Hearing heirs: The Tempest

Should I get my ears checked?

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

All politics is personal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

How did this happen?

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slurrrrp.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.”