Disintegration loops: King Lear, Part 3

It’s not King Lear’s madness that is so terrifying. It’s that he knows he’s losing his mind.

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On Facebook, my stepmother recently posted a picture of my grandfather, father, and my oldest brother with his son propped on his knee. “4 Generations of Kellys,” she titled it. It’s a lovely picture and I looked at for some time. I stared into each of their eyes, wondering what they were thinking.

In the picture, my father and brother are crouching down to join my grandfather at wheelchair-level. Proud, they squint into the sun and smile, knowing the significance of the snapshot. What were they thinking about being fathers, about being sons? About being men?

Meanwhile, my grandfather, 98, and nephew, just over one, are positioned to face the camera. They gaze, expressionless, eyes cast slightly down. What were they thinking? Were they watching the dappled shadows of the trees rippling across the ground from a slight, early summer breeze? I suspect neither of them will ever remember this photograph being taken. Neither of them, it struck me, will ever remember each other. This is when I finally understood the terror of King Lear.

***

The terror of King Lear is not in the wrath of the god-like patriarch, blinded by his own white-hot pride and indignation: “Ingratitude, thou marble-hearted fiend, / More hideous when thou show’st thee in a child / Than the sea-monster!” (1.4.236-38).

It’s not in the delirious, naked, and rejected man, raging at the storm in the desolate heath at night: “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!…You sulphurous and thought-executing fires, / Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts, / Singe my white head!” (3.2.1-6).

Nor even in the old father, cradling his beloved Cordelia and trying to will some sign of life from her: “No, no, no life! / Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more, / Never, never, never, never, never!” (5.3.304-07)

No, it’s not Lear in the heights of his fury, the belly of his madness, or the depths of his despair. “Your old kind father, whose frank heart gave all– / O, that way madness lies; let me shun that,” King Lear tells himself (3.4.21-22). This is the terror of King Lear. Shakespeare drags us into Lear’s descent. We have to watch him fall apart. We have see him see himself lose his mind.

***

“Grandpa looked good,” I’m sure my brother cheered when they were leaving the nursing home after the photo.

“He’s plugging away,” my father must have remarked, the very summary my grandfather issued when he could still hold a conversation.

During the visit, I bet my brother joked about the attention our grandfather gets from the ladies. My father, with loving sarcasm, certainly reminded his father that he already ate ice cream today. “You don’t remember eating it? Have a look at your shirt, Dad!” Perhaps my grandfather slowly lifted up his heavy brows, wreathed in white, and mumbled from some interior place beyond humor: “Oh.” The perpetual loop of the present would’ve rope him back until the merciful timelessness of sleep took over.

Did my brother glance at our father when he said his goodbyes? Did he catch a wrinkle of sadness on his forehead, a warble in his voice? Did my father look away when my brother lifted his son up to his great-grandfather, two bodies knowing nothing of each other beyond some deep, primordial recognition of fellow flesh, nearly 100 years apart.

I’m sure neither said that this may be the last time they see him, though certainly they thought it before turning their minds back to the soothing preoccupations of the mundane: how the traffic would be on the drive home, what chores waited for them, when they’d eat dinner.

***

For me, I’m not sure I’ll ever see my grandfather again. I’m not sure I’ll even talk to him again. In fact, I don’t even really remember the last time I did. I mean, really talked to him.

For the mind eventually collapses on itself and into the dementia of the infinite present.

At first, my father and stepmother referred to it as “sundowning syndrome.” I’d ask questions. “Well,” they’d begin. They’d talk of onset and progression. They’d parse degrees of cognitive impairment. But at some point, distinctions don’t matter, as much as medical terminology disinfects with its clinical detachment and sanitizes with its lemon-scented denial. For the mind eventually collapses on itself and into the dementia of the infinite present. Like an imploding star, swallowing all the light and heat of our children’s names, our addresses, how to tie our shoelaces, when our wives will finally come back from the store into the cold void of the perpetual, selfness now.

***

We usually spoke with him on Thanksgiving or Christmas at my father’s house. On the couch, my father would surface from a nest of bills, newspapers, legal pads, screens, wires, and joint braces: “You guys want to wish Grandad a happy holiday?” From our own forts of beer bottles, phones, dogs, and unfulfilled filial expectations, we’d answer: “Absolutely!” We’d rush to crack fresh beers. A cordless phone made the rounds. I’d pace around other rooms to avoid my middle brother’s judging glare for talking too loudly. Into his 90s, my grandfather’s voice was quiet. Into my fourth beer, my voice was loud.

