Balcony scenes: Romeo and Juliet

It’s the story, stupid.

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1.1
Outside Capulet’s house

When I cupped her boob, laughter erupted.

“What’s so funny?” I asked my friend.

“You’re standing, like, five feet away from her,” he said.

His father thrust his hips back and shot an arm high into the air. “Get a good feel there, Johnny?”

Even my friend’s mother was snickering as she captured my clumsy groping for all time.

I cleared the way and watched the next tourist, who posed for the camera – at a reasonable, comfortable distance.

“Least I did it,” I elbowed my friend.

He was too shy to touch the boob. Juliet Capulet’s boob, that is.

In a medieval courtyard in Verona, the brick thick with ivy and lovers’ graffiti, stands a statue of Juliet Capulet, her bronze breast polished smooth and shiny by countless hands, underneath the very balcony, legend has it, Shakespeare immortalized in The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.

Touching her breast, tradition has it, brings luck in love. Touched, indeed: In 2014, the city had to remove and repair the statue, for a crack had appeared in her talismanic breast as well as in her arm.

***

4.3
An airplane over the Atlantic

That was one of my earliest memories of this play, as I recalled my awkward statue molestation while reading Romeo and Juliet for the fourth time 30,000 feet in the air. The summer before I went into high school, my friend, his father, and I tagged along an educational European tour for high-schoolers where his mother taught.

My wife and I were heading home for Christmas, a direct flight from Dublin to Los Angeles. I had three plays left, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Edward III, some odd poems, and only two busy and booze-filled weeks to finish. This flight was essential. But the airborne Bard hadn’t treated me so well in the past. The Sonnets left me short on attention, you’ll remember, and on cabernet sauvignon.

I’ll scroll through the movies option, I allowed. Just in case I need a little break…or deserve a reward. I tapped my touchscreen. It wasn’t responding. I tapped it again. Then I peppered it with jabs. The system jerkily caught up with my commands and sent me to the family movie section. A thumbnail of Gnomeo & Juliet popped up. Of course. But did they really premise this entire film on wordplay?

“Something to drink, sir?” Drink service arrived to my row.

“Uh, yes. Red wine, please.” Clearly I hadn’t learned my lesson about Shakespeare, wine, and airplanes. I saw the flight attendant eye my Norton doorstopper.

“What do you have your head in there?” he asked.

“Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet.”

“Ah, Romeo and Juliet,” he trilled. “Light reading for a flight.”

“You can say that again.”

“‘O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!’” he intoned above the din of jet engines. I had just finished that scene, incredibly. Then he – the most charming steward I’d ever met, and the most knowledgeable about Shakespeare, to be sure – burst into chuckles as he recalled some hilarious production of the play he’d seen.

Everyone has a story about Romeo and Juliet, I thought. If person has read only one Shakespeare play, it’s gotta be Romeo and Juliet. But I, for one, have never really understood the infatuation.

***

3.0
[Enter] CHORUS

Permit me a little soapboxing, er, shouting from the balcony:

First, Romeo starts out in love, albeit unrequited, with a young woman named Rosaline. It when he sneaks into a Montague masquerade, for the express purpose of checking out Rosaline, that he glimpses, and instantly falls in love with, Juliet.

Second, Juliet is 13. Forget all you’ve heard about Elizabethans, Shakespeare’s original audience, mind you, marrying young. During the Bard’s day, the mean age of marriage was 27.

True love? Or just being horny? What do you think Shakespeare is getting at with all of Mercutio’s sex jokes, and his puns on the firm steel of a drawn sword? And in the famous balcony scene, after Romeo’s famed “It is the east” opening, he launches right into the poetic equivalent of ‘Have sex with me.’ Don’t be the maid of Diana, goddess of chastity, he says: “Her vestal livery is but sick and green, / And none but fools do wear it; cast it off” (2.1.50-51). Then, when he proposes immediate marriage, just after his first disclosure of his love, even Juliet says, “It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden / Too like the lightning which doth cease to be / Ere one can say it lightens” (2.1.160-62).

I can’t help but think Shakespeare’s winking at us with his sensational finale. There’s an element of comedy in their over-the-top deaths.

Third is their ridiculous double suicide. Recall that Romeo is a Montague, long feuding with the Capulets, Juliet’s family. This precipitates 1) their secret, forbidden marriage and 2) a fight in which Romeo kills Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin, prompting Romeo’s exile. Friar Laurence concocts a plan to reunite them, including Juliet taking a sleeping potion that causes Romeo to think she’s dead. So, he downs some lethal poison, leading Juliet to stab herself to death when she discovers his corpse after coming to.

Passion? Pshaw. This is just the heedless, reckless impulsivity of adolescence. I side with the cooling wisdom of Friar Laurence: “These violent delights have violent ends…Therefore love moderately. Long love doth so. / Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow” (2.5.9-15). And I can’t help but think Shakespeare’s winking at us with his sensational finale. There’s an element of comedy in their over-the-top deaths.

Finally, everyone constantly misquotes some of the play’s most famous lines. “Star-crossed lovers” (P.6)? Star-crossed isn’t a good thing. It refers, in the astrology of the day, to the stars that appeared when they were born; here, the stars thwarted, or crossed, the lovers’ destinies.

And as for the play’s most famous line of all? “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” (2.1.74-75)

***

2.5
A classroom in Cincinnati, Ohio

“What does ‘wherefore’ mean?” I asked the ninth-graders, who were about the same age I was when I touched the Juliet nearly 15 years before.

This was the only time I properly taught Shakespeare, my semester of student-teaching. (Technically, I aided instruction of an adapted text The Merchant of Venice to a small group of seniors with learning disabilities. They found Portia’s “pound of flesh” strategy brilliant.)

