Richard III was a horrible man, but he does have a thing or two to teach us about our struggles with body image.
They called Richard III “crookback.” But if I were an evil, Shakespearean villain, I think they’d call me “pointy nipples.” Case in, er, point:
The other day, I greeted my wife when she got home from work. She took one quick look at me and laughed.
“What?” I asked.
“Your shirt! Just – take a look in the mirror.”
I presented my plain, purple T-shirt to the bathroom mirror. It presented back three white spots about the size of silver dollars: one over each of my nipples, the third over my belly button.
“It’s the shirt!” I defended from the bathroom with all the whininess of a post-pool George Costanza. “The color’s fading!”
“No, I can actually see your right nipple. It’s sticking out through the shirt,” my wife fact-checked. “It’s so not the shirt. It’s this.” She imitated this, well, behavior of mine. One hand rubbed the ball of her thumb over her chest, the other a few her fingers over her stomach. ““Oh my God, I hope you’re not wearing it in public.”
“It’s one of those cheap Mossimo shirts I got from Target,” I insisted as I ran up the stairs to the bedroom. I closed the door, took off the shirt, and confronted it. Face-to-face. The three, white, threadbare circles stared back at me like some cruel, mocking emoji. Is this why the barista was giving me a funny look at the café the other day?
I had never ruined a shirt before with this nervous, self-conscious touching of my chest and stomach, but I can’t say I’m all that surprised. I’ve been waging war against my torso – my nipples being key targets – since I was a chubby preteen. See, I’ve always felt that – God, I can’t believe I’m sharing this – that I looked thinner when my nipples were hard. In my twisted thinking, harder means smaller, smaller means skinnier, and skinnier means better.
But I think we all have these tics in one shape or another. Hell, even old crookback Richard III – Shakespeare’s most villainous of villains – could relate to these neuroses of body image.
It’s not the jealousy that pushes you over. It’s the obsession.
Today I can laugh about it. She ended up dumping him and came out as a lesbian, I learned through the grapevine years later. And when asked to explain that semester out of school, I usually just leave it as a “personal matter,” as if it was an illness. I suppose it was, in a way.
I don’t talk to either of them now, though from time to time, late-night whiskey steers me towards Facebook. He’s helping launch a craft brewery. She’s married and has a child with her partner. I’m happy for them. Really. And I actually can’t say it took me a long time to get there. Once I was over it, of course.
In our third session, my therapist recommended Prozac. She didn’t think I was depressed: She thought I was obsessive. I can’t disagree. But at the time, I didn’t like how high the dosage was. Apparently obsessive behaviors warrant more milligrams than depression. At the time, like so many individuals at their breaking points, I didn’t want to rely on any medication. I wanted to restore equilibrium from within, by my own wherewithal. Fortunately, that session, that recommendation, triggered in me for the first time anger, then indifference. Then I moved on.
Othello articulates a very particular psychological state. The state between ignorance and certainty, between the not-knowing and knowing: the not-not-knowing, where obsession oozes from the darker recesses of the mind and takes over the whole body, like food poisoning. Where obsession becomes possession.
Fortunately, I didn’t kill anybody. Unlike Othello. But I did pull out of college after thinking about jumping onto US 29 from K Street by the Washington Circle the very night I drove back from summer break to start my second year of college.
Jealousy, that “green-eyed monster,” is just the trigger (3.3.170). The rapid descent is thanks to obsession. To the over and over and over, thoughts always hissing in your ear like Iago, slithering, compulsive, ubiquitous, until the merest suggestion, “trifles light as air,” pushes the boulder of sanity over the precipice (3.3.326).
In The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice, Iago, through Janus-faced cunning, racial and religious resentment, and envy-mongering, drives Othello, the Venetian general, to kill his wife, Desdemona, and ultimately himself, by convincing Othello his lieutenant, Cassio, is having an affair with her. Why? The text says devilishly little on the motive for Iago’s all-consuming hatred: He begrudges Othello for promoting Cassio, not him, to his lieutenancy and believes rumors that Othello slept with his wife, Emilia. Here’s Iago’s insidious craft at work:
IAGO Will you think so?
OTHELLO Think so, Iago?
IAGO What, to kiss in private?
OTHELLO An unauthorized kiss.
IAGO Or to be naked with her friend in bed
An hour or more, not meaning any harm?
OTHELLO Naked in bed, Iago, and not mean harm?
It is hypocrisy against the devil.
They that mean virtuously and yet do so,
The devil their virtue tempts, and they tempt heaven.
IAGO If they do nothing, ’tis a venial slip.
But if I give my wife a handkerchief – (4.1.1-10)
The handkerchief Iago refers to is the love token Othello gave to Desdemona, and which Iago manages to manipulate as ‘evidence’ of her infidelity: “Trifles light as air,” as Iago famously observes, “Are to the jealous confirmations strong / As proofs of holy writ” (3.3.326-28).
