Goddamnit, Shakespeare: Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece

He’s good even when he’s not.

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“Do you ever get sick of Shakespeare?” my sister-in-law asked me.

It was late morning, an unusually rainy day. I was sitting in a reclining chair, Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis open on my lap, and I was making absolutely no progress in the poem. If only I could read like I drank coffee: No cream, no sugar, all day long, with lots of trips to the bathroom.

People were putting together their breakfasts in the kitchen, planning out activities and to-dos for the day, mapping out who would use the cars when, dogs barking out the window at passers-by, chickens squawking in the coop out back, a FaceBook video blaring on an iPhone, a call for “Who wants another cup of coffee?” (“I do.”) We were all back home at Christmas headquarters, my in-laws in Southern California. It wasn’t an ideal environment for a focused reading of Shakespeare, to be sure, but it wasn’t like I was making a dent in the poem. And this morning, my efforts were particularly half-assed.

“I wouldn’t say I get sick of Shakespeare, but I would say I get mad at him.”

Sick? I wouldn’t say I get sick of him.” I explained to her how starting a new play was like jumping into cold water. You hesitate, fearing the initial shock of the icy immersion, the work you have to do warm up, but you soon acclimate to the temperature and love splashing around.

Then I looked down to Venus and Adonis.

I had been trying to wrap up Shakespeare’s other, non-Sonnets poems – including this one, The Rape of Lucrece, and a handful of other random little ditties – for a few days now. These felt like a long hike in the dessert.

“But I would say I get mad at him.”

Goddamnit, Shakespeare, I moaned to myself, my eyes glazing over at the fourth stanza into some extended metaphor about Adonis’ sexbod. Venus and Adonis is a narrative poem, 1194 lines long, about Venus, Roman goddess of love, falling in love with Adonis, a beautiful young man. Venus wants to jump Adonis’ bones, but Adonis is only interested in hunting. He does, the next day, but is killed by a boar. Venus is devastated, which is why, in the logic of myth, love is now so complicated. As she concludes:

Since thou art dead, lo, here I prophesy
Sorrow on love hereafter shall attend,
It shall be waited on with jealousy,
Find sweet beginning, but unsavoury end.
Ne’er settled equally, but high or low,
That all love’s pleasure shall not match his woe. (1135-40)

She goes in, in poignant lines about how love hurts: “It shall be fickle, false, and full of fraud” (1141). But goddamnit, Shakespeare, why did you have to make us wait for over 1000  never-freaking-ending lines for this?

It’s funny. Venus and Adonis was the first work Shakespeare published, and, arguably, his most popular. (Plays, back then, were owned by the theater, so the publication process, as well as the concept of authorship, was a different animal.) But now, with only Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Edward III standing in the way of my completist goal, Venus and Adonis felt like homework. Like a chore. And I, a recalcitrant schoolboy, having a tantrum about it.

***

I was taking far too much time to read Shakespeare’s “Other Poems.” Sure, there was day-drinking, outings, visits with friends and families, holiday parties, and all sorts of welcome and ready distractions. But I had more than enough time in between to put back these verses. So I snuck out to a Starbucks one under-scheduled afternoon to take on The Rape of Lucrece. This (motherfuckin’ 1855 lined rhyme royal) recounts how the son of the last king of Rome, Tarquin, rapes Lucretia, wife of a fellow soldier. Shamed and dishonored, Lucretia kills herself, leading to Tarquin’s banishment – and the founding of the Roman republic.   

But then here I was, bored to tears about a poem treating the horrifying rape of a woman.

I kept nodding off in the oversized café chair. I’d rub my eyes, try to get my finicky phone on WiFi one more time, and groan, “This is so boring.”

At one point, a group of late-middle-aged and older women gathered around a table nearby my seat. They were sporting Christmas sweaters and passing around Christmas cookies. They chatted – polite, soft-spoken, attentive – about the holidays, their kids and grandkids, movies and TV, and then politics.

I pretended I was reading (not that this required much of a change) and eavesdropped. “I just don’t know what the Access Hollywood video had to do anything. I mean, it doesn’t concern policy or anything.” She was referring to the tapes showing Donald Trump bragging about sexual assault.

I was shocked. How could she – a woman, a mother, a grandmother, a Christian, from what my eavesdropping gathered – shrug off Trump’s “Grab ‘em by the pussy”?