Preparing for the unit, I reread Romeo Juliet, which I can vaguely remember reading my own freshman year, in the very same Norton Shakespeare I used this time around. There is evidence of my lesson planning in the margins. Symbolism of nurse, I jotted and heavily underlined. Opposites: Poison in beautiful flowers. Oxymorons, I wrote next to Romeo’s  “O brawling love, O loving hate” (1.1.169). Love turns everything upside down. Reversing/turning meanings. Their love is pure, but irony that the pretense to meet is under shrift/confession. Who’s responsible for the deaths? Themselves? Friar? Capulet/Montague? Friar John?

“‘Where’?” a student offered.

“That’s what it definitely sounds like. Plus, Juliet thinks she’s all alone, pining for her absent lover. Good thinking, but not quite. Anyone else?”

“It means ‘why’,” another student supplied.

“Yes! She’s saying, ‘Why does your name have to be Romeo?’ A Montague. The enemy of her family. How did you know that?”

“It says it in the book. I ain’t no dummy, Mr. Kelly!”

“And you ain’t gotta be salty about it!” The class erupted in laughter. “I was giving you props.”

“Let me tell you something,” I continued. I switched from teacherspeak to ‘real talk’ as I circulated the room, high up on my imaginary pulpit. “There’s no secret to being smart. Smart is knowing how to use your resources. Like your book, which defines some of those old-sounding words that make Shakespeare seem hard. You think I know what all those words mean? No. I just know what tools are available to me and how to use them. Wherefore sounds like where. But language changes. Words change. Take Slang. Does anyone here say phat anymore? No. You’ll sound like a…” I paused for dramatic effect. “A biscuit head.” Laughter. It was probably most effective tactic as a teacher. Not irony or oxymoron or critical thinking questions. Self-deprecation.

***

3.5
An apartment in Irvine, California

Early on in Shakespeare Confidential, before we moved to Dublin, my wife suggested I read Romeo and Juliet so we could act out the balcony scene. Our apartment had a very tall loft overlooking the living room.

I had no mind to read Romeo and Juliet just yet, thinking it one of the more overhyped plays in his oeuvre. But I did agree to try the scene.

“Where’s your passion? Where’s your spontaneity? Where’s your sense of fun?”

I started with some spirit:

“‘But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? / It the east, and Juliet is the sun. / Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon…’” (2.1.44-46).

The crown of my wife’s head comically emerged up from the ledge when I got to [Enter JULIET aloft].

“‘O, that I were a glove upon that hand,
That I might touch that cheek!’” (2.1.66-67).

My enthusiasm was started to wane, but my wife had no problem dusting off her drama chops from high school.

“‘O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?…
What’s in a name? That we which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet.’” (2.1.74-86).

She delivered it in artful diction.

“Ah, this is so corny,” I broke in, polishing off my bourbon.

“That’s not your line!” She drained the last of her gin and tonic.

“You don’t think Shakespeare actually wanted us to take seriously alls this flowery sweet talk from two teenagers, do you?”

“Where’s your passion? Where’s your spontaneity? Where’s your sense of fun?”

“But,  but…”

***

4.4
Terminal 2, Los Angeles International Airport

Over a grande black coffee outside the gate, where my wife and I waited for her sister and then-boyfriend to land, I finished the final act of Romeo and Juliet.

Closing the book with a sigh, I looked over at the Starbucks line. Everyone in line was Hispanic. Baristas called for “Double mocha frappuccino” as customers presented smartphones for payment. Families chatted, stared at cellphones, or paced restlessly with their coffee drinks. Loved ones would emerge. Hugs. Cheers. One man went in for a kiss to the women he was greeting. She playfully thwarted it and grabbed the frothy pink drink out of his hand. She made a joke in Spanish. He laughed. They embraced.

This is America, I thought. This is love.

“I finished Romeo and Juliet,” I told my wife, who was watching Netflix on LAX WiFi, her phone charging in one of the few remaining sockets.

“Nice!” She gave me a solid high-five.

Last year around this time, I caused a fight that almost pushed our marriage over the edge. The very fight that, in some ways, lead to me reading all this Shakespeare in the first place. 

“You remember that old couple we saw at Marks and Spencer’s?” We were at the department before we flew home because her father – part humorously, part tortuously, and mostly seriously – had asked for some silk boxers for Christmas.

“Oh, with the elderly man who asked his wife, ‘Honey, do I like boxers or briefs’? and then she had to show him how to shop for underwear?”

***

2.6
A classroom in Cincinnati, Ohio

In one short semester, I wasn’t going to get my students’ reading levels up to tackle the text of Romeo and Juliet on their own. But that didn’t mean they couldn’t appreciate Shakespeare. Far from it. Let’s not forget Shakespeare wasn’t meant to be read.

It was simple. They liked the story.

The students followed along a version of the text in those bulky, grade-level literature textbooks (remember those?) as we listened to an audio play. Then, dutifully, we watched Leonard DiCaprio and Claire Danes in Baz Luhrmann’s surprise 1996 hit Romeo + Juliet. Anymore, watching that film in the ninth-grade is as much a rite of passage as actually reading the play.

“He look so young!” one girl shrieked at DiCaprio. 

Broadsword. That’s tight!” a boy noted of the Luhrmann’s substitution of guns for swords.

No pontificating here. The students watched the movie raptly. Attendance was higher on those days, I noted.

It was simple. They liked the story.

***

3.6
Outside Capulet’s house

ROMEO. Lady, by yonder blessed moon I vow,
That tips with silver all these fruit-tree tops–

JULIET. O swear not by the moon, th’inconstant moon
That monthly changes in her circled orb,
Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.

ROMEO. What shall I swear by?

JULIET. Do not swear at all,
Or if thou wilt, swear by thy gracious self,
Which is the god of my idolatry,
And I’ll believe thee.

