“We’ve got…,” I said with a suspenseful pause as I pulled tupperware out of the reusable grocery bag, “Monte Cristo sandwiches and macaroni salad.”
“Holy shit. Thanks, man,” my friend said.
“Thank my stepmom. We had leftovers.”
We sat in his KIA sedan parked at a Love’s off I-65. A water tower read White County. It was a clear day, seasonably cold. Everything around us was flat for miles and miles and miles. We were closing in on Chicago, where we were visiting a friend for the weekend before I finally flew back to Dublin after nearly a month in the States.
Something felt so adult about eating lunch with an old high school friend in a car off the side of the road, your hometown hundreds of miles behind you, in a few days, thousands more.
And yet something felt so childlike about forking macaroni salad out of GladWare. Packed lunches, certainly, have that effect, but this wasn’t just any macaroni salad. I must have been eating this same salad, this same exact recipe, for over 20 years.
My mind drifted out and over thousands of conversations I’ve had with my family. Out and over thousand of conversations we’ve never had. And it landed on Shakespeare.
The taste plunged me back to the honey-colored wood of the kitchen table and terra-cotta tiled floor. Back to glass bowls of grapes and strawberries, of blackberries and bananas, that made their way from plate to plate. Back to my stepmother slicing those bananas by pushing a paring knife up towards a callused thumb so a perfect little chunk would tumble right into the bowl. Back to a cutting board propping up that long Monte Cristo, my father bringing a longer-seeming serrated knife down through its many layers and divvying out neat, even wedges.
“How does your stepson, you know, handle everything?” I asked, breaking my own flashback. Stepson. The word thrust me right back into the present, to adulthood.
My friend spoke thoughtfully about shared custody, about the different roles divorced parents take on. He spoke about his own identity, negotiating new territories of parenthood and stepfatherhood. He spoke about how his six-year-old stepson grasps it all.
“How was it for you?” he asked. “Weren’t you pretty young when your parents divorced?”
I scooped up my last bite of salad. My mind drifted out and over the never-ending flatness of Indiana. Out and over countless suitcases, bedrooms, car rides. Out and over thousands of conversations I’ve had with my family. Out and over thousands of conversations we’ve never had.
And it landed on Shakespeare.
It had been some weeks since I finished All is True (Henry VIII). This history centers, mostly, on the fall of Cardinal Wolseley, King Henry VIII’s powerful and self-serving advisor, after he fails to secure an annulment for Henry VIII so he can marry Ann Boleyn.
I sat on this play for quite some time because I had trouble locating myself in the drama. There were obvious connections, like Henry VIII’s divorce of Queen Katherine. But this, the subject of divorce in and of itself, didn’t grab me.
For one, I have no mind to air any dirty laundry here. For another, I’m just no longer all that interested in the gritty details of my parents’ divorce. I think I processed them plenty in the reims of reflective essays I churned out for high school English and religion classes.
I’m not sure that the heart isn’t a dark and opaque organ at the end of the day, keeping itself alive with molecules and membranes we will never really understand.
About twenty-six years later, the wounds have healed. But the body is never exactly the same as it was before its injury. It works. It functions. It’s repaired. But it’s a different body, even if just by the scars it bears. Often you forget they are even there. But they are always with you, the scars. And every so often, you’ll stop and run your hands over them. You’ll stare at their shape. You’ll marvel that the body can even do it at all, this miracle work of healing, weaving together all that new skin. It’s magic, when you really think about it.
But what did grab me, in that chew-ful moment of silence before my reply, was a speech by Cardinal Wolseley right after his decline. Before heading to court to answer charges of treason, an ailing Cardinal Wolseley, who, mind you, has been an absolute bastard his entire career, has a sudden change of heart:
Farewell, a long farewell, to all my greatness!
This is the state of man. Today he puts forth
The tender leaves of hope; tomorrow blossoms,
And bears his blushing honours thick upon him;
The third day comes a frost, a killing frost,
And when he thinks, good easy, man, full surely
His greatness is a-ripening, nips his rot,
And then he falls, as I do. I have ventured,
Like little wanton boys that swim on bladders,
This many summers in a sea ofglory,
But far beyond my depth; my high-blown pride
At length broke under me, and now has left me
Weary, and old with service, to the mercy
Of a rude stream that must for ever hide me. Vain pomp and glory of this world, I hate ye!
I feel my heart new opened. O, how wretched
Is that poor man that hangs on princes’ favours!
There is betwixt that smile we would aspire to,
That sweet aspect of princes, and their ruin,
More pangs and fears than wars or women have,
And when he falls, he falls like Lucifer,
Never to hope again. (3.2.352-73)
“Well, that was quick,” as I wrote in the margins. Wolseley goes from utter villainy to complete reformation. Of course, this is drama, so, chop chop, metanoia. Still, where does he get off? Who does he think he is? What did he, do, really, to earn this epiphany?
Yet in my friend’s car, I heard the monologue differently. His repentance pointed me to the mysteries of our own psychology and behavior. Why do we make the choices we make? How do we think about our own decisions? When are we truly honest with ourselves? Why do we feel what we feel? How well can we actually know ourselves?
I went on to tell my friend, yes, about shared custody, about the different roles divorced parents take on, about my own identity, straddling two households and two sets of parents. About how I grasped the situation as a younger man, questioning its reality and aching to know why it all happened as it did. Perhaps I even wanted my parents to feel particular things, to say particular things, and those feelings and those words would make it all make sense.
Maybe there is peace in the pastness of some things, as much as its true nature haunts us.
But I ask a very different questions of my parents’ divorce now. Its reality, its objectivity, opens it up to an emotional, even epistemological, empiricism. I examine it as a curious specimen, craving knowledge without judgment, as if to satisfy a deeper curiosity, as if a stranger or alien. To understand the heart as an organ. To understand my parents as organisms. To see them as adults, as people. To understand myself no longer as child, but as grown-up and husband, who’s made mistakes, who’s made changes. Why do we make the choices we make? How well can we actually know ourselves? What really makes us behave the way do? To love and not love? To move on and not move on? To forgive and–?
“I know myself now,” Wolseley goes on, “and I feel within me / A peace above all earthly dignities, / A still and quiet conscience” (3.2.378-81).
That sounds like a sublime peace indeed. I’m not so sure we are ultimately knowable to ourselves. I’m not sure that the heart isn’t a dark and opaque organ at the end of the day, keeping itself alive with molecules and membranes we will never really understand.
But maybe there is peace, too, in the pastness of some things, as much as its true nature haunts us. For the past, in its own stubborn inertia, and one’s life, in that invisible accretion of decisions and boredoms and job applications and sleeping and fucking and eating and failures and photographs and moving boxes, takes on an inevitability, as if it could have unfolded no other way. There can be a peace in this factness, this livedness, this fixedness, this thingness, this thereness.
Or at least in the acceptance of them.
“But it’s just sort of what you know,” I added. “I just don’t know things any other way. You know what I mean? I don’t know any other reality.” I started into my sandwich, and it tasted it exactly as it did so many years ago.
He greeted me as he always does when I come home. Through the frosted glass of the front door, I could see him perched atop the shoe bench, a shaggy black mass shimmying in excitement as I unlocked the door. He twirled. He jumped. I gave him some pets. He’s a great dog, Hugo is, and I told him as much in baby-talk hellos. He’s docile. He’s quiet. He loves to play. He loves to cuddle. But he does have one weakness.
