It’s bad enough I don’t know a whole lot about Shakespeare’s life or world. But I can’t even say I’ve actually seen many of his plays performed. I mean, the texts were intended for the stage after all.
The last production I can recall seeing was at an amphitheater in a park by the Cincinnati Art Museum – and I caught a only a few scenes at that. I stumbled on a public performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in medias res. It was hot outside, I was a little drunk, and I had no idea what was going on in the play. I soon left to find a bathroom, I think. I’m not even sure why I was there in the first place, who I was with, or even when this was my life, exactly. It must have been some sort of midsummer art festival during college – and equally as enchanting, apparently. For as much as I can’t recall, I can call up glimpses of Titania’s leafy crown. I can hear a donkey-headed Bottom braying. I can taste the IPA I was sipping from a cheap plastic cup, already warm and flat in the heat.
Before that I saw Macbeth. On a TV carted into a high school classroom. My junior-year English teacher – the late Mr. Cahill with his tweed-patched blazers, his breath stale from cigarettes and cafeteria coffee, his chalkboard listing smutty words you couldn’t say in class (“boring”), the rapturous “Great God!” he’d yawp when reciting “The World Is Too Much With Us” – had my class watch the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1979 release of Macbeth with Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Judi Dench. With its bare, black staging, this was a powerful performance. I still conjure it up whenever I think of Macbeth. But I think I liked it all the more because in my coffee-drenched, cigarette-stenched, ego-hunched intellectual coming-of-age, I wanted to impress Mr. Cahill. I wanted him to like that I liked what he liked.
We watched Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet that year, too. A classmate – he’s a successful editor in New York now – guffawed in surprise, in glee, in contempt when Branagh javelins his rapier into Claudius’ back and sends a chandelier swinging down onto him in Act 5’s climactic bloodbath. I always felt like that classmate was always several beats ahead of my own sophistication.
Certainly I’ve seen other plays. There’s no way I haven’t seen other plays. And not just on film. I hope. I suppose I can’t count those adaptations we’d gathered for on the gymnasium floor whenever the children’s theater came to school, can I? I even rented Lawrence Olivier’s famed production of Henry V after I read the play this year. I renewed it three times. Three times, the upper limit. I eventually sent it down the return box, unwatched. Pathetic. Criminal. I just don’t know why I don’t get around to these things.
Over two decades’ worth of schooling – including graduating summa cum laude with a degree in English literature, mind you – never put me in the theater seat. But apparently 140 characters could.
So, while recently walking through Oxford to meet an acquaintance from Twitter, I passed the Oxford Playhouse and spotted a poster for a production of King Lear, which I learned of from another acquaintance on Twitter, it so happened. The next day, I promptly ordered two tickets online. Over two decades’ worth of schooling – including graduating summa cum laude with a degree in English literature, mind you – never put me in the theater seat. But apparently 140 characters could.
My wife and I had an argument over seat selection. I wanted to reserve two seats by the aisle, she, sensibly, by center stage. “I’m tired of everything we do revolving around you having to go to the bathroom,” she complained. “I just like the option. There’s comfort in proximity,” offering the best defense even George Constanza could surmise. Begrudgingly, I booked seats facing centerstage. Marriage requires compromise, see. And sacrifice, though not of my fluid consumption. I still downed two pints at a pub before heading to the theater.
One dresses up for the theater. A man wears a jacket in the least. And I hadn’t been to the theater in a long time. I wanted to look nice. I wanted a cultured evening out on the town with my wife. So, I decided to wear the suit I had tailored for my wedding. It’s a classic suit: navy blue, cut slim. Maybe a little too slim, as some post-nuptial weight stretched the waistband. But I sucked in my belly, shoved in my shirt, and adjusted my subsequently bunched-up underwear. I was looking good, feeling fresh – until I got caught in a sudden hailstorm on my way to pick up the tickets at will call. Oxford’s old cobblestone streets are charming until you try to run them in dress shoes and slacks that are riding up your ass. I felt like Lear out on the heath: older, less spry than in my youth, and confronting the elements, only to be humbled later by my discovery that I had far overdressed for this weeknight performance. Oxford is a college town after all. At least I would be disturbing no one if I had to empty my old-man bladder during the play; we occupied the only seats in the entire row. Naturally, I enjoyed a glass of wine at intermission.
I loved the production. It opens with Cordelia aiming a rifle right at the audience: bang. Provocative, but I still haven’t decided on what it means. She struck me as a sort of revolutionary fighter, in fact, when she reappears with the French invasion later in the play. Edmund the Bastard was quite the bastard. So were Regan, Goneril, and Cornwall. The Fool accompanied himself with a concertina, giving additional voice and volume to his humor. And Michael Pennington played the mad king brilliantly. The costuming evoked, for me at least, interwar England, an interesting juxtaposition for tragedy set in ancient Albion. This, too, has a meaning, though I’m still deliberating on it. The set design was sparse, a stark brick wall suggesting not royalty but hard times, actually. A wind machine mimicked the elements when Lear is roving the heath and raving out in the storm; the effect was a bit gimmicky. But I can’t pretend to be a theater critic. You’ve seen my record, for one thing. For another, I don’t any have other productions of King Lear to compare this one to.