But then here I was, bored to tears about a poem treating the horrifying rape of a woman.

In the Roman psyche, a woman’s rape brought shame to her husband and family. And in the Elizabethan mind, women were seen as weak. “Those proud lords, to blame, / Make weak-made women tenants to their shame” (1259-60). Rape of Lucrece is far from any feminist anthem, at least people got up in arms about Tarquin’s heinous act.

Goddamnit, Shakespeare. You did it again. 

Just get on with it already: Love’s Labour’s Lost

This overachiever, though, makes no promises.

Love’s Labour’s Lost was my final comedy. I wasn’t sure I’d make it through all Shakespeare’s comedies, to be honest. There are 13 of them, by Norton’s classification, the most of any genre. Some of these plays are among Shakespeare’s best and most memorable: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Taming of the Shrew, Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice. Four hundred years after Shakespeare’s death, teachers are still assigning them in high schools and colleges, and for good reason. Four hundred years after his death, people like me are trying to read all of them in an ungodly, unnaturally short period of time.

For me, the comedies are among some of Shakespeare’s most difficult plays.

The Merchant of Venice, though, I’ve never found much humor in. Its antisemitism is more disturbing, though more relevant, than ever, and I’ve always had trouble reconciling this dimension of the play with Portia’s inspiring selflessness. But as a historical genre, of course, the comedy isn’t necessarily about ha-ha funny. As my friend conducts his Renaissance comedy litmus test: “Does it end with a marriage?” Disunion resolves in union. Ignorance finds knowledge. There is much more to it, of course.

But for me, the comedies are among some of Shakespeare’s most difficult plays. For one, humor is topical and doesn’t age well. I chuckle appreciatively at all their inversions (e.g., mistaken identities, disguises, gender-bending), and I nod knowingly at their keen commentary (i.e., social roles are performative and constructed), but they seldom elicit any guffaw from me. Well, Falstaff, in all of his Homer Simpsonian idiocy in The Merry Wives of Windsor is a notable exception. And I did laugh out loud when Armado, a swaggering Spaniard, says in Love’s Labour’s Lost, “Cupid’s butt-shaft is too hard for Hercules club” (1.2.156-56), but that’s because I gleefully, juvenilely, took Shakespeare out of context. Butt-shaft. It refers, just so you know, to an “unbarbed arrow.”

My mis-glossing of butt-shaft points to a second reason for the challenge of Shakespeare’s comedies for the modern reader: The language of the comedies is dense. The language of all the plays – 1) poeticized, 2) in an early form of English, and 3) from the quill of a writer with a super-human lexicon – is dense. But in the comedies, Shakespeare further heightens his language with 4) truly acrobatic wordplay.

Take this moment of banter in Love’s Labour’s Lost where Catherine, a lady attending on the French princess, says to Longueville, a lord attending on the King of Navarre: “‘Veal,’ quoth the Dutchman. Is not a veal a calf?” (5.2.247). This veal is, no joke, a quadruple pun. (Thank you, footnotes.) It riffs on veal as a Dutch pronunciation of well or the German word for much (viel). Historically, veal would have sounded more like veil. Then, veal plays on the second part of Longueville’s name while calling up the French word for “calf,” veau, and a calf was slang for a “dunce” in Renaissance English. I don’t know what any of this means, really, other than that Catherine is ripping on Longueville.

Veal: That’s one word. One word, people. One word among 884,647, according to one tally.

But Love’s Labour’s Lost is especially difficult – and I intentionally saved it for my final comedy. Or more accurately, I avoided it. I’ve read it before, in college, and I can’t stand it. Only part of that is due to the play itself, however.

***

Love’s Labour’s Lost kicks off with three lords who promise Ferdinand, King of Navarre, that they will study, fast, and forswear the company of women for the next three years. Ferdinand even decrees no woman is to come within one mile of his court.

This doesn’t last long, as The French Princess arrives, having some business to settle with Ferdinand before her sick father dies, along with her three ladies. (You can guess where this is going.) Thanks to Ferdinand’s decree, her royal retinue has to camp out in his field. (She rightfully calls him out for this, in case you were wondering.)

But the three lords and the king immediately fall in love with their counterparts and, against their oath, try to woo them. Here’s the hard part: Anytime they open their mouths – anytime any male character opens his mouth in this play – out comes a flowery stream of verbal diarrhea. In rhymed iambic pentameter. Sometimes even as whole sonnets. (I suppose shit can smell like roses.)

