It’s a dog’s life? The Two Gentlemen of Verona

The things we do for love.

I squeeze out some toothpaste. It’s peanut butter flavored. Out of a strange, boyish curiosity, I am tempted to try it. Hugo at first cowers but surrenders. I move the toothbrush across his incisors, trying to reach his back teeth past his black gums and pink, writhing tongue, which fights this harpoon of hygiene like the tentacles of a giant squid. He doesn’t like it. But his breath stinks. Hugo never chews with his molars for some reason, so they’re getting a little gnarly.

I don’t brush his teeth as often as I should. The American Pet Association, I recall, advises dog owners to brush their pets’ teeth once a day. Once a day. That seems a bit absurd, I think, imaging dogs out there getting violin lessons and SAT tutoring. Because their owners – their parents – are better and love them more.

Still, I think, my dog has better healthcare than billions of people on this planet. I often like to make this comment in jest when our pets come up in conversation with friends and family, but it’s actually no joke. In many ways, Hugo – and likely your dog, too – has a better quality of life than so many humans across the globe, at least materially speaking.

Hugo gets consistent meals and fresh water. Organic dog food, even. Each time he goes outside, I give him a treat. Some of them are tasty – and don’t act like you haven’t tried them. He gets regular exercise. He has lots of toys. He gets loads of attention. He sleeps with us in a queen-sized bed. He gets his shots. He gets warm baths. He gets hair cuts. Every now and again, I even brush his teeth and clean his ears – not that he likes those.

Hugo has even travelled more than some people I know. We rescued him in Minneapolis, where he loved in the snow. He travelled by plane with us to Laguna Beach, where he ran on the beach. When I was in between the Twin Cities and the Queen City, Hugo rode shotgun with me when I drove back and forth, where he did not like the passenger seat. Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin? Cross those states off his list. He’s hiked in the Sierra Mountains and ran down the vineyards rows in Temecula wine country.

Now, our dog is moving with us to Dublin. It’s one of the first questions we get about our move: “What are you doing with Hugo?”

“He’s going with us,” we quickly say. “Duh!” And then one of us tries to bark in a Irish accent. It’s absurd.

Modern dogs have it pretty good, but Lance’s dog Crab in The Two Gentlemen of Verona has got it made.

Apart from securing visas and selling everything we own, we’re starting to coordinate Hugo’s transport. It’s a complicated process – and I won’t go into the associated costs. It’s an emotional one, too. For international flights, dogs have to fly in cargo. You can’t sedate them; their ears won’t pop if you do, apparently. So, we’ll have to crate him up and expect a shit-covered, piss-soaked cage and a shivering, confused pup on the other side.

It’s a little less complicated to fly a dog to the European continent, my wife’s figured out. We’ve discussed flying him to Paris and taking various trains and ferries from there.  I don’t know how that’s less complicated, but he’d definitely get some stamps on his passport. My wife tells me there’s some even sort of puppy passport.

Clearly, we do a lot for our dog, as I’m sure you do for yours. Such are our pets – as I’m sure most of say, our families – in 2016.

Hugo_toys
“You can only pack one for Dublin, Hugo.” He’ll definitely pick that nasty looking potato, which started out as an anthropomorphic baguette. iPhone photo by me.

As I work the toothpaste across Hugo’s little teeth, I can’t help but imagine Shakespeare, perched on the ledge of the tub as he shaping up his cuticles with an emery board, rolling his eyes at me.

See, in the Bard’s house, dogs aren’t exactly man’s best friend.

***

You may recall that I’ve been tracking a few things as I make my way through the complete works of Shakespeare in 2016. I am keeping tabs on unusual words, I am recording instances of strong language, I am looking for interesting occupations, and I am noting dogs.

So far, PETA would not be pleased with our playwright.

Take Henry V, where dogs are often used as terms of abuse. A common soldier, Pistol, issues some choice words to Nim, as they quarrel over a woman: “Pish for thee, Iceland dog. Thou prick-eared cur of Iceland” (2.1.36). This breed, my Norton Shakespeare glosses, is particularly small and hairy one. Pistol goes on to call Nim an “egregious dog” (2.1.40) and “hound of Crete” (2.1.66). Or take Antony and Cleopatra, when an impassioned Cleopatra cries to Octavius after his victory: “Slave, soulless villain, dog!” (5.2.153).

We dogs as objects of abuse in Cymbeline. The Queen, seeking poison from the doctor, Cornelius, pretends: “I will try the forces / Of these thy compounds on such creatures as / We count not worth the hanging, but none human, / To try the vigour of them, and apply / Allayments to their act, and by them gather / Their several virtues and effects” (1.5.18-23). Cornelius senses her ulterior motives (she wants to kill off Innogen’s means of communication with her banished husband, his messenger Pisanio): “She’ll prove on cats and dogs, / Then afterward up higher” (1.5.38-39). Fortunately, no dogs were harmed in the making of Cymbeline; Cornelius tricks the Queen by supplying a fake poison, anyways.

We famously see dogs’ ferocity in Julius Caesar: “Cry ‘havoc’! and let slip the dogs of war” (3.1.276). We see their service and servility, metaphorical hunters unleashed by their masters to catch the quarry of their desires in The Taming of the Shrew. For instance, Lucentio’s  servant, Tranio, remarks: “O sir, Lucentio slipped me like his greyhound, / Which runs himself and catches for his master” (5.2.53-54).

Dogs do seem to get a little love, though. In the First Induction of The Taming of the Shrew, the Lord comes back a hunt, pleased with his dogs:

Huntsman, I charge thee, tender well my hounds.
Breathe Merriman – the poor cur is embossed –
And couple Clowder with the deep-mouth brach.
Saw’st thou not, boy, how Silver made it good
At the hedge corner, in the coldest fault?
I would not lose the dog for twenty pound. (Induction 1.12-17)

You can imagine Merriman, Clowder, and Silver, whose names gives us a glimpse into the soul of the Elizabethan dog-owner,  happy and panting.

And then there’s The Two Gentleman of Verona, my sixth play so far in this project. You might know the play, especially if you’ve seen Shakespeare in Love, as “the one with the dog.”

***

The Two Gentleman of Verona is famous for two things.

First, it’s one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays and, according to most critics, one of his weakest. It’s not unlike pilot episodes. Take “The Seinfeld Chronicles.” This Seinfeld pilot lacks the masterful craft we’ve come to love in the sitcom, but the seeds of the show’s genius are still there.

I think, in many ways, Two Gentlemen of Verona is Seinfeldian: Both pay a lot of attention not to the actual relationships themselves but the way people talk about their relationships. There is an early scene in Two Gentlemen of Verona, for example, when Julia (I’ll get to the characters in a minute) is asking her servant, Lucetta, which of her suitors she thinks is best. They weigh pros and cons, not less superficially than Jerry and George discussing their latest dates. Later, Thurio asks Proteus what Silvia says about her. I can see Kramer jumping in, saying, “Why don’t you just ask her yourself?