ROMEO. If my heart’s dear love–

JULIET. Well, do not swear. (2.1.149-58)

***

3.0
CHORUS

Friar Laurence objects to Romeo and Juliet’s hasty matrimony, but, come to think of it, he still marries them.

***

1.2
Somewhere outside Verona

As luck would have it, I had my first kiss a few days after I touched Juliet’s breast. With a high-schooler. At the end of trip, we exchanged wistful goodbye notes. I’m almost certain that, somewhere in my sappy, pretentious, and callow valediction, I included Juliet’s famous farewell: “Parting is such sweet sorrow…” (2.1.229).

Good Lord. But it’s true. Everyone has a story about Romeo and Juliet. It’s simple: We like the story.

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…

Harrumphing Hellenes and house-hunters: Troilus and Cressida

Being a grownup? It’s easier to be a liberal Buddhist nihilist.

Me, shouting from upstairs to my wife in the kitchen: “Because African leopards are going extinct! Because facts are going extinct! Because, because…bullshit!”

Thersites, railing against Patroclus: “The common curse of mankind, folly and ignorance, be thine in great revenue!” (2.3.23-24).

Me, venting into the iPhone: “What’s the point? What’s the point? Money is a fetish. Things fall apart. Entropy. We’re all gonna die!”

Thersites, still railing against Patroclus: “Thou idle immaterial skein of sleave-silk, thou green sarsenet flap for a sore eye, thou tassel of a prodigal’s purse, thou! Ah, how the poor world is pestered with such waterflies! Diminutives of nature.” (5.1.25-28)

Me, rage-whispering to my wife during a tour: “The extra room for a yoga studio? Ludicrous! Absurd! Stupid!” I extended my arms in a broad sweep and looked up, as if indicating the universe, the totality of all that is and ever was. “It’s all stupid!” 

Thersites, quarreling with Ajax: “The plague of Greece upon thee, thou mongrel beef-witted lord!” (2.1.11-12).

If you haven’t guessed already, my wife and I have been house-hunting. Which is to say my wife has been house-hunting, and I’ve been coming to terms with it. Slowly. Bitterly. And with a philosophical vehemence I can’t help but recognize in Thersites, a Greek soldier who lambastes his fellow fighters with his crass-tongued cynicism in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida.

***

Troilus and Cressida is a challenging play. Indeed, some scholars have actually called it one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays.” These – including All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure, as well as Timon of Athens and The Merchant of Venice on some lists – are part-comic and part-tragic, leaving the reader without any real sense of thematic resolution at their close. In other words, as I said when I finished the play, “What the hell was that?”

The play takes place during the Trojan War. Troilus is madly in love with a fellow Trojan, Cressida, who gets traded to the Greeks in exchange for a captured soldier. The two pledge their fidelity to each other when she’s handed over, but, after later eavesdropping on her in the Greek camp, Troilus comes to believe Cressida has taken a new lover.

Aside: It’s not exactly clear what she does, but let’s be clear: 1) Cressida’s in enemy territory, so flirtatious appeasement may be a form of self-defense; 2) she was bartered by men like some object, so why should she keep any pledge? and 3) after they have sex, Troilus pulls away, just as she feared, like a dude who sneaks out of a girl’s apartment, leaving no note or number, before she wakes up on Saturday after a magical night on the town, in spite of all his talk about wanting “a deep and meaningful connection.” So, deal with it, Troilus.

But most of the action centers on the Greeks trying to get a too-proud Achilles out of his tent to fight, featuring to this end some very long, dense, and elaborate speeches from Ulysses about hierarchy and social order. (I jotted, brilliantly, in my margins at one point: “Difficult speeches.”) Ulysses tries to goad Achilles to action by glorifying the ox-dumb Ajax, but it’s the death of Patroclus, his comrade and likely lover, that spurs him back onto the field, where he kills, ignobly, the great Trojan warrior, Hector. The Trojans learn of their devastating loss, Troilus rallies to avenge Cressida’s apparent betrayal with Greek blood, and the play ends. Opaquely, like some modern novel or film.

And throughout all this, we have Thersites issuing his unsolicited criticisms like a snarling Greek chorus.

***

Thersites and I have a lot of differences, of course. For one thing, he’s a soldier in the ninth year of the Trojan War. I’m just pushing back against home ownership. (No easy marriage jokes here: I’ve only been married for two years. Rimshot. Dublin’s housing market is like a battlefield, however.) For another, Thersites vents his vexation through many more personal insults than I do, although my wife would surely disagree.

And yet the harrumphing Hellene and I do have a lot in common. We both speak our mind, even when we should bite our tongues. We both approach situations with negativity and pessimism. And neither of us is an immediate actor in the plot. Thersites doesn’t take up his sword in the fray, only his snark from the peanut gallery. I’m not finding the properties, setting up viewings, talking to agents, or calculating expenses. I need a coffee and a sweet just to lure me to a viewing.

But whenever my wife texts me a link to a property online or phones me up to say a new viewing window of a house has opened, I leap immediately to a strange and volatile mix of cynicism and alarmism about the world.

But where I feel most kindred to Thersites is the nature of our objections. Our complaints, ultimately, take a broader, more universal view. Thersites exposes the deeper follies of the Greek model of heroism and masculinity. I lay bare the delusions of bourgeois materialism, of capitalist teleology.

OK, these are very generous readings of our general petulance.

See, I don’t object to homeownership as a matter of cost or  on the grounds of middle-aged striving and settling. But whenever my wife texts me a link to a property online or phones me up to say a new viewing window of a house has opened, I leap immediately to aa strange and volatile mix of cynicism and alarmism about the world – about climate change, about our slaughter of wildlife, about our political and social failure to address poverty and oppression and inequality, about the burden of things, about the transience of all things, about mortality, about man’s puny place in the cosmos.