I spotted a crumbled tissue in the hallway, which lead to a mangled tampon in the kitchen, which lead to a pile of detritus on the landing of the stairs. In the bathroom, the wastebasket was overturned, ransacked – because my wife left the door open when she left for her yoga certification course.
Any calm she might have been prepping for ahead of class was bombed out when she answered my phone call. I machine-gunned my anger: “I came home and there’s bloody fucking tampons everywhere and I don’t know whether he ate any but there’s shit everywhere so he must have eaten some and why did you leave the goddamn door open, I mean how many times do we have to deal with this because there’s fucking tampons everywhere so how much hydrogen peroxide do I give him? seriously how did you not think to close the door, tampons, tampons everywhere and you’re not being helpful!” and I hung up.
As I wiped up the nasty piles, occasionally mopping up goopy strands from his schnauzer beard, I couldn’t help but think of Shakespeare’s King John.
The dog was hiding under the kitchen table at this point, a tampon potentially already starting to swell up, blocking his intestines and leadingto his blended cotton-rayon demise. My wife called back. I declined. She called back. I declined. She called back. I declined. The pattern didn’t relent as I googled vet websites and scribbled out some dilution calculations. Funnily my wife had just bought some hydrogen peroxide (which she had been using for homemade teeth whitening) and I happened to have an dental irrigator (which I haven’t been using to clean some gums in the back of my mouth). Like some mad scientist I measured out and mixed water and peroxide in a tupperware container, drew it into the irrigator, opened Hugo’s confused maw, and squirted the emetic down his hatch.
Then I waited for him to vomit.
I thought about calling my wife back to fire off some more blame. I thought about how, if the dog died, it would all be her fault because she left the bathroom open, because she had to dispose of tampons in the little wastebasket we had in the bathroom, because she just – Hugo’s bowels lurched. He belched out an oozy white pancake of saliva, bile, water, frothy hydrogen peroxide, and a tampon. I was relieved. I texted my wife Hugo was OK and trailed after the poor little guy as he paced his retching way across room. And as I wiped up the nasty piles, occasionally mopping up goopy strands from his schnauzer beard,I couldn’t help but think of Shakespeare’s King John.
Love, hate, jealousy, mercy, pride, vengeance: Shakespeare never skimps on the big emotions, the big experiences of the human condition. But amid his big themes he also captures so damned well the little stuff that makes us so human, too. Take this moment in King John.
A little context. The history play, in a nutshell, dramatizes King John’s efforts to stave off a challenge to his tenuous claim to the throne from his nephew, Arthur. (It’s more so Arthur’s mother and French allies who lead the charge.) He orders a French citizen, Hubert, to kill Arthur, which Hubert pretends to do after Arthur’s been imprisoned. Meanwhile, some nobles convince King John to free Arthur. The next time they meet, Hubert tells King John how the people have taken the ‘news’ that Arthur is dead. Observe the wonderful micro-reactions in Hubert’s report:
Young Arthur’s death is common in their mouths,
And when they talk of him they shake their heads,
And whisper one another in the ear
And he that speaks doth grip the hearer’s wrist,
Whilst he that hears makes fearful action,
With wrinkled brows, with nods, with rolling eyes.
I saw a smith stand with his hammer,thus,
The whilst his iron did on the anvil cool,
With open mouth swallowing a tailor’s news,
Who with his shears and measure in his hands,
Standing on slippers which his nimble haste
Had falsely thrust upon contrary feet
Told of a many thousand warlike French
That were embattailed and ranked in Kent
Another lean unwashed artificer Cuts off his tale, and talks of Arthur’s death. (4.2.188-203)
The gripped wrist, the stopped work, the shoes put on backwards: These details are tiny but so real, so human. As is King John’s reaction:
Why urgest thou so oft young Arthur’s death?
Thy hand hath murdered him. I had a mighty cause
To wish him dead, but thou hadst none to kill him. (205-07)
But Hubert’s not having it: “Why, did you not provoke me?…Here is your hand and seal for what I did” (208-16). Hubert shows King John his own written order to kill Arthur.
Arthur, pettily, petulantly, comes back with:
How oft the sight of means to do ill deeds
Make deeds ill done! Hadst not thou been by,
A fellow by the hand of nature marked,
Quoted, and signed to do a deed of shame,
This murder had not come into my mind.
But taking note of thy abhorred aspect,
Finding thee fit for bloody villainy,
Apt, liable to be employed in danger,
I faintly broke with thee of Arthur’s death;
And thou, to be endeared to a king,
Made it no conscience to destroy a prince. (220-30)
Thats right: King John blames Arthur’s death on Hubert’s ugliness. His ugliness gave King John the idea. His ugliness compelled Hubert to make inferences from a small suggestion. His ugliness drove Hubert to carry out the deadly act. His ugliness.
King John cools off after Hubert reveals he didn’t actually kill him. In the very next scene, though, Arthur, whom Hubert freed from his shackles, jumps off the castle wall, apparently trying to escape. He dies in his fall.
I, too, cooled off after Hugo stopped vomiting. I thought about King John, so quick to blame Hubert for his own doing, so irrational in his small-minded arguments. I thought about me, my first reaction to our dog’s welfare being to fault my wife, to accuse her of intentional stupidity as opposed to looking past a lapsus mentis and working together to solve the problem.
King John goes on to apologize to Hubert:
Forgive the comment that my passion made
Upon thy feature, for my rage was blind,
And foul imaginary eyes of blood
Presented thee more hideous than thou art. (4.2.264-67)
Ironically enough, King John is later poisoned to death. Too bad he didn’t have any hydrogen peroxide on hand.
I washed off the puke-y, medicinal smell from Hugo’s beard. I lay down with him and gave him some gentle pets. I thought about Shakespeare. About his incredible insight even into our temper flareups, our self-defensive, first instinct to blame others, to take our frustrations out on other people. And I thought about how one of the greatest writers of the English language, of all language, can wriggle his way even mangled tampons and induced vomiting. I guess this is what happens when you read too much Shakespeare.
To get into Shakespeare, apparently, don’t think too hard about Shakespeare.
It finally happened. I started dreaming about Shakespeare. It came in a very peculiar, decidedly non-bardic form, though: a tweet.
BREAKING: French slay English General John Talbot at battle in Bordeaux.
In my bizarre, cyber-medieval dreamscape, these 39 characters were the work of the Associated Press. Lots of retweets. Big news. The French took down Talbot. Talbot. Talbot!
I was surprised. No, not due to this strange merger of Shakespeare and Twitter. That pretty much sums up my life these days.
I was surprised because of the content of this oneiric tweet. I’m not a history buff. I’m not a military nut or monarchy maven. When it comes to Shakespeare, I like the language. I like the dark psychological anguish. And I like the sex jokes.
A Shakespeare dream about major casualty in a medieval European battle? I would have expected some pensive, artfully crafted, naughty pun.
So, a major casualty in a medieval European battle? I would have expected some pensive, artfully crafted, naughty pun.
I was also surprised by the particular play that first smuggled the Bard into my dreams. Not King Lear’s storm-struck heath. Not Othello’s storm-struck bedroom. Not the whimsical forest of As You LikeIt or the cave of Cymbeline. But, of all the nearly two dozen plays I’ve read so far, the battlefields of Henry VI, Part I.
I mean, other than completist maniacs like myself, who reads Henry VI? Does any theater ever stage it? Have you even heard of Henry VI?
