Hearing heirs: The Tempest

Should I get my ears checked?

My nephew waved his chubby fingers at the camera. He smiled and then stared, transfixed, as babies are, as we all are, at the moving images and intermittent sounds from the iPad. Over 3500 miles away, he was basking in the center of attention at a belated Thanksgiving celebration at my father’s house. My father, middle brother, stepmother, and stepsister each passed through the FaceTime picture, the commotion of cooking and dogs, chatter and moving bodies, the commotion of family and gathering, in the background.

“How are you, buddy?” I said. “Are you looking forward to dinner?” I never know what to say to babies. I try out a little baby-talk but inevitably shake it off for normal speech. I waved back, smiled, and then stared back, transfixed.

I was transfixed, of course, by his shaggy, sandy-colored bangs. By his plump, grinning cheeks, his eyes, nutty-brown and just as plump. But I was also transfixed by my nephew as such. That he was my brother’s child. That he was this emerging being who could walk, loved music, and called everything in his nascent lexicon “blue.” That he exists. That he is. “O wonder!” as Miranda says in The Tempest after she sees her first humans other than her father and his slave Caliban:

How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in’t! (5.1.184-87)

I took my nephew in. I looked for my brother in his face. I looked for my family, our eyes and noses, our jaws and brows. I looked for myself, too, and I tried to my imagine my own child. But I couldn’t.

***

In The Tempest, we learn Prospero, Duke of Milan, fled to an island in the Mediterranean with his three-year-old daughter, Miranda, after his brother, Antonio, usurped him and pledged tribute to the enemy state of Naples. As Prospero explains: “The government I cast upon my brother, / And to my state grew stranger, being transported / And rapt in secret studies” (1.2.75-77). From his books (“volumes I prize above my dukedom”), he learned magic, using them to control Ariel, a spirit, and Caliban, a grotesque native (1.2.169-70). Twelve years later, he wields his magic to conjure up a storm that shipwrecks Antonio, the Duke of Naples, his son Ferdinand, and other royal characters on the island. This sets in motion having Ferdinand and Miranda fall in love and marry, restoring his dukedom, and pardoning his brother. In the end, he abandons his magic to return to Milan: “Now my charms are all o’erthrown, / And what strength I have’s mine own,” Prospero says in an epilogue some consider to be Shakespeare’s farewell address to the theater (1-2).

In telling The Tempest, Shakespeare constructs – and I don’t think I’d ever have noticed this if my college Shakespeare professor hadn’t brilliantly pointed it out – an elaborate system of wordplay: hair, art, ear, air, hear, and Ariel. All of these, furthered by motifs of sounds and listening throughout the play, pun on the word heir. And The Tempest is indeed rapt with the issue of heirs. After the storm, Alonso, the Duke of Naples, believes he has lost Ferdinand, his “heir / Of Napes and of Milan” (2.1.111-12). One of the nobles, Gonzalo, imagines a utopian state free of “succession,” or the inheritance of property (2.1.151). Prospero was deposed from power by his brother but himself deposes Caliban, the rightful heir of the island. In a subplot, two of Alonso’s servants get Caliban drunk, and Caliban plots to help them overtake Prospero and serve them as his new masters. In another subplot, Antonio encourages Sebastian to overthrow his own brother, the Duke of Naples. Prospero marries Miranda and Ferdinand, his new heir, and in a celebratory masque, has a spirit “bless this twain, that they may prosperous be, / And honoured in their issue” (4.1.104-05).

***

Heirs are about political and financial power, of course, and The Tempest no doubt fully explores this. But heirs concern a more personal power, too, a kind of masculine power: In our children, there is a this-is-my-flesh-and-blood authority, an I-made-this pride and legacy. Even Prospero, wants what’s his, even if he more’s interested in magic than administration: his inherited dukedom and for his heirs to succeed him. Or so I imagine. Because I don’t have children – and I’m not sure I’ll ever want to.

But I’ve also just never felt that more ancient instinct: the this-is-my-flesh-and-blood, I-made-this paternity. To pass down my genes. To pass down my name. To bring a little me into the world.

This is not an issue with my wife. She feels the same way.  We both think we would be great parents, yes, and we both know our families would love it if we did. But currently we’re just not interested in it. Maybe this is because were early-30s millennials, the idea of children inconveniencing our career goals, our travels, our lifestyle, er, drinking. Maybe this is because were concerned about the future. Does our suffering planet need our kids? Do we want to bring a kid into a world, to be perfectly honest, where Donald Trump is president?

Is this selfish? Privileged? Naive? Insulting to couples who want to have children but can’t? Are we denying ourselves of some greater fulfillment, purpose, and actualization by not being parents, by never so wholly caring for someone other than yourself? Is it on some level hypocritical, as the decision not to have children is only possible because my parents decided to have us? Is it on some level anti-biological, denying my genes their evolutionarily hard-fought, hard-wired expression?

All of that may very well be. But I’ve also just never felt that more ancient instinct: the this-is-my-flesh-and-blood, I-made-this paternity. To pass down my genes. To pass down my name. To bring a little me into the world. Of course, there is so much more to parenthood than my crude characterization. There is the profound love and joy. The opportunity to mould the next Albert Einstein or Marie Curie, Billie Holiday or William Shakespeare. Historically at least, there is the economic support of extra labor on the farm, of care for aging parents. And there’s sociocultural reality, the biological reality, that reproduction is simply what we do – and that most of us never question we will do, because we know we will do it, because we’ve always known we will do it, because having children is what we do, as couples, as members of a culture or nation or religion, as descendants of a tribe, as men, as women, as humans, as penises and vaginas, as organisms, as self-replicating DNA. That deep urge to be parents is literally in our bones.

Even if I don’t want children, why have I never heard it in mine? It’s one thing to make a principled decision not to have children. But isn’t it another when you listen out for the primal impulse and come up deaf? Why don’t I hear heir? And does this silence make me abnormal, less-than, like some Caliban? Hell, even Caliban “peopled else / This isle with  Calibans” (1.2.353-54).

