Completions and communions

I read myself in Shakespeare. I read Shakespeare in me.

Not long after I finished the complete works, I popped into a bookstore. I knew exactly where to find him. He has his own section. He always has his own section.

I strutted straight over. Shakespeare.

Top to bottom, shelf by shelf, I eyed all the Macbeth’s and Much Ado About Nothing’s, all the Romeo and Juliet’s and Richard III’s. I puffed out my chest. I cocked back my chin.

Think your so tough? I said to myself. I read you. I pointed to Hamlet. I read you. I pointed to The Tempest. I read you and you and you. I even read you, singling out a copy of Cymbeline I was surprised, and impressed, to see stocked. Whatcha got on me?    

Wait. I stepped off.

What do you got on me, Shakespeare?

What did I learn? How am I different now? How has the experience changed me?

No, no, I know my writing will never inspire my own section in bookstores and change Western literature as we know it. I don’t mean that. I don’t want that. (But would I turn it down?) I mean: Why not read all of Shakespeare’s works in one year and see what I can learn from it? That’s what I wrote when I started out on Shakespeare Confidential. That was the whole point of this thing.

So? What did I learn? How am I different now? How has the experience changed me?

***

Before I tackle the big to be or not to be’s, though, some Shakespeare superlatives are in order. I think I’m qualified to pass a little judgment at this point. One’s likes and dislikes shift with time and experience, of course, so I’m basing these winners and losers specifically on how I feel at the other end of reading the complete works.

Most underrated play: The three parts of Henry VI. Action-packed. Ensemble cast. Huge set-pieces. Plus intrigue, given new evidence that Christopher Marlowe helped write the plays.

Most overrated play: It’s still a masterpiece, but Romeo and Juliet. Boy, girl, parents, hormones, yadda yadda yadda, double suicide.

Favorite character: This is a tough one. Portia’s intelligence and selflessness amaze me in The Merchant of Venice, as does Helena’s in All’s Well That Ends Well. I feel some sort of spiritual affinity with melancholy Jaques in As You Like It and would love to drink some sack with Falstaff. Not that I want to be friends with them, but there’s so much to Iago, Macbeth, and Lear’s tortured and torturing psyches. But I think Hamlet wins this crown. He’s a remarkable literary creation, for one, and his lines always yield, no matter how many times I revisit them, profound and difficult Truths About The Human Condition. 

That I’m still shaken by the passage over 400 years after Shakespeare wrote it – that’s powerful.

Best comedy: This goes to an underdog, The Comedy of Errors. The twins/mistaken identity plot is at once hilarious and disturbing. 

Best tragedy: King Lear. Once I found my personal connection to the play, I’ve been haunted by the idea of Lear witnessing himself lose his own mind ever since. 

Best history: Henry IV Part I. It’s a time machine back to Merrie England and Shakespeare at his bawdy best, but not without darker undertones.

Best romance: Another underdog, Cymbeline. I know The Tempest is the more canonical choice, but Cymbeline, in all of its odd plots twists, I found more transportive.

Favorite line/passage: An impossible question, but here goes. I certainly linger longest on Shakespeare’s expressions of the fleeting nature of our lives. Lord Hastings in 2 Henry IV: “We are time’s subjects” (1.3.110). Edmund in King Lear: “The wheel is come full circle! I am here” (5.3.173). Hamlet: “That skull had a tongue in it and could sing once” (5.1.70). Prospero in The Tempest: “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep” (4.1.156-58). But the top prize has to go to Macbeth: “It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing” (5.5.25-26). It’s dark, I know, but it’s very dramatic. Its language is vivid, its music forceful, its metaphor appropriately theatrical, and its sense, ultimately, ironic: In spite of its nihilism, the line’s poetry does have meaning. That I’m still shaken by it over 400 years after Shakespeare wrote it – that’s powerful.

Most difficult play to read: Troilus and Cressida. I had a very hard time with the long monologues in this play. Also, the pacing was lagging. Runners-up: The Rape of Lucrece and his first 18 sonnets. *Shudder.*

Most accessible play: Julius Caesar. We know the story. We know its famous lines. It reads quick. It drives its themes home. Bonus: prophesies, dreams, and ghosts. Just after I started Shakespeare Confidential, my father-in-law, who is the first to admit he’s no Shakespeare scholar, asked me to recommend a play when I finished. It’s this one, Tim.

Desert island play: Nobody wants to be stuck inside Hamlet’s head for the rest of their lives. I’m going with Henry IV, as long as I get to bring both parts. There’s so much humanity in this play.

Least favorite play: As much as Love’s Labour’s Lost irks me, Measure for Measure was meh. It just didn’t do all that much for me.

And now for the big one. Drum roll, please.

Favorite play:

Let’s try this again. Drum roll.

Favorite play:

Gah! “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” I’m just not ready.

