Completions and communions

I read myself in Shakespeare. I read Shakespeare in me.

Not long after I finished the complete works, I popped into a bookstore. I knew exactly where to find him. He has his own section. He always has his own section.

I strutted straight over. Shakespeare.

Top to bottom, shelf by shelf, I eyed all the Macbeth’s and Much Ado About Nothing’s, all the Romeo and Juliet’s and Richard III’s. I puffed out my chest. I cocked back my chin.

Think your so tough? I said to myself. I read you. I pointed to Hamlet. I read you. I pointed to The Tempest. I read you and you and you. I even read you, singling out a copy of Cymbeline I was surprised, and impressed, to see stocked. Whatcha got on me?    

Wait. I stepped off.

What do you got on me, Shakespeare?

What did I learn? How am I different now? How has the experience changed me?

No, no, I know my writing will never inspire my own section in bookstores and change Western literature as we know it. I don’t mean that. I don’t want that. (But would I turn it down?) I mean: Why not read all of Shakespeare’s works in one year and see what I can learn from it? That’s what I wrote when I started out on Shakespeare Confidential. That was the whole point of this thing.

So? What did I learn? How am I different now? How has the experience changed me?

***

Before I tackle the big to be or not to be’s, though, some Shakespeare superlatives are in order. I think I’m qualified to pass a little judgment at this point. One’s likes and dislikes shift with time and experience, of course, so I’m basing these winners and losers specifically on how I feel at the other end of reading the complete works.

Most underrated play: The three parts of Henry VI. Action-packed. Ensemble cast. Huge set-pieces. Plus intrigue, given new evidence that Christopher Marlowe helped write the plays.

Most overrated play: It’s still a masterpiece, but Romeo and Juliet. Boy, girl, parents, hormones, yadda yadda yadda, double suicide.

Favorite character: This is a tough one. Portia’s intelligence and selflessness amaze me in The Merchant of Venice, as does Helena’s in All’s Well That Ends Well. I feel some sort of spiritual affinity with melancholy Jaques in As You Like It and would love to drink some sack with Falstaff. Not that I want to be friends with them, but there’s so much to Iago, Macbeth, and Lear’s tortured and torturing psyches. But I think Hamlet wins this crown. He’s a remarkable literary creation, for one, and his lines always yield, no matter how many times I revisit them, profound and difficult Truths About The Human Condition. 

That I’m still shaken by the passage over 400 years after Shakespeare wrote it – that’s powerful.

Best comedy: This goes to an underdog, The Comedy of Errors. The twins/mistaken identity plot is at once hilarious and disturbing. 

Best tragedy: King Lear. Once I found my personal connection to the play, I’ve been haunted by the idea of Lear witnessing himself lose his own mind ever since. 

Best history: Henry IV Part I. It’s a time machine back to Merrie England and Shakespeare at his bawdy best, but not without darker undertones.

Best romance: Another underdog, Cymbeline. I know The Tempest is the more canonical choice, but Cymbeline, in all of its odd plots twists, I found more transportive.

Favorite line/passage: An impossible question, but here goes. I certainly linger longest on Shakespeare’s expressions of the fleeting nature of our lives. Lord Hastings in 2 Henry IV: “We are time’s subjects” (1.3.110). Edmund in King Lear: “The wheel is come full circle! I am here” (5.3.173). Hamlet: “That skull had a tongue in it and could sing once” (5.1.70). Prospero in The Tempest: “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep” (4.1.156-58). But the top prize has to go to Macbeth: “It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing” (5.5.25-26). It’s dark, I know, but it’s very dramatic. Its language is vivid, its music forceful, its metaphor appropriately theatrical, and its sense, ultimately, ironic: In spite of its nihilism, the line’s poetry does have meaning. That I’m still shaken by it over 400 years after Shakespeare wrote it – that’s powerful.

Most difficult play to read: Troilus and Cressida. I had a very hard time with the long monologues in this play. Also, the pacing was lagging. Runners-up: The Rape of Lucrece and his first 18 sonnets. *Shudder.*

Most accessible play: Julius Caesar. We know the story. We know its famous lines. It reads quick. It drives its themes home. Bonus: prophesies, dreams, and ghosts. Just after I started Shakespeare Confidential, my father-in-law, who is the first to admit he’s no Shakespeare scholar, asked me to recommend a play when I finished. It’s this one, Tim.