“Hi, Grandpa, this is John…I’m good…No, I’m still in Cincinnati…Yeah, getting my teaching license…Ha, yeah, I’ll be sure to keep those kids in line…Well, I don’t play the bass fiddle much anymore but I’m still plucking that guitar!…I remember you telling me about your clarinet days…Eat a lot of turkey today?…No, sounds like you should be watching out for those nurses!…Yeah, well, plugging away. That’s right…I appreciate that, Grandpa. Love you, too. OK, handing the phone back to my dad now. OK, bye, Grandpa!”

“Hi, Grandpa this is John…I’m good…You sound great! No, I’m in Minneapolis now…No, he’s in Columbus….Well, I’m getting married next summer…Ah, I appreciate that, Grandpa…It was great talking to you…Thanks, Grandpa…Love you, here’s my dad.”

“Hi, Grandpa, this is John…I’m good…No, he’s in Columbus…I’m actually moving to–no, he’s in Columbus…Well, love you, Grandpa. Here’s my dad.”

“Hi, Grandpa…I just wanted to wish you a Happy Turkey Day! Love you, OK. Here’s my dad.”

Before his Alzheimer’s – or whatever it is – was too far advanced, he’d catch himself. “I’m sorry. I’m not so good at remembering stuff anymore.” His loops shortened overtime. I think he knew I was a grandchild. I’m not sure how long he was able to hold on to it.

“I told Grandpa everyone says hello,” my father eventually took over.

***

Not too long ago, my father phoned me in the afternoon when I still lived in California. Since I’ve moved from home, first across the states and now overseas, I’ve been diligent about calling my friends and family. So diligent, in fact, I usually I am the one initiating contact. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw “Dad” show up on my caller ID. I was even more surprised when he just wanted to talk. Conversations with my father are usually pretty short. I often feel like I’m the one asking most of the questions. This time, he was chatty, inquisitive, engaged. A son wants nothing more from his father.

I felt sad because because I could see him seeing that he was losing his father.

“Well,” he said in the middle of our conversation, which usually indicated some sort of leave-taking, but he went on. “I called Grandad today.”

“How’s he doing?”

“It was the first time he didn’t recognize me.” I heard a slight tremble in his voice. I could hear the TV playing in his living room.

“I’m so sorry, Dad.”

I didn’t know what else to say. I felt sad. But not for my grandfather. I’ve not had much of a relationship with him, especially since he lived in Floria as long as I could remember, moving back to Cleveland only after his mind started going.

I felt sad because my father was sad. Sad because I could see him seeing that he was losing his father.

“He has his good days and his bad days. I’m sure he’ll come around tomorrow.”

***

I never personally connected with King Lear, this tragedy of tragedies, because I always tried seeing me in him, trying to locate myself somewhere in the sublime profundity of his broken psyche. Perhaps when I’m older, perhaps when I’m a father myself will these dimensions of King Lear ring more keenly.

For now, after staring at the photo of four generations of men in my family, I can’t help but see my own father and grandfather in Lear. Not in his flaws and follies, his despair and dejection, his rage and rejection, in his madness and mourning. But in his interiority, in those glimpses of luminous self-knowledge that dapple his disintegration – like those moments my grandfather reckoned, if briefly, with the decay of his own mind, those moments my own fathered acknowledged it, if briefly. As though for a moment they glimpsed their own selves, small and naked, fearing in that cold and unfeeling storm of nothingness.

“No more of that,” Lear tries to persuade his own, creeping madness (3.4.23). That is the terror of Lear. That is the play’s excruciating, exquisite genius.

Glass houses and jelly meerkats: King Lear, Part 2

Dysfunctional Shakespearean families: They’re just like us!

I have a lot of questions about King Lear. Like what is wrong with these people?

“Which of you shall we say doth love us most?” a retiring King Lear asks his three daughters, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia, as he divides his kingdom up among them (1.1.49). Unlike her sisters, Lear’s favorite, Cordelia, doesn’t fawn over him with the false flattery he’s fishing for. And Lear loses it. He disowns her, sending her off to the King of France without dowry, “for we / Have no such daughter, nor shall ever see / That face of hers again” (1.1.263-65).

Why would you ask that question, Lear? Don’t you think you took things way out of proportion? Did you really listen to what Cordelia what was saying? What were you thinking? This has been my struggle with Lear: Everything escalates so quickly. From 0 to insanity in one act.