Second, the play actually features a dog, Crab, comic companion to Lance, Proteus’ clownish servant.

Shakespeare certainly had no Instagram account where he exclusively posted pictures of his pug, but, for all the kicks dogs take in his works, the comic relationship between Lance and his dog is also somewhat sweet and tender.

OK, the play. The Two Gentleman of Verona is a comedy about two friends who compete over the same girl. Valentine goes off to Milan, where he falls in love with the Duke’s daughter, Silvia, who is supposed to marry Thurio. His best friend, Proteus, stays behind, lovestruck by Julia. But Proteus is urged to join Valentine abroad, where he falls in love Silvia. Valentine and Silvia plan to elope. Proteus betrays his friend – and Julia, of course – and lets the Duke in on the plan before trying to win over Silvia. Julia, meanwhile, disguises herself as boy page, her need to see Proteus so powerful, but soon learns of Proteus’ infidelity. Chased from the city, Valentine joins up with some outlaws. Silvia steals off to find him, as the Duke, Thurio, and Proteus go after her. Silvia is captured. Then the Duke and Thurio are captured by the outlaws. But soon all are freed, thanks to Valentine’s status with the outlaws (they needed, no joke, someone good at languages). The Duke finds Valentine worthy of his daughter. All are reunited and forgiven, including Julia and Proteus, friends and lovers alike.

Oh, the foolish things we do for love!

About that. There is a third thing the play’s known for. Actually, a fourth, too.

At the end of the play, Silvia wholly rejects Proteus, but he’s not understanding that “no” means “no”:

Nay, if the gentle spirit of moving words
Can no way change you to a milder form
I’ll woo you like a soldier, at arm’s end,
And love you ‘gainst the nature of love: force ye. (5.4.55-58)

Um, yeah. Proteus threatens rape.

And then – and then, Valentine comes forward and stops him. Proteus begs for forgiveness. Valentine is quickly moved:

…Once again I do receive thee honest.
Who by repentance is not satisfied
Is nor of heaven nor earth. For these are pleased:
By penitence th’ Eternal’s wrath’s appeased.
And that my love may appear plain and free,
All that was mine in Silvia’s thee. (5.4.78-83)

Yup. Mmm-hmm. Valentine offers Silvia to betoken his faith in their friendship. Silvia leaves with Valentine and Julia with Proteus, but Shakespeare leaves us with some real doozies about relationships.

The truly crazy things we do for love.

***

Speaking of crazy, for all the imperfections of The Two Gentleman of Verona, the Bard does mirror the human relationships with Lance’s relationship with his dog, Crab.

I think we’ve all blamed a little flatulence on the dog, but taking the fall for Fido? I guess when your dog’s going to be killed for it…

I’m not certain if the play was originally staged with a dog. I’ve read that William Kempe, a renowned comic actor in Shakespeare’s day and in several of his plays, played the part of Lance. Kempe, some claim, actually had a naughty dog named Crab he liked to bring to the theater and Shakespeare thus wrote some of the mischief into the play. Alas, this seems to be the stuff of theatre legend.

I do know that so many stagings have an actual dog play its part, much to the delight and amusement of audiences. Shakespeare certainly had no Instagram account where he exclusively posted pictures of his pug, but, for all the kicks dogs take in his works, this comic relationship is also somewhat sweet and tender. The Lance-Crab scenes really steal the show.

In one, Lance is shedding some tears over leaving behind his family for Milan with his master, Proteus:

I think Crab, my dog, be the sourest-natured dog that lives. My mother weeping, my father wailing, my sister crying, our maid howling, our cat wringing her hands, and all our house in a great perplexity, yet did not this cruel-hearted cur shed one tear. He is a stone, a very pebble-stone, and has no more pity in him than a dog…(2.3.4-9).

Shakespeare in Love treats the scene well (0:53):

Later, reflecting on relationships between masters and servants, Lance shares an accident that happened at court with Crab, whom he “brought up of a puppy, one that I saved from drowning when three or four of his blind brothers  went to it” (4.4.2-4):

[Crab] had not been there – bless the mark – a pissing-while but all the chamber smelled him. ‘Out with the dog,’ says one. ‘What cur is that?’ says another. ‘Whip him out,’ says the third. ‘Hang him up,’ says the Duke. I, having been acquainted with the smell before, knew it was Crab, and goes me to the fellow that whips the dogs. ‘Friend,’ quoth I, ‘you meant to whip the dog.’ ‘Ay, marry do I,’ quoth. ‘You do him the more wrong,’ quoth I, ‘’twas I did the thing you wot of.’ He makes me no more ado, but whips me out of the chamber. How many masters would do this for his servant? (4.5.16-25)

Lance continues:

Nay, I’ll be sworn I have sat in the stocks for puddings he hath stolen, otherwise he had been executed. I have stood on the pillory for geese he hath killed, otherwise he had suffered for’t. (To Crab) Though think’st not of this now…When didst thou see me heave up my leg and make water against a gentle-woman’s farthingale? (4.5.25-33).

Now that’s love.

I think we’ve all blamed a little flatulence on the dog, but taking the fall for Fido? I guess when your dog’s going to be killed for it…

Modern dogs have it pretty good, but Lance’s Crab has got it made.

***

I finish brushing Hugo’s teeth. He looks up at me with wide, sad eyes, as if to say, “Why would you do this to me?” I can see Shakespeare, as unfriendly as his words may be to man’s best friend,  looking up from his nail-filing, saying, “Well, aren’t you going to give him a treat?”

Hard copies, soft selves

As I get ready for the big move, I sort through – and search for – identity in old papers and Shakespearean dress.

Maybe egg cartons or coffee cup sleeves? Cardboard boxes, envelopes? I wonder what they’ll become, those hundreds and hundreds of pages, those thousands and thousands of words. I dump load after load of papers I’ve written down the recycling chute in our building.

Each load contains countless late nights. Each load, enough coffee to make a medium-sized country jittery – I’m talking every man, woman, and child. Enough cigarettes to make me cough up a lung years after I’ve even had a smoke. Many miles of pacing the various dorms, houses, and apartments I’ve boarded over my years.

That 50-pager I wrote on the influence of bebop on the prophetic mysticism in Ginsberg’s Howl? One day, someone might be wiping their ass with toilet paper made from it.

Surely most paper is recycled back into paper. Napkins, paper towels. That 50-pager I wrote on the influence of bebop on the prophetic mysticism in Ginsberg’s Howl? One day, someone might be wiping their ass with toilet paper made from it.  Maybe some snotty school kids will one day blow their noses – or wipe away tears – with all those Modernist poems I imitated.

