Taking apart selves (and shelves): The Comedy of Errors

I’ve been thinking a lot about how things are put together as I take them apart.

Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors is the IKEA EXPEDIT   – well, now the KALLAX – shelving unit of his plays.

You know the one, black-brown with the 5×5 cubbies you can get those drawer-like inserts for. Every millennial apartment has one, or its 4×2 cousin in the very least.

We got an EXPEDIT a few years back when my wife and I moved from Cincinnati, OH to Minneapolis, MN. I remember putting it together in the room – the “den,” I called it, or the “library,” as my wife insisted – at the back of the house we rented, whose doors opened up to a backyard our dog, Hugo, would never do his business in.

IKEA furniture, we all know, is, pardon my French, already a bitch to assemble, but this big boy was a straight-up motherfucker to put together. Somehow, I constructed the behemoth by my lonesome, nearly crushing my fingers when I muscled it upright from the floor.

After about year, the shelf moved with us from Minneapolis to Laguna Beach, CA, where it became a centerpiece of our living room, its particleboard faded by the sunlight, brackish air, and neighbor’s secondhand smoke that constantly washed in through our windows. We were nervous when the movers got the shelf up the stairs to our apartment; if the doorframe were any shorter, the shelf would have gone to the curb.

It moved with us, too, about a year-and-a-half later from Laguna Beach to Irvine, CA. (My wife’s worked has afforded us a series of relocations, you must be wondering at this point, including our next big one overseas.) The movers had to strap it up and heave it into our loft; the narrow, spiraling stairs up would in no way accommodate its girth. Worried it would snap under its own weight and damage our brand-new unit, I can still see it precariously dangling from the massive arms of our moving crew. They ended up having fun; my wife had to leave the room while they were doing it.

The EXPEDIT housed many books over the years, its shelves adorned with knickknacks and keepsakes we’ve collected from our travels, its broad top displaying pictures, canvases, diplomas, houseplants, dust.

But it won’t be moving with us to Dublin, Ireland. (Little will.) In fact, it didn’t even make it down our loft in one piece. After a couple of beers the other night – ok, deep into a six-pack – I picked its heavy, cumbersome bones apart.

EXPEDIT shelf.jpg
RIP, EXPEDIT. Photo by me.

***

I feel I redeemed myself with The Comedy of Errors. Much Ado About Nothing, you’ll recall, made me feel like the Hamlet of reading.

I read this early comedy this week because it’s short – the shortest of Shakespeare’s plays, in fact. My sister-in-law’s boyfriend was visiting from Portland for the weekend. We had a lot of beer to drink.

But I also wanted to get back on my reading schedule. A man has to have standards.

Many critics consider The Comedy of Errors less accomplished than his other plays, a sort of apprentice drama, exhibiting more so the development of his craft rather than the heights of it.

Well, critics be damned.

So, these parents have twin sons, both named Antipholus, served by twin bondmen born on the same day, both named Dromio, as it happens. Bad weather sunders the family, sailing home one day, in two. One Antipholus/Dromio end up in Ephesus, the other in Syracuse. Years later, the Syracusian pair (as well as the twins’ estranged father, Egeon, detained by some arcane commerce laws) find themselves in Ephesus. All identity hell – and hilarity – breaks loose as the servants confuse their masters, masters their servants, and various Ephesians, including the Ephesian Antipholus’ own wife, Adriana, the play’s central foursome. In the end, the truth outs: real identities are restored and the family is even reunited.

The play’s thematic doubleness dramatically destabilizes any sense of unity or integrity in our ideas of identity and self. As Adriana muses amid the play’s confusion:

…O how comes it
That thou art then estranged from thyself?–
Thy ‘self’ I call it, being strange to me
That, undividable, incorporate,
Am better than they dear self’s better part. (2.2.119-123)

The play, no doubt, challenges such an “undividable” self. It challenges the very idea of a self.

But the play can really hit you over the head with this theme. Not unlike, in fact, all of the hitting in the play.

Due to the all this confusion, the Dromios take a lot of abuse. It makes for some fun pratfalls and punning. “Am I so round with you as you with me, / That like a football you do spurn me thus?” Dromio of Ephesus asks of his master’s wife, Adriana, after a beating (12.1.81-82).

While the play may be a bit slapstick-y and heavy-handed, I still think it’s a real hoot.

There’s a point in the play, for instance, when Dromio of Syracuse is suddenly wedded off to Nell (I don’t know how that works, but hey), a kitchen-maid he despairingly describes as a “wondrous fat marriage” (3.2.92).

I hesitate to laugh at appearance-based insults, but Dromio’s ensuing description of Nell is just really funny. They read like early “yo’ mamma’s so fat” or “ugly” jokes. I won’t copy out the full text here (3.2.90-144), so here’s a highlight:

ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE What’s her name?

DROMIO OF SYRACUSE Nell, sir. But her name and three-quarters–that’s an ell [a yard] and three-quarters–will not measure her from hip to hip.

ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE Then she bears some breadth?

DROMIO OF SYRACUSE No longer from head to foot than from hip to hip. She is spherical, like a globe. I could find out countries in her.

ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE In what part of her body stands Ireland?

DROMIO OF SYRACUSE Marry, sir, in her buttocks. I found it out by the bogs.

ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE Where Scotland?

DROMIO OF SYRACUSE I found it by the barrenness, hard in the palm of her hand. (3.2.107-120)

Antipholus of Syracuse continues, asking Dromio where he finds (and ribs) various countries on Nell – including America, interestingly enough (and the Indies, whose jewels he likens to zits on her nose).

***

Sure, the EXPEDIT demanded a Herculean effort to build and move around, but, once constructed, once re-situated, the shelf just sort came part of our lives, receding into the texture of our everyday lives. Taken-for-granted, always there.

