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

This overachiever, though, makes no promises.

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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…

“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow”: Macbeth, mortality, and mantras

Full of sound and fury, signifying something…if you repeat it enough

With a jaunty jump, I burst into the bedroom, my arms theatrically outspread: “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.” My wife looked up from her iPad, startled. She was enjoying a lazy Sunday morning in bed. I had just finished Macbeth.

“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps at this petty pace – shit. That’s not it.” I leapt out of the room. My wife took a sip of coffee and resumed her scrolling.

I scanned Macbeth’s famous monologue again and rushed back into the bedroom.  She looked up, bored, humoring.  “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable – no, recored syllable, no recorded time. Ah, damnit.”

Slurrrrp.

***

I figured I better have a least something memorized at the end of my year of reading Shakespeare. Because, on some level, that’s what you do.

I’ve mentioned my yearlong project at a few gatherings. Each time, the response is predictable. With an undertone of “You’re crazy,” they say: “Oh, wow. That’s a lot of plays.” Then, they branch off into one of two commentaries. Fork 1: “I remember reading Romeo & Juliet in high school” (It’s always Romeo & Juliet). Fork 2: “You know, I managed to get through school without every cracking open a play.” Regardless of path, my interlocutor next delivers an inevitable look of expectation. It’s a subtle expression, but I know what they want from me. They want me to recite some lines.

We all share Shakespeare’s legacy as a cultural product, and quoting his words signals a literacy, a status, even if we have no idea what those words mean.

I don’t really have a mind for quotes, so I usually dodge or duck – unless I’ve got a few drinks in me, when I might just intone some Shakespeare-sounding gibberish loosely relevant to the convivial occasion. “Yon glass, that spangles in that later light of our erstwhile springs…” No one’s been the wiser – probably because they’ve mentally checked out of our conversation at this point. Still, no matter our relationship to Shakespeare, we all share his legacy as a cultural product, and quoting his words signals a literacy, a status, even if we have no idea what those words mean.

But when it comes to Macbeth, which tells of tragic unraveling of the Scottish thane after he murders his way to power, it really is about the words. OK, with about 8 plays to go at this point, I can definitely say all of Shakespeare’s plays are about the language. But Macbeth is obsessed with language. It has ambiguous riddles and creepy spells from the witches. It has letters and scenes of characters reading them. It has conversations about having conversations. It has sleep-talking while sleep-walking. Talking-related words like report and tongue abound. Words like strange get repeated over and over. And Macbeth, our self-doubting power-seeker, delivers just some of the most excruciatingly exquisite lines.

If I was going to commit some verses to memory, it was going to be this from play.

***

“‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time,” I practiced during one of those random, mid-afternoon showers that punctuate the days of people who work from home. “And all our yesterdays have lighted the way – crap, crap, lighted fools the way to, to dusty death.” The windows and mirrors had fogged over. I squeezed lotion onto the baby-blue loofah and took the passage from the top.

“Out, out, brief candle,” I declaimed while bending over to clean up my dog’s poop on an afternoon walk. When I stood back up, I realized a couple was approaching. They gave me a curious glance as they passed. I tightly knotted the package. “Shakespeare!” I explained, giving the bag a little twirl at their backs. “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player–” My phone pinged. I disappeared into Twitter.

The barber spun my chair to face the mirror. I avoided looking at my head, mid-cut, the smock tightly ringing my neck like I was some criminally unfashionable altar boy. I avoided the awkwardness of other people thinking I was looking at myself. So I distracted myself with silent rehearsal: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that frets and struts upon the stage – that struts and frets upon the stage…” My words tumbled like the little shards of hair falling on my shoulders. “That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more.’”

***

My desultory, half-assed memorizations were, in a way, fitting for this famous monologue, which Macbeth delivers after he learns his wife has killed herself and as his foes are taking back the throne. The speech is about how nothing matters in the end, because we all are going to die. What’s the point, then, in committing it to memory? As Macbeth concludes: “It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing” (5.5.25-27).

Why is it that a nihilistic manifesto on the meaninglessness of our tiny, little lives is dressed in some of the most beautiful language?

But the irony wasn’t lost on me. Why is it that a nihilistic manifesto on the meaninglessness of our tiny, little lives is dressed in some of the most beautiful language? Why bother to write it in the first place? Why bother to re-read after all these many years, to memorize it? What is all this for?