Desert island play: Nobody wants to be stuck inside Hamlet’s head for the rest of their lives. I’m going with Henry IV, as long as I get to bring both parts. There’s so much humanity in this play.

Least favorite play: As much as Love’s Labour’s Lost irks me, Measure for Measure was meh. It just didn’t do all that much for me.

And now for the big one. Drum roll, please.

Favorite play:

Let’s try this again. Drum roll.

Favorite play:

Gah! “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” I’m just not ready.

***

When I think back on all I’ve read, a funny, and frustrating, thing happens: It’s like I can’t remember anything at all. All of Shakespeare becomes one giant blur. I re-thumb through the hundreds of the pages I read. I scroll through every title. And yet I struggle to call up character names, plots, lines. As You Like It bleeds into All’s Well That Ends Well. The histories rewrite themselves. “These violent delights have violent ends” issues from King Lear, not Romeo and Juliet. I forget Pericles even exists until I review the spreadsheet I used to track my progress. Concerned by my amnesia, I even tested myself with a few online quizzes – you know, one of those Think You’re the Ultimate Bardolater? Match the Quote with the Play. 7/8 on one. Not horrible. 20/30 on another. Zwounds. 

Now, I didn’t take on this project to become a Shakespeare encyclopedia, dazzling people with an apt allusion at a dinner party or dispensing a comforting quote upon some trying occasion. Nor did I take it on to become an expert, parsing arcane discrepancies between Quarto and Folio editions or waxing historical on Elizabethan sumptuary codes and the role of the costumed self in Shakespeare’s early comedies. Plus, reading so many plays back to back – the blur is understandable. Still, being able to drop a few verses would be nice.

Are these even Shakespeare’s details? Or are they mine? Maybe they’re ours now. Maybe they belong to both of us.

But what does emerge from the fog are these little trivial details. The dogeared page of a book. Sadness over the death of a deer. Love notes left on trees. A grocery list. Underskinkers and ostlers. A wrestling match. The strawberry pattern of a handkerchief. A king who wished he didn’t have to bring work home. A joke about Welshmen loving cheese. The word butt-shaft. The word welkin. A singular reference to America. The names of taverns and the drinks served there. That executioners got to keep their victims’ clothes. That vision was believed possible because the eyes emitted light. That sighing was thought to draw blood away from the heart and shortened one’s life. 

At first, I can’t place any of these bits and pieces. I can’t remember which play they come from. Am I just imagining them? Did I read them somewhere else? Were they residue from some dream I had? Did I dislodge them from some deep memory?

Are these even Shakespeare’s details? Or are they mine? Maybe they’re ours now. Maybe they belong to both of us. And maybe these little details aren’t so trivial after all.

***

I have learned some lessons. Or rather, one big one, if I’m so brazen to boil Shakespeare’s 38 plays and immeasurable cultural legacy down to a single takeaway:

Our egos cause a lot of problems, sometimes comic, sometimes tragic. Because we want sex, power, and fame. Because we to be right and to be loved. Because we want to matter, because we know we’re going to die. And it takes a hell of a lot of love and humility to override our egos. But we usually fail. People suffer and die, often ourselves. We repent. We reconcile. We go on, cleaning up our messes and telling stories and singing songs about where we’ve been. We promise we won’t repeat our mistakes but the Fools know we can’t really help ourselves.

Scenes end, but the play never does. “All the world’s a stage / And all the men and women mere players,” Jaques famously says in As You Like It.They have their exits and entrances, / And one man in his time plays many parts” (2.7.138-41).

I don’t think my Big Conclusion is terribly profound or original. Nor do I think any of it’s exclusive to the Bard. It’s Story. It’s Humanity. It’s World.

Am I smarter for this? Am I wiser? Did The Taming of the Shrew make me a better husband? Did All’s Well That Ends Well make me a better brother? Did King Lear make me a better son? Did Othello or Henry VIII put past hurts to rest? Did Hamlet ease present anxieties? I don’t know.