But the other night, when I started taking it apart, I came to appreciate its design. A top, bottom, two sides, four long planks in the middle, 16 square planks to create the cubbies, a whole bunch of those little pegs (that slip into the pre-made sockets with a mallet and many expletives), and 8 bigger screws Allen-wrenched into place.

But once you start taking the comedy apart, you start appreciating its craft and detail, its efficiency and modernity. The complexity belying its simplicity.

It’s not a lot of material, but it all holds together – and ingeniously. I can put it together, but I could never have designed it. (I could neither have put anything like The Comedy of Errors together nor have designed it, for the record.)

I unscrewed the bolts and pulled off the top and bottom. Some of the little pegs fell out on their own, many needed just a bit of tug, a lot (most) I simply broke off. I didn’t quite forget the effort it took the make the damn thing, but in ripping it apart, I no doubt appreciated it all over again.

The Comedy of Errors resembles this shelf for me, if you haven’t guessed my unwieldy metaphor so far. Like our EXPEDIT, the play’s easy to take for granted: Shakespeare’s themes of identity, self, relationships, social roles are big and bulky, especially when the dualities pound you over the head. But once you start taking the comedy apart, you start appreciating its craft and detail, its efficiency and modernity. The complexity belying its simplicity.

Shakespeare frequently has characters speaking in rhyming couplets, using his form to mirror his content and heighten his thematic twinning. The Ephesian Antipholus had a goldsmith fashion a fancy, expensive chain for his wife, which creates further confusion in the plot but also the perfect image to convey how interlinked the characters are – how interlinked all of ourselves, our selves, are.

Water metaphors run throughout the comedy, further illustrating the fluidity of self, as Antipholus remarks: “I to the world am like a drop of water / That in the ocean seeks another drop” (1.2.35-36). Shakespeare repeatedly likens reputations to their monetary credit, deepening – and complicating – ideas of identity, worth, value, and character.

And the whole experience of mistaken identity compels the Antipholus of Syracuse to question reality: “Am I in earth, in heaven, or in hell?  / Sleeping or waking? Mad or well-advised? / Known unto these, and to myself disguised!” (2.2.212-14). The Ephesians even try to perform an exorcism on the hometown Antipholus, as the townsfolk think he’s been possessed – a rather intense, if comically staged, image for the problems of individuality the play develops.

***

I know my metaphor’s overwrought. And I know its entire premise is, in fact, questionable, especially as I’m not yet 10 plays into the Bard’s oeuvre and am no Elizabethan drama expert. But, as we ready for our big move to Dublin, we’ve been selling and donating just about everything we own – it’s just amazing how much stuff, even when you’ve gone through several downsizes as we’ve done and am anal, anti-clutter, anti-crap, anti-possession like I am . So, I’ve been thinking a lot about how things are put together as I take them apart.

The Comedy of Errors may not be the sophisticated, hand-crafted, solid-wood antique that will furnish one’s more settled, adult home, but there’s something to be said about the the EXPEDIT.

Much Ado About Reading

Reading Shakespeare is hard.

I have fallen a bit behind in my reading schedule. I had planned on finishing my seventh play this year, Much Ado About Nothing, last Friday. I only just wrapped it up yesterday.

I could blame this on Costa Rica. My wife and I took a trip down to this luscious land last week. I could blame it, too, on moving to Ireland. We’ve got less than a month to sell just about everything we own and get over to Dublin, including our dog. We had friends in town, too. Plus, my mom and stepdad, who’ve been wintering in Southern California in their RV, are hitting the road again soon.

These are all valid reasons, I suppose, to take a few extra days to read this Shakespearean comedy, which many consider to be his best.

You could say I’m making, well, much ado about nothing. Travel, moving overseas, spending time with friends and family. Life’s rough, I know.

And none of this is to mention that my project is self-imposed. My deadlines are arbitrary. If I miss them, they don’t have real consequences.

Still, reading Shakespeare is hard.

Of course, Shakespeare’s words are challenging, as language and as literature. His plays, moreover, are meant for the stage; watching them aids enjoyment and understanding.

Each time I crack open a new play, I struggle to get started, as if in physical therapy, slowly, arduously moving one foot forward. Sometimes, I can find my stride and read a whole play in a few sittings, getting back that old muscle memory vitiated by the digital age. But other times, as with Much Ado, it’s a different story.

Yes, the “skirmish of wits” (1.1.61) between Benedick and Beatrice is the pinnacle of Shakespearean wordplay. The story – jealous of Claudio, who just defeated him in battle, Don John the Bastard schemes to thwart his marriage to Hero, while Don Pedro schemes to bring Benedick and Beatrice, doggedly opposed to marriage, together – is superbly crafted. The play’s thematic gender politics surrounding marriage, fidelity, and masculinity is still compelling and relevant 400 years later. As always, the Bard weaves a thick tapestry of language; I especially enjoyed the many ways he plays with the language of “horns,” a symbol of cuckoldry, a central anxiety of men in the play. And of course, the bumbling constable, Dogberry, is a legendary character.

But I have to be honest, I should probably just re-read Much Ado About Nothing.

***

Ahead of our move, I’ve been backing up old papers I’ve written, which prompted some reflections I recently shared.

I’ve also been sorting through old books, bidding farewell to lots of beloved texts I’ve read through my years, so many of them beat up with annotations, highlights, underlinings, dog-eared pages, creased bindings, the wear and tear of loving use. I’m still holding onto a good number (I’ll always keep my high school copy of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), but I tried to sell the rest. My writing isn’t bringing in any money after all. Just ask my wife.

This must be the first bookstore I’ve ever been to that hasn’t had a single copy of Shakespeare.

I hauled several crate-loads to a used bookstore. “We’ll call you in three hours and then make an offer,” the clerk let me know. Three hours? That sounded promising. That sounded like my trove will put them to work.