This tension – dramatized, I think, in Macbeth’s own notorious equivocation – is the essential predicament of consciousness: We know we’re alive and so we know we’re going to die. All art, all human action, is in some way a response to this reality.

And yes, this is what that creeps into my mind when I’m taking a shower, cleaning up my dog’s shit, getting a haircut. These are all futile push-backs against entropy, against time, against death. Shakespeare knew this. And he also knew that there’s no harm in making it sound beautiful along the way.

***

My memorization of the Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow monologue soon fell off. Not that it was hard; the monologue is not even 10 full lines long. And not that I ever really put in much effort more than reading it a few times over and trying to pull it up from memory.

Until I was in a deep meditation. My wife has been taking a yearlong yoga instructor certification course and I have been her sometime pupil. At the end of session, she was guiding my meditation, encouraging me to feel my body sinking into the floor and to let my random thoughts flit through my mind as they came and went. “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” surfaced from somewhere bodily yet somewhere ethereal. I felt a calming gravity, and was cloaked, just for an instant, with a death-like blackness. I was detached, like a body drifting in space, liberated from concerns of any destination. And then, for the first time, the full monologue poured forth from within me:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle.
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (5.5.18-27).

But in this moment, I heard Macbeth differently. Less nihilistically and more stoically. I heard that we aren’t just condemned to nothing, but freed by it. That we are fools for clinging to our self-important delusions.

***

Since then, the monologue has been constantly ringing in my head, and I find myself reciting it not for any cultural cachet but as a kind of mantra. As something to hold onto. Like in a recent shower, when I tried to wash off the splitting headache of a hangover.

Or around my kitchen table, when I held my wife’s hand. Our eyes were bleary with lack of sleep and tears. The result were in. Clinton had lost. Trump had won. “What are you thinking right now?” she asked.

“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.”

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 

Mrs. Wagner, the Witch

Her laughter was the clue that there were deeper meanings at work in words – and an invitation for us to solve their secrets.

I’m not moving on from Julius Caesar just quite yet. Yes, I am procrastinating on writing up Antony and Cleopatra; I had a difficult time with the play. But also Julius Caesar marks my earliest memory of Shakespeare. Maybe even one of my earliest memories of literature. You know, Literature – with a capital L.

I was in fifth grade, Mrs. Wagner’s Language Arts class.

She had a mean reputation, Mrs. Wagner. One recess, near the end of fourth grade, some junior high kids told a few of us what to expect next year. They had already survived her. “Wagner the Witch. She’s cold,” they said.

I had seen her around the school. Her hair was long, straight, and a stony gray, like the color of her eyes behind her glasses. Her dresses would swoosh around her ankles as she sliced down the corridors with a sharp purpose. She didn’t sing much during mass.

An eighth-grader moved in closer. “They say she even disowned her son.” I didn’t know what the word disown meant, but I knew it was bad.

The older boys loomed like pubescent giants in the navy-blue pants and starched, white button-downs of our Catholic school uniform. The girls, with their plaid skirts rolled-up just above their fleshy knees and newly-needed bras faintly showing through their blouses, made me blush and look away when they called me “little Kelly.” They knew my older brothers, who had already moved on to high school. The older kids were tall, beautiful, cool. Some of them even smoked cigarettes. I had every reason to believe them.

I looked up disown in the dictionary later that day. I even asked my dad about it, I think. Forget not knowing it was a word. I didn’t know it was a thing one could do would do to a family member. What could her son have possibly done?

It turns out I learned a lot of words from Mrs. Wagner.

I talked out of turn often in her class. One period, a classmate, Chris, made a dorky comment. He was at the front of the class. I, form the back, shouted across the full length of those those worn and wooden schoolroom floors: “You’re so queer, Chris.” Mrs. Wagner had a word with me after class. It was then I learned that queer doesn’t just mean “weird.” I had to write a formal apology. I made sure to write the word queer several times in the note.

Another time, I made a snide remark during a movie. I think I called it “boring.” (It was boring.) She sent me out in the locker-lined hallway with a dictionary. Instead of watching the movie, I had to copy out, longhand, an entire page of the dictionary. You could find the definition of the word scorn on this page. She ordered me to pay especial attention to the derived form, scornful. I can still feel that cold, metal locker jutting into my lower back as I sat on the tiled floor, taking my lexical lumps.

