Mothers of self-invention

I had a pulled a Shakespeare: Where was my mother?

I issued the usual complaint to my wife: “I don’t know what to write about.”

Henry VIII was in the books but no inspiration was coming to me. I had come down with a bad case of PPMD: Post-play Moping Disorder. Symptoms include: writer’s block, acute unoriginality, sore purpose, intellectual nausea, and mild gas.

“Your mother,” she said.

“Huh? My mother?”

“You haven’t written about your mother.”

She was right. I had written about my stepmother. I had written about my brothers. About my father and grandfather. About old friends and new friends. I had written on many occasions about my wife (and our many arguments). I had called up grade-school teachers and past girlfriends. I had even dedicated a whole post to my dog.

But my mother? She was nowhere to be found.

I had pulled a Shakespeare.

***

What happened to Queen Lear? In The Tempest, why don’t we hear about Miranda’s mother? Desdemona’s father plays a major part in Othello, but what about her mom? So too with The Taming of the Shrew. We hear about Portia’s father in The Merchant of Venice but not his counterpart. Titus Andronicus has a whole brood of children (25 at one point) but no mention of their mum. Nada, zilch, squat on Prince Hal’s mother from what I recall in Henry IVmaybe that’s why he was acting out. As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, Cymbeline. The list goes on.

In so many of Shakespeare’s plays, mothers are conspicuously absent.

And some of the mothers he does feature aren’t exactly getting a call on Mother’s Day. The un-bereaved Gertrude in Hamlet? The vengeful Tamora in Titus Andronicus? Distant Lady Capulet in Romeo and Juliet? Even Lady Macbeth. When she’s laying into her husband for lacking cojones to kill King Duncan, she suggests she once had a child:

…I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me.
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn
As you have done to this. (1.7.54-59).

When there are strong mothers, they’re often vilified: King Leontes tyrannizes Queen Hermione in A Winter’s Tale and Queen Margaret, whose hard-nosed leadership is viewed as too masculine, is deemed unnatural in Henry VI. Volumnia in Coriolanus, meanwhile, strikes many critics as over-mothering to the point of warmongering.

What gives, Shakespeare? What do you have against moms? People like to joke Shakespeare’s absent wives and queens divorced their husbands long before Act I. Take Prospero, who spent all his time reading magic books, and you can imagine King Lear was pretty controlling. Would you stick around for these two? (I think I should hide these two plays from my own wife.)

But jokes aside, was Shakespeare short on talent? Young boys played female characters on the Elizabethan stage; perhaps they weren’t seen as believable in the role of adult women. Or was Shakespeare just heavy on patriarchy? Wives, sadly, were largely relegated to the private sphere in Shakespeare’s day, thereby removing them from the public action that drives the plots of his plays.

One of his most women-centric plays, case in point, is a domestic comedy: The Merry Wives of Windsor (Mistress Margaret Page has a daughter and a son). But the wives, you may recall, hilariously outwit the lusty Falstaff and have some good clean fun at their husbands’ expense. Perhaps Shakespeare was actually pushing the Renaissance husband-wife/father-mother envelope, even if just a skosh?

***

And what’s my excuse, you ask? I’m putting the question right back on you: Do you think the likes of Lady Macbeth in any way makes me think of my dear mother?! Well, a few glasses of chardonnay in, my mother does like to joke of my birth: “They pulled you from my womb. They pulled you from my body.” That’s kind of Lady Macbeth-level graphic, isn’t it? I can hear one of my brothers bellowing: “Mom, c’mon! That’s gross!”

Maybe Shakespeare didn’t write mothers into his plays because he got along with his mother.

The truth is, I chased Shakespeare’s emotional ambulances. Conflict is my way into his plays. Conflict is essential to any good story, my writing here included. And conflict is something, other than me being occasionally too judgmental of her when we talk on the phone, that my mother and I, fortunately, haven’t experienced much of.

Maybe Shakespeare didn’t write mothers into his plays because he also got along with his mother.

***

Mary Shakespeare, née Arden, came from some money and status. Shakespeare’s father, John, was a farmer’s son. Mary married down. Did she marry for love, for fulfillment? Did she exercise more choice and will than your typical Elizabethan woman?

I also can’t help but wonder how Mary and John reacted when young Bill said he was going into theater. I’m sure you can hear it today, too, when one tells their parents, oh, I don’t know, you’re quitting your job to read the complete works of Shakespeare.