I don’t expect much from used books, especially paperbacks, in spite of the immense intellectual wealth they’ve brought me. “How much did you say again?” I asked the clerk when the bookstore called me back. “Twenty-two sixty-seven?”

$22.67.

That’s even not the rub, though. I wasn’t paying close attention when I signed the line that I agreed the bookstore would throw away – yes, throw away – the books it couldn’t sell.

I felt like Lady Macbeth, vainly washing her hands of blood for this horrible crime I committed.

They said something about store policy and stolen merchandise. I imagined a cop shows up and shouts, “Drop the book! Drop the book!” The guilty reader slowly lowers an 1818 edition of Shelley’s Frankenstein to the ground.

After accepting my blood money, I looked around the bookstore for a cheap, small copy of a Shakespeare play. I didn’t want to lug around my Norton Shakespeare in Costa Rica. It’s heavy and bulky. But, deep down, I knew I was asking myself, “Do you really think you’re going to read any Shakespeare on this trip?” Fie!

I took a couple of laps around the store. I finally spotted a small drama section. No more than 10 books, and no Shakespeare. I see Bloom’s The Invention of the Human, a seminal piece of literary criticism about Shakespeare. But no actual Shakespeare.

I suspected I was missing the Shakespeare section. I couldn’t think of a bookstore that doesn’t have a Shakespeare section. Even in non-English bookstores – in Istanbul or Bangkok, say – I’ve found Shakespeare sections. I even picked up copy of Hamlet in Spanish from a bookstore in downtown San José.

I went back to the clerk who handed me my $22.67. “Is there, um, like, a Shakespeare section in the store?” She pointed me back to those meager volumes of drama. “You’d find it there, if we have any.”

“If we have any.” This must be the first bookstore I’ve ever been to that hasn’t had a single copy of Shakespeare.

Except for the volume I just sold them. It was one of those Literary Classics complete works hardcovers designed less for reading and more for making it look like you’re a serious reader.  There was no way I was buying that back.

So, the night before we head to Costa Rica, my wife and I ran a couple of errands, including swinging by Barnes & Noble. The store, of course, has a nice section clearly marked “Shakespeare.” The section exists, no doubt, because we still assign Shakespeare in high school. Some will read Shakespeare in college, but you can get easily get a bachelor’s degree without cracking open a single play, I’m sure.

I can only remember that I had Shakespeare make a terrible joke whose punchline was “much ado about nothing.” And when Confucius said goodbye, the Bard said, “All’s well that end’s well.”

A whole shelf neatly displayed rows of No Fear Shakespeare as well as the Folger’s classic standbys.

I picked a Folger copy of Much Ado About Nothing. Why? Its titular nothing made me think of sloths. We really wanted to see some sloths in Costa Rica. And we did. Incredible. (Nothing, it turns, out, should have made me think of notes and vagina. The word was pronounced more like we might say noting today, working well with the play’s many musical, writing, gossiping, ad observational puns. It also served as Elizabethan slang for female genitalia; use your imagination.)

I knew the title well. We all do. Much Ado is headline fodder. I’ve taken advantage of it in this very piece. But I knew nothing about it other than it’s a comedy – and that I used it as a punchline in a creative writing assignment I did in fifth grade. In Mrs. Wagner’s class, the same class where I first remember reading Shakespeare.

I can’t remember the assignment’s point exactly, but, for some reason, I had Confucius meet Shakespeare at a park. They talked. For their dialogue, I looked up memorable quotes and titles of their works in books I checked out from our little school library and the old green- and cream-colored World Book Encyclopedia volumes I used to spend hours in at home – and used for research papers before the Internet changed everything.

I fashioned some sort of conversation out of my cursory findings. Mrs. Wagner loved it, I recall. I can only remember that I had Shakespeare make a terrible joke whose punchline was “much ado about nothing.” And when Confucius said goodbye, the Bard said, “All’s well that end’s well.”

The birth of a writer, my dear readers.

***

I love traveling, if our upcoming move to Dublin is any measure. My wife and I have had the privilege to travel quite a bit around the world.

We hadn’t been to Costa Rica, or Central America for that matter. We thought we’d check out its many greens (and blues) before heading over to the many greens (and grays) of the Emerald Isle.

I have no distractions, other than the wind, the clear night sky overhead, lots of beers, and leftover empanadas I got from the grocery store. Why can’t I read this?

And the more we travel, I realize, the less planning I’ve come to do. I usually do a ton of reading, research, and preparation, especially if we’re hitting a once-in-a-lifetime or culturally dense place. To make the most of it, of course.

It’s kind of like being in a museum exhibit, reading before traveling is. I try to read all the texts and labels on the wall. For one thing, they’re usually well written. For another, I like to know what’s going on in the Cezanne painting or bronze artifact so as to better appreciate it. But this often comes at the expense of actually engaging with the art or history itself. So, I end up just scanning the museum texts, but not in the same way I half-read an article online, an email, or the like. I can’t quite describe it, but I can say I walk away with an amorphous goop of dates, names, and media.

Reading ahead of visiting a new country can be like this, too. I get a variety of travel books from the library, typically later buying one to take with me for ongoing reference in situ, and walk away with a fog-like blur of history, language, sites, culture.

This trip, we mapped out a basic itinerary, booked a rental car, and made sure we had lodging the first two nights. Otherwise, we left the rest wide open. There’s something truly lovely about letting a country disclose itself to you versus planning a touristic siege, of conquering a place as if a colonizer for a week.

There’s something truly lovely about letting a country disclose itself to you versus planning a touristic siege, of conquering a place as if a colonizer for a week.

