Ambivalence-upon-Avon

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“–mind,” Patricia provided.

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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Inside in the room where we believe Shakespeare was born.

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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Shadows on the floor of Shakespeare’s birthplace.

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

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

“Yeah, I think I really felt something.”

All photographs by me. 

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.

***