If I connected with the language in the first half, I connected with its emotions in the second.
I did read King Lear in high school, though. For Mr. Cahill’s class, in fact. A few of my peers said it was their favorite play, that it was Shakespeare’s best. I hadn’t even read enough of the Bard to have an opinion. My classmate – the successful editor – often quoted a favorite line: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods;/ they kill us for their sport” (4.1.37-38). I wanted to be serious and literary like them, so I agreed. It, too, I said, was my favorite play, though I never personally connected to Lear’s madness, as sublime as Lear’s descent into it is. I certainly didn’t understand a damned word of the Fool at the time (a lot of dick jokes, I now know). Like a well-trained but unimaginative literary analyst, I circled all the references to eyes and sight in the text, scrawling in the margins “seeing vs. blindness” and thinking myself a brave explorer setting the first foot in some new world.
I also tried to re-read the play before this performance. I only made it halfway through, but this was to my benefit. In the first half of the performance, I was delighted I could follow along with the actual lines. Shakespeare is hard enough to understand when you’re studying him in private with time, footnotes, and the internet at your disposal. In the second half, a lot of the lines went right over my head, as stuffed with Shakespeare as it’s been this year. But the meaning didn’t. If I connected with the language in the first half, I connected with its emotions in the second. Because theater centers, well, the drama.
Shakespeare has created us, but we’ve also created him.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
As I get ready for the big move, I sort through – and search for – identity in old papers and Shakespearean dress.
Maybe egg cartons or coffee cup sleeves? Cardboard boxes, envelopes? I wonder what they’ll become, those hundreds and hundreds of pages, those thousands and thousands of words. I dump load after load of papers I’ve written down the recycling chute in our building.
Each load contains countless late nights. Each load, enough coffee to make a medium-sized country jittery – I’m talking every man, woman, and child. Enough cigarettes to make me cough up a lung years after I’ve even had a smoke. Many miles of pacing the various dorms, houses, and apartments I’ve boarded over my years.
That 50-pager I wrote on the influence of bebop on the prophetic mysticism in Ginsberg’s Howl? One day, someone might be wiping their ass with toilet paper made from it.
Surely most paper is recycled back into paper. Napkins, paper towels. That 50-pager I wrote on the influence of bebop on the prophetic mysticism in Ginsberg’s Howl? One day, someone might be wiping their ass with toilet paper made from it. Maybe some snotty school kids will one day blow their noses – or wipe away tears – with all those Modernist poems I imitated.
I feel lighter with each load that falls down into the dumpster. I had been lugging these papers around for years. They’ve made it from Cincinnati to Minneapolis, to Southern California. But they’re not going with me to Dublin. My wife and I should be moving there in just a few weeks. We’re very excited, but there’s a lot to be done before we go.
There’s a lot of stuff – a lot of self – to be unloaded.
I made sure I had a digital backup of each paper, of course. I scanned those that I didn’t already have on my computer. I ripped out each staple, I pulled off every paper clip. I reread teacher comments and grades. Tucked into some binder-clipped packets are rough drafts; I looked over editing marks I made. A carat, a spelling correction, a pilcrow. A whole paragraph crossed out in red ink.
I also feel a twinge of guilt and sadness, though, when the chute’s door slams shut. I will never get that copy back. On my computer, I can easily open an essay on Keats’ faery imagery from my English major days or a lesson plan on river symbolism in Langston Hughes’ works when I was doing my student teaching. I can do this more easily – and likely more often – than digging them out of the storage bins, where they’ve sat unread in garages, basements, and closets.
The hard copies have an aura, I think. They passed from my hands to my professor’s, whose ink marked up the margins, whose fingers thumbed through the pages, whose coffee sometimes spilled onto coversheets, whose messenger bags hauled them from campus to home and back.
The originals have an energy. Like dormant batteries, they hold the charge of so many ideas, arguments, and citations. So much effort.
Have I just outgrown them? Have they accrued within me, like Russian dolls? Does these persons, these unused batteries, still carry a charge?
But they also enshrine so many past selves. John in high school. Early essays on electric bass playing and my dead dog. An encomium to coffee. My parents’ divorce, a theme I revisited so many times in the many reflections required of my liberal arts education. Teacher commentary on my wordiness, feedback also thematic throughout my school days. Senior-year arguments against the existence of God.
John the musician. Stacks of sheet music of standards for bass parts when I played in jazz ensemble, stacks of guitar tablature for finger-style arrangements for Christmas gigs and weddings I once played. I like to think I could quickly relearn these songs.
John in undergrad. Close readings and technical analyses of obscure mid-century American poetry and existential French philosophy. “Not only/but also” theses, “both/and” ambiguity. Feedback encouraging me to respect length maximums, to go to graduate school.
John with his back to the ivory tower after undergrad. Poems using Roman mythology to register urban poverty when I went into work in public schools instead of a PhD program.
