Richard III was a horrible man, but he does have a thing or two to teach us about our struggles with body image.
They called Richard III “crookback.” But if I were an evil, Shakespearean villain, I think they’d call me “pointy nipples.” Case in, er, point:
The other day, I greeted my wife when she got home from work. She took one quick look at me and laughed.
“What?” I asked.
“Your shirt! Just – take a look in the mirror.”
I presented my plain, purple T-shirt to the bathroom mirror. It presented back three white spots about the size of silver dollars: one over each of my nipples, the third over my belly button.
“It’s the shirt!” I defended from the bathroom with all the whininess of a post-pool George Costanza. “The color’s fading!”
“No, I can actually see your right nipple. It’s sticking out through the shirt,” my wife fact-checked. “It’s so not the shirt. It’s this.” She imitated this, well, behavior of mine. One hand rubbed the ball of her thumb over her chest, the other a few her fingers over her stomach. ““Oh my God, I hope you’re not wearing it in public.”
“It’s one of those cheap Mossimo shirts I got from Target,” I insisted as I ran up the stairs to the bedroom. I closed the door, took off the shirt, and confronted it. Face-to-face. The three, white, threadbare circles stared back at me like some cruel, mocking emoji. Is this why the barista was giving me a funny look at the café the other day?
I had never ruined a shirt before with this nervous, self-conscious touching of my chest and stomach, but I can’t say I’m all that surprised. I’ve been waging war against my torso – my nipples being key targets – since I was a chubby preteen. See, I’ve always felt that – God, I can’t believe I’m sharing this – that I looked thinner when my nipples were hard. In my twisted thinking, harder means smaller, smaller means skinnier, and skinnier means better.
But I think we all have these tics in one shape or another. Hell, even old crookback Richard III – Shakespeare’s most villainous of villains – could relate to these neuroses of body image.
It’s not the jealousy that pushes you over. It’s the obsession.
Today I can laugh about it. She ended up dumping him and came out as a lesbian, I learned through the grapevine years later. And when asked to explain that semester out of school, I usually just leave it as a “personal matter,” as if it was an illness. I suppose it was, in a way.
I don’t talk to either of them now, though from time to time, late-night whiskey steers me towards Facebook. He’s helping launch a craft brewery. She’s married and has a child with her partner. I’m happy for them. Really. And I actually can’t say it took me a long time to get there. Once I was over it, of course.
In our third session, my therapist recommended Prozac. She didn’t think I was depressed: She thought I was obsessive. I can’t disagree. But at the time, I didn’t like how high the dosage was. Apparently obsessive behaviors warrant more milligrams than depression. At the time, like so many individuals at their breaking points, I didn’t want to rely on any medication. I wanted to restore equilibrium from within, by my own wherewithal. Fortunately, that session, that recommendation, triggered in me for the first time anger, then indifference. Then I moved on.
Othello articulates a very particular psychological state. The state between ignorance and certainty, between the not-knowing and knowing: the not-not-knowing, where obsession oozes from the darker recesses of the mind and takes over the whole body, like food poisoning. Where obsession becomes possession.
Fortunately, I didn’t kill anybody. Unlike Othello. But I did pull out of college after thinking about jumping onto US 29 from K Street by the Washington Circle the very night I drove back from summer break to start my second year of college.
Jealousy, that “green-eyed monster,” is just the trigger (3.3.170). The rapid descent is thanks to obsession. To the over and over and over, thoughts always hissing in your ear like Iago, slithering, compulsive, ubiquitous, until the merest suggestion, “trifles light as air,” pushes the boulder of sanity over the precipice (3.3.326).
In The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice, Iago, through Janus-faced cunning, racial and religious resentment, and envy-mongering, drives Othello, the Venetian general, to kill his wife, Desdemona, and ultimately himself, by convincing Othello his lieutenant, Cassio, is having an affair with her. Why? The text says devilishly little on the motive for Iago’s all-consuming hatred: He begrudges Othello for promoting Cassio, not him, to his lieutenancy and believes rumors that Othello slept with his wife, Emilia. Here’s Iago’s insidious craft at work:
IAGO Will you think so?
OTHELLO Think so, Iago?
IAGO What, to kiss in private?
OTHELLO An unauthorized kiss.
IAGO Or to be naked with her friend in bed
An hour or more, not meaning any harm?
OTHELLO Naked in bed, Iago, and not mean harm?
It is hypocrisy against the devil.
They that mean virtuously and yet do so,
The devil their virtue tempts, and they tempt heaven.
IAGO If they do nothing, ’tis a venial slip.
But if I give my wife a handkerchief – (4.1.1-10)
The handkerchief Iago refers to is the love token Othello gave to Desdemona, and which Iago manages to manipulate as ‘evidence’ of her infidelity: “Trifles light as air,” as Iago famously observes, “Are to the jealous confirmations strong / As proofs of holy writ” (3.3.326-28).
I’ve mentioned before that I’ve memorized pathetically few lines of Shakespeare. This is one of them.
Iago is an evil genius who anticipated and mastered so much of psychology du jour: the powers of suggestion and visualization. He sprinkles questions and sows doubt. He paints a torturously vivid mental picture of Desdemona lying naked in bed with his lieutenant. Othello does the rest himself. At first it niggles. Then it rankles. Finally, it metastasizes.
He works himself into a trance as he plays over – and over and over and over – the thought, the possibility, the fleshy image of Desdemona having sex with Cassio.
As for me? I worked myself into panic attacks.
At some point, she’d started talking to her ex-boyfriend again. They had had a long, complicated relationship. We used to talk about that relationship after shifts at a Ruby Tuesday, where we both worked a few years before we ran into each other at a Barnes & Noble when I was back home from college during winter break. We’d chain-smoke in her silver Pontiac Grand Am. She’d always put Ani DiFranco or Pearl Jam on very low as I talked her through the turbulence. She’d always manage to keep that car smelling nice in spite of the smoke, too.
After that chance encounter at the bookstore, we fell into a long-term relationship between Cincinnati and D.C. At first it was intense and passionate, but just a half-year in, she started pulling away.