***

When I think back on all I’ve read, a funny, and frustrating, thing happens: It’s like I can’t remember anything at all. All of Shakespeare becomes one giant blur. I re-thumb through the hundreds of the pages I read. I scroll through every title. And yet I struggle to call up character names, plots, lines. As You Like It bleeds into All’s Well That Ends Well. The histories rewrite themselves. “These violent delights have violent ends” issues from King Lear, not Romeo and Juliet. I forget Pericles even exists until I review the spreadsheet I used to track my progress. Concerned by my amnesia, I even tested myself with a few online quizzes – you know, one of those Think You’re the Ultimate Bardolater? Match the Quote with the Play. 7/8 on one. Not horrible. 20/30 on another. Zwounds. 

Now, I didn’t take on this project to become a Shakespeare encyclopedia, dazzling people with an apt allusion at a dinner party or dispensing a comforting quote upon some trying occasion. Nor did I take it on to become an expert, parsing arcane discrepancies between Quarto and Folio editions or waxing historical on Elizabethan sumptuary codes and the role of the costumed self in Shakespeare’s early comedies. Plus, reading so many plays back to back – the blur is understandable. Still, being able to drop a few verses would be nice.

Are these even Shakespeare’s details? Or are they mine? Maybe they’re ours now. Maybe they belong to both of us.

But what does emerge from the fog are these little trivial details. The dogeared page of a book. Sadness over the death of a deer. Love notes left on trees. A grocery list. Underskinkers and ostlers. A wrestling match. The strawberry pattern of a handkerchief. A king who wished he didn’t have to bring work home. A joke about Welshmen loving cheese. The word butt-shaft. The word welkin. A singular reference to America. The names of taverns and the drinks served there. That executioners got to keep their victims’ clothes. That vision was believed possible because the eyes emitted light. That sighing was thought to draw blood away from the heart and shortened one’s life. 

At first, I can’t place any of these bits and pieces. I can’t remember which play they come from. Am I just imagining them? Did I read them somewhere else? Were they residue from some dream I had? Did I dislodge them from some deep memory?

Are these even Shakespeare’s details? Or are they mine? Maybe they’re ours now. Maybe they belong to both of us. And maybe these little details aren’t so trivial after all.

***

I have learned some lessons. Or rather, one big one, if I’m so brazen to boil Shakespeare’s 38 plays and immeasurable cultural legacy down to a single takeaway:

Our egos cause a lot of problems, sometimes comic, sometimes tragic. Because we want sex, power, and fame. Because we to be right and to be loved. Because we want to matter, because we know we’re going to die. And it takes a hell of a lot of love and humility to override our egos. But we usually fail. People suffer and die, often ourselves. We repent. We reconcile. We go on, cleaning up our messes and telling stories and singing songs about where we’ve been. We promise we won’t repeat our mistakes but the Fools know we can’t really help ourselves.

Scenes end, but the play never does. “All the world’s a stage / And all the men and women mere players,” Jaques famously says in As You Like It.They have their exits and entrances, / And one man in his time plays many parts” (2.7.138-41).

I don’t think my Big Conclusion is terribly profound or original. Nor do I think any of it’s exclusive to the Bard. It’s Story. It’s Humanity. It’s World.

Am I smarter for this? Am I wiser? Did The Taming of the Shrew make me a better husband? Did All’s Well That Ends Well make me a better brother? Did King Lear make me a better son? Did Othello or Henry VIII put past hurts to rest? Did Hamlet ease present anxieties? I don’t know.

After reflecting on my past year play by play, Shakespeare has become a habit, a reflex, a coping mechanism, a meditation practice, a frame of reference.

But I do feel heavier, fuller. My 2016 was a busy one, from moving into a new profession to moving to another country to moving into new places in my relationships, every change filtered through, processed through, Shakespeare. Rocky moments in my marriage are synonymous with The Taming of the Shrew. Feelings of fading friendships are Henry IV Part II. Hamlet is Christmas and New Year’s 2016. King Lear is my grandfather, nearing 100 somewhere in Cleveland on a nursing home bed, trapped in the dark expanse of his own mind.

I carry so much Shakespeare around with me now.

And yet at the same time I feel so much lighter and freer. Arguments and anxieties, inadequacies and insecurities, fears and failures that I lug around, like those cumbersome Norton Shakespeare volumes, no matter where I move to – these I’ve unloaded onto Shakespeare. Twelfth Night and Pericles have to help shoulder my imposter syndrome. Richard III has to deal with my body image issues, Henry VIII my parents’ divorce, Othello that dark D.C. night. Shakespeare shares the burden of my neuroses.

After reflecting on my past year play by play, Shakespeare has become a habit, a reflex, a coping mechanism, a meditation practice, a frame of reference. If I have a rough stretch freelancing and question my purpose, my adequacy: I call up Hamlet. If I have a bad fight with my wife and need some perspective: marital counseling in the Comedies. It’s grounding, it’s comforting that he’s there.

I read myself Shakespeare. I read Shakespeare in me. I wrote myself into Shakespeare. I wrote Shakespeare into me.

***

From his impact on our literature to his infiltration in our everyday language, Shakespeare, of course, has permeated our collective consciousness – and not just what it means to be well-educated, well-read, or well-cultured. Over the past 400 years, his work, both on its own terms and because we so privilege it, has steeped what we think art is, what drama is for, what language can do, what it means to be human.