Well, Henry VI has not one, not two, but three parts. They are long. Very long. They follow the War of the Roses, which entangles us in noble rivalries and competing claims to the English throne. They culminate in one very well-known history: Richard III, the very play I read before taking these three on. I clearly didn’t learn my lesson when I read the Henriad out of sequence.
When I first cracked open Henry VI, Part I, I took one look at the character list and went, “Holy shit.” The dramatis personae were broken down into a group of English characters and a group of French. So many sirs, so many earls. I actually moaned aloud, “I don’t think I can do this.” My wife heard me from the other room: “Are you OK?” She sounded legitimately concerned.
I had fallen behind in my reading (and writing) schedule and needed to make up some ground. So, I decided to bite off the three Henry VI plays: a big chunk. As a form of punishment, like some self-flagellating monk.
Or so I thought.
“Do you want to continue watching Henry VI?” my Elizabethan Netflix asked. “Oh hell, yes.” Part III.
Simply put, Henry VI was a lot of fun. And that meant I had another first, thanks to old King Henry VI: I read the plays back to back to back.
Normally, when I finish a play, I collapse as if at the finish line of a long run. Winded. Sweaty. Sore. Victorious. “I made it!” Just as when, starting a play, I flip to the end to see how far I must go, so when I complete a play, I flip back and pinch the thickness of the conquered pages: “I did this shit.” Then, I kick off my shoes, chug some water, and sink into a chair, relieved I don’t have to read Shakespeare for another a few days.
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy reading Shakespeare. Otherwise, I would have bailed on my year of reading Shakespeare by now. But let me be clear: It’s not quite the same as binge-watching Breaking Bad. Most of the times. But when I made it to the end of Part I of Henry VI, I immediately started Part II. Same for Part II. “Do you want to continue watching Henry VI?” my Elizabethan Netflix asked. “Oh hell, yes.” Part III.
Plot-wise, Henry VI is fairly straightforward. OK, there’s actually a lot of intrigue and twists. But here’re the log lines, if you will:
In Part I, the English fend off a French uprising as a feud over the claim to the throne simmers at home. In Part II, the homegrown infighting boils over as the king survives conspiracies and rebellions, only to be forced to flee after a battle between the vying nobles. Part III sees the king’s rival win the crown. The king is killed in a climactic fight in spite of efforts to retain his power, and his rivals assume rule.
A little more context may help to situate these three Henry VI’s in Shakespeare’s broader corpus. Remember how Henry Bolingbroke deposes Richard II? This, in a nutshell, is the origin of the conflict in the House of Plantagenet. Bolingbroke becomes Henry IV. His son, the Prince Hal of the two Henry IV’s, becomes the heroic Henry V. And his son? He’s the Henry VI who rises – well, sort of warms up to room temperature – and falls in this trilogy. Jumping ahead, it’s a future Richard III who is hatching his plots to seize the kingship in Part III.
OK, I actually just shared all of this to show off: I didn’t look at a damned reference to map out these lineages. Not my notes, not the Norton introductions, not a Wikipedia page, not a Sparknotes summary. Me, who has to sit down with charts and graphs to figure out what a second cousin is. Me, who likes all the word-y, feel-y Shakespeare stuff. Boom. Mic drop.
I genuinely just enjoyed Henry VI’s blockbuster action and star-studded cast.
Which brings me to a third Shakespearean first. I genuinely just enjoyed Henry VI’s blockbuster action and star-studded cast.
Here are some highlights from each of the plays:
In 1Henry VI, Joan la Pucelle – Joan of Arc – is an absolute badass. In an early test, Shakespeare has her boast: “And while I live, I’ll ne’er fly from a man” (1.3.82). And she proves this on the battlefield (and in the bed with the king). She even conjures up demons, who provide her with visions that aid the French in fighting. Granted, these demons fail her in the end, she is burned at the stake, and the French cede to the English – but Joan doesn’t take shit from anyone.
In 2Henry VI, Jack Cade, a tradesman, leads a rebellion in London. He rallies his fellow craftsmen against the rich, hoity-toity upperclass who’ve been screwing them over, using their learnin’ against the little guy. And their insults against the elite are hysterical. A butcher, famously, cries: “The first thing we do let’s kill all the lawyers” (4.2.68). A weaver says of a clerk, “He can write and read and cast count,” to which Cade replies: “O monstrous!” (4.2.75-77). Cade then urges to “hang him with his pen and inkhorn around his neck” (4.2.96-97).
But Cade tops even this in a later rebuke of another lord:
It will be proved to thy face that thou hast men about thee that usually talk of a noun and a verb and such abominable words as no Christian ear can endure to hear. (4.7.32-34)
Now this a battlecry for all schoolchildren in all grammar lessons for all time.
In 3 Henry VI, King Henry VI makes a deal with his rival, Richard Duke of York: He agrees to hand over his crown to Richard after he dies, thus dispossessing his own son of royal inheritance. Queen Margaret – a power-hungry French noble he married after the fighting in Part I – has had it with her over-conciliatory, pushover husband. So she leads a fight against Richard herself.
But during one of these battles, Henry takes to a molehill – yes, a molehill – and waxes bucolic:
O God! Methinks it were a happy life
To be no better than a homely swain… So many hours must I tend my flock, So many hours must I take my rest,
So many hours must I contemplate,
So many hours must I sport myself…(2.5.21-34)
His daydreaming is then interrupted by a son who realizes he has killed his father and a father who realizes he has killed his son. So much for his proto-four-hour-work-week reverie.
With Shakespeare Confidential, I’m not really in the business of trying to fill the seats, to continue my movie metaphor. Sometimes you just need a mindless, big-budget action flick. Henry VI delivers. Pass the popcorn, Bill.
And, in a project like this, sometimes you just need an escape from self-reflection, from literary analysis, from Shakespeare-with-a-capital-S-Shakespeare. Incredibly, ironically, this is when Shakespeare most got under my skin.
Richard III was a horrible man, but he does have a thing or two to teach us about our struggles with body image.
They called Richard III “crookback.” But if I were an evil, Shakespearean villain, I think they’d call me “pointy nipples.” Case in, er, point:
The other day, I greeted my wife when she got home from work. She took one quick look at me and laughed.
“What?” I asked.
“Your shirt! Just – take a look in the mirror.”
I presented my plain, purple T-shirt to the bathroom mirror. It presented back three white spots about the size of silver dollars: one over each of my nipples, the third over my belly button.
“It’s the shirt!” I defended from the bathroom with all the whininess of a post-pool George Costanza. “The color’s fading!”
“No, I can actually see your right nipple. It’s sticking out through the shirt,” my wife fact-checked. “It’s so not the shirt. It’s this.” She imitated this, well, behavior of mine. One hand rubbed the ball of her thumb over her chest, the other a few her fingers over her stomach. ““Oh my God, I hope you’re not wearing it in public.”
“It’s one of those cheap Mossimo shirts I got from Target,” I insisted as I ran up the stairs to the bedroom. I closed the door, took off the shirt, and confronted it. Face-to-face. The three, white, threadbare circles stared back at me like some cruel, mocking emoji. Is this why the barista was giving me a funny look at the café the other day?
I had never ruined a shirt before with this nervous, self-conscious touching of my chest and stomach, but I can’t say I’m all that surprised. I’ve been waging war against my torso – my nipples being key targets – since I was a chubby preteen. See, I’ve always felt that – God, I can’t believe I’m sharing this – that I looked thinner when my nipples were hard. In my twisted thinking, harder means smaller, smaller means skinnier, and skinnier means better.