We booked an Airbnb hidden in the hills outside of San Ramón, a busy city not far from the capital. It’s not known for much, touristically speaking, though it proved to be a great launching point for Costa Rica’s volcanoes and cloud forests – and politically, I learned from reading our host’s welcome packet, a great launching point for many of the country’s presidents.

Streets aren’t really marked in Costa Rican cities, excepting the capital, though even that was like the other urban labyrinths that constantly shifted around as we drove through them. We got lost finding the place, but I did learn a bit more Spanish in our efforts to find our rental – and a few construction workers paving a road up in the winding hills learned a bit more English, too, I suppose.

The house was atop a hill, chilly and windswept, eerily spacious, overlooking the rolling greens and golds of the Costa Rican highlands. But the gusts of wind loudly rattled the house, all day and night, reminding us of the force of its nature.

There was a TV, but the wind knocked out the signal. And there was no WiFi. Perfect, I thought, for some serious reading of Much Ado About Nothing thousands of miles away from where Shakespeare originally inked the comedy. Perfect, too, for there would be no half-hearted headline reading on Twitter and news apps to distract me.

After some wine, dinner, and cards, I thought I’d sink into Much Ado, the gales howled around – through – the house, inspiring me like some sort of Romantic poet. Big, alien-like insects scurried us into the bedroom for the nights. With a can of Imperial, my notebook, and Much Ado, I read much of nothing.

Part of my struggle was just adjusting to the Folger’s format. I remembered it from high school, with its straight text on the right and notes on the left, but I had grown accustomed to Norton’s footnoting and glossing system. On the one hand, the Folger offers you the text, un-editorialized. On the other the hand, you find yourself ping-ponging your eyes – and attention.

Add to all of this that Much Ado is a comedy. Shakespearean comedies are as thick with wordplay as Costa Rica’s cloud forests are with biomass. Like the gorgeous birds in the jungle only the experienced eye can spy, this means a lot of jokes you know are there but just aren’t getting.

And add to this my note-taking. General notes, of course, but also strong language and interesting words, which for this play I tracked in a thinner, more travel-able notebook than the old-school composition notebooks I usually use.

I have no distractions, other than the wind, the clear night sky overhead, lots of beers, and leftover empanadas I got from the grocery store.

Why can’t I read this?

***

I tackled a few more pages by the trip’s end. Vacation isn’t exactly a great time to tackle literature, I suppose. Especially when the rest of your hotels are equipped with WiFi and really good happy hour specials.

One hidden treasure and pleasure of traveling is disconnecting. The world is increasing online, but you can still find those pockets (many more, of course, if you’re truly immersed in the wildernesses of the world) of quiet. Those pockets where your Facebook feed goes dark. It’s one of the few things I like about the U.S.’s cellular restrictions. Your scrolling thumb initially twitches with withdrawal, but the brain rewires. The brain rebuilds the muscles of sustained attention, observation, and thinking. But, like when a coworker brings Girl Scout Cookies into the office when you’ve just started a diet, it doesn’t take long for your synapses to binge on status updates, 140-character quips, and clickbait.

There’s something to be said about letting a text – or a painting, artifact, or the brilliant red of a quetzal’s belly emerging from the tangled greens and cloaking mists of a Costa Rican cloud forest  – disclose itself to you on its own terms, without agenda or predication

I still somehow feel defeated, though. I should be able to read the Bard in the rainforest, even if I’ve driven hundreds of miles across the country’s snaking and unsigned roads and transacted in a language I’m embarrassingly not fluent in.

So, it was a 6-hour flight back to L.A. OK, I told myself, you’re finishing this play. On the plane. No excuses.

The man seated next to me was reading José Saramago’s Blindness. “That’s a great read,” I noted. “Yeah? I’m loving it so far,” he replied. He looked at my Much Ado. I look at my Much Ado. You can do this, I told myself.

I was strong-willed at first, managing to finish Act 1 before I rewarded myself with a look, just a look, at the movie selections in the media center on the headrest in front of me. Ooh, The Martian. If I get through Act 3, I get to watch The Martian, I told myself.

I got through Act 2.

Then, a little nap, a podcast, some coffee. I was only into Act 3 by touchdown.

But, but! My wife was coming off our Costa Rica trip with a ladies’ weekend in L.A. to celebrate a friend’s birthday. I’ve got the weekend, I pep-rallied myself. I can do this. Then I remembered that Season 5 of Breaking Bad awaited me on Netflix. There was some Jameson I needed to finish before we move, too.

***

I did eventually finish the play a few days later in between tweets, workouts, dog-walking, chores, errands, and a whole bunch of Craigslist sales.

That’s OK, though.

Sure, my environment was a distracting one. Yes, attention is short and fragmented in the Internet age. But like a reading museum text or researching for travel, sometimes reading can get in the way of reading. There’s something to be said about letting a text – or a painting, artifact, or the brilliant red of quetzal’s belly emerging from the tangled greens and cloaking mists of a Costa Rican cloud forest  – disclose itself to us on its own terms, without agenda or predication.

I want to re-read Much Ado About Nothing. But not yet.

It’s a dog’s life? The Two Gentlemen of Verona

The things we do for love.

I squeeze out some toothpaste. It’s peanut butter flavored. Out of a strange, boyish curiosity, I am tempted to try it. Hugo at first cowers but surrenders. I move the toothbrush across his incisors, trying to reach his back teeth past his black gums and pink, writhing tongue, which fights this harpoon of hygiene like the tentacles of a giant squid. He doesn’t like it. But his breath stinks. Hugo never chews with his molars for some reason, so they’re getting a little gnarly.

I don’t brush his teeth as often as I should. The American Pet Association, I recall, advises dog owners to brush their pets’ teeth once a day. Once a day. That seems a bit absurd, I think, imaging dogs out there getting violin lessons and SAT tutoring. Because their owners – their parents – are better and love them more.