***

My nephew freed his gaze from the iPad’s mesmerism. He smiled, looked up at his dad, lifted his blue-striped shirt to show off his stomach, and then laughed. “Is that your bellybutton?” my brother laughed with him. “Is that your bellybutton?” I may not hear the parental calling myself, but I’m not blind to its magic.

Shakespeare, Trump, and radical experiments of self-government: The Winter’s Tale

All politics is personal.

I’ve been preoccupied with two people this year. The first, of course, is William Shakespeare. The other, alack, is Donald Trump.

I’ve avoided writing about the latter. It’s not that I don’t see the man everywhere in Shakespeare’s plays. I see him in Richard III’s Machiavellian machinations. In Richard II’s incompetence, overreach, and rashness. I see him in Iago’s Janus-faced manipulations. In Timon of Athen’s extreme egotism. In the glib sexual presumption of Falstaff as he appears in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

It’s that I’ve wanted to keep the two separated. Maybe because I’ve felt the connections were too pat, that discussing today’s politics would be such an obvious, unoriginal move. Maybe because I haven’t wanted to talk about him – because he’s all we ever talk about anymore.

You don’t get to ruin Shakespeare, too, damnit.

Or maybe it’s because, in spite of my efforts to make sense of my mundane life in 2016, I’ve ended up seeking escape in the Bard, trying to locate, somehow, even my self-divulging, self-indulging reflections in a kind of sacrosanct timelessness I want unsullied by the small, groping, orange hands of the 45th president of the United States. You don’t get to ruin Shakespeare, too, damnit.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Shakespeare, it’s that all politics is personal.

***

I’m shocked. I’m angry. I’m scared. I’m eager for action – no,  this middle-class white guy isn’t pretending this essay on Shakespeare makes a meaningful difference. But I’m also longing to understand. To understand my country. To understand people I know – family, for God’s sake – who cast their vote for a bigot. To understand “what happened,” as we’ve been widely referring to Trump’s election.

And it’s this “what happened” that I’ve been stuck on when it comes to Trump and Shakespeare. “What happened?” we ask, bewildered, when Othello kills Desdemona. “How the hell did this happen?” we ask when Lear cradles a dead Cordelia. “Why in God’s name did we end up here?” when ask, beholding Macbeth’s bloodbath. “What happened?” millions of America’s are asking, dazed and gobsmacked, since November 9. The aftermath all seems so unlikely, so improbable, so dramatic. Too dramatic. Laughably dramatic.

What Leontes wreaks is catastrophic, but his original sin is all too ordinary.

Like in The Winter’s Tale. In this romance play, Leontes, King of Sicilia, sees his wife, Hermione, innocently clasp hands with his lifelong friend and King of Bohemia, Polixenes. He becomes paranoid. He silences his advisers. He plots to kill Polixenes. He imprisons his wife, who is pregnant and gives birth while jailed. He wants the newborn burned until deciding to have her abandoned in the wilderness. And, oh my, the ways he talks about women: hag, harlot, callat, hobby-horse, thing. (I’d like to say I’m fishing for Trumpian comparisons here, but no. It’s all there.) And Leontes causes so much terror and stress it ends up killing Leontes’ dear son and Hermione.

How did this happen?

The events are so hyperbolic that we tend to attribute it to larger-than-life personalities and passions, to outsized faults and flaws. Celebrities and Shakespearean villains – they’re just not like us. But we confound the outcome with the cause. What Leontes wreaks is catastrophic, but his original sin is all too ordinary: “I have too much believed mine own suspicion,” Leontes plainly sums it when he first reckons with the death of his wife and son (3.2.149).

Shakespeare, in that extraordinary way the playwright takes us into that interior stage of the mind, lets us glimpse how ‘it happened’ for Leontes. As he works himself up into a frenzy, Leontes rampages:

…Is whispering nothing?
Is leaning cheek to cheek? Is meeting noses?
Kissing with inside lip? Stopping the career
Of laughter with a sigh? – a note infallible
Of breaking honesty. Horsing foot on foot?
Skulking in corners? Wishing clocks more swift,
Hours minutes, noon midnight? And all eyes
Blind with the pin and web but theirs, theirs only,
That would be unseen be wicked? Is this nothing?
Why then the world and all that’s in’t is nothing,
The covering sky is nothing, Bohemia is nothing,
My wife is nothing, nor nothing have these nothings
If this be nothing. (1.2.286-98)

What happened? How did we get here? It was a whisper. It was nothing.

***

We read Shakespeare, we often say, because of how profoundly he probes and depicts human nature. We try to distill his characters down to raw elements: jealousy, ambition, power, hesitation, arrogance, suspicion. Yes, these, but I think Shakespeare ultimately strikes a deeper vein: irrationality.

It seems Shakespeare had something in common with the Founding Fathers: a belief in self-government, and just how radical an experiment it really is.

We, as humans, like to think we’re rational actors. That we make decisions based on the best available evidence. That we weigh choices based on risk and reward. Which is why Shakespeare’s Lears and Macbeths and Leontes evoke so much outrage, pity, and pathos. Why wouldn’t Lear just listen to what Cordelia was saying to him? Why did Macbeth carry out his assassinations in spite of his persistent moral reservations? How could Leontes let his suspicions get so out of hand and so quickly? If only they could see what they were doing, all the suffering, all the loss, all the grief, all the blood and gore would have been avoided. I would never act like that, we tell ourselves as Lear roves the heath and Macbeth talks to imaginary daggers. This is not what I would have done, we say as Leontes, foaming with self-feeding, despotic jealousy, justifies his anger.

Which is precisely why Shakespeare’s tragic figures are so horrifying. Because we do act like them. Because we’re irrational. We turn petty grievances into catastrophes. We let slights fester into disease. We take revenge on others because we are small, broken, needy beings. All for appearing right, to be recognized, not thinking ahead to, and never actually really wanting, the wreckage our egos leave in their wake. We feel guilty when we finally get what we say we want.

