Just get on with it already: Love’s Labour’s Lost

This overachiever, though, makes no promises.

Love’s Labour’s Lost was my final comedy. I wasn’t sure I’d make it through all Shakespeare’s comedies, to be honest. There are 13 of them, by Norton’s classification, the most of any genre. Some of these plays are among Shakespeare’s best and most memorable: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Taming of the Shrew, Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice. Four hundred years after Shakespeare’s death, teachers are still assigning them in high schools and colleges, and for good reason. Four hundred years after his death, people like me are trying to read all of them in an ungodly, unnaturally short period of time.

For me, the comedies are among some of Shakespeare’s most difficult plays.

The Merchant of Venice, though, I’ve never found much humor in. Its antisemitism is more disturbing, though more relevant, than ever, and I’ve always had trouble reconciling this dimension of the play with Portia’s inspiring selflessness. But as a historical genre, of course, the comedy isn’t necessarily about ha-ha funny. As my friend conducts his Renaissance comedy litmus test: “Does it end with a marriage?” Disunion resolves in union. Ignorance finds knowledge. There is much more to it, of course.

But for me, the comedies are among some of Shakespeare’s most difficult plays. For one, humor is topical and doesn’t age well. I chuckle appreciatively at all their inversions (e.g., mistaken identities, disguises, gender-bending), and I nod knowingly at their keen commentary (i.e., social roles are performative and constructed), but they seldom elicit any guffaw from me. Well, Falstaff, in all of his Homer Simpsonian idiocy in The Merry Wives of Windsor is a notable exception. And I did laugh out loud when Armado, a swaggering Spaniard, says in Love’s Labour’s Lost, “Cupid’s butt-shaft is too hard for Hercules club” (1.2.156-56), but that’s because I gleefully, juvenilely, took Shakespeare out of context. Butt-shaft. It refers, just so you know, to an “unbarbed arrow.”

My mis-glossing of butt-shaft points to a second reason for the challenge of Shakespeare’s comedies for the modern reader: The language of the comedies is dense. The language of all the plays – 1) poeticized, 2) in an early form of English, and 3) from the quill of a writer with a super-human lexicon – is dense. But in the comedies, Shakespeare further heightens his language with 4) truly acrobatic wordplay.

Take this moment of banter in Love’s Labour’s Lost where Catherine, a lady attending on the French princess, says to Longueville, a lord attending on the King of Navarre: “‘Veal,’ quoth the Dutchman. Is not a veal a calf?” (5.2.247). This veal is, no joke, a quadruple pun. (Thank you, footnotes.) It riffs on veal as a Dutch pronunciation of well or the German word for much (viel). Historically, veal would have sounded more like veil. Then, veal plays on the second part of Longueville’s name while calling up the French word for “calf,” veau, and a calf was slang for a “dunce” in Renaissance English. I don’t know what any of this means, really, other than that Catherine is ripping on Longueville.

Veal: That’s one word. One word, people. One word among 884,647, according to one tally.

But Love’s Labour’s Lost is especially difficult – and I intentionally saved it for my final comedy. Or more accurately, I avoided it. I’ve read it before, in college, and I can’t stand it. Only part of that is due to the play itself, however.

***

Love’s Labour’s Lost kicks off with three lords who promise Ferdinand, King of Navarre, that they will study, fast, and forswear the company of women for the next three years. Ferdinand even decrees no woman is to come within one mile of his court.

This doesn’t last long, as The French Princess arrives, having some business to settle with Ferdinand before her sick father dies, along with her three ladies. (You can guess where this is going.) Thanks to Ferdinand’s decree, her royal retinue has to camp out in his field. (She rightfully calls him out for this, in case you were wondering.)

But the three lords and the king immediately fall in love with their counterparts and, against their oath, try to woo them. Here’s the hard part: Anytime they open their mouths – anytime any male character opens his mouth in this play – out comes a flowery stream of verbal diarrhea. In rhymed iambic pentameter. Sometimes even as whole sonnets. (I suppose shit can smell like roses.)

Listen to Biron, one of the three lords, wax amatory for Rosaline, one of the three ladies:

Lend me flourish of all gentle tongues–
Fie, painted rhetoric! O, she needs it not.
To things of sale a seller’s praise belongs.
She passes praise–then praise too short doth blot. (4.3.234-37).

