It was my father’s birthday. From the basement, where the guest suite is, I heard him come home from work. He sounded tired. It sounded like a long day. I heard him answer a FaceTime video with my oldest brother. With his grandson. His voice, his mood lifted.
I gave him a card where I wrote “Happy Birthday” and his age in Irish.
We went out to eat. The ingredients of my salad were separated into eight ramekins. “I guess the cook figured ‘Like father like son,’” the server laughed. I tapped the bottom of my tumbler, shooting the half-melted whiskey-soaked ice into my mouth.
I charged dinner to my card. At first he refused, in due fatherly form. He knew well what I knew about my funds these days. But I insisted, in due filial form.
After dinner, I spent some time at my stepsister’s flat. She had two Rhinegeist Truth in her fridge, goddamnit.
This turned into Scotch at my father’s. Which turned into talking to my stepmother until two in the morning.
Frustrations, faults: They build up like alcohol in the blood. Disappointments, expectations: The words come out like vomit.
Maybe I drink too much. Maybe I expect too much.
The rest is silence. (5.2.300)
“I didn’t hear you come in,” my father said when he walked into the kitchen. He had his glasses on. His hair, slightly disheveled. Sweatshirt, rumpled. He had fallen asleep waiting up for me.
I told him I’d be back an hour, hour-and-half earlier, for a final Scotch my last night in Cincinnati. But I ended up lingering over one last bourbon, or two or three, at a friend’s house.
My father didn’t need to say it. A son can read his father’s brow like a sailor divines import in the subtle changes of the wind and waves.
“I hear from some back channels that you’re not too happy with my, uh, level of engagement.”
It knocked me back. Not what he said or felt, but that he said it – directly.
“By indirections find directions out,” the lord Polonius charges his servant (2.1.65). And this – apart from the actual assassination, of course – is ultimately what’s “rotten in the state of Denmark,” I think (1.4.67). Everyone is testing. Everyone is surveilling.
What does Hamlet really say in the end? Everything and nothing. To be or not to be. Always talking around the great why of it all. Waylaid by the great or of it all.
Polonius sends his lackey out to snoop around on his son, Laertes. Joined by Claudius, he secretly watches Hamlet’s interactions with Ophelia to see if it’s love making Hamlet behave so strangely. Polonius even eavesdrops behind an arras when Hamlet, who stabs him upon discovery, is privately talking with his mother.
Claudius summons Hamlet’s childhood friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet and ferret out the true cause of his “madness.” When Claudius sends Hamlet away to England, the two accompany him, entrusted with a secret letter instructing the English king to kill Hamlet. When this plan fails, because Hamlet finds out the letter and rewrites it to have the pair slain instead, Claudius plots to kill Hamlet with a poisoned sword and cup of wine in a ruse of duel with Laertes.
No one is direct.
And Hamlet’s the worst.
Aside from his sly forgery, he puts on madness to put off the court. He stages a play, which enacts an on-the-nose adulterous regicide, to gauge how it will prick Claudius and Gertrude’s consciences. He overhears Claudius’ private confession. He confronts his mother with pictures of his father and Claudius to guilt her into repentance.
And he talks and talks and talks. What does he really say in the end? Everything and nothing. To be or not to be. Always talking around the great why of it all. Waylaid by the great or of it all. And all this on his mission – his notoriously fitful, plodding, roundabout mission – to avenge his father’s ghost.
What is he waiting for? What does he expect? What he does he want to hear? “I’m sorry”? “I fucked up”? “I failed”? “I let you down”?
What is he waiting for? What does he expect? What he does he want to hear? “I’m sorry”? “I fucked up”? “I failed”? “I let you down”?
Tell that to Ophelia. Revenge isn’t far from self-righteousness. Nihilism, from narcissism.
Maybe we expect too much of others. Maybe we expect too much of ourselves. Maybe we expect too much of the truth.
Or maybe not enough.
These are the conversations a son longs to have with his father. And these are the conversations he is never prepared to have.
My father stood close to me. I could smell the floral notes of detergent on his sweatshirt. He looked in me the eye. I cast my eyes across the room, tapping my fingers inside my coat pocket as I rambled about time and distance and happiness, saying everything and nothing at all.
“You’ve got a little something on your cheek,” he said.
We hugged. He insisted I take a few twenties for gas money for the drive up to Chicago. We said goodnight.
I went for a beer in the fridge but then thought better of it.
“I think I’m going to switch back to beer,” I announced, not they cared. My wife, brother, and I were chatting after our Christmas dinner, observed.
In the fridge, there was six-pack after six-pack of Cincinnati craft beer, which had exploded in the year since I had been back home. I went for a Rhinegeist Truth.
“What do you have planned for the rest of the week? Have to go back to work or anything?” I asked my brother, giving the top of my beer a few quick taps.
He was in town from Minneapolis. Our time in Cincinnati this holiday overlapped by about 40 hours. We were 24 hours into it, I calculated.
“Nah, I took the rest of the week off. Gotta pick my dog up from the sitter, clean my place, hit the gym. Nothing planned, really.”
“Oh, that’s too bad you couldn’t have chilled down here for another night or so, seeing that we’re, you know, in from Ireland and–”
“He visited us for a week and half this summer, John,” my wife cut me off. “What else do you expect?”
