The stage directions alone in this play are shockingly violent. But the real horror may be in what’s not staged.
The late afternoon sun washed the Italian cypresses and eucalyptus trees in gold. A light wind made a lazy melody in the chimes. From a neighboring yard somewhere over the rolling, low-desert hills, a horse occasionally neighed. Except for the dogs, twitching their ears at far-off stirrings in their half-asleep sunning, no one else was home. I topped off my glass of a big red from a local vineyard. My in-laws’ Southern Californian porch was a perfectly peaceful place for “Human sacrifice. Gang rape. Ritual butchery. Mother-son cannibalism,” as my Norton Shakespeare introduces it.
The Most Lamentable Tragedy of Titus Andronicus is a most violent play.
Today’s the big day. Shakespeare died 400 years ago this April 23. It’s sort of morbid, don’t you think, to celebrate his death-day?
Well, I’ve been criminally behind in writing up Titus Andronicus. Maybe it’s just so violent I’m at a loss for words? I’m also behind on starting my next play; I’ve chosen a biggie, King Lear.
But I’m behind for good reason – and not just moving overseas. I’m behind on my Shakespeare because of Shakespeare.
Since I have the fortune to be in Oxford this week, I’m heading into relatively nearby Stratford-upon-Avon today. A Stratford local warns me it’ll be a shit-show today. My train will be arriving after the parade (why not?), so perhaps things will have calmed down a bit by then. (Eh, it’s looking like a beautiful day outside, so…)
I have also booked seats for a lecture by Oxford University’s renowned Shakespeare scholar, Sir Jonathon Bate, at the famed Bodleian Libraries for Monday evening, as well as to see Michael Pennington in an acclaimed production of King Lear at the Oxford Playhouse on Tuesday.
See, these are good reasons to behind. I’ll finally be encountering the Bard during my reading as he is meant to be encountered: on the stage.
My wife and I have made our big move at last, staying for a week or so in Oxford, England before our final destination, Dublin.
Yes, there was the sardine-canned, 10-hour flight from Los Angeles to London. The row ahead, some infrequent fliers didn’t turn off the Norwegian Air In-flight Entertainment screens on the back of the headrests as we flew into the night. The glow burned white right through the gap in the seats precisely where I could contort my neck without needing a chiropractor. The young boy in the middle seat never quite got around to watching Ace Ventura, apparently.
And engineers designed Dreamliners to be so efficient that the toilets, which we were seated by, roared liked jet engines each time someone flushed. Fortunately, the erratic howling of a very unhappy toddler drowned out the flushing in the middle of the night. I felt soothed, too, by her poor parents’ loving – and urgent – hushing when they walked her up and down the aisle.
Sleep was also fitful on our two-hour bus ride from London into Oxford. The coach was quiet, roomy, and smooth-going, but the bright sun in a cloudless sky, usually such a welcome sight in these climes, seesawed my orientation between Southern California and Southern England, between Pacific Time and British Summer Time. I was long overdue for a coffee – or a beer, whatever time it was.
Travel-wise, all of this is normal, to be sure. What’s not so normal this time is checked baggage. Luggage. It’s easy to forget that the word is rooted in the verb to lug when you’re an insistently light packer such as myself. But my wife and I aren’t traveling this trip. We’re actually moving.
One does need clothes, after all – and Shakespeare. I had to make sure I had enough room for all four volumes of my Norton Shakespeare.
Between us, we packed up our new life in eight pieces. We checked three roller suitcases of clothes – two of which which were essentially Smart cars sans engines – and my classical guitar. My wife carried on another roller, mostly clothes, and her all-purpose work purse. I carried on a backpack stuffed with notebooks, writing utensils, my laptop, laptop paraphernalia, a few books, and personal affects. I also lugged on a duffel bag.
Originally, I intended this carry-on as a book bag. I mean, quite literally, a bag of books. But when my big suitcase (the blue Smart Car) came in 10 pounds too heavy when we weighed it back home before departing, I had to repack a variety of clothes into the duffel bag.
