciplined child, defying her elders and making scenes”? The same question could be asked of young girls today. Here is a short speech by Antigone which could easily be said by one of her modern sisters:
Antigone fought for what she believed that true. Cassandra, the daughter of Priam and Andromache, shared Antigone's commitment to the truth. Appollo blessed her with foresight, yet also cursed her so no one would believe her. Throughout the play, she realizes everything and predicts every danger, but no one believes her. She realized that the Trojan horse was full of enemies, and tried to burn it down, but the people stopped her and so their city was destroyed. She says:
and many young girls today will appreciate her misery.
The truth-telling by Antigone and Cassandra, like that of Rosalind in Shakepseare's As You Like It
or like 14 year old Juliet begging Romeo:
comes to a Basho stanza about a miko, a female shaman in Shinto temples, who had to be a virgin so she could recieve truth from the gods, and so a teenager.
So, teenage girls, when you feel you must tell the truth, remember Antigone, Cassandra,
Rosalind, Juliet, and Basho's miko, all about your age, with the same commitment.
Telling the truth is the idealism of the young; you have not learned that everyone lies.
Euripides’ play begins with a wet-nurse; she tells the audience of Medea’s rage with her husband who has betrayed her to marry the daughter of the King. The wet-nurse worries about what revenge Medea will take, especially now that she has lost all love for her children because they are HIS children.
This wet-nurse is foresighted; her worst fears are realized. Basho rather shows us a wet-nurse whose suckling has grown up in health and prosperity:
The King fears Medea and orders her into exile, but gives her one day to say good-bye to her sons –
the biggest mistake he ever made.
Such beautiful words about the beauty of a child’s smile, yet immersed within a scene of death. Medea sends the two boys with presents for Jason’s new wife, presents smeared with poison; she touches them, and dies in agony, as does her father when he tries to help his daughter. Medea then takes up a sword to kill her own sons:
Lovely, adorable children killed by their own mother, no image could be more heavy than that.
Basho’s vision of two brothers may be a bit more palatable.
While Telemachus was growing up without his father, that father’s trick with the wooden horse destroyed the city of a little Trojan boy named Astyanax, son of Hector and Andromache. After Hector is killed, Odysseus decides the little boy must die, so he will not grow up to seek revenge. The playwright Euripedes shows us no scenes of Astyanax living his ordinary life. Instead he portrays Andromache saying goodbye to her son:
After a Greek soldier throws Astynax off a cliff, the Greeks bring the dead body to his grandmother Hecuba to bury; she laments
The scene of Astynax jumping into his grandmother’s bed has some of that cuteness of children that charms adults – but Euripedes uses that cuteness to highlight the tragedy. Compare Chigetsu’s verse
of her grandchildren jumping into her bed, without the tragedy.
In one of the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, Duke Walter has married a poor village woman Griselde. To “test her loyalty,” he takes away both of her children in infancy, saying they will be killed. Actually, he has his sister raise them with no one, especially the children, knowing their father. Walter wanted to see if Griselde was so faithful she could endure these losses without losing her love of him. (Yes, I know what you are thinking – however you or I did not write this story.) Griselde passes the test, surrendering to every insult – though she does say
(“Your own thing!? She actually said that!) The ‘test’ reaches fulfillment when the daughter is 12 and the son eight. Walter tells Griselde he will divorce her and send her back to her village in grief. He says he is marrying a young girl, and arranges for his daughter to think she will be the duke’s bride. (This guy is a bundle of laughs.) He sends for the two children.
When they arrive, Walter finally announces the end of his ten year practical joke. The only wife he wants is Griselde. She is reunited with her children, the daughter wed to a nice young man, and everyone lives happily ever after.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge said, “Shakespeare's fondness for children is everywhere shown;—in Prince Arthur in King John; in the sweet scene in the Winter's Tale between Hermione and her son; nay, even in honest Evans's examination of Mrs. Page's schoolboy”. There are several more examples than that, however “everywhere” is an overstatement. Entire plays – Hamlet, Othello, As You Like It, etc. -- have no child anywhere (by “child” I mean one till age 12.) Coleridge only mentions the boys in Shakespeare – but certainly the gold medal for portraits of children in literature goes to baby Juliet in her nurse’s longwinded account.
Juliet’s Nurse speaks of her suckling now 14 years old – and that is just what she does:
she speaks and she speaks and she speaks:
Susan was the Nurse’s own baby who she breastfed along with Juliet.