I feel closer to Shakespeare. Not the playwright, not the entrepreneur, not Shakespeare the cultural institution and larger-than-life-idea we’ve created today. But Shakespeare the person, getting along the best way he knew how: scratching out one little word at a time.

Over this past year, his work also saturated my individual consciousness. My Big Conclusion, in all of its banality, was an education in Story, in World, Humanity. But now I’ve read everything Shakespeare had to say about it. I’ve met all his characters. I’ve visited all his settings. I’ve come along on all his plots. I’ve listened to all his voices, his comments, his puns, his jokes, his expressions of love and suffering. I’ve experienced all of his particular take on Story, World, Humanity – and all of his details swirl and slosh and jostle and jump around in my head, leaving their impressions as they bump into and bounce off my memories, my feelings, my sense of self, my thought patterns, my particular take on Story, Humanity, World.

And so I also feel closer. I don’t think I ‘get’ Shakespeare better. I don’t think I understand his work, his craft, his legacy, his truths more profoundly than anyone else. I’ve just spent so much time with him, really. If I had to call up a single image of this whole experience, it’d be me sitting at my black IKEA desk in the spare room of our house in Dublin, the soft glow of my desktop lamp illuminating the long and Bible-thin pages of a Norton volume, using its weight to keep open my notebook as I jotted down some interesting word, feeling, when it was very quiet and still and late, that I wasn’t alone, as if that word was a direct portal to the same letters Shakespeare inked down on a piece of parchment, lit from the fire in the kitchen of his house in Stratford-Upon-Avon so many years ago.

“May way is to conjure you,” says Rosalind in the epilogue in As You Like It (l. 9).

This communion makes me feel closer to Shakespeare. Not the playwright, not the entrepreneur, not Shakespeare the cultural institution and larger-than-life-idea we’ve created today. But Shakespeare the person, getting along the best way he knew how: scratching out one little word at a time.

Thirty-eight plays, some odd poems, and 365 days later (well, 361), I’ve read the complete works of William Shakespeare, but I don’t yet feel complete. I think I might reread As You Like It sometime soon.  That one’s my favorite play. At least this time through.

The Enchanted Pen: The Reign of King Edward III

Magic, love, poetry…and being freakin’ done.

I stood up, fist-pumped a triumphant “Yes,” and collapsed onto the floor into giddy carpet-angels.

At 2:59pm on January 5, 2017, I did it. I read the word “queen” and was finished with the complete works of William Shakespeare, 146,344 days after he died.

Every last play. Every last line. Every last word. Every last iamb. Every last roguish, rascally, knavish, villainous fragment he may have in some way, shape, or form penned.

Whither hast thou been? There. What hast thou done? That.

I even read random little love poems that sound like something I once wrote about a schoolyard crush: “I did walk, I did talk / With my love, with my dove” (A Song, 4.34-35). No, the great Shakespeare was not above rhyming love and dove.

That’s thirty-nine plays, ya hear? Over 880,000 words. A whole lotta thee’s and anon’s, methinks. What? Didn’t copy? Thirty. Nine. Plays. In one year. No. In 361 days. I finished five days ahead of schedule, having launched Shakespeare Confidential on January 10, 2016.

I sprung up. There was work to be done. I had to tell Facebook. I had to tell Twitter.

I read the word “queen” and was finished with the complete works of William Shakespeare, 146,344 days after he died.

Likes and congrats starting pouring in my feed when it panged me like a slipped disc in my back. I technically said I would read the complete works of William Shakespeare in 2016, the year marking the four hundredth anniversary of his death, didn’t I?

This hadn’t dawned on me when I finished Hamlet in the wee hours of January 3rd. I took a seat. I took a few deep breaths. I called my wife for a second opinion.

We agreed: The letter of the law would be finishing the project before 11:59:59 on December 31, 2016, but its spirit was reading all of Shakespeare over one year’s time.

“And I did that. That’s what I did. Yeah, that’s right.” At this point I was just assuaging my own Hamletian doubts.

“Plus, the rough edges make for a more interesting story, right?”

***

I nearly bailed on my final play, The Reign of Edward III, which had been included in the Norton Shakespeare some years after I shelled out (well, my father’s credit card shelled out) over a hundred bucks for some used copies of the first edition in the Xavier University bookstore. That turned out to be a pretty good investment, come to think of it.

I couldn’t find a physical copy of the play anywhere back in the states, when I needed to finish over the Christmas holiday. I hunted for it in libraries and bookstores. A California Barnes and Noble said they could ship in a copy. For $99. That wasn’t going to happen. My brother’s local library had an edition of a Complete Works with Edward III (not bad, Bexley, OH, not bad at all). But I didn’t discover this until the day before my stay there ended.