Even in acknowledging any “painted rhetoric” will fall short of her beauty, he paints his rhetoric. Just get on with it, man! OK, this is one of the aims of the play, to lampoon verbosity, especially the self-involved excesses of the language of their courtship, but just get on with it already!

***

Just get on with it already! I’m pretty sure my college Shakespeare professor was thinking exactly that as she read my essay on Love’s Labour’s Lost.

For my English major, I had to take one course in Shakespeare. We read Hamlet, Othello, The Tempest, A Winter’s Tale, Richard II, Richard III, The Taming of the Shrew, and Love’s Labour’s Lost. The latter is an unusual assignment, given all the other plays to choose from, coupled with the comedy’s difficult reputation. And, if I remember correctly, it was yet we read this play first. Kinda ballsy, especially as the class only had a smattering of English majors. The class roster thinned out a bit after this.

We had two writing assignments for the play. The first, a short reading response, I remember vividly. We had to pick a keyword in the opening scene or so of the play, look up its meaning in Shakespeare’s English, and then, when we finished the play, argue why it represented the work as a whole.

I chose conqueror. It’s from the King’s opening monologue. He’s addressing the three lords, saying they will achieve fame at his court through their study and self-denial:

Therefore, brave conquerors–for so you are,
That war against your own affections
And the huge army of the world’s desires–
Our late edict shall strongly stand in force. (1.1.8-11)

The edict, here, refers to the oaths they swear.

I have no idea why I chose conqueror, but I can recall thinking it was an inspired choice. (Not so.) Here’s my mini-thesis for the “Reading Response”:

The self-referential nature, irony, and issues of love, gender, class, and language that the word conqueror conveys in the opening of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost render it the most significant word in the entire first scene and one of the most important words in the play overall.

At the time, I thought this was great. Self-referential? The way I packed in irony, love, gender, class, and language in my first clause alone? I was making moves. English-major moves. (Oy.)

The second assignment was a full essay. I can’t remember the prompt. I can’t really remember my argument either, other than it had something to with appearance vs. reality. (So original.) My professor’s lecture must have emphasized on artificial language vs. natural language. That distinction, clearly, I failed to internalize in my own writing.

I do remember, though, that this was the lowest grade I ever got on a paper in college. It was a ‘B.’ I know, I know: the horror, the horror! I’m a perfectionist and an overachiever. What can I say? Crucify me. I always liked getting good grades and submitting my best work, even when I didn’t give a damn about the subject or assignment.

Out oozed, like one of those big pimples deep under the skin that are hard to pop and really hurt when you try, an overwritten sludge of overwrought and over-intellectualized over-ness about…well, I can’t even remember.

But it wasn’t the ‘B’ that bothered me. OK, the ‘B’ did bother me. I can’t deny my inner Lisa Simpson. But I was more so challenged by the fact that this was hardest paper I can remember writing, harder than that 50-page doorstopper on the prophetic mysticism of jazz in Ginsburg’s Howl, harder even than my Master’s thesis on reforms in teacher assessment. Harder, because I found I had absolutely nothing to say about Love’s Labour’s Lost.

I can remember starting this essay the day before it was due. That was uncharacteristic, because 1) I’m a slow writer and 2) I’m an overachiever, remember? (The day before an essay is due is the day for final editing, duh.) I’m not sure what delayed me this time, but when I sat down in my cold, empty-fridge apartment at the vintage turquoise-colored card table my late grandmother gave to me with my notes, text, oversized Dell laptop, and essay prompt, no ideas came to me. None. Zip. Zilch.  Zero. Nada. This spiked my anxiety, which constipated my imagination, which blockage in turn made me fear I wouldn’t be able to demonstrate to my professor that I was a good writer.

Isn’t so much of school, at least for nerds like me, wanting the recognition and praise of your teachers? Isn’t so much of work, life, and relationships that way? Even the lords in Love’s Labour’s Lost essentially show off their art and intellect in trying to win over the ladies.

And so the anxiety fed on itself: What if I’m out of ideas? What if I’m not as smart or as good a writer as I’ve always thought, always been told, I was? I, like the lords in Love’s Labour’s Lost, always have something to say, to contribute. Don’t I?

