Shakespeare, Trump, and radical experiments of self-government: The Winter’s Tale

All politics is personal.

I’ve been preoccupied with two people this year. The first, of course, is William Shakespeare. The other, alack, is Donald Trump.

I’ve avoided writing about the latter. It’s not that I don’t see the man everywhere in Shakespeare’s plays. I see him in Richard III’s Machiavellian machinations. In Richard II’s incompetence, overreach, and rashness. I see him in Iago’s Janus-faced manipulations. In Timon of Athen’s extreme egotism. In the glib sexual presumption of Falstaff as he appears in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

It’s that I’ve wanted to keep the two separated. Maybe because I’ve felt the connections were too pat, that discussing today’s politics would be such an obvious, unoriginal move. Maybe because I haven’t wanted to talk about him – because he’s all we ever talk about anymore.

You don’t get to ruin Shakespeare, too, damnit.

Or maybe it’s because, in spite of my efforts to make sense of my mundane life in 2016, I’ve ended up seeking escape in the Bard, trying to locate, somehow, even my self-divulging, self-indulging reflections in a kind of sacrosanct timelessness I want unsullied by the small, groping, orange hands of the 45th president of the United States. You don’t get to ruin Shakespeare, too, damnit.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Shakespeare, it’s that all politics is personal.

***

I’m shocked. I’m angry. I’m scared. I’m eager for action – no,  this middle-class white guy isn’t pretending this essay on Shakespeare makes a meaningful difference. But I’m also longing to understand. To understand my country. To understand people I know – family, for God’s sake – who cast their vote for a bigot. To understand “what happened,” as we’ve been widely referring to Trump’s election.

And it’s this “what happened” that I’ve been stuck on when it comes to Trump and Shakespeare. “What happened?” we ask, bewildered, when Othello kills Desdemona. “How the hell did this happen?” we ask when Lear cradles a dead Cordelia. “Why in God’s name did we end up here?” when ask, beholding Macbeth’s bloodbath. “What happened?” millions of America’s are asking, dazed and gobsmacked, since November 9. The aftermath all seems so unlikely, so improbable, so dramatic. Too dramatic. Laughably dramatic.

What Leontes wreaks is catastrophic, but his original sin is all too ordinary.

Like in The Winter’s Tale. In this romance play, Leontes, King of Sicilia, sees his wife, Hermione, innocently clasp hands with his lifelong friend and King of Bohemia, Polixenes. He becomes paranoid. He silences his advisers. He plots to kill Polixenes. He imprisons his wife, who is pregnant and gives birth while jailed. He wants the newborn burned until deciding to have her abandoned in the wilderness. And, oh my, the ways he talks about women: hag, harlot, callat, hobby-horse, thing. (I’d like to say I’m fishing for Trumpian comparisons here, but no. It’s all there.) And Leontes causes so much terror and stress it ends up killing Leontes’ dear son and Hermione.

How did this happen?

The events are so hyperbolic that we tend to attribute it to larger-than-life personalities and passions, to outsized faults and flaws. Celebrities and Shakespearean villains – they’re just not like us. But we confound the outcome with the cause. What Leontes wreaks is catastrophic, but his original sin is all too ordinary: “I have too much believed mine own suspicion,” Leontes plainly sums it when he first reckons with the death of his wife and son (3.2.149).

Shakespeare, in that extraordinary way the playwright takes us into that interior stage of the mind, lets us glimpse how ‘it happened’ for Leontes. As he works himself up into a frenzy, Leontes rampages:

…Is whispering nothing?
Is leaning cheek to cheek? Is meeting noses?
Kissing with inside lip? Stopping the career
Of laughter with a sigh? – a note infallible
Of breaking honesty. Horsing foot on foot?
Skulking in corners? Wishing clocks more swift,
Hours minutes, noon midnight? And all eyes
Blind with the pin and web but theirs, theirs only,
That would be unseen be wicked? Is this nothing?
Why then the world and all that’s in’t is nothing,
The covering sky is nothing, Bohemia is nothing,
My wife is nothing, nor nothing have these nothings
If this be nothing. (1.2.286-98)

What happened? How did we get here? It was a whisper. It was nothing.