She deftly switched the subject.
I cracked open the beer. It hissed and fizzed.
O that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God, O God,
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world! (1.2.129-34)
“Do you hear that?” my stepmother asked.
We crossed paths by the stairs on my way out for a run. A few too many of those Truths made it into the recycling bin last night.
I listened closely. Three taps. A long pause. Two taps. Pause. Taps.
“That damned cardinal is back.”
“It’s gotten fixated on its reflection in the stairwell windows. And it’ll just tap and tap and tap all day. The landscaper’s tried everything to scare it way. We even lined the windows with black garbage bags. It went away for a while, but as soon as we took them down, it came right back. The sound will drive you nuts!”
I thought of Hamlet. “Well isn’t that just the perfect metaphor for life?”
Tap, tap, tap.
I ran up and down the neighborhoods. On winding, sidewalkless streets, long driveways lead up to big houses that squatted on wide lawns with tall, leafless trees. There was no one else around. The silence was ghostly. It was the middle of the afternoon on the Thursday after Christmas, though. What else did I expect?
To be, or not to be; that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And, by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep– No more, and by a sleep we say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to – ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep. To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub, For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil Must give us pause. (3.1.58-70)
“Everything and nothing,” I told my friend at the bar.
We were grabbing a drink at my old haunt. I hadn’t been here in years. There were a lot of new taps there, I noticed. Cincinnati craft beers. But the counter was still sticky. The place still smelled stale and skunky.Many of the same faces were still smoking out on the patio. One, a tall, quiet guy with a lazy eye I used to smalltalk with over a cigarette every now and again – God, he looked so much older. “You used have long hair, didn’t you?” the bartender asked when I ordered.
My friend and I fell into a conversation about Hamlet. At this point, I was in the middle of my third time through this most famous of Shakespeare’s plays, which takes us inside the self-consciously self-conscious head of the Prince of Denmark as he slowly revenges the murder of his father. The king was poisoned by Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, who immediately marries Hamlet’s mother. Gertrude. I was planning on saving it for my very last play for Shakespeare Confidential, because, well, it’s Hamlet – until I remembered that I still had that pesky The Reign of Edward III.
Hamlet’s just stuck. Stuck between everything and nothing, between the everything and the nothing of it all.
I hadn’t seen this friend, a high school pal, in years. After teaching in Thailand, China, and the Republic of Georgia, he ended up in a Hawaii classroom. He’s brilliant. Definitely one of the two smartest persons I know. The kind of intellect who reads the Elizabethan playwrights other than Shakespeare just for his own self-edification. Who does that? He could so effortlessly quote the Bard in support of whatever incisive argument he was making. I envied this. How the hell do you do that, man? I’d say each time he’d rattle off a choice passage, and not just short, well-known ones, either. Obscure, long, difficult ones. I’m the one reading the complete works of Shakespeare here!
“It’s mortality. Not the fear of death, per se,” I tapped a coaster on the bar. “But trying to…to…reconcile our recognition that our lives are, ultimately, insignificant, on the one hand, with our stubborn and vain insistence on acting, doing, being, meaning in spite of it, on the other. Hamlet’s just stuck. Stuck between everything and nothing, between the everything and the nothing of it all.” Tap, tap. “I think this is the source of all our art, of all our anxiety. I get this. I feel this. ”
He agreed. Not just with my interpretation of Hamlet, which was validating, but with the sentiment. That he, too, felt it.
“And it freakin’ blows my mind how Shakespeare captured it all over 400 years ago. Another Truth, please,” I asked as the bartender.
We bumped into two of my brother’s friends from high school. The four of us played some pool. In between shots, we caught up (they both have several children now) and reminisced (studying aboard in Japan, former guitar-playing glories, etc.). We texted our wives or girlfriends that we were only having one more. I sent a selfie with my brother’s friends. Wish I was there, my brother replied.
Eventually, my friend ordered us an Uber back to my father’s, where he crashed. I intended for us to grab a drink and then get a bite to eat. I wonder what else he had expected.
On the ride back, I couldn’t stop raving that the driver had seat warmers in the back of his Ford sedan.
“We’ve got…,” I said with a suspenseful pause as I pulled tupperware out of the reusable grocery bag, “Monte Cristo sandwiches and macaroni salad.”
“Holy shit. Thanks, man,” my friend said.
“Thank my stepmom. We had leftovers.”
We sat in his KIA sedan parked at a Love’s off I-65. A water tower read White County. It was a clear day, seasonably cold. Everything around us was flat for miles and miles and miles. We were closing in on Chicago, where we were visiting a friend for the weekend before I finally flew back to Dublin after nearly a month in the States.
Something felt so adult about eating lunch with an old high school friend in a car off the side of the road, your hometown hundreds of miles behind you, in a few days, thousands more.
And yet something felt so childlike about forking macaroni salad out of GladWare. Packed lunches, certainly, have that effect, but this wasn’t just any macaroni salad. I must have been eating this same salad, this same exact recipe, for over 20 years.
My mind drifted out and over thousands of conversations I’ve had with my family. Out and over thousand of conversations we’ve never had. And it landed on Shakespeare.