I started making excuses. Actually, I started making a formal list of objections:

  1. Most anthologies don’t include it. There have long been questions about what parts Shakespeare may have written.
  2. Few people actually read the play. It’s not considered a particularly good play.
  3. I’d have to read it online:
    • Elizabethan English is terribly difficult to wade through on a screen.
    • The available text was short on glosses and footnotes. That means even more language and historical context I would miss reading a digital copy.
    • The online edition would be inconsistent with other texts I’ve read.
    • I couldn’t underline notable passages and circle interesting words.
  4. I really wanted to finish Shakespeare Confidential on Hamlet, Shakespeare’s most Shakespearean play.

Aroint ye, excuses! The counterarguments:

  1. More and more anthologies are including Edward III, as forensic and corpus linguistics have recently identified hallmark signs of Shakespeare’s idiolect. 
  2. Few people may do so, but people actually read it.
  3. Reading online is tough, but it was available with just a few simple keystrokes:
    • I’ve read 38 other plays at this point. I’ve got some practice working my way through the language.
    • Again, I’ve read 38 other plays at this point. I can handle raw text.
    • For Much Ado About Nothing, I did read the Folger edition, after all.
    • Even when I marked up compelling parts, I still coped their line numbers down in a notebook.
  4. I really wanted to read all of Shakespeare in one year.

I really wanted that last one, item #4. 

“I’ll be disappearing in the basement for awhile,” I informed my stepmother while loading up on fresh coffee and water upstairs.

“Happy reading,” she wished.

“We’ll see about that.”

I cued up the play on Shakespeare’s Words, from celebrated Shakespeareans David and Ben Crystal, and strapped myself in.

***

A funny thing happened. I ended up finishing the play in a just few short hours, my fastest all year. Maybe I really had learned a thing or two on may way to Shakespeare completism. Maybe I was less encumbered by shuttling back and forth between footnotes and text, between glosses and my notebooks. Or maybe I was just ready to be done already.

“For so such moving hath a Poet’s pen: Then, if thou be a Poet, move thou so.”

But another funny thing happened. I can barely remember a damned thing about it other than that the English and French are fighting and the English win. This is pretty much a safe assumption for any of Shakespeare’s history plays. And this, as Wikipedia has since kindly reminded me, is pretty much an accurate outline of the play.

I remembered that, and a passage where Edward III asks his secretary, Lodowick, to write some poetry for a new love interest:

Now, Lod’wick, invocate some golden Muse,
To bring thee hither an enchanted pen,
That may for sighs set down true sighs indeed,
Talking of grief, to make thee ready groan;
And when thou writ’st of tears, encouch the word
Before and after with such sweet laments,
That it may raise drops in a Tartar’s eye,
And make a flint-heart Scythian pitiful;
For so much moving hath a Poet’s pen:
Then, if thou be a Poet, move thou so,
And be enriched by thy sovereign’s love.
For, if the touch of sweet concordant strings
Could force attendance in the ears of hell,
How much more shall the strains of poets’ wit
Beguile and ravish soft and humane minds! (2.1.65-79)

This passage, perhaps, is as close as we get to a statement of poetics from Shakespeare. Of what he may have thought poetry is and can do. Of he thought art is for.

For Shakespeare, poetry’s like magic and love: It seduces and enchants us, as the renowned Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate argued at that lecture I attended in Oxford back in April 2016. Poetry conjures up powerful images in our mind – which were called fantasies in Shakespeare’s day. And these images have power over us. Like Theseus’ potions in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Prospero’s spells in The Tempest. They make us think differently. They make us act differently.

Like magic, like love, poetry changes us. Poetry transforms us. For so such moving hath a Poet’s pen: / Then, if thou be a Poet, move thou so. O, thou wert a poet, Shakespeare.

Hamlet be damned: I can think of no better way to close out my year of reading the complete works of Shakespeare…and there I was, trying to skip out on Edward III. Fie!

Flourish. [Exit]

Goddamnit, Shakespeare: Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece

He’s good even when he’s not.

“Do you ever get sick of Shakespeare?” my sister-in-law asked me.

It was late morning, an unusually rainy day. I was sitting in a reclining chair, Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis open on my lap, and I was making absolutely no progress in the poem. If only I could read like I drank coffee: No cream, no sugar, all day long, with lots of trips to the bathroom.

People were putting together their breakfasts in the kitchen, planning out activities and to-dos for the day, mapping out who would use the cars when, dogs barking out the window at passers-by, chickens squawking in the coop out back, a FaceBook video blaring on an iPhone, a call for “Who wants another cup of coffee?” (“I do.”) We were all back home at Christmas headquarters, my in-laws in Southern California. It wasn’t an ideal environment for a focused reading of Shakespeare, to be sure, but it wasn’t like I was making a dent in the poem. And this morning, my efforts were particularly half-assed.

“I wouldn’t say I get sick of Shakespeare, but I would say I get mad at him.”

Sick? I wouldn’t say I get sick of him.” I explained to her how starting a new play was like jumping into cold water. You hesitate, fearing the initial shock of the icy immersion, the work you have to do warm up, but you soon acclimate to the temperature and love splashing around.

Then I looked down to Venus and Adonis.