Most of the etymological dictionaries I use for my Mashed Radish writing had to stay behind at my in-laws’. I’ll miss these friends, of course, but we can mostly keep in touch online, thankfully. One does need clothes, after all – and Shakespeare. I had to make sure I had enough room for all four volumes of my Norton Shakespeare.
I suppose I could have acquired a lighter Complete Works, but I wanted to keep my reading consistent. The paperback Folger’s of Much Ado About Nothing I took down to Costa Rica already wrenched my reading enough. Plus, I’m cheap. But mostly, I rely so much on the Norton edition’s glosses, footnotes, and explanatory materials. I mean, he did write this stuff over 400 years ago.
Self-deceptively thinking I would do some writing on Titus Andronicus during the flight, I squeezed the Tragedies volume into my backpack and lined the bottom of the duffel bag with the Histories, Comedies, and Romances and Poems. Then, I packed in some clothes and a few slimmer books, finding just enough room to squeeze in my bulky but surprisingly lightweight Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology on top , somehow without splitting the zipper.
Thank God Norwegian Air didn’t weigh my carry-ons. Even without the dictionaries I originally hoped to pack, even without the fattest volume, Tragedies, Shakespeare still really weighed this bag down.
He was a real pain in the ass – or arm and shoulder, I should say. Well, the whole upper body, actually. And legs, too, as I eventually took to shoving the duffel bag along the floor when waiting in LAX’s security line and LGW’s passport control queue.
He sliced into my shoulder as we zigzagged our way out of the airport, throwing off my balance as I steered our Smart cars ahead of me and nearly causing us to miss the last call of the Oxford-bound bus. Off the bus, as we searched, exhausted, for our Airbnb along the bumpy bricks of Headington, I swear the Bard almost dislocated my shoulder.
Shakespeare must have slowed me down enough for our Airbnb landlord to spot us out of her window just as we dragged past the property. She called out, welcomed us in, and urged us to rest our bags – and bones. “How was the journey?” she asked as she started to show us around the flat.
“Good, pretty smooth! Thank you for asking!” I cheerfully responded, now lighter.
I rubbed my right shoulder and circled my neck. I glowered at the duffel bag. I knew reading and writing about the complete works of Shakespeare would be a heavy lift, but I didn’t anticipate it being quite so literal.
I merge onto the 55 north from the 5 north. I have at least an hour, depending on traffic in Corona.
There aren’t any podcasts I really feel like listening to as I drive back from dog-sitting in Orange County to my in-laws’ in Temecula, where my wife and I have been staying before we move to Ireland next week.
It’s a perfect time to catch up with some friends. I have Siri dial one up.
Just as the number starts ringing, I hang up. It’s about 12:30pm on a Sunday, his time. He’s probably having a Bloody Mary at his parents’ or catching up on chores around his house. I shouldn’t bug him.
But I can hear my friend venting about how his girlfriend never pitches in. About how he still puts together dinner after an 11-hour workday. About news I saw on Facebook of the latest engagement, job promotion, home ownership, or birth announcements from old friends we shared over a decade ago. About friends still working at the same jobs they had in high school. About him saying he’ll try to make a visit. He’s got a lot going on, I know. I wonder if he’ll get engaged soon.
I have Siri dial him up again. Through my Prius’ Bluetooth, each subsequent ring sounds louder and louder as I come into the Inland Empire on the 91 east.
I don’t leave a voicemail.
You don’t have to tell an old friend who you are. The knowledge is automatic, like the way you can scratch an itch on an impossibly small part of your back without even thinking about it.
We’ve had a little rain recently. The canyons burst with green, but they’ll be brown again soon. It’s not clear enough today to see if there’s any snow left on top the distant San Gabriels.
I try another friend. I’ll ask him how he’s been doing after everything he’s been through recently. He’ll speak thoughtfully about his goings-on, philosophically about his current orientation in our cold and ever-expanding universe. He’ll recommend an author, a director, an artist I’ll pretend I’ve heard of. I’m sure he’ll be excited about my move to Dublin, but somehow I’ll never quite hear it in his voice. I’ll ask him more questions.