At one point in the evening, well before I had to burn the midnight oil, I had drive over to my father’s house for some bit of business, chain-smoking and refilling a Venti coffee from Starbucks along the way. Panicky, caffeinated, not even trying to cover up how much I reeked of Camel Lights in front of my dad, I shared my frustration. “Do your best,” he offered. “But sometimes you just have to know when you’ve done your best, call it a day, and move on.”

And so out oozed, like one of those big pimples deep under the skin that are hard to pop and really hurt when you try, an overwritten sludge of overwrought and over-intellectualized over-ness about…well, I can’t  even remember. How apt. Apparently it wasn’t horrible, if I landed a ‘B.’ My professor was a tough grader, but gave exceptional and in-depth feedback on composition. But I know I hid behind a whole lot of words, which is oh-so fitting for Love’s Labour’s Lost. And I know that my professor saw right through it, and, with that generous ‘B,’ must have seen something in me.

***

I didn’t see the irony of any of this at the time. I was too focused on myself to realize that I was acting like Biron, Longueville, and Dumaine, the third lord.

I didn’t appreciate how it was the ladies, by their wit, who brought them to their senses.

After hypocritical accusations, the three lords and the king reveal they are in love – and agree to bail on their oaths.  They disguises themselves as Russians to court the ladies. Because Shakespeare. The fanciful Spaniard gets a countrywoman pregnant. Because Shakespeare. There’s a comically bad play within a play. Because Shakespeare. Then suddenly, the princess learns her father has died and has to return home. Because Shakespeare. But the ladies, in parting, bid the noblemen to wait a year in some sort of punitive, ascetic condition, prove their love, before pursuing them again. Because Shakespeare.

My first time through this play, I focused on how the lords screwed themselves over: “The conquerors are themselves conquered, and largely by their own undoing,” I wrote in that reading response. I didn’t appreciate how it was the ladies, by their wit, who brought them to their senses.

I mean, for God’s sake, the Princess even explicitly mocks the poetry overkill the King sends her:

…as much love in rhyme
As would be crammed up in a sheet of paper
Writ o’ both sides of the leaf, margin and all,
That he was fain to seal on Cupid’s name. (5.2.6-9)

That essay – no, my professor’s feedback, on that paper and throughout the entire course – made me a much better writer. I’d probably say she provided the best writing instruction in my entire academic career, even. And I’d probably say that, while I still don’t like Love’s Labour’s Lost, but I’d say hate would be far too harsh.

As for that assignment, to pick one word most central to the play? For one, I’ve thought about that exercise every play I’ve read during this year, even selecting a representative word for a few plays just for the sake of it. And if I had a chance to redo it? Well, “butt-shaft” is very tempting…

The Merchant, er, Mooch, of Venice

The quality of mercy is not strained – but it shouldn’t be taken for granted.

“I will do anything, Nerissa, ere I will be married to a sponge,” Portia tells her personal assistant early on in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (1.2.83). This sponge is one of her suitors, a heavy-drinking German. But she does end up marrying a sponge, Bassanio. He’s just a different sort of sponge. The mooch kind. The bum kind.

Consider this Bassanio. He asks his buddy Antonio for money to help him compete against her richer, princelier wooers. Antonio has to borrow it from Shylock three thousand ducats to be repaid in three months on forfeit of the famed pound of flesh – and thinks he’s good for it, what with all the merchandise he has out at sea.

Bassanio goes off for Portia. To win her hand in marriage, as Portia’s father so stipulated, he has to choose among a gold, silver, and lead chest, “whereof who chooses his meaning chooses you,” as Nerissa explains (1.2.26-27). He chooses lead, as the “world is still deceived with ornament” (3.2.74), and chooses correctly. Lovely. Let’s give you that one, Bassanio.

But just as they’re about to be married, they hear word that Antonio’s ships are wrecked and that Shylock (depicted, I must note, with a hotly debated antisemitism) is demanding his retribution. Yeah, Bassanio didn’t let Portia in on any of that before. Class act, man. And your best friend is about to die so you can get the girl you wanted.

Not that I’m one to talk.

***

A few leftover crusts littered our plates. Empty pints, wine glasses, and cocktail tumblers crowded the table. The wives left for the facilities before we headed to a pub across the street to continue the craic. The husbands – plus my father and brother, for whose visit I organized this gathering with our friends at a trendy pizza place in Dublin – split the bill, couples covering couples. I grabbed the AmEx. My wife’s. Out of her purse. Without asking. For a dinner I set up.