The taste plunged me back to the honey-colored wood of the kitchen table and terra-cotta tiled floor. Back to glass bowls of grapes and strawberries, of blackberries and bananas, that made their way from plate to plate. Back to my stepmother slicing those bananas by pushing a paring knife up towards a callused thumb so a perfect little chunk would tumble right into the bowl. Back to a cutting board propping up that long Monte Cristo, my father bringing a longer-seeming serrated knife down through its many layers and divvying out neat, even wedges.
“How does your stepson, you know, handle everything?” I asked, breaking my own flashback. Stepson. The word thrust me right back into the present, to adulthood.
My friend spoke thoughtfully about shared custody, about the different roles divorced parents take on. He spoke about his own identity, negotiating new territories of parenthood and stepfatherhood. He spoke about how his six-year-old stepson grasps it all.
“How was it for you?” he asked. “Weren’t you pretty young when your parents divorced?”
I scooped up my last bite of salad. My mind drifted out and over the never-ending flatness of Indiana. Out and over countless suitcases, bedrooms, car rides. Out and over thousands of conversations I’ve had with my family. Out and over thousands of conversations we’ve never had.
And it landed on Shakespeare.
It had been some weeks since I finished All is True (Henry VIII). This history centers, mostly, on the fall of Cardinal Wolseley, King Henry VIII’s powerful and self-serving advisor, after he fails to secure an annulment for Henry VIII so he can marry Ann Boleyn.
I sat on this play for quite some time because I had trouble locating myself in the drama. There were obvious connections, like Henry VIII’s divorce of Queen Katherine. But this, the subject of divorce in and of itself, didn’t grab me.
For one, I have no mind to air any dirty laundry here. For another, I’m just no longer all that interested in the gritty details of my parents’ divorce. I think I processed them plenty in the reims of reflective essays I churned out for high school English and religion classes.
I’m not sure that the heart isn’t a dark and opaque organ at the end of the day, keeping itself alive with molecules and membranes we will never really understand.
About twenty-six years later, the wounds have healed. But the body is never exactly the same as it was before its injury. It works. It functions. It’s repaired. But it’s a different body, even if just by the scars it bears. Often you forget they are even there. But they are always with you, the scars. And every so often, you’ll stop and run your hands over them. You’ll stare at their shape. You’ll marvel that the body can even do it at all, this miracle work of healing, weaving together all that new skin. It’s magic, when you really think about it.
But what did grab me, in that chew-ful moment of silence before my reply, was a speech by Cardinal Wolseley right after his decline. Before heading to court to answer charges of treason, an ailing Cardinal Wolseley, who, mind you, has been an absolute bastard his entire career, has a sudden change of heart:
Farewell, a long farewell, to all my greatness!
This is the state of man. Today he puts forth
The tender leaves of hope; tomorrow blossoms,
And bears his blushing honours thick upon him;
The third day comes a frost, a killing frost,
And when he thinks, good easy, man, full surely
His greatness is a-ripening, nips his rot,
And then he falls, as I do. I have ventured,
Like little wanton boys that swim on bladders,
This many summers in a sea ofglory,
But far beyond my depth; my high-blown pride
At length broke under me, and now has left me
Weary, and old with service, to the mercy
Of a rude stream that must for ever hide me. Vain pomp and glory of this world, I hate ye!
I feel my heart new opened. O, how wretched
Is that poor man that hangs on princes’ favours!
There is betwixt that smile we would aspire to,
That sweet aspect of princes, and their ruin,
More pangs and fears than wars or women have,
And when he falls, he falls like Lucifer,
Never to hope again. (3.2.352-73)
“Well, that was quick,” as I wrote in the margins. Wolseley goes from utter villainy to complete reformation. Of course, this is drama, so, chop chop, metanoia. Still, where does he get off? Who does he think he is? What did he, do, really, to earn this epiphany?
Yet in my friend’s car, I heard the monologue differently. His repentance pointed me to the mysteries of our own psychology and behavior. Why do we make the choices we make? How do we think about our own decisions? When are we truly honest with ourselves? Why do we feel what we feel? How well can we actually know ourselves?
I went on to tell my friend, yes, about shared custody, about the different roles divorced parents take on, about my own identity, straddling two households and two sets of parents. About how I grasped the situation as a younger man, questioning its reality and aching to know why it all happened as it did. Perhaps I even wanted my parents to feel particular things, to say particular things, and those feelings and those words would make it all make sense.
Maybe there is peace in the pastness of some things, as much as its true nature haunts us.
But I ask a very different questions of my parents’ divorce now. Its reality, its objectivity, opens it up to an emotional, even epistemological, empiricism. I examine it as a curious specimen, craving knowledge without judgment, as if to satisfy a deeper curiosity, as if a stranger or alien. To understand the heart as an organ. To understand my parents as organisms. To see them as adults, as people. To understand myself no longer as child, but as grown-up and husband, who’s made mistakes, who’s made changes. Why do we make the choices we make? How well can we actually know ourselves? What really makes us behave the way do? To love and not love? To move on and not move on? To forgive and–?
“I know myself now,” Wolseley goes on, “and I feel within me / A peace above all earthly dignities, / A still and quiet conscience” (3.2.378-81).
That sounds like a sublime peace indeed. I’m not so sure we are ultimately knowable to ourselves. I’m not sure that the heart isn’t a dark and opaque organ at the end of the day, keeping itself alive with molecules and membranes we will never really understand.