The phone rings through. He’s probably at the gym. I don’t leave a voicemail.
I don’t try a third friend I’ve been meaning to call. I can’t think of the last time he reached out to me since he remarried and became a father. He works so hard for his family. I think of him often. I’m sure he thinks of me, too.
At the 15, overpasses and onramps in mid-construction bestride the existing highways like the arching ribs of a cement giant. The air is hazy with smog from traffic, already thickening even though it’s a Sunday morning. With dust from constant bulldozers, with dirt kicked up by the desert winds. It’s hard to tell whether the colossal structures are being built or demolished.
My mom answers my next phone call. We chat until I’m just about back.
In Henry IV, Part 2, we see Prince Harry complete his maturation from madcap youth to new monarch, King Henry V, after his father dies from illness. Just as he accepts the crown, he rejects his old friend, Falstaff:
FALSTAFF. My king, my Jove, I speak to thee, my heart.
KING HARRY. I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.…
Presume not that I am the thing I was,
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turned away from my former self;
So will I those that kept me company. (5.5.44-57)
The new king continues, banishing Falstaff and his old companions from coming within 10 miles of him. He declares he will provide for them, so that “lack of means enforce [them] not to evils,” welcoming them back only if they leave their drunken, lascivious, and thieving ways (5.5.65).
Falstaff mets Harry’s decree with denial. As he tries to convince a minor law official, Shallow, (and himself): “I shall be sent for in private to him. Look you, he must seem thus to the world” (5.5.74-75). But Falstaff is only sent to prison.
Granted, Falstaff is mostly interested in how he will richly benefit from his association with the new king when he learns of Harry’s coronation. But for all the fat knight’s vices, it’s hard not to commiserate with him.
The Earl of Warwick, a supporter of King Henry IV, echoes Harry’s maturational strategy. When a moribund Henry, unaware of his son’s metamorphosis, imagines the “rotten times” (4.3.60) England has ahead when Harry succeeds him, Warwick offers:
The Prince but studies his companions,
Like a strange tongue, wherein to gain the language,
’Tis needful that the most immodest word
Be looked upon and learnt, which once attained,
Your highness knows, comes to no further use
But to be known and hated…(4.3.67-73)
It’s a very curious way to go about virtue. I guess Harry found a way to have his cake and eat it, too.
But it’s not all quite so easy for Harry, to be fair. We see him craving nothing more than a light beer, a drink below his royal rank, early in the play: “Doth it not show vilely in me to desire small beer?” (2.2.6). Later, we see him prematurely try on his father’s heavy crown, “to try with it, as with an enemy,” when he thinks his father, only asleep, has passed on (4.3.294).
His cake isn’t always so sweet.
In my wife’s old bedroom, squeezed between two dogs, I startle myself awake when I drop the book I’m reading about Ancient Rome. I set my phone alarms, cue up a podcast, and hit the light. I have not heard back from my friends that day, I realize. Not that I expected them to, if I’m honest. I mostly forgot about it. Mostly.
The bluish light of my iPhone illuminates the room as I check my messages and phone log once more time.
Henry IV, Part 2 has really gotten me thinking about friendship. Not anything quite so dramatic as Harry’s bald repudiation of Falstaff, but about the ways we come in and out of each other’s lives.
Reflecting on the changing alliances between rulers and rebels in recent memory, on the ways in which we think we know the people in our lives, King Henry IV observes:
O God, that one might read the book of fate,
And see the revolution of the times
Make mountains level, and the continent
Weary of solid firmness, melt itself
Into the sea…(3.1.44-48)
But we can’t, as I’m sure Henry would agree.
“We are all time’s subjects,” one of the king’s opponents sums its up. And space’s, too.
I usually say I have about five close friends, almost all back in my hometown, Cincinnati. Lately, it can feel like one or two. I didn’t really make any new ones after I left. Not in Minneapolis. Not in Laguna Beach. Certainly not in Irvine.