I had been trying to wrap up Shakespeare’s other, non-Sonnets poems – including this one, The Rape of Lucrece, and a handful of other random little ditties – for a few days now. These felt like a long hike in the dessert.

“But I would say I get mad at him.”

Goddamnit, Shakespeare, I moaned to myself, my eyes glazing over at the fourth stanza into some extended metaphor about Adonis’ sexbod. Venus and Adonis is a narrative poem, 1194 lines long, about Venus, Roman goddess of love, falling in love with Adonis, a beautiful young man. Venus wants to jump Adonis’ bones, but Adonis is only interested in hunting. He does, the next day, but is killed by a boar. Venus is devastated, which is why, in the logic of myth, love is now so complicated. As she concludes:

Since thou art dead, lo, here I prophesy
Sorrow on love hereafter shall attend,
It shall be waited on with jealousy,
Find sweet beginning, but unsavoury end.
Ne’er settled equally, but high or low,
That all love’s pleasure shall not match his woe. (1135-40)

She goes in, in poignant lines about how love hurts: “It shall be fickle, false, and full of fraud” (1141). But goddamnit, Shakespeare, why did you have to make us wait for over 1000  never-freaking-ending lines for this?

It’s funny. Venus and Adonis was the first work Shakespeare published, and, arguably, his most popular. (Plays, back then, were owned by the theater, so the publication process, as well as the concept of authorship, was a different animal.) But now, with only Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Edward III standing in the way of my completist goal, Venus and Adonis felt like homework. Like a chore. And I, a recalcitrant schoolboy, having a tantrum about it.

***

I was taking far too much time to read Shakespeare’s “Other Poems.” Sure, there was day-drinking, outings, visits with friends and families, holiday parties, and all sorts of welcome and ready distractions. But I had more than enough time in between to put back these verses. So I snuck out to a Starbucks one under-scheduled afternoon to take on The Rape of Lucrece. This (motherfuckin’ 1855 lined rhyme royal) recounts how the son of the last king of Rome, Tarquin, rapes Lucretia, wife of a fellow soldier. Shamed and dishonored, Lucretia kills herself, leading to Tarquin’s banishment – and the founding of the Roman republic.   

But then here I was, bored to tears about a poem treating the horrifying rape of a woman.

I kept nodding off in the oversized café chair. I’d rub my eyes, try to get my finicky phone on WiFi one more time, and groan, “This is so boring.”

At one point, a group of late-middle-aged and older women gathered around a table nearby my seat. They were sporting Christmas sweaters and passing around Christmas cookies. They chatted – polite, soft-spoken, attentive – about the holidays, their kids and grandkids, movies and TV, and then politics.

I pretended I was reading (not that this required much of a change) and eavesdropped. “I just don’t know what the Access Hollywood video had to do anything. I mean, it doesn’t concern policy or anything.” She was referring to the tapes showing Donald Trump bragging about sexual assault.

I was shocked. How could she – a woman, a mother, a grandmother, a Christian, from what my eavesdropping gathered – shrug off Trump’s “Grab ‘em by the pussy”?

But then here I was, bored to tears about a poem treating the horrifying rape of a woman.

In the Roman psyche, a woman’s rape brought shame to her husband and family. And in the Elizabethan mind, women were seen as weak. “Those proud lords, to blame, / Make weak-made women tenants to their shame” (1259-60). Rape of Lucrece is far from any feminist anthem, at least people got up in arms about Tarquin’s heinous act.

Goddamnit, Shakespeare. You did it again. 

The rest is…definitely not silence

That was a whole lot of Shakespeare.

On January 10, 2016, I set out to read the complete works of William Shakespeare – every last iamb thought to come from his quill – in 2016. I didn’t technically finish before 11:59:59 on December 31, but the spirit of my goal, I trust you’ll agree with my just-off-new-year start date, was to tackle the Bard’s oeuvre in one year. That I did, and with a few days to spare. On January 5, 2017 at 2:59pm, I read the word “queen,” the final word of The Reign of Edward III, which many editors think Shakespeare wrote in part.

I stood up from the couch in the basement guest room of my dad’s house in Cincinnati, fist pumped, and then collapsed on the (delightfully soft) carpet. I felt relieved. I felt proud. I felt excited and freed to read something not-Shakespeare.

Like science fiction. I looked over at a stack of books in my suitcase. On top was Station Eleven (2014) by Emily St. John Mandel, which my stepfather gave it to me. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic world and follows a troupe called the Traveling Symphony, which primarily performs…Shakespeare. I’ll never get away from the Bard. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I’m back in Dublin on Monday, when I’ll be writing up my remaining posts on Henry VIII, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, various poems including Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, and Edward III. I may be finished reading, but I’m not finished writing – and I’m certainly not finished with Shakespeare.

Thanks for following along, and stay posted for much, much more.

Twelfth Night, Or the Five Stages of Trying Not to Sound Like a Douchebag

Is the worst kind of impostor the one who deceives himself?