But maybe there is peace, too, in the pastness of some things, as much as its true nature haunts us. For the past, in its own stubborn inertia, and one’s life, in that invisible accretion of decisions and boredoms and job applications and sleeping and fucking and eating and failures and photographs and moving boxes, takes on an inevitability, as if it could have unfolded no other way. There can be a peace in this factness, this livedness, this fixedness, this thingness, this thereness.
Or at least in the acceptance of them.
“But it’s just sort of what you know,” I added. “I just don’t know things any other way. You know what I mean? I don’t know any other reality.” I started into my sandwich, and it tasted it exactly as it did so many years ago.
I’ve been preoccupied with two people this year. The first, of course, is William Shakespeare. The other, alack, is Donald Trump.
I’ve avoided writing about the latter. It’s not that I don’t see the man everywhere in Shakespeare’s plays. I see him in Richard III’s Machiavellian machinations. In Richard II’s incompetence, overreach, and rashness. I see him in Iago’s Janus-faced manipulations. In Timon of Athen’s extreme egotism. In the glib sexual presumption of Falstaff as he appears in The Merry Wives of Windsor.
It’s that I’ve wanted to keep the two separated. Maybe because I’ve felt the connections were too pat, that discussing today’s politics would be such an obvious, unoriginal move. Maybe because I haven’t wanted to talk about him – because he’s all we ever talk about anymore.
You don’t get to ruin Shakespeare, too, damnit.
Or maybe it’s because, in spite of my efforts to make sense of my mundane life in 2016, I’ve ended up seeking escape in the Bard, trying to locate, somehow, even my self-divulging, self-indulging reflections in a kind of sacrosanct timelessness I want unsullied by the small, groping, orange hands of the 45th president of the United States. You don’t get to ruin Shakespeare, too, damnit.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Shakespeare, it’s that all politics is personal.
I’m shocked. I’m angry. I’m scared. I’m eager for action – no,this middle-class white guy isn’t pretending this essay on Shakespeare makes a meaningful difference. But I’m also longing to understand. To understand my country. To understand people I know – family, for God’s sake – who cast their vote for a bigot. To understand “what happened,” as we’ve been widely referring to Trump’s election.
And it’s this “what happened” that I’ve been stuck on when it comes to Trump and Shakespeare. “What happened?” we ask, bewildered, when Othello kills Desdemona. “How the hell did this happen?” we ask when Lear cradles a dead Cordelia. “Why in God’s name did we end up here?” when ask, beholding Macbeth’s bloodbath. “What happened?” millions of America’s are asking, dazed and gobsmacked, since November 9. The aftermath all seems so unlikely, so improbable, so dramatic. Too dramatic. Laughably dramatic.
What Leontes wreaks is catastrophic, but his original sin is all too ordinary.
Like in The Winter’s Tale. In this romance play, Leontes, King of Sicilia, sees his wife, Hermione, innocently clasp hands with his lifelong friend and King of Bohemia, Polixenes. He becomes paranoid. He silences his advisers. He plots to kill Polixenes. He imprisons his wife, who is pregnant and gives birth while jailed. He wants the newborn burned until deciding to have her abandoned in the wilderness. And, oh my, the ways he talks about women: hag, harlot, callat, hobby-horse, thing. (I’d like to say I’m fishing for Trumpian comparisons here, but no. It’s all there.) And Leontes causes so much terror and stress it ends up killing Leontes’ dear son and Hermione.
How did this happen?
The events are so hyperbolic that we tend to attribute it to larger-than-life personalities and passions, to outsized faults and flaws. Celebrities and Shakespearean villains – they’re just not like us. But we confound the outcome with the cause. What Leontes wreaks is catastrophic, but his original sin is all too ordinary: “I have too much believed mine own suspicion,” Leontes plainly sums it when he first reckons with the death of his wife and son (3.2.149).
Shakespeare, in that extraordinary way the playwright takes us into that interior stage of the mind, lets us glimpse how ‘it happened’ for Leontes. As he works himself up into a frenzy, Leontes rampages:
…Is whispering nothing?
Is leaning cheek to cheek? Is meeting noses?
Kissing with inside lip? Stopping the career Of laughter with a sigh? – a note infallible
Of breaking honesty. Horsing foot on foot?
Skulking in corners? Wishing clocks more swift,
Hours minutes, noon midnight? And all eyes
Blind with the pin and web but theirs, theirs only,
That would be unseen be wicked? Is this nothing?
Why then the world and all that’s in’t is nothing,
The covering sky is nothing, Bohemia is nothing,
My wife is nothing, nor nothing have these nothings
If this be nothing. (1.2.286-98)
What happened? How did we get here? It was a whisper. It was nothing.
We read Shakespeare, we often say, because of how profoundly he probes and depicts human nature. We try to distill his characters down to raw elements: jealousy, ambition, power, hesitation, arrogance, suspicion. Yes, these, but I think Shakespeare ultimately strikes a deeper vein: irrationality.
It seems Shakespeare had something in common with the Founding Fathers: a belief in self-government, and just how radical an experiment it really is.