But in his pacing, breathing, sweating, head-clutching, gripped by the over and over and over by the slightest and lightest whisper of his wife’s adultery, I felt once again that loop, that broken record, that inexorable thought-cycle, that over and over and over overtake me.
Maybe there was nothing going on between them. She said there was nothing going on between them. But the evidence pointed otherwise. I saw the log on her cordless phone. Calls to Florida, where the ex lived. I learned from a friend that they met up when he was back in their hometown in Kentucky while she was herself visiting. This led me to check her mobile when she was in the shower. There were lots of calls. Long calls. Perhaps they were processing us as she and I once processed them. She insisted otherwise. I persisted anyways.
The ex dropped out of the picture, but maybe I drove her to spend more time with my best friend. We were writing music over that summer break when was I back home from school, even playing a few gigs here and there. I was semi-moved in to her place, which happened to be just down the road from my mother’s house at the time.
He was always around. They started smoking a lot of pot together.
One night, they encouraged me to grab my guitar down from my mother’s house. It felt like a strange request. They were sitting close and he was making her laugh. Reluctantly, I raced down and fetched my guitar. The dusk light illuminated their goofy half-smiles when I returned. They were seated just a bit more awkwardly.
I’d ring her after work. She’d already be hanging out with him at a mutual friend’s. I’s fell off from I love you’s. We were over in all but name. All but my acceptance, perhaps. But for some reason, I’d still tag along with them. One night, the three of us went out salsa dancing. She was a dance instructor studying to become a message therapist. I was terrible on the floor. So was my friend. But his clumsy maneuvers made her laugh. Desperately I’d insert myself, beats behind the sultry pulse. I’d get in a step or two and another partner had the dance.
“I had been happy if the general camp, / Pioneers and all, had tasted her sweet body, / So I had nothing known,” Othello remarks after he’s fallen for Iago’s plot. “O, now for ever / Farewell the tranquil mind, farewell content, Farewell the plumed troops and the big wars / That makes ambition virtue!” (3.3.350-55). He continues, curiously, bidding farewell to his military career, as if emasculated or, in the politics of the tragedy, stripped of the identity that gives him place as a black Moor in a white, Christian Venice. Grabbing Iago by the throat, he demands, “Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore” (3.3.364).
I think Othello begins to articulate to a very particular psychological state here. The state between ignorance and certainty, between the not-knowing and knowing: the not-not-knowing, where obsession oozes from the darker recesses of the mind and takes over the whole body, like food poisoning. Where obsession becomes possession.
One sleepless night, every 15 minutes or so I’d go outside and light a cigarette. Stepping into the middle of the empty street, into the jaundiced glow of the streetlights, I looked all the way down Ivanhoe Avenue. It was after two in the morning and her car still wasn’t parked in its usual spot. Eventually, I wore myself out. Or ran out of cigarettes. Whichever came first. First thing when I got up, the ritual punctuated by a few, thin hours of sleep, I went right outside. Still no sign of that goddamn Grand Am at the end of the street.
I wasn’t able to breath. Why were they there? Why was I there?
Another night, her car was there in the early evening and I obsessively checked to make sure it stayed there. During one round, I noticed his car, that old baby-blue Corolla hatchback, parked opposite. I learned my lesson: I bought a two-for-one Camel Lights special at the corner UDF. Then I drank the rest of my stepfather’s Heineken and my mother’s cheap chardonnay, listening to the Postal Service’s Give Up on repeat. My iPod’s white display pierced the humid and still late-summer dark. The buzz of the streetlights and cicadas droned. A police cruiser swept the blocks like an occasional, sticky breeze.
I had to walk down. I shouldn’t walk down. I needed to walk down. I knew it wasn’t going to make me feel any better if I walked down. But how could I not walk down? I won’t be able to stop thinking about until I walked down.
I walked down.
I stood under her window. Through the vinyl blinds the blue light of a TV flickered. They must have fallen asleep on her couch. She used to like to snuggle into my lap, her back nestling in between my legs, head on my chest, her two cocker spaniels at her feet. I imagined them sleeping there like that, as we had once.
His car was still there come morning.
On yet another, I chanced to look out the window when her car drove by around 11pm. We had spoken just a half-hour before. I was surprised she had answered. It was probably a tactical appeasement. It must be exhausting, I imagine, to silence call after call. It was exhausting, too, to hit redial on that old Nokia, hearing her Kentucky drawl in her voicemail each time: “Hi, you’ve reached…” She said she was staying in. As her car passed, her brake lights burned like taunting flares.
I had a hunch. I got into my car, chain-smoked my way over to another friend’s whose parents were away from the summer. They had a big house, a fancy house, with a hot tub. I pulled up, cautiously. Slicing through the dark, my headlights found the silver of her car parked behind the blue of his.
I lit a cigarette but I wasn’t able to breath. Why were they there? Why was I there?
“Where is this rash and most unfortunate man?” demands Lodovico, relative of Desdemona’s father, Brabanzio, after Othello has killed Desdemona.
“That’s he that was Othello. Here I am,” Othello, the Other now self-othered, answers, as if literally beside himself, as if possessed, physically taken over and kicked out by his jealous obsession (5.2.289-90).
Othello is a psychological play and a political play. The performance I saw – yes, I’ve managed to see a second play, folks – at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin played to these dimensions. The small stage and sparse production was close, intimate, as if squeezing us into Iago’s twisted mind, Othello’s tormented psyche. The theater also produced the play as part of the centenary commemoration of Ireland’s independence from Great Britain in 1916. While I found mapping Ireland’s revolution onto Othello problematic, this framing also focused the role race, religion, and national identity plays in Othello’s destruction – and helps explain his suggestibility, aware of his vulnerability as a cultural outsider.
But above all, the Abbey production powerfully emphasized the physicality of Othello, the physicality of jealousy and obsession. I was seated on the stage and could see Iago spit as he hissed, Desdemona’s face pale and wrinkle as her marriage inexplicably collapses, and Othello, drenched in sweat, convulse and twitch with obsession, eaten by his jealousy.
