Much Ado About Reading

Reading Shakespeare is hard.

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I have fallen a bit behind in my reading schedule. I had planned on finishing my seventh play this year, Much Ado About Nothing, last Friday. I only just wrapped it up yesterday.

I could blame this on Costa Rica. My wife and I took a trip down to this luscious land last week. I could blame it, too, on moving to Ireland. We’ve got less than a month to sell just about everything we own and get over to Dublin, including our dog. We had friends in town, too. Plus, my mom and stepdad, who’ve been wintering in Southern California in their RV, are hitting the road again soon.

These are all valid reasons, I suppose, to take a few extra days to read this Shakespearean comedy, which many consider to be his best.

You could say I’m making, well, much ado about nothing. Travel, moving overseas, spending time with friends and family. Life’s rough, I know.

And none of this is to mention that my project is self-imposed. My deadlines are arbitrary. If I miss them, they don’t have real consequences.

Still, reading Shakespeare is hard.

Of course, Shakespeare’s words are challenging, as language and as literature. His plays, moreover, are meant for the stage; watching them aids enjoyment and understanding.

Each time I crack open a new play, I struggle to get started, as if in physical therapy, slowly, arduously moving one foot forward. Sometimes, I can find my stride and read a whole play in a few sittings, getting back that old muscle memory vitiated by the digital age. But other times, as with Much Ado, it’s a different story.

Yes, the “skirmish of wits” (1.1.61) between Benedick and Beatrice is the pinnacle of Shakespearean wordplay. The story – jealous of Claudio, who just defeated him in battle, Don John the Bastard schemes to thwart his marriage to Hero, while Don Pedro schemes to bring Benedick and Beatrice, doggedly opposed to marriage, together – is superbly crafted. The play’s thematic gender politics surrounding marriage, fidelity, and masculinity is still compelling and relevant 400 years later. As always, the Bard weaves a thick tapestry of language; I especially enjoyed the many ways he plays with the language of “horns,” a symbol of cuckoldry, a central anxiety of men in the play. And of course, the bumbling constable, Dogberry, is a legendary character.

But I have to be honest, I should probably just re-read Much Ado About Nothing.

***

Ahead of our move, I’ve been backing up old papers I’ve written, which prompted some reflections I recently shared.

I’ve also been sorting through old books, bidding farewell to lots of beloved texts I’ve read through my years, so many of them beat up with annotations, highlights, underlinings, dog-eared pages, creased bindings, the wear and tear of loving use. I’m still holding onto a good number (I’ll always keep my high school copy of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), but I tried to sell the rest. My writing isn’t bringing in any money after all. Just ask my wife.

This must be the first bookstore I’ve ever been to that hasn’t had a single copy of Shakespeare.

I hauled several crate-loads to a used bookstore. “We’ll call you in three hours and then make an offer,” the clerk let me know. Three hours? That sounded promising. That sounded like my trove will put them to work.

I don’t expect much from used books, especially paperbacks, in spite of the immense intellectual wealth they’ve brought me. “How much did you say again?” I asked the clerk when the bookstore called me back. “Twenty-two sixty-seven?”

$22.67.

That’s even not the rub, though. I wasn’t paying close attention when I signed the line that I agreed the bookstore would throw away – yes, throw away – the books it couldn’t sell.

I felt like Lady Macbeth, vainly washing her hands of blood for this horrible crime I committed.

They said something about store policy and stolen merchandise. I imagined a cop shows up and shouts, “Drop the book! Drop the book!” The guilty reader slowly lowers an 1818 edition of Shelley’s Frankenstein to the ground.

After accepting my blood money, I looked around the bookstore for a cheap, small copy of a Shakespeare play. I didn’t want to lug around my Norton Shakespeare in Costa Rica. It’s heavy and bulky. But, deep down, I knew I was asking myself, “Do you really think you’re going to read any Shakespeare on this trip?” Fie!

I took a couple of laps around the store. I finally spotted a small drama section. No more than 10 books, and no Shakespeare. I see Bloom’s The Invention of the Human, a seminal piece of literary criticism about Shakespeare. But no actual Shakespeare.

I suspected I was missing the Shakespeare section. I couldn’t think of a bookstore that doesn’t have a Shakespeare section. Even in non-English bookstores – in Istanbul or Bangkok, say – I’ve found Shakespeare sections. I even picked up copy of Hamlet in Spanish from a bookstore in downtown San José.

I went back to the clerk who handed me my $22.67. “Is there, um, like, a Shakespeare section in the store?” She pointed me back to those meager volumes of drama. “You’d find it there, if we have any.”

“If we have any.” This must be the first bookstore I’ve ever been to that hasn’t had a single copy of Shakespeare.