But maybe Mary was supportive. Maybe Shakespeare modeled one of his best mothers, the caring but fair Countess in All’s Well That Ends Well, after his own. The advice she gives to her (ungrateful) son Bertram as he’s going abroad is something every son should heed today:

Be thou blessed, Bertram, and succeed thy father
In manners as in shape. Thy blood and virtue
Contend for empire in thee, and thy goodness
Share with thy birthright. 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…(1.1.54-61)

I’ve revisited this passage several times since finishing the play. In part because I find her advice so pure, wise, simple, and true. In part because I find it remarkable Shakespeare left us such lucid moral instruction. And in part because I hear the guidance my own mother has always provided me at crossroads in my life: “Follow your heart.”

***

I’ve often struggled with her words. A lot of times, I didn’t know how to listen to my heart. I didn’t know what it was trying to tell me. Other times, I just wanted someone else to make the big decision for me. And, to be honest, I’ve struggled with them because she’s said them so damned often – you I know I love you, Mom – that they just lost all their meaning. They’re like a truism, a verbal tic.

Following one’s heart: That requires self-invention. And there’s nothing more Shakespearean than that.

But something I never considered until I thought about Shakespeare’s mothers was: Why those words? Why that expression? Why that particular advice? Why did my mother always tell me to follow my heart?

There were times in her life, I think, when she wasn’t allowed to follow her heart, perhaps restricted like a Renaissance mother. Then there came a point when she could. This shift, this freedom, though born of painful circumstance, let her reinvent herself, who she is, what she could be, what could she do.

Following one’s heart: That requires self-invention. And there’s nothing more Shakespearean than that.

My mother pulled a Shakespeare – a proper Shakespeare.

Everything and nothing: Hamlet, Part 3

Maybe we expect too much. Or not enough.

January 4

Words, words, words. (2.2.192)

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.

***

January 5

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.

Everything and nothing: Hamlet, Part 2

It’s a ghost story, after all.

December 31 – January 1

Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio – a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred my imagination is!…Where be your gibes now, your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? (5.1.171-77).

“How would you normally get there?” my father asked when we left to drop me off at my rental car, which I left by the bar.

“Uhh,” I tapped the window as the directions, like old home-phone numbers and Catholic school prayers, came back to me. “71-South to the Lateral to 75-South. Get off at St. Bernard and take Clifton up.”

The highway curved around hillsides, revealing familiar steeples and factory chimneys under an ashen sky, and new buildings, too. A medical center where the movie theater used to be. A business complex on a long-empty lot. Like a new couch in your parents’ living room, the structures. Changing everything and nothing.

***

I got a coffee from United Dairy Farmers. Displays for local craft beers loudly capped the aisles. But the same smell of malt powder and cake cones hung in the air.

Then I crossed the street and picked up two coneys – “Mustard and onion, please” – and a small 3-way from the nearby Skyline Chili to bring back for my wife. We had wanted to partake of some old favorites, to visit some old stomping grounds, while we were in town, but she came down with a fever and was laid up for several days.

The restaurant had new paint. They were selling t-shirts now. The conies climbed to over two bucks a piece. But the shredded cheese was just as yellow and melty, the windows just as fogged up from the bun steamer.

I lingered past a former apartment I spent years in on my drive back. Past corners of the university campus I walked for work and class. The Vietnamese spot moved across the street.

If the building were speaking to me, I couldn’t hear them. What did I expect them to say? What I want them to say?

Places move on.

***

Later that night, I met up with an old friend – the same who wouldn’t touch Juliet’s boob – for New Year’s. For weeks I had been nagging him about plans when I was in town. There was a need for organization and preparation, I felt, when you’re only back once a year. I could never reach him on FaceTime or email so I resorted to Facebook. I’d detour on pictures of camping trips and group selfies. I’d try to imagine myself in the frame.

It’s so beautiful, and so strange, how we come in and out of each other’s lives, like ghosts.

We went over to his buddy’s house, who was hosting a small get-together. At one point, my friend and I were the only two people on the couch in the living room, both drinking some Cincinnati craft beer, the Dick Clark New Years Rockin’ Eve duly muted in the  background.

“Did my…FaceTime Audio ever go through to you? Sometimes they don’t go through.”

“Uh, maybe a few? I’m not really sure.”

“Ah, yeah. They probably showed up as ‘Unknown.’”

What did I expect him to say? What did I want him to say? People move on.

“You need a beer?” I asked. 

“Yeah. Mine are on the porch.”

I stopped to take in the cool air. The porch overlooked Wasson and Paxton: Railroad tracks I had often walked, a grocery store where I had often shopped. But I had never seen them from this angle before, flattened and seeming so small from this height.