There are some serious differences, of course. My friend was no Iago and girlfriend no Desdemona. I, no Othello. (I did reprogram their names as “Brutus the Backstabber” and “Medea the Murderer” in my phone, though.) But in his pacing, breathing, sweating, head-clutching, gripped by the over and over and over by the slightest and lightest whisper of his wife’s adultery, I felt once again that loop, that broken record, that inexorable thought-cycle, that over and over and over overtake me when I called a friend back home after I made it to DC.
“What are you up to, man?”
“Just chillin’ with a few people.”
“Nice. Is, uh, who are you hanging out with? What’s going on?” I tried casually. He said our mutual friend – the Backstabber – was over.
“Cool. Yeah. Alright, is uh–”
“–Yeah, she’s over here, man. He invited over. I know. It’s complicated. But we’re just playing some Mario Kart.”
I thought about them rolling some joints, cracking some beers. I could hear the next album the friend, the one I called, put on. I could see the solid red and green Nintendo 64 controllers being passed around. Brutus would tease her for losing every race. Medea would laugh. Those goofy smiles would hang on their faces. Trifles, really.
I suppose my ache wasn’t over any betrayal. It was over feeling replaced, substituted, pass around, pass over. I think that’s went sent Othello over. I think that’s what sent me over that night, too.
Brothers will always wrestle – in one form or another.
My brother gripped my arms and twisted me to the ground. On my way down, I crashed into and through set of doors. That’s when our father came down. “What are you guys doing down here?”
We caught our breaths. We wiped sweat from our brows. Our faces were red from exertion. He had taken off his shirt. I rubbed my arms, chafing from rug burn and dinged up in my fall.
“Everything’s OK, Dad,” my brother answered. “We’re just, uh, doing some wrestling.”
“At two in the morning? It sounds like an orgy!” His tone was bemused. I like to imagine our fraternal roughhousing was as nostalgic for him as it was for my brother and me. Seldom are the times when we all sleep under the same roof. Long past are the days when any late-night horseplay roused the sleeping patriarch.
“You brought the whole bottle down here?” My father pointed to the Maker’s Mark on the coffee table, which we pushed aside to make extra room for our inebriated and impromptu wrestling match in the basement guest suite at my father’s house. We had already polished off a special – and expensive – bottle of scotch he bought for our Christmas celebrations this year. Naturally, we moved onto bourbon. This, too, was a brand-new bottle purchased for the occasion.
“We’ll knock it off,” I assured.
He went back upstairs. The two of us laughed, took swigs of whiskey, and assumed our crouched stances.
“All the world’s a stage,” the gloomy nobleman Jaques famously muses in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. “And all the men and women merely players” (2.7.138-39). While a thematic obsession throughout his corpus, this comedy particularly plays with the theater of social identity.
It’s a brilliant and rewarding romantic comedy, but I was particularly struck by its attention to one particular social role in its cast of characters: being a brother.
As You Like It isn’t a busy play. Set almost entirely in a French forest, it features the romance of Orlando and Rosalind. Duke Frederick sets the play in motion after he usurps and banishes his younger brother, Duke Senior. Meanwhile, Orlando, the abused younger brother of Oliver, takes on Frederick’s wrestler and wins. At the match, he falls in love with Rosalind, Senior’s daughter and sister-like friend to his own daughter, Celia. Feeling threatened by Rosalind, Frederick banishes her. She, with Celia, flees to the forest, where Orlando has also fled to escape threats from the duke – and on his life from his own brother. Duke Senior likewise has taken refuge in the same woods. To flee, Rosalind disguises herself as a man, calling herself Ganymede, and Celia as a lowly rustic, Aliena. (Adding to the comedy, of course, is that both women were played by men on Shakespeare’s stage, making them men posing as women posing as men.)
In the forest, Ganymede encounters a lovesick Orlando, whom, ironically, she mentors in wooing Rosalind – herself. Duke Frederick then comes searching for his daughter in the woods. So, too, Oliver to finish off his brother, but he changes his minds after Orlando saves his life. Duke Frederick also changes heart and restores his brother to his rightful rule. True to the pastoral genre, all real identities are revealed in the end. All disorder is ordered. All separated are (re)united, including Rosalind and Orlando, who marry.
As You Like It also features a wonderful clown, Touchstone; folk songs of historical note; some curious early animal rights activism; the jaded and melancholy monologues of Jaques; and the only known epilogue delivered by a woman (though, again, played by a man) in Elizabethan theater. It’s a brilliant and rewarding romantic comedy, but I was particularly struck by its attention to one particular social role in its cast of characters: being a brother.
Let’s take Oliver and Orlando. Oliver, the older brother, inherits his father’s estate, but he detests his younger brother, depriving him a gentleman’s education – not to mention trying to kill him. He explains his irrational hatred:
I hope I shall see the end of him, for my soul – yet I know not why – hates nothing more than he. Yet he’s gentle; never schooled, and yet learned; full of noble device; of all sorts enchantingly beloved; and indeed, so much in the heart of the world, and especially of my own people, who best know him, that I am altogether misprized. But it shall not be so long. (1.1.139-45)
Duke Frederick, the younger brother, is similarly jealous and tyrannical, as one of his attendants explains:
The other is daughter to the banished Duke,
And here detained by her usurping uncle
To keep his daughter company, whose loves
Are dearer than the natural bond of sisters.
But I can tell you that of late this Duke
Hath ta’en displeasure ‘gainst his gentle niece,
Grounded upon no other argument
But that the people praise her for her virtues
And pity her for her good father’s sake. (1.2.240-48)
Now, Oliver and Frederick’s actions are extreme. This, in part, ignites the plot and adds fuel to the comedic fire. But I think all brothers and sisters can relate to their reasons: sibling rivalry. And while he doesn’t directly grapple with his brother, Orlando’s match with Duke Frederick’s wrestler, Charles, perfectly encapsulates fraternal competition.