***

We read Shakespeare, we often say, because of how profoundly he probes and depicts human nature. We try to distill his characters down to raw elements: jealousy, ambition, power, hesitation, arrogance, suspicion. Yes, these, but I think Shakespeare ultimately strikes a deeper vein: irrationality.

It seems Shakespeare had something in common with the Founding Fathers: a belief in self-government, and just how radical an experiment it really is.

We, as humans, like to think we’re rational actors. That we make decisions based on the best available evidence. That we weigh choices based on risk and reward. Which is why Shakespeare’s Lears and Macbeths and Leontes evoke so much outrage, pity, and pathos. Why wouldn’t Lear just listen to what Cordelia was saying to him? Why did Macbeth carry out his assassinations in spite of his persistent moral reservations? How could Leontes let his suspicions get so out of hand and so quickly? If only they could see what they were doing, all the suffering, all the loss, all the grief, all the blood and gore would have been avoided. I would never act like that, we tell ourselves as Lear roves the heath and Macbeth talks to imaginary daggers. This is not what I would have done, we say as Leontes, foaming with self-feeding, despotic jealousy, justifies his anger.

Which is precisely why Shakespeare’s tragic figures are so horrifying. Because we do act like them. Because we’re irrational. We turn petty grievances into catastrophes. We let slights fester into disease. We take revenge on others because we are small, broken, needy beings. All for appearing right, to be recognized, not thinking ahead to, and never actually really wanting, the wreckage our egos leave in their wake. We feel guilty when we finally get what we say we want.

As Paulina, Hermione’s faithful attendant, stands up to Leontes:

…Thy tyranny, together working with thy jealousies –
Fancies too weak for boys, too green and idle
For girls of nine – O think, what they have done,
And the run made indeed, stark mad, for all
Thy bygone fooleries were but spices of it. (3.2.177-82).

We’re Leontes, ruled by the petty, childish tyrannies of our unreason – and our blind insistence otherwise – that bemonsters, Hulk-like and Hyde-like, whispers into so much woe. It seems Shakespeare had something in common with the Founding Fathers: a belief in self-government, and just how radical an experiment it really is.

***

Leontes repents. Sixteen years later, magically, it turns out his baby daughter, Perdita, had survived and was raised by a shepherd in Bohemia, where Polixenes’ son, Florizel, has fallen in love with her. But Polixenes will not have his son marry some country girl and responds with all the tyrannical violence of Leontes. The lovers flee to Sicilia, where Leontes reunites with his daughter and discovers Paulina, Hermione’s attendant, has been keeping the queen alive as a statue all this time.

It’s romantic idea, America, but is it a Romance play, where what’s lost is found, what’s divided is reunited? America’s going to need some repentance. It’s going to need some time. It’s going to need a whole lot of self-government, and that starts with checking our inner, irrational autocrats.

Some fairy-tale magic wouldn’t hurt, either. “It is required / You do awake your faith,” Paulina tells Leontes’ court when Hermione’s statue comes alive (5.3.94-95). But we should remember that while Leontes cried in the chapel everyday for 16 years, Paulina was attending to the statue of her Queen every day. That doesn’t just take faith. It takes commitment  and discipline – which require self-government.

And it’s not lost on me that the person who stands up to the tyrant, who puts in the work, is a woman.

The ‘metacatharsis’ of Richard II

Self-pity has never been so exquisite.

Do you ever imagine your own funeral?

I don’t mean where you want your ashes scattered or what songs you’d like sung at the ceremony or even the drunken “celebration of life” you hope your loved ones throw in your memory.

I mean, do you ever really imagine it? Your family sobs out eulogies, mascara stains cheeks, men conceal their teary eyes with their hands and mutter something about allergies. As all the pews have been filled, your colleagues line the back wall of the church. At the reception, your friends chain-smoke, pass around a bottle of bourbon, and trade fond remembrances out back of the reception.

If we could be so lucky.

I imagine my own funeral from time to time. Back in our pretentious, angsty days, not that I’ve quite outgrown them, my good friend promised me he’d toss two cartons of Camel Lights and dump a pot of coffee on my casket if I went before him. God love ’em, he’ll do it. I should note this in my will, though, else he be escorted from the burial.

These are dark thoughts, I know – and incredibly narcissistic. But I also think they’re very human.