As Paulina, Hermione’s faithful attendant, stands up to Leontes:

…Thy tyranny, together working with thy jealousies –
Fancies too weak for boys, too green and idle
For girls of nine – O think, what they have done,
And the run made indeed, stark mad, for all
Thy bygone fooleries were but spices of it. (3.2.177-82).

We’re Leontes, ruled by the petty, childish tyrannies of our unreason – and our blind insistence otherwise – that bemonsters, Hulk-like and Hyde-like, whispers into so much woe. It seems Shakespeare had something in common with the Founding Fathers: a belief in self-government, and just how radical an experiment it really is.

***

Leontes repents. Sixteen years later, magically, it turns out his baby daughter, Perdita, had survived and was raised by a shepherd in Bohemia, where Polixenes’ son, Florizel, has fallen in love with her. But Polixenes will not have his son marry some country girl and responds with all the tyrannical violence of Leontes. The lovers flee to Sicilia, where Leontes reunites with his daughter and discovers Paulina, Hermione’s attendant, has been keeping the queen alive as a statue all this time.

It’s romantic idea, America, but is it a Romance play, where what’s lost is found, what’s divided is reunited? America’s going to need some repentance. It’s going to need some time. It’s going to need a whole lot of self-government, and that starts with checking our inner, irrational autocrats.

Some fairy-tale magic wouldn’t hurt, either. “It is required / You do awake your faith,” Paulina tells Leontes’ court when Hermione’s statue comes alive (5.3.94-95). But we should remember that while Leontes cried in the chapel everyday for 16 years, Paulina was attending to the statue of her Queen every day. That doesn’t just take faith. It takes commitment  and discipline – which require self-government.

And it’s not lost on me that the person who stands up to the tyrant, who puts in the work, is a woman.

“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow”: Macbeth, mortality, and mantras

Full of sound and fury, signifying something…if you repeat it enough

With a jaunty jump, I burst into the bedroom, my arms theatrically outspread: “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.” My wife looked up from her iPad, startled. She was enjoying a lazy Sunday morning in bed. I had just finished Macbeth.

“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps at this petty pace – shit. That’s not it.” I leapt out of the room. My wife took a sip of coffee and resumed her scrolling.

I scanned Macbeth’s famous monologue again and rushed back into the bedroom.  She looked up, bored, humoring.  “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable – no, recored syllable, no recorded time. Ah, damnit.”

Slurrrrp.

***

I figured I better have a least something memorized at the end of my year of reading Shakespeare. Because, on some level, that’s what you do.

I’ve mentioned my yearlong project at a few gatherings. Each time, the response is predictable. With an undertone of “You’re crazy,” they say: “Oh, wow. That’s a lot of plays.” Then, they branch off into one of two commentaries. Fork 1: “I remember reading Romeo & Juliet in high school” (It’s always Romeo & Juliet). Fork 2: “You know, I managed to get through school without every cracking open a play.” Regardless of path, my interlocutor next delivers an inevitable look of expectation. It’s a subtle expression, but I know what they want from me. They want me to recite some lines.

We all share Shakespeare’s legacy as a cultural product, and quoting his words signals a literacy, a status, even if we have no idea what those words mean.

I don’t really have a mind for quotes, so I usually dodge or duck – unless I’ve got a few drinks in me, when I might just intone some Shakespeare-sounding gibberish loosely relevant to the convivial occasion. “Yon glass, that spangles in that later light of our erstwhile springs…” No one’s been the wiser – probably because they’ve mentally checked out of our conversation at this point. Still, no matter our relationship to Shakespeare, we all share his legacy as a cultural product, and quoting his words signals a literacy, a status, even if we have no idea what those words mean.

But when it comes to Macbeth, which tells of tragic unraveling of the Scottish thane after he murders his way to power, it really is about the words. OK, with about 8 plays to go at this point, I can definitely say all of Shakespeare’s plays are about the language. But Macbeth is obsessed with language. It has ambiguous riddles and creepy spells from the witches. It has letters and scenes of characters reading them. It has conversations about having conversations. It has sleep-talking while sleep-walking. Talking-related words like report and tongue abound. Words like strange get repeated over and over. And Macbeth, our self-doubting power-seeker, delivers just some of the most excruciatingly exquisite lines.

If I was going to commit some verses to memory, it was going to be this from play.

***

“‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time,” I practiced during one of those random, mid-afternoon showers that punctuate the days of people who work from home. “And all our yesterdays have lighted the way – crap, crap, lighted fools the way to, to dusty death.” The windows and mirrors had fogged over. I squeezed lotion onto the baby-blue loofah and took the passage from the top.

“Out, out, brief candle,” I declaimed while bending over to clean up my dog’s poop on an afternoon walk. When I stood back up, I realized a couple was approaching. They gave me a curious glance as they passed. I tightly knotted the package. “Shakespeare!” I explained, giving the bag a little twirl at their backs. “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player–” My phone pinged. I disappeared into Twitter.

The barber spun my chair to face the mirror. I avoided looking at my head, mid-cut, the smock tightly ringing my neck like I was some criminally unfashionable altar boy. I avoided the awkwardness of other people thinking I was looking at myself. So I distracted myself with silent rehearsal: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that frets and struts upon the stage – that struts and frets upon the stage…” My words tumbled like the little shards of hair falling on my shoulders. “That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more.’”

***

My desultory, half-assed memorizations were, in a way, fitting for this famous monologue, which Macbeth delivers after he learns his wife has killed herself and as his foes are taking back the throne. The speech is about how nothing matters in the end, because we all are going to die. What’s the point, then, in committing it to memory? As Macbeth concludes: “It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing” (5.5.25-27).

Why is it that a nihilistic manifesto on the meaninglessness of our tiny, little lives is dressed in some of the most beautiful language?

But the irony wasn’t lost on me. Why is it that a nihilistic manifesto on the meaninglessness of our tiny, little lives is dressed in some of the most beautiful language? Why bother to write it in the first place? Why bother to re-read after all these many years, to memorize it? What is all this for?

This tension – dramatized, I think, in Macbeth’s own notorious equivocation – is the essential predicament of consciousness: We know we’re alive and so we know we’re going to die. All art, all human action, is in some way a response to this reality.