I grabbed my friend a Truth.

Back inside, the host presented me with a tumbler. He wanted me to taste his Midsummer Night’s Dram, of all things. A rye finished in French oak port barrels. I rolled it around my tongue watching Ryan Seacrest and Jenny McCarthy move their lips. I’m John. I go way back with Matt, I replayed my introduction to the host. Oh, I know who you are, he said. I’ve heard a lot of stories about you.

***

Just ahead of the ball-drop, we all crammed Cincinnati craft beers into our pockets and walked down to a local square. A community Facebook page promised a neighborhood party, food trucks, beer stalls, fireworks. But the square was empty except for another group, who also were expecting the event. Someone with us lead the countdown on their phone. We finished a few seconds before the other group, who were following a different countdown, apparently. At the eruption of their Happy New Year!, one of the guys dropped to his knee and proposed to his girlfriend. She said yes. We took their photos. We said our congratulations. Fireworks went off. 

Walking back to the house, I commented to another partygoer how we witnessed this intense and intimate moment for the couple, this defining moment, and yet, in all odds, we’ll never see them again. Further small talk led us to discover we went to the same dentist as kids.

It’s so beautiful, and so strange, how we come in and out of each other’s lives, like ghosts.

***

Not long after midnight, my friend drove me home. He stopped drinking a while back. We were tried. Or bored. Or both. Or…Unspoken words are like ghosts.

I tried not to make too much noise when I ate the Skyline over the kitchen sink in the dark. I thought about the tiny fissure of time between our New Year countdowns. As if it set off two separate new years unfolding in two separate universes.

***

January 2-3, 2017

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in our philosophy. (1.5.168-69)

Sometime around one in the morning, I softly, deliberately, closed Hamlet. I smoothed over the cover and squared the volume with my notebooks and laptop on the dining table. In the soft glow of the reading lamp, over my final sips of tea, I listened. I waited. I didn’t know what for. 

***

I had been finishing the play, Shakespeare’s longest, in snatches stolen here and there at my oldest brother’s house in Columbus, where I stayed for a few days to spend some extra time with my nephew.

“How’s Hammy?” my brother asked me at one such reading.

I laughed. “You know, I had forgotten that he was 30 in the play.”

“Least you could forget it. I’ve never read it. I’m running out to get some beers – no Rhinegeist, Hammy be damned. I’m good on Rhinegeist.”

***

In all his squeals and giggles, in all his tumbles and preverbal clamors, my nephew is raw life, unmediated, unburdened, by the mind knowing itself as a mind. He is decisively, blissfully, un-Hamletian.

It’s hard reading Hamlet with a toddler around, because it’s hard wanting to read Hamlet with a toddler around. Eating, crying, playing, shitting: These are welcome distractions. In all his squeals and giggles, in all his tumbles and preverbal clamors, my nephew is raw life, unmediated, unburdened, by the mind knowing itself as a mind. He is decisively, blissfully, un-Hamletian. And so, too, I find my brother. Feeding, soothing, entertaining and teaching, cleaning: The parent of the toddler is managing the relentless onslaught of life, unconcerned with, unavailable to, the self-indulgent dread of that deeper, darker self-knowledge. There are no expectations. No demands, no disappointments. Just the immediate business of living. 

***

I heard nothing but the house its night noises. Boards creaked. Pipes tapped. Upstairs, my nephew issued a solitary cry in his sleep. I wondered what he was dreaming.

Everything and nothing: Hamlet, Part 1

Tap, tap, tap.

December 28

O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I! (2.2.527)

“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.

***

December 29

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.

“No. What?”

“The tapping.”

I listened closely. Three taps. A long pause. Two taps. Pause. Taps.

“That damned cardinal is back.”

“Cardinal?”

“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?”

She laughed.

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?

***

December 30

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.

Past, present, and macaroni salad: Henry VIII 

Why do we make the choices we make?

“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 of  glory,
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.

Hearing heirs: The Tempest

Should I get my ears checked?

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can be such a Bertram.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

Sibling rivalries: As You Like It

Brothers will always wrestle – in one form or another.

My brother gripped my arms and twisted me to the ground. On my way down, I crashed into and through set of doors. That’s when our father came down. “What are you guys doing down here?”

We caught our breaths. We wiped sweat from our brows. Our faces were red from exertion. He had taken off his shirt. I rubbed my arms, chafing from rug burn and dinged up in my fall.

“Everything’s OK, Dad,” my brother answered. “We’re just, uh, doing some wrestling.”