I am the youngest of three brothers. My oldest is six years my senior. My middle brother, my wrestling opponent, four. The three of us are very close, thanks in large part to my parent’s divorce, I think. We sought refuge in each other – like the forest sanctuary in As You Like It – during the shared trial. We still process it nearly 25 years later. In spite of it, good parenting, and perhaps our native personalities, helped to bond us especially tightly.
The forest is a place where true selves are liberated from their social constructions and meditations, where brothers can put aside their rivalries, meeting not in competition but in play.
But we’ve also wrestled over the years. I wrestled especially with my middle brother. Growing up, he’d let me tag along with his friends after school. He’d watch after me on playgrounds. We’d share rooms, beds. Years later, cigarettes, drinks, dreams – and not a few insecurities that only affinity and intimacy can set off.
He made a snarky comment one Christmas Eve dinner when we were both in our twenties, or at least I very near it. I accidentally poured too much sauce onto some meat. “You want some steak with that sauce?” he teased me.
“Why do you have to comment on everything I do?” I snapped. He hit a nerve. I overreacted. From there, well, let’s just say we ruined dinner.
Now both in our thirties, I hit my own nerve just the other day. He was in a rough patch but I still preachily niggled him over some self-exaggerated affront. “Why do you always think you’re better than me?” he said. Er, shouted. I pushed his buttons. But that’s siblings: We go postal over the pettiest slights, feeling in their inconsequence the blood-thickest of import.
But just as we erupt like H-bombs, so do siblings forgive and forget. Shouts and curses hotter than Satan’s own fire and brimstone quickly cool off with apologies and affections.
Here’s how Oliver comes back to his senses. Slowly revealing his identity by referring to himself in the third-person, he relates, with shame and humility, how his brother saves his life when he’s asleep in the woods:
…About his neck
A green and gilded snake had wreathed itself,
Who with her head, nimble in threats, approached
The opening of his mouth. But suddenly
Seeing Orlando, it unlinked itself,
And with indented glides did slip away
Into a bush, under which bush’s shade
A lioness, with udders all drawn dry,
Lay crouching, head on ground, with catlike watch
When that the sleeping man should stir. For ’tis
The royal disposition of that beast
To prey on nothing that doth seem as dead.
This seen, Orlando did approach the man
And found it was his brother, his elder brother…
Twice did he turn his back, and purposed so.
But kindness, nobler ever than revenge,
And nature, stronger than his just occasion,
Made him give battle to the lioness,
Who quickly fell before him…(4.3.106-30)
Orlando rescues his brother, though he did think about leaving him to the lion. Twice. (Brothers.)
As for Duke Frederick, he apparently has a sudden religious awakening. As Jaques reports:
Duke Frederick, learning how that every day
Men of great worth resorted to this forest,
Addressed a mighty power, which were on foot,
In his own conduct purposely to take
His brother here, and put him to the sword.
And to the skirts of this wild wood he came
Where, meeting with an old religious man,
After some question with him was converted
Both from his enterprise and from the world,
His crown bequeathing to his banished brother,
And all their lands restored to them again
That were with him exiled. (5.4.143-54)
Oliver and Ferdinand’s seismic metanoia might seem like some incredulous plot device serving only to drive the play’s climactic unions. But for all its convenience, their changes thicken the symbolism of the forest in the play. The woods are a dangerous place where lions and snakes lurk. Mysterious, hermitic spiritualists find home there, too. It’s a place of hunger, as we see many characters complaining of appetites as ravenous as its skulking beasts’. It’s a place of disguise and magic. It’s a place of transformation, of wildness and authenticity, removed from the political artifices, vanities, crises, and considerations of the city and the court. A place where true selves are revealed, re-calibrated. Liberated, even, from their social constructions and meditations, where brothers can put aside their rivalries, meeting not in competition but in play.
The next morning, we slept late. Remarkably, neither of us rubbed our foreheads for as much as we boozed. But we did rub our arms and shoulders and thighs. We aren’t such young men anymore.
“I had you in a couple of pins last night,” my brother bragged.
“You didn’t pin me. I wriggled out of each one.”
“Dude, I threw you through a set of doors.”
“And you called it a night right as I had you pressed on the ground.”
We aren’t such young men anymore, but we are brothers – and brothers will always wrestle in one form or another.
In which Shakespeare beats a Painter and Poet with a stick.
The Life of Timon of Athens isn’t a particularly celebrated play in Shakespeare’s oeuvre. Many critics think its language and plot don’t quite stack up to the Bard’s usual standards. Some argue it was never finished. Others conclude the play was a collaboration. Whatever its status in the canon, the tragedy stands out for its focus on money – and still has some warnings worth heeding.
Athenians love Timon because he lavishes them with gifts and parties: “Methinks I could deal kingdoms to my friends,/ And ne’er be weary” (1.2.215-16). His friendships are bought, but Timon is blind to this: “You shall perceive how you/ Mistake my fortunes. I am wealthy in my friends,” he responds when his servant relays that his creditors are demanding payment (2.2.178-79). His generosity is borrowed. And none of his friends bail him out.
The Senate threatens to execute Timon for defaulting on his debts. Fleeing the polis, a forsaken Timon himself forsakes the world. “I am sick of this false world!” (4.3.368) as he cries, cursing man and gold, “thou sweet king-killer,” alike (4.3.374).
Timon becomes his foil, Apemantus, a gadfly philosopher whose cynicism he well sums up in grace he says at one of Timon’s banquets early in the play:
Immortal gods, I crave no pelf.
I pray for no man but myself.
Grant I may never prove so fond
To trust man on his oath or bond,
Or a harlot for her weeping,
Or a dog that seems a-sleeping
Or a keeper with my freedom,
Or my friends if I should need ‘em.
Amen. So fall to’t.
Rich men sin, and I eat root. (1.2.61-70)
In his own root-eating misanthropy Timon fails to see his servant, Flavius, stays by his side. He fails to see to his comrade, Alcibiades, leads an uprising against the city to defend him. The Senate relents their too-cruel punishment, but too late, as Timon dies out in the wilderness.