And yes, this is what that creeps into my mind when I’m taking a shower, cleaning up my dog’s shit, getting a haircut. These are all futile push-backs against entropy, against time, against death. Shakespeare knew this. And he also knew that there’s no harm in making it sound beautiful along the way.

***

My memorization of the Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow monologue soon fell off. Not that it was hard; the monologue is not even 10 full lines long. And not that I ever really put in much effort more than reading it a few times over and trying to pull it up from memory.

Until I was in a deep meditation. My wife has been taking a yearlong yoga instructor certification course and I have been her sometime pupil. At the end of session, she was guiding my meditation, encouraging me to feel my body sinking into the floor and to let my random thoughts flit through my mind as they came and went. “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” surfaced from somewhere bodily yet somewhere ethereal. I felt a calming gravity, and was cloaked, just for an instant, with a death-like blackness. I was detached, like a body drifting in space, liberated from concerns of any destination. And then, for the first time, the full monologue poured forth from within me:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle.
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (5.5.18-27).

But in this moment, I heard Macbeth differently. Less nihilistically and more stoically. I heard that we aren’t just condemned to nothing, but freed by it. That we are fools for clinging to our self-important delusions.

***

Since then, the monologue has been constantly ringing in my head, and I find myself reciting it not for any cultural cachet but as a kind of mantra. As something to hold onto. Like in a recent shower, when I tried to wash off the splitting headache of a hangover.

Or around my kitchen table, when I held my wife’s hand. Our eyes were bleary with lack of sleep and tears. The result were in. Clinton had lost. Trump had won. “What are you thinking right now?” she asked.

“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.”

Tampons, induced vomiting, and Shakespeare’s King John

The Bard truly shows up everywhere.

He greeted me as he always does when I come home. Through the frosted glass of the front door, I could see him perched atop the shoe bench, a shaggy black mass shimmying in excitement as I unlocked the door. He twirled. He jumped. I gave him some pets. He’s a great dog, Hugo is, and I told him as much in baby-talk hellos. He’s docile. He’s quiet. He loves to play. He loves to cuddle. But he does have one weakness.

Tampons.

I spotted a crumbled tissue in the hallway, which lead to a mangled tampon in the kitchen, which lead to a pile of detritus on the landing of the stairs. In the bathroom, the wastebasket was overturned, ransacked – because my wife left the door open when she left for her yoga certification course.

Any calm she might have been prepping for ahead of class was bombed out when she answered my phone call. I machine-gunned my anger: “I came home and there’s bloody fucking tampons everywhere and I don’t know whether he ate any but there’s shit everywhere so he must have eaten some and why did you leave the goddamn door open, I mean how many times do we have to deal with this because there’s fucking tampons everywhere so how much hydrogen peroxide do I give him? seriously how did you not think to close the door, tampons, tampons everywhere and you’re not being helpful!” and I hung up.

As I wiped up the nasty piles, occasionally mopping up goopy strands from his schnauzer beard, I couldn’t help but think of Shakespeare’s King John.

The dog was hiding under the kitchen table at this point, a tampon potentially already starting to swell up, blocking his intestines and leading  to his blended cotton-rayon demise. My wife called back. I declined. She called back. I declined. She called back. I declined. The pattern didn’t relent as I googled vet websites and scribbled out some dilution calculations. Funnily my wife had just bought some hydrogen peroxide (which she had been using for homemade teeth whitening) and I happened to have an dental irrigator (which I haven’t been using to clean some gums in the back of my mouth). Like some mad scientist I measured out and mixed water and peroxide in a tupperware container, drew it into the irrigator, opened Hugo’s confused maw, and squirted the emetic down his hatch.

Then I waited for him to vomit.

I thought about calling my wife back to fire off some more blame. I thought about how, if the dog died, it would all be her fault because she left the bathroom open, because she had to dispose of tampons in the little wastebasket we had in the bathroom, because she just – Hugo’s bowels lurched. He belched out an oozy white pancake of saliva, bile, water, frothy hydrogen peroxide, and a tampon. I was relieved. I texted my wife Hugo was OK and trailed after the poor little guy as he paced his retching way across room. And as I wiped up the nasty piles, occasionally mopping up goopy strands from his schnauzer beard,I couldn’t help but think of Shakespeare’s King John.

***

Love, hate, jealousy, mercy, pride, vengeance: Shakespeare never skimps on the big emotions, the big experiences of the human condition. But amid his big themes he also captures so damned well the little stuff that makes us so human, too. Take this moment in King John.

A little context. The history play, in a nutshell, dramatizes King John’s efforts to stave off a challenge to his tenuous claim to the throne from his nephew, Arthur. (It’s more so Arthur’s mother and French allies who lead the charge.) He orders a French citizen, Hubert, to kill Arthur, which Hubert pretends to do after Arthur’s been imprisoned. Meanwhile, some nobles convince King John to free Arthur. The next time they meet, Hubert tells King John how the people have taken the ‘news’ that Arthur is dead. Observe the wonderful micro-reactions in Hubert’s report:

Young Arthur’s death is common in their mouths,
And when they talk of him they shake their heads,
And whisper one another in the ear
And he that speaks doth grip the hearer’s wrist,
Whilst he that hears makes fearful action,
With wrinkled brows, with nods, with rolling eyes.
I saw a smith stand with his hammer,  thus,
The whilst his iron did on the anvil cool,
With open mouth swallowing a tailor’s news,
Who with his shears and measure in his hands,
Standing on slippers which his nimble haste
Had falsely thrust upon contrary feet
Told of a many thousand warlike French
That were embattailed and ranked in Kent
Another lean unwashed artificer
Cuts off his tale, and talks of Arthur’s death. (4.2.188-203)

The gripped wrist, the stopped work, the shoes put on backwards: These details are tiny but so real, so human. As is King John’s reaction:

Why urgest thou so oft young Arthur’s death?
Thy hand hath murdered him. I had a mighty cause
To wish him dead, but thou hadst none to kill him. (205-07)

But Hubert’s not having it: “Why, did you not provoke me?…Here is your hand and seal for what I did” (208-16). Hubert shows King John his own written order to kill Arthur. 