Still, I think, my dog has better healthcare than billions of people on this planet. I often like to make this comment in jest when our pets come up in conversation with friends and family, but it’s actually no joke. In many ways, Hugo – and likely your dog, too – has a better quality of life than so many humans across the globe, at least materially speaking.

Hugo gets consistent meals and fresh water. Organic dog food, even. Each time he goes outside, I give him a treat. Some of them are tasty – and don’t act like you haven’t tried them. He gets regular exercise. He has lots of toys. He gets loads of attention. He sleeps with us in a queen-sized bed. He gets his shots. He gets warm baths. He gets hair cuts. Every now and again, I even brush his teeth and clean his ears – not that he likes those.

Hugo has even travelled more than some people I know. We rescued him in Minneapolis, where he loved in the snow. He travelled by plane with us to Laguna Beach, where he ran on the beach. When I was in between the Twin Cities and the Queen City, Hugo rode shotgun with me when I drove back and forth, where he did not like the passenger seat. Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin? Cross those states off his list. He’s hiked in the Sierra Mountains and ran down the vineyards rows in Temecula wine country.

Now, our dog is moving with us to Dublin. It’s one of the first questions we get about our move: “What are you doing with Hugo?”

“He’s going with us,” we quickly say. “Duh!” And then one of us tries to bark in a Irish accent. It’s absurd.

Modern dogs have it pretty good, but Lance’s dog Crab in The Two Gentlemen of Verona has got it made.

Apart from securing visas and selling everything we own, we’re starting to coordinate Hugo’s transport. It’s a complicated process – and I won’t go into the associated costs. It’s an emotional one, too. For international flights, dogs have to fly in cargo. You can’t sedate them; their ears won’t pop if you do, apparently. So, we’ll have to crate him up and expect a shit-covered, piss-soaked cage and a shivering, confused pup on the other side.

It’s a little less complicated to fly a dog to the European continent, my wife’s figured out. We’ve discussed flying him to Paris and taking various trains and ferries from there.  I don’t know how that’s less complicated, but he’d definitely get some stamps on his passport. My wife tells me there’s some even sort of puppy passport.

Clearly, we do a lot for our dog, as I’m sure you do for yours. Such are our pets – as I’m sure most of say, our families – in 2016.

Hugo_toys
“You can only pack one for Dublin, Hugo.” He’ll definitely pick that nasty looking potato, which started out as an anthropomorphic baguette. iPhone photo by me.

As I work the toothpaste across Hugo’s little teeth, I can’t help but imagine Shakespeare, perched on the ledge of the tub as he shaping up his cuticles with an emery board, rolling his eyes at me.

See, in the Bard’s house, dogs aren’t exactly man’s best friend.

***

You may recall that I’ve been tracking a few things as I make my way through the complete works of Shakespeare in 2016. I am keeping tabs on unusual words, I am recording instances of strong language, I am looking for interesting occupations, and I am noting dogs.

So far, PETA would not be pleased with our playwright.

Take Henry V, where dogs are often used as terms of abuse. A common soldier, Pistol, issues some choice words to Nim, as they quarrel over a woman: “Pish for thee, Iceland dog. Thou prick-eared cur of Iceland” (2.1.36). This breed, my Norton Shakespeare glosses, is particularly small and hairy one. Pistol goes on to call Nim an “egregious dog” (2.1.40) and “hound of Crete” (2.1.66). Or take Antony and Cleopatra, when an impassioned Cleopatra cries to Octavius after his victory: “Slave, soulless villain, dog!” (5.2.153).

We dogs as objects of abuse in Cymbeline. The Queen, seeking poison from the doctor, Cornelius, pretends: “I will try the forces / Of these thy compounds on such creatures as / We count not worth the hanging, but none human, / To try the vigour of them, and apply / Allayments to their act, and by them gather / Their several virtues and effects” (1.5.18-23). Cornelius senses her ulterior motives (she wants to kill off Innogen’s means of communication with her banished husband, his messenger Pisanio): “She’ll prove on cats and dogs, / Then afterward up higher” (1.5.38-39). Fortunately, no dogs were harmed in the making of Cymbeline; Cornelius tricks the Queen by supplying a fake poison, anyways.

We famously see dogs’ ferocity in Julius Caesar: “Cry ‘havoc’! and let slip the dogs of war” (3.1.276). We see their service and servility, metaphorical hunters unleashed by their masters to catch the quarry of their desires in The Taming of the Shrew. For instance, Lucentio’s  servant, Tranio, remarks: “O sir, Lucentio slipped me like his greyhound, / Which runs himself and catches for his master” (5.2.53-54).

Dogs do seem to get a little love, though. In the First Induction of The Taming of the Shrew, the Lord comes back a hunt, pleased with his dogs:

Huntsman, I charge thee, tender well my hounds.
Breathe Merriman – the poor cur is embossed –
And couple Clowder with the deep-mouth brach.
Saw’st thou not, boy, how Silver made it good
At the hedge corner, in the coldest fault?
I would not lose the dog for twenty pound. (Induction 1.12-17)

You can imagine Merriman, Clowder, and Silver, whose names gives us a glimpse into the soul of the Elizabethan dog-owner,  happy and panting.

And then there’s The Two Gentleman of Verona, my sixth play so far in this project. You might know the play, especially if you’ve seen Shakespeare in Love, as “the one with the dog.”

***

The Two Gentleman of Verona is famous for two things.

First, it’s one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays and, according to most critics, one of his weakest. It’s not unlike pilot episodes. Take “The Seinfeld Chronicles.” This Seinfeld pilot lacks the masterful craft we’ve come to love in the sitcom, but the seeds of the show’s genius are still there.