Other words got me in trouble, too. One out-of-uniform day, I wore a t-shirt I got at a Crazy Shirts one family trip to San Francisco. It was brandishing some kind of beer or tequila with the slogan: “Warms the gut, burns the butt.” The Lord didn’t approve. I don’t why my parents approved the purchase – or me wearing it to school.

But I learned a lot in her class for all the headaches I caused. (Hey, I still earned my A’s). I read my first real long book: Watership Down. I wrote my first genuinely creative essay; she praised the colloquial color “C’mon” added to my dialogue in it. And I read my first Shakespeare.

It was an adapted text of Julius Caesar with a pink and white cover. A few student volunteers passed them out to the class, our desks arranged face-to-face in two long columns this quarter. We cracked them open and started reading aloud.

If you’ve read the play, you might remember it opens with two tribunes admonishing some tradesman, a carpenter and a cobbler, for rushing off to Caesar’s triumphal parade. They exchange some witty words and sharp barbs:

MURELLUS. But what trade are thou? Answer me directly.

COBBLER. A trade, sir, that I hope I may use with a safe conscience, which is indeed, sir, a mender of bad soles. (1.1.12-14)

At this point, however it was precisely rendered in our adapted text, Mrs. Wagner laughed. She was the only one who laughed. She was the only one who got the joke. Most of us had just learned what a cobbler was.

Mrs. Wagner didn’t stop to explain the joke. She just let it hang there as we kept reading. But her laughter was the clue that there were deeper meanings at work in words – and an invitation for us to solve their secrets.

Mrs. Wagner was a witch in her own way, I suppose. She knew how to cast the spell of literature. And I’ve been under it ever since.

I never did learn what happened with her son, though.

Shake well: The Tragedy of Julius Caesar

Maybe I am misreading this whole “greatness” thing.

Greatness, I think to myself as I crouch down in the dressing aisle of the grocery store.

It’s just after 9:00am in the middle of the work week. I’ve dropped my wife off at her office and am picking up some odds and ends for the house since I’m already out.

It takes me a minute to find the dressing I’m looking for. There are so many brands. Each brand has so many flavors. Each flavor comes in so many options. Original. Low fat. Fat free.

I do this often at the grocery store. I marvel at all the Greek yogurt we can buy. I find myself in awe of the many kinds of tortilla chips for sale. Today, I stand before this bottled shrine to salad, one of our many temples erected to honor one of our great capitalist gods, Choice. We have so much choice. I, for one, sacrifice my ability to make a decision at its altar.

I find Newman’s Own Caesar. There’s Caesar. There’s also Creamy Caesar. Et tu, Paule?

I stare at the labels, which feature the bust of the brand’s namesake, actor Paul Newman. He’s wearing a laurel wreath. Like Caesar wore – and not just as a symbol of triumph. I recently read in Mary Beard’s SPQR that the wreath also covered up a bald spot. Greatness, I think.

Creamy Caesear – Version 2It’s $3.49 with my Ralph’s card. That seems a bit high, I start debating with myself. But all proceeds go to charity. Julius Caesar did a lot for the Roman poor,  I recall. Still, I’m not bringing in any money since I’ve quit my job to write and we’ve already got plenty of olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette at home.

I realize I’ve starting debating myself out loud. I look around. Except for an elderly couple slowly pushing a cart at the end of the aisle, the store is practically empty at 9:00am, of course. No one hears me.

And this is what scares me.

***

Since reading The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, my third play for Shakespeare Confidential, I’ve been thinking a lot about greatness.

It’s hard not to think about greatness after this play. It’s centered on a great man, for one. Aiding administration and agriculture, Julius Caesar left behind the Julian calendar and the month of July, both named for him. He also reformed the Roman government, including centralization and social programs. His military conquests vastly expanded the reach of the Roman Republic, which his ascendancy – and subsequent assassination – transformed into the Roman Empire. He was a pretty good writer, too.

A technocratic commander who helps the poor? Democrats, Republicans, and Independents would all hail: Caesar 2016! His campaign slogan would surely be Venimus, vidimus, vicimus. I don’t think libertarians and the Tea Party would support his constitutional interpretations, though; evangelists would balk at his paganism. And then there’s that whole dictator thing.