Why buy a house? I think. Our renovations are only going to add carbon to the atmosphere in one way or another. Why buy a house? Donald Trump won the presidency – we must do all we can to fight back! Why buy a house? You know, one day the sun will burn out. I’m not claiming it’s logical, but in my strange Buddhist social justice nihilism, buying a house makes me exclaim, like Thersites: “Lechery, lechery, still wars and lechery! Nothing else holds fashion” (5.2.193-94).

***

Of course, there are two sides to the conversation.

Me: “The extra room for a yoga studio? Ludicrous. Absurd. Stupid.”

My wife, exasperated: “You’re being an asshole. Good Lord, let a woman daydream.”

Me: “Because African leopards are going extinct! Because facts are going extinct! Because, because…bullshit!”

My wife, shouting back: “You act like your life is so hard. You get to spend your days doing something you’re passionate about. If you care so much about leopards, do something about it.”

It’s easier to hide behind ontological abstractions and ethical high-horses, I admitted to myself.

Me: “What’s the point? What’s the point? Money is a fetish. Things fall apart. Entropy. We’re all gonna die!”

My wife, explaining herself for the final time: “Because I work really freakin’ hard and just want a place I can come home to at the end of the day and feel like myself.”

It sinks in. Slowly. Bitterly. “I know, I know, I know, I know, I know. You deserve that.”

“Then why do you act like the world’s on fire?”

“Because homeownership is just so…adult.”

It’s easier to hide behind ontological abstractions and ethical high-horses, I admitted to myself.

“I do like your ideas about herringbone tiles in the kitchen,” I continued. “And the place does have lovely old sash windows.”

I was met with a suspicious silence.

***

There were two sides to Thersites’ conversations, too. After Hector surprises Thersites on the battlefield, he asks whether he should kill him: “What are thou, Greek? Art thou for Hector’s match? Art thou of blood and honour?”

Thersites: “No, no, I am a rascal, a scurvy railing knave, a very filthy rogue.”

Hector: “I do believe thee: live.”

Thersites: “God-a-mercy, that thou wilt believe me – [Exit Hector] but a plague break thy neck for frighting me.” (5.4.22-28)

The Merchant, er, Mooch, of Venice

The quality of mercy is not strained – but it shouldn’t be taken for granted.

“I will do anything, Nerissa, ere I will be married to a sponge,” Portia tells her personal assistant early on in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (1.2.83). This sponge is one of her suitors, a heavy-drinking German. But she does end up marrying a sponge, Bassanio. He’s just a different sort of sponge. The mooch kind. The bum kind.

Consider this Bassanio. He asks his buddy Antonio for money to help him compete against her richer, princelier wooers. Antonio has to borrow it from Shylock three thousand ducats to be repaid in three months on forfeit of the famed pound of flesh – and thinks he’s good for it, what with all the merchandise he has out at sea.

Bassanio goes off for Portia. To win her hand in marriage, as Portia’s father so stipulated, he has to choose among a gold, silver, and lead chest, “whereof who chooses his meaning chooses you,” as Nerissa explains (1.2.26-27). He chooses lead, as the “world is still deceived with ornament” (3.2.74), and chooses correctly. Lovely. Let’s give you that one, Bassanio.

But just as they’re about to be married, they hear word that Antonio’s ships are wrecked and that Shylock (depicted, I must note, with a hotly debated antisemitism) is demanding his retribution. Yeah, Bassanio didn’t let Portia in on any of that before. Class act, man. And your best friend is about to die so you can get the girl you wanted.

Not that I’m one to talk.

***

A few leftover crusts littered our plates. Empty pints, wine glasses, and cocktail tumblers crowded the table. The wives left for the facilities before we headed to a pub across the street to continue the craic. The husbands – plus my father and brother, for whose visit I organized this gathering with our friends at a trendy pizza place in Dublin – split the bill, couples covering couples. I grabbed the AmEx. My wife’s. Out of her purse. Without asking. For a dinner I set up.

I bring in a little money freelancing, usually covering (most) groceries, dog food, pints when I’m on the town, and occasionally some nicer meals out every now again. Notice what’s not covered: rent, utilities, travel. Her job provides my health insurance. Savings. All the big stuff. She makes huge sacrifices so that I can give this whole privileged writing thing a go. And she makes these sacrifices – and she never complains about it.

I’m not quite what explains this urge, to do something nice, out of a genuine desire, and yet rust the gesture with mercenary grouses.

It’s just that meals like these wipe me out. It’s not that we can’t afford it per se. It’s that I can’t afford it. Which is precisely the problem. Not the money. The I. She picks up these sorts of tabs all the time. For us.

And whenever I do pay for bigger stuff, I can’t help but make some sort of comment about it. Like her 30th birthday present, back when I was working full-time. She had set a goal to visit all 50 states before she turned 30. Alaska was her last, so we organized some family together to do a cruise. “It’s not a gift when you tell me how much you had to spend,” I remember her explaining when I was booking.

I’m not quite sure what explains this urge, to do something nice, out of a genuine desire, and yet rust the gesture with mercenary grouses. Maybe that word privileged is the key. I’ve had a privileged life, so it’s not like parting with money represents some affront to hardscrabble frugality. Perhaps it’s some baked-in entitlement – my upper middle-classness, my maleness, my whiteness, my private education, making me a kind of reverse Invisible Man, invisible to himself, who gets to enjoy the taken-for-granted ease of never being forced to confront his identity, as his identity is enmeshed with the covert fabric of power and normativity, and yet who is outraged by the slightest jostling of his hegemonic comfort. Or maybe I’m just a selfish cheapskate.

***

How does Portia respond to Bassanio’s revelation? An all-out blitz – of unconditional generosity, big-heartedness, selflessness.