Time gives friendship inertia. Space takes away its momentum.
I suppose I could have worked harder at it, but I’ve liked saving that effort to keep up with phone calls and making visits back home. Plus, there was family to get closer to out here in California and new colleagues when I was working in the autism field.
Does one really make new, close friends after a certain point? It feels hard to get to know someone after 30. Our pasts become so dense and opaque. You don’t have to tell an old friend who you are, who you really are. The knowledge is assumed and invisible. Automatic, like the way you can scratch an itch on an impossibly small part of your back without even thinking about it. How do you recreate gravity?
Time gives friendship inertia, fortunately. Thanks to that shared history, a college tall-tale and a couple of beers can make it feel like you’ve never missed a beat. There’s a shared psychology, too, with childhood friends. The selves you fulfilled. The many more you didn’t. Blame, perspective, circumstances.
But space, geography, takes away friendship’s momentum. Yes, there’s Facebook and FaceTime, weddings and holidays, but you just can’t call up your friend across the country Friday after work to see if he wants a beer. All those missed drinks accrete.
Just because you act as a sort of Hal, moving on, doesn’t mean your friends are Falstaffs, never changing. They move on, too. You can’t begrudge them that you’ve moved away. You can’t begrudge them circumstances.
This has been easy for me to forget.
We are all our own Hals, turning away from our former selves. For new crowns heavy with the weight of bills, obligations. Glistening with new possibilities.
We are all our own Hals. We are all our own Falstaffs.
We are all our own Falstaffs, inveterately ourselves, naively ourselves in our petty and pompous everyday lives as they unfold in time and space – which, beautifully, thankfully, we get to share, sometimes more often, sometime less, with others.
This is so easy to forget.
A few days later, I shoot my friends a text sometime before dinnertime, Pacific Time. Eventually, I hear back from one: “miss you man.”
It’s enough, like a tiny bit of thrust in a spacecraft sent adrift.
Outside, a sterile sun was already burning through the gauzy clouds over the mountains. Dumping out the dregs of yesterday’s coffee, I spotted pink chunks in the sink. Some washed down the drain as I filled up the carafe; others were crusted onto the stainless steel.
Was this me? I thought. I don’t remember doing this.
I remember a bouncer all of sudden asked me to leave the bar. I know I wasn’t rowdy. I wasn’t even terribly drunk, I think. I remember folding slices of peppered salami and sourdough bread into my face after the taxi got us home, as I remember we didn’t eat dinner before going out. But I don’t remember puking in my own kitchen sink.
Pathetic. I rinsed out the sink and measured out the coffee.
A mild headache signaled I was still a little drunk the morning after my sister-in-law’s boyfriend – I’ll call him Rob – and I patronized a gritty dive bar. He came down from Portland to Orange County for the weekend; my wife and her brother, meanwhile, headed up there to enjoy some sibling time.
I don’t whether I’m relieved it wasn’t me or ashamed that I was ready to claim it.
I had a cup or two and made some half-hearted efforts to tidy up when Rob emerged. “Dude, I’m so sorry,” he said, looking at the sink as he poured some coffee. “I puked in your sink last night.”
“Wait, that was you?”
“Yeah, I didn’t make it to the bathroom, but thank God I got down the stairs. I just had dropped down on the air mattress last night when – ”
“ – oh, good! I thought it was…I don’t whether I’m relieved it wasn’t me or ashamed that I was ready to claim it.”
We laughed, carefully, as if not to tug at fresh stitches after a surgery.
I rubbed my eyes, shrunken from dehydration. “Jesus,” I groaned. This was my second friend to throw up in my apartment, I recalled. The first made it to the balcony. Mostly. Oh, god. I’m in my thirties now.
I looked out at the hospital-white sky and poured some more coffee. “Looks like it’s gonna be another beautiful day in sunny Southern California.”