Arthur, pettily, petulantly, comes back with:

How oft the sight of means to do ill deeds
Make deeds ill done! Hadst not thou been by,
A fellow by the hand of nature marked,
Quoted, and signed to do a deed of shame,
This murder had not come into my mind.
But taking note of thy abhorred aspect,
Finding thee fit for bloody villainy,
Apt, liable to be employed in danger,
I faintly broke with thee of Arthur’s death;
And thou, to be endeared to a king,
Made it no conscience to destroy a prince. (220-30)

Thats right: King John blames Arthur’s death on Hubert’s ugliness. His ugliness gave King John the idea. His ugliness compelled Hubert to make inferences from a small suggestion. His ugliness drove Hubert to carry out the deadly act. His ugliness.

King John cools off after Hubert reveals he didn’t actually kill him. In the very next scene, though, Arthur, whom Hubert freed from his shackles, jumps off the castle wall, apparently trying to escape. He dies in his fall.

***

I, too, cooled off after Hugo stopped vomiting. I thought about King John, so quick to blame Hubert for his own doing, so irrational in his small-minded arguments. I thought about me, my first reaction to our dog’s welfare being to fault my wife, to accuse her of intentional stupidity as opposed to looking past a lapsus mentis and working together to solve the problem. 

King John goes on to apologize to Hubert:

Forgive the comment that my passion made
Upon thy feature, for my rage was blind,
And foul imaginary eyes of blood
Presented thee more hideous than thou art. (4.2.264-67)

Ironically enough, King John is later poisoned to death. Too bad he didn’t have any hydrogen peroxide on hand.

I washed off the puke-y, medicinal smell from Hugo’s beard. I lay down with him and gave him some gentle pets. I thought about Shakespeare. About his incredible insight even into our temper flareups, our self-defensive, first instinct to blame others, to take our frustrations out on other people. And I thought about how one of the greatest writers of the English language, of all language, can wriggle his way even mangled tampons and induced vomiting. I guess this is what happens when you read too much Shakespeare.

The Merchant, er, Mooch, of Venice

The quality of mercy is not strained – but it shouldn’t be taken for granted.

“I will do anything, Nerissa, ere I will be married to a sponge,” Portia tells her personal assistant early on in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (1.2.83). This sponge is one of her suitors, a heavy-drinking German. But she does end up marrying a sponge, Bassanio. He’s just a different sort of sponge. The mooch kind. The bum kind.

Consider this Bassanio. He asks his buddy Antonio for money to help him compete against her richer, princelier wooers. Antonio has to borrow it from Shylock three thousand ducats to be repaid in three months on forfeit of the famed pound of flesh – and thinks he’s good for it, what with all the merchandise he has out at sea.

Bassanio goes off for Portia. To win her hand in marriage, as Portia’s father so stipulated, he has to choose among a gold, silver, and lead chest, “whereof who chooses his meaning chooses you,” as Nerissa explains (1.2.26-27). He chooses lead, as the “world is still deceived with ornament” (3.2.74), and chooses correctly. Lovely. Let’s give you that one, Bassanio.

But just as they’re about to be married, they hear word that Antonio’s ships are wrecked and that Shylock (depicted, I must note, with a hotly debated antisemitism) is demanding his retribution. Yeah, Bassanio didn’t let Portia in on any of that before. Class act, man. And your best friend is about to die so you can get the girl you wanted.

Not that I’m one to talk.

***

A few leftover crusts littered our plates. Empty pints, wine glasses, and cocktail tumblers crowded the table. The wives left for the facilities before we headed to a pub across the street to continue the craic. The husbands – plus my father and brother, for whose visit I organized this gathering with our friends at a trendy pizza place in Dublin – split the bill, couples covering couples. I grabbed the AmEx. My wife’s. Out of her purse. Without asking. For a dinner I set up.

I bring in a little money freelancing, usually covering (most) groceries, dog food, pints when I’m on the town, and occasionally some nicer meals out every now again. Notice what’s not covered: rent, utilities, travel. Her job provides my health insurance. Savings. All the big stuff. She makes huge sacrifices so that I can give this whole privileged writing thing a go. And she makes these sacrifices – and she never complains about it.

I’m not quite what explains this urge, to do something nice, out of a genuine desire, and yet rust the gesture with mercenary grouses.

It’s just that meals like these wipe me out. It’s not that we can’t afford it per se. It’s that I can’t afford it. Which is precisely the problem. Not the money. The I. She picks up these sorts of tabs all the time. For us.

And whenever I do pay for bigger stuff, I can’t help but make some sort of comment about it. Like her 30th birthday present, back when I was working full-time. She had set a goal to visit all 50 states before she turned 30. Alaska was her last, so we organized some family together to do a cruise. “It’s not a gift when you tell me how much you had to spend,” I remember her explaining when I was booking.

I’m not quite sure what explains this urge, to do something nice, out of a genuine desire, and yet rust the gesture with mercenary grouses. Maybe that word privileged is the key. I’ve had a privileged life, so it’s not like parting with money represents some affront to hardscrabble frugality. Perhaps it’s some baked-in entitlement – my upper middle-classness, my maleness, my whiteness, my private education, making me a kind of reverse Invisible Man, invisible to himself, who gets to enjoy the taken-for-granted ease of never being forced to confront his identity, as his identity is enmeshed with the covert fabric of power and normativity, and yet who is outraged by the slightest jostling of his hegemonic comfort. Or maybe I’m just a selfish cheapskate.

***

How does Portia respond to Bassanio’s revelation? An all-out blitz – of unconditional generosity, big-heartedness, selflessness.

Pay him six thousand and deface the bond.
Double six thousand, and then treble that,
Before a friend of this description
Shall lose a hair thorough Bassanio’s fault.
First go with me to church and call me wife,
And then away to Venice to your friend;
For never shall you lie by Portia’s side
With an unquiet soul. You shall have gold
To pay the petty debt twenty times over. (3.2.298-306)

Then, unbeknownst to Bassanio, Portia disguises herself as a doctor of law and goes to Venice to badass a victory for Antonio in court: “This bond doth give thee no jot of blood. / The words expressly are ‘a pound of flesh’.” (4.1.301-02). Generous, loving, and smart as hell.