But I think we all have these tics in one shape or another. Hell, even old crookback Richard III – Shakespeare’s most villainous of villains – could relate to these neuroses of body image.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
I merge onto the 55 north from the 5 north. I have at least an hour, depending on traffic in Corona.
There aren’t any podcasts I really feel like listening to as I drive back from dog-sitting in Orange County to my in-laws’ in Temecula, where my wife and I have been staying before we move to Ireland next week.
It’s a perfect time to catch up with some friends. I have Siri dial one up.
Just as the number starts ringing, I hang up. It’s about 12:30pm on a Sunday, his time. He’s probably having a Bloody Mary at his parents’ or catching up on chores around his house. I shouldn’t bug him.
But I can hear my friend venting about how his girlfriend never pitches in. About how he still puts together dinner after an 11-hour workday. About news I saw on Facebook of the latest engagement, job promotion, home ownership, or birth announcements from old friends we shared over a decade ago. About friends still working at the same jobs they had in high school. About him saying he’ll try to make a visit. He’s got a lot going on, I know. I wonder if he’ll get engaged soon.
I have Siri dial him up again. Through my Prius’ Bluetooth, each subsequent ring sounds louder and louder as I come into the Inland Empire on the 91 east.
I don’t leave a voicemail.
You don’t have to tell an old friend who you are. The knowledge is automatic, like the way you can scratch an itch on an impossibly small part of your back without even thinking about it.
We’ve had a little rain recently. The canyons burst with green, but they’ll be brown again soon. It’s not clear enough today to see if there’s any snow left on top the distant San Gabriels.
I try another friend. I’ll ask him how he’s been doing after everything he’s been through recently. He’ll speak thoughtfully about his goings-on, philosophically about his current orientation in our cold and ever-expanding universe. He’ll recommend an author, a director, an artist I’ll pretend I’ve heard of. I’m sure he’ll be excited about my move to Dublin, but somehow I’ll never quite hear it in his voice. I’ll ask him more questions.
The phone rings through. He’s probably at the gym. I don’t leave a voicemail.
I don’t try a third friend I’ve been meaning to call. I can’t think of the last time he reached out to me since he remarried and became a father. He works so hard for his family. I think of him often. I’m sure he thinks of me, too.
At the 15, overpasses and onramps in mid-construction bestride the existing highways like the arching ribs of a cement giant. The air is hazy with smog from traffic, already thickening even though it’s a Sunday morning. With dust from constant bulldozers, with dirt kicked up by the desert winds. It’s hard to tell whether the colossal structures are being built or demolished.
My mom answers my next phone call. We chat until I’m just about back.
In Henry IV, Part 2, we see Prince Harry complete his maturation from madcap youth to new monarch, King Henry V, after his father dies from illness. Just as he accepts the crown, he rejects his old friend, Falstaff:
FALSTAFF. My king, my Jove, I speak to thee, my heart.
KING HARRY. I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.…
Presume not that I am the thing I was,
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turned away from my former self;
So will I those that kept me company. (5.5.44-57)
The new king continues, banishing Falstaff and his old companions from coming within 10 miles of him. He declares he will provide for them, so that “lack of means enforce [them] not to evils,” welcoming them back only if they leave their drunken, lascivious, and thieving ways (5.5.65).
Falstaff mets Harry’s decree with denial. As he tries to convince a minor law official, Shallow, (and himself): “I shall be sent for in private to him. Look you, he must seem thus to the world” (5.5.74-75). But Falstaff is only sent to prison.
Granted, Falstaff is mostly interested in how he will richly benefit from his association with the new king when he learns of Harry’s coronation. But for all the fat knight’s vices, it’s hard not to commiserate with him.
The Earl of Warwick, a supporter of King Henry IV, echoes Harry’s maturational strategy. When a moribund Henry, unaware of his son’s metamorphosis, imagines the “rotten times” (4.3.60) England has ahead when Harry succeeds him, Warwick offers:
The Prince but studies his companions,
Like a strange tongue, wherein to gain the language,
’Tis needful that the most immodest word
Be looked upon and learnt, which once attained,
Your highness knows, comes to no further use
But to be known and hated…(4.3.67-73)
It’s a very curious way to go about virtue. I guess Harry found a way to have his cake and eat it, too.
But it’s not all quite so easy for Harry, to be fair. We see him craving nothing more than a light beer, a drink below his royal rank, early in the play: “Doth it not show vilely in me to desire small beer?” (2.2.6). Later, we see him prematurely try on his father’s heavy crown, “to try with it, as with an enemy,” when he thinks his father, only asleep, has passed on (4.3.294).
His cake isn’t always so sweet.
In my wife’s old bedroom, squeezed between two dogs, I startle myself awake when I drop the book I’m reading about Ancient Rome. I set my phone alarms, cue up a podcast, and hit the light. I have not heard back from my friends that day, I realize. Not that I expected them to, if I’m honest. I mostly forgot about it. Mostly.
The bluish light of my iPhone illuminates the room as I check my messages and phone log once more time.
Henry IV, Part 2 has really gotten me thinking about friendship. Not anything quite so dramatic as Harry’s bald repudiation of Falstaff, but about the ways we come in and out of each other’s lives.
Reflecting on the changing alliances between rulers and rebels in recent memory, on the ways in which we think we know the people in our lives, King Henry IV observes:
O God, that one might read the book of fate,
And see the revolution of the times
Make mountains level, and the continent
Weary of solid firmness, melt itself
Into the sea…(3.1.44-48)
But we can’t, as I’m sure Henry would agree.
“We are all time’s subjects,” one of the king’s opponents sums its up. And space’s, too.
I usually say I have about five close friends, almost all back in my hometown, Cincinnati. Lately, it can feel like one or two. I didn’t really make any new ones after I left. Not in Minneapolis. Not in Laguna Beach. Certainly not in Irvine.
Time gives friendship inertia. Space takes away its momentum.
I suppose I could have worked harder at it, but I’ve liked saving that effort to keep up with phone calls and making visits back home. Plus, there was family to get closer to out here in California and new colleagues when I was working in the autism field.
Does one really make new, close friends after a certain point? It feels hard to get to know someone after 30. Our pasts become so dense and opaque. You don’t have to tell an old friend who you are, who you really are. The knowledge is assumed and invisible. Automatic, like the way you can scratch an itch on an impossibly small part of your back without even thinking about it. How do you recreate gravity?
Time gives friendship inertia, fortunately. Thanks to that shared history, a college tall-tale and a couple of beers can make it feel like you’ve never missed a beat. There’s a shared psychology, too, with childhood friends. The selves you fulfilled. The many more you didn’t. Blame, perspective, circumstances.
But space, geography, takes away friendship’s momentum. Yes, there’s Facebook and FaceTime, weddings and holidays, but you just can’t call up your friend across the country Friday after work to see if he wants a beer. All those missed drinks accrete.
Just because you act as a sort of Hal, moving on, doesn’t mean your friends are Falstaffs, never changing. They move on, too. You can’t begrudge them that you’ve moved away. You can’t begrudge them circumstances.
This has been easy for me to forget.
We are all our own Hals, turning away from our former selves. For new crowns heavy with the weight of bills, obligations. Glistening with new possibilities.
We are all our own Hals. We are all our own Falstaffs.
