I have a wonderful friend who has had a radio program for years. She used to send me tapes of her programs, now digital files – always a theme. My favorite was Kids. It was on a cassette that we played in the car on road trips until it wore out in a long celebratory ribbon. Pete Seeger. Iris DeMent. She’s introduced me to so many artists I never would have known – never having had the intelligent curiosity to seek out.

My friend has a soft spot for Celtic music and the song “Tam Lin” has also wedged itself in my heart. It is the story of Janet, a kind of proto-feminist figure that I would like to think was probably just an average, spirited woman at the time the song was composed. I think we often look back over history through a lens warped by the damage of post-industrial power struggles and Patriarchal “organization”. But that’s not something I want to argue. So much conjecture.

Listen, explore, create. Do not claim to know anything. – my mantra lately. I’m letting go of some of the meta-perspectives and the need to be right and definite.

In some ways, the song is a reversal of the damsel in distress trope. She saves her beloved Tam Lin, who has been cursed by the faeries. He tells her how to rescue him in the forest on his nightly ride. She must hold him:

Oh, they will turn me in your arms to a newt or a snake
But hold me tight and fear not, I am your baby’s father

And they will turn me in your arms into a lion bold
But hold me tight and fear not and you will love your child

And they will turn me in your arms into a naked knight
But cloak me in your mantle and keep me out of sight”

In the middle of the night she heard the bridle ring
She heeded what he did say and young Tam Lin did win

from the folk song “Tam Lin”

It seems to me the whole song is a guise for relationship advice. A newt, a snake, a lion. We are required to change and to tolerate change. To hold out.

In King Lear, Edgar takes on four identities willfully. More, when one recognizes the absolute validity of a falsely conferred identity. Edgar is a would-be patricide, and a philosopher. The consequences of identity aren’t dependent on the truth. This is the terrifying reality that we all know and mostly deny. What do we trust?

Is there an essence? When Edgar becomes Poor Tom, isn’t he in fact poor Tom? Edgar as he was no longer exists. When he uses that name again, he is changed. We can borrow a line from another play and ask what is in a name.

There is a running theme in Lear about the deceptive (and potentially absurd) nature of language. “Look with thine ears […] And like a scurvy politician, seem to see what thou dost not.”

Ears become eyes. I think of the dadaists and the deconstruction from The Symbolist’s characters: father, daughter – then Tzara’s Gas Heart. Eye. Nose. Mouth.

Beats me if Tzara was searching for an essence. Or exposing the illusion. I think the same can be said of Shakespeare.

Is there meaning only in the wholeness? After all, all Hell breaks loose when Lear splits his crown in two. When his reason and his passion part ways.

And after all, Shakespeare was one of the King’s Men. Maybe in more ways than we want to admit when we shape his legend with our own willful identities.

One Reply to “Shape-shifting”

  1. Tam Lin has long been a favorite of mine. Think I first heard it as recorded by Fairport Convention. I read the story and sand the song (badly, I fear) to my kids when they were small, and they loved it too. Particularly my daughter. So, yeah, maybe proto-feminist!