“The quality of mercy is not strained,” Portia famously monologues as she tries to convince Shylock to back off from revenging Antonio (4.1.179). Same, too, for generosity. For doing things for other people because you support them, love them, believe in them.

This is what kills me about Portia: It’s how instantly she comes to the aid of her husband’s friend.

It’s not strained, it’s not forced. This is what kills me about Portia: It’s how instantly, how without question or qualification, without complaint or self-consideration, she comes to the aid of her husband’s friend, because she supports them, loves them, believes in them. And she doesn’t even need credit, praise, recognition for it. This is what kills me about my wife.

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes. (179-82)

Make that her that gives, and him that takes.

***

Of course, as a token of thanks, Bassanio gives Portia-cum-lawyer (who is cleverly testing him) the special ring Portia gave him – “when this ring / Parts from this finger, then parts life from hence” (3.2.183-84). His excuse? “I was beset with shame and courtesy. / My honour would not let ingratitude / So much besmear it” (5.1.216-18). And then the promises: “Pardon this fault, and by my soul I swear / I never more will break an oath with thee” (246-48). Classic. And here’s the kicker. “Were you the doctor and I knew you not?” Bassanio asks Portia (5.1.279). Bassanio, Bassanio, Bassanio. Even I know better.

***

As we left the restaurant, the rain started lashing. The group sprinted across the street in a gap in the traffic. My wife and I waited under the awning of the restaurant until the cars let up. She was silent, expressionless, which meant she was pissed.

“It’s that I didn’t ask,” I said, offering up no Bassanio-esque self-defenses, feeling a due, childlike embarrassment and shame. The quality of mercy, of generosity, is not strained, but it should never be taken for granted.

What do they see in us, these Portias?

An opening appeared. She ran through the rain across the street. And I ran after. 

Sitcom chivalry: The Two Noble Kinsmen

It’s like that Seinfeld episode! No, it’s like that Frasier episode!

And they say chivalry is dead.

I’m not talking about holding the door open for women. Nor standing up when they enter or leave the room. Picking up the check at dinner? Nah. Walking closest to the curb. Un-uh.

I’m talking about ruining holiday gatherings over smalltalk about ‘90s television. Oh, chivalry is far from dead.

***

“I do not think it possible our friendship / Should ever leave us,” Palamon assures Arcite in The Two Noble Kinsmen (2.2.114-15), which Shakespeare is believed to have cowritten with his protégé, John Fletcher. The two titular kinsmen, jailed in Athens after Duke Theseus deposed the brutal king of their native Thebes, are trying to make the best of their situation.

But just a few beats later, Palamon is assailing his cousin: “I shall live to knock thy brains out with my shackles” (2.2.222-23).

What happened?

“I saw her first” (2.2.163).

“You are mad,” you might say. In fact, Arcite does (2.2.204).

From their cell, the kinsmen had spied Emilia, sister to Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons and betrothed to Theseus. They both fall instantly in love, but Palamon saw her first.

And just look at these two bicker:

PALAMON. What think of this beauty?
ARCITE. ’Tis a rare one.
PALAMON. Is’t but a rare one?
ARCITE. Yes, a matchless beauty.
PALAMON. Might not a man well lose himself and love her?
ARCITE. I cannot tell what you have done; I have,
Beshrew mine eyes for’t. Now I feel my shackles.
PALAMON. You love her then?
ARCITE. Who would not?
PALAMON. And desire her?
ARCITE. Before my liberty.
PALAMON. I saw her first.
ARCITE. That’s nothing.
PALAMON. But it shall be.
ARCITE. I saw her too.
PALAMON. Yes, but you must not love her.

I that first saw her, I that took possession
First with mine eye of all those beauties
In her revealed to mankind. If thou lov’st her,
Or entertain’st a hope to blast my wishes,
Thou art a traitor, Arcite, and a fellow
False as thy title to her. Friendship, blood,
And all the ties between us I disclaim,
If thou once think upon her. (2.2.154-177)

Ladies and gentleman, I give you your much-mourned chivalry.

Iterations of the medieval chivalric code – which Shakespeare/Fletcher draw on in this stage adaptation of Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale,” itself written when the code would have been in some effect – vary, but it would have compelled, at least if taken to a comical extreme, Palamon and Arcite to defend their honor or whatever the hell they think they’re doing. (I’m not even going to try to touch how they think they can call dibs on a woman. That’s, well, Trumpian.)

And defend they do. And after a series of events and subplots that gets them both out of prison. By a fight to the death. Well, Theseus orders them to duke it out in a tournament, with the winner, literally the victor in a game of king of the hill, gets Emilia. The loser gets death. (I’m not even going to to try to touch how they think they can put up a woman like a trophy. That’s, well, yeah.) 

But Palamon and Arcite’s bickering. It sounds like Niles and Frasier Crane competing over a spot in Seattle’s Empire Club – no, no, I will not admit defeat!

***

In my household, we’ve scrapped all that courtly love chivalry: We’re both knights. Actually, she’s probably more like the knight and I, a less-than-deal princess. But hey, I cook, I clean, I launder, I shine the armor.

I wouldn’t want to humiliate the bride on her wedding day.

When it comes to one topic though, the gauntlet is thrown: Which show had a greater cultural impact, Seinfeld vs. Frasier?

“You are mad,” you might say. In fact, I do.

Obviously, the answer is Seinfeld.

Of course she can like Frasier better; after all, de gustibus non est disputandum (not that she’s ever actually spent any serious time with the competitor.) But claiming Frasier had a great impact on culture writ large? Her evidence: Frasier had more seasons, the dog, Marty, Frasier and Niles’ vocabulary. “Marty.” Pshaw. No soup for you. Man hands. I was in the pool! Even if you don’t know Seinfeld, you know those phrases. That alone wins my case.

But no.