I think, in many ways, Two Gentlemen of Verona is Seinfeldian: Both pay a lot of attention not to the actual relationships themselves but the way people talk about their relationships. There is an early scene in Two Gentlemen of Verona, for example, when Julia (I’ll get to the characters in a minute) is asking her servant, Lucetta, which of her suitors she thinks is best. They weigh pros and cons, not less superficially than Jerry and George discussing their latest dates. Later, Thurio asks Proteus what Silvia says about her. I can see Kramer jumping in, saying, “Why don’t you just ask her yourself?

Second, the play actually features a dog, Crab, comic companion to Lance, Proteus’ clownish servant.

Shakespeare certainly had no Instagram account where he exclusively posted pictures of his pug, but, for all the kicks dogs take in his works, the comic relationship between Lance and his dog is also somewhat sweet and tender.

OK, the play. The Two Gentleman of Verona is a comedy about two friends who compete over the same girl. Valentine goes off to Milan, where he falls in love with the Duke’s daughter, Silvia, who is supposed to marry Thurio. His best friend, Proteus, stays behind, lovestruck by Julia. But Proteus is urged to join Valentine abroad, where he falls in love Silvia. Valentine and Silvia plan to elope. Proteus betrays his friend – and Julia, of course – and lets the Duke in on the plan before trying to win over Silvia. Julia, meanwhile, disguises herself as boy page, her need to see Proteus so powerful, but soon learns of Proteus’ infidelity. Chased from the city, Valentine joins up with some outlaws. Silvia steals off to find him, as the Duke, Thurio, and Proteus go after her. Silvia is captured. Then the Duke and Thurio are captured by the outlaws. But soon all are freed, thanks to Valentine’s status with the outlaws (they needed, no joke, someone good at languages). The Duke finds Valentine worthy of his daughter. All are reunited and forgiven, including Julia and Proteus, friends and lovers alike.

Oh, the foolish things we do for love!

About that. There is a third thing the play’s known for. Actually, a fourth, too.

At the end of the play, Silvia wholly rejects Proteus, but he’s not understanding that “no” means “no”:

Nay, if the gentle spirit of moving words
Can no way change you to a milder form
I’ll woo you like a soldier, at arm’s end,
And love you ‘gainst the nature of love: force ye. (5.4.55-58)

Um, yeah. Proteus threatens rape.

And then – and then, Valentine comes forward and stops him. Proteus begs for forgiveness. Valentine is quickly moved:

…Once again I do receive thee honest.
Who by repentance is not satisfied
Is nor of heaven nor earth. For these are pleased:
By penitence th’ Eternal’s wrath’s appeased.
And that my love may appear plain and free,
All that was mine in Silvia’s thee. (5.4.78-83)

Yup. Mmm-hmm. Valentine offers Silvia to betoken his faith in their friendship. Silvia leaves with Valentine and Julia with Proteus, but Shakespeare leaves us with some real doozies about relationships.

The truly crazy things we do for love.

***

Speaking of crazy, for all the imperfections of The Two Gentleman of Verona, the Bard does mirror the human relationships with Lance’s relationship with his dog, Crab.

I think we’ve all blamed a little flatulence on the dog, but taking the fall for Fido? I guess when your dog’s going to be killed for it…

I’m not certain if the play was originally staged with a dog. I’ve read that William Kempe, a renowned comic actor in Shakespeare’s day and in several of his plays, played the part of Lance. Kempe, some claim, actually had a naughty dog named Crab he liked to bring to the theater and Shakespeare thus wrote some of the mischief into the play. Alas, this seems to be the stuff of theatre legend.

I do know that so many stagings have an actual dog play its part, much to the delight and amusement of audiences. Shakespeare certainly had no Instagram account where he exclusively posted pictures of his pug, but, for all the kicks dogs take in his works, this comic relationship is also somewhat sweet and tender. The Lance-Crab scenes really steal the show.

In one, Lance is shedding some tears over leaving behind his family for Milan with his master, Proteus:

I think Crab, my dog, be the sourest-natured dog that lives. My mother weeping, my father wailing, my sister crying, our maid howling, our cat wringing her hands, and all our house in a great perplexity, yet did not this cruel-hearted cur shed one tear. He is a stone, a very pebble-stone, and has no more pity in him than a dog…(2.3.4-9).

Shakespeare in Love treats the scene well (0:53):

Later, reflecting on relationships between masters and servants, Lance shares an accident that happened at court with Crab, whom he “brought up of a puppy, one that I saved from drowning when three or four of his blind brothers  went to it” (4.4.2-4):

[Crab] had not been there – bless the mark – a pissing-while but all the chamber smelled him. ‘Out with the dog,’ says one. ‘What cur is that?’ says another. ‘Whip him out,’ says the third. ‘Hang him up,’ says the Duke. I, having been acquainted with the smell before, knew it was Crab, and goes me to the fellow that whips the dogs. ‘Friend,’ quoth I, ‘you meant to whip the dog.’ ‘Ay, marry do I,’ quoth. ‘You do him the more wrong,’ quoth I, ‘’twas I did the thing you wot of.’ He makes me no more ado, but whips me out of the chamber. How many masters would do this for his servant? (4.5.16-25)

Lance continues:

Nay, I’ll be sworn I have sat in the stocks for puddings he hath stolen, otherwise he had been executed. I have stood on the pillory for geese he hath killed, otherwise he had suffered for’t. (To Crab) Though think’st not of this now…When didst thou see me heave up my leg and make water against a gentle-woman’s farthingale? (4.5.25-33).

Now that’s love.

I think we’ve all blamed a little flatulence on the dog, but taking the fall for Fido? I guess when your dog’s going to be killed for it…

Modern dogs have it pretty good, but Lance’s Crab has got it made.