Except for the volume I just sold them. It was one of those Literary Classics complete works hardcovers designed less for reading and more for making it look like you’re a serious reader.  There was no way I was buying that back.

So, the night before we head to Costa Rica, my wife and I ran a couple of errands, including swinging by Barnes & Noble. The store, of course, has a nice section clearly marked “Shakespeare.” The section exists, no doubt, because we still assign Shakespeare in high school. Some will read Shakespeare in college, but you can get easily get a bachelor’s degree without cracking open a single play, I’m sure.

I can only remember that I had Shakespeare make a terrible joke whose punchline was “much ado about nothing.” And when Confucius said goodbye, the Bard said, “All’s well that end’s well.”

A whole shelf neatly displayed rows of No Fear Shakespeare as well as the Folger’s classic standbys.

I picked a Folger copy of Much Ado About Nothing. Why? Its titular nothing made me think of sloths. We really wanted to see some sloths in Costa Rica. And we did. Incredible. (Nothing, it turns, out, should have made me think of notes and vagina. The word was pronounced more like we might say noting today, working well with the play’s many musical, writing, gossiping, ad observational puns. It also served as Elizabethan slang for female genitalia; use your imagination.)

I knew the title well. We all do. Much Ado is headline fodder. I’ve taken advantage of it in this very piece. But I knew nothing about it other than it’s a comedy – and that I used it as a punchline in a creative writing assignment I did in fifth grade. In Mrs. Wagner’s class, the same class where I first remember reading Shakespeare.

I can’t remember the assignment’s point exactly, but, for some reason, I had Confucius meet Shakespeare at a park. They talked. For their dialogue, I looked up memorable quotes and titles of their works in books I checked out from our little school library and the old green- and cream-colored World Book Encyclopedia volumes I used to spend hours in at home – and used for research papers before the Internet changed everything.

I fashioned some sort of conversation out of my cursory findings. Mrs. Wagner loved it, I recall. I can only remember that I had Shakespeare make a terrible joke whose punchline was “much ado about nothing.” And when Confucius said goodbye, the Bard said, “All’s well that end’s well.”

The birth of a writer, my dear readers.

***

I love traveling, if our upcoming move to Dublin is any measure. My wife and I have had the privilege to travel quite a bit around the world.

We hadn’t been to Costa Rica, or Central America for that matter. We thought we’d check out its many greens (and blues) before heading over to the many greens (and grays) of the Emerald Isle.

I have no distractions, other than the wind, the clear night sky overhead, lots of beers, and leftover empanadas I got from the grocery store. Why can’t I read this?

And the more we travel, I realize, the less planning I’ve come to do. I usually do a ton of reading, research, and preparation, especially if we’re hitting a once-in-a-lifetime or culturally dense place. To make the most of it, of course.

It’s kind of like being in a museum exhibit, reading before traveling is. I try to read all the texts and labels on the wall. For one thing, they’re usually well written. For another, I like to know what’s going on in the Cezanne painting or bronze artifact so as to better appreciate it. But this often comes at the expense of actually engaging with the art or history itself. So, I end up just scanning the museum texts, but not in the same way I half-read an article online, an email, or the like. I can’t quite describe it, but I can say I walk away with an amorphous goop of dates, names, and media.

Reading ahead of visiting a new country can be like this, too. I get a variety of travel books from the library, typically later buying one to take with me for ongoing reference in situ, and walk away with a fog-like blur of history, language, sites, culture.

This trip, we mapped out a basic itinerary, booked a rental car, and made sure we had lodging the first two nights. Otherwise, we left the rest wide open. There’s something truly lovely about letting a country disclose itself to you versus planning a touristic siege, of conquering a place as if a colonizer for a week.

There’s something truly lovely about letting a country disclose itself to you versus planning a touristic siege, of conquering a place as if a colonizer for a week.

We booked an Airbnb hidden in the hills outside of San Ramón, a busy city not far from the capital. It’s not known for much, touristically speaking, though it proved to be a great launching point for Costa Rica’s volcanoes and cloud forests – and politically, I learned from reading our host’s welcome packet, a great launching point for many of the country’s presidents.

Streets aren’t really marked in Costa Rican cities, excepting the capital, though even that was like the other urban labyrinths that constantly shifted around as we drove through them. We got lost finding the place, but I did learn a bit more Spanish in our efforts to find our rental – and a few construction workers paving a road up in the winding hills learned a bit more English, too, I suppose.

The house was atop a hill, chilly and windswept, eerily spacious, overlooking the rolling greens and golds of the Costa Rican highlands. But the gusts of wind loudly rattled the house, all day and night, reminding us of the force of its nature.