Double dates. Family outings. July Fourth barbecues. Thanksgiving dinner. Christmas. No matter the event, no matter the gathering, no matter company:

“…Can these two live, / And have the agony of love about ‘em, / And not kill one another?” an observer, like Theseus, worries (3.6.218-20). “What a mere child is fancy, / That having two fair gauds of equal sweetness, / Cannot distinguish, but must cry for both!” another, undecided between her two wooers like Emilia, despairs (4.2.52-54). 

Good thing we didn’t do a Seinfeld vs. Frasier quiz at our wedding like my wife suggested. For one thing, Frasier would have lost, and I wouldn’t want to humiliate the bride on her wedding day. The chevalier cannot back down from a challenge.

But I should be careful. Arcite wins the tournament, but just as Palamon is on the chopping block, we learn that he falls off his horse and soon after dies.

So, every now and again, I do the chivalrous thing. She keeps a few seasons – seasons, mind you – on her iCloud. Having seen the whole show so many times, it’s like white noise that helps her fall asleep. But if she really can’t fall asleep, I lay aside my jousting lance and watch a few episodes with her. Which reminds of that one episode when Niles tries to – no, no, “I’ll be cut a-pieces / Before I take this oath – forget I love her?” (3.6.256-7).

That merry wanderer of my life: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Shakespeare’s got game.

I recently read that A Midsummer Night’s Dream – with the mischief its fairies wreak on the young lovers and the play the bumbling workmen stage for the newlywed duke and duchess – is currently the most performed of Shakespeare’s plays. This makes sense: Its language is accessible, its plot lends itself well to adaptation, its emotions and comedy are relatable, and its length, well, runs pretty short for the Bard.

We should not underestimate the power of shortness. We should never underestimate that the power of shortness.

To the article’s point, my wife and I caught a production of it just this weekend in Dublin. It was a fun show, and it pulled off all the liberties it took with the text, what with its opening standup act, a live-band, a riotous food fight, and even a bit of acrobatics. From page to stage, A Midsummer Night’s Dream indeed has a magic all its own – a magic, I  have realized since, that has quite literally charmed my life.

“I am the merry wanderer of the night,” Robin Goodfellow introduces himself, chief mischief-making puck of Oberon, King of the Fairies (2.1.43). Merry wanderer, too, A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been throughout my years, spiriting itself forth in ways big and small throughout my years.

*** 

This lantern doth the horned moon present.
Myself the man i’th’ moon do seem to be.
– Starveling, 5.1.235-36

Mrs. Wagner – whose laughter at the opening puns in Julius Caesar first awakened a sense of Shakespeare in me – divided our class into small groups and assigned each a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Several of us, including my own, were to stage passages from the play within the play, The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe. In my group, I was cast as Starveling the Tailor – ironically enough, for I was quite the chubby middle-schooler and always managed to have a little mustard or jelly stain on my ill-fitting school uniform.

For rehearsal, we would meet at Greg’s house, tucked away in the sleepy, leafy streets of Hyde Park. It’s funny, I catch his updates on Facebook from time to time now. He lives in Sacramento, enjoys hockey and sports cars, and works in tech. I remember his family had moved to Cincinnati from San Diego, his dad courted that way to serve as City Manager. This lent them, even my unsophisticated fifth-grade brain understood, an aura, with San Diego looming exotic and otherworldly in my imagination.

Greg’s mother was so nice, always wearing a warm smile, never bothered that my mother or father, depending on whose house I was staying at that week, had to pick me up later than the rest of my peers. She would prepare us snacks and bring them down to the basement, where we plotted our pratfalls in costumes expertly sewed by another group-mate’s mother. Snug’s Lion, I recall, had a shaggy mane of gold and orange and brown yarn, ears rounded out of felt.

I suspect my chubbiness, now that I look back on it, was the real humor of my voice work.

In Pyramus and Thisbe, Starveling doubles as Moonshine. Like Starveling, I also used a lantern for my performance. It was a red lantern, a real one, too. I had acquired it as some sort of souvenir, I think, during one of those summers my father took my brothers and me and sometimes our friends hiking in the Smoky Mountains. Once, I had tried to light the lantern, as we did the lanterns in those chilly cabins we stayed in atop Mount Le Conte, warmed by alpaca blankets and hot chocolate. I filled my lantern with lighter fluid but ended up getting it all over my clothes and the carpet, which later got me in some trouble. The wick never caught the flame, its rope bearing that charred scar until one day it ended up at a thrift-shop, I have to imagine, after my dad moved again.

To heighten Starveling’s comic incompetence, I used this voice gag my classmates thought was hilarious, at least if its popularly in the fourth grade was any measure. It was a strange blend of Fat Albert, Pee-wee Herman, and Kermit the Frog. I suspect my chubbiness, now that I look back on it, was the real humor of my voice work. Not so for Ms. Pater, who was seated front and center during our first performance.

Mrs. Wagner had invited parents, of course, for our theatrical debuts, as well as other classes, much to our humiliation when the junior high-schoolers came down from the top floors of the school and squatted down like giants on our desk chairs. Ms. Pater taught sixth, seventh, and eighth-grade science. No other teacher inspired as much lore – and fear – as her. She was a full woman, shall we say. Her breasts would smother the elementary kids when she forced hugs out of them. Her voice drowned out the organ when she bellowed hymns at mass. A year later, when I had her for class, she got basic facts wrong in lessons  – “Uh, it says right here in the textbook, Ms. Pater, that worms have five hearts,” I remember a student, who wasn’t even one of the know-it-alls like me, corrected her. She’d lose assignments and penalize students for it. She’d test information we hadn’t yet covered. One of Ms. Pater’s desk drawer was filled with her own snacks, and, when they ran low, she’d send a student down to a corner shop just past the playground for some fresh Twinkies. One time, she even got stuck in her roller chair and, trying to squirm out, fell back on the floor. Students had to help her up and out. “I don’t have to like you,” was her darkly Catholic motto, “but as a Christian, I have to love you.”