Listen to Biron, one of the three lords, wax amatory for Rosaline, one of the three ladies:

Lend me flourish of all gentle tongues–
Fie, painted rhetoric! O, she needs it not.
To things of sale a seller’s praise belongs.
She passes praise–then praise too short doth blot. (4.3.234-37).

Even in acknowledging any “painted rhetoric” will fall short of her beauty, he paints his rhetoric. Just get on with it, man! OK, this is one of the aims of the play, to lampoon verbosity, especially the self-involved excesses of the language of their courtship, but just get on with it already!

***

Just get on with it already! I’m pretty sure my college Shakespeare professor was thinking exactly that as she read my essay on Love’s Labour’s Lost.

For my English major, I had to take one course in Shakespeare. We read Hamlet, Othello, The Tempest, A Winter’s Tale, Richard II, Richard III, The Taming of the Shrew, and Love’s Labour’s Lost. The latter is an unusual assignment, given all the other plays to choose from, coupled with the comedy’s difficult reputation. And, if I remember correctly, it was yet we read this play first. Kinda ballsy, especially as the class only had a smattering of English majors. The class roster thinned out a bit after this.

We had two writing assignments for the play. The first, a short reading response, I remember vividly. We had to pick a keyword in the opening scene or so of the play, look up its meaning in Shakespeare’s English, and then, when we finished the play, argue why it represented the work as a whole.

I chose conqueror. It’s from the King’s opening monologue. He’s addressing the three lords, saying they will achieve fame at his court through their study and self-denial:

Therefore, brave conquerors–for so you are,
That war against your own affections
And the huge army of the world’s desires–
Our late edict shall strongly stand in force. (1.1.8-11)

The edict, here, refers to the oaths they swear.

I have no idea why I chose conqueror, but I can recall thinking it was an inspired choice. (Not so.) Here’s my mini-thesis for the “Reading Response”:

The self-referential nature, irony, and issues of love, gender, class, and language that the word conqueror conveys in the opening of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost render it the most significant word in the entire first scene and one of the most important words in the play overall.

At the time, I thought this was great. Self-referential? The way I packed in irony, love, gender, class, and language in my first clause alone? I was making moves. English-major moves. (Oy.)

The second assignment was a full essay. I can’t remember the prompt. I can’t really remember my argument either, other than it had something to with appearance vs. reality. (So original.) My professor’s lecture must have emphasized on artificial language vs. natural language. That distinction, clearly, I failed to internalize in my own writing.

I do remember, though, that this was the lowest grade I ever got on a paper in college. It was a ‘B.’ I know, I know: the horror, the horror! I’m a perfectionist and an overachiever. What can I say? Crucify me. I always liked getting good grades and submitting my best work, even when I didn’t give a damn about the subject or assignment.

Out oozed, like one of those big pimples deep under the skin that are hard to pop and really hurt when you try, an overwritten sludge of overwrought and over-intellectualized over-ness about…well, I can’t even remember.

But it wasn’t the ‘B’ that bothered me. OK, the ‘B’ did bother me. I can’t deny my inner Lisa Simpson. But I was more so challenged by the fact that this was hardest paper I can remember writing, harder than that 50-page doorstopper on the prophetic mysticism of jazz in Ginsburg’s Howl, harder even than my Master’s thesis on reforms in teacher assessment. Harder, because I found I had absolutely nothing to say about Love’s Labour’s Lost.

I can remember starting this essay the day before it was due. That was uncharacteristic, because 1) I’m a slow writer and 2) I’m an overachiever, remember? (The day before an essay is due is the day for final editing, duh.) I’m not sure what delayed me this time, but when I sat down in my cold, empty-fridge apartment at the vintage turquoise-colored card table my late grandmother gave to me with my notes, text, oversized Dell laptop, and essay prompt, no ideas came to me. None. Zip. Zilch.  Zero. Nada. This spiked my anxiety, which constipated my imagination, which blockage in turn made me fear I wouldn’t be able to demonstrate to my professor that I was a good writer.

Isn’t so much of school, at least for nerds like me, wanting the recognition and praise of your teachers? Isn’t so much of work, life, and relationships that way? Even the lords in Love’s Labour’s Lost essentially show off their art and intellect in trying to win over the ladies.