I’ve mentioned before that I’ve memorized pathetically few lines of Shakespeare. This is one of them.
Iago is an evil genius who anticipated and mastered so much of psychology du jour: the powers of suggestion and visualization. He sprinkles questions and sows doubt. He paints a torturously vivid mental picture of Desdemona lying naked in bed with his lieutenant. Othello does the rest himself. At first it niggles. Then it rankles. Finally, it metastasizes.
He works himself into a trance as he plays over – and over and over and over – the thought, the possibility, the fleshy image of Desdemona having sex with Cassio.
As for me? I worked myself into panic attacks.
At some point, she’d started talking to her ex-boyfriend again. They had had a long, complicated relationship. We used to talk about that relationship after shifts at a Ruby Tuesday, where we both worked a few years before we ran into each other at a Barnes & Noble when I was back home from college during winter break. We’d chain-smoke in her silver Pontiac Grand Am. She’d always put Ani DiFranco or Pearl Jam on very low as I talked her through the turbulence. She’d always manage to keep that car smelling nice in spite of the smoke, too.
After that chance encounter at the bookstore, we fell into a long-term relationship between Cincinnati and D.C. At first it was intense and passionate, but just a half-year in, she started pulling away.
But in his pacing, breathing, sweating, head-clutching, gripped by the over and over and over by the slightest and lightest whisper of his wife’s adultery, I felt once again that loop, that broken record, that inexorable thought-cycle, that over and over and over overtake me.
Maybe there was nothing going on between them. She said there was nothing going on between them. But the evidence pointed otherwise. I saw the log on her cordless phone. Calls to Florida, where the ex lived. I learned from a friend that they met up when he was back in their hometown in Kentucky while she was herself visiting. This led me to check her mobile when she was in the shower. There were lots of calls. Long calls. Perhaps they were processing us as she and I once processed them. She insisted otherwise. I persisted anyways.
The ex dropped out of the picture, but maybe I drove her to spend more time with my best friend. We were writing music over that summer break when was I back home from school, even playing a few gigs here and there. I was semi-moved in to her place, which happened to be just down the road from my mother’s house at the time.
He was always around. They started smoking a lot of pot together.
One night, they encouraged me to grab my guitar down from my mother’s house. It felt like a strange request. They were sitting close and he was making her laugh. Reluctantly, I raced down and fetched my guitar. The dusk light illuminated their goofy half-smiles when I returned. They were seated just a bit more awkwardly.
I’d ring her after work. She’d already be hanging out with him at a mutual friend’s. I’s fell off from I love you’s. We were over in all but name. All but my acceptance, perhaps. But for some reason, I’d still tag along with them. One night, the three of us went out salsa dancing. She was a dance instructor studying to become a message therapist. I was terrible on the floor. So was my friend. But his clumsy maneuvers made her laugh. Desperately I’d insert myself, beats behind the sultry pulse. I’d get in a step or two and another partner had the dance.
“I had been happy if the general camp, / Pioneers and all, had tasted her sweet body, / So I had nothing known,” Othello remarks after he’s fallen for Iago’s plot. “O, now for ever / Farewell the tranquil mind, farewell content, Farewell the plumed troops and the big wars / That makes ambition virtue!” (3.3.350-55). He continues, curiously, bidding farewell to his military career, as if emasculated or, in the politics of the tragedy, stripped of the identity that gives him place as a black Moor in a white, Christian Venice. Grabbing Iago by the throat, he demands, “Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore” (3.3.364).
I think Othello begins to articulate to a very particular psychological state here. The state between ignorance and certainty, between the not-knowing and knowing: the not-not-knowing, where obsession oozes from the darker recesses of the mind and takes over the whole body, like food poisoning. Where obsession becomes possession.
One sleepless night, every 15 minutes or so I’d go outside and light a cigarette. Stepping into the middle of the empty street, into the jaundiced glow of the streetlights, I looked all the way down Ivanhoe Avenue. It was after two in the morning and her car still wasn’t parked in its usual spot. Eventually, I wore myself out. Or ran out of cigarettes. Whichever came first. First thing when I got up, the ritual punctuated by a few, thin hours of sleep, I went right outside. Still no sign of that goddamn Grand Am at the end of the street.
I wasn’t able to breath. Why were they there? Why was I there?
Another night, her car was there in the early evening and I obsessively checked to make sure it stayed there. During one round, I noticed his car, that old baby-blue Corolla hatchback, parked opposite. I learned my lesson: I bought a two-for-one Camel Lights special at the corner UDF. Then I drank the rest of my stepfather’s Heineken and my mother’s cheap chardonnay, listening to the Postal Service’s Give Up on repeat. My iPod’s white display pierced the humid and still late-summer dark. The buzz of the streetlights and cicadas droned. A police cruiser swept the blocks like an occasional, sticky breeze.