“At two in the morning? It sounds like an orgy!” His tone was bemused. I like to imagine our fraternal roughhousing was as nostalgic for him as it was for my brother and me. Seldom are the times when we all sleep under the same roof. Long past are the days when any late-night horseplay roused the sleeping patriarch.

“You brought the whole bottle down here?” My father pointed to the Maker’s Mark on the coffee table, which we pushed aside to make extra room for our inebriated and impromptu wrestling match in the basement guest suite at my father’s house. We had already polished off a special – and expensive – bottle of scotch he bought for our Christmas celebrations this year. Naturally, we moved onto bourbon. This, too, was a brand-new bottle purchased for the occasion.

“We’ll knock it off,” I assured.

He went back upstairs. The two of us laughed, took swigs of whiskey, and assumed our crouched stances.

***

“All the world’s a stage,” the gloomy nobleman Jaques famously muses in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. “And all the men and women merely players” (2.7.138-39). While a thematic obsession throughout his corpus, this comedy particularly plays with the theater of social identity.

It’s a brilliant and rewarding romantic comedy, but I was particularly struck by its attention to one particular social role in its cast of characters: being a brother.

As You Like It isn’t a busy play. Set almost entirely in a French forest, it features the romance of Orlando and Rosalind. Duke Frederick sets the play in motion after he usurps and banishes his younger brother, Duke Senior. Meanwhile, Orlando, the abused younger brother of Oliver, takes on Frederick’s wrestler and wins. At the match, he falls in love with Rosalind, Senior’s daughter and sister-like friend to his own daughter, Celia. Feeling threatened by Rosalind, Frederick banishes her. She, with Celia, flees to the forest, where Orlando has also fled to escape threats from the duke – and on his life from his own brother. Duke Senior likewise has taken refuge in the same woods. To flee, Rosalind disguises herself as a man, calling herself Ganymede, and Celia as a lowly rustic, Aliena.  (Adding to the comedy, of course, is that both women were played by men on Shakespeare’s stage, making them men posing as women posing as men.)

In the forest, Ganymede encounters a lovesick Orlando, whom, ironically, she mentors in wooing Rosalind – herself. Duke Frederick then comes searching for his daughter in the woods. So, too, Oliver to finish off his brother, but he changes his minds after Orlando saves his life. Duke Frederick also changes heart and restores his brother to his rightful rule. True to the pastoral genre, all real identities are revealed in the end. All disorder is ordered. All separated are (re)united, including Rosalind and Orlando, who marry.

As You Like It also features a wonderful clown, Touchstone; folk songs of historical note; some curious early animal rights activism; the jaded and melancholy monologues of Jaques; and the only known epilogue delivered by a woman (though, again, played by a man) in Elizabethan theater. It’s a brilliant and rewarding romantic comedy, but I was particularly struck by its attention to one particular social role in its cast of characters: being a brother.

***

Let’s take Oliver and Orlando. Oliver, the older brother, inherits his father’s estate, but he detests his younger brother, depriving him a gentleman’s education – not to mention trying to kill him. He explains his irrational hatred:

I hope I shall see the end of him, for my soul – yet I know not why – hates nothing more than he. Yet he’s gentle; never schooled, and yet learned; full of noble device; of all sorts enchantingly beloved; and indeed, so much in the heart of the world, and especially of my own people, who best know him, that I am altogether misprized. But it shall not be so long. (1.1.139-45)

Duke Frederick, the younger brother, is similarly jealous and tyrannical, as one of his attendants explains:

The other is daughter to the banished Duke,
And here detained by her usurping uncle
To keep his daughter company, whose loves
Are dearer than the natural bond of sisters.
But I can tell you that of late this Duke
Hath ta’en displeasure ‘gainst his gentle niece,
Grounded upon no other argument
But that the people praise her for her virtues
And pity her for her good father’s sake. (1.2.240-48)

Now, Oliver and Frederick’s actions are extreme. This, in part, ignites the plot and adds fuel to the comedic fire. But I think all brothers and sisters can relate to their reasons: sibling rivalry. And while he doesn’t directly grapple with his brother, Orlando’s match with Duke Frederick’s wrestler, Charles, perfectly encapsulates fraternal competition.

***

I am the youngest of three brothers. My oldest is six years my senior. My middle brother, my wrestling opponent, four. The three of us are very close, thanks in large part to my parent’s divorce, I think. We sought refuge in each other – like the forest sanctuary in As You Like It – during the shared trial. We still process it nearly 25 years later. In spite of it, good parenting, and perhaps our native personalities, helped to bond us especially tightly.