After reflecting on my past year play by play, Shakespeare has become a habit, a reflex, a coping mechanism, a meditation practice, a frame of reference.

But I do feel heavier, fuller. My 2016 was a busy one, from moving into a new profession to moving to another country to moving into new places in my relationships, every change filtered through, processed through, Shakespeare. Rocky moments in my marriage are synonymous with The Taming of the Shrew. Feelings of fading friendships are Henry IV Part II. Hamlet is Christmas and New Year’s 2016. King Lear is my grandfather, nearing 100 somewhere in Cleveland on a nursing home bed, trapped in the dark expanse of his own mind.

I carry so much Shakespeare around with me now.

And yet at the same time I feel so much lighter and freer. Arguments and anxieties, inadequacies and insecurities, fears and failures that I lug around, like those cumbersome Norton Shakespeare volumes, no matter where I move to – these I’ve unloaded onto Shakespeare. Twelfth Night and Pericles have to help shoulder my imposter syndrome. Richard III has to deal with my body image issues, Henry VIII my parents’ divorce, Othello that dark D.C. night. Shakespeare shares the burden of my neuroses.

After reflecting on my past year play by play, Shakespeare has become a habit, a reflex, a coping mechanism, a meditation practice, a frame of reference. If I have a rough stretch freelancing and question my purpose, my adequacy: I call up Hamlet. If I have a bad fight with my wife and need some perspective: marital counseling in the Comedies. It’s grounding, it’s comforting that he’s there.

I read myself Shakespeare. I read Shakespeare in me. I wrote myself into Shakespeare. I wrote Shakespeare into me.

***

From his impact on our literature to his infiltration in our everyday language, Shakespeare, of course, has permeated our collective consciousness – and not just what it means to be well-educated, well-read, or well-cultured. Over the past 400 years, his work, both on its own terms and because we so privilege it, has steeped what we think art is, what drama is for, what language can do, what it means to be human.

I feel closer to Shakespeare. Not the playwright, not the entrepreneur, not Shakespeare the cultural institution and larger-than-life-idea we’ve created today. But Shakespeare the person, getting along the best way he knew how: scratching out one little word at a time.

Over this past year, his work also saturated my individual consciousness. My Big Conclusion, in all of its banality, was an education in Story, in World, Humanity. But now I’ve read everything Shakespeare had to say about it. I’ve met all his characters. I’ve visited all his settings. I’ve come along on all his plots. I’ve listened to all his voices, his comments, his puns, his jokes, his expressions of love and suffering. I’ve experienced all of his particular take on Story, World, Humanity – and all of his details swirl and slosh and jostle and jump around in my head, leaving their impressions as they bump into and bounce off my memories, my feelings, my sense of self, my thought patterns, my particular take on Story, Humanity, World.

And so I also feel closer. I don’t think I ‘get’ Shakespeare better. I don’t think I understand his work, his craft, his legacy, his truths more profoundly than anyone else. I’ve just spent so much time with him, really. If I had to call up a single image of this whole experience, it’d be me sitting at my black IKEA desk in the spare room of our house in Dublin, the soft glow of my desktop lamp illuminating the long and Bible-thin pages of a Norton volume, using its weight to keep open my notebook as I jotted down some interesting word, feeling, when it was very quiet and still and late, that I wasn’t alone, as if that word was a direct portal to the same letters Shakespeare inked down on a piece of parchment, lit from the fire in the kitchen of his house in Stratford-Upon-Avon so many years ago.

“May way is to conjure you,” says Rosalind in the epilogue in As You Like It (l. 9).

This communion makes me feel closer to Shakespeare. Not the playwright, not the entrepreneur, not Shakespeare the cultural institution and larger-than-life-idea we’ve created today. But Shakespeare the person, getting along the best way he knew how: scratching out one little word at a time.

Thirty-eight plays, some odd poems, and 365 days later (well, 361), I’ve read the complete works of William Shakespeare, but I don’t yet feel complete. I think I might reread As You Like It sometime soon.  That one’s my favorite play. At least this time through.

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.

The rest is…definitely not silence

That was a whole lot of Shakespeare.