Pay him six thousand and deface the bond.
Double six thousand, and then treble that,
Before a friend of this description
Shall lose a hair thorough Bassanio’s fault.
First go with me to church and call me wife,
And then away to Venice to your friend;
For never shall you lie by Portia’s side
With an unquiet soul. You shall have gold
To pay the petty debt twenty times over. (3.2.298-306)

Then, unbeknownst to Bassanio, Portia disguises herself as a doctor of law and goes to Venice to badass a victory for Antonio in court: “This bond doth give thee no jot of blood. / The words expressly are ‘a pound of flesh’.” (4.1.301-02). Generous, loving, and smart as hell.

“The quality of mercy is not strained,” Portia famously monologues as she tries to convince Shylock to back off from revenging Antonio (4.1.179). Same, too, for generosity. For doing things for other people because you support them, love them, believe in them.

This is what kills me about Portia: It’s how instantly she comes to the aid of her husband’s friend.

It’s not strained, it’s not forced. This is what kills me about Portia: It’s how instantly, how without question or qualification, without complaint or self-consideration, she comes to the aid of her husband’s friend, because she supports them, loves them, believes in them. And she doesn’t even need credit, praise, recognition for it. This is what kills me about my wife.

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes. (179-82)

Make that her that gives, and him that takes.

***

Of course, as a token of thanks, Bassanio gives Portia-cum-lawyer (who is cleverly testing him) the special ring Portia gave him – “when this ring / Parts from this finger, then parts life from hence” (3.2.183-84). His excuse? “I was beset with shame and courtesy. / My honour would not let ingratitude / So much besmear it” (5.1.216-18). And then the promises: “Pardon this fault, and by my soul I swear / I never more will break an oath with thee” (246-48). Classic. And here’s the kicker. “Were you the doctor and I knew you not?” Bassanio asks Portia (5.1.279). Bassanio, Bassanio, Bassanio. Even I know better.

***

As we left the restaurant, the rain started lashing. The group sprinted across the street in a gap in the traffic. My wife and I waited under the awning of the restaurant until the cars let up. She was silent, expressionless, which meant she was pissed.

“It’s that I didn’t ask,” I said, offering up no Bassanio-esque self-defenses, feeling a due, childlike embarrassment and shame. The quality of mercy, of generosity, is not strained, but it should never be taken for granted.

What do they see in us, these Portias?

An opening appeared. She ran through the rain across the street. And I ran after. 

That merry wanderer of my life: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Shakespeare’s got game.

I recently read that A Midsummer Night’s Dream – with the mischief its fairies wreak on the young lovers and the play the bumbling workmen stage for the newlywed duke and duchess – is currently the most performed of Shakespeare’s plays. This makes sense: Its language is accessible, its plot lends itself well to adaptation, its emotions and comedy are relatable, and its length, well, runs pretty short for the Bard.

We should not underestimate the power of shortness. We should never underestimate that the power of shortness.

To the article’s point, my wife and I caught a production of it just this weekend in Dublin. It was a fun show, and it pulled off all the liberties it took with the text, what with its opening standup act, a live-band, a riotous food fight, and even a bit of acrobatics. From page to stage, A Midsummer Night’s Dream indeed has a magic all its own – a magic, I  have realized since, that has quite literally charmed my life.

“I am the merry wanderer of the night,” Robin Goodfellow introduces himself, chief mischief-making puck of Oberon, King of the Fairies (2.1.43). Merry wanderer, too, A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been throughout my years, spiriting itself forth in ways big and small throughout my years.

*** 

This lantern doth the horned moon present.
Myself the man i’th’ moon do seem to be.
– Starveling, 5.1.235-36

Mrs. Wagner – whose laughter at the opening puns in Julius Caesar first awakened a sense of Shakespeare in me – divided our class into small groups and assigned each a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Several of us, including my own, were to stage passages from the play within the play, The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe. In my group, I was cast as Starveling the Tailor – ironically enough, for I was quite the chubby middle-schooler and always managed to have a little mustard or jelly stain on my ill-fitting school uniform.

For rehearsal, we would meet at Greg’s house, tucked away in the sleepy, leafy streets of Hyde Park. It’s funny, I catch his updates on Facebook from time to time now. He lives in Sacramento, enjoys hockey and sports cars, and works in tech. I remember his family had moved to Cincinnati from San Diego, his dad courted that way to serve as City Manager. This lent them, even my unsophisticated fifth-grade brain understood, an aura, with San Diego looming exotic and otherworldly in my imagination.

Greg’s mother was so nice, always wearing a warm smile, never bothered that my mother or father, depending on whose house I was staying at that week, had to pick me up later than the rest of my peers. She would prepare us snacks and bring them down to the basement, where we plotted our pratfalls in costumes expertly sewed by another group-mate’s mother. Snug’s Lion, I recall, had a shaggy mane of gold and orange and brown yarn, ears rounded out of felt.

I suspect my chubbiness, now that I look back on it, was the real humor of my voice work.

In Pyramus and Thisbe, Starveling doubles as Moonshine. Like Starveling, I also used a lantern for my performance. It was a red lantern, a real one, too. I had acquired it as some sort of souvenir, I think, during one of those summers my father took my brothers and me and sometimes our friends hiking in the Smoky Mountains. Once, I had tried to light the lantern, as we did the lanterns in those chilly cabins we stayed in atop Mount Le Conte, warmed by alpaca blankets and hot chocolate. I filled my lantern with lighter fluid but ended up getting it all over my clothes and the carpet, which later got me in some trouble. The wick never caught the flame, its rope bearing that charred scar until one day it ended up at a thrift-shop, I have to imagine, after my dad moved again.

To heighten Starveling’s comic incompetence, I used this voice gag my classmates thought was hilarious, at least if its popularly in the fourth grade was any measure. It was a strange blend of Fat Albert, Pee-wee Herman, and Kermit the Frog. I suspect my chubbiness, now that I look back on it, was the real humor of my voice work. Not so for Ms. Pater, who was seated front and center during our first performance.