The forest is a place where true selves are liberated from their social constructions and meditations, where brothers can put aside their rivalries, meeting not in competition but in play.

But we’ve also wrestled over the years. I wrestled especially with my middle brother.  Growing up, he’d let me tag along with his friends after school. He’d watch after me on playgrounds. We’d share rooms, beds. Years later, cigarettes, drinks, dreams – and not a few insecurities that only affinity and intimacy can set off.

He made a snarky comment one Christmas Eve dinner when we were both in our twenties, or at least I very near it. I accidentally poured too much sauce onto some meat. “You want some steak with that sauce?” he teased me.

“Why do you have to comment on everything I do?” I snapped. He hit a nerve. I overreacted. From there, well, let’s just say we ruined dinner.

Now both in our thirties, I hit my own nerve just the other day. He was in a rough patch but I still preachily niggled him over some self-exaggerated affront. “Why do you always think you’re better than me?” he said. Er, shouted. I pushed his buttons. But that’s siblings: We go postal over the pettiest slights, feeling in their inconsequence the blood-thickest of import.

But just as we erupt like H-bombs, so do siblings forgive and forget. Shouts and curses hotter than Satan’s own fire and brimstone quickly cool off with apologies and affections.

Here’s how Oliver comes back to his senses. Slowly revealing his identity by referring to himself in the third-person, he relates, with shame and humility, how his brother saves his life when he’s asleep in the woods:

…About his neck
A green and gilded snake had wreathed itself,
Who with her head, nimble in threats, approached
The opening of his mouth. But suddenly
Seeing Orlando, it unlinked itself,
And with indented glides did slip away
Into a bush, under which bush’s shade
A lioness, with udders all drawn dry,
Lay crouching, head on ground, with catlike watch
When that the sleeping man should stir. For ’tis
The royal disposition of that beast
To prey on nothing that doth seem as dead.
This seen, Orlando did approach the man
And found it was his brother, his elder brother…
Twice did he turn his back, and purposed so.
But kindness, nobler ever than revenge,
And nature, stronger than his just occasion,
Made him give battle to the lioness,
Who quickly fell before him…(4.3.106-30)

Orlando rescues his brother, though he did think about leaving him to the lion. Twice. (Brothers.)

As for Duke Frederick, he apparently has a sudden religious awakening. As Jaques reports:

Duke Frederick, learning how that every day
Men of great worth resorted to this forest,
Addressed a mighty power, which were on foot,
In his own conduct purposely to take
His brother here, and put him to the sword.
And to the skirts of this wild wood he came
Where, meeting with an old religious man,
After some question with him was converted
Both from his enterprise and from the world,
His crown bequeathing to his banished brother,
And all their lands restored to them again
That were with him exiled. (5.4.143-54)

Oliver and Ferdinand’s seismic metanoia might seem like some incredulous plot device serving only to drive the play’s climactic unions. But for all its convenience, their changes thicken the symbolism of the forest in the play. The woods are a dangerous place where lions and snakes lurk. Mysterious, hermitic spiritualists find home there, too. It’s a place of hunger, as we see many characters complaining of appetites as ravenous as its skulking beasts’. It’s a place of disguise and magic. It’s a place of transformation, of wildness and authenticity, removed from the political artifices, vanities, crises, and considerations of the city and the court. A place where true selves are revealed, re-calibrated. Liberated, even, from their social constructions and meditations, where brothers can put aside their rivalries, meeting not in competition but in play.

***

The next morning, we slept late. Remarkably, neither of us rubbed our foreheads for as much as we boozed. But we did rub our arms and shoulders and thighs. We aren’t such young men anymore.

“I had you in a couple of pins last night,” my brother bragged.

“You didn’t pin me. I wriggled out of each one.”

“Dude, I threw you through a set of doors.”

“And you called it a night right as I had you pressed on the ground.”

We aren’t such young men anymore, but we are brothers – and brothers will always wrestle in one form or another.

Disintegration loops: King Lear, Part 3

It’s not King Lear’s madness that is so terrifying. It’s that he knows he’s losing his mind.

On Facebook, my stepmother recently posted a picture of my grandfather, father, and my oldest brother with his son propped on his knee. “4 Generations of Kellys,” she titled it. It’s a lovely picture and I looked at for some time. I stared into each of their eyes, wondering what they were thinking.

In the picture, my father and brother are crouching down to join my grandfather at wheelchair-level. Proud, they squint into the sun and smile, knowing the significance of the snapshot. What were they thinking about being fathers, about being sons? About being men?