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

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

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

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

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

More from Shakespeare Confidential

Shakespeare waits for no one, but life doesn’t. Shakespeare Confidential – i.e., my Bard-logged brain – has been enjoying a brief respite with some family in town.

I’ve been long overdue in sharing some of my other Shakespeare writing around the web. In the meantime, head over to Strong Language, where I look at the Bard’s bawdier side, and Slate, where you can find some additional Shakespeare-inspired essays, like Irish bards who could kill rats with their poetry. Yup, that was a thing.

New posts will be coming anon (see what I did there, eh, eh?).

This is your brain on Shakespeare

Hurts so bad, but feels so good.

I’m 21 plays into my year of reading Shakespeare. But each time I crack into a new play, the process is the same:

I run through the Persons of the Play only to instantly forget who’s the daughter of which duke and which servant is attending on which lord’s uncle’s clown. I go to launch into 1.1, but first have to bat away a swarm of footnotes about historic London and the four humors. I hack off glosses of sith, troth-plight, and yarely as if taking a machete to a dense verbal jungle. 

Before even making it to the bottom of the first page, I’ve already suffocated the text with a scrawling geometry of circles, stars, arrows, and underlinings. The margins shout huge, over-general, 11th-grade-English-class ideas that will mean nothing to me when I revisit them later: IDENTITY, VIOLENCE, APPEARANCE vs. REALITY, SEX PUN. 

I flip to the end of the play to see how much further I have to go. I sigh. I check my phone for messages. Then email. Then Twitter. Regrouping, I confront a longer passage. “What the hell is this person even saying?!” I cry. (This can be embarrassing when I’m reading at a café.) 

By the time I reach the end of the scene, my hair is ruffled. I’m winded. Somehow my quads feel sore. I reward myself by checking my phone. Then email. Then Twitter.

Then 1.2.

Then something happens.

I wouldn’t say it’s a rhythm. I still shuttle back and forth between the text and footnotes, between the play and my notebooks, between whatever scene I’m in and the list of those characters I can’t keep track of. 

I wouldn’t say it’s comprehension. Plenty of similes and allusions fly right over my head. And, for as pesky as all those footnotes and glosses can feel, I lean heavily on them to understand Shakespeare’s language and references. 

Nor would I say it’s appreciation. I mean, it’s not like I needed convincing of the Bard’s genius going into this project; my project is basically premised on it. And it’s not like I’ll be stumbling upon something terribly new and profound 400 years after Shakespeare died, upon something we utterly missed after bazillions of pages of scholarship written on him, after gazillions of performance: “Hey, world! You’ve got to check this out! You won’t believe what I’ve found!” I just won’t have cause to say that. 

OK, I am getting better at reading Shakespeare. I better be getting better at reading him: I’ve read 21 goddamned plays so far. Am I faster? Yes. Understanding more? Sure. And I am getting more out of reading Shakespeare? Seeing deeper meanings, peeling back thicker layers? Making more connections in the text, between the texts, between Shakespeare and 2016? No doubt.

It’s that the change is something I feel in my brain. Because reading Shakespeare is like making my neurons and synapses go to a CrossFit class. They’re reluctant to start. The burn hurts. They want to quit right as the heart rate gets up and sweat starts pushing through the pores. They’re even wondering if CrossFit isn’t a little bit douchey. But after a few circuits, they start to enjoy it. After a few classes, they start to see results. And pretty soon, my brain is looking forward to Shakespeare.

I love Twitter. I love listicles. I love the Internet. But tabbed browsing, checking for breaking news and notifications and updates, scrolling and clicking and linking, starting and bailing on so many articles and so many videos – it’s addictive, it’s compulsive, it’s like mindless snacking, never quite sated because I don’t feel like taking the time to go to the store and prepare a proper meal. And this noisy, desultory info-binge builds up like toxins and fat cells, further straining the ability to concentrate, to sit still. To do one thing at a time, to think one thought a time, to be OK with slowness, to listen to someone else. To not know right away. To not have immediate answers. To not be productive. 

