Mothers of self-invention

I had a pulled a Shakespeare: Where was my mother?

I issued the usual complaint to my wife: “I don’t know what to write about.”

Henry VIII was in the books but no inspiration was coming to me. I had come down with a bad case of PPMD: Post-play Moping Disorder. Symptoms include: writer’s block, acute unoriginality, sore purpose, intellectual nausea, and mild gas.

“Your mother,” she said.

“Huh? My mother?”

“You haven’t written about your mother.”

She was right. I had written about my stepmother. I had written about my brothers. About my father and grandfather. About old friends and new friends. I had written on many occasions about my wife (and our many arguments). I had called up grade-school teachers and past girlfriends. I had even dedicated a whole post to my dog.

But my mother? She was nowhere to be found.

I had pulled a Shakespeare.

***

What happened to Queen Lear? In The Tempest, why don’t we hear about Miranda’s mother? Desdemona’s father plays a major part in Othello, but what about her mom? So too with The Taming of the Shrew. We hear about Portia’s father in The Merchant of Venice but not his counterpart. Titus Andronicus has a whole brood of children (25 at one point) but no mention of their mum. Nada, zilch, squat on Prince Hal’s mother from what I recall in Henry IVmaybe that’s why he was acting out. As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, Cymbeline. The list goes on.

In so many of Shakespeare’s plays, mothers are conspicuously absent.

And some of the mothers he does feature aren’t exactly getting a call on Mother’s Day. The un-bereaved Gertrude in Hamlet? The vengeful Tamora in Titus Andronicus? Distant Lady Capulet in Romeo and Juliet? Even Lady Macbeth. When she’s laying into her husband for lacking cojones to kill King Duncan, she suggests she once had a child:

…I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me.
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn
As you have done to this. (1.7.54-59).

When there are strong mothers, they’re often vilified: King Leontes tyrannizes Queen Hermione in A Winter’s Tale and Queen Margaret, whose hard-nosed leadership is viewed as too masculine, is deemed unnatural in Henry VI. Volumnia in Coriolanus, meanwhile, strikes many critics as over-mothering to the point of warmongering.

What gives, Shakespeare? What do you have against moms? People like to joke Shakespeare’s absent wives and queens divorced their husbands long before Act I. Take Prospero, who spent all his time reading magic books, and you can imagine King Lear was pretty controlling. Would you stick around for these two? (I think I should hide these two plays from my own wife.)

But jokes aside, was Shakespeare short on talent? Young boys played female characters on the Elizabethan stage; perhaps they weren’t seen as believable in the role of adult women. Or was Shakespeare just heavy on patriarchy? Wives, sadly, were largely relegated to the private sphere in Shakespeare’s day, thereby removing them from the public action that drives the plots of his plays.

One of his most women-centric plays, case in point, is a domestic comedy: The Merry Wives of Windsor (Mistress Margaret Page has a daughter and a son). But the wives, you may recall, hilariously outwit the lusty Falstaff and have some good clean fun at their husbands’ expense. Perhaps Shakespeare was actually pushing the Renaissance husband-wife/father-mother envelope, even if just a skosh?

***

And what’s my excuse, you ask? I’m putting the question right back on you: Do you think the likes of Lady Macbeth in any way makes me think of my dear mother?! Well, a few glasses of chardonnay in, my mother does like to joke of my birth: “They pulled you from my womb. They pulled you from my body.” That’s kind of Lady Macbeth-level graphic, isn’t it? I can hear one of my brothers bellowing: “Mom, c’mon! That’s gross!”

Maybe Shakespeare didn’t write mothers into his plays because he got along with his mother.

The truth is, I chased Shakespeare’s emotional ambulances. Conflict is my way into his plays. Conflict is essential to any good story, my writing here included. And conflict is something, other than me being occasionally too judgmental of her when we talk on the phone, that my mother and I, fortunately, haven’t experienced much of.

Maybe Shakespeare didn’t write mothers into his plays because he also got along with his mother.

***

Mary Shakespeare, née Arden, came from some money and status. Shakespeare’s father, John, was a farmer’s son. Mary married down. Did she marry for love, for fulfillment? Did she exercise more choice and will than your typical Elizabethan woman?

I also can’t help but wonder how Mary and John reacted when young Bill said he was going into theater. I’m sure you can hear it today, too, when one tells their parents, oh, I don’t know, you’re quitting your job to read the complete works of Shakespeare.

But maybe Mary was supportive. Maybe Shakespeare modeled one of his best mothers, the caring but fair Countess in All’s Well That Ends Well, after his own. The advice she gives to her (ungrateful) son Bertram as he’s going abroad is something every son should heed today:

Be thou blessed, Bertram, and succeed thy father
In manners as in shape. Thy blood and virtue
Contend for empire in thee, and thy goodness
Share with thy birthright. Love all, trust a few,
Do wrong to none. Be able for thine enemy
Rather in power than use, and keep thy friend
Under thy own life’s key. Be checked for silence
But never taxed for speech…(1.1.54-61)

I’ve revisited this passage several times since finishing the play. In part because I find her advice so pure, wise, simple, and true. In part because I find it remarkable Shakespeare left us such lucid moral instruction. And in part because I hear the guidance my own mother has always provided me at crossroads in my life: “Follow your heart.”