Later, Goneril, now heiress to half her father’s kingdom, can’t handle her father’s retinue, who “hourly carp and quarrel, breaking forth / In rank and not-to-be-endured riots” (1.4.175-78). They’re unruly house guests, to be sure, but Lear is none too pleased with her ingratitude: “Into her womb convey sterility! / Dry up in her the organs of increase” (1.4.255-56). “Infect her beauty,” he later curses, “You fen-sucked fogs, drawn by the powerful sun, / To fall and blast her pride!” (2.4.159-61)

He did give you half his kingdom, Goneril. Can’t your father enjoy his waning days? But Lear, again, do you have to ratchet things up so much? I mean, you gave up your crown. Do you think you get to act like a king still?

I thought my family was dysfunctional. But the Lears are just batshit cra–like us.

Regan adds insult to injury: “O, sir, you are old” (2.4.139). She won’t put up with Lear’s knights either. “I gave you all–” Lear points out; Regan, like an entitled millennial, answers that it was about time he did (2.4.245). Everyone sees that Lear is cracking, especially when, martyr-like, he threatens to stay out in a violent storm after his daughters refuse to house his full retinue. But his daughters think he “must needs taste his folly” (2.4.286). “Shut up your doors,” Regan orders, and they actually lock their old father out (2.4.299).

Who do you think you are, Regan? Your dad’s losing his mind. Now’s not the time to make him learn a lesson – and out in the storm of the century at that. What is wrong with these people? I thought my family was dysfunctional. But the Lears are just batshit cra–like us.

***

“Goddamnit,” I complain, vainly thrusting the broom handle under the fridge. “How the hell did it get all the way back there? Jesus.” I stormed into the sitting room. “Aren’t you going to help me?”

“Are you listening to yourself right now?” My wife gets up from the couch. “I was trying to but you didn’t want me pulling out the fridge.”

We argue our way back to the kitchen. “I’m pulling out the fridge.”

“But you said it was gonna scratch the floor!”

“Well, I don’t know how our landlady expects us to keep these fucking floors perfect.”

“Just leave it back there then.”

“Leave it back there? It’ll attract ants and mice. What do you mean, leave it back there?”

“Well, you’re the one so concerned about the floors.”

“You’re not concerned with the floors? See, this is why you’re a slob. This is why we don’t buy shit in checkout lines. It’s impulse. It’s crap.”

“This is why you’re a dick.” My wife stomped back to the sitting room and slammed the door.

I carefully pulled out the fridge, reached back, and picked it up. I was tempted to march into the sitting room and present it to her: “You still fucking want this?”

Sometimes it just takes a gummy candy in the unusual shape of a meerkat that, after my wife accidentally dropped it, somehow fell all the way under the back of the fridge.

Then I thought about Lear. I lightly rap on the door. “I’m sorry, honey.”

***

When we first meet him in the Royal & Derngate’s production of King Lear, Edgar is carrying a bottle and slurring his words. (In a parallel plot, Gloucester’s so Edgar has a half-brother , the bastard Edmund, who convinces their father that Edgar is scheming to kill him for their inheritance.) I didn’t really give much attention to Edgar’s drunkenness – a directorial decision – until I later came read a short review by Lyn Gardner in The Guardian. She observes:

This is a production that makes you wonder what has been going on in the Lear household to produce three such dysfunctional daughters, and the emphasis is very much on the younger generation. Interesting, but it has the effect of sidelining Michael Pennington’s king, who seldom seems more than a volatile domestic tyrant.

Perhaps it does sideline Lear, but to good effect, because why does everyone in King Lear just fall to pieces?

In his opening soliloquy, Edmund grumbles: “Why brand they us / With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?” (1.2.9-10). Historically, we might appreciate his bitterness: His father’s sexual indiscretions cut him off from inheritance. Over 400 years ago, Shakespeare’s audience, familiar with primogeniture, would have felt his plight more keenly – not that it justifies plotting against his family. But in 2016, his motivation is much less immediate, making Edmund seem purely evil. And it’s hard to relate to pure evil.