“Thou art so fat-witted with drinking of old sack,” Prince Harry teases his friend Falstaff in 1 Henry IV (1.2.2).
Well, I feel you, Falstaff.
With all the boozing I’ve been doing these past few months, I think I’ve racked up quite the tab up at the Eastcheap tavern.
Shakespeare’s The History of Henry IV, or Henry IV, PartI,isn’t heavy on plot. It is heavy, though, on the fat knight, Sir John Falstaff, and other memorable characters, locations, and use of language. This celebrated history play features rebels – including the zealous Henry Percy, aptly called Hotspur, and an occultist Welshman, Glyndwr – who fail to overthrow King Henry IV. (Henry IV, as you may recall from my last post, deposed Richard II, which dogs his reign.) Meanwhile, a wild-oats-sowing Prince Harry revels with common whores, thieves, and drunks – most notably Falstaff – in the bars, brothels, and byways of London until, maturing, he shines on the battlefield and kills Hotspur.
The tavern scenes are particularly legendary, as are Prince Harry’s insults to Falstaff, whom he variously calls a “fat-kidneyed rascal” (2.2.6), “a obscene whorseon greasy tallow-catch,”(2.5.210-11), and a “stuffed cloak-bag of guts” (2.5.411-12).
Now, I don’t quite identify with the Falstaff’s appetite for food, but for drink? I can be quite guilty. As Prince Harry mocks him, “O villain, thy lips are scarce wiped since thou drunkest last” (2.5.139-40).
I eat well and exercise daily. I opt for seltzer water or tea during weeknights – or try to.
But it’s been a hectic few months. And one drink has this way of turning into, well, more than one, I’ll say.
“Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world”
I had a goodbye party at work. Christmas followed. My in-laws live in wine country, understand. I flew back to Cincinnati over New Year’s. I had to catch up with old friends – and old watering holes. Then, we had some Minnesota family in town for a few weekends; their conversation pairs so well with a cocktail. Soon after, we learned we’re moving to Ireland. One must celebrate, of course. And Costa Rica was lovely. The chiliguaro made for a proper cultural immersion, and an Imperial (or two or three or four) eased the tension after some long drives.
Rob came down. And back up, in a manner of speaking.
My wife and I then started bidding farewell to various friends, family, colleagues. And to SoCal: beef-tongue tacos at a Santa Ana taqueria and jumping into the Pacific (naked) after the bars closed? I mean, how would you say goodbye?
Then there’s selling and donating just about everything you own, living in limbo as you wait for the Irish government to process your visas, trying not to feel like a fraud and ingrate as a willfully unemployed ‘writer’ (ack) while you’re supported by an amazingly talented and accomplished wife who’s additionally shouldering all the logistics of our move…yes, finish off the gin. Throwing it away as you empty out our apartment would be wasteful.
And not only are we’re moving to Dublin in country already famed enough for its drinking, but my wife will actually be working in the alcohol industry there.
Now, we’re staying at my in-laws’s before we fly out in a week or so. They live in wine country, remember?
Yet, as Falstaff wisely notes, “Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world” (2.5.437). Then again, as he later observes, “The better part of valour is discretion” (5.4.117-8). Not that our beloved, bloated bloviator ever follows his own sanctimonious proclamations.
In Henry IV, Part I it’s hard to look away from Falstaff. His larger-than-life antics – and sweaty self-justifications – certainly make you want to have the underskinker fetch another round of sack and not cut it with too much sugar.
But we shouldn’t overlook Harry’s maturation so central to the play. As he soliloquizes early in the play:
I know you all, and will a while uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness.
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him. (1.2.175-182)
Harry likens himself to the sun, a royal symbol, and his lowly comrades to the clouds, whose baseness he, like a prodigal son, will burn through. It’s cold and calculating.
For me, as I recall the sun burning off the clouds that Saturday morning with Rob, I can’t help but think of Harry’s metaphor more literally. The sober light of day can be harsh – and soul-baring.
I’ll stick with just one drink tonight. Ha. Good thing it’s pretty overcast in Dublin.