When I started reading the complete works of Shakespeare this year, I was more eager to write about the plays than read them. Now, almost a year later, a few mere plays and a handful of poems from the end, I am putting off writing to read.

The year is almost over and I am still behind schedule, so, yes, I have some work to do if I am to claim I’ve read all of Shakespeare in 2016. That the end is in sight? Like the final sprint of a race, this certainly picks up my speed.

And while in themselves I wouldn’t say the plays get easier to read, Shakespeare’s landscape has become much more familiar, the terrain easier to negotiate. (It better have, damnit.) I enjoy inhabiting Shakespeare’s world. I look forward to escaping into it, especially in these trying political times. But when I cross back into my own world, I’ve been finding it more and more difficult to write about my experiences in light of Shakespeare.

“I’m stuck. I’m not sure what to say,” I’ll complain to my wife as I make my eighth cup of tea in a robe at 3:30pm on a Sunday. This is a script she’s gotten quite used to. 

“Are you sure you want to be doing this? You always sound like you’re in agony,” she answers. 

When I stare into this question, when I’m brave enough to look hard into its self-exposing eyes, I know my fear is fraud.

Sometimes it takes work to tease out meaningful connections between the Bard and me, particularly without mapping yet another argument with my wife onto whatever play I last finished. Sometimes I have to suppress content, too. I trust, dear reader, you are not interested in my digestive system (very active) and sex life (not as active). And I still want my friends and family to, you know, actually like me after all this.

But I know lurking underneath my writer’s block is the gut-hollowing question I’d rather not confront: Why? I mean, who cares, really, about how Shakespeare relates to my boring life? (I know, I haven’t even gotten to Hamlet yet.) When I stare into this question, when I’m brave enough to look hard into its self-exposing eyes, I know my fear is fraud.

I feel like an impostor. And you know who knows a thing or two about impostors?

***

In Twelfth Night, Or What You Will, Shakespeare goes full meta: The comedy features a young man dressed up as a young woman who dresses up as a young man. Female roles, we’ll recall of Elizabethan theater, were played by adolescent boys, a tension which Shakespeare much milked in his body of work, both for comedic effect and in his obsessive exploration of identity. But in Twelfth Night, Shakespeare especially heightens the tension of imposture.

This is one those plays that’s not quick to sum up, thanks to the Bard’s many twists and turns:

In the play, Orsino, the Duke of Illyria, has fallen in love with a countess, Olivia, who has isolated herself to mourn the death of her brother. Then, a lady, Viola, shipwrecks off the coast of the city, believing her own brother – twin brother, at that – died in the accident. Thanks to Olivia’s withdrawal, the stranded Viola disguises herself as a young page, Cesario, to serve the duke. (She, in classic Shakespeare fashion, both immediately gets the job and falls in love with him). The duke puts Cesario straight to work to help him woo Olivia, but the plan backfires: Olivia falls in love with Cesario, who is really Viola, who is in love with Orsino.  (Oh boy.)

Next, we discover Viola’s twin brother, Sebastian, has actually survived. He ends up crossing paths with Olivia, who think he’s Cesario, and the two instantly agree to marry. (When it comes to love and marriage, Shakespeare’s characters don’t mess around. Badda bing, badda boom.) The ensuing confusion, ultimately, prompts the Big Reveal: The estranged twins reunite, Viola discloses her true identity, Olivia weds Sebastian, and Viola marries Orsino.

But Shakespeare isn’t done. (Of course there’s a parallel B-plot to thicken the theme.) While all the Viola-Olivia-Orsino shenanigans is going on, Sir Toby Belch, Olivia’s relative, his friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Olivia’s waiting-woman, Maria, have been playing pranks on Olivia’s butler, Malvolio. He’s a puritanical party-pooper who scolds Toby and Andrew’s drinking and merriment. The three trick Malvolio into believing Olivia is secretly in love with him, which compels him towards all sorts of comic self-humiliation – including dressing up in some ridiculously gaudy clothes completely uncharacteristic of the austere Malvolio. Yellow stockings and cross garters? For Shakespeare, those are knee-slappers.

***

“And what do you do?” she asked.

Over all the chatter, cheer, and Christmas music at the fancy hotel bar, I tried: “I, uh, I write.” 

“Oh. What do you write about?” She was the sister of the husband to my wife’s colleague. We were all out on the town for a Christmas celebration. 

In my mental script, my interlocutor would grab my tumbler out of my hand, polish it off in one, bold sip, slam the empty glass on the table, and then deliver a much-deserved slap across my smug face.

“Popular language topics. Shakespeare.” I took a big sip of my Negroni, which cost about one-tenth of my last freelance paycheck. I wondered how many words each sip was worth. Forty, forty-five? Then I remembered I didn’t pick up this round. The Campari lingered bitterly on the back of my tongue.

It took me some time to get comfortable saying those words. I had to go through the Five Stages of Telling Someone You’re Trying to Be A Writer (Without Feeling Too Much Like an Epic Douchebag).