***

I finish brushing Hugo’s teeth. He looks up at me with wide, sad eyes, as if to say, “Why would you do this to me?” I can see Shakespeare, as unfriendly as his words may be to man’s best friend,  looking up from his nail-filing, saying, “Well, aren’t you going to give him a treat?”

Personality tests: The Taming of the Shrew

In 2016, it’s not the shrew that’s the problem. It’s the taming.

I don’t think I’m going to take my advice from Petruccio, exactly, but I do think The Taming of the Shrew definitely has something to teach me about marriage.

I’m just gonna lay it out here: My wife and I are going to be starting some couples counseling. Our relationship – especially our communication – needs some work.

THE PERSON OF THE PLAY*

LADY
LORD
HUGO, their dog

1.1

Location: Their apartment. The lady and lord are reading in bed before going to sleep.

[Loud thumps from apartment below]

LADY. What the hell? What are they doing down there?

LORD.  Oh, lighten up.

LADY. Excuse me?

LORD. If we’re gonna live in a big city, we gotta get used to some noise.

LADY. But you complain about that noise all the time.

LORD. Yeah, but I’m trying to be less negative, like we talked about. I’m trying to adapt. The neighbors do whatever they’re doing every night at this time. I think they’re just doing bedtime routine stuff, closing cabinets in their bathroom and such.

LADY. I appreciate that, but you don’t have to be so mean about how you say it.

LORD. Always with this “mean.” Anything I say. Even when I’m trying to say it nicely.

LADY. “Lighten up” is your idea of nice?

LORD. You know, I can’t always filter what I’m trying to say. [Gets up from bed.] We are living in the world, language is going to happen.

LADY. I’m your wife. You can be nice to me.

LORD. I only said “lighten up.”

LADY. You’re not listening to me

LORD. No, I hear you, I just resent always being totalized as “mean.” [Exit HUGO]

LADY. You’re not listening to me.

LORD. I don’t think you’re listening to me.

LADY. I’m your wife. You can be on my side about things. Let’s just–

LORD. – it’s just some noise downstairs. [Paces] You’re so sensitive.

LADY. That’s so sexist.

LORD. “Sexist” is characterizing my whole person as “mean.” [Exit JOHN]

*Later editions of this play list the dramatis personae as:

BEGGAR
LADY
HUGO, their dog

We resolved this argument, just as we’ve resolved so many others like it. Perhaps this disagreement seems pretty mundane, but we’re tired of having them. Here and there, fine. Conflicts are inevitable. But we really think we can do better as a couple. We want to do better.

So, as we start counseling, I thought I would open my yearlong project by reading The Taming of the Shrew. The play is centered on Katherine, told (by an older male, I should note) to go to “the devil’s dam” (1.1.105) – the devil’s mother, worse than the devil himself.

I think we both identify with her.

***

A quick summary is in order. Be advised: Some swearing is ahead.

The Taming of the Shrew is a comedy written by Shakespeare by 1592, at least. The main action actually unfolds as a play within a play. (Shakespeare, ever meta, would have owned postmodernism, I think. Some might argue he made it possible.)

“I knew a wench married in an afternoon as she went to the garden for parsley to stuff a rabbit”

The play opens with some nobles tricking this drunk guy, Christopher Sly, into thinking he is a lord. As part of their joke, they put on a play for him. (Classic prank. I used to get my buddies with this all the time.) In this play, various dudes, including a kind of creepy older one, want to marry the beautiful, well-mannered Bianca. But Bianca’s dad, Baptista, locks her up until his oldest daughter, the strong-willed and sharp-tongued Katherine feared and shunned by the men of the play, gets hitched. (That’s pretty fucked up, Mr. Minola.) Some of the suitors disguise themselves, acting as teachers, for example, or pretending to be a servant, in their efforts to win Bianca. Recruited by some other suitors, this Petruccio comes along and takes on the challenge of wooing Katherine. Basically, he “tames” her by out-shrewing her through reverse psychology, giving her a taste of her own medicine. They get married. (It all happens pretty fast.) So does Bianca, meanwhile, involving a subplot with some epic dowry negotiations and more identity changes. Having given up on Bianca, another suitor marries a widow. And Katherine, whom we see Petruccio whip into compliance, turns out to be the most obedient of all the wives.

I had read this play before (more on that in an upcoming post), but I don’t recall laughing as much the first time. There were a few one-liners that struck me as very modern.

First, when Sly awakes from his inebriated blackout, he is confused and then amazed. But all he really wants is another beer (this is how I feel when I go back home to Cincinnati for the holidays):

Upon my life, I am a lord indeed,
And not a tinker, nor Christopher Sly.
Well, bring our lady hither to our sight,
And once again a pot o’th’ smallest ale. (Induction 2.70-73)

Second, later in the play, the character Lucentio, who wins Bianca’s hand in marriage after promising her dad a ridiculous dowry he can’t immediately guarantee, races off to church to seal the deal. One of his servants, Biondello, remarks on their hurried nuptials: “I knew a wench married in an afternoon as she went to the garden for parsley to stuff a rabbit…” (4.5.23-24) This “wench” business aside, that’s a hilarious line. I could hear it from Dwight Schrute.

Finally, the war of wits between Katherine and Petruccio is extraordinary, particularly at 2.1.180. It truly demonstrates Shakespeare’s genius for wordplay. I swear, it’s like Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) and Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) in 30 Rock. As my wife characterizes their (Fey and Baldwin’s) relationship, “it’s insulting but also shows mutual respect.” The only difference here is some serious sexual tension between K and P, if the penis and vagina puns are any measure. They number high. The culmination of a run of puns, Petruccio punches: “What, with my tongue in your tail?” (2.1.214). Dayyum.

Theme-wise, The Taming of the Shrew is complex. By its end, historical identities and power dynamics, inverted throughout the characters’ various disguises, are restored. In her famous, closing monologue, Katherine waxes dutiful:

Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign, one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe,
And craves no other tribute at thy hands,
But love, fair looks, and true obedience,
Too little payment for so great a debt. (5.2.150-158)

Um, no.