This is why I find the director’s choice (or the actor’s) to make Edgar drunk so brilliant. This is why the Royal & Derngate’s Lear helped bring the drama of this trumpeted tragedy to life. We get hits of motivation. Edgar initially comes across as a cocky, entitled rich kid, and Edmund, a quietly suffering loner. Again, not that this justifies Edmund ruining his family (and, in part, Lear’s), but that bottle, that drunken swagger, hints at so much emotional baggage, pent-up resentment, and complicated family history. Do Goneril and Regan hold it against their father for favoring Cordelia? Is Lear just looking for a little filial reassurance as he confronts his mortality? What past wounds are reopened when Lear feels so totally rejected by his daughter’s slights? Have the youth of this play somehow been held back the systems of inheritance? Do the youth of this play take for granted their inheritance?

***

We don’t see the tension build up in King Lear. We just see it boil over. We just see the jelly meerkat: Not all the previous arguments about cleanliness, control, respect, and tone it triggers, the ongoing friction of two strong-willed personalities learning interdependence, the monetary and career burdens my wife takes on for me to write, the enduring trauma of divorce and how it shapes my communication habits and values, insecurities about body image and anxieties about what it means to be alive and –

What has been going on in the Lear household? Perhaps in King Lear Shakespeare wants us to imagine our own. Mine, for one, is made of glass. And you know what they say about glass houses and jelly meerkats.

Drama drama: King Lear, Part 1

I really should be getting to the theater more.

It’s bad enough I don’t know a whole lot about Shakespeare’s life or world. But I can’t even say I’ve actually seen many of his plays performed. I mean, the texts were intended for the stage after all.

The last production I can recall seeing was at an amphitheater in a park by the Cincinnati Art Museum – and I caught a only a few scenes at that. I stumbled on a public performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in medias res. It was hot outside, I was a little drunk, and I had no idea what was going on in the play. I soon left to find a bathroom, I think. I’m not even sure why I was there in the first place, who I was with, or even when this was my life, exactly. It must have been some sort of midsummer art festival during college – and equally as enchanting, apparently. For as much as I can’t recall, I can call up glimpses of Titania’s leafy crown. I can hear a donkey-headed Bottom braying. I can taste the IPA I was sipping from a cheap plastic cup, already warm and flat in the heat.

Before that I saw Macbeth. On a TV carted into a high school classroom. My junior-year English teacher – the late Mr. Cahill with his tweed-patched blazers, his breath stale from cigarettes and cafeteria coffee, his chalkboard listing smutty words you couldn’t say in class (“boring”), the rapturous “Great God!” he’d yawp when reciting “The World Is Too Much With Us” – had my class watch the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1979 release of Macbeth with Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Judi Dench. With its bare, black staging, this was a powerful performance. I still conjure it up whenever I think of Macbeth. But I think I liked it all the more because in my coffee-drenched, cigarette-stenched, ego-hunched intellectual coming-of-age, I wanted to impress Mr. Cahill. I wanted him to like that I liked what he liked.

We watched Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet that year, too. A classmate – he’s a successful editor in New York now – guffawed in surprise, in glee, in contempt when Branagh javelins his rapier into Claudius’ back and sends a chandelier swinging down onto him in Act 5’s climactic bloodbath. I always felt like that classmate was always several beats ahead of my own sophistication.

***

Certainly I’ve seen other plays. There’s no way I haven’t seen other plays. And not just on film. I hope. I suppose I can’t count those adaptations we’d gathered for on the gymnasium floor whenever the children’s theater came to school, can I? I even rented Lawrence Olivier’s famed production of Henry V after I read the play this year. I renewed it three times. Three times, the upper limit. I eventually sent it down the return box, unwatched. Pathetic. Criminal. I just don’t know why I don’t get around to these things.

Over two decades’ worth of schooling – including graduating summa cum laude with a degree in English literature, mind you – never put me in the theater seat. But apparently 140 characters could.

So, while recently walking through Oxford to meet an acquaintance from Twitter, I passed the Oxford Playhouse and spotted a poster for a production of King Lear, which I learned of from another acquaintance on Twitter, it so happened. The next day, I promptly ordered two tickets online. Over two decades’ worth of schooling – including graduating summa cum laude with a degree in English literature, mind you – never put me in the theater seat. But apparently 140 characters could.

My wife and I had an argument over seat selection. I wanted to reserve two seats by the aisle, she, sensibly, by center stage. “I’m tired of everything we do revolving around you having to go to the bathroom,” she complained. “I just like the option. There’s comfort in proximity,” offering the best defense even George Constanza could surmise. Begrudgingly, I booked seats facing centerstage. Marriage requires compromise, see. And sacrifice, though not of my fluid consumption. I still downed two pints at a pub before heading to the theater.