I bring in a little money freelancing, usually covering (most) groceries, dog food, pints when I’m on the town, and occasionally some nicer meals out every now again. Notice what’s not covered: rent, utilities, travel. Her job provides my health insurance. Savings. All the big stuff. She makes huge sacrifices so that I can give this whole privileged writing thing a go. And she makes these sacrifices – and she never complains about it.

I’m not quite what explains this urge, to do something nice, out of a genuine desire, and yet rust the gesture with mercenary grouses.

It’s just that meals like these wipe me out. It’s not that we can’t afford it per se. It’s that I can’t afford it. Which is precisely the problem. Not the money. The I. She picks up these sorts of tabs all the time. For us.

And whenever I do pay for bigger stuff, I can’t help but make some sort of comment about it. Like her 30th birthday present, back when I was working full-time. She had set a goal to visit all 50 states before she turned 30. Alaska was her last, so we organized some family together to do a cruise. “It’s not a gift when you tell me how much you had to spend,” I remember her explaining when I was booking.

I’m not quite sure what explains this urge, to do something nice, out of a genuine desire, and yet rust the gesture with mercenary grouses. Maybe that word privileged is the key. I’ve had a privileged life, so it’s not like parting with money represents some affront to hardscrabble frugality. Perhaps it’s some baked-in entitlement – my upper middle-classness, my maleness, my whiteness, my private education, making me a kind of reverse Invisible Man, invisible to himself, who gets to enjoy the taken-for-granted ease of never being forced to confront his identity, as his identity is enmeshed with the covert fabric of power and normativity, and yet who is outraged by the slightest jostling of his hegemonic comfort. Or maybe I’m just a selfish cheapskate.

***

How does Portia respond to Bassanio’s revelation? An all-out blitz – of unconditional generosity, big-heartedness, selflessness.

Pay him six thousand and deface the bond.
Double six thousand, and then treble that,
Before a friend of this description
Shall lose a hair thorough Bassanio’s fault.
First go with me to church and call me wife,
And then away to Venice to your friend;
For never shall you lie by Portia’s side
With an unquiet soul. You shall have gold
To pay the petty debt twenty times over. (3.2.298-306)

Then, unbeknownst to Bassanio, Portia disguises herself as a doctor of law and goes to Venice to badass a victory for Antonio in court: “This bond doth give thee no jot of blood. / The words expressly are ‘a pound of flesh’.” (4.1.301-02). Generous, loving, and smart as hell.

“The quality of mercy is not strained,” Portia famously monologues as she tries to convince Shylock to back off from revenging Antonio (4.1.179). Same, too, for generosity. For doing things for other people because you support them, love them, believe in them.

This is what kills me about Portia: It’s how instantly she comes to the aid of her husband’s friend.

It’s not strained, it’s not forced. This is what kills me about Portia: It’s how instantly, how without question or qualification, without complaint or self-consideration, she comes to the aid of her husband’s friend, because she supports them, loves them, believes in them. And she doesn’t even need credit, praise, recognition for it. This is what kills me about my wife.

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes. (179-82)

Make that her that gives, and him that takes.

***

Of course, as a token of thanks, Bassanio gives Portia-cum-lawyer (who is cleverly testing him) the special ring Portia gave him – “when this ring / Parts from this finger, then parts life from hence” (3.2.183-84). His excuse? “I was beset with shame and courtesy. / My honour would not let ingratitude / So much besmear it” (5.1.216-18). And then the promises: “Pardon this fault, and by my soul I swear / I never more will break an oath with thee” (246-48). Classic. And here’s the kicker. “Were you the doctor and I knew you not?” Bassanio asks Portia (5.1.279). Bassanio, Bassanio, Bassanio. Even I know better.

***

As we left the restaurant, the rain started lashing. The group sprinted across the street in a gap in the traffic. My wife and I waited under the awning of the restaurant until the cars let up. She was silent, expressionless, which meant she was pissed.

“It’s that I didn’t ask,” I said, offering up no Bassanio-esque self-defenses, feeling a due, childlike embarrassment and shame. The quality of mercy, of generosity, is not strained, but it should never be taken for granted.

What do they see in us, these Portias?

An opening appeared. She ran through the rain across the street. And I ran after. 

Fighting stances: The Tragedy of Coriolanus

Stand up and be a man – or at least try not to trip.