Deep down, don’t we all need to know that we will be missed?

As humans, we’re self-aware. Our consciousness lets us grasp futurity, which forces us to confront our own finality. This makes me, for one, not fear my own death but dread some ultimate futility. What was this all for? Did I mean something? Will people grieve me?

Yes, these morbid musings are vain, but don’t we all need to know, deep down in our small and trembling hearts, that we will be missed? In some primal and ironic way, these existential insecurities underscore how fundamentally other-centered our self-centeredness is.

Nobody, though, throws a pity party like the tragic Richard II.

***

This week, I’ve returned to Shakespeare’s history plays. I’ve decided to round out the so-called “second tetralogy” or “Henriad”: Richard II, the History of Henry IV, and the Second Part of Henry IV. The tetralogy culminates in Henry V, which I read egregiously out of order.

In Richard II, a very kingly Richard exiles his cousin Harry Bolingbroke after his dispute with Thomas Mowbray over the death of the Duke of Gloucester, whose murder the king himself we believe ordered. Following the death of Henry’s father, John of Gaunt, Richard seizes the property – and title – Harry was to inherit. While Richard is waging a campaign in Ireland funded by forced loans from his subjects, Harry stages an overthrow and ascends to the crown. Meanwhile, the uncle to Richard and Harry, the Duke of York, helps foil an assassination plot (which his own son conspired in) against the new monarch, Harry, now Henry IV. A nobleman murders an abject Richard, who’s been penned up in a castle prison.

richard_ii_king_of_england
This ca. 1390 oil portrait of King Richard II in the Westminster Abbey is believed to be the oldest known portrait of an English monarch. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Richard II raises king-size questions about the institution of the English monarchy, the tyrannical possibilities of a monarch’s authority, and the problem of his subjects’ loyalty therein.

Today, we watch movies where our leaders are usurped or even killed, but in the sixteenth-century, texts of the play – and likely performances – omitted the parts where Richard gives his crown to Harry, as my Norton Shakespeare informed me. Shakespeare’s history plays were no doubt The House of Cards of his day, but actually staging a deposition was a subversive act, though, from what I’ve read, some opponents to Elizabeth I indeed paid Shakespeare’s company to put on a performance of this play.

Here’s an excerpt of Richard’s regal resignation:

BOLINGBROKE Are you contented to resign the crown?

RICHARD: Ay, ay; no, ay; for I must nothing be;
Therefore no, no, for I resign to thee.
Now mark me how I will undo myself.
I give this heavy weight from off my head,
[BOLINGBROKE accepts the crown]
And this unwieldy sceptre from my hand,
[BOLINGBROKE accepts the sceptre]
The pride of kingly sway from out my heart.
With mine own tears I wash away my balm,
With mine own hands I give away my crown,
With mine own tongue deny my sacred state,
With mine own breath release all duteous oaths. (4.1.190-200)

Richard continues in his majestic – and megalomaniacal – monologue. The passage vividly exemplifies the costume of power and the performance of identity, thematic obsessions in Shakespeare’s body of work. By literally taking off his crown, Richard is “unkinged” (4.1.210).

But more interesting to me than the “hollow crown” (3.2.156) is the very intense and perceptive psychological portrait Shakespeare gives us in Richard when he’s unkinged, unselved, undone.

No longer a king, Richard becomes a drama queen. After he’s imprisoned, Richard asks for a mirror following the coronation of King Henry and literally self-reflects in one of the play’s most famous scenes:

A brittle glory shineth in this face.
As brittle as the glory is the face,
[He shatters the glass]
For there it is, cracked in an hundred shivers. (4.1.277-79)

(Richard should have watched more modern cinema. He could have hidden a shard of glass to attack his captors.)