***

I’ve often struggled with her words. A lot of times, I didn’t know how to listen to my heart. I didn’t know what it was trying to tell me. Other times, I just wanted someone else to make the big decision for me. And, to be honest, I’ve struggled with them because she’s said them so damned often – you I know I love you, Mom – that they just lost all their meaning. They’re like a truism, a verbal tic.

Following one’s heart: That requires self-invention. And there’s nothing more Shakespearean than that.

But something I never considered until I thought about Shakespeare’s mothers was: Why those words? Why that expression? Why that particular advice? Why did my mother always tell me to follow my heart?

There were times in her life, I think, when she wasn’t allowed to follow her heart, perhaps restricted like a Renaissance mother. Then there came a point when she could. This shift, this freedom, though born of painful circumstance, let her reinvent herself, who she is, what she could be, what could she do.

Following one’s heart: That requires self-invention. And there’s nothing more Shakespearean than that.

My mother pulled a Shakespeare – a proper Shakespeare.

Everything and nothing: Hamlet, Part 3

Maybe we expect too much. Or not enough.

January 4

Words, words, words. (2.2.192)

It was my father’s birthday. From the basement, where the guest suite is, I heard him come home from work. He sounded tired. It sounded like a long day. I heard him answer a FaceTime video with my oldest brother. With his grandson. His voice, his mood lifted.

I gave him a card where I wrote “Happy Birthday” and his age in Irish.

We went out to eat. The ingredients of my salad were separated into eight ramekins. “I guess the cook figured ‘Like father like son,’” the server laughed. I tapped the bottom of my tumbler, shooting the half-melted whiskey-soaked ice into my mouth.

I charged dinner to my card. At first he refused, in due fatherly form. He knew well what I knew about my funds these days. But I insisted, in due filial form.

After dinner, I spent some time at my stepsister’s flat. She had two Rhinegeist Truth in her fridge, goddamnit.

This turned into Scotch at my father’s. Which turned into talking to my stepmother until two in the morning.

Frustrations, faults: They build up like alcohol in the blood. Disappointments, expectations: The words come out like vomit.

Maybe I drink too much. Maybe I expect too much.

***

January 5

The rest is silence. (5.2.300)

“I didn’t hear you come in,” my father said when he walked into the kitchen. He had his glasses on. His hair, slightly disheveled. Sweatshirt, rumpled. He had fallen asleep waiting up for me.

I told him I’d be back an hour, hour-and-half earlier, for a final Scotch my last night in Cincinnati. But I ended up lingering over one last bourbon, or two or three, at a friend’s house. 

My father didn’t need to say it. A son can read his father’s brow like a sailor divines import in the subtle changes of the wind and waves.

“I hear from some back channels that you’re not too happy with my, uh, level of engagement.”

It knocked me back. Not what he said or felt, but that he said it – directly.

***

“By indirections find directions out,” the lord Polonius charges his servant (2.1.65). And this – apart from the actual assassination, of course – is ultimately what’s “rotten in the state of Denmark,” I think (1.4.67). Everyone is testing. Everyone is surveilling.

What does Hamlet really say in the end? Everything and nothing. To be or not to be. Always talking around the great why of it all. Waylaid by the great or of it all.

Polonius sends his lackey out to snoop around on his son, Laertes. Joined by Claudius, he secretly watches Hamlet’s interactions with Ophelia to see if it’s love making Hamlet behave so strangely. Polonius even eavesdrops behind an arras when Hamlet, who stabs him upon discovery, is privately talking with his mother.

Claudius summons Hamlet’s childhood friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet and ferret out the true cause of his “madness.” When Claudius sends Hamlet away to England, the two accompany him, entrusted with a secret letter instructing the English king to kill Hamlet. When this plan fails, because Hamlet finds out the letter and rewrites it to have the pair slain instead, Claudius plots to kill Hamlet with a poisoned sword and cup of wine in a ruse of duel with Laertes.

No one is direct.

And Hamlet’s the worst.

Aside from his sly forgery, he puts on madness to put off the court. He stages a play, which enacts an on-the-nose adulterous regicide, to gauge how it will prick Claudius and Gertrude’s consciences. He overhears Claudius’ private confession. He confronts his mother with pictures of his father and Claudius to guilt her into repentance.

And he talks and talks and talks. What does he really say in the end? Everything and nothing. To be or not to be. Always talking around the great why of it all. Waylaid by the great or of it all. And all this on his mission – his notoriously fitful, plodding, roundabout mission – to avenge his father’s ghost.

What is he waiting for? What does he expect? What he does he want to hear? “I’m sorry”? “I fucked up”? “I failed”? “I let you down”?

What is he waiting for? What does he expect? What he does he want to hear? “I’m sorry”? “I fucked up”? “I failed”? “I let you down”?