***

One dresses up for the theater. A man wears a jacket in the least. And I hadn’t been to the theater in a long time. I wanted to look nice. I wanted a cultured evening out on the town with my wife. So, I decided to wear the suit I had tailored for my wedding. It’s a classic suit: navy blue, cut slim. Maybe a little too slim, as some post-nuptial weight stretched the waistband. But I sucked in my belly, shoved in my shirt, and adjusted my subsequently bunched-up underwear. I was looking good, feeling fresh – until I got caught in a sudden hailstorm on my way to pick up the tickets at will call. Oxford’s old cobblestone streets are charming until you try to run them in dress shoes and slacks that are riding up your ass. I felt like Lear out on the heath: older, less spry than in my youth, and confronting the elements, only to be humbled later by my discovery that I had far overdressed for this weeknight performance. Oxford is a college town after all. At least I would be disturbing no one if I had to empty my old-man bladder during the play; we occupied the only seats in the entire row. Naturally, I enjoyed a glass of wine at intermission.

***

I loved the production. It opens with Cordelia aiming a rifle right at the audience: bang. Provocative, but I still haven’t decided on what it means. She struck me as a sort of revolutionary fighter, in fact, when she reappears with the French invasion later in the play. Edmund the Bastard was quite the bastard. So were Regan, Goneril, and Cornwall. The Fool accompanied himself with a concertina, giving additional voice and volume to his humor. And Michael Pennington played the mad king brilliantly. The costuming evoked, for me at least, interwar England, an interesting juxtaposition for tragedy set in ancient Albion. This, too, has a meaning, though I’m still deliberating on it. The set design was sparse, a stark brick wall suggesting not royalty but hard times, actually. A wind machine mimicked the elements when Lear is roving the heath and raving out in the storm; the effect was a bit gimmicky. But I can’t pretend to be a theater critic. You’ve seen my record, for one thing. For another, I don’t any have other productions of King Lear to compare this one to.

If I connected with the language in the first half, I connected with its emotions in the second.

I did read King Lear in high school, though. For Mr. Cahill’s class, in fact. A few of my peers said it was their favorite play, that it was Shakespeare’s best. I hadn’t even read enough of the Bard to have an opinion. My classmate – the successful editor – often quoted a favorite line: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods;/ they kill us for their sport” (4.1.37-38). I wanted to be serious and literary like them, so I agreed. It, too, I said, was my favorite play, though I never personally connected to Lear’s madness, as sublime as Lear’s descent into it is. I certainly didn’t understand a damned word of the Fool at the time (a lot of dick jokes, I now know). Like a well-trained but unimaginative literary analyst, I circled all the references to eyes and sight in the text, scrawling in the margins “seeing vs. blindness” and thinking myself a brave explorer setting the first foot in some new world.

I also tried to re-read the play before this performance. I only made it halfway through, but this was to my benefit. In the first half of the performance, I was delighted I could follow along with the actual lines. Shakespeare is hard enough to understand when you’re studying him in private with time, footnotes, and the internet at your disposal. In the second half, a lot of the lines went right over my head, as stuffed with Shakespeare as it’s been this year. But the meaning didn’t. If I connected with the language in the first half, I connected with its emotions in the second. Because theater centers, well, the drama.

I’ll pick it up in Part 2.

Ambivalence-upon-Avon

Shakespeare has created us, but we’ve also created him.

I should be feeling more, I thought as I strolled the cobblestone streets of Stratford-upon-Avon, four hundred years to the day after he died.

My train arrived from Oxford after the morning parade honoring Stratford’s favorite son. Confetti and sprigs of rosemary (“for remembrance,” as Ophelia says in Hamlet) still littered the streets, lined with tourists snapping photographs of the town’s half-timbered houses and now dispersing to queue up at its historic sites. Many celebrants were sporting Bard-faced masks handed out during the procession. A few locals perched their masks on windows sills, Shakespeare staring vacantly out on his town nearly a half-millennium later. Actors dressed in period costume or as characters from Shakespeare’s plays stopped to pose for selfies with tourists. Stratford-upon-Avon was busy and festive on this special day.

Shakespear mask.JPG
A Shakespeare mask looks out on Stratford-upon-Avon.

***

For the train ride, I brought my volume of tragedies with me, thinking I’d start King Lear on the journey up. But the scenery was far too idyllic on this blue-sky Saturday – and the tray table far too small to accommodate the two notebooks I use while reading. I decided to read some background material on the Bard instead, because I don’t really know a whole lot about Shakespeare, I’m embarrassed to say.