Yes, reading Shakespeare brings new knowledge, new ideas, new images, new vocabulary. It brings a sense of accomplishment, personally, intellectually, culturally. It brings a sense of immersion into history, a sense of wonder at one man’s legacy, at one man’s literary talent and insight into humanity.  

But decoding all of those anon’s and zounds’s, breaking down elaborate syntax just to figure out what the king is going to do next in the plot, contorting the brain to understand some seven-layered cuckoldry joke – this requires a sustained and focused effort. To get through a play, I can’t just scroll and jump from tab to tab. I have to slow things down. I have to turn things off, bracket things off. I have to be disciplined.

I have to put in the time.

This sustained and focused effort brings pleasure. It brings peace. It makes my brain feel lighter, quieter, calmer, more centered in a world of so much choice, information, and possibility. 

Reading Shakespeare is hard. When I start a new play, my brain hurts. But by the time I finish, my brain feels so good. 

Ambivalence-upon-Avon

Shakespeare has created us, but we’ve also created him.

I should be feeling more, I thought as I strolled the cobblestone streets of Stratford-upon-Avon, four hundred years to the day after he died.

My train arrived from Oxford after the morning parade honoring Stratford’s favorite son. Confetti and sprigs of rosemary (“for remembrance,” as Ophelia says in Hamlet) still littered the streets, lined with tourists snapping photographs of the town’s half-timbered houses and now dispersing to queue up at its historic sites. Many celebrants were sporting Bard-faced masks handed out during the procession. A few locals perched their masks on windows sills, Shakespeare staring vacantly out on his town nearly a half-millennium later. Actors dressed in period costume or as characters from Shakespeare’s plays stopped to pose for selfies with tourists. Stratford-upon-Avon was busy and festive on this special day.

Shakespear mask.JPG
A Shakespeare mask looks out on Stratford-upon-Avon.

***

For the train ride, I brought my volume of tragedies with me, thinking I’d start King Lear on the journey up. But the scenery was far too idyllic on this blue-sky Saturday – and the tray table far too small to accommodate the two notebooks I use while reading. I decided to read some background material on the Bard instead, because I don’t really know a whole lot about Shakespeare, I’m embarrassed to say.

I stared into his portrait’s eyes in a copy of the First Folio; I really have to pee, I thought.

I can recall scribbling “Anne Hathaway,” “Hamnet,” and “d. 1616” from Mrs. Smith’s introductory lectures in ninth-grade English. She explained that Shakespeare wasn’t just a writer but an actor, director, producer, businessman: a whole Hollywood studio in one. Years later, a Shakespeare course was required for my Bachelor’s degree in English. Dr. Northway fleshed out our understanding of the political, cultural, and creative world Shakespeare inhabited. We combed over Elizabethan theater inventories, debated if Shakespeare would be considered a plagiarist today, and investigated state-sponsored violence in the English Renaissance.

One visit to London, I happened upon a Shakespeare exhibit at the National Gallery: All the known documents and artifacts Shakespeare left behind, from legal papers to the Chandos portrait, where he is wearing a pirate-like earring, were gathered together in one room. I stared into his portrait’s eyes in a copy of the First Folio; I really have to pee, I thought. My dad, brother, and I had just come from a pub when we passed the museum. They went on to another while my buzz fuzzed my appreciation of the curation.

On that same trip, we stopped off in Stratford the next day or so, actually. My dad pretended he didn’t know “decompress” was my code for “cigarette” as I broke off from them again to walk through the town. I chain-smoked up and down the streets, eventually stumbling upon his birthplace and snapping a few photos of the exterior before heading into a pub. I’m not sure, exactly, why I didn’t go in.

I taught Shakespeare once, too. Romeo and Juliet, during my student-teaching. I chose to skip over most of the biographical details that typically accompanies one’s first Shakespeare unit. Those lectures are usually boring. So, we listened to an audio performance of the play as we followed in our texts and watched, of course, Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 screen adaptation, Romeo + Juliet. The students enjoyed the play quite a bit. They couldn’t get past how stupid the star-crossed lovers were in their climactic double suicide; I agreed. In my time working in public education, I’ve actually found that most students are quite taken by Shakespeare, when you pass on all the tedious note-taking and get right down to the stories – and watch a young Leo smoke a cigarette, of course.