And so the anxiety fed on itself: What if I’m out of ideas? What if I’m not as smart or as good a writer as I’ve always thought, always been told, I was? I, like the lords in Love’s Labour’s Lost, always have something to say, to contribute. Don’t I?

At one point in the evening, well before I had to burn the midnight oil, I had drive over to my father’s house for some bit of business, chain-smoking and refilling a Venti coffee from Starbucks along the way. Panicky, caffeinated, not even trying to cover up how much I reeked of Camel Lights in front of my dad, I shared my frustration. “Do your best,” he offered. “But sometimes you just have to know when you’ve done your best, call it a day, and move on.”

And so out oozed, like one of those big pimples deep under the skin that are hard to pop and really hurt when you try, an overwritten sludge of overwrought and over-intellectualized over-ness about…well, I can’t  even remember. How apt. Apparently it wasn’t horrible, if I landed a ‘B.’ My professor was a tough grader, but gave exceptional and in-depth feedback on composition. But I know I hid behind a whole lot of words, which is oh-so fitting for Love’s Labour’s Lost. And I know that my professor saw right through it, and, with that generous ‘B,’ must have seen something in me.

***

I didn’t see the irony of any of this at the time. I was too focused on myself to realize that I was acting like Biron, Longueville, and Dumaine, the third lord.

I didn’t appreciate how it was the ladies, by their wit, who brought them to their senses.

After hypocritical accusations, the three lords and the king reveal they are in love – and agree to bail on their oaths.  They disguises themselves as Russians to court the ladies. Because Shakespeare. The fanciful Spaniard gets a countrywoman pregnant. Because Shakespeare. There’s a comically bad play within a play. Because Shakespeare. Then suddenly, the princess learns her father has died and has to return home. Because Shakespeare. But the ladies, in parting, bid the noblemen to wait a year in some sort of punitive, ascetic condition, prove their love, before pursuing them again. Because Shakespeare.

My first time through this play, I focused on how the lords screwed themselves over: “The conquerors are themselves conquered, and largely by their own undoing,” I wrote in that reading response. I didn’t appreciate how it was the ladies, by their wit, who brought them to their senses.

I mean, for God’s sake, the Princess even explicitly mocks the poetry overkill the King sends her:

…as much love in rhyme
As would be crammed up in a sheet of paper
Writ o’ both sides of the leaf, margin and all,
That he was fain to seal on Cupid’s name. (5.2.6-9)

That essay – no, my professor’s feedback, on that paper and throughout the entire course – made me a much better writer. I’d probably say she provided the best writing instruction in my entire academic career, even. And I’d probably say that, while I still don’t like Love’s Labour’s Lost, but I’d say hate would be far too harsh.

As for that assignment, to pick one word most central to the play? For one, I’ve thought about that exercise every play I’ve read during this year, even selecting a representative word for a few plays just for the sake of it. And if I had a chance to redo it? Well, “butt-shaft” is very tempting…

The rest is…definitely not silence

That was a whole lot of Shakespeare.

On January 10, 2016, I set out to read the complete works of William Shakespeare – every last iamb thought to come from his quill – in 2016. I didn’t technically finish before 11:59:59 on December 31, but the spirit of my goal, I trust you’ll agree with my just-off-new-year start date, was to tackle the Bard’s oeuvre in one year. That I did, and with a few days to spare. On January 5, 2017 at 2:59pm, I read the word “queen,” the final word of The Reign of Edward III, which many editors think Shakespeare wrote in part.

I stood up from the couch in the basement guest room of my dad’s house in Cincinnati, fist pumped, and then collapsed on the (delightfully soft) carpet. I felt relieved. I felt proud. I felt excited and freed to read something not-Shakespeare.

Like science fiction. I looked over at a stack of books in my suitcase. On top was Station Eleven (2014) by Emily St. John Mandel, which my stepfather gave it to me. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic world and follows a troupe called the Traveling Symphony, which primarily performs…Shakespeare. I’ll never get away from the Bard. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I’m back in Dublin on Monday, when I’ll be writing up my remaining posts on Henry VIII, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, various poems including Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, and Edward III. I may be finished reading, but I’m not finished writing – and I’m certainly not finished with Shakespeare.

Thanks for following along, and stay posted for much, much more.