The kid kicked at my shoes but I didn’t fall.

“That’s fine,” I answered without losing my brisk pace. But he – and three or four other friends, I didn’t really slow down to take count – kept up.

That’s fine,” he parroted in a mock American accent. “Take a look at this Yank,” he aped my determined gait.

I responded with something about how I had moved to Dublin months ago. I’m not quite sure what the intended effect of this was. Perhaps to ease some larger territoriality I perceived, to lend myself some street cred? I was a bit disoriented. This stretch of the busy road up from the stadium, which my brother and I had left a little early to beat the crowds before the football match let out, had taken a darker and quieter turn. I had noticed the teenaged boys, mostly track-suited and probably a bit drunk, swaggering their way ahead of me, but I was surprised when I had somehow walked right into their ruckusing.

I can’t help but wonder if I didn’t want her know I didn’t stand up for myself.

The kid continued his blustery taunts, which I was now ignoring, when my ear suddenly stung and rang. Swiftly and sharply, and with a cocky little jump completely superfluous to the delivery of his blow, he had boxed the side of my head just as the road bent back towards more traffic and light.

They took off down a side street. I looked back. My brother, who had been some steps behind when the boys swarmed around me, planted himself at the intersection and stared down their fleeing backs. 

“This is what they want, man. It’s not worth it. Let’s go,” I waved him along. “They’ll get what’s coming to when they find out where this kind of shit takes them in life.”

We headed towards a pub just ahead. “And don’t tell my wife,” I added.

At the moment, I had meant that I didn’t want her worrying she’d be unsafe walking Dublin’s streets, as she does regularly by herself. But since reading Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Coriolanus, in all of its complicated portrait of masculinity, I can’t help but wonder if I didn’t want her know I didn’t stand up for myself.

***

“You shames of Rome!” Caius Martius, later Coriolanus, curses his fellow soldiers as they retreat from their Volscian foes:

You herd of–boils and plagues
Plaster you o’er, that you may be abhorred
Farther than seen, and one infect another
Against the wind a mile! You souls of geese
That bear the shapes of men, how have you run
From slaves that apes would beat! (1.5.2-7)

Coriolanus beats back the Volsci as they pour out of the gates of their town, but he, and he alone, gets shut in. Coriolanus, valiant Coriolanus, takes them on and forces his rival, Aufidius, into retreat once more.

“Rome must know the value of her own,” the general Cominius publicly celebrates Coriolanus when returns to Rome, all the more heroic for his fresh battle wounds (1.10.20-21).

For the ancient Romans, Coriolanus – the courageous warrior, steadfast in his defense of home and country – was a proper man. And this made him virtuous, a word which literally derives from the Latin for “man.” As Cominius again boasts of his great solider: “It is held / That valour is the chiefest virtue, and / Most dignifies the haver. If it be, / The man I speak of cannot in the world / Be singly counterpoised” (2.2.79-83).

***

I am no Coriolanus.

As much as I like to imagine we – as men, as a society – have outgrown the self-measure of muscles and might, that dialogue overpowers deltoids, some primal, primate urge to flex and fight, to prove and prevail, is still strong in our sinews.

Or at least some of our sinews.

As much as I like to imagine we value, as I do, the modern model of a refined , enlightened, and reasoning masculinity, I’m not so sure we still don’t admire, even cheer on, a good-ol’-had-it-comin’-to-ya ass-kicking.

I’m not so sure we still don’t admire, even cheer on, a good-ol’-had-it-comin’-to-ya ass-kicking.

And what stings, I think, isn’t any blow. It isn’t being singled out or picked on. And it’s not even the fact that I didn’t tell the kids off or take them on in some Coriolanian charge. This doesn’t bruise my manhood.   

What stings, or maybe what confuses me as I think about the incident and Coriolanus, is that I didn’t even feel the urge to – to posture, to stand the corner, as did my brother, and watch the little hoodlums diminish in the distance.

Does this make me somehow weaker? Somehow less? Do I lack some fundamental, inner quality or character? Would I run in the face of some real assault? Would I not come to others’ protection – of my friends, of my family, of my wife?

The kid kicked my shoes and I didn’t fall. But, in causing me to question my sense of virtue or manliness – even just in those small moments when the image of my brother standing the corner under the jaundiced streetlights flashes in my mind or when I picture an undeterred Coriolanus locked in behind the enemy gates – it did trip up my ego.