We are all our own Falstaffs, inveterately ourselves, naively ourselves in our petty and pompous everyday lives as they unfold in time and space – which, beautifully, thankfully, we get to share, sometimes more often, sometime less, with others.
This is so easy to forget.
A few days later, I shoot my friends a text sometime before dinnertime, Pacific Time. Eventually, I hear back from one: “miss you man.”
It’s enough, like a tiny bit of thrust in a spacecraft sent adrift.
Outside, a sterile sun was already burning through the gauzy clouds over the mountains. Dumping out the dregs of yesterday’s coffee, I spotted pink chunks in the sink. Some washed down the drain as I filled up the carafe; others were crusted onto the stainless steel.
Was this me? I thought. I don’t remember doing this.
I remember a bouncer all of sudden asked me to leave the bar. I know I wasn’t rowdy. I wasn’t even terribly drunk, I think. I remember folding slices of peppered salami and sourdough bread into my face after the taxi got us home, as I remember we didn’t eat dinner before going out. But I don’t remember puking in my own kitchen sink.
Pathetic. I rinsed out the sink and measured out the coffee.
A mild headache signaled I was still a little drunk the morning after my sister-in-law’s boyfriend – I’ll call him Rob – and I patronized a gritty dive bar. He came down from Portland to Orange County for the weekend; my wife and her brother, meanwhile, headed up there to enjoy some sibling time.
I don’t whether I’m relieved it wasn’t me or ashamed that I was ready to claim it.
I had a cup or two and made some half-hearted efforts to tidy up when Rob emerged. “Dude, I’m so sorry,” he said, looking at the sink as he poured some coffee. “I puked in your sink last night.”
“Wait, that was you?”
“Yeah, I didn’t make it to the bathroom, but thank God I got down the stairs. I just had dropped down on the air mattress last night when – ”
“ – oh, good! I thought it was…I don’t whether I’m relieved it wasn’t me or ashamed that I was ready to claim it.”
We laughed, carefully, as if not to tug at fresh stitches after a surgery.
I rubbed my eyes, shrunken from dehydration. “Jesus,” I groaned. This was my second friend to throw up in my apartment, I recalled. The first made it to the balcony. Mostly. Oh, god. I’m in my thirties now.
I looked out at the hospital-white sky and poured some more coffee. “Looks like it’s gonna be another beautiful day in sunny Southern California.”
“Thou art so fat-witted with drinking of old sack,” Prince Harry teases his friend Falstaff in 1 Henry IV (1.2.2).
Well, I feel you, Falstaff.
With all the boozing I’ve been doing these past few months, I think I’ve racked up quite the tab up at the Eastcheap tavern.
Shakespeare’s The History of Henry IV, or Henry IV, PartI,isn’t heavy on plot. It is heavy, though, on the fat knight, Sir John Falstaff, and other memorable characters, locations, and use of language. This celebrated history play features rebels – including the zealous Henry Percy, aptly called Hotspur, and an occultist Welshman, Glyndwr – who fail to overthrow King Henry IV. (Henry IV, as you may recall from my last post, deposed Richard II, which dogs his reign.) Meanwhile, a wild-oats-sowing Prince Harry revels with common whores, thieves, and drunks – most notably Falstaff – in the bars, brothels, and byways of London until, maturing, he shines on the battlefield and kills Hotspur.
The tavern scenes are particularly legendary, as are Prince Harry’s insults to Falstaff, whom he variously calls a “fat-kidneyed rascal” (2.2.6), “a obscene whorseon greasy tallow-catch,”(2.5.210-11), and a “stuffed cloak-bag of guts” (2.5.411-12).
Now, I don’t quite identify with the Falstaff’s appetite for food, but for drink? I can be quite guilty. As Prince Harry mocks him, “O villain, thy lips are scarce wiped since thou drunkest last” (2.5.139-40).
I eat well and exercise daily. I opt for seltzer water or tea during weeknights – or try to.
But it’s been a hectic few months. And one drink has this way of turning into, well, more than one, I’ll say.
“Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world”
I had a goodbye party at work. Christmas followed. My in-laws live in wine country, understand. I flew back to Cincinnati over New Year’s. I had to catch up with old friends – and old watering holes. Then, we had some Minnesota family in town for a few weekends; their conversation pairs so well with a cocktail. Soon after, we learned we’re moving to Ireland. One must celebrate, of course. And Costa Rica was lovely. The chiliguaro made for a proper cultural immersion, and an Imperial (or two or three or four) eased the tension after some long drives.
Rob came down. And back up, in a manner of speaking.
My wife and I then started bidding farewell to various friends, family, colleagues. And to SoCal: beef-tongue tacos at a Santa Ana taqueria and jumping into the Pacific (naked) after the bars closed? I mean, how would you say goodbye?
Then there’s selling and donating just about everything you own, living in limbo as you wait for the Irish government to process your visas, trying not to feel like a fraud and ingrate as a willfully unemployed ‘writer’ (ack) while you’re supported by an amazingly talented and accomplished wife who’s additionally shouldering all the logistics of our move…yes, finish off the gin. Throwing it away as you empty out our apartment would be wasteful.
And not only are we’re moving to Dublin in country already famed enough for its drinking, but my wife will actually be working in the alcohol industry there.
Now, we’re staying at my in-laws’s before we fly out in a week or so. They live in wine country, remember?
Yet, as Falstaff wisely notes, “Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world” (2.5.437). Then again, as he later observes, “The better part of valour is discretion” (5.4.117-8). Not that our beloved, bloated bloviator ever follows his own sanctimonious proclamations.
In Henry IV, Part I it’s hard to look away from Falstaff. His larger-than-life antics – and sweaty self-justifications – certainly make you want to have the underskinker fetch another round of sack and not cut it with too much sugar.
But we shouldn’t overlook Harry’s maturation so central to the play. As he soliloquizes early in the play:
I know you all, and will a while uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness.
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him. (1.2.175-182)
Harry likens himself to the sun, a royal symbol, and his lowly comrades to the clouds, whose baseness he, like a prodigal son, will burn through. It’s cold and calculating.
For me, as I recall the sun burning off the clouds that Saturday morning with Rob, I can’t help but think of Harry’s metaphor more literally. The sober light of day can be harsh – and soul-baring.
I’ll stick with just one drink tonight. Ha. Good thing it’s pretty overcast in Dublin.
I don’t mean where you want your ashes scattered or what songs you’d like sung at the ceremony or even the drunken “celebration of life” you hope your loved ones throw in your memory.
I mean, do you ever really imagine it? Your family sobs out eulogies, mascara stains cheeks, men conceal their teary eyes with their hands and mutter something about allergies. As all the pews have been filled, your colleagues line the back wall of the church. At the reception, your friends chain-smoke, pass around a bottle of bourbon, and trade fond remembrances out back of the reception.
If we could be so lucky.
I imagine my own funeral from time to time. Back in our pretentious, angsty days, not that I’ve quite outgrown them, my good friend promised me he’d toss two cartons of Camel Lights and dump a pot of coffee on my casket if I went before him. God love ’em, he’ll do it. I should note this in my will, though, else he be escorted from the burial.
These are dark thoughts, I know – and incredibly narcissistic. But I also think they’re very human.
Deep down, don’t we all need to know that we will be missed?
As humans, we’re self-aware. Our consciousness lets us grasp futurity, which forces us to confront our own finality. This makes me, for one, not fear my own death but dread some ultimate futility. What was this all for? Did I mean something? Will people grieve me?