We, as humans, like to think we’re rational actors. That we make decisions based on the best available evidence. That we weigh choices based on risk and reward. Which is why Shakespeare’s Lears and Macbeths and Leontes evoke so much outrage, pity, and pathos. Why wouldn’t Lear just listen to what Cordelia was saying to him? Why did Macbeth carry out his assassinations in spite of his persistent moral reservations? How could Leontes let his suspicions get so out of hand and so quickly? If only they could see what they were doing, all the suffering, all the loss, all the grief, all the blood and gore would have been avoided. I would never act like that, we tell ourselves as Lear roves the heath and Macbeth talks to imaginary daggers. This is not what I would have done, we say as Leontes, foaming with self-feeding, despotic jealousy, justifies his anger.
Which is precisely why Shakespeare’s tragic figures are so horrifying. Because we do act like them. Because we’re irrational. We turn petty grievances into catastrophes. We let slights fester into disease. We take revenge on others because we are small, broken, needy beings. All for appearing right, to be recognized, not thinking ahead to, and never actually really wanting, the wreckage our egos leave in their wake. We feel guilty when we finally get what we say we want.
As Paulina, Hermione’s faithful attendant, stands up to Leontes:
…Thy tyranny, together working with thy jealousies –
Fancies too weak for boys, too green and idle
For girls of nine – O think, what they have done,
And the run made indeed, stark mad, for all
Thy bygone fooleries were but spices of it. (3.2.177-82).
We’re Leontes, ruled by the petty, childish tyrannies of our unreason – and our blind insistence otherwise – that bemonsters, Hulk-like and Hyde-like, whispers into so much woe. It seems Shakespeare had something in common with the Founding Fathers: a belief in self-government, and just how radical an experiment it really is.
Leontes repents. Sixteen years later, magically, it turns out his baby daughter, Perdita, had survived and was raised by a shepherd in Bohemia, where Polixenes’ son, Florizel, has fallen in love with her. But Polixenes will not have his son marry some country girl and responds with all the tyrannical violence of Leontes. The lovers flee to Sicilia, where Leontes reunites with his daughter and discovers Paulina, Hermione’s attendant, has been keeping the queen alive as a statue all this time.
It’s romantic idea, America, but is it a Romance play, where what’s lost is found, what’s divided is reunited? America’s going to need some repentance. It’s going to need some time. It’s going to need a whole lot of self-government, and that starts with checking our inner, irrational autocrats.
Some fairy-tale magic wouldn’t hurt, either. “It is required / You do awake your faith,” Paulina tells Leontes’ court when Hermione’s statue comes alive (5.3.94-95). But we should remember that while Leontes cried in the chapel everyday for 16 years, Paulina was attending to the statue of her Queen every day. That doesn’t just take faith. It takes commitmentand discipline – which require self-government.
And it’s not lost on me that the person who stands up to the tyrant, who puts in the work, is a woman.
He greeted me as he always does when I come home. Through the frosted glass of the front door, I could see him perched atop the shoe bench, a shaggy black mass shimmying in excitement as I unlocked the door. He twirled. He jumped. I gave him some pets. He’s a great dog, Hugo is, and I told him as much in baby-talk hellos. He’s docile. He’s quiet. He loves to play. He loves to cuddle. But he does have one weakness.
I spotted a crumbled tissue in the hallway, which lead to a mangled tampon in the kitchen, which lead to a pile of detritus on the landing of the stairs. In the bathroom, the wastebasket was overturned, ransacked – because my wife left the door open when she left for her yoga certification course.
Any calm she might have been prepping for ahead of class was bombed out when she answered my phone call. I machine-gunned my anger: “I came home and there’s bloody fucking tampons everywhere and I don’t know whether he ate any but there’s shit everywhere so he must have eaten some and why did you leave the goddamn door open, I mean how many times do we have to deal with this because there’s fucking tampons everywhere so how much hydrogen peroxide do I give him? seriously how did you not think to close the door, tampons, tampons everywhere and you’re not being helpful!” and I hung up.
As I wiped up the nasty piles, occasionally mopping up goopy strands from his schnauzer beard, I couldn’t help but think of Shakespeare’s King John.
The dog was hiding under the kitchen table at this point, a tampon potentially already starting to swell up, blocking his intestines and leadingto his blended cotton-rayon demise. My wife called back. I declined. She called back. I declined. She called back. I declined. The pattern didn’t relent as I googled vet websites and scribbled out some dilution calculations. Funnily my wife had just bought some hydrogen peroxide (which she had been using for homemade teeth whitening) and I happened to have an dental irrigator (which I haven’t been using to clean some gums in the back of my mouth). Like some mad scientist I measured out and mixed water and peroxide in a tupperware container, drew it into the irrigator, opened Hugo’s confused maw, and squirted the emetic down his hatch.
Then I waited for him to vomit.
I thought about calling my wife back to fire off some more blame. I thought about how, if the dog died, it would all be her fault because she left the bathroom open, because she had to dispose of tampons in the little wastebasket we had in the bathroom, because she just – Hugo’s bowels lurched. He belched out an oozy white pancake of saliva, bile, water, frothy hydrogen peroxide, and a tampon. I was relieved. I texted my wife Hugo was OK and trailed after the poor little guy as he paced his retching way across room. And as I wiped up the nasty piles, occasionally mopping up goopy strands from his schnauzer beard,I couldn’t help but think of Shakespeare’s King John.