Once playing masters, servants resume servility. After falling asleep during the play-within-theplay, Sly, in some additional passages, wakes up and returns home, just a lowly drunk once again.

But I can’t help but think that all the role reversals and identity changes and social fluidity, along with moments of what seems to be matched wits and mutual respect between Katherine and Petruccio, calls into question the order of things in Elizabethan England. Is Shakespeare ultimately being ironic?

Still, those identities, while fluid, are restored…

***

We took a personality test, my wife and I, when I was just a few scenes into the play. It could not have been more apt. Amanda (that’s my wife) read an article in Real Simple which pointed her to a Big Five personality test online. This one’s pretty nifty, because you can rate another person, such as a spouse or sibling, as you rate yourself.

Here are our results:

Big 5  - Amanda results
Amanda’s results. Her self-ranking is red, her ranking for me is blue.
Big 5 - John results
My results. My self-ranking is red, her ranking for me is blue.

You’ll note some disagreements. For instance, I rated myself as very Open to New Experiences; she rates me as much more Close-Minded. It looks like we agree to disagree, however: We both see ourselves and each other as Disagreeable (or froward, as the Bard might say).

Kate takes a personality test, too, so to speak. Or rather, the men of the play take it for her. In Elizabeth England, the Big Five was actually the Big Four: the four humors. Rooted in ancient philosophy, humoral theory believed that the four humors that made up the body – blood, black bile, phlegm, and yellow bile – influenced human behavior. Each was associated with what we might call personality traits today: blood (sanguine), black bile (melancholic), phlegm (phlegmatic), and yellow bile (choleric).

Kate is choleric, the play makes clear.

There’s a point in Taming of the Shrew when Petruccio is making Kate’s life a living hell. He denies her food, for instance, by pretending it’s horribly cooked and not good enough for her. He berates the servants in front of her, too, as (we are led to believe) she herself would once have done, to make an example of her nasty temper.

Here, Petruccio tosses aside his mutton, castigates his servants as “heedless jolt-heads” (4.1.147), and tells her the meat was:

….burnt and dried away,
And I expressly am forbid to touch it,
For it engenders choler, planteth anger,
And better ‘twere that both of us did  fast,
Since of ourselves ourselves are choleric,
Than feed it with such overroasted flesh. (4.1.151-156)

In other words, “we’re already pretty stubborn and strong-willed people. We’ve got too much yellow bile, and eating this overcooked meat will only add to it.”

Imbalances in the humors causes illness and explains temperaments. So, balancing out excesses was a key to health. (I think I should fast from meat for a bit.)

Which got me thinking. How do we think about personality today, especially when it comes to relationships?

***

In 2016, it’s not the shrew that’s the problem. It’s the taming.

Identity is so fluid in 2016. We can self-invent, much as we see the characters in Taming of the Shrew do. Popularly speaking, we saw this last year with Caitlyn Jenner. More controversially, we saw this with Rebecca Dolezal.

But I wonder sometimes if personality has become unassailable. If I’m a neat freak and don’t like leaving my comfort zone, for example, it’s up to me to find someone who will mesh wish that. OK. That seems kind of obvious. But does this close off serious reflection – and possible self-improvement – about how those attitudes affect my relationships?

We don’t orbit the sun like a planet in some clean ellipse; instead, our lives are like an asteroid belt.

So, in relationships, it can feel like changing your personality means selling out your authentic self – to compromise who you are, to let someone else control you. In a heated argument, something as mild as “You can be nicer” becomes an assault on one’s integrity: “Who the fuck are you to tell me how I should be?”

There’s no point in trying to re-juice an iPhone 4 with an iPhone 6 charger. Incompatible. Got to upgrade, get a new phone.

But as Amanda cautioned when I was reflecting on this with her, “We all risk ending up being our authentic selves – alone.”

And all this can make it feel like, when there are problems in relationships – or even if you aren’t always experiencing fulfillment and happiness all the time – you just haven’t found your soulmate.

Do our one-person cults of personality choke off meaningful efforts to improve ourselves?

You know, Amanda and I both had grandparents who were married to each other for over 50 years. Fifty fucking years. That’s crazy. We, meanwhile, argue about tone. But it’s easy to romanticize the past. The past didn’t hold the same possibilities for self as we have now. My wife’s the breadwinner in our family. I do, and enjoy doing, the chores. None of this challenges my masculinity. I embrace it.

Personality is not an entitlement.

But as identity is so fluid, as the social order shifts, it can be hard to know what to be, what to do with one’s life. (This, of course, is a crisis of privilege.) Nevertheless, this is why I think we cling to personality. The modern world can be so fragmented, so fast-changing. We switch majors, careers, lovers, spouses, friends, cars, phones, apartments, houses, cities. We don’t orbit the sun like a planet in some clean ellipse; instead, our lives are like an asteroid belt.

We need to know which Star Wars character we are most like to confirm who we are – or at least who we think we are. We need gravity, an orbit, a trajectory, else we burn up like a meteor in the atmosphere.

We thus face a veritably Shakespearean contradiction. We treat our interior personalities as stable (science actually largely backs this up) but our exterior identities as fluid (indeed, social roles are constructed).

This makes life confusing, stressful……or maybe I’m just being a controlling prick sometimes. These situations are not mutually exclusive.

The whole “taming” and “shrew” business is bad news by today’s standards, but Shakespeare’s comedy definitely shakes up my thinking about those arguments I have with my wife. My personality may predispose me to think and act in particular ways, but it is not an entitlement. What’s the harm in unknitting a “threat’ning, unkind brow” (5.2.140)?

Next, Henry V.