Just a bit. Surely only just a bit.

***

Coriolanus doesn’t get tested on the battlefield, but does get tested in the forum.

For all his guts and glory, Coriolanus is also a patrician who utterly despises the plebeians, who think, as one puts it, Coriolanus has “grown too proud to be so valiant” (1.2.249-50). So proud, in fact, that after the Senate (themselves patricians) put him up for consul, Coriolanus refuses to ask, even in feigned humility, for the votes of the commoners. They had just earned political representation, in the form of tribunes, after rising up over concerns the nobility was cheating them out of grain.

“Better it is to die, better to starve, / Than crave the hire which first we do deserve,” Coriolanus digs in (2.3.103-4). He sheds his own blood for his country: Why should he have to deign for their votes?

Coriolanus is winning the support of the citizenry until the tribunes press him on his grain policy. Ever short-tempered, he loses his cool and lets them know how he really feels (though some see a kind of virtue in his unwillingness to play politics, to refuse to be untrue to himself, for all his pride):

For the mutable rank-scented meinie,
Let them regard me, as I do not flatter,
And therein behold themselves as I say again,
In soothing them we nourish ‘gainst the Senate
The cockle of rebellion, insolence, sedition,
Which we ourselves have ploughed for, sowed and scattered
By mingling them with us, the honoured number
Who lack not virtue, no, nor power, but that
Which they have given to beggars. (3.1.70-78)

Fearing the end of their influence, the tribunes conspire to stop Coriolanus by charging tyranny. Coriolanus barely escapes execution for exile, and in it, allies himself with his nemesis, Aufidius. They start a siege of Rome until Coriolanus’ mother changes her son’s hard heart: “That man was noble, / But with his last attempt he wiped it out,” she imagines posterity will say of him in her forceful plea (5.3.146-47). But just as he leads a charge to protect Rome, Aufidius, already planning to cross him, stabs him dead.     

***

I might have some Coriolanus in my chest – er, ego – after all.

“Yeah, you’re right,” I remember my brother had said over the pints. “They’ll go nowhere in life acting the way they do.”

Can I say that my justification for my virtue is actually noble?

This was validating. To me as a younger brother, as a man, as a person who prides himself as committed to the virtue of nonviolence. But when I really listened to my own words said back to me, I also wondered: Can I say, if I’m honest with myself, that my justification for my virtue is actually noble – or, should I say, isn’t entirely too noble?

Can I say I didn’t think, at least on some subconscious, self-defensive level, that the kids were probably lower class, poorly educated, lacked self-control and constructive outlets, impressed each other with displays of machismo prized in some more primitive value system, were angry at their prospects in life and took it out on others in small, petty, and random acts of violence, feeling as if this was the only power they could exert over their lives, their world?

These thoughts, too, are the posturing of a masculinity, a display of power.

And I can’t say I didn’t think it. Even if just a bit.

Unlike Coriolanus, I didn’t say it aloud. Unlike Coriolanus, I struggle even to fully admit it. There may yet be a cowardice in that, but it probably spared it me a good-ol’-had-it-comin’-to-ya ass-kicking.

What Richard III taught me about my nipples

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.

Continue reading “What Richard III taught me about my nipples”

Exeunt with bodies: Titus Andronicus 

The stage directions alone in this play are shockingly violent. But the real horror may be in what’s not staged.

The late afternoon sun washed the Italian cypresses and eucalyptus trees in gold. A light wind made a lazy melody in the chimes. From a neighboring yard somewhere over the rolling, low-desert hills, a horse occasionally neighed. Except for the dogs, twitching their ears at far-off stirrings in their half-asleep sunning, no one else was home. I topped off my glass of a big red from a local vineyard. My in-laws’ Southern Californian porch was a perfectly peaceful place for “Human sacrifice. Gang rape. Ritual butchery. Mother-son cannibalism,” as my Norton Shakespeare introduces it.

The Most Lamentable Tragedy of Titus Andronicus is a most violent play.

Continue reading “Exeunt with bodies: Titus Andronicus 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Well, critics be damned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE What’s her name?

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

ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE Then she bears some breadth?

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

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

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

ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE Where Scotland?

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Hard copies, soft selves

As I get ready for the big move, I sort through – and search for – identity in old papers and Shakespearean dress.