***

I didn’t have a map, a plan, or any real knowledge of Stratford-upon-Avon other than that Shakespeare was born and lived here when he wasn’t in London. I had actually forgotten Shakespeare died and was buried here, too, at Holy Trinity Church until I followed a crowd of visitors there. In the lush churchyard along the River Avon, willow trees shaded tombstones, many of whose epitaphs had long been weathered away. The Bard was interred inside. We slowly shuffled down the aisle to the chancel, bursting with yellow flowers, cameras, parish officials managing the crowd, and light pouring in through the stained glass windows.

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Shakespeare’s funerary monument. His actual grave, beneath his famed epitaph pictured in the bottom right,  was completely covered in flowers.

Another crowd signaled a second important site: Shakespeare’s Schoolroom and Guildhall. On the ground floor, Shakespeare’s father, John presided over Stratford’s municipal affairs when he earned enough money – and status – from his glove-making. John petitioned for a coat of arms, which signified gentry, but his son, having amassed enough wealth from the theater, later bought it for him. At the far end of the dark-wood walls of this low-ceilinged room was once a chapel; historians are still finding evidence of murals once painted there. I noted some roses, now a faded and faint red, bordering the moulding.

Upstairs, thick, wooden school desks, like benches with wide, angled writing surfaces, were rowed before the schoolmaster’s lectern, which sat austerely like a squat throne. Even back then, naughty students carved their names into their desks. A man in a friar-like costume discussed 16th-century education with visitors in an exaggerated, historical accent. Younger tourists tried their hand quilling out their signatures and first-conjugation verbs on worksheets.

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Visitors try their hand at the quill in Shakespeare’s schoolroom.

Stratford-upon-Avon was indeed stunning on this sunny Saturday, and the exhibits were informative without overwhelming the atmosphere of the beautiful and historic structures. The guides, too, were very cheerful and welcoming. I was grateful to be here, but I just wasn’t feeling anything above what my natural curiosity and appreciation afforded. Since mid-January, I’ve read and written about a play a week. My head is filled with Shakespeare. Shouldn’t I be feeling  more?

***

I stopped off in a pub, ducking my head under its low, exposed beams, and ordered a pint of Shakesbeer. This was the Garrick Inn. The named honored David Garrick, an 18th-century actor who organized a 1769 jubilee that helped launch a tradition of literary pilgrimages to Shakespeare’s birthplace, as I learned from a plaque tucked among other Shakespeare-y paraphernalia crammed in its old nooks.

About half a pint in, an older man sat down next to me at the communal table. After a sip or two, he left for the toilets. He was there for quite some time. When he returned, an older lady had joined the table with a half-pint. He struck up a conversation with her; I think he fancied her, in fact, if his repeated questions after the length of her stay were any indication. She had a difficult time understanding him, as he talked softly, and he her, hard of hearing as he was. Sitting in between them, I chimed in to clarify something she was saying (she shared she was German-Canadian after he remarked on her American-sounding accent) and the three of us fell into conversation. He insisted on a buying us a round.

Even in his very birthplace the Bard’s words still pose their challenges, I was relieved.

The man (Steven, his name I learned later) was local; she, Patricia, was visiting, like me, expressly for the 400th anniversary. Quiet-voiced and ramble-prone, Steven was sometimes hard to follow. He was concerned about new housing developments in the town, because that meant children, children became adolescents, and adolescents made graffiti.

But Steven did get us on the subject of Shakespeare when he mentioned that it’s rare for a person to be born and die on the same day, as he said Shakespeare was. Patricia and I quickly corrected that, while it’s traditional to celebrate his birthday on April 16, we only know he was baptized in Holy Trinity Church on April 26, likely a few days after he was born. Patricia added that Shakespeare’s mother may actually have left the village to give birth to William at her sister’s, as a pox was infecting the town in 1564. This could also account for a delay between his birth and baptism, though nulling the town’s central attraction: the house that claims the very room the Bard was brought into the world. Aloud, I mused how English literature and language – and the many things they influence – would have been so very different had an infant William fallen to a plague in his hometown.