Idealistic graduate school personal statements about education. Research on multiple literacies and differentiated instruction, screeds trumpeting critical pedagogy and constructivist classrooms. Lesson plans, teacher evaluations. Resumes for teaching positions I declined.
Each paper preserves a vision I once had of myself, I once had of the world. They are archives of identity. Of past accomplishments and achievements, of former talents and ambitions.
I read some paragraphs and marvel at my overwritten bullshit. I read many others and wonder where this writer went. What happened to this person? The scholar. The musician. The educator. The idealist. Am I less than these persons now? Have I just outgrown them? Have they accrued within me, like Russian dolls? Does these persons, these unused batteries, still carry a charge?
For me, it’s papers. For Shakespeare, it’s dress.
I’ve been thinking a lot about identity since I’ve been reading all this Shakespeare. It’s no doubt an obsession of the Bard. He develops the theme through dress, disguise, costume, uniforms. Only a few plays in, I’ve already extensively encountered Shakespearean dress.
On Shakespeare’s stage, identity is fluid, unstable, slippery. Characters put on and cast off different costumes: different identities, different selves.
In The Taming of the Shrew, the beggar Christopher Sly becomes a noble when the mischievous Lord wraps him in “sweet clothes” and put “rings on his fingers” (Induction 1.34). Lucentio’s servant, Tranio, becomes his master when he dons his “coloured hat and cloak” (1.1.201), then a gentleman’s uniform. By wearing a simple garment in Henry V, the great king disguises himself as a common infantryman: “Lend me thy cloak, Sir Thomas” (4.1.24). In Julius Caesar, Casca thinks Caesar showily refuses Mark Antony’s offer the crown, which would top a king’s, not a republican’s, head: “Why, there was a crown offered him; and being offered, he put it by with the back of his hand, thus; and then the people fell a-shouting” (1.2.222-24). In Antony and Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt makes herself goddess-like with her garbs, as Enobarbus describes: “She did lie / In her pavilion – cloth of gold, of tissue – / O’er picturing that Venus where we see / The fancy outwork nature” (2.2.204-207).
And in the last play I read, Cymbeline, Cloten, when disguising himself as Posthumus, wonders why the lowly gentleman he’s imitating should be any more attractive to Innogen than he is, a prince:
How fit his garments serve me! Why should his mistress, who was made by him that made the tailor, not be fit too? – the rather – saving reverence of the word – for ’tis said a woman’s fitness comes by fits. Therein I must play the workman. I dare speak it to myself, for it is not vainglory for a man and his glass to confer in his own chamber. I mean the lines of my body are as well drawn as his: no less young, more strong, not beneath him in fortunes, beyond him in the advantage of the time, above him in birth, alike conversant in general services, and more remarkable in single oppositions. Yet this imperceiverant thing loves him in my despite. What mortality is! (4.1.2-13).
(Cloten’s decapitated before he ever realizes he’s an asshole – and that he smells bad. Yes, Shakespeare takes to the time to make sure the audience knows that Cloten literally stinks.)
On Shakespeare’s stage, characters could transform themselves by dress. They can become – and un-become – kings with donning and doffing of crowns. Identity is fluid, unstable, slippery. Characters put on and cast off different costumes: different identities, different selves.
But dress was also deterministic in Elizabethan England, as Stephen Greenblatt observes in his introductory materials to my Norton Shakespeare. In Cymbeline, Innogen orders Posthumus’ servant to fetch her a disguise: “…provide me presently / A riding-suit no costlier than would fit a franklin’s housewife” (3.2.75-77). She is referring to sumptuary laws of the day, which, among other things, regulated the different kinds of clothes different kinds of people could wear. Identity was ordered and prescribed based on class.
Where is the true self in all this? Cymbeline suggests that one’s true character will eventually show through. As the banished Belarius remarks, “How hard it is to hide sparks of nature!” (3.3.79). And yet how easy it is not to know ourselves. Referring to the Cymbeline’s two sons, which he kidnapped out of revenge and raised in the woods of Wales, he follows with: “These boys know little they are sons to th’ King…” (3.3.80).
Perhaps Shakespeare urges us to defy these fashion trends, so to speak. As he prepares a final stand against the Romans, Posthumus cries: “Let me make men know / More valour in me than my habits show. / Gods, put the strength o’ th’ Leonati in me. / To shame the guise o’ th’ world, I will begin / The fashion – less without and more within” (5.1.29-33). Yet, Posthumus makes his charge dressed as a poor Briton soldier. Not quite the person the person we meet at the beginning of the play.
No wonder it can be so hard to pick out an outfit in the morning.
I cast the last load of papers down the dark slot. There is a brief silence before it crashes on top of the pile of refuse four stories below. So many pages once in order, now scattered about empty beer bottles, Amazon boxes, half-rinsed cans of beans. Where am I in all this?
Paper gets recycled into paper, yes. Including new office paper, blank and waiting for the ink of new words, new identities, new selves. Perhaps, one day, I’ll be loading into the printer for a new document I’ve written some paper recycled from all those many words, all those many pages, I once wrote.
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.
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.
It’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’?”
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.