Timon of Athens isn’t exactly the most artful social commentary, but it does develop a compelling theme of artifice. We see the artifice of men and money, yes. You can’t buy love. Who can you really trust? But we also see the artifice of law. “We are for laws; he dies” (3.6.85), as one senator summarily sentences Timon. It’s a stark reminder that even morality is man-made.
He is as self-absorbed in his exile as he is in buying his countrymen’s affections.
We also see the artifice of Timon’s own self-pity: “I never had/ Honest man about me; ay, all I kept were knaves,/ To serve in meat to villains” (4.3.469-71). No, faithful Flavius doesn’t count; he’s just his lowly servant, as if only the rich and powerful are capable of any depth, or at least any sentiment of value.
There is a touching scene when all of Timon’s servants gather together at Timon’s house to mourn their master’s fall. “Yet do our hearts wear Timon’s livery./ That I see by our faces. We are fellows still,/ Serving alike in sorrow” (4.2.17-19). The master-servant relationship itself is not a natural construction, but Timon’s servants transcend the artifice of social roles and achieve true fellow feeling. “There’s none/ Can truly say he gives if he receives,” Timon earlier comments on the cycle of debt that a gift ignites (1.2.9-10). Only his servants prove otherwise.
But Timon certainly learns no lessons about egocentrism in his hermitage. He is as self-absorbed in his exile as he is in buying his countrymen’s affections. Timon may reject gold, but he doesn’t have to reject man – or the golden mean.
We’re always looking for clues to Shakespeare’s creative process. What did he think? What was his process like? How did he come up with his ideas? Did he know he was great? Did ever imagine that, 400 years after he died, some American dude would be cooped up in a spare room qua office in Dublin, spending the Sunday of his bank holiday weekend trying to glean some deep wisdom from the words of one of his lesser plays? Well, Timon of Athens may gives us some small glimpse into the poet’s poetics, but it may not glitter like gold: Shakespeare exposes the artifice of, well, art itself.
Art, counterfeit and fiction, is a made thing, fashioned from human hands, not from some divine imagination we mortals are not permitted to.
Shakespeare (and his collaborator, presumably) stages a Painter and Poet. In the beginning, we see them flattering Timon with portraits and verses. For patronage, of course. For money. For all their highfalutin words of inspiration, not even the artists transcend base greed. We see the pair again at the end of the play. They feign loyalty to the indigent hermit, hearing report of gold Timon discovers in the forest. But Timon overhears their mercenary dissembling and calls them out on it. He cleverly undercuts the Painter: “Thou draw’st counterfeit/ Best in all Athens; thou’rt indeed the best;/ Thou counterfeit’s most lively” (5.1.77-79). And the poet he lambastes: “And for thy fiction,/ Why, thy verse swells with stuff so fine and smooth/ That thou art even natural in thine art” (5.1.80-82). Then he beats the two with his stick. And natural, we should also remember, could mean “foolish” in Elizabethan vernacular – which just takes a sledgehammer to the play’s natural-artificial axis. Thanks, Shakespeare: You knew the artifice of sign and signifier all too well, too.
For as much as we like to worship great art and artists, as if the creator and their works exist in some higher sphere unsullied by the affairs of lowly man, Shakespeare recognizes that art is manufactured. That art, too, is often motivated by practical needs, by self-interest, by profit. The Bard had to make a living, after all. It can be deflating, even cheapening, to peek behind the creative curtain, like a son recognizing his father’s fallibility for the first time. But it’s also comforting, too, especially for the aspiring artist: Art, counterfeit and fiction, is a made thing, fashioned from human hands, not from some divine imagination we mortals are not permitted to.
But not all counterfeits, shall we say, are equally convincing. Not all fictions are equally credible. Not all makers are equally skilled. Not all art is equally good. Timon of Athens is no Hamlet. Still, I could never write a Timon of Athens.
It’s not King Lear’s madness that is so terrifying. It’s that he knows he’s losing his mind.
On Facebook, my stepmother recently posted a picture of my grandfather, father, and my oldest brother with his son propped on his knee. “4 Generations of Kellys,” she titled it. It’s a lovely picture and I looked at for some time. I stared into each of their eyes, wondering what they were thinking.
In the picture, my father and brother are crouching down to join my grandfather at wheelchair-level. Proud, they squint into the sun and smile, knowing the significance of the snapshot. What were they thinking about being fathers, about being sons? About being men?
Meanwhile, my grandfather, 98, and nephew, just over one, are positioned to face the camera. They gaze, expressionless, eyes cast slightly down. What were they thinking? Were they watching the dappled shadows of the trees rippling across the ground from a slight, early summer breeze? I suspect neither of them will ever remember this photograph being taken. Neither of them, it struck me, will ever remember each other. This is when I finally understood the terror of King Lear.
The terror of King Lear is not in the wrath of the god-like patriarch, blinded by his own white-hot pride and indignation: “Ingratitude, thou marble-hearted fiend, / More hideous when thou show’st thee in a child / Than the sea-monster!” (1.4.236-38).
It’s not in the delirious, naked, and rejected man, raging at the storm in the desolate heath at night: “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!…You sulphurous and thought-executing fires, / Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts, / Singe my white head!” (3.2.1-6).
Nor even in the old father, cradling his beloved Cordelia and trying to will some sign of life from her: “No, no, no life! / Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more, / Never, never, never, never, never!” (5.3.304-07)
No, it’s not Lear in the heights of his fury, the belly of his madness, or the depths of his despair. “Your old kind father, whose frank heart gave all– / O, that way madness lies; let me shun that,” King Lear tells himself (3.4.21-22). This is the terror of King Lear. Shakespeare drags us into Lear’s descent. We have to watch him fall apart. We have see him see himself lose his mind.
“Grandpa looked good,” I’m sure my brother cheered when they were leaving the nursing home after the photo.
“He’s plugging away,” my father must have remarked, the very summary my grandfather issued when he could still hold a conversation.
During the visit, I bet my brother joked about the attention our grandfather gets from the ladies. My father, with loving sarcasm, certainly reminded his father that he already ate ice cream today. “You don’t remember eating it? Have a look at your shirt, Dad!” Perhaps my grandfather slowly lifted up his heavy brows, wreathed in white, and mumbled from some interior place beyond humor: “Oh.” The perpetual loop of the present would’ve rope him back until the merciful timelessness of sleep took over.