Tell that to Ophelia. Revenge isn’t far from self-righteousness. Nihilism, from narcissism. 

Maybe we expect too much of others. Maybe we expect too much of ourselves. Maybe we expect too much of the truth.

Or maybe not enough.

***

These are the conversations a son longs to have with his father. And these are the conversations he is never prepared to have.

My father stood close to me. I could smell the floral notes of detergent on his sweatshirt. He looked in me the eye. I cast my eyes across the room, tapping my fingers inside my coat pocket as I rambled about time and distance and happiness, saying everything and nothing at all.

“You’ve got a little something on your cheek,” he said.

We hugged. He insisted I take a few twenties for gas money for the drive up to Chicago. We said goodnight.

I went for a beer in the fridge but then thought better of it.

Everything and nothing: Hamlet, Part 2

It’s a ghost story, after all.

December 31 – January 1

Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio – a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred my imagination is!…Where be your gibes now, your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? (5.1.171-77).

“How would you normally get there?” my father asked when we left to drop me off at my rental car, which I left by the bar.

“Uhh,” I tapped the window as the directions, like old home-phone numbers and Catholic school prayers, came back to me. “71-South to the Lateral to 75-South. Get off at St. Bernard and take Clifton up.”

The highway curved around hillsides, revealing familiar steeples and factory chimneys under an ashen sky, and new buildings, too. A medical center where the movie theater used to be. A business complex on a long-empty lot. Like a new couch in your parents’ living room, the structures. Changing everything and nothing.

***

I got a coffee from United Dairy Farmers. Displays for local craft beers loudly capped the aisles. But the same smell of malt powder and cake cones hung in the air.

Then I crossed the street and picked up two coneys – “Mustard and onion, please” – and a small 3-way from the nearby Skyline Chili to bring back for my wife. We had wanted to partake of some old favorites, to visit some old stomping grounds, while we were in town, but she came down with a fever and was laid up for several days.

The restaurant had new paint. They were selling t-shirts now. The conies climbed to over two bucks a piece. But the shredded cheese was just as yellow and melty, the windows just as fogged up from the bun steamer.

I lingered past a former apartment I spent years in on my drive back. Past corners of the university campus I walked for work and class. The Vietnamese spot moved across the street.

If the building were speaking to me, I couldn’t hear them. What did I expect them to say? What I want them to say?

Places move on.

***

Later that night, I met up with an old friend – the same who wouldn’t touch Juliet’s boob – for New Year’s. For weeks I had been nagging him about plans when I was in town. There was a need for organization and preparation, I felt, when you’re only back once a year. I could never reach him on FaceTime or email so I resorted to Facebook. I’d detour on pictures of camping trips and group selfies. I’d try to imagine myself in the frame.

It’s so beautiful, and so strange, how we come in and out of each other’s lives, like ghosts.

We went over to his buddy’s house, who was hosting a small get-together. At one point, my friend and I were the only two people on the couch in the living room, both drinking some Cincinnati craft beer, the Dick Clark New Years Rockin’ Eve duly muted in the  background.

“Did my…FaceTime Audio ever go through to you? Sometimes they don’t go through.”

“Uh, maybe a few? I’m not really sure.”

“Ah, yeah. They probably showed up as ‘Unknown.’”

What did I expect him to say? What did I want him to say? People move on.

“You need a beer?” I asked. 

“Yeah. Mine are on the porch.”

I stopped to take in the cool air. The porch overlooked Wasson and Paxton: Railroad tracks I had often walked, a grocery store where I had often shopped. But I had never seen them from this angle before, flattened and seeming so small from this height.

I grabbed my friend a Truth.

Back inside, the host presented me with a tumbler. He wanted me to taste his Midsummer Night’s Dram, of all things. A rye finished in French oak port barrels. I rolled it around my tongue watching Ryan Seacrest and Jenny McCarthy move their lips. I’m John. I go way back with Matt, I replayed my introduction to the host. Oh, I know who you are, he said. I’ve heard a lot of stories about you.

***

Just ahead of the ball-drop, we all crammed Cincinnati craft beers into our pockets and walked down to a local square. A community Facebook page promised a neighborhood party, food trucks, beer stalls, fireworks. But the square was empty except for another group, who also were expecting the event. Someone with us lead the countdown on their phone. We finished a few seconds before the other group, who were following a different countdown, apparently. At the eruption of their Happy New Year!, one of the guys dropped to his knee and proposed to his girlfriend. She said yes. We took their photos. We said our congratulations. Fireworks went off. 

Walking back to the house, I commented to another partygoer how we witnessed this intense and intimate moment for the couple, this defining moment, and yet, in all odds, we’ll never see them again. Further small talk led us to discover we went to the same dentist as kids.

It’s so beautiful, and so strange, how we come in and out of each other’s lives, like ghosts.

***

Not long after midnight, my friend drove me home. He stopped drinking a while back. We were tried. Or bored. Or both. Or…Unspoken words are like ghosts.