There was a TV, but the wind knocked out the signal. And there was no WiFi. Perfect, I thought, for some serious reading of Much Ado About Nothing thousands of miles away from where Shakespeare originally inked the comedy. Perfect, too, for there would be no half-hearted headline reading on Twitter and news apps to distract me.

After some wine, dinner, and cards, I thought I’d sink into Much Ado, the gales howled around – through – the house, inspiring me like some sort of Romantic poet. Big, alien-like insects scurried us into the bedroom for the nights. With a can of Imperial, my notebook, and Much Ado, I read much of nothing.

Part of my struggle was just adjusting to the Folger’s format. I remembered it from high school, with its straight text on the right and notes on the left, but I had grown accustomed to Norton’s footnoting and glossing system. On the one hand, the Folger offers you the text, un-editorialized. On the other the hand, you find yourself ping-ponging your eyes – and attention.

Add to all of this that Much Ado is a comedy. Shakespearean comedies are as thick with wordplay as Costa Rica’s cloud forests are with biomass. Like the gorgeous birds in the jungle only the experienced eye can spy, this means a lot of jokes you know are there but just aren’t getting.

And add to this my note-taking. General notes, of course, but also strong language and interesting words, which for this play I tracked in a thinner, more travel-able notebook than the old-school composition notebooks I usually use.

I have no distractions, other than the wind, the clear night sky overhead, lots of beers, and leftover empanadas I got from the grocery store.

Why can’t I read this?

***

I tackled a few more pages by the trip’s end. Vacation isn’t exactly a great time to tackle literature, I suppose. Especially when the rest of your hotels are equipped with WiFi and really good happy hour specials.

One hidden treasure and pleasure of traveling is disconnecting. The world is increasing online, but you can still find those pockets (many more, of course, if you’re truly immersed in the wildernesses of the world) of quiet. Those pockets where your Facebook feed goes dark. It’s one of the few things I like about the U.S.’s cellular restrictions. Your scrolling thumb initially twitches with withdrawal, but the brain rewires. The brain rebuilds the muscles of sustained attention, observation, and thinking. But, like when a coworker brings Girl Scout Cookies into the office when you’ve just started a diet, it doesn’t take long for your synapses to binge on status updates, 140-character quips, and clickbait.

There’s something to be said about letting a text – or a painting, artifact, or the brilliant red of a quetzal’s belly emerging from the tangled greens and cloaking mists of a Costa Rican cloud forest  – disclose itself to you on its own terms, without agenda or predication

I still somehow feel defeated, though. I should be able to read the Bard in the rainforest, even if I’ve driven hundreds of miles across the country’s snaking and unsigned roads and transacted in a language I’m embarrassingly not fluent in.

So, it was a 6-hour flight back to L.A. OK, I told myself, you’re finishing this play. On the plane. No excuses.

The man seated next to me was reading José Saramago’s Blindness. “That’s a great read,” I noted. “Yeah? I’m loving it so far,” he replied. He looked at my Much Ado. I look at my Much Ado. You can do this, I told myself.

I was strong-willed at first, managing to finish Act 1 before I rewarded myself with a look, just a look, at the movie selections in the media center on the headrest in front of me. Ooh, The Martian. If I get through Act 3, I get to watch The Martian, I told myself.

I got through Act 2.

Then, a little nap, a podcast, some coffee. I was only into Act 3 by touchdown.

But, but! My wife was coming off our Costa Rica trip with a ladies’ weekend in L.A. to celebrate a friend’s birthday. I’ve got the weekend, I pep-rallied myself. I can do this. Then I remembered that Season 5 of Breaking Bad awaited me on Netflix. There was some Jameson I needed to finish before we move, too.

***

I did eventually finish the play a few days later in between tweets, workouts, dog-walking, chores, errands, and a whole bunch of Craigslist sales.

That’s OK, though.

Sure, my environment was a distracting one. Yes, attention is short and fragmented in the Internet age. But like a reading museum text or researching for travel, sometimes reading can get in the way of reading. There’s something to be said about letting a text – or a painting, artifact, or the brilliant red of quetzal’s belly emerging from the tangled greens and cloaking mists of a Costa Rican cloud forest  – disclose itself to us on its own terms, without agenda or predication.

I want to re-read Much Ado About Nothing. But not yet.

Author: John Kelly

I write about word origins buzzing in news and culture at mashedradish.com (@mashedradish). Last year, I read the complete works of Shakespeare and blogged about it at shakespeareconfidential.com (@bardconfidensh). You can also find my writing on Atlas Obscura, Mental Floss, Oxford Dictionaries, Nameberry, and Strong Language.

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