I feel lighter with each load that falls down into the dumpster. I had been lugging these papers around for years. They’ve made it from Cincinnati to Minneapolis, to Southern California. But they’re not going with me to Dublin. My wife and I should be moving there in just a few weeks. We’re very excited, but there’s a lot to be done before we go.

There’s a lot of stuff – a lot of self – to be unloaded.

***

I made sure I had a digital backup of each paper, of course. I scanned those that I didn’t already have on my computer. I ripped out each staple, I pulled off every paper clip. I reread teacher comments and grades. Tucked into some binder-clipped packets are rough drafts; I looked over editing marks I made. A carat, a spelling correction, a pilcrow. A whole paragraph crossed out in red ink.

I also feel a twinge of guilt and sadness, though, when the chute’s door slams shut. I will never get that copy back. On my computer, I can easily open an essay on Keats’ faery imagery from my English major days or a lesson plan on river symbolism in Langston Hughes’ works when I was doing my student teaching. I can do this more easily – and likely more often –  than digging them out of the storage bins, where they’ve sat unread in garages, basements, and closets.

Recycled paper.JPG
There’s a lot of stuff – a lot of self – to be unloaded. Image by me.

 

The hard copies have an aura, I think. They passed from my hands to my professor’s, whose ink marked up the margins, whose fingers thumbed through the pages, whose coffee sometimes spilled onto coversheets, whose messenger bags hauled them from campus to home and back.

The originals have an energy. Like dormant batteries, they hold the charge of so many ideas, arguments, and citations. So much effort.

Have I just outgrown them? Have they accrued within me, like Russian dolls? Does these persons, these unused batteries, still carry a charge?

But they also enshrine so many past selves. John in high school. Early essays on electric bass playing and my dead dog. An encomium to coffee. My parents’ divorce, a theme I revisited so many times in the many reflections required of my liberal arts education. Teacher commentary  on my wordiness, feedback also thematic throughout my school days. Senior-year arguments against the existence of God.

God.

John the musician. Stacks of sheet music of standards for bass parts when I played in jazz ensemble, stacks of guitar tablature for finger-style arrangements for Christmas gigs and weddings I once played. I like to think I could quickly relearn these songs.

John in undergrad. Close readings and technical analyses of obscure mid-century American poetry and existential French philosophy. “Not only/but also” theses, “both/and” ambiguity. Feedback encouraging me to respect length maximums, to go to graduate school.

John with his back to the ivory tower after undergrad. Poems using Roman mythology to register urban poverty when I went into work in public schools instead of a PhD program.

Idealistic graduate school personal statements about education. Research on multiple literacies and differentiated instruction, screeds trumpeting critical pedagogy and constructivist classrooms. Lesson plans, teacher evaluations. Resumes for teaching positions I declined.

Each paper preserves a vision I once had of myself, I once had of the world. They are archives of identity. Of past accomplishments and achievements, of former talents and ambitions.

I read some paragraphs and marvel at my overwritten bullshit. I read many others and wonder where this writer went. What happened to this person? The scholar. The musician. The educator. The idealist. Am I less than these persons now? Have I just outgrown them? Have they accrued within me, like Russian dolls? Does these persons, these unused batteries, still carry a charge?

***

For me, it’s papers. For Shakespeare, it’s dress.

I’ve been thinking a lot about identity since I’ve been reading all this Shakespeare. It’s no doubt an obsession of the Bard. He develops the theme through dress, disguise, costume, uniforms. Only a few plays in, I’ve already extensively encountered Shakespearean dress.

On Shakespeare’s stage, identity is fluid, unstable, slippery. Characters put on and cast off different costumes: different identities, different selves.

In The Taming of the Shrew, the beggar Christopher Sly becomes a noble when the mischievous Lord wraps him in “sweet clothes” and put “rings on his fingers” (Induction 1.34). Lucentio’s servant, Tranio, becomes his master when he dons his “coloured hat and cloak” (1.1.201), then a gentleman’s uniform. By wearing a simple garment in Henry V, the great king disguises himself as a common infantryman: “Lend me thy cloak, Sir Thomas” (4.1.24). In Julius Caesar, Casca thinks Caesar showily refuses Mark Antony’s offer the crown, which would top a king’s, not a republican’s, head: “Why, there was a crown offered him; and being offered, he put it by with the back of his hand, thus; and then the people fell a-shouting” (1.2.222-24). In Antony and Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt makes herself goddess-like with her garbs, as Enobarbus describes: “She did lie / In her pavilion – cloth of gold, of tissue – / O’er picturing that Venus where we see / The fancy outwork nature” (2.2.204-207).

And in the last play I read, Cymbeline, Cloten, when disguising himself as Posthumus, wonders why the lowly gentleman he’s imitating should be any more attractive to Innogen than he is, a prince:

How fit his garments serve me! Why should his mistress, who was made by him that made the tailor, not be fit too? – the rather – saving reverence of the word – for ’tis said a woman’s fitness comes by fits. Therein I must play the workman. I dare speak it to myself, for it is not vainglory for a man and his glass to confer in his own chamber. I mean the lines of my body are as well drawn as his: no less young, more strong, not beneath him in fortunes, beyond him in the advantage of the time, above him in birth, alike conversant in general services, and more remarkable in single oppositions. Yet this imperceiverant thing loves him in my despite. What mortality is! (4.1.2-13).

(Cloten’s decapitated before he ever realizes he’s an asshole – and that he smells bad. Yes, Shakespeare takes to the time to make sure the audience knows that Cloten literally stinks.)

On Shakespeare’s stage, characters could transform themselves by dress. They can become – and un-become – kings with donning and doffing of crowns. Identity is fluid, unstable, slippery. Characters put on and cast off different costumes: different identities, different selves.

But dress was also deterministic in Elizabethan England, as Stephen Greenblatt observes in his introductory materials to my Norton Shakespeare. In Cymbeline, Innogen orders Posthumus’ servant to fetch her a disguise: “…provide me presently / A riding-suit no costlier than would fit a franklin’s housewife” (3.2.75-77). She is referring to sumptuary laws of the day, which, among other things, regulated the different kinds of clothes different kinds of people could wear. Identity was ordered and prescribed based on class.

Where is the true self in all this? Cymbeline suggests that one’s true character will eventually show through. As the banished Belarius remarks, “How hard it is to hide sparks of nature!” (3.3.79). And yet how easy it is not to know ourselves. Referring to the Cymbeline’s two sons, which he kidnapped out of revenge and raised in the woods of Wales, he follows with: “These boys know little they are sons to th’ King…” (3.3.80).