Patricia knew a lot about Shakespeare, and was feeling a lot about Shakespeare during her visit, too, I could tell. She and I chatted a bit more about Shakespeare during gaps in the general conversation. I mentioned I had just finished Titus Andronicus and was floored by its violence. She shared that a recent performance at the Globe actually was halted because multiple theatergoers – women and men, she emphasized– had fainted, so gruesome the production was. Her favorite play, as I asked, was A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I shared how my wife recited the play the night we met: Helena’s monologue, about love.

“The ‘not with the eyes’ part, you know,” I tried, “but with the, um, with the–

“–mind,” Patricia provided.

For all the Shakespeare I’ve been reading, I blushed, I struggle to quote lines like so many Bardolators seem able to do.

Steven added to our Shakespeare sharing, too. He recalled a teacher he had once took a whole term just to cover Julius Caesar. Line by line, word by word, the teacher explained the play. Even in his birthplace the Bard’s words still pose their challenges, I was relieved.

Patricia took her leave after her second half-pint and some of Steven’s friends and family joined us. They bought me another round and we talked about America’s gun problems, British crime dramas, the advantages and disadvantages of white Christmases, and Steven’s appetite for drink.

***

Three pints in, I still had three hours left before my train back to Oxford. I headed over to the main attraction: his birthplace. I hoped to start feeling some sort of special tingle about my time here – and not just from the Shakesbeer.

I tried to hear a newborn William, covered in placental blood, screaming as he took his first breaths out of the womb.

I waited in line to purchase admission to Shakespeare’s birthplace-cum-museum, a two-story timber-frame house along Henley Street, a busy pedestrian thoroughfare in the town. It was once one of the largest houses in town, I learned after I made it through another line to walk through the house. A French couple ahead of me exchanged kisses every few seconds, it seemed. Clearly, they were feeling something.

Off the side of dining room was John Shakespeare’s workshop. John Shakespeare was a glover by trade, and Elizabethan tradesmen worked out of their homes. Butterscotch-colored tannins still stained the simple white walls. A costumed guide explained glove-making in the 16th century with artifacts and replicas. Glove-related quotes from the glover’s great heir were displayed throughout the room, suggesting he was inspired by his father’s work, even if he didn’t follow in his footsteps.

Upstairs, another docent explained that the Shakespeares had beds, quite expensive – and quite the status symbol – in Shakespeare’s day. Shakespeare would have slept in a small crib on the floor next to a trundle bed pulled from under the bed. He demonstrated how an older Shakespeare would have tightened the ropes before retiring. Loose ropes could trouble one’s sleep, he continued, which is why even today we say we feel ropey if we didn’t get a good night’s rest. The man, whose vigorous expounding belied his age, explained that the family would have piled the bed with the all blankets, clothes, and fabric they owned to keep warm in the dead of winter. He then inserted two, tall pegs into slots on the side of the bed-frame; these prevented all the heavy textiles from falling on and suffocating Shakespeare, sleeping below in the trundle bed in the middle of the night.

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Inside in the room where we believe Shakespeare was born.

In a side room, the original windows in the bedroom were on display. More illustrious visitors, the likes of T.S. Eliot, once etched their names into the panes. Eliot’s “I was here” was actually written over, so crowded the panes had become. I imagined the Modernist master walking the rooms, listening to the creaks of the dark-brown floorboards, now worn smooth and shiny from so many footsteps, for some insight into the Bard’s genius.

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“I was here,” literary pilgrims etched in the windows once in Shakespeare’s birth-room.

I tried myself to hear a newborn William, covered in placental blood, screaming as he took his first breaths out of the womb. I tried to hear William the child, his head just at eye level to his father’s workbench, bombarding his father with questions about his craft. But I just wasn’t hearing anything. In the garden at the back of the house actors performed passages on request. I was able to identify a few that I caught in medias res.

The Bard’s ghost wasn’t speaking to me yet, but at least I knew my stuff.