Did my brother glance at our father when he said his goodbyes? Did he catch a wrinkle of sadness on his forehead, a warble in his voice? Did my father look away when my brother lifted his son up to his great-grandfather, two bodies knowing nothing of each other beyond some deep, primordial recognition of fellow flesh, nearly 100 years apart.
I’m sure neither said that this may be the last time they see him, though certainly they thought it before turning their minds back to the soothing preoccupations of the mundane: how the traffic would be on the drive home, what chores waited for them, when they’d eat dinner.
For me, I’m not sure I’ll ever see my grandfather again. I’m not sure I’ll even talk to him again. In fact, I don’t even really remember the last time I did. I mean, really talked to him.
For the mind eventually collapses on itself and into the dementia of the infinite present.
At first, my father and stepmother referred to it as “sundowning syndrome.” I’d ask questions. “Well,” they’d begin. They’d talk of onset and progression. They’d parse degrees of cognitive impairment. But at some point, distinctions don’t matter, as much as medical terminology disinfects with its clinical detachment and sanitizes with its lemon-scented denial. For the mind eventually collapses on itself and into the dementia of the infinite present. Like an imploding star, swallowing all the light and heat of our children’s names, our addresses, how to tie our shoelaces, when our wives will finally come back from the store into the cold void of the perpetual, selfness now.
We usually spoke with him on Thanksgiving or Christmas at my father’s house. On the couch, my father would surface from a nest of bills, newspapers, legal pads, screens, wires, and joint braces: “You guys want to wish Grandad a happy holiday?” From our own forts of beer bottles, phones, dogs, and unfulfilled filial expectations, we’d answer: “Absolutely!” We’d rush to crack fresh beers. A cordless phone made the rounds. I’d pace around other rooms to avoid my middle brother’s judging glare for talking too loudly. Into his 90s, my grandfather’s voice was quiet. Into my fourth beer, my voice was loud.
“Hi, Grandpa, this is John…I’m good…No, I’m still in Cincinnati…Yeah, getting my teaching license…Ha, yeah, I’ll be sure to keep those kids in line…Well, I don’t play the bass fiddle much anymore but I’m still plucking that guitar!…I remember you telling me about your clarinet days…Eat a lot of turkey today?…No, sounds like you should be watching out for those nurses!…Yeah, well, plugging away. That’s right…I appreciate that, Grandpa. Love you, too. OK, handing the phone back to my dad now. OK, bye, Grandpa!”
“Hi, Grandpa this is John…I’m good…You sound great! No, I’m in Minneapolis now…No, he’s in Columbus….Well, I’m getting married next summer…Ah, I appreciate that, Grandpa…It was great talking to you…Thanks, Grandpa…Love you, here’s my dad.”
“Hi, Grandpa, this is John…I’m good…No, he’s in Columbus…I’m actually moving to–no, he’s in Columbus…Well, love you, Grandpa. Here’s my dad.”
“Hi, Grandpa…I just wanted to wish you a Happy Turkey Day! Love you, OK. Here’s my dad.”
Before his Alzheimer’s – or whatever it is – was too far advanced, he’d catch himself. “I’m sorry. I’m not so good at remembering stuff anymore.” His loops shortened overtime. I think he knew I was a grandchild. I’m not sure how long he was able to hold on to it.
“I told Grandpa everyone says hello,” my father eventually took over.
Not too long ago, my father phoned me in the afternoon when I still lived in California. Since I’ve moved from home, first across the states and now overseas, I’ve been diligent about calling my friends and family. So diligent, in fact, I usually I am the one initiating contact. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw “Dad” show up on my caller ID. I was even more surprised when he just wanted to talk. Conversations with my father are usually pretty short. I often feel like I’m the one asking most of the questions. This time, he was chatty, inquisitive, engaged. A son wants nothing more from his father.
I felt sad because because I could see him seeing that he was losing his father.
“Well,” he said in the middle of our conversation, which usually indicated some sort of leave-taking, but he went on. “I called Grandad today.”
“How’s he doing?”
“It was the first time he didn’t recognize me.” I heard a slight tremble in his voice. I could hear the TV playing in his living room.
“I’m so sorry, Dad.”
I didn’t know what else to say. I felt sad. But not for my grandfather. I’ve not had much of a relationship with him, especially since he lived in Floria as long as I could remember, moving back to Cleveland only after his mind started going.
I felt sad because my father was sad. Sad because I could see him seeing that he was losing his father.
“He has his good days and his bad days. I’m sure he’ll come around tomorrow.”
I never personally connected with King Lear, this tragedy of tragedies, because I always tried seeing me in him, trying to locate myself somewhere in the sublime profundity of his broken psyche. Perhaps when I’m older, perhaps when I’m a father myself will these dimensions of King Lear ring more keenly.
For now, after staring at the photo of four generations of men in my family, I can’t help but see my own father and grandfather in Lear. Not in his flaws and follies, his despair and dejection, his rage and rejection, in his madness and mourning. But in his interiority, in those glimpses of luminous self-knowledge that dapple his disintegration – like those moments my grandfather reckoned, if briefly, with the decay of his own mind, those moments my own fathered acknowledged it, if briefly. As though for a moment they glimpsed their own selves, small and naked, fearing in that cold and unfeeling storm of nothingness.
“No more of that,” Lear tries to persuade his own, creeping madness (3.4.23). That is the terror of Lear. That is the play’s excruciating, exquisite genius.
Dysfunctional Shakespearean families: They’re just like us!
I have a lot of questions aboutKing Lear. Like what is wrong with these people?
“Which of you shall we say doth love us most?” a retiring King Lear asks his three daughters, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia, as he divides his kingdom up among them (1.1.49). Unlike her sisters, Lear’s favorite, Cordelia, doesn’t fawn over him with the false flattery he’s fishing for. And Lear loses it. He disowns her, sending her off to the King of France without dowry, “for we / Have no such daughter, nor shall ever see / That face of hers again” (1.1.263-65).