Love, hate, jealousy, mercy, pride, vengeance: Shakespeare never skimps on the big emotions, the big experiences of the human condition. But amid his big themes he also captures so damned well the little stuff that makes us so human, too. Take this moment in King John.
A little context. The history play, in a nutshell, dramatizes King John’s efforts to stave off a challenge to his tenuous claim to the throne from his nephew, Arthur. (It’s more so Arthur’s mother and French allies who lead the charge.) He orders a French citizen, Hubert, to kill Arthur, which Hubert pretends to do after Arthur’s been imprisoned. Meanwhile, some nobles convince King John to free Arthur. The next time they meet, Hubert tells King John how the people have taken the ‘news’ that Arthur is dead. Observe the wonderful micro-reactions in Hubert’s report:
Young Arthur’s death is common in their mouths,
And when they talk of him they shake their heads,
And whisper one another in the ear
And he that speaks doth grip the hearer’s wrist,
Whilst he that hears makes fearful action,
With wrinkled brows, with nods, with rolling eyes.
I saw a smith stand with his hammer,thus,
The whilst his iron did on the anvil cool,
With open mouth swallowing a tailor’s news,
Who with his shears and measure in his hands,
Standing on slippers which his nimble haste
Had falsely thrust upon contrary feet
Told of a many thousand warlike French
That were embattailed and ranked in Kent
Another lean unwashed artificer Cuts off his tale, and talks of Arthur’s death. (4.2.188-203)
The gripped wrist, the stopped work, the shoes put on backwards: These details are tiny but so real, so human. As is King John’s reaction:
Why urgest thou so oft young Arthur’s death?
Thy hand hath murdered him. I had a mighty cause
To wish him dead, but thou hadst none to kill him. (205-07)
But Hubert’s not having it: “Why, did you not provoke me?…Here is your hand and seal for what I did” (208-16). Hubert shows King John his own written order to kill Arthur.
Arthur, pettily, petulantly, comes back with:
How oft the sight of means to do ill deeds
Make deeds ill done! Hadst not thou been by,
A fellow by the hand of nature marked,
Quoted, and signed to do a deed of shame,
This murder had not come into my mind.
But taking note of thy abhorred aspect,
Finding thee fit for bloody villainy,
Apt, liable to be employed in danger,
I faintly broke with thee of Arthur’s death;
And thou, to be endeared to a king,
Made it no conscience to destroy a prince. (220-30)
Thats right: King John blames Arthur’s death on Hubert’s ugliness. His ugliness gave King John the idea. His ugliness compelled Hubert to make inferences from a small suggestion. His ugliness drove Hubert to carry out the deadly act. His ugliness.
King John cools off after Hubert reveals he didn’t actually kill him. In the very next scene, though, Arthur, whom Hubert freed from his shackles, jumps off the castle wall, apparently trying to escape. He dies in his fall.
I, too, cooled off after Hugo stopped vomiting. I thought about King John, so quick to blame Hubert for his own doing, so irrational in his small-minded arguments. I thought about me, my first reaction to our dog’s welfare being to fault my wife, to accuse her of intentional stupidity as opposed to looking past a lapsus mentis and working together to solve the problem.
King John goes on to apologize to Hubert:
Forgive the comment that my passion made
Upon thy feature, for my rage was blind,
And foul imaginary eyes of blood
Presented thee more hideous than thou art. (4.2.264-67)
Ironically enough, King John is later poisoned to death. Too bad he didn’t have any hydrogen peroxide on hand.
I washed off the puke-y, medicinal smell from Hugo’s beard. I lay down with him and gave him some gentle pets. I thought about Shakespeare. About his incredible insight even into our temper flareups, our self-defensive, first instinct to blame others, to take our frustrations out on other people. And I thought about how one of the greatest writers of the English language, of all language, can wriggle his way even mangled tampons and induced vomiting. I guess this is what happens when you read too much Shakespeare.
“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: “Oscorbidulchosvolvicoro” (4.1.74) and “Boblinbindochicurmurcho” (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).
It’s not the jealousy that pushes you over. It’s the obsession.
Today I can laugh about it. She ended up dumping him and came out as a lesbian, I learned through the grapevine years later. And when asked to explain that semester out of school, I usually just leave it as a “personal matter,” as if it was an illness. I suppose it was, in a way.
I don’t talk to either of them now, though from time to time, late-night whiskey steers me towards Facebook. He’s helping launch a craft brewery. She’s married and has a child with her partner. I’m happy for them. Really. And I actually can’t say it took me a long time to get there. Once I was over it, of course.
In our third session, my therapist recommended Prozac. She didn’t think I was depressed: She thought I was obsessive. I can’t disagree. But at the time, I didn’t like how high the dosage was. Apparently obsessive behaviors warrant more milligrams than depression. At the time, like so many individuals at their breaking points, I didn’t want to rely on any medication. I wanted to restore equilibrium from within, by my own wherewithal. Fortunately, that session, that recommendation, triggered in me for the first time anger, then indifference. Then I moved on.
Othello articulates a very particular psychological state. The state between ignorance and certainty, between the not-knowing and knowing: the not-not-knowing, where obsession oozes from the darker recesses of the mind and takes over the whole body, like food poisoning. Where obsession becomes possession.