***

My entry into Shakespeare’s house granted me admission into some other sites, including the Harvard House, an impressive three-story timber-frame that came into the hands of John Harvard, who founded Harvard University. Right before it closed, I quickly toured Hall’s Croft, the Jacobean house of Shakespeare’s oldest daughter, Susanna, though I spent most of my time there chatting with a guide. He described many of the parties subsequent owners held there over the centuries before we fell into conversation about Key West, cowboy boots he bought at the covered market in Oxford, and how the Catholic belief in transubstantiation is technically cannibalism.

I still had some time to kill before my train, so I stopped by another tavern. Here, I shared a table with a couple a few miles outside of town. They, too, missed the parade but enjoyed simply being in the town on this milestone day, shuffling through the rooms with a hushed reverence, though they didn’t have a lot of experience with Shakespeare themselves. We chatted about the husband’s former work in Denver, my move to Dublin, and our mutual love of Edinburgh, where he gained a lot of weight, he mentioned, from all the drinking he did there.

I didn’t do any reading on the train back to Oxford. I gazed, vacant-eyed like the Shakespeare masks in the window sills, as occasional sheep and church steeples passed by the rolling green countryside.

***

Back in Oxford, I met my wife for dinner and some drinks in town. “So, are you feeling inspired?” she asked.

“Um…” I bit into some pizza and chewed for a while.

I don’t think I gained many insights into Shakespeare’s genius, I realized, but I do think I learned more about his humanity. And it was Shakespeare’s own insights into humanity, I think, that was genius.

I recalled the floorboards he must have run across as a kid, the trundle bed whose ropes he tightened, the desks in his schoolroom where copied out amo amas amat, the intricately carved church ceiling he may have stared at during a boring sermon, the trail along the river where may have chased swans, the alleys he must have cut through on errands for his father. I don’t think I gained many insights into Shakespeare’s genius, I realized, but I do think I learned more about his humanity. And it was Shakespeare’s own insights into humanity, I think, that was genius.

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Shadows on the floor of Shakespeare’s birthplace.

“I really enjoyed the people I met and talked to there,” I offered. There were thousands of people in town, I’m sure, many from far outside the United Kingdom. Some knew a lot about Shakespeare and felt a personal, even magical connection as they toured the town. Others, and I think most, didn’t really know much about him. They haven’t really read much other than what was required in high school, if that. Maybe they’ve have seen the occasional play. But we were still all there for the same reason, to try to better understand this man who has wormed his way into our very literary, linguistic, and cultural consciousness. Whose verses we still quote, whose coinages we still use,  whose stories we continue to see, whose truths we still draw on, whose genius we still crave to know. Perhaps in so small part because we make these sort of pilgrimages, because we specially esteem his genius.

Shakespeare has created us, in a manner of speaking, but we’ve also created him. We put on the Bard-faced masks, as if to see the world through his eyes. Yet it’s our eyes that peer through the slots.

“Yeah, I think I really felt something.”

All photographs by me. 

The big 400

Today’s the big day. Shakespeare died 400 years ago this April 23. It’s sort of morbid, don’t you think, to celebrate his death-day?

Well, I’ve been criminally behind in writing up Titus Andronicus. Maybe it’s just so violent I’m at a loss for words? I’m also behind on starting my next play; I’ve chosen a biggie, King Lear.

But I’m behind for good reason – and not just moving overseas. I’m behind on my Shakespeare because of Shakespeare.

Since I have the fortune to be in Oxford this week, I’m heading into relatively nearby Stratford-upon-Avon today. A Stratford local warns me it’ll be a shit-show today. My train will be arriving after the parade (why not?), so perhaps things will have calmed down a bit by then. (Eh, it’s looking like a beautiful day outside, so…)

I have also booked seats for a lecture by Oxford University’s renowned Shakespeare scholar, Sir Jonathon Bate, at the famed Bodleian Libraries for Monday evening, as well as to see Michael Pennington in an acclaimed production of King Lear at the Oxford Playhouse  on Tuesday.

See, these are good reasons to behind. I’ll finally be encountering the Bard during my reading as he is meant to be encountered: on the stage.

Anyways, much to do – and write up. In the meantime, if you need a fix of the Bard today, catch up on some of my sweary takes on Shakespeare over at Strong Language. In honor of the big 4-0-0, I’ve posted on the fabulous profanities in Henry IV Part 1 and Part 2.