The nurse tells of Juliet’s weaning at age three.
Shakespeare (in 1595) observes that an infant may not need to cry -- For if distracted, will stop and even become happy. Basho says the same in a letter to Kyokusui about his infant son Takesuke:
When the infant is in a bad way, adults act cheerfully to lift the child’s spirit up. Doctor Basho looks equally at the physical, mental, emotional and social aspects of child development – and sends his observations to the father to help him feel better in his absence from his son. Basho pays attention to children in ordinary daily life, and furthermore he pays attention to people caring for children.
One of the funniest scenes in Shakespeare is in Merry Wives of Windsor where young William endures his teacher Evans.
To the second question, the teacher expected the boy to say “lapis” -- a mirror image of the first question/answer – however William went off in an entirely different direction. The teacher assumes that the student is stupid, when actually the student’s answer is just as suitable as the teacher’s, though the teacher doesn’t get that -- but the boy gives into the teacher’s way, and is praised.
Evans: What is he, William, that does lend articles?
William: Articles are borrowed of the pronoun,
and be thus declined, singulariter, nominativo, hic, haec, hoc.
Evans: Nominativo, hig, hag, hog, pray you mark: Genitivo, hujus.
Well, what is your accusative case?
William: Accusativo, hinc.
Evans I pray you, have your remembrance, child
accusative, hung, hang, hog.
What if we taught Shakespeare’s lively and fun scenes to teens, instead of subjecting them to the madness, murders and politics?
We compare the view of boyhood education in Shakespeare with that in Basho. From the 17th century Japanese commoner children went to private schools known as terakoya. Girls studied homemaking skills, arts, and music, and could read and write in the phonetic kana alphabets. Boys learned to read and write the thousands of Chinese characters used in formal Japanese. Once the basics of writing were mastered, the boys practiced with copybooks such as Tenkin Orai, a series of letters appropriate to each month, giving students a wide range of content to copy, so they would learn all those characters and how to use them effectively.
On the first day of school after New Year’s break, also the start of Spring, a teacher tells students to take out their copies of Teikin Orai and practice writing New Year’s greetings (similar to the nenga-jo Japanese send out at the end of the year to arrive on New Year’s morning). It would be clearer for the teacher to ask “from whose satchel shall the best penmanship spring?” or even clearer, “who can do the best writing?” But this teacher’s question is more interesting to the children, and they play along with the game, and shout “Me! Me! From my satchel the year shall spring!” So all work hard, as if playing, to get better. Instead of simply telling the students what to do, this teacher adds interest to the learning process far more effectively than Evans in Merry Wives of Windsor.
Both Basho’s father and his brother Hanzaemon supplemented their farm income by giving calligraphy lessons. Nowadays we are surrounded by progressive educational ideas on every side, but Basho anticipates them by centuries.
MacBeth was afraid the sons of McDuff or Banquo would grow up to take the kingship away from Macbeth’s son. You didn’t know the Macbeths had a kid, did you? He never appears in the play, though his mother does say:
Lady MacBeth’s words sound loving and life-giving, until you see the rest of this passage; she goes on to tell her husband:
Another example of Shakespeare using child imagery to express death is the scene in Anthony and Cleopatra as the Queen imagines as her baby the poisonous snake she has put on her breast:
Basho rather uses breastfeeding imagery to promote life
Also in MacBeth is a scene of young Fleance with his father:
“The moon is down” suggests that something hidden will happen in the darkness -- in this scene the good king Duncan is murdered. Later when Macbeth plans to kill Banquo, he asks “Goes Fleance with you?”, because he wants to kill the boy too. Though Fleance himself is not killed, death occurs everywhere about him.
Lady McDuff and her son have a “sweet scene”
(in which she is mistaken; her husband is alive and will later kill Macbeth.)
This kid has a clear head; he goes right to the heart of the issue. But all in vain, for moments later, assassins hired by Macbeth burst in and kill both the Lady and her son. Coleridge says, “The conversation between Lady Macduff and her child -- heightens the pathos, and is preparatory for the deep tragedy of their assassination. When the murderers enter soon thereafter and kills the boy before our eyes, we can guess that the bottom line of Macbeth’s degeneration is reached.”