I tried not to make too much noise when I ate the Skyline over the kitchen sink in the dark. I thought about the tiny fissure of time between our New Year countdowns. As if it set off two separate new years unfolding in two separate universes.

***

January 2-3, 2017

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in our philosophy. (1.5.168-69)

Sometime around one in the morning, I softly, deliberately, closed Hamlet. I smoothed over the cover and squared the volume with my notebooks and laptop on the dining table. In the soft glow of the reading lamp, over my final sips of tea, I listened. I waited. I didn’t know what for. 

***

I had been finishing the play, Shakespeare’s longest, in snatches stolen here and there at my oldest brother’s house in Columbus, where I stayed for a few days to spend some extra time with my nephew.

“How’s Hammy?” my brother asked me at one such reading.

I laughed. “You know, I had forgotten that he was 30 in the play.”

“Least you could forget it. I’ve never read it. I’m running out to get some beers – no Rhinegeist, Hammy be damned. I’m good on Rhinegeist.”

***

In all his squeals and giggles, in all his tumbles and preverbal clamors, my nephew is raw life, unmediated, unburdened, by the mind knowing itself as a mind. He is decisively, blissfully, un-Hamletian.

It’s hard reading Hamlet with a toddler around, because it’s hard wanting to read Hamlet with a toddler around. Eating, crying, playing, shitting: These are welcome distractions. In all his squeals and giggles, in all his tumbles and preverbal clamors, my nephew is raw life, unmediated, unburdened, by the mind knowing itself as a mind. He is decisively, blissfully, un-Hamletian. And so, too, I find my brother. Feeding, soothing, entertaining and teaching, cleaning: The parent of the toddler is managing the relentless onslaught of life, unconcerned with, unavailable to, the self-indulgent dread of that deeper, darker self-knowledge. There are no expectations. No demands, no disappointments. Just the immediate business of living. 

***

I heard nothing but the house its night noises. Boards creaked. Pipes tapped. Upstairs, my nephew issued a solitary cry in his sleep. I wondered what he was dreaming.

Everything and nothing: Hamlet, Part 1

Tap, tap, tap.

December 28

O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I! (2.2.527)

“I think I’m going to switch back to beer,” I announced, not they cared. My wife, brother, and I were chatting after our Christmas dinner, observed.

In the fridge, there was six-pack after six-pack of Cincinnati craft beer, which had exploded in the year since I had been back home. I went for a Rhinegeist Truth.

“What do you have planned for the rest of the week? Have to go back to work or anything?” I asked my brother, giving the top of my beer a few quick taps.

He was in town from Minneapolis. Our time in Cincinnati this holiday overlapped by about 40 hours. We were 24 hours into it, I calculated.

“Nah, I took the rest of the week off. Gotta pick my dog up from the sitter, clean my place, hit the gym. Nothing planned, really.”

“Oh, that’s too bad you couldn’t have chilled down here for another night or so, seeing that we’re, you know, in from Ireland and–”

“He visited us for a week and half this summer, John,” my wife cut me off. “What else do you expect?”

She deftly switched the subject.

I cracked open the beer. It hissed and fizzed.

***

December 29

O that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God, O God,
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world! (1.2.129-34)

“Do you hear that?” my stepmother asked.

We crossed paths by the stairs on my way out for a run. A few too many of those Truths made it into the recycling bin last night.

“No. What?”

“The tapping.”

I listened closely. Three taps. A long pause. Two taps. Pause. Taps.

“That damned cardinal is back.”

“Cardinal?”

“It’s gotten fixated on its reflection in the stairwell windows. And it’ll just tap and tap and tap all day. The landscaper’s tried everything to scare it way. We even lined the windows with black garbage bags. It went away for a while, but as soon as we took them down, it came right back. The sound will drive you nuts!”

I thought of Hamlet. “Well isn’t that just the perfect metaphor for life?”

She laughed.

Tap, tap, tap.

***

I ran up and down the neighborhoods. On winding, sidewalkless streets, long driveways lead up to big houses that squatted on wide lawns with tall, leafless trees. There was no one else around. The silence was ghostly. It was the middle of the afternoon on the Thursday after Christmas, though. What else did I expect?

***

December 30

To be, or not to be; that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And, by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep–
No more, and by a sleep we say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to – ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep.
To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil
Must give us pause. (3.1.58-70)

“Everything and nothing,” I told my friend at the bar.

We were grabbing a drink at my old haunt. I hadn’t been here in years. There were a lot of new taps there, I noticed. Cincinnati craft beers. But the counter was still sticky. The place still smelled stale and skunky.  Many of the same faces were still smoking out on the patio. One, a tall, quiet guy with a lazy eye I used to smalltalk with over a cigarette every now and again – God, he looked so much older. “You used have long hair, didn’t you?” the bartender asked when I ordered.