Why would you ask that question, Lear? Don’t you think you took things way out of proportion? Did you really listen to what Cordelia what was saying? What were you thinking? This has been my struggle with Lear: Everything escalates so quickly. From 0 to insanity in one act.
Later, Goneril, now heiress to half her father’s kingdom, can’t handle her father’s retinue, who “hourly carp and quarrel, breaking forth / In rank and not-to-be-endured riots” (1.4.175-78). They’re unruly house guests, to be sure, but Lear is none too pleased with her ingratitude: “Into her womb convey sterility! / Dry up in her the organs of increase” (1.4.255-56). “Infect her beauty,” he later curses, “You fen-sucked fogs, drawn by the powerful sun, / To fall and blast her pride!” (2.4.159-61)
He did give you half his kingdom, Goneril. Can’t your father enjoy his waning days? But Lear, again, do you have to ratchet things up so much? I mean, you gave up your crown. Do you think you get to act like a king still?
I thought my family was dysfunctional. But the Lears are just batshit cra–like us.
Regan adds insult to injury: “O, sir, you are old” (2.4.139). She won’t put up with Lear’s knights either. “I gave you all–” Lear points out; Regan, like an entitled millennial, answers that it was about time he did (2.4.245). Everyone sees that Lear is cracking, especially when, martyr-like, he threatens to stay out in a violent storm after his daughters refuse to house his full retinue. But his daughters think he “must needs taste his folly” (2.4.286). “Shut up your doors,” Regan orders, and they actually lock their old father out (2.4.299).
Who do you think you are, Regan? Your dad’s losing his mind. Now’s not the time to make him learn a lesson – and out in the storm of the century at that. What is wrong with these people? I thought my family was dysfunctional. But the Lears are just batshit cra–like us.
“Goddamnit,” I complain, vainly thrusting the broom handle under the fridge. “How the hell did it get all the way back there? Jesus.” I stormed into the sitting room. “Aren’t you going to help me?”
“Are you listening to yourself right now?” My wife gets up from the couch. “I was trying to but you didn’t want me pulling out the fridge.”
We argue our way back to the kitchen. “I’m pulling out the fridge.”
“But you said it was gonna scratch the floor!”
“Well, I don’t know how our landlady expects us to keep these fucking floors perfect.”
“Just leave it back there then.”
“Leave it back there? It’ll attract ants and mice. What do you mean, leave it back there?”
“Well, you’re the one so concerned about the floors.”
“You’re not concerned with the floors? See, this is why you’re a slob. This is why we don’t buy shit in checkout lines. It’s impulse. It’s crap.”
“This is why you’re a dick.” My wife stomped back to the sitting room and slammed the door.
I carefully pulled out the fridge, reached back, and picked it up. I was tempted to march into the sitting room and present it to her: “You still fucking want this?”
Sometimes it just takes a gummy candy in the unusual shape of a meerkat that, after my wife accidentally dropped it, somehow fell all the way under the back of the fridge.
Then I thought about Lear. I lightly rap on the door. “I’m sorry, honey.”
When we first meet him in the Royal & Derngate’s production of King Lear, Edgar is carrying a bottle and slurring his words. (In a parallel plot, Gloucester’s so Edgar has a half-brother , the bastard Edmund, who convinces their father that Edgar is scheming to kill him for their inheritance.) I didn’t really give much attention to Edgar’s drunkenness – a directorial decision – until I later came read a short review by Lyn Gardner in The Guardian. She observes:
This is a production that makes you wonder what has been going on in the Lear household to produce three such dysfunctional daughters, and the emphasis is very much on the younger generation. Interesting, but it has the effect of sidelining Michael Pennington’s king, who seldom seems more than a volatile domestic tyrant.
Perhaps it does sideline Lear, but to good effect, because why does everyone in King Lear just fall to pieces?
In his opening soliloquy, Edmund grumbles: “Why brand they us / With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?” (1.2.9-10). Historically, we might appreciate his bitterness: His father’s sexual indiscretions cut him off from inheritance. Over 400 years ago, Shakespeare’s audience, familiar with primogeniture, would have felt his plight more keenly – not that it justifies plotting against his family. But in 2016, his motivation is much less immediate, making Edmund seem purely evil. And it’s hard to relate to pure evil.
This is why I find the director’s choice (or the actor’s) to make Edgar drunk so brilliant. This is why the Royal & Derngate’s Lear helped bring the drama of this trumpeted tragedy to life. We get hits of motivation. Edgar initially comes across as a cocky, entitled rich kid, and Edmund, a quietly suffering loner. Again, not that this justifies Edmund ruining his family (and, in part, Lear’s), but that bottle, that drunken swagger, hints at so much emotional baggage, pent-up resentment, and complicated family history. Do Goneril and Regan hold it against their father for favoring Cordelia? Is Lear just looking for a little filial reassurance as he confronts his mortality? What past wounds are reopened when Lear feels so totally rejected by his daughter’s slights? Have the youth of this play somehow been held back the systems of inheritance? Do the youth of this play take for granted their inheritance?
We don’t see the tension build up in King Lear. We just see it boil over. We just see the jelly meerkat: Not all the previous arguments about cleanliness, control, respect, and tone it triggers, the ongoing friction of two strong-willed personalities learning interdependence, the monetary and career burdens my wife takes on for me to write, the enduring trauma of divorce and how it shapes my communication habits and values, insecurities about body image and anxieties about what it means to be alive and –
What has been going on in the Lear household? Perhaps in King Lear Shakespeare wants us to imagine our own. Mine, for one, is made of glass. And you know what they say about glass houses and jelly meerkats.
It’s bad enough I don’t know a whole lot about Shakespeare’s life or world. But I can’t even say I’ve actually seen many of his plays performed. I mean, the texts were intended for the stage after all.