Meanwhile, my grandfather, 98, and nephew, just over one, are positioned to face the camera. They gaze, expressionless, eyes cast slightly down. What were they thinking? Were they watching the dappled shadows of the trees rippling across the ground from a slight, early summer breeze? I suspect neither of them will ever remember this photograph being taken. Neither of them, it struck me, will ever remember each other. This is when I finally understood the terror of King Lear.

***

The terror of King Lear is not in the wrath of the god-like patriarch, blinded by his own white-hot pride and indignation: “Ingratitude, thou marble-hearted fiend, / More hideous when thou show’st thee in a child / Than the sea-monster!” (1.4.236-38).

It’s not in the delirious, naked, and rejected man, raging at the storm in the desolate heath at night: “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!…You sulphurous and thought-executing fires, / Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts, / Singe my white head!” (3.2.1-6).

Nor even in the old father, cradling his beloved Cordelia and trying to will some sign of life from her: “No, no, no life! / Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more, / Never, never, never, never, never!” (5.3.304-07)

No, it’s not Lear in the heights of his fury, the belly of his madness, or the depths of his despair. “Your old kind father, whose frank heart gave all– / O, that way madness lies; let me shun that,” King Lear tells himself (3.4.21-22). This is the terror of King Lear. Shakespeare drags us into Lear’s descent. We have to watch him fall apart. We have see him see himself lose his mind.

***

“Grandpa looked good,” I’m sure my brother cheered when they were leaving the nursing home after the photo.

“He’s plugging away,” my father must have remarked, the very summary my grandfather issued when he could still hold a conversation.

During the visit, I bet my brother joked about the attention our grandfather gets from the ladies. My father, with loving sarcasm, certainly reminded his father that he already ate ice cream today. “You don’t remember eating it? Have a look at your shirt, Dad!” Perhaps my grandfather slowly lifted up his heavy brows, wreathed in white, and mumbled from some interior place beyond humor: “Oh.” The perpetual loop of the present would’ve rope him back until the merciful timelessness of sleep took over.

Did my brother glance at our father when he said his goodbyes? Did he catch a wrinkle of sadness on his forehead, a warble in his voice? Did my father look away when my brother lifted his son up to his great-grandfather, two bodies knowing nothing of each other beyond some deep, primordial recognition of fellow flesh, nearly 100 years apart.

I’m sure neither said that this may be the last time they see him, though certainly they thought it before turning their minds back to the soothing preoccupations of the mundane: how the traffic would be on the drive home, what chores waited for them, when they’d eat dinner.

***

For me, I’m not sure I’ll ever see my grandfather again. I’m not sure I’ll even talk to him again. In fact, I don’t even really remember the last time I did. I mean, really talked to him.

For the mind eventually collapses on itself and into the dementia of the infinite present.

At first, my father and stepmother referred to it as “sundowning syndrome.” I’d ask questions. “Well,” they’d begin. They’d talk of onset and progression. They’d parse degrees of cognitive impairment. But at some point, distinctions don’t matter, as much as medical terminology disinfects with its clinical detachment and sanitizes with its lemon-scented denial. For the mind eventually collapses on itself and into the dementia of the infinite present. Like an imploding star, swallowing all the light and heat of our children’s names, our addresses, how to tie our shoelaces, when our wives will finally come back from the store into the cold void of the perpetual, selfness now.

***

We usually spoke with him on Thanksgiving or Christmas at my father’s house. On the couch, my father would surface from a nest of bills, newspapers, legal pads, screens, wires, and joint braces: “You guys want to wish Grandad a happy holiday?” From our own forts of beer bottles, phones, dogs, and unfulfilled filial expectations, we’d answer: “Absolutely!” We’d rush to crack fresh beers. A cordless phone made the rounds. I’d pace around other rooms to avoid my middle brother’s judging glare for talking too loudly. Into his 90s, my grandfather’s voice was quiet. Into my fourth beer, my voice was loud.

“Hi, Grandpa, this is John…I’m good…No, I’m still in Cincinnati…Yeah, getting my teaching license…Ha, yeah, I’ll be sure to keep those kids in line…Well, I don’t play the bass fiddle much anymore but I’m still plucking that guitar!…I remember you telling me about your clarinet days…Eat a lot of turkey today?…No, sounds like you should be watching out for those nurses!…Yeah, well, plugging away. That’s right…I appreciate that, Grandpa. Love you, too. OK, handing the phone back to my dad now. OK, bye, Grandpa!”

“Hi, Grandpa this is John…I’m good…You sound great! No, I’m in Minneapolis now…No, he’s in Columbus….Well, I’m getting married next summer…Ah, I appreciate that, Grandpa…It was great talking to you…Thanks, Grandpa…Love you, here’s my dad.”