I stared into his portrait’s eyes in a copy of the First Folio; I really have to pee, I thought.

I can recall scribbling “Anne Hathaway,” “Hamnet,” and “d. 1616” from Mrs. Smith’s introductory lectures in ninth-grade English. She explained that Shakespeare wasn’t just a writer but an actor, director, producer, businessman: a whole Hollywood studio in one. Years later, a Shakespeare course was required for my Bachelor’s degree in English. Dr. Northway fleshed out our understanding of the political, cultural, and creative world Shakespeare inhabited. We combed over Elizabethan theater inventories, debated if Shakespeare would be considered a plagiarist today, and investigated state-sponsored violence in the English Renaissance.

One visit to London, I happened upon a Shakespeare exhibit at the National Gallery: All the known documents and artifacts Shakespeare left behind, from legal papers to the Chandos portrait, where he is wearing a pirate-like earring, were gathered together in one room. I stared into his portrait’s eyes in a copy of the First Folio; I really have to pee, I thought. My dad, brother, and I had just come from a pub when we passed the museum. They went on to another while my buzz fuzzed my appreciation of the curation.

On that same trip, we stopped off in Stratford the next day or so, actually. My dad pretended he didn’t know “decompress” was my code for “cigarette” as I broke off from them again to walk through the town. I chain-smoked up and down the streets, eventually stumbling upon his birthplace and snapping a few photos of the exterior before heading into a pub. I’m not sure, exactly, why I didn’t go in.

I taught Shakespeare once, too. Romeo and Juliet, during my student-teaching. I chose to skip over most of the biographical details that typically accompanies one’s first Shakespeare unit. Those lectures are usually boring. So, we listened to an audio performance of the play as we followed in our texts and watched, of course, Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 screen adaptation, Romeo + Juliet. The students enjoyed the play quite a bit. They couldn’t get past how stupid the star-crossed lovers were in their climactic double suicide; I agreed. In my time working in public education, I’ve actually found that most students are quite taken by Shakespeare, when you pass on all the tedious note-taking and get right down to the stories – and watch a young Leo smoke a cigarette, of course.

***

I didn’t have a map, a plan, or any real knowledge of Stratford-upon-Avon other than that Shakespeare was born and lived here when he wasn’t in London. I had actually forgotten Shakespeare died and was buried here, too, at Holy Trinity Church until I followed a crowd of visitors there. In the lush churchyard along the River Avon, willow trees shaded tombstones, many of whose epitaphs had long been weathered away. The Bard was interred inside. We slowly shuffled down the aisle to the chancel, bursting with yellow flowers, cameras, parish officials managing the crowd, and light pouring in through the stained glass windows.

Shakespeare tomb.JPG
Shakespeare’s funerary monument. His actual grave, beneath his famed epitaph pictured in the bottom right,  was completely covered in flowers.

Another crowd signaled a second important site: Shakespeare’s Schoolroom and Guildhall. On the ground floor, Shakespeare’s father, John presided over Stratford’s municipal affairs when he earned enough money – and status – from his glove-making. John petitioned for a coat of arms, which signified gentry, but his son, having amassed enough wealth from the theater, later bought it for him. At the far end of the dark-wood walls of this low-ceilinged room was once a chapel; historians are still finding evidence of murals once painted there. I noted some roses, now a faded and faint red, bordering the moulding.

Upstairs, thick, wooden school desks, like benches with wide, angled writing surfaces, were rowed before the schoolmaster’s lectern, which sat austerely like a squat throne. Even back then, naughty students carved their names into their desks. A man in a friar-like costume discussed 16th-century education with visitors in an exaggerated, historical accent. Younger tourists tried their hand quilling out their signatures and first-conjugation verbs on worksheets.

Shakespeare school.JPG
Visitors try their hand at the quill in Shakespeare’s schoolroom.

Stratford-upon-Avon was indeed stunning on this sunny Saturday, and the exhibits were informative without overwhelming the atmosphere of the beautiful and historic structures. The guides, too, were very cheerful and welcoming. I was grateful to be here, but I just wasn’t feeling anything above what my natural curiosity and appreciation afforded. Since mid-January, I’ve read and written about a play a week. My head is filled with Shakespeare. Shouldn’t I be feeling  more?