Yes, these morbid musings are vain, but don’t we all need to know, deep down in our small and trembling hearts, that we will be missed? In some primal and ironic way, these existential insecurities underscore how fundamentally other-centered our self-centeredness is.
Nobody, though, throws a pity party like the tragic Richard II.
This week, I’ve returned to Shakespeare’s history plays. I’ve decided to round out the so-called “second tetralogy” or “Henriad”: Richard II, the History of Henry IV, and the Second Part of Henry IV. The tetralogy culminates in Henry V, which I read egregiously out of order.
In Richard II, a very kingly Richard exiles his cousin Harry Bolingbroke after his dispute with Thomas Mowbray over the death of the Duke of Gloucester, whose murder the king himself we believe ordered. Following the death of Henry’s father, John of Gaunt, Richard seizes the property – and title – Harry was to inherit. While Richard is waging a campaign in Ireland funded by forced loans from his subjects, Harry stages an overthrow and ascends to the crown. Meanwhile, the uncle to Richard and Harry, the Duke of York, helps foil an assassination plot (which his own son conspired in) against the new monarch, Harry, now Henry IV. A nobleman murders an abject Richard, who’s been penned up in a castle prison.
Richard II raises king-size questions about the institution of the English monarchy, the tyrannical possibilities of a monarch’s authority, and the problem of his subjects’ loyalty therein.
Today, we watch movies where our leaders are usurped or even killed, but in the sixteenth-century, texts of the play – and likely performances – omitted the parts where Richard gives his crown to Harry, as my Norton Shakespeare informed me. Shakespeare’s history plays were no doubt The House of Cards of his day, but actually staging a deposition was a subversive act, though, from what I’ve read, some opponents to Elizabeth I indeed paid Shakespeare’s company to put on a performance of this play.
Here’s an excerpt of Richard’s regal resignation:
BOLINGBROKE Are you contented to resign the crown?
RICHARD: Ay, ay; no, ay; for I must nothing be;
Therefore no, no, for I resign to thee.
Now mark me how I will undo myself.
I give this heavy weight from off my head,
[BOLINGBROKE accepts the crown]
And this unwieldy sceptre from my hand,
[BOLINGBROKE accepts the sceptre]
The pride of kingly sway from out my heart.
With mine own tears I wash away my balm,
With mine own hands I give away my crown,
With mine own tongue deny my sacred state,
With mine own breath release all duteous oaths. (4.1.190-200)
Richard continues in his majestic – and megalomaniacal – monologue. The passage vividly exemplifies the costume of power and the performance of identity, thematic obsessions in Shakespeare’s body of work. By literally taking off his crown, Richard is “unkinged” (4.1.210).
But more interesting to me than the “hollow crown” (3.2.156) is the very intense and perceptive psychological portrait Shakespeare gives us in Richard when he’s unkinged, unselved, undone.
No longer a king, Richard becomes a drama queen. After he’s imprisoned, Richard asks for a mirror following the coronation of King Henry and literally self-reflects in one of the play’s most famous scenes:
A brittle glory shineth in this face.
As brittle as the glory is the face,
[He shatters the glass]
For there it is, cracked in an hundred shivers. (4.1.277-79)
(Richard should have watched more modern cinema. He could have hidden a shard of glass to attack his captors.)
Self-pity has never been so poetic. Self-pity has never been so exquisite. But at this point in the play, Richard has already transcended self-pity, even. He has climbed the proud heights – or sounded the pathetic depths, depending on how you want to look it – of self-mythology. Before he’s separated from his wife (she’s been exiled to France) and imprisoned at Pomfret, Richard consoles his wife – and himself:
Good sometimes Queen, prepare thee for France.
Think I am dead, and that even here thou tak’st,
As thou from my death-bed, thy last living leave.
In winter’s tedious nights, sit by the fire
With good old folks, and let them tell thee tales
Of woeful ages long ago betid;
And ere thou bid goodnight, to quit their griefs
Tell thou the lamentable fall of me,
And send the hearers weeping to their beds;
Forwhy the senseless brands will sympathize
The heavy accent on thy moving tongue,
And in compassion weep the fire out;
And some will mourn in ashes, some coal black,
for the deposing of a rightful king. (5.1.37-50)
That’s a lot of wallowing, Richard, but damn, your mud sounds as soft as velvet.
In his Poetics, Aristotle presents catharsis as a metaphor for our experience of theater, especially tragedy, which arouses – and subsequently purges – our pity and fear. Yes, we experience catharsis in the tragic demise of Richard II after his egregious abuse of power. But, as he imagines his wife telling the “sad stories of the death of kings” (3.2.152), we experience a second catharsis as Richard induces his own catharsis. Call it a “metacatharsis.” (Permission to punch me in the nose).
For me, this is Shakespeare’s genius: Four hundred years ago, casting his light into the shadowy recesses of the human psyche and condition, he understood why our favorite songs are the sad ones, why we need rainy day , or why imagine our own funerals from time to time. In the theater of the human mind, we like to perform – we need to perform –our own catharsis.
He feels your hangover. He knows that frantic scramble for your wallet, your keys, and your phone when you wake up on your friend’s couch after a night out drinking. That double-checking you got your credit card back from the bar. He hears you when ask your friend, “Oh my God, how much did I spend last night?” He understands you’re bloated from the pizza that saved your blood sugar levels at 3am. He, too, longs to dry out today but will inevitably be putting back beers in just a few hours. You’re only back home for Christmas for so long, he tells you. His thigh is also mysteriously sore. “Did I fall?” you ask your friend. “Yeah, when we were walking home.” “Jesus,” you laugh, repressing the vague ache of regret as you text friends how great it was to see them, getting flashes of how you talked too much about yourself and dropped a whole pint on the bar patio. “How did we use to do this all the time?” you wonder. You sit on your friend’s toilet, cradling your heavy head in your hands and trying to pull yourself together.
Shakespeare hands you some aspirin. Five of them.
This week, I read Cymbeline, The King of Britain. It’s a play many have heard of but few have read, as far as I can tell. Someone remarked – I can’t remember where I came across it – that Shakespeare was bored with writing when he wrote this late Romance. Indeed, the play’s not loved by all, at least historically; critics often fault its plot and structure.
I am really starting to delight in the little details that give us a glimpse into everyday life in Shakespeare’s England.
The story is truly bonkers. I won’t pretend I can even summarize it, but here are some highlights: a thwarted marriage between social classes, banishment, a wager on the princess’s chastity, deceit in said wager, two princes kidnapped as infants and raised in a Welsh cave, a conniving queen, an asshole prince, fake poison, a battle between Rome and England over tribute to Caesar, countless disguises, a decapitation, a dream sequence involving the god Jupiter – and, as it goes in the tragicomic Romance genre, the eventual reunion of the play’s central couple, Princess Innogen and Posthumus, low of rank but high of virtue. As a gentleman describes him in the beginning of the play, “I do not think / So fair an outward and such stuff within / Endows a man but he” (1.1.22-24).
Cymbeline is all over the place – and I enjoyed every last bit of it.
Yes, Cymbeline has big themes: national identity, gender, fidelity, family, the nature of character, the nature of truth, love. It musters mythology. It raises religion. It develops its ideas through recurring images of fabric and air, with wordplay on inward and outward. But five plays into my year of Shakespeare and five admittedly long posts on Big Ideas, I am really starting to delight in the little details that give us a glimpse into everyday life in Shakespeare’s England.