My friend and I fell into a conversation about Hamlet. At this point, I was in the middle of my third time through this most famous of Shakespeare’s plays, which takes us inside the self-consciously self-conscious head of the Prince of Denmark as he slowly revenges the murder of his father. The king was poisoned by Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, who immediately marries Hamlet’s mother. Gertrude. I was planning on saving it for my very last play for Shakespeare Confidential, because, well, it’s Hamlet – until I remembered that I still had that pesky The Reign of Edward III.

Hamlet’s just stuck. Stuck between everything and nothing, between the everything and the nothing of it all.

I hadn’t seen this friend, a high school pal, in years. After teaching in Thailand, China, and the Republic of Georgia, he ended up in a Hawaii classroom. He’s brilliant. Definitely one of the two smartest persons I know. The kind of intellect who reads the Elizabethan playwrights other than Shakespeare just for his own self-edification. Who does that? He could so effortlessly quote the Bard in support of whatever incisive argument he was making. I envied this. How the hell do you do that, man? I’d say each time he’d rattle off a choice passage, and not just short, well-known ones, either. Obscure, long, difficult ones. I’m the one reading the complete works of Shakespeare here!

“It’s mortality. Not the fear of death, per se,” I tapped a coaster on the bar. “But trying to…to…reconcile our recognition that our lives are, ultimately, insignificant, on the one hand, with our stubborn and vain insistence on acting, doing, being, meaning in spite of it, on the other. Hamlet’s just stuck. Stuck between everything and nothing, between the everything and the nothing of it all.” Tap, tap. “I think this is the source of all our art, of all our anxiety. I get this. I feel this. ”

He agreed. Not just with my interpretation of Hamlet, which was validating, but with the sentiment. That he, too, felt it.

“And it freakin’ blows my mind how Shakespeare captured it all over 400 years ago. Another Truth, please,” I asked as the bartender.

We bumped into two of my brother’s friends from high school. The four of us played some pool. In between shots, we caught up (they both have several children now) and reminisced (studying aboard in Japan, former guitar-playing glories, etc.). We texted our wives or girlfriends that we were only having one more. I sent a selfie with my brother’s friends. Wish I was there, my brother replied.

Eventually, my friend ordered us an Uber back to my father’s, where he crashed. I intended for us to grab a drink and then get a bite to eat. I wonder what else he had expected.

On the ride back, I couldn’t stop raving that the driver had seat warmers in the back of his Ford sedan.

Past, present, and macaroni salad: Henry VIII 

Why do we make the choices we make?

“We’ve got…,” I said with a suspenseful pause as I pulled tupperware out of the reusable grocery bag, “Monte Cristo sandwiches and macaroni salad.”

“Holy shit. Thanks, man,” my friend said. 

“Thank my stepmom. We had leftovers.”

We sat in his KIA sedan parked at a Love’s off I-65. A water tower read White County. It was a clear day, seasonably cold. Everything around us was flat for miles and miles and miles. We were closing in on Chicago, where we were visiting a friend for the weekend before I finally flew back to Dublin after nearly a month in the States.

Something felt so adult about eating lunch with an old high school friend in a car off the side of the road, your hometown hundreds of miles behind you, in a few days, thousands more.

And yet something felt so childlike about forking macaroni salad out of GladWare. Packed lunches, certainly, have that effect, but this wasn’t just any macaroni salad. I must have been eating this same salad, this same exact recipe, for over 20 years.

My mind drifted out and over thousands of conversations I’ve had with my family. Out and over thousand of conversations we’ve never had. And it landed on Shakespeare.

The taste plunged me back to the honey-colored wood of the kitchen table and terra-cotta tiled floor. Back to glass bowls of grapes and strawberries, of blackberries and bananas, that made their way from plate to plate. Back to my stepmother slicing those bananas by pushing a paring knife up towards a callused thumb so a perfect little chunk would tumble right into the bowl. Back to a cutting board propping up that long Monte Cristo, my father bringing a longer-seeming serrated knife down through its many layers and divvying out neat, even wedges.

“How does your stepson, you know, handle everything?” I asked, breaking my own flashback. Stepson. The word thrust me right back into the present, to adulthood.

My friend spoke thoughtfully about shared custody, about the different roles divorced parents take on. He spoke about his own identity, negotiating new territories of parenthood and stepfatherhood. He spoke about how his six-year-old stepson grasps it all.

“How was it for you?” he asked. “Weren’t you pretty young when your parents divorced?”

I scooped up my last bite of salad. My mind drifted out and over the never-ending flatness of Indiana. Out and over countless suitcases, bedrooms, car rides. Out and over thousands of conversations I’ve had with my family. Out and over thousands of conversations we’ve never had.

And it landed on Shakespeare.

***

It had been some weeks since I finished All is True (Henry VIII). This history centers, mostly, on the fall of Cardinal Wolseley, King Henry VIII’s powerful and self-serving advisor, after he fails to secure an annulment for Henry VIII so he can marry Ann Boleyn.

I sat on this play for quite some time because I had trouble locating myself in the drama. There were obvious connections, like Henry VIII’s divorce of Queen Katherine. But this, the subject of divorce in and of itself, didn’t grab me.