I had to walk down. I shouldn’t walk down. I needed to walk down. I knew it wasn’t going to make me feel any better if I walked down. But how could I not walk down? I won’t be able to stop thinking about until I walked down.
I walked down.
I stood under her window. Through the vinyl blinds the blue light of a TV flickered. They must have fallen asleep on her couch. She used to like to snuggle into my lap, her back nestling in between my legs, head on my chest, her two cocker spaniels at her feet. I imagined them sleeping there like that, as we had once.
His car was still there come morning.
On yet another, I chanced to look out the window when her car drove by around 11pm. We had spoken just a half-hour before. I was surprised she had answered. It was probably a tactical appeasement. It must be exhausting, I imagine, to silence call after call. It was exhausting, too, to hit redial on that old Nokia, hearing her Kentucky drawl in her voicemail each time: “Hi, you’ve reached…” She said she was staying in. As her car passed, her brake lights burned like taunting flares.
I had a hunch. I got into my car, chain-smoked my way over to another friend’s whose parents were away from the summer. They had a big house, a fancy house, with a hot tub. I pulled up, cautiously. Slicing through the dark, my headlights found the silver of her car parked behind the blue of his.
I lit a cigarette but I wasn’t able to breath. Why were they there? Why was I there?
“Where is this rash and most unfortunate man?” demands Lodovico, relative of Desdemona’s father, Brabanzio, after Othello has killed Desdemona.
“That’s he that was Othello. Here I am,” Othello, the Other now self-othered, answers, as if literally beside himself, as if possessed, physically taken over and kicked out by his jealous obsession (5.2.289-90).
Othello is a psychological play and a political play. The performance I saw – yes, I’ve managed to see a second play, folks – at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin played to these dimensions. The small stage and sparse production was close, intimate, as if squeezing us into Iago’s twisted mind, Othello’s tormented psyche. The theater also produced the play as part of the centenary commemoration of Ireland’s independence from Great Britain in 1916. While I found mapping Ireland’s revolution onto Othello problematic, this framing also focused the role race, religion, and national identity plays in Othello’s destruction – and helps explain his suggestibility, aware of his vulnerability as a cultural outsider.
But above all, the Abbey production powerfully emphasized the physicality of Othello, the physicality of jealousy and obsession. I was seated on the stage and could see Iago spit as he hissed, Desdemona’s face pale and wrinkle as her marriage inexplicably collapses, and Othello, drenched in sweat, convulse and twitch with obsession, eaten by his jealousy.
There are some serious differences, of course. My friend was no Iago and girlfriend no Desdemona. I, no Othello. (I did reprogram their names as “Brutus the Backstabber” and “Medea the Murderer” in my phone, though.) But in his pacing, breathing, sweating, head-clutching, gripped by the over and over and over by the slightest and lightest whisper of his wife’s adultery, I felt once again that loop, that broken record, that inexorable thought-cycle, that over and over and over overtake me when I called a friend back home after I made it to DC.
“What are you up to, man?”
“Just chillin’ with a few people.”
“Nice. Is, uh, who are you hanging out with? What’s going on?” I tried casually. He said our mutual friend – the Backstabber – was over.
“Cool. Yeah. Alright, is uh–”
“–Yeah, she’s over here, man. He invited over. I know. It’s complicated. But we’re just playing some Mario Kart.”
I thought about them rolling some joints, cracking some beers. I could hear the next album the friend, the one I called, put on. I could see the solid red and green Nintendo 64 controllers being passed around. Brutus would tease her for losing every race. Medea would laugh. Those goofy smiles would hang on their faces. Trifles, really.
I suppose my ache wasn’t over any betrayal. It was over feeling replaced, substituted, pass around, pass over. I think that’s went sent Othello over. I think that’s what sent me over that night, too.
The stage directions alone in this play are shockingly violent. But the real horror may be in what’s not staged.
The late afternoon sun washed the Italian cypresses and eucalyptus trees in gold. A light wind made a lazy melody in the chimes. From a neighboring yard somewhere over the rolling, low-desert hills, a horse occasionally neighed. Except for the dogs, twitching their ears at far-off stirrings in their half-asleep sunning, no one else was home. I topped off my glass of a big red from a local vineyard. My in-laws’ Southern Californian porch was a perfectly peaceful place for “Human sacrifice. Gang rape. Ritual butchery. Mother-son cannibalism,” as my Norton Shakespeare introduces it.
The Most Lamentable Tragedy of Titus Andronicus is a most violent play.
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 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.