First there was denial. I avoided talking about it because I thought it sounded supremely pretentious. I write about Shakespeare, he says as he tips back his hipster-appropriated cocktail in blithe disregard of all the nine-to-fivers, nay, eight-to-sixers, who drag themselves in and out office each day. In my mental script, my interlocutor would grab my tumbler out of my hand, polish it off in one, bold sip, slam the empty glass on the table, and then deliver a much-deserved slap across my smug face.

“O, you are sick of self-love,” Olivia chides Malvolio after he reproves her fool, Feste (1.5.77. Here, of means “with.”)

Then there was anger. I would feel small, like my bank ledger. I would feel illegitimate, not brining in much money. I would feel pathetic, my bylines so limited. I’m writing now, but you know, my last job in the states was as Academic Coordinator for adults with autism. Yeah, I once actually did something that meaningfully contributed to society and helped pay the bills.  I’d work in my master’s degree and teaching credential and allude to my time working in inner-city schools, as if in apology or self-defense.

“I am not that I play,” Viola, as Cesario, cleverly and obliquely remarks during her opening exchanges with Olivia. (1.5.164. For that, read “what.”)

Bargaining came along soon enough. Maybe if I mention that I wrote weekly for a blog on Slate, people will take me seriously. Most people, apparently, haven’t heard of Slate

“How have you made division of yourself? / An apple cleft in two in is not more twin / Than these two creatures,” remarks Antonio, a sailor who befriends Sebastian, when he sees Viola, still disguised as Cesario, next to her brother (5.1.215-217).

Then, I feared whoever I was talking to could see straight through me. Depression. I write, and with those words they can see me: Hunched over my laptop with a yet another cup of instant coffee, wearing a robe over my pajamas because I’m too cheap to turn the heat on while I’m at home by myself during the day, wearing a knit hat because I don’t feel like messing with my hair, getting distracted by Twitter as I make my way from a plot point I didn’t understand to Wikipedia, listening to William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops for the millionth time, picking my nose and passing occasional gas, as my wife rushes out of the house in the rain to catch a train to make a big, fiscal year-end meeting, the front door slamming before I can even answer her “Does this outfit look OK?”, all so that we actually have a roof to sleep under.

“Well, I will be so much a sinner to be a double-dealer,” Orsino says to Feste (5.1.31). 

***

Now, I’ve come to terms with it.

We chatted briefly about Shakespeare himself. And then: “How do you like working from home all day?” my fellow yuletide drinker asked. Working, I noticed. This is a keyword for me. It’s validating. “Do you ever change out of your pajamas? Do you get tempted by the TV? How about naps?” 

There is a normalizing comfort in the mundanity of my workday. There is a self-importance in dwelling on one’s feelings of unimportance.

I finished off my Negroni and went for it:  “I never write in bed and I never turn on the TV. And I always make sure I put on some kind of trousers or joggers. I’m up at 7, I take the dog out for 20 minutes, write for 4 hours. Then I go for a run and walk the dogs – the other is our friend’s I watch while they’re at work. There’s usually an over-long, afternoon shower. I work for three more hours. Go the grocery shop, make dinner, clean up, write for a few more hours, and then go to bed. There’s lots of online dithering, nail-biting, coffee, incessantly checking my email for a response from an editor or a pitch, and tremendous feelings of angst and privilege. But I never write in bed or turn on the TV.”

“I have taken a few midday naps, though,” I added, sucking the remaining gin off the ice. 

Poor lady. She was generous with her ear. But there it was: acceptance.

There is a normalizing comfort in the mundanity of my workday. There is a self-importance in dwelling on one’s feelings of unimportance. I write. I’m self-motivated. I’m disciplined. I actually get paid for some of my work. And damnit, a few people have even said they like the personal connections I make to Shakespeare.

Both Malvolio and Viola pretend to be someone they’re not. But it’s only Malvolio, in his hypocritical and narcissistic sanctimony, who ultimately only deceives himself.

“This fellow is wise enough to play the fool, / And to do that well craves a kind of wit,” Viola observes of the fool, Feste (3.1.53-54).

Home stretches

I think I can, I think I can.

Three plays left. Three, freakin’ plays.

Romeo and Juliet.

Edward III, which Shakespeare is believed to have collaborated on. My edition of The Norton Shakespeare does not include this play, although subsequent editions have. Joy. More reading.

And last but not least, Hamlet.

Then, to cap it off, there’s two (very long) poems: Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Did ya have to write those Shakespeare? I mean, couldn’t you have thought about me, your dear reader, 400 years in the future, scrambling to finish up the arbitrary project of trying to read your complete works in one year?

I’ve got fifteen days to do it. Normally, this wouldn’t be an issue, but I’ll be traveling back to the States for the holidays. There will be distractions. Like booze. Presents. And, oh yeah, family. I do have a few long flights ahead, but reading Shakespeare at 30,000 feet is truly one elite mile-high club, if my stab at the Sonnets were any measure.

So, expect the writing side of things to be a bit quieter over the holiday. I still have much to say on Twelfth Night, Henry VIII, and argh, my nemesis play, Love’s Labour’s Lost, which are already in the reading bag. 