OK, but how do we really remember his greatness? Mention Julius Caesar to most people and they’ll say, “Et tu, Brute?” “You too, Brutus?”

He didn’t even say those words.

***

Alright, a synopsis (or, if that’s, er, Greek to you, a summary):

It’s 44 B.C. Julius Caesar has just defeated the sons of an old enemy, Pompey. He returns to Rome, triumphant, but is famously warned to beware the ides of March (March 15). Mark Antony offers to crown Caesar as king; Cesar refuses, 3 times, in fact, followed by an epileptic seizure. Meanwhile, Cassius compels a conflicted Brutus (once allies of Caesar) and other senators to conspire against his “ambitions,” which threaten to turn the Roman Republic into Caesar’s empire.

On the level of imagery and language, I am particularly struck by the way Shakespeare develops this idea of interpretation throughout the play. Its characters are constantly reading faces and deciphering omens – and often incorrectly.

On a stormy night when lions roam the street and men walk on fire, Caesar’s wife has a portentous dream, but Caesar ultimately disregards it and heads to the Capitol. There, he’s assassinated – stabbed 33 times, in fact. (It all happens pretty quickly in the play; Caesar’s killed in 3.1.) Brutus allows Mark Antony to speak at Caesar’s funeral, and his oratory rouses the populace, especially when he notes that Caesar willed money to the people.

A civil war breaks about between the second triumvirate – Antony, this dude Lepidus, and Octavius, Caesar’s great-nephew and adoptive son – and Brutus and Cassius. Caesar’s ghost appears to Brutus and warns him he will see him again at the the Battle of Philippi, where Brutus and Cassius take on Antony and Octavius.

Before battle, Brutus and Cassius fight about money (and virtue), and Brutus reveals his wife has committed suicide. Cue the tragic bloodbath. During battle, Cassius thinks his friend, Titinius gets captured, although Titinius is actually only celebrating a victory their side achieved. Cassius has his servant kill him, Titinius then kills himself after discovering so, and Brutus, seeing Cassius, falls on the sword his servant holds out for him. Antony marks his death by honoring Brutus’s noble virtue.

The play, which some believe to be the first staged on the Globe in 1599, is relatively short and the action fast. And Shakespeare certainly takes liberties with history for dramatic purposes.

***

Julius Caesar is also a great play by another great man: Shakespeare. Even if you desperately avoid the Bard, you can’t run from some of this play’s lines. I mean, it’s incredible.

Et tu, Brute“? As far as we can tell, Caesar never actually said these words. Not even the great Shakespeare said them.

“Beware the ides of March” (Soothsayer, 1.2.19). Shakespeare did it.

“He doth bestride the narrow world / Like a Colossus, and we petty men / Walk under his huge legs, and peep about / To find ourselves dishonourable graves” (Cassius, 1.2.136-39). Shakespeare did it.

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings” (Cassius, 1.2.141-42). Shakespeare. Same monologue as quoted above.

“…it was Greek to me.” (Casca, 1.2.278) Yep, Shakespeare.

The above lines, now idioms in the English language, come from 1.2 alone.

“I am as constant as the Northern Star…” (Caesar, 3.1.60)

“Cry ‘havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war…” (Antony, 3.1.276)

“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.” (Antony, 3.2.70)

“The evil that men do lives after them; / The good is oft interred with their bones.” (Antony, 3.2.72-73).

“But Brutus says he was ambitious, / And Brutus is an honourable man.” (Antony, 3.2.83-84).

By the way, Antony orates these last three quotes in a single speech.

And oh yeah, as Caesar famously utters upon his assassination: “Et tu, Brute?” (3.1.76) As far as we can tell, Caesar never actually said these words. We believe he either said nothing at all or said to Brutus in Greek: “Kai su, teknon?” “You too, my child?” The precise meaning is up for interpretation.

Also as far as we can tell, Shakespeare didn’t say them up either, although we can probably thank him for keeping these already popular words popular today.

Not even the great Shakespeare said them. Et tu, Gulielme?

***

Julius Caesar engages great themes. As developed by his words throughout the play, he pits “ambition” (3.2.26) against “virtue” (1.2.92), “conspiracy” (2.1.81) against “constancy,” “fear” (1.3.60) against “mettle” (1.2.303), “faults” (1.2.141) against “fates” (1.2.140), “tyranny” (3.1.77) against “liberty” (3.1.77).