The title character, at present Duke of Gloucester, kills everyone who might stand the way of his becoming king. He has his brother Clarence killed in the Tower of London, then as Royal Protector of their nephews, the 12 year old Duke of Wales and three year younger Duke of York, sends them to the same tower where they will be “safe” and where he will have them murdered. (Nice guy!)
Shakespeare portrays the speech of two children coming to the realization that this amiable man chatting with them will soon in secret kill them – and there is absolutely no way to escape from this fate; two young boys look at their coming death. Shakespeare moved generations of playgoers to tears with this tragedy of the Princes in the Tower -- Basho rather gives children hope for a peaceful childhood and maturity
Hermione, Queen of King Leonitas, has one son and another baby in the womb. Here the king’s friend Polixenes speaks about his own small son:
Polixenes says my child makes me get up and move about in play instead of being a couch-potato; my child makes me laugh, brings me peace and conflict, depends upon me, is the most brave, the most diplomatic and cooperative, the child fixes up my mind and emotions. That’s some praise! Basho says the same thing in fewer words:
Here the Queen shares some quality time with her son:
Through dialogue, Shakespeare portrays the character of the speaker; from her words we appreciate Hermione’s gentleness, caring, and love of fun. Leonitas however has come to the entirely groundless impression that she slept with Polixenes and her baby comes from him. Suddenly the King bursts in on this pleasant scene, charging her with adultery, and throwing her in prison. The son pines away to death from the shock of losing his mother. Hermione has her baby, a girl, and the King of Misogyny goes batty:
Paulina, Hermione’s friend and one of the strongest and most observant women in Shakespeare, sees in the baby’s face the truth, that she is the daughter of Leonitas. She has enough power inside her to confront the King:
Yujiri and Paulina describe the reflection of father’s face in the child’s with all the clarity and precision of Gregor Mendel observing peas to discover the laws of genetics. So does Basho:
Basho, however, sees the descent through the female line.
Leonitas will not listen to reason. Paulina gives him such a fight that finally he accepts the child being abandoned instead of burned. He sends Paulina’s husband Antigones to abandon the child:
As he does so, Antigones, says to her
The misfortune, however, is in store for Antigones – he gets eaten by a bear – whereas Perdita is found by kind shepherds, raised in beauty, and eventually falls in love with Polixenes’s son.
Basho, on the other hand, portrays compasson for abandoned children.
In this historical play, the innonence of young prince Arthur is set against the cruelty and heartlessness of his uncle King John. The king sends his liege-lord Hubert to kill Arthur, but Hubert cannot bear to do so, so instead decides to burn his eyes out:
Arthur and Hubert go on and on, debating whether Hubert will do the deed or not; the whole long scene devoted to, To kill or not to kill, that is question. Finally Hubert accepts that he cannot -- but in the confusion of a very complicated plot, Arthur trying to escape from this insanity, falls from the battlements with this exclamation
Nothing at all like this craziness occurs in Basho - however the simple one-syllable beauty of Arthur’s mother’s lament for her son
compares to the simple physical words in Basho’s profound observations of children in ordinary life.
We have traveled through 2000 years of Western Literature and enjoyed a few moments with children, however most of them have been awful. Homer portrayed Telemachus in active and satisfying life, even giving us the adolescent’s speech, but Euripedes and Sophocles sent children to their death without ever showing us their ordinary life. The children in the Canterbury Tale live happily, however the point of the story is that their mother thinks them dead. Shakespeare sets us up with the “sweet scenes” of MacDuff’s son with his mother, and Mamillus with his, then POW! all die. The conversation between York and Wales is poignant because we know soon they will be murdered. Arthur speaks poetry in mid-air as he falls to his death. Shakespeare wields the death of a child like a weapon striking at our emotions. Sensationalism is one way to move an audience.
Compared to that long rambling account of baby Juliet are dozens of portraits of living, playing infants by Basho. Compared to that one ridiculous passage of William with his teacher, Basho shows us dozens of young children doing what children do. Shakespeare’s Juliet and Rosalind are rare gem in Western Literature, portrayals of a teenage girl as bright and courageous and bold, while Basho provides a dozen sketches of young and alive teenage girls. In A Winter’s Tale the King’s violation of children is balanced by the devotion of Polixenes to his son, whose “childness cures in me thoughts that would thicken my blood.” Basho also recognizes the Hope children give to adults:
Shakespeare sometimes touches us lightly but more often shocks our primal emotions, while Basho sometimes goes for the heavy, but mostly touches us lightly but deeply inside.