Perhaps Shakespeare urges us to defy these fashion trends, so to speak. As he prepares a final stand against the Romans, Posthumus cries: “Let me make men know / More valour in me than my habits show. / Gods, put the strength o’ th’ Leonati in me. / To shame the guise o’ th’ world, I will begin / The fashion – less without and more within” (5.1.29-33). Yet, Posthumus makes his charge dressed as a poor Briton soldier. Not quite the person the person we meet at the beginning of the play.

No wonder it can be so hard to pick out an outfit in the morning.

***

I cast the last load of papers down the dark slot. There is a brief silence before it crashes on top of the pile of refuse four stories below. So many pages once in order, now scattered about empty beer bottles,  Amazon boxes, half-rinsed cans of beans. Where am I in all this?

Paper gets recycled into paper, yes. Including new office paper, blank and waiting for the ink of new words, new identities, new selves. Perhaps, one day, I’ll be loading into the printer for a new document I’ve written some paper recycled from all those many words, all those many pages, I once wrote.

The human’s in the details: Cymbeline, The King of Britain

The Bard knows you never drink just one beer.

Shakespeare gets it.

He feels your hangover. He knows that frantic scramble for your wallet, your keys, and your phone when you wake up on your friend’s couch after a night out drinking. That double-checking you got your credit card back from the bar. He hears you when ask your friend, “Oh my God, how much did I spend last night?” He understands you’re bloated from the pizza that saved your blood sugar levels at 3am. He, too, longs to dry out today but will inevitably be putting back beers in just a few hours. You’re only back home for Christmas for so long, he tells you. His thigh is also mysteriously sore. “Did I fall?” you ask your friend. “Yeah, when we were walking home.” “Jesus,” you laugh, repressing the vague ache of regret as you text friends how great it was to see them, getting flashes of how you talked too much about yourself and dropped a whole pint on the bar patio. “How did we use to do this all the time?” you wonder. You sit on your friend’s toilet, cradling your heavy head in your hands and trying to pull yourself together.

Shakespeare hands you some aspirin. Five of them.

shakespeare_and_jonson_at_the_mermaid_tavern
“Dude, you’ve told the story about how you swam across the Thames in February like, 20 times?” “Twenty? Thinkst thou doth overcount the recounting?” That’s totally what they sounded like. An 1860 newspaper imagination of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson getting into it at London’s famed Mermaid Tavern. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

***

This week, I read Cymbeline, The King of Britain. It’s a play many have heard of but few have read, as far as I can tell. Someone remarked – I can’t remember where I came across it – that Shakespeare was bored with writing when he wrote this late Romance. Indeed, the play’s not loved by all, at least historically; critics often fault its plot and structure.

I am really starting to delight in the little details that give us a glimpse into everyday life in Shakespeare’s England.

The story is truly bonkers. I won’t pretend I can even summarize it, but here are some highlights: a thwarted marriage between social classes, banishment, a wager on the princess’s chastity, deceit in said wager, two princes kidnapped as infants and raised in a Welsh cave, a conniving queen, an asshole prince, fake poison, a battle between Rome and England over tribute to Caesar, countless disguises, a decapitation, a dream sequence involving the god Jupiter – and, as it goes in the tragicomic Romance genre, the eventual reunion of the play’s central couple, Princess Innogen and Posthumus, low of rank but high of virtue. As a gentleman describes him in the beginning of the play, “I do not think / So fair an outward and such stuff within / Endows a man but he” (1.1.22-24).

Cymbeline is all over the place – and I enjoyed every last bit of it.

Yes, Cymbeline has big themes: national identity, gender, fidelity, family, the nature of character, the nature of truth, love. It musters mythology. It raises religion. It develops its ideas through recurring images of fabric and air, with wordplay on inward and outward. But five plays into my year of Shakespeare and five admittedly long posts on Big Ideas, I am really starting to delight in the little details that give us a glimpse into everyday life in Shakespeare’s England.

So, this post, I’m trying to stay small. Except for a little stargazing.

***

Early in Cymbeline, Innogen says to her attendant in her bedroom chamber: “I have read three hours then. Mine eyes are weak. Fold down the leaf where I have left” (2.2.3-4). I love this intimate and mundane detail. I love that Elizabethans also dog-eared the pages of their books. I can see Shakespeare turning down the corner of a page in Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, which he drew from as he wrote the play.

Sometimes the Bard gives us truths in beautiful, pithy, lofty packages. Other times, as with the jailer’s reflections, it’s through humorous, honest, and very human little details.

Later in the play, Belarius, who kidnapped the king’s sons when they were infants to retaliate against his wrongful banishment from his kingdom, says of Innogen, now disguised a rustic man they are nursing back to health in his cave – I told you the plot is a mess. Anyways, Belarius fondly says of the Innogen in disguise, “He cut our roots in characters” (4.2.51). My text glosses “characters” as “alphabet shapes.” This is like removing the crust from your kid’s sandwich or arranging a breakfast plate of eggs and bacon into a smiley face: a small, domestic touch still tender and playful 400 years later.

***

Then there are the stars – and lovely hints at Shakespeare’s astronomical knowledge that shine through.

On Brain Pickings, I read a lovely review of Dan Falk’s The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright’s Universe. Discussing the ways the astronomy of his day influenced the Bard, Falk takes a close look at Cymbeline (and scholarship on it), which he notes was written not long after Galileo published an important treatise. Falk cites some lines by Giacomo, the seedy who Italian who bets the banished Posthumus he can bed Innogen but ruinously cheats in the wager:

What, are men mad? Hath nature given them eyes
To see this vaulted arch and the rich crop
Of sea and land, which can distinguish ‘twixt
The fiery orbs above and the twinned stones
Upon th’unnumbered beach, and can we not
Partition make with spectacles so precious
‘Twixt fair and foul? (1.6.33-39)

Citing astronomy professor and Shakespeare scholar Peter Usher, Falk wonders if these spectacles aren’t an early telescope.

Near the end of the play, Posthumus dreams the ghosts of his family, which he never met. They circle him, according to the stage directions, before Jupiter descends. Falk muses if Shakespeare just isn’t alluding to the four moons of Jupiter, which Galileo had recently discovered.

800px-jupiter-moons
Jupiter and the Galilean moons. Copyright, Jan Sandberg. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

And in the final scene, when all the disguises come off, the truth comes forward, and the couple reunites, it caught my eye when Cymbeline remarks in disbelief: “Does the world go round?” (5.6.232).

Falk and Usher cite many other astronomical details in Cymbeline, but these little glimmers, if faint, are fascinating.

***

Finally, Shakespeare knows you never drink just one beer.