Maybe egg cartons or coffee cup sleeves? Cardboard boxes, envelopes? I wonder what they’ll become, those hundreds and hundreds of pages, those thousands and thousands of words. I dump load after load of papers I’ve written down the recycling chute in our building.

Each load contains countless late nights. Each load, enough coffee to make a medium-sized country jittery – I’m talking every man, woman, and child. Enough cigarettes to make me cough up a lung years after I’ve even had a smoke. Many miles of pacing the various dorms, houses, and apartments I’ve boarded over my years.

That 50-pager I wrote on the influence of bebop on the prophetic mysticism in Ginsberg’s Howl? One day, someone might be wiping their ass with toilet paper made from it.

Surely most paper is recycled back into paper. Napkins, paper towels. That 50-pager I wrote on the influence of bebop on the prophetic mysticism in Ginsberg’s Howl? One day, someone might be wiping their ass with toilet paper made from it.  Maybe some snotty school kids will one day blow their noses – or wipe away tears – with all those Modernist poems I imitated.

I feel lighter with each load that falls down into the dumpster. I had been lugging these papers around for years. They’ve made it from Cincinnati to Minneapolis, to Southern California. But they’re not going with me to Dublin. My wife and I should be moving there in just a few weeks. We’re very excited, but there’s a lot to be done before we go.

There’s a lot of stuff – a lot of self – to be unloaded.

***

I made sure I had a digital backup of each paper, of course. I scanned those that I didn’t already have on my computer. I ripped out each staple, I pulled off every paper clip. I reread teacher comments and grades. Tucked into some binder-clipped packets are rough drafts; I looked over editing marks I made. A carat, a spelling correction, a pilcrow. A whole paragraph crossed out in red ink.

I also feel a twinge of guilt and sadness, though, when the chute’s door slams shut. I will never get that copy back. On my computer, I can easily open an essay on Keats’ faery imagery from my English major days or a lesson plan on river symbolism in Langston Hughes’ works when I was doing my student teaching. I can do this more easily – and likely more often –  than digging them out of the storage bins, where they’ve sat unread in garages, basements, and closets.

Recycled paper.JPG
There’s a lot of stuff – a lot of self – to be unloaded. Image by me.

 

The hard copies have an aura, I think. They passed from my hands to my professor’s, whose ink marked up the margins, whose fingers thumbed through the pages, whose coffee sometimes spilled onto coversheets, whose messenger bags hauled them from campus to home and back.

The originals have an energy. Like dormant batteries, they hold the charge of so many ideas, arguments, and citations. So much effort.

Have I just outgrown them? Have they accrued within me, like Russian dolls? Does these persons, these unused batteries, still carry a charge?

But they also enshrine so many past selves. John in high school. Early essays on electric bass playing and my dead dog. An encomium to coffee. My parents’ divorce, a theme I revisited so many times in the many reflections required of my liberal arts education. Teacher commentary  on my wordiness, feedback also thematic throughout my school days. Senior-year arguments against the existence of God.

God.

John the musician. Stacks of sheet music of standards for bass parts when I played in jazz ensemble, stacks of guitar tablature for finger-style arrangements for Christmas gigs and weddings I once played. I like to think I could quickly relearn these songs.

John in undergrad. Close readings and technical analyses of obscure mid-century American poetry and existential French philosophy. “Not only/but also” theses, “both/and” ambiguity. Feedback encouraging me to respect length maximums, to go to graduate school.

John with his back to the ivory tower after undergrad. Poems using Roman mythology to register urban poverty when I went into work in public schools instead of a PhD program.

Idealistic graduate school personal statements about education. Research on multiple literacies and differentiated instruction, screeds trumpeting critical pedagogy and constructivist classrooms. Lesson plans, teacher evaluations. Resumes for teaching positions I declined.

Each paper preserves a vision I once had of myself, I once had of the world. They are archives of identity. Of past accomplishments and achievements, of former talents and ambitions.

I read some paragraphs and marvel at my overwritten bullshit. I read many others and wonder where this writer went. What happened to this person? The scholar. The musician. The educator. The idealist. Am I less than these persons now? Have I just outgrown them? Have they accrued within me, like Russian dolls? Does these persons, these unused batteries, still carry a charge?

***

For me, it’s papers. For Shakespeare, it’s dress.