“Hi, Grandpa, this is John…I’m good…No, he’s in Columbus…I’m actually moving to–no, he’s in Columbus…Well, love you, Grandpa. Here’s my dad.”

“Hi, Grandpa…I just wanted to wish you a Happy Turkey Day! Love you, OK. Here’s my dad.”

Before his Alzheimer’s – or whatever it is – was too far advanced, he’d catch himself. “I’m sorry. I’m not so good at remembering stuff anymore.” His loops shortened overtime. I think he knew I was a grandchild. I’m not sure how long he was able to hold on to it.

“I told Grandpa everyone says hello,” my father eventually took over.

***

Not too long ago, my father phoned me in the afternoon when I still lived in California. Since I’ve moved from home, first across the states and now overseas, I’ve been diligent about calling my friends and family. So diligent, in fact, I usually I am the one initiating contact. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw “Dad” show up on my caller ID. I was even more surprised when he just wanted to talk. Conversations with my father are usually pretty short. I often feel like I’m the one asking most of the questions. This time, he was chatty, inquisitive, engaged. A son wants nothing more from his father.

I felt sad because because I could see him seeing that he was losing his father.

“Well,” he said in the middle of our conversation, which usually indicated some sort of leave-taking, but he went on. “I called Grandad today.”

“How’s he doing?”

“It was the first time he didn’t recognize me.” I heard a slight tremble in his voice. I could hear the TV playing in his living room.

“I’m so sorry, Dad.”

I didn’t know what else to say. I felt sad. But not for my grandfather. I’ve not had much of a relationship with him, especially since he lived in Floria as long as I could remember, moving back to Cleveland only after his mind started going.

I felt sad because my father was sad. Sad because I could see him seeing that he was losing his father.

“He has his good days and his bad days. I’m sure he’ll come around tomorrow.”

***

I never personally connected with King Lear, this tragedy of tragedies, because I always tried seeing me in him, trying to locate myself somewhere in the sublime profundity of his broken psyche. Perhaps when I’m older, perhaps when I’m a father myself will these dimensions of King Lear ring more keenly.

For now, after staring at the photo of four generations of men in my family, I can’t help but see my own father and grandfather in Lear. Not in his flaws and follies, his despair and dejection, his rage and rejection, in his madness and mourning. But in his interiority, in those glimpses of luminous self-knowledge that dapple his disintegration – like those moments my grandfather reckoned, if briefly, with the decay of his own mind, those moments my own fathered acknowledged it, if briefly. As though for a moment they glimpsed their own selves, small and naked, fearing in that cold and unfeeling storm of nothingness.

“No more of that,” Lear tries to persuade his own, creeping madness (3.4.23). That is the terror of Lear. That is the play’s excruciating, exquisite genius.

Glass houses and jelly meerkats: King Lear, Part 2

Dysfunctional Shakespearean families: They’re just like us!

I have a lot of questions about King Lear. Like what is wrong with these people?

“Which of you shall we say doth love us most?” a retiring King Lear asks his three daughters, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia, as he divides his kingdom up among them (1.1.49). Unlike her sisters, Lear’s favorite, Cordelia, doesn’t fawn over him with the false flattery he’s fishing for. And Lear loses it. He disowns her, sending her off to the King of France without dowry, “for we / Have no such daughter, nor shall ever see / That face of hers again” (1.1.263-65).

Why would you ask that question, Lear? Don’t you think you took things way out of proportion? Did you really listen to what Cordelia what was saying? What were you thinking? This has been my struggle with Lear: Everything escalates so quickly. From 0 to insanity in one act.

Later, Goneril, now heiress to half her father’s kingdom, can’t handle her father’s retinue, who “hourly carp and quarrel, breaking forth / In rank and not-to-be-endured riots” (1.4.175-78). They’re unruly house guests, to be sure, but Lear is none too pleased with her ingratitude: “Into her womb convey sterility! / Dry up in her the organs of increase” (1.4.255-56). “Infect her beauty,” he later curses, “You fen-sucked fogs, drawn by the powerful sun, / To fall and blast her pride!” (2.4.159-61)

He did give you half his kingdom, Goneril. Can’t your father enjoy his waning days? But Lear, again, do you have to ratchet things up so much? I mean, you gave up your crown. Do you think you get to act like a king still?

I thought my family was dysfunctional. But the Lears are just batshit cra–like us.