Self-pity has never been so poetic. Self-pity has never been so exquisite. But at this point in the play, Richard has already transcended self-pity, even. He has climbed the proud heights – or sounded the pathetic depths, depending on how you want to look it – of self-mythology. Before he’s separated from his wife (she’s been exiled to France) and imprisoned at Pomfret, Richard consoles his wife – and himself:

Good sometimes Queen, prepare thee for France.
Think I am dead, and that even here thou tak’st,
As thou from my death-bed, thy last living leave.
In winter’s tedious nights, sit by the fire
With good old folks, and let them tell thee tales
Of woeful ages long ago betid;
And ere thou bid goodnight, to quit their griefs
Tell thou the lamentable fall of me,
And send the hearers weeping to their beds;
Forwhy the senseless brands will sympathize
The heavy accent on thy moving tongue,
And in compassion weep the fire out;
And some will mourn in ashes, some coal black,
for the deposing of a rightful king. (5.1.37-50)

That’s a lot of wallowing, Richard, but damn, your mud sounds as soft as velvet.

***

In his Poetics, Aristotle presents catharsis as a metaphor for our experience of theater, especially tragedy, which arouses – and subsequently purges – our pity and fear. Yes, we experience catharsis in the tragic demise of Richard II after his egregious abuse of power. But, as he imagines his wife telling the “sad stories of the death of kings” (3.2.152), we experience a second catharsis as Richard induces his own catharsis. Call it a “metacatharsis.”  (Permission to punch me in the nose).

For me, this is Shakespeare’s genius: Four hundred years ago, casting his light into the shadowy recesses of the human psyche and condition, he understood why our favorite songs are the sad ones, why we need rainy day , or why imagine our own funerals from time to time. In the theater of the human mind, we like to perform – we need to perform –our own catharsis.

Drink plenty of fluids: Antony and Cleopatra

I can hear my wife asking, “Honey, would you botch your suicide for me?” Well, I’d definitely get a fever.

I felt like the Queen of the Nile.

Recumbent on our peacock-green couch, propped up by our zebra-striped pillows, cooled by the rotating arcs of the floor fan, entertained by the Twitter feed on my laptop, and feted with snacks, I let myself enjoy Super Bowl 50.

That is, once I finally stopped fighting it, the decadent un-productivity of being sick.

I grabbed the roll of toilet paper, ripped off some squares, and honked some green stuff out of my red, chapped nose. I looked over to my wife, who was finishing up some additional items in the kitchen, and smiled. “Do you want Pear, Mango, or Guava?” she asked, referring to some special juices she bought me. “If you’re feeling a better in a little bit, you could even sip some beer.”

The opulence, the luxury!

***

I ended up reading most of The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra in one day, once my head cleared out enough for me to fix my eyes on early modern English.

I had been laid up over the weekend with a sinus infection, the first time I’ve been sick in over two years. I wasn’t sick sick, but enough to be out of commission for a few days. The last thing I felt like doing was cracking open some Shakespeare, though I repeatedly attempted it in foolish denial of my achey limbs and sore throat. Eventually, I gave in and binged decongestants, herbal tea, and a whole lot of Breaking Bad.

I have a hard time being sick. It’s not the discomfort or pain. It’s the idleness. I don’t know how Antony and Cleopatra did it.

***

“The beds in i’th’ East are soft,” as Antony says in Antony and Cleopatra (2.6.50). Antony’s remark, of course, is a sexually charged one, if you’re familiar with the play, as is much of the figuration of Egypt and Cleopatra in the play. Standing in stark contrast is staid, austere Rome, Octavius its designated driver.

Nothing says “Valentine’s Day” like a double suicide.

I’m surprised the play didn’t knock the snot right out of me. It sledgehammers you with binaries. East. West. Egypt. Rome. Woman. Man. Vice. Virtue. Erotic. Stoic. Passion. Responsibility.  Private. Public. Whack. Whack. Whack. Whack.  And the romance between Antony, triumvir ruling over the Eastern part of the Roman empire, and Cleopatra, the powerful and voluptuous Queen of Egypt, swings manically from pole to pole.