For one, I have no mind to air any dirty laundry here. For another, I’m just no longer all that interested in the gritty details of my parents’ divorce. I think I processed them plenty in the reims of reflective essays I churned out for high school English and religion classes.

I’m not sure that the heart isn’t a dark and opaque organ at the end of the day, keeping itself alive with molecules and membranes we will never really understand.

About twenty-six years later, the wounds have healed. But the body is never exactly the same as it was before its injury. It works. It functions. It’s repaired. But it’s a different body, even if just by the scars it bears. Often you forget they are even there. But they are always with you, the scars. And every so often, you’ll stop and run your hands over them. You’ll stare at their shape. You’ll marvel that the body can even do it at all, this miracle work of healing, weaving together all that new skin. It’s magic, when you really think about it.

But what did grab me, in that chew-ful moment of silence before my reply, was a speech by Cardinal Wolseley right after his decline. Before heading to court to answer charges of treason, an ailing Cardinal Wolseley, who, mind you, has been an absolute bastard his entire career, has a sudden change of heart:

Farewell, a long farewell, to all my greatness!
This is the state of man. Today he puts forth
The tender leaves of hope; tomorrow blossoms,
And bears his blushing honours thick upon him;
The third day comes a frost, a killing frost,
And when he thinks, good easy, man, full surely
His greatness is a-ripening, nips his rot,
And then he falls, as I do. I have ventured,
Like little wanton boys that swim on bladders,
This many summers in a sea of  glory,
But far beyond my depth; my high-blown pride
At length broke under me, and now has left me
Weary, and old with service, to the mercy
Of a rude stream that must for ever hide me.
Vain pomp and glory of this world, I hate ye!
I feel my heart new opened. O, how wretched
Is that poor man that hangs on princes’ favours!
There is betwixt that smile we would aspire to,
That sweet aspect of princes, and their ruin,
More pangs and fears than wars or women have,
And when he falls, he falls like Lucifer,
Never to hope again. (3.2.352-73)

“Well, that was quick,” as I wrote in the margins. Wolseley goes from utter villainy to complete reformation. Of course, this is drama, so, chop chop, metanoia. Still, where does he get off? Who does he think he is? What did he, do, really, to earn this epiphany?

Yet in my friend’s car, I heard the monologue differently. His repentance pointed me to the mysteries of our own psychology and behavior. Why do we make the choices we make? How do we think about our own decisions? When are we truly honest with ourselves? Why do we feel what we feel? How well can we actually know ourselves?

I went on to tell my friend, yes, about shared custody, about the different roles divorced parents take on, about my own identity, straddling two households and two sets of parents. About how I grasped the situation as a younger man, questioning its reality and aching to know why it all happened as it did. Perhaps I even wanted my parents to feel particular things, to say particular things, and those feelings and those words would make it all make sense.

Maybe there is peace in the pastness of some things, as much as its true nature haunts us.

But I ask a very different questions of my parents’ divorce now. Its reality, its objectivity, opens it up to an emotional, even epistemological, empiricism. I examine it as a curious specimen, craving knowledge without judgment, as if to satisfy a deeper curiosity, as if a stranger or alien. To understand the heart as an organ. To understand my parents as organisms. To see them as adults, as people. To understand myself no longer as child, but as grown-up and husband, who’s made mistakes, who’s made changes. Why do we make the choices we make? How well can we actually know ourselves? What really makes us behave the way do? To love and not love? To move on and not move on? To forgive and–?

“I know myself now,” Wolseley goes on, “and I feel within me / A peace above all earthly dignities, / A still and quiet conscience” (3.2.378-81).

That sounds like a sublime peace indeed. I’m not so sure we are ultimately knowable to ourselves. I’m not sure that the heart isn’t a dark and opaque organ at the end of the day, keeping itself alive with molecules and membranes we will never really understand.

But maybe there is peace, too, in the pastness of some things, as much as its true nature haunts us. For the past, in its own stubborn inertia, and one’s life, in that invisible accretion of decisions and boredoms and job applications and sleeping and fucking and eating and failures and photographs and moving boxes, takes on an inevitability, as if it could have unfolded no other way. There can be a peace in this factness, this livedness, this fixedness, this thingness, this thereness.

Or at least in the acceptance of them.

***

“But it’s just sort of what you know,” I added. “I just don’t know things any other way. You know what I mean? I don’t know any other reality.” I started into my sandwich, and it tasted it exactly as it did so many years ago.

Harrumphing Hellenes and house-hunters: Troilus and Cressida

Being a grownup? It’s easier to be a liberal Buddhist nihilist.

Me, shouting from upstairs to my wife in the kitchen: “Because African leopards are going extinct! Because facts are going extinct! Because, because…bullshit!”

Thersites, railing against Patroclus: “The common curse of mankind, folly and ignorance, be thine in great revenue!” (2.3.23-24).

Me, venting into the iPhone: “What’s the point? What’s the point? Money is a fetish. Things fall apart. Entropy. We’re all gonna die!”