In the meantime, I’ve guest-hosted a wonderful podcast called As We Like It, which discusses  adaptations of Shakespeare on the screen. Not too long back, I chatted with regular hosts Aven and Mark about Chimes at Midnight, Orson Welles’ epic and poignant treatment of Falstaff. And just this week, we had a vibrant conversation on Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 Hamlet. Stayed tuned for the podcast in January – and much more writing to come.

Happy Holidays!

Wine, women, and tray tables: The Sonnets

It’s the little things.

I knocked over my wine, sending droplets on the opening lines of “Sonnet 15”:

When I consider every thing that grows
Holds in perfection but a little moment…

You can say that again. That was like 3 euros of wine.

A little bit splashed on the closing couplet of “Sonnet 14,” too:

Or else of thee this I prognosticate:
Thy end is truth’s and beauty’s doom and date.

Fortunately, I still had some left in the bottle.

Wine, check. I managed to spill very little on my text and none of myself. Shakespeare, check. Shirt and trousers, check. Priorities, people.

Then I checked around my seat. The entire side of the cabin liner below the porthole was purple. Thank God I had a window seat. You’d think Shakespeare’s Sonnets, compact and self-contained as they are, would be a great read for a flight. Wrong.

The couple seated to my left didn’t look up from the movie they were watching on a laptop, but the lady did twitch her nose and brow. I wonder if she was detecting notes of oak and black currant. A flight attendant walked by. I hunched over my tray table to hide my wine curtain and flagged her for a napkin. She signaled she’d be right back. The napkin never came.

Cabin liners, I’m sure, are designed to handle sonnet-induced spills.

I looked back at my seat mates. They were settled in. I looked at the wine, slowly dripping down the liner. The couple looked comfortable. They’d have to pause the film, take out their earbuds, close the laptop, close the tray table, unbuckle their seat belts, get up and out into the aisle, sit back down, wait to resume the movie until I returned from the bathroom, get back up and out and down, put down the tray table, open up the laptop, put their earbuds back in, and remember what was going on when they left off. Every little movement on an airplane sets off a small chain of readjustments. Every jostle a turbulence of inconvenience. Like changing a single word in a sonnet, disrupting the pentameter and toppling the rhyme scheme. 

So I read few more poems, finished my wine, and waited until I actually had to go. Being considerate ends with the bladder.

The bathroom towels wiped up the wine well. Cabin liners, I’m sure, are designed to handle sonnet-induced spills. But it did have an ever-so-faint hue of violet.

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee. (18.13-14)

Shakespeare immortalized the fair youth in his poetry, I on the walls of a Boeing 737.

***

You’d also think the Sonnets would be a romantic read for a weekend getaway with your wife in Barcelona. Not exactly. 

Some “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” over sangria (18.1)? “O know, sweet love, I always write of you, / And you and love are still my argument” floating up with the dreamlike spires of La Sagrada Familia (76.9-10)? Maybe Javier Bardem will even appear at the dinner table and whisking you off into a sultry Spanish night with his voice like a buttery guitar: “Fair, kind, and true have often lived alone, / Which three till now never kept seat in one” (105.13-14).   

Shakespeare’s Sonnets, which he capped with the poem A Lover’s Complaint, are difficult. You can’t just sip on them like a late-day caña or stroll their iambs like the winding corridors of the Gothic Quarter. You need a map for their tangled syntax. You need a translator for their dense metaphors. You have to read all the plaques to appreciate what you’re looking at in them.

Their language is hard. Their meaning is hard. Their repetition is hard (procreate, fair youth, already!). Their conception of love is hard.

Don’t get me wrong: Shakespeare accomplished incredible things with them. There’s the intense homosexual desire of the first 126 sonnets:

But since [nature] pricked thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure. (20.13-14)

There’s moving and deeply human reflections on aging, on death:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sing. (73.1-4)

The pained justification of the youth’s love affairs:

These petty wrongs that liberty commits
When I am sometime absent from they heart… (41.1-2)

The pained view of women:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red. (130.1-2)

Considerations of the nature of poetry, of love, itself:

Yet do thy worst, old time; despite my wrong
My love shall in my verse ever live young (19.13-14).

The beautiful and masterful craft Shakespeare applies to build up such expansive ideas within the tiny, demanding confines of the sonnet form – in spite of any “tongue-tied muse” he alleges (85.1)

But I don’t recommend trying to read them all, all 154 of them, in one go. Rather, savor them.

Like tapas at an unassuming restaurant you discovered with your wife while wandering Barcelona’s narrow old streets, aglow with the laughter and warm lights of a balmy Friday night, when you’re slightly buzzed from the red wine you’re drinking while squeezed in a small table, almost rubbing elbows with a neighboring couple, the clinking of silverware and glasses punctuating the sizzle of cooking and conversation, as you’re forking up a bite of chipirones spritzed with just the right amount of lemon and your wife recites one, memorized long before you ever met her:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no, it is an ever fixèd mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring barque,
Whose worth’s unknown although his height be taken.
Love’s not time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved. (116)