OK, I’ll try to make this summary quick. It’s after Julius Caesar’s assassination. Rome is ruled by a triumvirate: Lepidus, Octavius, and Antony. (We met the latter two in Julius Caesar). Lepidus governs Mediterranean Africa, Octavius Europe, and Antony Asia. Antony has been luxuriating with Cleopatra in Alexandria, Egypt, much to the chagrin of his counterparts and to the neglect of his duties. He is called back to Rome after his wife, Fulvia, who previously and futilely rose up against Octavius, dies, and because Sextus Pompey is threatening their rule. Cleopatra is not happy about him leaving. Back in Rome, Antony makes good with Caesar with a political marriage to his sister, Octavia. Cleopatra gets word. She is not happy about this. The triumvirs make a deal with Pompey and go out drinking (though responsible Caesar goes home early). Antony ends up ditching Octavia and returns to Alexandria, where the two put on some godlike ceremonies. Caesar and Lepidus end up breaking the truce with Pompey. Caesar turns on Lepidus – and Antony. It’s civil war. Antony shamefully loses the Battle of Actium when he ditches his fleet after following Cleopatra, who flees the scene abruptly and for seemingly no reason. Antony loses the next battle and takes it out on Cleopatra. She pretends to kill herself out of grief to re-win his affections. Hearing the news, he botches his own suicide but soon dies after he is presented to Cleopatra. Rather than be trophied in defeat in Rome, Cleopatra smuggles some asps in a fig basket and dies from “all the joy of the worm” (5.2.253). Racy.

Antony and Cleopatra is no doubt epic, dynamic, histrionic. You should read it – nothing says “Valentine’s Day” like a double suicide.

the_death_of_cleopatra_arthur
The Death of Cleopatra by Reginald Arthur, 1892. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

***

During the Super Bowl Halftime Show, Beyoncé marched out in formation with her dancers – and over, as I think we were all thankful for, Coldplay. They were decked out as Black Panthers and performed the diva’s new song, “Formation,” a reclamation of her roots, her blackness, her femininity.  An anthemic ownership of her own power, as she closes the song: “Always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper.”

But what really strikes me about the Beyoncé in “Formation” and the Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra is their political power – and the way they intertwine sex and power.

I find compelling parallels between Queen Bey and the Queen of Egypt. Yes, many pop stars and movie stars have consciously styled themselves as Cleopatra over the years. I think many of these performances, though, tend to focus on Queen Cleopatra’s sexual power. But what really strikes me about the Beyoncé in “Formation” and the Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra is their political power – and the way they intertwine sex and power.

Before the events of the play, Cleopatra had already bedded Julius Caesar. In the play, Cleopatra takes her fleet out to the sea in the Battle of Actium. She helps suit up Antony in his armor. She fakes her suicide in an attempt to cool an enraged Antony after he loses the second battle to Octavius. When she learns he wounded himself, she has him lifted up to her own monument for their final, parting kiss. She hides money when the victorious Octavius asks after her accounts. She feigns allegiance to him before, in that most erotic of suicides, the asp bites her breast, else Octavius decorates himself with her in his triumphal parade back in Rome:

…Saucy lictors
Will catch at us like strumpets, and scald rhymers
Ballad us out o’ tune. The quick comedians
Extemporally will stage us, and present
Our Alexandrian revels. Antony
Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I’th posture of a whore. (5.2.210-17)

Yes, she kills herself to be eternally reunited with Antony, but at the same time, I can’t help but think that Cleopatra, the object of so much desire, will be the object of no empire. Throughout the play, Cleopatra indeed wields manly power, even to the point of emasculating the once-heroic Antony. As Octavius comments:

…From Alexandria
This is the news: he fishes, drinks, and wastes
The lamps of night in revel; is not more manlike
Than Cleopatra, nor the queen of Ptolemy
More womanly than he…(1.4.3-7)

Before he stabs himself – actually, before he asks his attendant, the aptly named Eros, to stab him, only to kill himself instead –  Antony cries: “She has robbed me of my sword!” Sword, manhood, eh, eh? And before she brings the phallic asp to her bosom, furthering the Elizabethan metaphor of dying as orgasm, she declares: “…I have nothing / Of woman in me” (5.2.234-5).

Now, in “Formation,” Beyoncé sings:

When he fuck me good I take his ass to Red Lobster, cause I slay
When he fuck me good I take his ass to Red Lobster, cause I slay
If he hit it right, I might take him on a flight on my chopper, cause I slay
Drop him off at the mall, let him buy some J’s, let him shop up, cause I slay
I might get your song played on the radio station, cause I slay
I might get your song played on the radio station, cause I slay
You just might be a black Bill Gates in the making, cause I slay
I just might be a black Bill Gates in the making

The traditional gender identities are reversed. Further complicating it, “slay,” as many cultural critics note, references a now widespread idiom that originated in the African-American gay community for “to succeed.”