Thersites, still railing against Patroclus: “Thou idle immaterial skein of sleave-silk, thou green sarsenet flap for a sore eye, thou tassel of a prodigal’s purse, thou! Ah, how the poor world is pestered with such waterflies! Diminutives of nature.” (5.1.25-28)

Me, rage-whispering to my wife during a tour: “The extra room for a yoga studio? Ludicrous! Absurd! Stupid!” I extended my arms in a broad sweep and looked up, as if indicating the universe, the totality of all that is and ever was. “It’s all stupid!” 

Thersites, quarreling with Ajax: “The plague of Greece upon thee, thou mongrel beef-witted lord!” (2.1.11-12).

If you haven’t guessed already, my wife and I have been house-hunting. Which is to say my wife has been house-hunting, and I’ve been coming to terms with it. Slowly. Bitterly. And with a philosophical vehemence I can’t help but recognize in Thersites, a Greek soldier who lambastes his fellow fighters with his crass-tongued cynicism in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida.

***

Troilus and Cressida is a challenging play. Indeed, some scholars have actually called it one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays.” These – including All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure, as well as Timon of Athens and The Merchant of Venice on some lists – are part-comic and part-tragic, leaving the reader without any real sense of thematic resolution at their close. In other words, as I said when I finished the play, “What the hell was that?”

The play takes place during the Trojan War. Troilus is madly in love with a fellow Trojan, Cressida, who gets traded to the Greeks in exchange for a captured soldier. The two pledge their fidelity to each other when she’s handed over, but, after later eavesdropping on her in the Greek camp, Troilus comes to believe Cressida has taken a new lover.

Aside: It’s not exactly clear what she does, but let’s be clear: 1) Cressida’s in enemy territory, so flirtatious appeasement may be a form of self-defense; 2) she was bartered by men like some object, so why should she keep any pledge? and 3) after they have sex, Troilus pulls away, just as she feared, like a dude who sneaks out of a girl’s apartment, leaving no note or number, before she wakes up on Saturday after a magical night on the town, in spite of all his talk about wanting “a deep and meaningful connection.” So, deal with it, Troilus.

But most of the action centers on the Greeks trying to get a too-proud Achilles out of his tent to fight, featuring to this end some very long, dense, and elaborate speeches from Ulysses about hierarchy and social order. (I jotted, brilliantly, in my margins at one point: “Difficult speeches.”) Ulysses tries to goad Achilles to action by glorifying the ox-dumb Ajax, but it’s the death of Patroclus, his comrade and likely lover, that spurs him back onto the field, where he kills, ignobly, the great Trojan warrior, Hector. The Trojans learn of their devastating loss, Troilus rallies to avenge Cressida’s apparent betrayal with Greek blood, and the play ends. Opaquely, like some modern novel or film.

And throughout all this, we have Thersites issuing his unsolicited criticisms like a snarling Greek chorus.

***

Thersites and I have a lot of differences, of course. For one thing, he’s a soldier in the ninth year of the Trojan War. I’m just pushing back against home ownership. (No easy marriage jokes here: I’ve only been married for two years. Rimshot. Dublin’s housing market is like a battlefield, however.) For another, Thersites vents his vexation through many more personal insults than I do, although my wife would surely disagree.

And yet the harrumphing Hellene and I do have a lot in common. We both speak our mind, even when we should bite our tongues. We both approach situations with negativity and pessimism. And neither of us is an immediate actor in the plot. Thersites doesn’t take up his sword in the fray, only his snark from the peanut gallery. I’m not finding the properties, setting up viewings, talking to agents, or calculating expenses. I need a coffee and a sweet just to lure me to a viewing.

But whenever my wife texts me a link to a property online or phones me up to say a new viewing window of a house has opened, I leap immediately to a strange and volatile mix of cynicism and alarmism about the world.

But where I feel most kindred to Thersites is the nature of our objections. Our complaints, ultimately, take a broader, more universal view. Thersites exposes the deeper follies of the Greek model of heroism and masculinity. I lay bare the delusions of bourgeois materialism, of capitalist teleology.

OK, these are very generous readings of our general petulance.

See, I don’t object to homeownership as a matter of cost or  on the grounds of middle-aged striving and settling. But whenever my wife texts me a link to a property online or phones me up to say a new viewing window of a house has opened, I leap immediately to aa strange and volatile mix of cynicism and alarmism about the world – about climate change, about our slaughter of wildlife, about our political and social failure to address poverty and oppression and inequality, about the burden of things, about the transience of all things, about mortality, about man’s puny place in the cosmos.

Why buy a house? I think. Our renovations are only going to add carbon to the atmosphere in one way or another. Why buy a house? Donald Trump won the presidency – we must do all we can to fight back! Why buy a house? You know, one day the sun will burn out. I’m not claiming it’s logical, but in my strange Buddhist social justice nihilism, buying a house makes me exclaim, like Thersites: “Lechery, lechery, still wars and lechery! Nothing else holds fashion” (5.2.193-94).

***

Of course, there are two sides to the conversation.