***

I stopped off in a pub, ducking my head under its low, exposed beams, and ordered a pint of Shakesbeer. This was the Garrick Inn. The named honored David Garrick, an 18th-century actor who organized a 1769 jubilee that helped launch a tradition of literary pilgrimages to Shakespeare’s birthplace, as I learned from a plaque tucked among other Shakespeare-y paraphernalia crammed in its old nooks.

About half a pint in, an older man sat down next to me at the communal table. After a sip or two, he left for the toilets. He was there for quite some time. When he returned, an older lady had joined the table with a half-pint. He struck up a conversation with her; I think he fancied her, in fact, if his repeated questions after the length of her stay were any indication. She had a difficult time understanding him, as he talked softly, and he her, hard of hearing as he was. Sitting in between them, I chimed in to clarify something she was saying (she shared she was German-Canadian after he remarked on her American-sounding accent) and the three of us fell into conversation. He insisted on a buying us a round.

Even in his very birthplace the Bard’s words still pose their challenges, I was relieved.

The man (Steven, his name I learned later) was local; she, Patricia, was visiting, like me, expressly for the 400th anniversary. Quiet-voiced and ramble-prone, Steven was sometimes hard to follow. He was concerned about new housing developments in the town, because that meant children, children became adolescents, and adolescents made graffiti.

But Steven did get us on the subject of Shakespeare when he mentioned that it’s rare for a person to be born and die on the same day, as he said Shakespeare was. Patricia and I quickly corrected that, while it’s traditional to celebrate his birthday on April 16, we only know he was baptized in Holy Trinity Church on April 26, likely a few days after he was born. Patricia added that Shakespeare’s mother may actually have left the village to give birth to William at her sister’s, as a pox was infecting the town in 1564. This could also account for a delay between his birth and baptism, though nulling the town’s central attraction: the house that claims the very room the Bard was brought into the world. Aloud, I mused how English literature and language – and the many things they influence – would have been so very different had an infant William fallen to a plague in his hometown.

Patricia knew a lot about Shakespeare, and was feeling a lot about Shakespeare during her visit, too, I could tell. She and I chatted a bit more about Shakespeare during gaps in the general conversation. I mentioned I had just finished Titus Andronicus and was floored by its violence. She shared that a recent performance at the Globe actually was halted because multiple theatergoers – women and men, she emphasized– had fainted, so gruesome the production was. Her favorite play, as I asked, was A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I shared how my wife recited the play the night we met: Helena’s monologue, about love.

“The ‘not with the eyes’ part, you know,” I tried, “but with the, um, with the–

“–mind,” Patricia provided.

For all the Shakespeare I’ve been reading, I blushed, I struggle to quote lines like so many Bardolators seem able to do.

Steven added to our Shakespeare sharing, too. He recalled a teacher he had once took a whole term just to cover Julius Caesar. Line by line, word by word, the teacher explained the play. Even in his birthplace the Bard’s words still pose their challenges, I was relieved.

Patricia took her leave after her second half-pint and some of Steven’s friends and family joined us. They bought me another round and we talked about America’s gun problems, British crime dramas, the advantages and disadvantages of white Christmases, and Steven’s appetite for drink.

***

Three pints in, I still had three hours left before my train back to Oxford. I headed over to the main attraction: his birthplace. I hoped to start feeling some sort of special tingle about my time here – and not just from the Shakesbeer.

I tried to hear a newborn William, covered in placental blood, screaming as he took his first breaths out of the womb.

I waited in line to purchase admission to Shakespeare’s birthplace-cum-museum, a two-story timber-frame house along Henley Street, a busy pedestrian thoroughfare in the town. It was once one of the largest houses in town, I learned after I made it through another line to walk through the house. A French couple ahead of me exchanged kisses every few seconds, it seemed. Clearly, they were feeling something.

Off the side of dining room was John Shakespeare’s workshop. John Shakespeare was a glover by trade, and Elizabethan tradesmen worked out of their homes. Butterscotch-colored tannins still stained the simple white walls. A costumed guide explained glove-making in the 16th century with artifacts and replicas. Glove-related quotes from the glover’s great heir were displayed throughout the room, suggesting he was inspired by his father’s work, even if he didn’t follow in his footsteps.