What’s more, though, is the water imagery in Antony and Cleopatra and Beyoncé’s “Formation” video that reinforces the gender fluidity the queens are playing with.

Formation screen shot.jpg
Screen shot from a scene in Beyoncé’s “Formation” music video.

In Beyoncé’s video, we see her straddling a police cruiser sinking under the waters of Katrina. She all dances in the bottom of an empty pool. In Antony and Cleopatra, when Cleopatra learns Antony has married Octavia, she cries: “Melt Egypt into Nile, and kindly creatures / Turn all to serpents!” (2.5.78-9). This calls back Antony’s opening declaration of his love for Cleopatra when he is being called back to Rome: “Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch / Of the ranged empire fall” (1.1.35-46).

Beyoncé has hot sauce in her bag…Cleopatra asps in her fig basket? OK, OK. I won’t belabor the comparisons, but I think they’re complex and compelling. As Enobarbus describes Cleopatra: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety” (2.2.240-41). Beyoncé, to be sure, presents us with an equally complex figuration of femininity in “Formation.”

***

These resonances – historic, cultural, feminine, black – are meaningful and very worthwhile. I connected with Antony and Cleopatra, though, on a smaller, more personal level. Two scenes, in particular, stick out for me.

The first is when Antony is out drinking with the guys after the triumvirate strikes a truce with Pompey and company. He’s describing Egypt to his dudes:

ANTONY [to CAESAR]. Thus do they, sir: they take the flow o’th’ Nile
By certain scales i’th’ pyramid. They know
By th’ height, the lowness, or the mean, if dearth
Or foison follow. The higher Nilus swells
The more it promises; as it ebbs, the seedsman
Upon the slime and ooze scatters his grain,
And shortly come to harvest.

LEPIDUS. You have strange serpents there?

ANTONY. Ay, Lepidus.

LEPIDUS. Your serpent of Egypt is bred now of your mud by the operation of your son; so is your crocodile.

ANTONY. They are so. (2.7.16-27)

As always, there’s always much more under the surface of Shakespeare’s words, but as these most powerful of men party, it’s fun to imagine Antony sort of bragging about Egypt to his boys. Maybe even touting Alexandria as a way to try to justify to himself his problematic relationship with Cleopatra – his “lascivious wassails” (1.5.56) – that in no small part causes the whole mess of the play.

Meanwhile, Cleopatra asks her attendants to get a look at Octavia:

Go to the fellow, good Alexas, bid him
Report the feature of Octavia: her years,
Her inclination; let him not leave out
The colour of her hair–let him not, Charmian (2.6.112-16)
For all her power, she’s still insecure, still jealous.

Celebrities–they’re just like us!

And oh yeah, this is outrageous. One of Octavius’ men, Decretas, presents Antony’s sword to him:

…This is his sword.
I robbed his wound of it. Behold it stained
With most noble blood. (5.1.24-26).

But seriously, despite the epic scale of Antony and Cleopatra, despite the dizzying heights of their passion, Shakespeare still gives us some intimate glimpses into their private lives.

***

And this is where I, personally, register romance: on this smaller, more intimate plane.

Yes, for all of the themes of empire, politics, sex, power, and gender that attract my academic proclivities, I must remember one can still Antony and Cleopatra for its legendary romance. I can hear my wife asking, “Honey, would you botch your suicide for me?” Well, I’d definitely get a fever.

Being sick is rotten, no doubt, especially when you’re really sick. But when you’re, you know, moderately sick – feeling lousy enough to take a day off from work but not so ill you can’t watch an excessive, truly excessive amount of Netflix – it’s nice to be taken care of.

Gender roles are fluid in our abode. My wife’s the breadwinner. I tend to most of the chores: laundry, cleaning, grocery shopping, cooking. And I have a hard time relaxing, partially due to my own existential neuroses and partially to America’s own workaholic pathologies. I need to be reading something, writing something, creating something, cleaning something or else I feel I’m squandering the 80 good years we have here on earth.

So, when I am under the weather, it’s nice – nay, it’s lavish – to be tenderly ministered to: soup, Super Bowl, and my wife’s permission, nay, order, to do absolutely nothing. Let Rome in Tiber melt!