Fortunately, I didn’t kill anybody. Unlike Othello. But I did pull out of college after thinking about jumping onto US 29 from K Street by the Washington Circle the very night I drove back from summer break to start my second year of college.
Jealousy, that “green-eyed monster,” is just the trigger (3.3.170). The rapid descent is thanks to obsession. To the over and over and over, thoughts always hissing in your ear like Iago, slithering, compulsive, ubiquitous, until the merest suggestion, “trifles light as air,” pushes the boulder of sanity over the precipice (3.3.326).
In The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice, Iago, through Janus-faced cunning, racial and religious resentment, and envy-mongering, drives Othello, the Venetian general, to kill his wife, Desdemona, and ultimately himself, by convincing Othello his lieutenant, Cassio, is having an affair with her. Why? The text says devilishly little on the motive for Iago’s all-consuming hatred: He begrudges Othello for promoting Cassio, not him, to his lieutenancy and believes rumors that Othello slept with his wife, Emilia. Here’s Iago’s insidious craft at work:
IAGO Will you think so?
OTHELLO Think so, Iago?
IAGO What, to kiss in private?
OTHELLO An unauthorized kiss.
IAGO Or to be naked with her friend in bed
An hour or more, not meaning any harm?
OTHELLO Naked in bed, Iago, and not mean harm?
It is hypocrisy against the devil.
They that mean virtuously and yet do so,
The devil their virtue tempts, and they tempt heaven.
IAGO If they do nothing, ’tis a venial slip.
But if I give my wife a handkerchief – (4.1.1-10)
The handkerchief Iago refers to is the love token Othello gave to Desdemona, and which Iago manages to manipulate as ‘evidence’ of her infidelity: “Trifles light as air,” as Iago famously observes, “Are to the jealous confirmations strong / As proofs of holy writ” (3.3.326-28).
I’ve mentioned before that I’ve memorized pathetically few lines of Shakespeare. This is one of them.
Iago is an evil genius who anticipated and mastered so much of psychology du jour: the powers of suggestion and visualization. He sprinkles questions and sows doubt. He paints a torturously vivid mental picture of Desdemona lying naked in bed with his lieutenant. Othello does the rest himself. At first it niggles. Then it rankles. Finally, it metastasizes.
He works himself into a trance as he plays over – and over and over and over – the thought, the possibility, the fleshy image of Desdemona having sex with Cassio.
As for me? I worked myself into panic attacks.
At some point, she’d started talking to her ex-boyfriend again. They had had a long, complicated relationship. We used to talk about that relationship after shifts at a Ruby Tuesday, where we both worked a few years before we ran into each other at a Barnes & Noble when I was back home from college during winter break. We’d chain-smoke in her silver Pontiac Grand Am. She’d always put Ani DiFranco or Pearl Jam on very low as I talked her through the turbulence. She’d always manage to keep that car smelling nice in spite of the smoke, too.
After that chance encounter at the bookstore, we fell into a long-term relationship between Cincinnati and D.C. At first it was intense and passionate, but just a half-year in, she started pulling away.
But in his pacing, breathing, sweating, head-clutching, gripped by the over and over and over by the slightest and lightest whisper of his wife’s adultery, I felt once again that loop, that broken record, that inexorable thought-cycle, that over and over and over overtake me.
Maybe there was nothing going on between them. She said there was nothing going on between them. But the evidence pointed otherwise. I saw the log on her cordless phone. Calls to Florida, where the ex lived. I learned from a friend that they met up when he was back in their hometown in Kentucky while she was herself visiting. This led me to check her mobile when she was in the shower. There were lots of calls. Long calls. Perhaps they were processing us as she and I once processed them. She insisted otherwise. I persisted anyways.
The ex dropped out of the picture, but maybe I drove her to spend more time with my best friend. We were writing music over that summer break when was I back home from school, even playing a few gigs here and there. I was semi-moved in to her place, which happened to be just down the road from my mother’s house at the time.
He was always around. They started smoking a lot of pot together.
One night, they encouraged me to grab my guitar down from my mother’s house. It felt like a strange request. They were sitting close and he was making her laugh. Reluctantly, I raced down and fetched my guitar. The dusk light illuminated their goofy half-smiles when I returned. They were seated just a bit more awkwardly.
I’d ring her after work. She’d already be hanging out with him at a mutual friend’s. I’s fell off from I love you’s. We were over in all but name. All but my acceptance, perhaps. But for some reason, I’d still tag along with them. One night, the three of us went out salsa dancing. She was a dance instructor studying to become a message therapist. I was terrible on the floor. So was my friend. But his clumsy maneuvers made her laugh. Desperately I’d insert myself, beats behind the sultry pulse. I’d get in a step or two and another partner had the dance.
“I had been happy if the general camp, / Pioneers and all, had tasted her sweet body, / So I had nothing known,” Othello remarks after he’s fallen for Iago’s plot. “O, now for ever / Farewell the tranquil mind, farewell content, Farewell the plumed troops and the big wars / That makes ambition virtue!” (3.3.350-55). He continues, curiously, bidding farewell to his military career, as if emasculated or, in the politics of the tragedy, stripped of the identity that gives him place as a black Moor in a white, Christian Venice. Grabbing Iago by the throat, he demands, “Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore” (3.3.364).