Mrs. Wagner had invited parents, of course, for our theatrical debuts, as well as other classes, much to our humiliation when the junior high-schoolers came down from the top floors of the school and squatted down like giants on our desk chairs. Ms. Pater taught sixth, seventh, and eighth-grade science. No other teacher inspired as much lore – and fear – as her. She was a full woman, shall we say. Her breasts would smother the elementary kids when she forced hugs out of them. Her voice drowned out the organ when she bellowed hymns at mass. A year later, when I had her for class, she got basic facts wrong in lessons  – “Uh, it says right here in the textbook, Ms. Pater, that worms have five hearts,” I remember a student, who wasn’t even one of the know-it-alls like me, corrected her. She’d lose assignments and penalize students for it. She’d test information we hadn’t yet covered. One of Ms. Pater’s desk drawer was filled with her own snacks, and, when they ran low, she’d send a student down to a corner shop just past the playground for some fresh Twinkies. One time, she even got stuck in her roller chair and, trying to squirm out, fell back on the floor. Students had to help her up and out. “I don’t have to like you,” was her darkly Catholic motto, “but as a Christian, I have to love you.”

Ms. Pater was the most intimidating critic to have seated front and center. And when my lines came, I stood up on a chair, held out my lantern, and honked in my goofy fat-kid voice: “I am the moon.” (Our script was adapted, of course, for our still-developing brains.)

“We can’t understand you,” she coldly interjected, as if playing a meaner Theseus, the newlywed  Duke of Athens, who comments on his wedding-night entertainment. Her arms were resting atop her bosom, her eyes shot out like daggers from behind her glasses. That was the end of my goofy fat-kid voice.

***

My Oberon, what visions have I seen!
Methought I was enamoured of an ass.
– Titania, 4.1.73-74

The blue Previa pulled up to the curb. “Have fun, kids! I’ll pick you up 15 minutes after the movie’s out. Remember, Kelly, 15 minutes.” We piled out of the car and raced inside towards the cinemas at the Kenwood Town Center. We weren’t late for the movie. We, in the gangly agony of pubescent self-consciousness, just didn’t want any older kids to see that we had to be dropped off at the mall.

I can’t remember who else was there, but I was there with Kelly. (Facebook: wife, mother, home-owner, educator. God, our youth can seem as if it was a dream.) We were trying out one of those junior high romances that materialize – and just as quickly vanish – out of pure curiosity and callow experimentation in the world of adult amatory relationships. The crux of our connection, from what I can recall, was the imagined hilarity of our matrimony: “Can you believe, if we got married, your name would be, like, Kelly Kelly?!”

I went for it: I reached out and placed my arm around her shoulders.

Our group date was the 1999 film adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the one with Kevin Kline as Bottom. Thanks to Baz Luhrman’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet, Shakespeare enjoyed some popularity among certain 90s youth.  And it was during this screening I made my first ever “move” on a girl.

Early in the movie, but not too early, as I slickly strategized, I went for it: I reached out and placed my arm around her shoulders. No yawn-stretch maneuver for this guy. Then I tried to decipher her reaction. She didn’t push my arm off. That was good. She didn’t shift in her seat or lean away. That was also good. And maybe, I couldn’t quite tell, just maybe she even snuggled in ever so slightly. Very, very good.

The film itself had little impact on me. I can only conjure up swaths of mossy green, gossamer pink, and Kevin Kline’s eye makeup. But next Monday at school I followed up with Kelly’s best friend. “She said she likes you,” the friend divulged. “But her neck was a little stiff.”

“What do you mean?”

“She said it was really sweet you put your arm around her, but you left it there for the entire movie.”

***

Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind.
– Helena, 1.2.234

She didn’t just quote a few lines. She recited the whole damned thing. The whole damned thing.

My friend had to leave at this point. Over the music, he mouthed and gestured something about needing to take his dog out, but I knew the noise, crowd, and skinny jeans weren’t his thing. Plus, he wasn’t really hitting it off with any of the girls we were talking to.

He and I met around the corner at Neon’s, where we had met to celebrate his new job and where we randomly ended up having a round of shots with this group of girls at the adjacent table. One of them shouted over the jukebox that they were heading out to the next bar. This was our window.

Well, not really my window. I had been in and out of some short flings and hook-ups, coming off a series of longterm relationships before that. I was enjoying being single. I was in the thick of grad school. My friends, my brothers, encouraged me to enjoy being single. I just wanted to play wingman. “This is what you do, man. You follow after, but cool-like. I’ll buy you a whiskey.”

“It’s Latin. It means ‘but with the mind.’ It’s uh, it’s a long story.”

I was enjoying that whiskey. I was enjoying my conversation with her – the one who coyly invited us to come along but whose name I had already forgotten at this point. So I stayed. I ordered another whiskey.

A chat about work lead to a chat about books. I was training to be an English teacher, after all, at the time. I offered up that I was re-reading Macbeth in my free time. (Oh, I’ve got all the moves.) And she offered up Helena’s entire monologue – the entire monologue, mind you, without missing a single beat – after the lovers Hermia and Lysander reveal their plans to elope:

How happy some o’er other some can be!
Through Athens I am thought as fair as she.
But what of that? Demetrius thinks not so.
He will not know what all but he do know.
And as he errs, doting on Hermia’s eyes,
So I, admiring his qualities.
Things base and vile, holding no quantity,
Love can transpose to form and dignity.
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.
Nor hath love’s mind of any judgement taste;
Wings and no eyes figure unheedy haste.
And therefore is love said to be a child
Because in choice he is so oft beguiled.
As waggish boys in game themselves forswear,
So the boy Love is perjured everywhere.
For ere Demetrius looked on Hermia’s eyne
He hailed down oaths that he was only mine,
And when this hail some heat from Hermia felt
So he dissolved, and showers of oaths did melt.
I will go tell him of fair Hermia’s flight. 
Then to the wood will he tomorrow night
Pursue her, and for this intelligence
If I have thanks it is a dear expense.
But herein mean I to enrich my pain,
To have his sight thither and back again. (1.2.226-251)

Two and half years later, I handed the man the slip of paper. On it, I had written sed animo. “What does that mean?” he asked. 