What does it mean to be honorable and noble? How we are to interpret what it means to be “true Romans” (2.1.222)?

On the level of imagery and language, I am particularly struck by the way Shakespeare develops this idea of interpretation throughout the play. Its characters are constantly reading faces and deciphering omens – and often incorrectly. As Caesar asks after his wife, Calpurnia, shares her dream of a bloody, deathly Capitol: “What say the augerers?” (2.2.37)

Caesar has to read the soothsayer’s prophesy. He ignores it. Bad move.

Cassius reads Brutus’ internal conflict on his face. He exploits it.

Caesar reads a “lean and hungry look” on Cassius’ face. Should have acted.

Brutus, Casca, and Cassius have to interpret Caesar’s refusal of the crown and subsequent fainting. Showy and weak?

Brutus reads Cassius’ planted letter urging him to join the conspiracy against Caesar. Did you ask who really authored it, Brutus?

Artemidorus fails to get Caesar to read a letter exposing the assassination. Caesar, we’ve tried to help you so many times.

Brutus has to read the warning of Caesar’s ghost. Should have thought twice going into battle, Marcus.

Cassius reads auguries before the battle. He saw eagles, that’s good, then some lesser birds. Not so good.  He also has to determine from afar whether or not Titinius is captured. If you just waited a little longer, man.

And this is just the text of the play. How is Shakespeare interpreting Julius Caesar? How is he reading history? How do we interpret Shakespeare? How do we read history?

***

How do I read greatness?

The temple of dressings loom larger. I feel light-headed. My thoughts spin.

No one hears me talk to myself because most people are working. Here I am, talking to myself about Julius Caesar and salad dressing on my way back home to write at 9:00am in the morning. There are billions of people in the world, over a billion live in extreme poverty. Half of the people in the world don’t make in a day what this single bottle of dressing costs. Most working folk would be happy to get their shopping done when the store’s so empty. Who am I? Who am I? This is a true luxury, this is true privilege. But shouldn’t I then be taking better advantage of it? I’m an educator by trade; I’ve helped people, I’ve made differences. Yet look at what Caesar accomplished. True, I don’t aspire to power. Or being assassinated.

We don’t have control over our greatness. We don’t have control over how we’re remembered.

Look at what Shakespeare accomplished. I’m poring over his words – a whole industry of people pore over his words – 400 years after his death? And me? I just blog. I’ve never even made enough on my own writing to buy this bottle of Creamy Caesar. In one play surely he leaves us more genius lines than I can ever hope to in a lifetime. What does it mean to be something? Is this my motivation – to make it, to be great? Is to make it to be remembered? There are at least 200 different dressings I could buy right this minute. We only get about 80 years, who knows how many of them good, before we kick the bucket. What do we do with that time, with, if we’re lucky, all the choice we have in our lives? Yet Shakespeare didn’t even make an effort to compile or publish his plays. “What should be in that ‘Caesar’?”

Greatness.

Caesar and Shakespeare are remembered for words they didn’t even say. Et tu, Brute? We don’t have control over our greatness. We don’t have control over how we’re remembered. By sheer association, Caesar’s name lives on in a dressing he had nothing to do with. That’s credited to a Caesar Cardini in Tijuana, Mexico in 1924. Not that we remember that. I imagine even Paul Newman is probably known by many as the dressing guy, not as the award-winning actor and philanthropist.

It’s all up for interpretation.

“This was the noblest Roman of them all,” Antony remembers Brutus.

All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did envy in great Caesar.
He only in a general honest thought
And common good to all made on of them.
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mixed in him that nature might stand up
And say to all the world ‘This was a man’. (5.5.67-74)

I read the bottle of Creamy Caesar. Shake well! A good dressing, like the character of a man, has to be balanced, well-mixed.

Maybe I am misreading this whole greatness thing.

I put the dressing back on the shelf. I think I got more than $3.46 out of it.

I stand up. The blood returns to my head.

***

Using the force (of language): The Life of Henry the Fifth

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.

In the name of writing.

***

I chose Henry V as my second read for my yearlong immersion in the complete works of Shakespeare.

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.

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The Battle of Agincourt, October 25, 1415. Do you know which are the English? Image from Wikimedia Commons.

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.

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King Henry V. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

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.