Hearing heirs: The Tempest

Should I get my ears checked?

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My nephew waved his chubby fingers at the camera. He smiled and then stared, transfixed, as babies are, as we all are, at the moving images and intermittent sounds from the iPad. Over 3500 miles away, he was basking in the center of attention at a belated Thanksgiving celebration at my father’s house. My father, middle brother, stepmother, and stepsister each passed through the FaceTime picture, the commotion of cooking and dogs, chatter and moving bodies, the commotion of family and gathering, in the background.

“How are you, buddy?” I said. “Are you looking forward to dinner?” I never know what to say to babies. I try out a little baby-talk but inevitably shake it off for normal speech. I waved back, smiled, and then stared back, transfixed.

I was transfixed, of course, by his shaggy, sandy-colored bangs. By his plump, grinning cheeks, his eyes, nutty-brown and just as plump. But I was also transfixed by my nephew as such. That he was my brother’s child. That he was this emerging being who could walk, loved music, and called everything in his nascent lexicon “blue.” That he exists. That he is. “O wonder!” as Miranda says in The Tempest after she sees her first humans other than her father and his slave Caliban:

How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in’t! (5.1.184-87)

I took my nephew in. I looked for my brother in his face. I looked for my family, our eyes and noses, our jaws and brows. I looked for myself, too, and I tried to my imagine my own child. But I couldn’t.

***

In The Tempest, we learn Prospero, Duke of Milan, fled to an island in the Mediterranean with his three-year-old daughter, Miranda, after his brother, Antonio, usurped him and pledged tribute to the enemy state of Naples. As Prospero explains: “The government I cast upon my brother, / And to my state grew stranger, being transported / And rapt in secret studies” (1.2.75-77). From his books (“volumes I prize above my dukedom”), he learned magic, using them to control Ariel, a spirit, and Caliban, a grotesque native (1.2.169-70). Twelve years later, he wields his magic to conjure up a storm that shipwrecks Antonio, the Duke of Naples, his son Ferdinand, and other royal characters on the island. This sets in motion having Ferdinand and Miranda fall in love and marry, restoring his dukedom, and pardoning his brother. In the end, he abandons his magic to return to Milan: “Now my charms are all o’erthrown, / And what strength I have’s mine own,” Prospero says in an epilogue some consider to be Shakespeare’s farewell address to the theater (1-2).

In telling The Tempest, Shakespeare constructs – and I don’t think I’d ever have noticed this if my college Shakespeare professor hadn’t brilliantly pointed it out – an elaborate system of wordplay: hair, art, ear, air, hear, and Ariel. All of these, furthered by motifs of sounds and listening throughout the play, pun on the word heir. And The Tempest is indeed rapt with the issue of heirs. After the storm, Alonso, the Duke of Naples, believes he has lost Ferdinand, his “heir / Of Napes and of Milan” (2.1.111-12). One of the nobles, Gonzalo, imagines a utopian state free of “succession,” or the inheritance of property (2.1.151). Prospero was deposed from power by his brother but himself deposes Caliban, the rightful heir of the island. In a subplot, two of Alonso’s servants get Caliban drunk, and Caliban plots to help them overtake Prospero and serve them as his new masters. In another subplot, Antonio encourages Sebastian to overthrow his own brother, the Duke of Naples. Prospero marries Miranda and Ferdinand, his new heir, and in a celebratory masque, has a spirit “bless this twain, that they may prosperous be, / And honoured in their issue” (4.1.104-05).

***

Heirs are about political and financial power, of course, and The Tempest no doubt fully explores this. But heirs concern a more personal power, too, a kind of masculine power: In our children, there is a this-is-my-flesh-and-blood authority, an I-made-this pride and legacy. Even Prospero, wants what’s his, even if he more’s interested in magic than administration: his inherited dukedom and for his heirs to succeed him. Or so I imagine. Because I don’t have children – and I’m not sure I’ll ever want to.

But I’ve also just never felt that more ancient instinct: the this-is-my-flesh-and-blood, I-made-this paternity. To pass down my genes. To pass down my name. To bring a little me into the world.

This is not an issue with my wife. She feels the same way.  We both think we would be great parents, yes, and we both know our families would love it if we did. But currently we’re just not interested in it. Maybe this is because were early-30s millennials, the idea of children inconveniencing our career goals, our travels, our lifestyle, er, drinking. Maybe this is because were concerned about the future. Does our suffering planet need our kids? Do we want to bring a kid into a world, to be perfectly honest, where Donald Trump is president?

Is this selfish? Privileged? Naive? Insulting to couples who want to have children but can’t? Are we denying ourselves of some greater fulfillment, purpose, and actualization by not being parents, by never so wholly caring for someone other than yourself? Is it on some level hypocritical, as the decision not to have children is only possible because my parents decided to have us? Is it on some level anti-biological, denying my genes their evolutionarily hard-fought, hard-wired expression?

All of that may very well be. But I’ve also just never felt that more ancient instinct: the this-is-my-flesh-and-blood, I-made-this paternity. To pass down my genes. To pass down my name. To bring a little me into the world. Of course, there is so much more to parenthood than my crude characterization. There is the profound love and joy. The opportunity to mould the next Albert Einstein or Marie Curie, Billie Holiday or William Shakespeare. Historically at least, there is the economic support of extra labor on the farm, of care for aging parents. And there’s sociocultural reality, the biological reality, that reproduction is simply what we do – and that most of us never question we will do, because we know we will do it, because we’ve always known we will do it, because having children is what we do, as couples, as members of a culture or nation or religion, as descendants of a tribe, as men, as women, as humans, as penises and vaginas, as organisms, as self-replicating DNA. That deep urge to be parents is literally in our bones.

Even if I don’t want children, why have I never heard it in mine? It’s one thing to make a principled decision not to have children. But isn’t it another when you listen out for the primal impulse and come up deaf? Why don’t I hear heir? And does this silence make me abnormal, less-than, like some Caliban? Hell, even Caliban “peopled else / This isle with  Calibans” (1.2.353-54).

***

My nephew freed his gaze from the iPad’s mesmerism. He smiled, looked up at his dad, lifted his blue-striped shirt to show off his stomach, and then laughed. “Is that your bellybutton?” my brother laughed with him. “Is that your bellybutton?” I may not hear the parental calling myself, but I’m not blind to its magic.

Fighting stances: The Tragedy of Coriolanus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

I am no Coriolanus.

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

Or at least some of our sinews.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just a bit. Surely only just a bit.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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