“It’s Latin. It means ‘but with the mind.’ It’s uh, it’s a long story.”

I’m not sure why, exactly, I felt compelled to translate it, but the jeweler said it was much easier to engrave, being shorter, on the wedding band.

***

“The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact,” Jonathan Bate quoted Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (5.1.7-8). Bate, the eminent professor and Oxford provost, was lecturing on “The Magic of Shakespeare” at the Bodleian Libraries. The lecture, as luck had it, came but a few days after my wife and I had began our move to Dublin, staying, as we were, in Oxford until our Irish visas came through. 

Bate argued that Shakespeare viewed poetry as a kind of seduction, “a conjunction of eros and magic.” Both love and verse, he said, have a power to grip our minds, to change our mental states, like magic. During his lecture, I didn’t recall all the ways A Midsummer Night’s Dream cast its spell on my life. Nor, really, after I quickly read the play before the Dublin performance.

But as I stood in ovation to the actors, so far away in time and place and imagination from my chubby fifth-grade self, I realized how right Bate was: No play is quite so enchanting, and originally so, as A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Through the pint glass: All’s Well That Ends Well

“Our rash faults make trivial price of serious things we have.”

Of course, I decided to pick a fight the last night he was in town.

My brother and I were at John Morrissey’s, a divey local not even a block from my house. It serves the cheapest Guinness I’ve yet found in Dublin. He’d been in town with my father over the past week, and had to leave for the airport at a head-throbbing 6:30 the next morning. We’d already been drinking the better part of the day – Guinness, whiskey, wine, more wine, dessert wine, Guinness, Guinness, whiskey – so, naturally, we were capping off the day, the visit, with a final drink.

With my first sip, I drained a few inches from my pint and then, out of that unquenchable compulsion for fraternal criticism, fired off my complaints. He was “disengaged” for much of the trip, I charged. Uncharacteristically quiet, sometimes bored-seeming, preoccupied with petty annoyances, grumpy, capturing moment without ever being in the them. “This time is so valuable. This time is precious. I don’t get to see you but twice a year. This time is special,” I preached. 

He fired back that many of my efforts were “forced” and “fake.” The small talk I made when the three of us fell silent during many moments in the trip. The random questions I asked about jobs, girlfriends, interests. “Why can’t we just not talk sometimes? We talk on the phone all the time. So what if there’s nothing new to say?” He disappeared several black ounces of his own, wiped away the foamy mustache, and added, “Why do you think you’re so much better than me?”

The barman came by. My brother signaled for another round.

I can be such a Bertram.

***

In Shakespeare’s comedy All’s Well That Ends Well, lowly, orphaned Helen is secretly in love with Bertram, the young Count of Roussillon who, having just lost his father, becomes a ward of the King of France. The King is deathly ill, and Helen is in possession of a powerful remedy left to her by her father. After she convinces him to administer the medicine, the King offers Helen a reward of her choosing. She chooses Bertram in marriage.

Everybody loves Helen – she is “all that is virtuous” (2.3.118) – except for her future husband. Here’s Bertram’s oh-so-gracious response when he learns that the King promised his hand to her:

…I know her well:
She had her breeding at my father’s charge.
A poor physician’s daughter, my wife? Disdain
Rather corrupt me forever. (2.3.109-112).

“Proud, scornful boy, unworthy this good gift,” the King rejoins. “Check thy contempt” (2.3.147-53).  Bertram gives agreement to the marriage only to run off to fight (and have his fun) in some Tuscan wars.

Over there, he tries to woo a woman, Diana, but Helen, ever the enterprising heroine, manages to track them all down and pull off the old “bed trick”: Bertram thinks he sleeps with Diana, but he can’t tell it’s actually Helen in the dark. Helen also executes some crafty ring exchanges, which become tell-tale signs of his dishonesty when Bertram returns to the French court. Bertram, caught and suddenly transformed, pledges to “love her dearly, ever ever dearly,” his now pregnant wife (5.3.313).

Though the modern woman may have long since ditched the somehow speedily redeemed Bertram, Helen does get the last word. She delivers an ultimatum: “If it appear not plain,” she says of Bertram’s vow, “and prove untrue, / Deadly divorce step between me and you” (5.3.314-15).

***

Gender, class, sex, love, marriage, character – All’s Well That Ends Well, as we are accustomed from the Bard, trades in big, complex themes. One leaves this play struggling to reconcile Helen’s steadfast commitment to a dirtbag. But one leaves it, too, admiring her, ever ambitious, clever, persuasive, and effective, judged by her inner virtue, not her social station. Except by that blasted ingrate, Bertram. And we should remember Helen was an un-titled, un-moneyed orphan who used her brains and tenacity to – forget love – land her a Count and a dowry from the King. Why, we might even Helen really leaned in.

Intermixed in All’s Well is some terrific comedy, too. Word nerd that I am, I have to share one subplot: Some French lords trick Paroles, Bertram’s all-talk buddy, to expose him for the coward and liar he is. Their plot involves a fake ransom, and the lords decide to speak in a gibberish to disorient a captured Paroles. Shakespeare’s made-up words here are simply delightful and give us a fascinating insight into his linguistic imagination: “Oscorbidulchos volvicoro” (4.1.74) and “Boblinbindo chicurmurcho” (4.3.122), as one lord utters. These are incredible, fanciful specimens from the man whose actual words are a bible and dictionary for the English language. What was his thought process when he created this verbiage?