After he comes to from his dream, Posthumus – captured by the British because he’s been fighting for the Romans to hasten his death, so ruined by his belief that Innogen has cuckolded him – shares his eagerness to be hanged with his jailer. This occasions the jailer to muse on some possible benefits of death:

A heavy reckoning for you, sir. But the comfort is, you shall be called to no more payments, fear no more tavern bills, which are as often the sadness of parting as the procuring of mirth. You come in faint for want of meat, depart reeling with too much drink, sorry that you have paid too much and sorry that you are paid too much; purse and brain both empty: the brain the heavier for being too light, the purse too light, being drawn of heaviness. Of this contradiction you shall now be quit. O, the charity of a penny cord! (5.6.250-58).

Shakespeare: poet, playwright, actor, director, theater shareholder, homemaker, astronomer, sociologist, behavioral scientist.

Sometimes the Bard gives us truths in beautiful, pithy, lofty packages: “Our very eyes / Are sometimes like our judgements, blind” (4.2.303-4). Other times, as with the jailer’s reflections, it’s through humorous, honest, and very human little details.

Drink plenty of fluids: Antony and Cleopatra

I can hear my wife asking, “Honey, would you botch your suicide for me?” Well, I’d definitely get a fever.

I felt like the Queen of the Nile.

Recumbent on our peacock-green couch, propped up by our zebra-striped pillows, cooled by the rotating arcs of the floor fan, entertained by the Twitter feed on my laptop, and feted with snacks, I let myself enjoy Super Bowl 50.

That is, once I finally stopped fighting it, the decadent un-productivity of being sick.

I grabbed the roll of toilet paper, ripped off some squares, and honked some green stuff out of my red, chapped nose. I looked over to my wife, who was finishing up some additional items in the kitchen, and smiled. “Do you want Pear, Mango, or Guava?” she asked, referring to some special juices she bought me. “If you’re feeling a better in a little bit, you could even sip some beer.”

The opulence, the luxury!

***

I ended up reading most of The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra in one day, once my head cleared out enough for me to fix my eyes on early modern English.

I had been laid up over the weekend with a sinus infection, the first time I’ve been sick in over two years. I wasn’t sick sick, but enough to be out of commission for a few days. The last thing I felt like doing was cracking open some Shakespeare, though I repeatedly attempted it in foolish denial of my achey limbs and sore throat. Eventually, I gave in and binged decongestants, herbal tea, and a whole lot of Breaking Bad.

I have a hard time being sick. It’s not the discomfort or pain. It’s the idleness. I don’t know how Antony and Cleopatra did it.

***

“The beds in i’th’ East are soft,” as Antony says in Antony and Cleopatra (2.6.50). Antony’s remark, of course, is a sexually charged one, if you’re familiar with the play, as is much of the figuration of Egypt and Cleopatra in the play. Standing in stark contrast is staid, austere Rome, Octavius its designated driver.

Nothing says “Valentine’s Day” like a double suicide.

I’m surprised the play didn’t knock the snot right out of me. It sledgehammers you with binaries. East. West. Egypt. Rome. Woman. Man. Vice. Virtue. Erotic. Stoic. Passion. Responsibility.  Private. Public. Whack. Whack. Whack. Whack.  And the romance between Antony, triumvir ruling over the Eastern part of the Roman empire, and Cleopatra, the powerful and voluptuous Queen of Egypt, swings manically from pole to pole.

OK, I’ll try to make this summary quick. It’s after Julius Caesar’s assassination. Rome is ruled by a triumvirate: Lepidus, Octavius, and Antony. (We met the latter two in Julius Caesar). Lepidus governs Mediterranean Africa, Octavius Europe, and Antony Asia. Antony has been luxuriating with Cleopatra in Alexandria, Egypt, much to the chagrin of his counterparts and to the neglect of his duties. He is called back to Rome after his wife, Fulvia, who previously and futilely rose up against Octavius, dies, and because Sextus Pompey is threatening their rule. Cleopatra is not happy about him leaving. Back in Rome, Antony makes good with Caesar with a political marriage to his sister, Octavia. Cleopatra gets word. She is not happy about this. The triumvirs make a deal with Pompey and go out drinking (though responsible Caesar goes home early). Antony ends up ditching Octavia and returns to Alexandria, where the two put on some godlike ceremonies. Caesar and Lepidus end up breaking the truce with Pompey. Caesar turns on Lepidus – and Antony. It’s civil war. Antony shamefully loses the Battle of Actium when he ditches his fleet after following Cleopatra, who flees the scene abruptly and for seemingly no reason. Antony loses the next battle and takes it out on Cleopatra. She pretends to kill herself out of grief to re-win his affections. Hearing the news, he botches his own suicide but soon dies after he is presented to Cleopatra. Rather than be trophied in defeat in Rome, Cleopatra smuggles some asps in a fig basket and dies from “all the joy of the worm” (5.2.253). Racy.

Antony and Cleopatra is no doubt epic, dynamic, histrionic. You should read it – nothing says “Valentine’s Day” like a double suicide.

the_death_of_cleopatra_arthur
The Death of Cleopatra by Reginald Arthur, 1892. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

***

During the Super Bowl Halftime Show, Beyoncé marched out in formation with her dancers – and over, as I think we were all thankful for, Coldplay. They were decked out as Black Panthers and performed the diva’s new song, “Formation,” a reclamation of her roots, her blackness, her femininity.  An anthemic ownership of her own power, as she closes the song: “Always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper.”

But what really strikes me about the Beyoncé in “Formation” and the Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra is their political power – and the way they intertwine sex and power.

I find compelling parallels between Queen Bey and the Queen of Egypt. Yes, many pop stars and movie stars have consciously styled themselves as Cleopatra over the years. I think many of these performances, though, tend to focus on Queen Cleopatra’s sexual power. But what really strikes me about the Beyoncé in “Formation” and the Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra is their political power – and the way they intertwine sex and power.

Before the events of the play, Cleopatra had already bedded Julius Caesar. In the play, Cleopatra takes her fleet out to the sea in the Battle of Actium. She helps suit up Antony in his armor. She fakes her suicide in an attempt to cool an enraged Antony after he loses the second battle to Octavius. When she learns he wounded himself, she has him lifted up to her own monument for their final, parting kiss. She hides money when the victorious Octavius asks after her accounts. She feigns allegiance to him before, in that most erotic of suicides, the asp bites her breast, else Octavius decorates himself with her in his triumphal parade back in Rome:

…Saucy lictors
Will catch at us like strumpets, and scald rhymers
Ballad us out o’ tune. The quick comedians
Extemporally will stage us, and present
Our Alexandrian revels. Antony
Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I’th posture of a whore. (5.2.210-17)

Yes, she kills herself to be eternally reunited with Antony, but at the same time, I can’t help but think that Cleopatra, the object of so much desire, will be the object of no empire. Throughout the play, Cleopatra indeed wields manly power, even to the point of emasculating the once-heroic Antony. As Octavius comments:

…From Alexandria
This is the news: he fishes, drinks, and wastes
The lamps of night in revel; is not more manlike
Than Cleopatra, nor the queen of Ptolemy
More womanly than he…(1.4.3-7)

Before he stabs himself – actually, before he asks his attendant, the aptly named Eros, to stab him, only to kill himself instead –  Antony cries: “She has robbed me of my sword!” Sword, manhood, eh, eh? And before she brings the phallic asp to her bosom, furthering the Elizabethan metaphor of dying as orgasm, she declares: “…I have nothing / Of woman in me” (5.2.234-5).