So, this post, I’m trying to stay small. Except for a little stargazing.
Early in Cymbeline, Innogen says to her attendant in her bedroom chamber: “I have read three hours then. Mine eyes are weak. Fold down the leaf where I have left” (2.2.3-4). I love this intimate and mundane detail. I love that Elizabethans also dog-eared the pages of their books. I can see Shakespeare turning down the corner of a page in Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, which he drew from as he wrote the play.
Sometimes the Bard gives us truths in beautiful, pithy, lofty packages. Other times, as with the jailer’s reflections, it’s through humorous, honest, and very human little details.
Later in the play, Belarius, who kidnapped the king’s sons when they were infants to retaliate against his wrongful banishment from his kingdom, says of Innogen, now disguised a rustic man they are nursing back to health in his cave – I told you the plot is a mess. Anyways, Belarius fondly says of the Innogen in disguise, “He cut our roots in characters” (4.2.51). My text glosses “characters” as “alphabet shapes.” This is like removing the crust from your kid’s sandwich or arranging a breakfast plate of eggs and bacon into a smiley face: a small, domestic touch still tender and playful 400 years later.
Then there are the stars – and lovely hints at Shakespeare’s astronomical knowledge that shine through.
On Brain Pickings, I read a lovely review of Dan Falk’s The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright’s Universe. Discussing the ways the astronomy of his day influenced the Bard, Falk takes a close look at Cymbeline (andscholarship on it), which he notes was written not long after Galileo published an important treatise. Falk cites some lines by Giacomo, the seedy who Italian who bets the banished Posthumus he can bed Innogen but ruinously cheats in the wager:
What, are men mad? Hath nature given them eyes
To see this vaulted arch and the rich crop
Of sea and land, which can distinguish ‘twixt
The fiery orbs above and the twinned stones
Upon th’unnumbered beach, and can we not
Partition make with spectacles so precious
‘Twixt fair and foul? (1.6.33-39)
Citing astronomy professor and Shakespeare scholar Peter Usher, Falk wonders if these spectacles aren’t an early telescope.
Near the end of the play, Posthumus dreams the ghosts of his family, which he never met. They circle him, according to the stage directions, before Jupiter descends. Falk muses if Shakespeare just isn’t alluding to the four moons of Jupiter, which Galileo had recently discovered.
And in the final scene, when all the disguises come off, the truth comes forward, and the couple reunites, it caught my eye when Cymbeline remarks in disbelief: “Does the world go round?” (5.6.232).
Falk and Usher cite many other astronomical details in Cymbeline, but these little glimmers, if faint, are fascinating.
Finally, Shakespeare knows you never drink just one beer.
After he comes to from his dream, Posthumus – captured by the British because he’s been fighting for the Romans to hasten his death, so ruined by his belief that Innogen has cuckolded him – shares his eagerness to be hanged with his jailer. This occasions the jailer to muse on some possible benefits of death:
A heavy reckoning for you, sir. But the comfort is, you shall be called to no more payments, fear no more tavern bills, which are as often the sadness of parting as the procuring of mirth. You come in faint for want of meat, depart reeling with too much drink, sorry that you have paid too much and sorry that you are paid too much; purse and brain both empty: the brain the heavier for being too light, the purse too light, being drawn of heaviness. Of this contradiction you shall now be quit. O, the charity of a penny cord! (5.6.250-58).
Sometimes the Bard gives us truths in beautiful, pithy, lofty packages: “Our very eyes / Are sometimes like our judgements, blind” (4.2.303-4). Other times, as with the jailer’s reflections, it’s through humorous, honest, and very human little details.
Even if Shakespeare had all the effects at J. J. Abrams’ disposal, his most powerful weapon remains his words: “Your naked infants spitted upon pikes.”
“One for Star Wars, please,” I tell the ticket taker.
I like to imagine that some other John, over 400 years ago, stopped by his equivalent of Ralph’s at 2pm on a Tuesday to buy a Tetra Pak of cab sauv, which he snuck into an afternoon showing of Star Wars after eating cucumber avocado rolls in his Prius on his way to the theater.
See, I wasn’t able to write anything meaningful about The Life of Henry the Fifth (Henry V) at home. Naturally, I decided to day-drink at the movies.
For my first, I re-read The Taming of the Shrew. For the second, I thought I would tackle something new. Something difficult – for me at least. I have a blind spot for a few things: the stock market, calendars, monarchical lineages, remembering exactly what my wife does for work, following plots.
Shakespeare’s histories, I knew, would prove quite relevant to American politics today, crazy as the 2016 race has been already. Dynasties, outsiders, campaigns, costumes, power – and so much rhetoric and performance.
So, I flipped through my Norton Shakespeare: Histories and settled on Henry V.
Henry V and Star Wars both intermix the serious with the comic. Both follow a small squad defeating a massive army against impossible odds. Both have triumphant, if suggestive, endings. Both are underdog action flicks with sequel hooks, such are some of the enduring elements of narrative. And both have sabers, of a sort, too.
Blind spot confirmed: I have no mind for plots. As Katherine Maus makes clear in her introduction to the play in my Norton volume: “Shakespeare’s Henry V is the last written of a set of eight plays on medieval English history.” Shit. There are significant parts of Henry V that would have made much more sense – say, the death of Falstaff and why the French don’t take Henry seriously – if I had read the two parts of Henry IV.
But I kind of like it this way. We may study history chronologically in the classroom, but in life, we often come to know it in reverse, don’t we?
I bet a lot of people saw the new episode of Star Wars without having seen the first six.
I didn’t think Henry V and Star Wars would have a lot in common. I was wrong.
Sequels? Check. Prologues? Check. Actors speaking different varieties of English? Check. Men bragging about weapons and kills? Check. Traitors? Check. Political leaders engaging in direct combat? Check. Dudes getting the girl at the end? Check. Droids? Check. Er, that must have been the cab.
Seriously though, there are significant structural similarities. Henry V and Star Wars both intermix the serious with the comic. Both follow a small squad defeating a massive army against impossible odds. Both have triumphant, if suggestive, endings. They are underdog action flicks with sequel hooks, such are some enduring elements of narrative.
And both works have sabers, of a sort, too.
Basically, Henry V is the Battle of Agincourt. Citing some old legal technicalities, the Church assures Harry (Henry goes by Harry) that he has a claim to the French throne. The English mount an attack. Vastly outnumbered and underestimated by the French, they kick some serious ass, aided in no small part by Henry’s pep talks. Henry becomes heir to the French crown and marries the French princess, Catherine.
If I were at the Globe in 1599, I guess I’d be chanting HARRY! HARRY! HARRY! at the curtain call.
There are subplots, too, featuring traitors, lowly plunderers, feisty Welsh, Irish, and Scottish captains, cocky French nobles, the French princess’ hilarious English lesson, and some theatrical time travel.
All in all, the play’s a triumph for Harry, the once reckless youngster now a proven leader – “the strawberry grows underneath the nettle,” as Bishop Ely puts it well in 1.1.61. Of course, I would have better understood his transformation had I first read the preceding histories.
But, as with all things Shakespeare, the play’s more complicated than that. Its Chorus sounds a darker final note as it looks ahead to future military losses, casting a shadow on Harry’s success.
“Tennis balls, my liege.”