Regan adds insult to injury: “O, sir, you are old” (2.4.139). She won’t put up with Lear’s knights either. “I gave you all–” Lear points out; Regan, like an entitled millennial, answers that it was about time he did (2.4.245). Everyone sees that Lear is cracking, especially when, martyr-like, he threatens to stay out in a violent storm after his daughters refuse to house his full retinue. But his daughters think he “must needs taste his folly” (2.4.286). “Shut up your doors,” Regan orders, and they actually lock their old father out (2.4.299).

Who do you think you are, Regan? Your dad’s losing his mind. Now’s not the time to make him learn a lesson – and out in the storm of the century at that. What is wrong with these people? I thought my family was dysfunctional. But the Lears are just batshit cra–like us.

***

“Goddamnit,” I complain, vainly thrusting the broom handle under the fridge. “How the hell did it get all the way back there? Jesus.” I stormed into the sitting room. “Aren’t you going to help me?”

“Are you listening to yourself right now?” My wife gets up from the couch. “I was trying to but you didn’t want me pulling out the fridge.”

We argue our way back to the kitchen. “I’m pulling out the fridge.”

“But you said it was gonna scratch the floor!”

“Well, I don’t know how our landlady expects us to keep these fucking floors perfect.”

“Just leave it back there then.”

“Leave it back there? It’ll attract ants and mice. What do you mean, leave it back there?”

“Well, you’re the one so concerned about the floors.”

“You’re not concerned with the floors? See, this is why you’re a slob. This is why we don’t buy shit in checkout lines. It’s impulse. It’s crap.”

“This is why you’re a dick.” My wife stomped back to the sitting room and slammed the door.

I carefully pulled out the fridge, reached back, and picked it up. I was tempted to march into the sitting room and present it to her: “You still fucking want this?”

Sometimes it just takes a gummy candy in the unusual shape of a meerkat that, after my wife accidentally dropped it, somehow fell all the way under the back of the fridge.

Then I thought about Lear. I lightly rap on the door. “I’m sorry, honey.”

***

When we first meet him in the Royal & Derngate’s production of King Lear, Edgar is carrying a bottle and slurring his words. (In a parallel plot, Gloucester’s so Edgar has a half-brother , the bastard Edmund, who convinces their father that Edgar is scheming to kill him for their inheritance.) I didn’t really give much attention to Edgar’s drunkenness – a directorial decision – until I later came read a short review by Lyn Gardner in The Guardian. She observes:

This is a production that makes you wonder what has been going on in the Lear household to produce three such dysfunctional daughters, and the emphasis is very much on the younger generation. Interesting, but it has the effect of sidelining Michael Pennington’s king, who seldom seems more than a volatile domestic tyrant.

Perhaps it does sideline Lear, but to good effect, because why does everyone in King Lear just fall to pieces?

In his opening soliloquy, Edmund grumbles: “Why brand they us / With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?” (1.2.9-10). Historically, we might appreciate his bitterness: His father’s sexual indiscretions cut him off from inheritance. Over 400 years ago, Shakespeare’s audience, familiar with primogeniture, would have felt his plight more keenly – not that it justifies plotting against his family. But in 2016, his motivation is much less immediate, making Edmund seem purely evil. And it’s hard to relate to pure evil.

This is why I find the director’s choice (or the actor’s) to make Edgar drunk so brilliant. This is why the Royal & Derngate’s Lear helped bring the drama of this trumpeted tragedy to life. We get hits of motivation. Edgar initially comes across as a cocky, entitled rich kid, and Edmund, a quietly suffering loner. Again, not that this justifies Edmund ruining his family (and, in part, Lear’s), but that bottle, that drunken swagger, hints at so much emotional baggage, pent-up resentment, and complicated family history. Do Goneril and Regan hold it against their father for favoring Cordelia? Is Lear just looking for a little filial reassurance as he confronts his mortality? What past wounds are reopened when Lear feels so totally rejected by his daughter’s slights? Have the youth of this play somehow been held back the systems of inheritance? Do the youth of this play take for granted their inheritance?

***

We don’t see the tension build up in King Lear. We just see it boil over. We just see the jelly meerkat: Not all the previous arguments about cleanliness, control, respect, and tone it triggers, the ongoing friction of two strong-willed personalities learning interdependence, the monetary and career burdens my wife takes on for me to write, the enduring trauma of divorce and how it shapes my communication habits and values, insecurities about body image and anxieties about what it means to be alive and –

What has been going on in the Lear household? Perhaps in King Lear Shakespeare wants us to imagine our own. Mine, for one, is made of glass. And you know what they say about glass houses and jelly meerkats.