Mothers of self-invention

I had a pulled a Shakespeare: Where was my mother?

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I issued the usual complaint to my wife: “I don’t know what to write about.”

Henry VIII was in the books but no inspiration was coming to me. I had come down with a bad case of PPMD: Post-play Moping Disorder. Symptoms include: writer’s block, acute unoriginality, sore purpose, intellectual nausea, and mild gas.

“Your mother,” she said.

“Huh? My mother?”

“You haven’t written about your mother.”

She was right. I had written about my stepmother. I had written about my brothers. About my father and grandfather. About old friends and new friends. I had written on many occasions about my wife (and our many arguments). I had called up grade-school teachers and past girlfriends. I had even dedicated a whole post to my dog.

But my mother? She was nowhere to be found.

I had pulled a Shakespeare.

***

What happened to Queen Lear? In The Tempest, why don’t we hear about Miranda’s mother? Desdemona’s father plays a major part in Othello, but what about her mom? So too with The Taming of the Shrew. We hear about Portia’s father in The Merchant of Venice but not his counterpart. Titus Andronicus has a whole brood of children (25 at one point) but no mention of their mum. Nada, zilch, squat on Prince Hal’s mother from what I recall in Henry IVmaybe that’s why he was acting out. As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, Cymbeline. The list goes on.

In so many of Shakespeare’s plays, mothers are conspicuously absent.

And some of the mothers he does feature aren’t exactly getting a call on Mother’s Day. The un-bereaved Gertrude in Hamlet? The vengeful Tamora in Titus Andronicus? Distant Lady Capulet in Romeo and Juliet? Even Lady Macbeth. When she’s laying into her husband for lacking cojones to kill King Duncan, she suggests she once had a child:

…I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me.
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn
As you have done to this. (1.7.54-59).

When there are strong mothers, they’re often vilified: King Leontes tyrannizes Queen Hermione in A Winter’s Tale and Queen Margaret, whose hard-nosed leadership is viewed as too masculine, is deemed unnatural in Henry VI. Volumnia in Coriolanus, meanwhile, strikes many critics as over-mothering to the point of warmongering.

What gives, Shakespeare? What do you have against moms? People like to joke Shakespeare’s absent wives and queens divorced their husbands long before Act I. Take Prospero, who spent all his time reading magic books, and you can imagine King Lear was pretty controlling. Would you stick around for these two? (I think I should hide these two plays from my own wife.)

But jokes aside, was Shakespeare short on talent? Young boys played female characters on the Elizabethan stage; perhaps they weren’t seen as believable in the role of adult women. Or was Shakespeare just heavy on patriarchy? Wives, sadly, were largely relegated to the private sphere in Shakespeare’s day, thereby removing them from the public action that drives the plots of his plays.

One of his most women-centric plays, case in point, is a domestic comedy: The Merry Wives of Windsor (Mistress Margaret Page has a daughter and a son). But the wives, you may recall, hilariously outwit the lusty Falstaff and have some good clean fun at their husbands’ expense. Perhaps Shakespeare was actually pushing the Renaissance husband-wife/father-mother envelope, even if just a skosh?

***

And what’s my excuse, you ask? I’m putting the question right back on you: Do you think the likes of Lady Macbeth in any way makes me think of my dear mother?! Well, a few glasses of chardonnay in, my mother does like to joke of my birth: “They pulled you from my womb. They pulled you from my body.” That’s kind of Lady Macbeth-level graphic, isn’t it? I can hear one of my brothers bellowing: “Mom, c’mon! That’s gross!”

Maybe Shakespeare didn’t write mothers into his plays because he got along with his mother.

The truth is, I chased Shakespeare’s emotional ambulances. Conflict is my way into his plays. Conflict is essential to any good story, my writing here included. And conflict is something, other than me being occasionally too judgmental of her when we talk on the phone, that my mother and I, fortunately, haven’t experienced much of.

Maybe Shakespeare didn’t write mothers into his plays because he also got along with his mother.

***

Mary Shakespeare, née Arden, came from some money and status. Shakespeare’s father, John, was a farmer’s son. Mary married down. Did she marry for love, for fulfillment? Did she exercise more choice and will than your typical Elizabethan woman?

I also can’t help but wonder how Mary and John reacted when young Bill said he was going into theater. I’m sure you can hear it today, too, when one tells their parents, oh, I don’t know, you’re quitting your job to read the complete works of Shakespeare.

But maybe Mary was supportive. Maybe Shakespeare modeled one of his best mothers, the caring but fair Countess in All’s Well That Ends Well, after his own. The advice she gives to her (ungrateful) son Bertram as he’s going abroad is something every son should heed today:

Be thou blessed, Bertram, and succeed thy father
In manners as in shape. Thy blood and virtue
Contend for empire in thee, and thy goodness
Share with thy birthright. Love all, trust a few,
Do wrong to none. Be able for thine enemy
Rather in power than use, and keep thy friend
Under thy own life’s key. Be checked for silence
But never taxed for speech…(1.1.54-61)

I’ve revisited this passage several times since finishing the play. In part because I find her advice so pure, wise, simple, and true. In part because I find it remarkable Shakespeare left us such lucid moral instruction. And in part because I hear the guidance my own mother has always provided me at crossroads in my life: “Follow your heart.”

***

I’ve often struggled with her words. A lot of times, I didn’t know how to listen to my heart. I didn’t know what it was trying to tell me. Other times, I just wanted someone else to make the big decision for me. And, to be honest, I’ve struggled with them because she’s said them so damned often – you I know I love you, Mom – that they just lost all their meaning. They’re like a truism, a verbal tic.

Following one’s heart: That requires self-invention. And there’s nothing more Shakespearean than that.

But something I never considered until I thought about Shakespeare’s mothers was: Why those words? Why that expression? Why that particular advice? Why did my mother always tell me to follow my heart?

There were times in her life, I think, when she wasn’t allowed to follow her heart, perhaps restricted like a Renaissance mother. Then there came a point when she could. This shift, this freedom, though born of painful circumstance, let her reinvent herself, who she is, what she could be, what could she do.

Following one’s heart: That requires self-invention. And there’s nothing more Shakespearean than that.

My mother pulled a Shakespeare – a proper Shakespeare.

“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.”