Now, in “Formation,” Beyoncé sings:

When he fuck me good I take his ass to Red Lobster, cause I slay
When he fuck me good I take his ass to Red Lobster, cause I slay
If he hit it right, I might take him on a flight on my chopper, cause I slay
Drop him off at the mall, let him buy some J’s, let him shop up, cause I slay
I might get your song played on the radio station, cause I slay
I might get your song played on the radio station, cause I slay
You just might be a black Bill Gates in the making, cause I slay
I just might be a black Bill Gates in the making

The traditional gender identities are reversed. Further complicating it, “slay,” as many cultural critics note, references a now widespread idiom that originated in the African-American gay community for “to succeed.”

What’s more, though, is the water imagery in Antony and Cleopatra and Beyoncé’s “Formation” video that reinforces the gender fluidity the queens are playing with.

Formation screen shot.jpg
Screen shot from a scene in Beyoncé’s “Formation” music video.

In Beyoncé’s video, we see her straddling a police cruiser sinking under the waters of Katrina. She all dances in the bottom of an empty pool. In Antony and Cleopatra, when Cleopatra learns Antony has married Octavia, she cries: “Melt Egypt into Nile, and kindly creatures / Turn all to serpents!” (2.5.78-9). This calls back Antony’s opening declaration of his love for Cleopatra when he is being called back to Rome: “Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch / Of the ranged empire fall” (1.1.35-46).

Beyoncé has hot sauce in her bag…Cleopatra asps in her fig basket? OK, OK. I won’t belabor the comparisons, but I think they’re complex and compelling. As Enobarbus describes Cleopatra: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety” (2.2.240-41). Beyoncé, to be sure, presents us with an equally complex figuration of femininity in “Formation.”

***

These resonances – historic, cultural, feminine, black – are meaningful and very worthwhile. I connected with Antony and Cleopatra, though, on a smaller, more personal level. Two scenes, in particular, stick out for me.

The first is when Antony is out drinking with the guys after the triumvirate strikes a truce with Pompey and company. He’s describing Egypt to his dudes:

ANTONY [to CAESAR]. Thus do they, sir: they take the flow o’th’ Nile
By certain scales i’th’ pyramid. They know
By th’ height, the lowness, or the mean, if dearth
Or foison follow. The higher Nilus swells
The more it promises; as it ebbs, the seedsman
Upon the slime and ooze scatters his grain,
And shortly come to harvest.

LEPIDUS. You have strange serpents there?

ANTONY. Ay, Lepidus.

LEPIDUS. Your serpent of Egypt is bred now of your mud by the operation of your son; so is your crocodile.

ANTONY. They are so. (2.7.16-27)

As always, there’s always much more under the surface of Shakespeare’s words, but as these most powerful of men party, it’s fun to imagine Antony sort of bragging about Egypt to his boys. Maybe even touting Alexandria as a way to try to justify to himself his problematic relationship with Cleopatra – his “lascivious wassails” (1.5.56) – that in no small part causes the whole mess of the play.

Meanwhile, Cleopatra asks her attendants to get a look at Octavia:

Go to the fellow, good Alexas, bid him
Report the feature of Octavia: her years,
Her inclination; let him not leave out
The colour of her hair–let him not, Charmian (2.6.112-16)
For all her power, she’s still insecure, still jealous.

Celebrities–they’re just like us!

And oh yeah, this is outrageous. One of Octavius’ men, Decretas, presents Antony’s sword to him:

…This is his sword.
I robbed his wound of it. Behold it stained
With most noble blood. (5.1.24-26).

But seriously, despite the epic scale of Antony and Cleopatra, despite the dizzying heights of their passion, Shakespeare still gives us some intimate glimpses into their private lives.

***

And this is where I, personally, register romance: on this smaller, more intimate plane.

Yes, for all of the themes of empire, politics, sex, power, and gender that attract my academic proclivities, I must remember one can still Antony and Cleopatra for its legendary romance. I can hear my wife asking, “Honey, would you botch your suicide for me?” Well, I’d definitely get a fever.

Being sick is rotten, no doubt, especially when you’re really sick. But when you’re, you know, moderately sick – feeling lousy enough to take a day off from work but not so ill you can’t watch an excessive, truly excessive amount of Netflix – it’s nice to be taken care of.

Gender roles are fluid in our abode. My wife’s the breadwinner. I tend to most of the chores: laundry, cleaning, grocery shopping, cooking. And I have a hard time relaxing, partially due to my own existential neuroses and partially to America’s own workaholic pathologies. I need to be reading something, writing something, creating something, cleaning something or else I feel I’m squandering the 80 good years we have here on earth.

So, when I am under the weather, it’s nice – nay, it’s lavish – to be tenderly ministered to: soup, Super Bowl, and my wife’s permission, nay, order, to do absolutely nothing. Let Rome in Tiber melt!

Mrs. Wagner, the Witch

Her laughter was the clue that there were deeper meanings at work in words – and an invitation for us to solve their secrets.

I’m not moving on from Julius Caesar just quite yet. Yes, I am procrastinating on writing up Antony and Cleopatra; I had a difficult time with the play. But also Julius Caesar marks my earliest memory of Shakespeare. Maybe even one of my earliest memories of literature. You know, Literature – with a capital L.

I was in fifth grade, Mrs. Wagner’s Language Arts class.

She had a mean reputation, Mrs. Wagner. One recess, near the end of fourth grade, some junior high kids told a few of us what to expect next year. They had already survived her. “Wagner the Witch. She’s cold,” they said.

I had seen her around the school. Her hair was long, straight, and a stony gray, like the color of her eyes behind her glasses. Her dresses would swoosh around her ankles as she sliced down the corridors with a sharp purpose. She didn’t sing much during mass.

An eighth-grader moved in closer. “They say she even disowned her son.” I didn’t know what the word disown meant, but I knew it was bad.

The older boys loomed like pubescent giants in the navy-blue pants and starched, white button-downs of our Catholic school uniform. The girls, with their plaid skirts rolled-up just above their fleshy knees and newly-needed bras faintly showing through their blouses, made me blush and look away when they called me “little Kelly.” They knew my older brothers, who had already moved on to high school. The older kids were tall, beautiful, cool. Some of them even smoked cigarettes. I had every reason to believe them.