Upstairs, another docent explained that the Shakespeares had beds, quite expensive – and quite the status symbol – in Shakespeare’s day. Shakespeare would have slept in a small crib on the floor next to a trundle bed pulled from under the bed. He demonstrated how an older Shakespeare would have tightened the ropes before retiring. Loose ropes could trouble one’s sleep, he continued, which is why even today we say we feel ropey if we didn’t get a good night’s rest. The man, whose vigorous expounding belied his age, explained that the family would have piled the bed with the all blankets, clothes, and fabric they owned to keep warm in the dead of winter. He then inserted two, tall pegs into slots on the side of the bed-frame; these prevented all the heavy textiles from falling on and suffocating Shakespeare, sleeping below in the trundle bed in the middle of the night.

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Inside in the room where we believe Shakespeare was born.

In a side room, the original windows in the bedroom were on display. More illustrious visitors, the likes of T.S. Eliot, once etched their names into the panes. Eliot’s “I was here” was actually written over, so crowded the panes had become. I imagined the Modernist master walking the rooms, listening to the creaks of the dark-brown floorboards, now worn smooth and shiny from so many footsteps, for some insight into the Bard’s genius.

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“I was here,” literary pilgrims etched in the windows once in Shakespeare’s birth-room.

I tried myself to hear a newborn William, covered in placental blood, screaming as he took his first breaths out of the womb. I tried to hear William the child, his head just at eye level to his father’s workbench, bombarding his father with questions about his craft. But I just wasn’t hearing anything. In the garden at the back of the house actors performed passages on request. I was able to identify a few that I caught in medias res.

The Bard’s ghost wasn’t speaking to me yet, but at least I knew my stuff.

***

My entry into Shakespeare’s house granted me admission into some other sites, including the Harvard House, an impressive three-story timber-frame that came into the hands of John Harvard, who founded Harvard University. Right before it closed, I quickly toured Hall’s Croft, the Jacobean house of Shakespeare’s oldest daughter, Susanna, though I spent most of my time there chatting with a guide. He described many of the parties subsequent owners held there over the centuries before we fell into conversation about Key West, cowboy boots he bought at the covered market in Oxford, and how the Catholic belief in transubstantiation is technically cannibalism.

I still had some time to kill before my train, so I stopped by another tavern. Here, I shared a table with a couple a few miles outside of town. They, too, missed the parade but enjoyed simply being in the town on this milestone day, shuffling through the rooms with a hushed reverence, though they didn’t have a lot of experience with Shakespeare themselves. We chatted about the husband’s former work in Denver, my move to Dublin, and our mutual love of Edinburgh, where he gained a lot of weight, he mentioned, from all the drinking he did there.

I didn’t do any reading on the train back to Oxford. I gazed, vacant-eyed like the Shakespeare masks in the window sills, as occasional sheep and church steeples passed by the rolling green countryside.

***

Back in Oxford, I met my wife for dinner and some drinks in town. “So, are you feeling inspired?” she asked.

“Um…” I bit into some pizza and chewed for a while.

I don’t think I gained many insights into Shakespeare’s genius, I realized, but I do think I learned more about his humanity. And it was Shakespeare’s own insights into humanity, I think, that was genius.

I recalled the floorboards he must have run across as a kid, the trundle bed whose ropes he tightened, the desks in his schoolroom where copied out amo amas amat, the intricately carved church ceiling he may have stared at during a boring sermon, the trail along the river where may have chased swans, the alleys he must have cut through on errands for his father. I don’t think I gained many insights into Shakespeare’s genius, I realized, but I do think I learned more about his humanity. And it was Shakespeare’s own insights into humanity, I think, that was genius.

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Shadows on the floor of Shakespeare’s birthplace.

“I really enjoyed the people I met and talked to there,” I offered. There were thousands of people in town, I’m sure, many from far outside the United Kingdom. Some knew a lot about Shakespeare and felt a personal, even magical connection as they toured the town. Others, and I think most, didn’t really know much about him. They haven’t really read much other than what was required in high school, if that. Maybe they’ve have seen the occasional play. But we were still all there for the same reason, to try to better understand this man who has wormed his way into our very literary, linguistic, and cultural consciousness. Whose verses we still quote, whose coinages we still use,  whose stories we continue to see, whose truths we still draw on, whose genius we still crave to know. Perhaps in so small part because we make these sort of pilgrimages, because we specially esteem his genius.

Shakespeare has created us, in a manner of speaking, but we’ve also created him. We put on the Bard-faced masks, as if to see the world through his eyes. Yet it’s our eyes that peer through the slots.

“Yeah, I think I really felt something.”

All photographs by me.