I’ve been thinking a lot about identity since I’ve been reading all this Shakespeare. It’s no doubt an obsession of the Bard. He develops the theme through dress, disguise, costume, uniforms. Only a few plays in, I’ve already extensively encountered Shakespearean dress.

On Shakespeare’s stage, identity is fluid, unstable, slippery. Characters put on and cast off different costumes: different identities, different selves.

In The Taming of the Shrew, the beggar Christopher Sly becomes a noble when the mischievous Lord wraps him in “sweet clothes” and put “rings on his fingers” (Induction 1.34). Lucentio’s servant, Tranio, becomes his master when he dons his “coloured hat and cloak” (1.1.201), then a gentleman’s uniform. By wearing a simple garment in Henry V, the great king disguises himself as a common infantryman: “Lend me thy cloak, Sir Thomas” (4.1.24). In Julius Caesar, Casca thinks Caesar showily refuses Mark Antony’s offer the crown, which would top a king’s, not a republican’s, head: “Why, there was a crown offered him; and being offered, he put it by with the back of his hand, thus; and then the people fell a-shouting” (1.2.222-24). In Antony and Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt makes herself goddess-like with her garbs, as Enobarbus describes: “She did lie / In her pavilion – cloth of gold, of tissue – / O’er picturing that Venus where we see / The fancy outwork nature” (2.2.204-207).

And in the last play I read, Cymbeline, Cloten, when disguising himself as Posthumus, wonders why the lowly gentleman he’s imitating should be any more attractive to Innogen than he is, a prince:

How fit his garments serve me! Why should his mistress, who was made by him that made the tailor, not be fit too? – the rather – saving reverence of the word – for ’tis said a woman’s fitness comes by fits. Therein I must play the workman. I dare speak it to myself, for it is not vainglory for a man and his glass to confer in his own chamber. I mean the lines of my body are as well drawn as his: no less young, more strong, not beneath him in fortunes, beyond him in the advantage of the time, above him in birth, alike conversant in general services, and more remarkable in single oppositions. Yet this imperceiverant thing loves him in my despite. What mortality is! (4.1.2-13).

(Cloten’s decapitated before he ever realizes he’s an asshole – and that he smells bad. Yes, Shakespeare takes to the time to make sure the audience knows that Cloten literally stinks.)

On Shakespeare’s stage, characters could transform themselves by dress. They can become – and un-become – kings with donning and doffing of crowns. Identity is fluid, unstable, slippery. Characters put on and cast off different costumes: different identities, different selves.

But dress was also deterministic in Elizabethan England, as Stephen Greenblatt observes in his introductory materials to my Norton Shakespeare. In Cymbeline, Innogen orders Posthumus’ servant to fetch her a disguise: “…provide me presently / A riding-suit no costlier than would fit a franklin’s housewife” (3.2.75-77). She is referring to sumptuary laws of the day, which, among other things, regulated the different kinds of clothes different kinds of people could wear. Identity was ordered and prescribed based on class.

Where is the true self in all this? Cymbeline suggests that one’s true character will eventually show through. As the banished Belarius remarks, “How hard it is to hide sparks of nature!” (3.3.79). And yet how easy it is not to know ourselves. Referring to the Cymbeline’s two sons, which he kidnapped out of revenge and raised in the woods of Wales, he follows with: “These boys know little they are sons to th’ King…” (3.3.80).

Perhaps Shakespeare urges us to defy these fashion trends, so to speak. As he prepares a final stand against the Romans, Posthumus cries: “Let me make men know / More valour in me than my habits show. / Gods, put the strength o’ th’ Leonati in me. / To shame the guise o’ th’ world, I will begin / The fashion – less without and more within” (5.1.29-33). Yet, Posthumus makes his charge dressed as a poor Briton soldier. Not quite the person the person we meet at the beginning of the play.

No wonder it can be so hard to pick out an outfit in the morning.

***

I cast the last load of papers down the dark slot. There is a brief silence before it crashes on top of the pile of refuse four stories below. So many pages once in order, now scattered about empty beer bottles,  Amazon boxes, half-rinsed cans of beans. Where am I in all this?

Paper gets recycled into paper, yes. Including new office paper, blank and waiting for the ink of new words, new identities, new selves. Perhaps, one day, I’ll be loading into the printer for a new document I’ve written some paper recycled from all those many words, all those many pages, I once wrote.