I looked up disown in the dictionary later that day. I even asked my dad about it, I think. Forget not knowing it was a word. I didn’t know it was a thing one could do would do to a family member. What could her son have possibly done?

It turns out I learned a lot of words from Mrs. Wagner.

I talked out of turn often in her class. One period, a classmate, Chris, made a dorky comment. He was at the front of the class. I, form the back, shouted across the full length of those those worn and wooden schoolroom floors: “You’re so queer, Chris.” Mrs. Wagner had a word with me after class. It was then I learned that queer doesn’t just mean “weird.” I had to write a formal apology. I made sure to write the word queer several times in the note.

Another time, I made a snide remark during a movie. I think I called it “boring.” (It was boring.) She sent me out in the locker-lined hallway with a dictionary. Instead of watching the movie, I had to copy out, longhand, an entire page of the dictionary. You could find the definition of the word scorn on this page. She ordered me to pay especial attention to the derived form, scornful. I can still feel that cold, metal locker jutting into my lower back as I sat on the tiled floor, taking my lexical lumps.

Other words got me in trouble, too. One out-of-uniform day, I wore a t-shirt I got at a Crazy Shirts one family trip to San Francisco. It was brandishing some kind of beer or tequila with the slogan: “Warms the gut, burns the butt.” The Lord didn’t approve. I don’t why my parents approved the purchase – or me wearing it to school.

But I learned a lot in her class for all the headaches I caused. (Hey, I still earned my A’s). I read my first real long book: Watership Down. I wrote my first genuinely creative essay; she praised the colloquial color “C’mon” added to my dialogue in it. And I read my first Shakespeare.

It was an adapted text of Julius Caesar with a pink and white cover. A few student volunteers passed them out to the class, our desks arranged face-to-face in two long columns this quarter. We cracked them open and started reading aloud.

If you’ve read the play, you might remember it opens with two tribunes admonishing some tradesman, a carpenter and a cobbler, for rushing off to Caesar’s triumphal parade. They exchange some witty words and sharp barbs:

MURELLUS. But what trade are thou? Answer me directly.

COBBLER. A trade, sir, that I hope I may use with a safe conscience, which is indeed, sir, a mender of bad soles. (1.1.12-14)

At this point, however it was precisely rendered in our adapted text, Mrs. Wagner laughed. She was the only one who laughed. She was the only one who got the joke. Most of us had just learned what a cobbler was.

Mrs. Wagner didn’t stop to explain the joke. She just let it hang there as we kept reading. But her laughter was the clue that there were deeper meanings at work in words – and an invitation for us to solve their secrets.

Mrs. Wagner was a witch in her own way, I suppose. She knew how to cast the spell of literature. And I’ve been under it ever since.

I never did learn what happened with her son, though.

Shake well: The Tragedy of Julius Caesar

Maybe I am misreading this whole “greatness” thing.

Greatness, I think to myself as I crouch down in the dressing aisle of the grocery store.

It’s just after 9:00am in the middle of the work week. I’ve dropped my wife off at her office and am picking up some odds and ends for the house since I’m already out.

It takes me a minute to find the dressing I’m looking for. There are so many brands. Each brand has so many flavors. Each flavor comes in so many options. Original. Low fat. Fat free.

I do this often at the grocery store. I marvel at all the Greek yogurt we can buy. I find myself in awe of the many kinds of tortilla chips for sale. Today, I stand before this bottled shrine to salad, one of our many temples erected to honor one of our great capitalist gods, Choice. We have so much choice. I, for one, sacrifice my ability to make a decision at its altar.

I find Newman’s Own Caesar. There’s Caesar. There’s also Creamy Caesar. Et tu, Paule?

I stare at the labels, which feature the bust of the brand’s namesake, actor Paul Newman. He’s wearing a laurel wreath. Like Caesar wore – and not just as a symbol of triumph. I recently read in Mary Beard’s SPQR that the wreath also covered up a bald spot. Greatness, I think.

Creamy Caesear – Version 2It’s $3.49 with my Ralph’s card. That seems a bit high, I start debating with myself. But all proceeds go to charity. Julius Caesar did a lot for the Roman poor,  I recall. Still, I’m not bringing in any money since I’ve quit my job to write and we’ve already got plenty of olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette at home.

I realize I’ve starting debating myself out loud. I look around. Except for an elderly couple slowly pushing a cart at the end of the aisle, the store is practically empty at 9:00am, of course. No one hears me.

And this is what scares me.

***

Since reading The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, my third play for Shakespeare Confidential, I’ve been thinking a lot about greatness.

It’s hard not to think about greatness after this play. It’s centered on a great man, for one. Aiding administration and agriculture, Julius Caesar left behind the Julian calendar and the month of July, both named for him. He also reformed the Roman government, including centralization and social programs. His military conquests vastly expanded the reach of the Roman Republic, which his ascendancy – and subsequent assassination – transformed into the Roman Empire. He was a pretty good writer, too.

A technocratic commander who helps the poor? Democrats, Republicans, and Independents would all hail: Caesar 2016! His campaign slogan would surely be Venimus, vidimus, vicimus. I don’t think libertarians and the Tea Party would support his constitutional interpretations, though; evangelists would balk at his paganism. And then there’s that whole dictator thing.

OK, but how do we really remember his greatness? Mention Julius Caesar to most people and they’ll say, “Et tu, Brute?” “You too, Brutus?”

He didn’t even say those words.

***

Alright, a synopsis (or, if that’s, er, Greek to you, a summary):

It’s 44 B.C. Julius Caesar has just defeated the sons of an old enemy, Pompey. He returns to Rome, triumphant, but is famously warned to beware the ides of March (March 15). Mark Antony offers to crown Caesar as king; Cesar refuses, 3 times, in fact, followed by an epileptic seizure. Meanwhile, Cassius compels a conflicted Brutus (once allies of Caesar) and other senators to conspire against his “ambitions,” which threaten to turn the Roman Republic into Caesar’s empire.

On the level of imagery and language, I am particularly struck by the way Shakespeare develops this idea of interpretation throughout the play. Its characters are constantly reading faces and deciphering omens – and often incorrectly.

On a stormy night when lions roam the street and men walk on fire, Caesar’s wife has a portentous dream, but Caesar ultimately disregards it and heads to the Capitol. There, he’s assassinated – stabbed 33 times, in fact. (It all happens pretty quickly in the play; Caesar’s killed in 3.1.) Brutus allows Mark Antony to speak at Caesar’s funeral, and his oratory rouses the populace, especially when he notes that Caesar willed money to the people.

