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.

The Merry Wives of Windsor, the doltish husbands of Dublin

We can boil much of Shakespeare down to this simple fact: men are pretty dumb.

“‘Make sure you lock up the bikes,’” my friend parroted his wife while we were stopped at a traffic light. “What does she think we were going to do with them? Park them in the Liffey?”

“And what was this about: ‘Don’t miss your stop, boys’?” I answered, quoting my own wife’s admonition. “Do they think we are 8-year-olds or something? I mean, how dumb do they think we are?”

We grumbled. We laughed. The light changed, and we pedaled our city bikes to the train station, where we met another friend. Our wives took a car, supplies, and our dogs down to the country for our holiday weekend. The husbands: the train, rucksacks, and beers, of course, for the journey.

The closest station was about about a half-hour drive from our Airbnb, tucked into the Wicklow Mountains. This gave us the chance to enjoy some more pints before our friend’s wife scooped us up.

“We locked up the bikes, right?” I joked as I missed my shot on the pool table and knocked back a few inches of my Guinness.

“Are you sure this is the right stop?” he matched me in jest, shot, and drink.

We had a healthy buzz by the time my friend’s wife arrived. Our wives aren’t dumb; I’m sure they expected nothing less.

“Bad news, lads,” she greeted us as we piled into the car. “The house doesn’t look anything like the pictures.”

“Oh, no!” we three husbands cried.

“What’s the matter with it?” I asked.

“There’re spiders everywhere. The rooms are dirty.”

“We’ll give it a good clean when we get there,” one husband offered.

“And the owner’s place is right next door. No barbecuing or music or heavy drinking after 8pm.”

“Wait, no…”

“Yeah, she’s seem pretty nosy. Amanda’s really upset. She feels really bad that she booked this place that looks nothing like what we were promised.”

“That sounds like my wife. She’ll beat herself up about these things,” I explained.

“We’ll make do. We’ll make the best of it,” the other husband conciliated.

“Yeah, we’ve got food, drinks, good company,” I assured.

“Eh, just – you’ll see when you get there.”

We pulled off the road into a private drive. The gravel path curved around lush, green trees, opening up to a palatial manor. The other two wives came dashing out. They took a quick look at our cautious, serious faces and broke out in laughter.

“This place is amazing, you guys!” my wife shrieked. Our driver looked over at us with a victorious smirk.

***

Shakespeare knew it. In fact, I think you can boil much of his work down to this simple fact: men can be pretty dumb.

Take the Merry Wives of Windsor. It’s like the Bard meets I Love Lucy and Punk’d. In this comedy, Sir John Falstaff – of Henry IV fame – is certain he can sleep with the comedy’s titular wives. He sends them both identical letters expressing his cocky desires, but they, unbeknownst to their husbands, decide to have a little fun with him and lead him on. This sets off a hilarious series of pranks and pratfalls.

Fake-seducing him, one of the wives invites Falstaff over while her husband is away, only for her husband to arrive home unexpectedly. First she has him hide in a closet – yes, even Shakespeare did the closest gag. Then the wife has her servants sneak him out in a laundry basket and dump him into the river. Here’s a taste of Falstaff’s mind after the prank:

Well, If I be served another such trick, I’ll have my brains ta’en out and buttered, and give them to a dog for a New Year’s gift. ‘Sblood, the rogues slighted me into the river with as little remorse as they would have drowned a blind bitch’s puppies, fifteen i’th’ litter! And you may know by my size that I have a kind of alacrity in sinking. If the bottom were as deep as hell, I should down. I had been drowned, but that the shore was shelvy and shallow – a death that I abhor, for the water swells a man, and what a thing should I have been when I had been swelled? By the Lord, a mount of mummy! (3.5.5-15)

On another occasion, they disguise Falstaff as “the fat woman of Brentford” to smuggle him out of the house after the husband’s surprise return again stymies the prank (4.2.61). Here’s a little bit about this the woman of Brentford: Legend has that, in her will, she bequeathed to her friends…20 farts.

In a final prank, the wives convince Falstaff to dress up as Herne the Hunter, a local, mythical spirt with antlers on his head, only to harass him with a horde of children disguised as fairies.

Their husbands, again, aren’t in on the joke at first. One, Master Ford, has zero trust in his wife’s honesty – to Shakespeare, chasteness – and gets pretty bent out of shape when he thinks his wife is cheating on him. “See the hell of having a false woman!” he wails (2.2.256-57):

I will rather trust a Fleming with my butter, Parson Hugh the Welshman with my cheese, an Irishman with my aqua-vitae bottle, or a thief to walk my ambling gelding, than my wife with herself (2.2.265-68).

Of course, like a selfish boor, he’s primarily concerned with his own good name:

My bed shall be abused, my coffers ransacked, my reputation gnawn at, and I shall not only receive this villainous wrong, but stand under the adoption of abominable terms…Terms! Names! ‘Amaimon’ sounds well, ‘Lucifer’ well, ‘Barbason’ well; yet they are devils’ additions, the names of fiends. But ‘cuckold’, ‘wittol’! ‘Cuckold–the devil himself hath not such a name. (2.2.257-64).

In the end, the mischief comes to light, and they all “laugh this sport o’er by a country fire” (5.5.219). And the husbands learn that “wives may be merry, and yet honest, too” (4.2.89). Just because they are having a bit of fun, free and out of sight of their husbands, doesn’t mean they are cheating on them.

***

We dropped our bags, cracked some drinks, and soaked in the afternoon sun in the garden around a patio table. The dogs bounded in the grass.

“You locked up the bikes, right?” my friend’s wife asked us.

“Oh yeah,” my friend and I responded in unison, promptly, earnestly. Wives may be merry – and husbands are none the wiser to it, but all the wiser for it.