All’s Well That Ends Well’s messages have really lingered with me. It’s probably because I see too much of myself in Bertram’s pride and scorn.

And then we have the moralizing. Usually, any shade of lesson-mongering leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, but some of All’s Well messages have, well, really lingered with me. It’s probably because I see too much of myself in Bertram’s pride and scorn. Here are a few examples:

Before Bertram’s widowed mother sends him off to the King, she offers up some really solid life advice:

…Love all, trust a few,
Do wrong to none. Be able for thine enemy
Rather in power than use, and keep thy friend
Under thy own life’s key. Be checked for silence
But never taxed for speech. (1.1.57-61)

Later, as he rebukes Bertram for his repugnant snubbing of Helen, the King waxes moral on the nature of honor: “…honours thrive / When rather from our acts we them derive / Than our foregoers” (2.3.131-33). 

The King again speaks some truth after Bertram returns from the war. This is before the King learns of Bertram’s lies. At this point, the King thinks Helen has died and, now a widower, Bertram has married Diana, which the King forgives. (Yeah, Bertram was real class.) Plot aside, the King’s remarks at this point are quite moving:

…Our rash faults
Make trivial price of serious things we have,
Not knowing them until we know their grave.
Oft our displeasures, to ourselves unjust,
Destroy our friends and after weep their dust.
Our own love waking cries to see what’s done,
While shameful hate sleeps out the afternoon. (5.3.61-67)

Words of wisdom sound so much wiser when they are dressed up by Shakespeare, don’t they? It certainly doesn’t hurt that they are not coming from own mothers and fathers. From our own older brothers.

***

We waited for the fresh pints to settle. My brother went to the bathroom, stepped outside, or, for all I can remember at that point, sat beside me on his barstool without talking. I didn’t check him for silence. I wasn’t taxed for speech.

I angled back to force the flat, sour sediment down, and, in the wan and sticky light of Morrissey’s late-night pub, it glowed nobly with a faint ruby red.

I swayed and swerved in a drunkenness, a tiredness, a sadness for endings and farewells that sits in the stomach, heavy, dark, and lukewarm like the dregs of a Guinness, the foamy residue of little, niggling regrets sticking to the walls of my head, layer after layer until it sinks down in its frothy bottom. Our rash faults make trivial price of serious things we have. Where do these expectations come from? Proud, scornful boy. This posturing, this sanctimony? “Why do you think you’re so much better than me?” Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none. This judgment, this passive-aggressive shaming? Oft our displeasures, to ourselves unjust, destroy our friends and after weep their dust. To be blind to, to choose to be blind to, all the good that’s before us while yet chiding them for the same, knowing well later it will only issue remorse, apology? “Why do you think you’re so much better than me?” To make such effort for a free-flowing, self-unclouded authenticity and being-present-ness that can never be compelled? Honours thrive when rather from our acts we derive them. To dream up better-selves and sneer at how they fail to perform their imaginary parts and deliver their unassigned lines? In pursuit of some elsewhere here, some else-time now, orphaning the very longed-for present? Why do you think you’re so much better than me, callow, haughty Bertram, “thou dislik’st / Of virtue for the name” (2.3.119-120). 

I looked at my old pint glass. An inch of spit-spumed, muddy-colored sludge curdled at its butt. I certainly don’t think I’m better than these last, stale drops. I angled back to force the flat, sour sediment down, and, in the wan and sticky light of Morrissey’s late-night pub, it glowed nobly with a faint ruby red.

We moved on – and to our last pints, cool to the touch and creamy on the tongue. “All yet seems well; and if it end so meet, / The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet” (5.3.329-30).

On having nothing to say about Shakespeare, or Measure for Measure

Sometimes it’s Shakespeare that’s the background noise.

A mother and her son tore off chunks of sandwich bread and tossed them to pigeons. “We’ll go for sweets after. As a treat for coming with me,” she whispered.

Two ladies giggled when their tinnies of Guinness sharply hissed despite efforts to crack them discretely.

Limbs adjusted on picnic blankets. Spectators came and went. Overhead, helicopters chopped every now and again. A man chatted on a mobile phone. A father chided an unruly child.

The actors circled the garden, projecting their voices like echoey diameters. Sometimes nearer, sometimes farther. The audience laughed in waves, and seagulls matched. A soft flute and jingly guitar marked the scenes.

I loosely followed along, catching up in my text every dozen or so lines, sometimes repositioning myself towards the ever-shifting stage, sometimes closing my eyes as I rested my chin on my hands while I lie on my stomach.

Seated in the grass near me was an older man with his wife. He, too, was following along in a copy of the play he brought with him. He was smiling, perched on his elbow. I noticed he had the same wristwatch I had. Did he see me and imagine some younger self?   

It was an overcast Sunday afternoon. It was the last of a run of free performances in a round green enclosed by the old, gray walls of Dublin Castle. “Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure; / Like doth quit like, and measure still for measure,” the actor carefully articulated the Duke’s key lines near the close of the comedy (5.1.402-03).  We all tuned in, nodding, half-understanding.

It was Measure for Measure.

Weeks before I had read this comedy, centering, uncomically, on a Viennese Duke who feels the laws of his city have gone lax, so he makes an example of one, Claudio, by sentencing him to death for premarital sex. It has its jokes. It makes its points about austerity and mercy, about unjust judges.

The performance was fun, too. They didn’t cover every line. They didn’t need to. When out of scene, a few actors strolled among the reclining bodies. They posed for a picture or accepted a proffered chip, in character. The actors didn’t try to compete with all the stirring and squawking and distractions. They didn’t need to. 

It’s a good play. It was a pleasant performance. And I have absolutely nothing else to say about it.

Sometimes it’s Shakespeare that’s the background noise.