The last production I can recall seeing was at an amphitheater in a park by the Cincinnati Art Museum – and I caught a only a few scenes at that. I stumbled on a public performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in medias res. It was hot outside, I was a little drunk, and I had no idea what was going on in the play. I soon left to find a bathroom, I think. I’m not even sure why I was there in the first place, who I was with, or even when this was my life, exactly. It must have been some sort of midsummer art festival during college – and equally as enchanting, apparently. For as much as I can’t recall, I can call up glimpses of Titania’s leafy crown. I can hear a donkey-headed Bottom braying. I can taste the IPA I was sipping from a cheap plastic cup, already warm and flat in the heat.
Before that I saw Macbeth. On a TV carted into a high school classroom. My junior-year English teacher – the late Mr. Cahill with his tweed-patched blazers, his breath stale from cigarettes and cafeteria coffee, his chalkboard listing smutty words you couldn’t say in class (“boring”), the rapturous “Great God!” he’d yawp when reciting “The World Is Too Much With Us” – had my class watch the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1979 release of Macbeth with Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Judi Dench. With its bare, black staging, this was a powerful performance. I still conjure it up whenever I think of Macbeth. But I think I liked it all the more because in my coffee-drenched, cigarette-stenched, ego-hunched intellectual coming-of-age, I wanted to impress Mr. Cahill. I wanted him to like that I liked what he liked.
We watched Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet that year, too. A classmate – he’s a successful editor in New York now – guffawed in surprise, in glee, in contempt when Branagh javelins his rapier into Claudius’ back and sends a chandelier swinging down onto him in Act 5’s climactic bloodbath. I always felt like that classmate was always several beats ahead of my own sophistication.
Certainly I’ve seen other plays. There’s no way I haven’t seen other plays. And not just on film. I hope. I suppose I can’t count those adaptations we’d gathered for on the gymnasium floor whenever the children’s theater came to school, can I? I even rented Lawrence Olivier’s famed production of Henry V after I read the play this year. I renewed it three times. Three times, the upper limit. I eventually sent it down the return box, unwatched. Pathetic. Criminal. I just don’t know why I don’t get around to these things.
Over two decades’ worth of schooling – including graduating summa cum laude with a degree in English literature, mind you – never put me in the theater seat. But apparently 140 characters could.
So, while recently walking through Oxford to meet an acquaintance from Twitter, I passed the Oxford Playhouse and spotted a poster for a production of King Lear, which I learned of from another acquaintance on Twitter, it so happened. The next day, I promptly ordered two tickets online. Over two decades’ worth of schooling – including graduating summa cum laude with a degree in English literature, mind you – never put me in the theater seat. But apparently 140 characters could.
My wife and I had an argument over seat selection. I wanted to reserve two seats by the aisle, she, sensibly, by center stage. “I’m tired of everything we do revolving around you having to go to the bathroom,” she complained. “I just like the option. There’s comfort in proximity,” offering the best defense even George Constanza could surmise. Begrudgingly, I booked seats facing centerstage. Marriage requires compromise, see. And sacrifice, though not of my fluid consumption. I still downed two pints at a pub before heading to the theater.
One dresses up for the theater. A man wears a jacket in the least. And I hadn’t been to the theater in a long time. I wanted to look nice. I wanted a cultured evening out on the town with my wife. So, I decided to wear the suit I had tailored for my wedding. It’s a classic suit: navy blue, cut slim. Maybe a little too slim, as some post-nuptial weight stretched the waistband. But I sucked in my belly, shoved in my shirt, and adjusted my subsequently bunched-up underwear. I was looking good, feeling fresh – until I got caught in a sudden hailstorm on my way to pick up the tickets at will call. Oxford’s old cobblestone streets are charming until you try to run them in dress shoes and slacks that are riding up your ass. I felt like Lear out on the heath: older, less spry than in my youth, and confronting the elements, only to be humbled later by my discovery that I had far overdressed for this weeknight performance. Oxford is a college town after all. At least I would be disturbing no one if I had to empty my old-man bladder during the play; we occupied the only seats in the entire row. Naturally, I enjoyed a glass of wine at intermission.
I loved the production. It opens with Cordelia aiming a rifle right at the audience: bang. Provocative, but I still haven’t decided on what it means. She struck me as a sort of revolutionary fighter, in fact, when she reappears with the French invasion later in the play. Edmund the Bastard was quite the bastard. So were Regan, Goneril, and Cornwall. The Fool accompanied himself with a concertina, giving additional voice and volume to his humor. And Michael Pennington played the mad king brilliantly. The costuming evoked, for me at least, interwar England, an interesting juxtaposition for tragedy set in ancient Albion. This, too, has a meaning, though I’m still deliberating on it. The set design was sparse, a stark brick wall suggesting not royalty but hard times, actually. A wind machine mimicked the elements when Lear is roving the heath and raving out in the storm; the effect was a bit gimmicky. But I can’t pretend to be a theater critic. You’ve seen my record, for one thing. For another, I don’t any have other productions of King Lear to compare this one to.
If I connected with the language in the first half, I connected with its emotions in the second.
I did read King Lear in high school, though. For Mr. Cahill’s class, in fact. A few of my peers said it was their favorite play, that it was Shakespeare’s best. I hadn’t even read enough of the Bard to have an opinion. My classmate – the successful editor – often quoted a favorite line: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods;/ they kill us for their sport” (4.1.37-38). I wanted to be serious and literary like them, so I agreed. It, too, I said, was my favorite play, though I never personally connected to Lear’s madness, as sublime as Lear’s descent into it is. I certainly didn’t understand a damned word of the Fool at the time (a lot of dick jokes, I now know). Like a well-trained but unimaginative literary analyst, I circled all the references to eyes and sight in the text, scrawling in the margins “seeing vs. blindness” and thinking myself a brave explorer setting the first foot in some new world.
I also tried to re-read the play before this performance. I only made it halfway through, but this was to my benefit. In the first half of the performance, I was delighted I could follow along with the actual lines. Shakespeare is hard enough to understand when you’re studying him in private with time, footnotes, and the internet at your disposal. In the second half, a lot of the lines went right over my head, as stuffed with Shakespeare as it’s been this year. But the meaning didn’t. If I connected with the language in the first half, I connected with its emotions in the second. Because theater centers, well, the drama.