A civil war breaks about between the second triumvirate – Antony, this dude Lepidus, and Octavius, Caesar’s great-nephew and adoptive son – and Brutus and Cassius. Caesar’s ghost appears to Brutus and warns him he will see him again at the the Battle of Philippi, where Brutus and Cassius take on Antony and Octavius.

Before battle, Brutus and Cassius fight about money (and virtue), and Brutus reveals his wife has committed suicide. Cue the tragic bloodbath. During battle, Cassius thinks his friend, Titinius gets captured, although Titinius is actually only celebrating a victory their side achieved. Cassius has his servant kill him, Titinius then kills himself after discovering so, and Brutus, seeing Cassius, falls on the sword his servant holds out for him. Antony marks his death by honoring Brutus’s noble virtue.

The play, which some believe to be the first staged on the Globe in 1599, is relatively short and the action fast. And Shakespeare certainly takes liberties with history for dramatic purposes.

***

Julius Caesar is also a great play by another great man: Shakespeare. Even if you desperately avoid the Bard, you can’t run from some of this play’s lines. I mean, it’s incredible.

Et tu, Brute“? As far as we can tell, Caesar never actually said these words. Not even the great Shakespeare said them.

“Beware the ides of March” (Soothsayer, 1.2.19). Shakespeare did it.

“He doth bestride the narrow world / Like a Colossus, and we petty men / Walk under his huge legs, and peep about / To find ourselves dishonourable graves” (Cassius, 1.2.136-39). Shakespeare did it.

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings” (Cassius, 1.2.141-42). Shakespeare. Same monologue as quoted above.

“…it was Greek to me.” (Casca, 1.2.278) Yep, Shakespeare.

The above lines, now idioms in the English language, come from 1.2 alone.

“I am as constant as the Northern Star…” (Caesar, 3.1.60)

“Cry ‘havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war…” (Antony, 3.1.276)

“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.” (Antony, 3.2.70)

“The evil that men do lives after them; / The good is oft interred with their bones.” (Antony, 3.2.72-73).

“But Brutus says he was ambitious, / And Brutus is an honourable man.” (Antony, 3.2.83-84).

By the way, Antony orates these last three quotes in a single speech.

And oh yeah, as Caesar famously utters upon his assassination: “Et tu, Brute?” (3.1.76) As far as we can tell, Caesar never actually said these words. We believe he either said nothing at all or said to Brutus in Greek: “Kai su, teknon?” “You too, my child?” The precise meaning is up for interpretation.

Also as far as we can tell, Shakespeare didn’t say them up either, although we can probably thank him for keeping these already popular words popular today.

Not even the great Shakespeare said them. Et tu, Gulielme?

***

Julius Caesar engages great themes. As developed by his words throughout the play, he pits “ambition” (3.2.26) against “virtue” (1.2.92), “conspiracy” (2.1.81) against “constancy,” “fear” (1.3.60) against “mettle” (1.2.303), “faults” (1.2.141) against “fates” (1.2.140), “tyranny” (3.1.77) against “liberty” (3.1.77).

What does it mean to be honorable and noble? How we are to interpret what it means to be “true Romans” (2.1.222)?

On the level of imagery and language, I am particularly struck by the way Shakespeare develops this idea of interpretation throughout the play. Its characters are constantly reading faces and deciphering omens – and often incorrectly. As Caesar asks after his wife, Calpurnia, shares her dream of a bloody, deathly Capitol: “What say the augerers?” (2.2.37)

Caesar has to read the soothsayer’s prophesy. He ignores it. Bad move.

Cassius reads Brutus’ internal conflict on his face. He exploits it.

Caesar reads a “lean and hungry look” on Cassius’ face. Should have acted.

Brutus, Casca, and Cassius have to interpret Caesar’s refusal of the crown and subsequent fainting. Showy and weak?

Brutus reads Cassius’ planted letter urging him to join the conspiracy against Caesar. Did you ask who really authored it, Brutus?

Artemidorus fails to get Caesar to read a letter exposing the assassination. Caesar, we’ve tried to help you so many times.

Brutus has to read the warning of Caesar’s ghost. Should have thought twice going into battle, Marcus.

Cassius reads auguries before the battle. He saw eagles, that’s good, then some lesser birds. Not so good.  He also has to determine from afar whether or not Titinius is captured. If you just waited a little longer, man.

And this is just the text of the play. How is Shakespeare interpreting Julius Caesar? How is he reading history? How do we interpret Shakespeare? How do we read history?

***

How do I read greatness?

The temple of dressings loom larger. I feel light-headed. My thoughts spin.

No one hears me talk to myself because most people are working. Here I am, talking to myself about Julius Caesar and salad dressing on my way back home to write at 9:00am in the morning. There are billions of people in the world, over a billion live in extreme poverty. Half of the people in the world don’t make in a day what this single bottle of dressing costs. Most working folk would be happy to get their shopping done when the store’s so empty. Who am I? Who am I? This is a true luxury, this is true privilege. But shouldn’t I then be taking better advantage of it? I’m an educator by trade; I’ve helped people, I’ve made differences. Yet look at what Caesar accomplished. True, I don’t aspire to power. Or being assassinated.

We don’t have control over our greatness. We don’t have control over how we’re remembered.

Look at what Shakespeare accomplished. I’m poring over his words – a whole industry of people pore over his words – 400 years after his death? And me? I just blog. I’ve never even made enough on my own writing to buy this bottle of Creamy Caesar. In one play surely he leaves us more genius lines than I can ever hope to in a lifetime. What does it mean to be something? Is this my motivation – to make it, to be great? Is to make it to be remembered? There are at least 200 different dressings I could buy right this minute. We only get about 80 years, who knows how many of them good, before we kick the bucket. What do we do with that time, with, if we’re lucky, all the choice we have in our lives? Yet Shakespeare didn’t even make an effort to compile or publish his plays. “What should be in that ‘Caesar’?”

Greatness.

Caesar and Shakespeare are remembered for words they didn’t even say. Et tu, Brute? We don’t have control over our greatness. We don’t have control over how we’re remembered. By sheer association, Caesar’s name lives on in a dressing he had nothing to do with. That’s credited to a Caesar Cardini in Tijuana, Mexico in 1924. Not that we remember that. I imagine even Paul Newman is probably known by many as the dressing guy, not as the award-winning actor and philanthropist.

It’s all up for interpretation.

“This was the noblest Roman of them all,” Antony remembers Brutus.

All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did envy in great Caesar.
He only in a general honest thought
And common good to all made on of them.
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mixed in him that nature might stand up
And say to all the world ‘This was a man’. (5.5.67-74)

I read the bottle of Creamy Caesar. Shake well! A good dressing, like the character of a man, has to be balanced, well-mixed.

Maybe I am misreading this whole greatness thing.

I put the dressing back on the shelf. I think I got more than $3.46 out of it.

I stand up. The blood returns to my head.

***