I think Othello begins to articulate to a very particular psychological state here. The state between ignorance and certainty, between the not-knowing and knowing: the not-not-knowing, where obsession oozes from the darker recesses of the mind and takes over the whole body, like food poisoning. Where obsession becomes possession.
One sleepless night, every 15 minutes or so I’d go outside and light a cigarette. Stepping into the middle of the empty street, into the jaundiced glow of the streetlights, I looked all the way down Ivanhoe Avenue. It was after two in the morning and her car still wasn’t parked in its usual spot. Eventually, I wore myself out. Or ran out of cigarettes. Whichever came first. First thing when I got up, the ritual punctuated by a few, thin hours of sleep, I went right outside. Still no sign of that goddamn Grand Am at the end of the street.
I wasn’t able to breath. Why were they there? Why was I there?
Another night, her car was there in the early evening and I obsessively checked to make sure it stayed there. During one round, I noticed his car, that old baby-blue Corolla hatchback, parked opposite. I learned my lesson: I bought a two-for-one Camel Lights special at the corner UDF. Then I drank the rest of my stepfather’s Heineken and my mother’s cheap chardonnay, listening to the Postal Service’s Give Up on repeat. My iPod’s white display pierced the humid and still late-summer dark. The buzz of the streetlights and cicadas droned. A police cruiser swept the blocks like an occasional, sticky breeze.
I had to walk down. I shouldn’t walk down. I needed to walk down. I knew it wasn’t going to make me feel any better if I walked down. But how could I not walk down? I won’t be able to stop thinking about until I walked down.
I walked down.
I stood under her window. Through the vinyl blinds the blue light of a TV flickered. They must have fallen asleep on her couch. She used to like to snuggle into my lap, her back nestling in between my legs, head on my chest, her two cocker spaniels at her feet. I imagined them sleeping there like that, as we had once.
His car was still there come morning.
On yet another, I chanced to look out the window when her car drove by around 11pm. We had spoken just a half-hour before. I was surprised she had answered. It was probably a tactical appeasement. It must be exhausting, I imagine, to silence call after call. It was exhausting, too, to hit redial on that old Nokia, hearing her Kentucky drawl in her voicemail each time: “Hi, you’ve reached…” She said she was staying in. As her car passed, her brake lights burned like taunting flares.
I had a hunch. I got into my car, chain-smoked my way over to another friend’s whose parents were away from the summer. They had a big house, a fancy house, with a hot tub. I pulled up, cautiously. Slicing through the dark, my headlights found the silver of her car parked behind the blue of his.
I lit a cigarette but I wasn’t able to breath. Why were they there? Why was I there?
“Where is this rash and most unfortunate man?” demands Lodovico, relative of Desdemona’s father, Brabanzio, after Othello has killed Desdemona.
“That’s he that was Othello. Here I am,” Othello, the Other now self-othered, answers, as if literally beside himself, as if possessed, physically taken over and kicked out by his jealous obsession (5.2.289-90).
Othello is a psychological play and a political play. The performance I saw – yes, I’ve managed to see a second play, folks – at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin played to these dimensions. The small stage and sparse production was close, intimate, as if squeezing us into Iago’s twisted mind, Othello’s tormented psyche. The theater also produced the play as part of the centenary commemoration of Ireland’s independence from Great Britain in 1916. While I found mapping Ireland’s revolution onto Othello problematic, this framing also focused the role race, religion, and national identity plays in Othello’s destruction – and helps explain his suggestibility, aware of his vulnerability as a cultural outsider.
But above all, the Abbey production powerfully emphasized the physicality of Othello, the physicality of jealousy and obsession. I was seated on the stage and could see Iago spit as he hissed, Desdemona’s face pale and wrinkle as her marriage inexplicably collapses, and Othello, drenched in sweat, convulse and twitch with obsession, eaten by his jealousy.
There are some serious differences, of course. My friend was no Iago and girlfriend no Desdemona. I, no Othello. (I did reprogram their names as “Brutus the Backstabber” and “Medea the Murderer” in my phone, though.) But in his pacing, breathing, sweating, head-clutching, gripped by the over and over and over by the slightest and lightest whisper of his wife’s adultery, I felt once again that loop, that broken record, that inexorable thought-cycle, that over and over and over overtake me when I called a friend back home after I made it to DC.
“What are you up to, man?”
“Just chillin’ with a few people.”
“Nice. Is, uh, who are you hanging out with? What’s going on?” I tried casually. He said our mutual friend – the Backstabber – was over.
“Cool. Yeah. Alright, is uh–”
“–Yeah, she’s over here, man. He invited over. I know. It’s complicated. But we’re just playing some Mario Kart.”
I thought about them rolling some joints, cracking some beers. I could hear the next album the friend, the one I called, put on. I could see the solid red and green Nintendo 64 controllers being passed around. Brutus would tease her for losing every race. Medea would laugh. Those goofy smiles would hang on their faces. Trifles, really.
I suppose my ache wasn’t over any betrayal. It was over feeling replaced, substituted, pass around, pass over. I think that’s went sent Othello over. I think that’s what sent me over that night, too.