In 1.2, the French ambassador presents to the English nobles a treasure chest, the Dauphin’s response to England’s claims on the French throne. Harry asks his uncle, Exeter, to see what’s inside. Exeter answers: “Tennis balls, my liege” (1.2.258).
The French don’t take Harry seriously, his youthful indiscretions still tainting his reputation. It’s an incredible insult. It’s an incredible line. “Tennis balls, my liege.” Did Mel Brooks write this?
After serving up an elaborate tennis simile, Harry responds:
…tell the pleasant Prince this mock of his
Hath turned his balls to gunstones, and his soul
Shall stand sore charged for the wasteful vengeance
That shall fly from them–for many a thousand widows
Shall this his mock mock out of their dear husbands,
Mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down;
Ay, some are yet ungotten and unborn
That shall have cause to curse the Dauphin’s scorn. (1.2.281-88)
Do not mock King Harry. My goodness.
As I was reflecting on this scene, I realized that this is what has really stayed with me from the play: Harry’s language.
If you haven’t read or seen Henry V, you still probably know two of its most famous lines: “Once more unto the breach” (3.1.1) and “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” (4.3.60).
King Henry does some legendary rallying in the play. Let’s put these quotes in context.
In the first, Harry is rousing his men as they siege the port city of Harfleur in Normandy, France:
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more,
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility,
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger.
Stiffen the sinews, conjure up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favoured rage. (3.1.1-8)
Closing up the hole in their defenses with dead soldiers. Wow. What an image.
The second comes from Henry’s St. Crispin’s Day speech (the Battle of Agincourt took place on that feast day). In the following excerpt, Harry again rallies his men, greatly outnumbered by the French:
This story shall the good man teach his son,
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by
From this day to the ending of the world
But we in it shall be remembered,
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition.
And gentlemen in England now abed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day. (4.3.56-67)
Coach Taylor and Braveheart definitely learned a thing or two from King Henry.
And apparently Republican presidential candidate, Senator Ted Cruz. Taking a break from building their Supreme Court case to end the Florida recount during the 2000 election, members of President George W. Bush’s legal team, including then-policy adviser Cruz, joined hands and read the St. Crispin’s Day speech.
What an image.
So yes, Henry delivers incredible battle speeches. His words still inform that sense of fraternity – of a self-sacrificing manliness, of a larger-than-oneself camaraderie – that many modern soldiers (and other tight-knit teams) still experience. It still imbues concepts of patriotism, service, and national identity.
And we like to romanticize it. Politicians even like to capitalize on it.
President Obama takes a lot of flak for not sounding tough enough when he addresses ISIS. Many ridicule him for not calling these terrorists “radical Islamists.” And even if he did talk like Harry, Obama still probably wouldn’t please his critics.
But King Harry knows a thing or too about the loneliness of the office.
There’s this amazing moment in the play. In disguise, King Henry talks to some common soldiers, who think he’s just a fellow fighter. Knowing that the numbers are against them and they may thus lose their lives in vain, the soldiers question the King’s leadership. One, Williams, argues the King may even be responsible for the souls of the slain: “But if the cause be not good, the King himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle shall join together at the latter day…” (4.1.128-31). He’s referring to Judgment Day.
There’s much more to the scene, but, when the soldiers leave the stage, King Henry soliloquizes on the great burden placed “Upon the King”:
‘Let us our lives, our souls, our debts, our care-full wives,
Our children, and our sins, lay on the King.’
We must bear all. O hard condition,
Twin-born with greatness: subject to the breath
Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel
But his own wringing. What infinite heartease
Must kings neglect that private men enjoy?
And what have kings that privates have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?
And what art thou, thou idol ceremony? (4.1.212-22)
The president is our national lightning rod, but we have no idea how heavy the rain, how loud the thunder, how dark the skies of power can be.
But this, too, we like to romanticize. As King Harry observes: “I think the King is but a man” (4.1.99). And in his courting of Catherine (his game is endearingly awkward), he humbly submits: “…take me, take a soldier; take a soldier, take a king” (5.2.160).
That’s so crazy to me now: unlike our modern leaders, Harry fought on the battlefield. Imagine Obama and Putin drawing longswords – some presidential candidates claim that this is how they’ll lead – instead of getting briefed by generals on data collected by drones in situation rooms.
There’s a brutal, physical, and personal violence that comes across so vividly in Harry’s language.
How warfare has changed. Heralds would deliver messages to the opposition in person. In the middle of fighting, parleys would sound so the two sides would cease fighting to negotiate. At the end of a battle, survivors, as the French Herald Montjoy does after the English win the Battle of Agincourt, would “wander o’er this bloody field / To book our dead and then to bury them…” (4.7.64-65). Imagine doing that body count.
Warfare was so direct and immediate. And is, no doubt, for soldiers – and civilians – who’ve experienced war no matter how it’s evolved, as it’s all too easy to forget as we are entertained by so much violence screened in the comfort of our multiplexes.
There’s a brutal, physical, and personal violence that comes across so vividly in Harry’s language. It’s actually pretty terrifying.
Before Agincourt, telling the Governour of Harfleur what he will do if he doesn’t surrender, Harry threatens:
The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,
And the fleshed soldier, rough and hard of heart,
In liberty of bloody hand shall range
With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass
Your fresh fair virgins and flow’ring infant. (3.3.87-91)
But he’s not done:
…–why, in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dashed to the walls;
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds, as the did the wives of Jewry
At Herod’s bloody-hunting slaughtermen.
What say you? Will you yield, and this avoid?
Or, guilty in defence, be thus destroyed? (3.3.110-20)
Holy shit. That is nuts. If I were the Governour of Harfleur, I’d be like, “Uh, yeah man. We’re good. We’re done here.”
In Henry V, we are told that body count yields ten thousand French slain, under 30 English.
That violence isn’t real to me. I don’t think we process violence in terms of the big battle or on such an epic scale. See, even if Shakespeare had all the effects at J. J. Abrams’ disposal, his most powerful weapon remains his words: “Your naked infants spitted upon pikes.”
This is the real power of Shakespeare’s language in Henry V. With these words, we are forced to imagine this disturbing scene.
This is the same reason why in The Force Awakens (yeah, I’m really making this connection) we are disturbed when the Jakku junk dealer offers 60 portions of food for the adorable droid, BB-8. We have to conjure up the little guy being scrapped.
I’m glad that warfare isn’t what it used to be, even if we still cling to long-held visions of heroism. Way fewer people die. I don’t think there is anything more or less heroic about a leader killing enemies with his own hands than by ordering a drone strike.
So, sitting comfortably with boxed wine at a theater in Irvine, Calif., my feet kicked up on the back of the empty seats in front of me, watching the First Order (spoiler) literally blow up a whole star system, I couldn’t help but think how abstract violence has become.
That’s why terrorism is so scary. The violence is personal. Immediate, direct, real. We all have been eating at a cafe or a holiday party.
And that’s why saying things like “bombing the shit out of” or “carpet-bombing” – “once more unto the breach”? – a whole region is easy rhetoric. It’s abstract, far away, somewhere else. Yes, it sounds tough. But it doesn’t force us imagine the little kid returning from the market with some flour for his mom to make bread. It doesn’t force us to imagine the young soldier – a modern-day Williams – risking their life in vain.
Thanks to Harry’s language, at once mighty and menacing, my takeaways from Henry V feel muddied. Shakespeare loves to play in the mud.
But one thing’s for sure, though. Use the force – of language – wisely.