Ms. Pater was the most intimidating critic to have seated front and center. And when my lines came, I stood up on a chair, held out my lantern, and honked in my goofy fat-kid voice: “I am the moon.” (Our script was adapted, of course, for our still-developing brains.)

“We can’t understand you,” she coldly interjected, as if playing a meaner Theseus, the newlywed  Duke of Athens, who comments on his wedding-night entertainment. Her arms were resting atop her bosom, her eyes shot out like daggers from behind her glasses. That was the end of my goofy fat-kid voice.

***

My Oberon, what visions have I seen!
Methought I was enamoured of an ass.
– Titania, 4.1.73-74

The blue Previa pulled up to the curb. “Have fun, kids! I’ll pick you up 15 minutes after the movie’s out. Remember, Kelly, 15 minutes.” We piled out of the car and raced inside towards the cinemas at the Kenwood Town Center. We weren’t late for the movie. We, in the gangly agony of pubescent self-consciousness, just didn’t want any older kids to see that we had to be dropped off at the mall.

I can’t remember who else was there, but I was there with Kelly. (Facebook: wife, mother, home-owner, educator. God, our youth can seem as if it was a dream.) We were trying out one of those junior high romances that materialize – and just as quickly vanish – out of pure curiosity and callow experimentation in the world of adult amatory relationships. The crux of our connection, from what I can recall, was the imagined hilarity of our matrimony: “Can you believe, if we got married, your name would be, like, Kelly Kelly?!”

I went for it: I reached out and placed my arm around her shoulders.

Our group date was the 1999 film adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the one with Kevin Kline as Bottom. Thanks to Baz Luhrman’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet, Shakespeare enjoyed some popularity among certain 90s youth.  And it was during this screening I made my first ever “move” on a girl.

Early in the movie, but not too early, as I slickly strategized, I went for it: I reached out and placed my arm around her shoulders. No yawn-stretch maneuver for this guy. Then I tried to decipher her reaction. She didn’t push my arm off. That was good. She didn’t shift in her seat or lean away. That was also good. And maybe, I couldn’t quite tell, just maybe she even snuggled in ever so slightly. Very, very good.

The film itself had little impact on me. I can only conjure up swaths of mossy green, gossamer pink, and Kevin Kline’s eye makeup. But next Monday at school I followed up with Kelly’s best friend. “She said she likes you,” the friend divulged. “But her neck was a little stiff.”

“What do you mean?”

“She said it was really sweet you put your arm around her, but you left it there for the entire movie.”

***

Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind.
– Helena, 1.2.234

She didn’t just quote a few lines. She recited the whole damned thing. The whole damned thing.

My friend had to leave at this point. Over the music, he mouthed and gestured something about needing to take his dog out, but I knew the noise, crowd, and skinny jeans weren’t his thing. Plus, he wasn’t really hitting it off with any of the girls we were talking to.

He and I met around the corner at Neon’s, where we had met to celebrate his new job and where we randomly ended up having a round of shots with this group of girls at the adjacent table. One of them shouted over the jukebox that they were heading out to the next bar. This was our window.

Well, not really my window. I had been in and out of some short flings and hook-ups, coming off a series of longterm relationships before that. I was enjoying being single. I was in the thick of grad school. My friends, my brothers, encouraged me to enjoy being single. I just wanted to play wingman. “This is what you do, man. You follow after, but cool-like. I’ll buy you a whiskey.”

“It’s Latin. It means ‘but with the mind.’ It’s uh, it’s a long story.”

I was enjoying that whiskey. I was enjoying my conversation with her – the one who coyly invited us to come along but whose name I had already forgotten at this point. So I stayed. I ordered another whiskey.

A chat about work lead to a chat about books. I was training to be an English teacher, after all, at the time. I offered up that I was re-reading Macbeth in my free time. (Oh, I’ve got all the moves.) And she offered up Helena’s entire monologue – the entire monologue, mind you, without missing a single beat – after the lovers Hermia and Lysander reveal their plans to elope:

How happy some o’er other some can be!
Through Athens I am thought as fair as she.
But what of that? Demetrius thinks not so.
He will not know what all but he do know.
And as he errs, doting on Hermia’s eyes,
So I, admiring his qualities.
Things base and vile, holding no quantity,
Love can transpose to form and dignity.
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.
Nor hath love’s mind of any judgement taste;
Wings and no eyes figure unheedy haste.
And therefore is love said to be a child
Because in choice he is so oft beguiled.
As waggish boys in game themselves forswear,
So the boy Love is perjured everywhere.
For ere Demetrius looked on Hermia’s eyne
He hailed down oaths that he was only mine,
And when this hail some heat from Hermia felt
So he dissolved, and showers of oaths did melt.
I will go tell him of fair Hermia’s flight. 
Then to the wood will he tomorrow night
Pursue her, and for this intelligence
If I have thanks it is a dear expense.
But herein mean I to enrich my pain,
To have his sight thither and back again. (1.2.226-251)

Two and half years later, I handed the man the slip of paper. On it, I had written sed animo. “What does that mean?” he asked. 

“It’s Latin. It means ‘but with the mind.’ It’s uh, it’s a long story.”

I’m not sure why, exactly, I felt compelled to translate it, but the jeweler said it was much easier to engrave, being shorter, on the wedding band.

***

“The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact,” Jonathan Bate quoted Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (5.1.7-8). Bate, the eminent professor and Oxford provost, was lecturing on “The Magic of Shakespeare” at the Bodleian Libraries. The lecture, as luck had it, came but a few days after my wife and I had began our move to Dublin, staying, as we were, in Oxford until our Irish visas came through. 

Bate argued that Shakespeare viewed poetry as a kind of seduction, “a conjunction of eros and magic.” Both love and verse, he said, have a power to grip our minds, to change our mental states, like magic. During his lecture, I didn’t recall all the ways A Midsummer Night’s Dream cast its spell on my life. Nor, really, after I quickly read the play before the Dublin performance.

But as I stood in ovation to the actors, so far away in time and place and imagination from my chubby fifth-grade self, I realized how right Bate was: No play is quite so enchanting, and originally so, as A Midsummer Night’s Dream.