Me: “The extra room for a yoga studio? Ludicrous. Absurd. Stupid.”

My wife, exasperated: “You’re being an asshole. Good Lord, let a woman daydream.”

Me: “Because African leopards are going extinct! Because facts are going extinct! Because, because…bullshit!”

My wife, shouting back: “You act like your life is so hard. You get to spend your days doing something you’re passionate about. If you care so much about leopards, do something about it.”

It’s easier to hide behind ontological abstractions and ethical high-horses, I admitted to myself.

Me: “What’s the point? What’s the point? Money is a fetish. Things fall apart. Entropy. We’re all gonna die!”

My wife, explaining herself for the final time: “Because I work really freakin’ hard and just want a place I can come home to at the end of the day and feel like myself.”

It sinks in. Slowly. Bitterly. “I know, I know, I know, I know, I know. You deserve that.”

“Then why do you act like the world’s on fire?”

“Because homeownership is just so…adult.”

It’s easier to hide behind ontological abstractions and ethical high-horses, I admitted to myself.

“I do like your ideas about herringbone tiles in the kitchen,” I continued. “And the place does have lovely old sash windows.”

I was met with a suspicious silence.

***

There were two sides to Thersites’ conversations, too. After Hector surprises Thersites on the battlefield, he asks whether he should kill him: “What are thou, Greek? Art thou for Hector’s match? Art thou of blood and honour?”

Thersites: “No, no, I am a rascal, a scurvy railing knave, a very filthy rogue.”

Hector: “I do believe thee: live.”

Thersites: “God-a-mercy, that thou wilt believe me – [Exit Hector] but a plague break thy neck for frighting me.” (5.4.22-28)

Tampons, induced vomiting, and Shakespeare’s King John

The Bard truly shows up everywhere.

He greeted me as he always does when I come home. Through the frosted glass of the front door, I could see him perched atop the shoe bench, a shaggy black mass shimmying in excitement as I unlocked the door. He twirled. He jumped. I gave him some pets. He’s a great dog, Hugo is, and I told him as much in baby-talk hellos. He’s docile. He’s quiet. He loves to play. He loves to cuddle. But he does have one weakness.

Tampons.

I spotted a crumbled tissue in the hallway, which lead to a mangled tampon in the kitchen, which lead to a pile of detritus on the landing of the stairs. In the bathroom, the wastebasket was overturned, ransacked – because my wife left the door open when she left for her yoga certification course.

Any calm she might have been prepping for ahead of class was bombed out when she answered my phone call. I machine-gunned my anger: “I came home and there’s bloody fucking tampons everywhere and I don’t know whether he ate any but there’s shit everywhere so he must have eaten some and why did you leave the goddamn door open, I mean how many times do we have to deal with this because there’s fucking tampons everywhere so how much hydrogen peroxide do I give him? seriously how did you not think to close the door, tampons, tampons everywhere and you’re not being helpful!” and I hung up.

As I wiped up the nasty piles, occasionally mopping up goopy strands from his schnauzer beard, I couldn’t help but think of Shakespeare’s King John.

The dog was hiding under the kitchen table at this point, a tampon potentially already starting to swell up, blocking his intestines and leading  to his blended cotton-rayon demise. My wife called back. I declined. She called back. I declined. She called back. I declined. The pattern didn’t relent as I googled vet websites and scribbled out some dilution calculations. Funnily my wife had just bought some hydrogen peroxide (which she had been using for homemade teeth whitening) and I happened to have an dental irrigator (which I haven’t been using to clean some gums in the back of my mouth). Like some mad scientist I measured out and mixed water and peroxide in a tupperware container, drew it into the irrigator, opened Hugo’s confused maw, and squirted the emetic down his hatch.

Then I waited for him to vomit.

I thought about calling my wife back to fire off some more blame. I thought about how, if the dog died, it would all be her fault because she left the bathroom open, because she had to dispose of tampons in the little wastebasket we had in the bathroom, because she just – Hugo’s bowels lurched. He belched out an oozy white pancake of saliva, bile, water, frothy hydrogen peroxide, and a tampon. I was relieved. I texted my wife Hugo was OK and trailed after the poor little guy as he paced his retching way across room. And as I wiped up the nasty piles, occasionally mopping up goopy strands from his schnauzer beard,I couldn’t help but think of Shakespeare’s King John.

***

Love, hate, jealousy, mercy, pride, vengeance: Shakespeare never skimps on the big emotions, the big experiences of the human condition. But amid his big themes he also captures so damned well the little stuff that makes us so human, too. Take this moment in King John.

A little context. The history play, in a nutshell, dramatizes King John’s efforts to stave off a challenge to his tenuous claim to the throne from his nephew, Arthur. (It’s more so Arthur’s mother and French allies who lead the charge.) He orders a French citizen, Hubert, to kill Arthur, which Hubert pretends to do after Arthur’s been imprisoned. Meanwhile, some nobles convince King John to free Arthur. The next time they meet, Hubert tells King John how the people have taken the ‘news’ that Arthur is dead. Observe the wonderful micro-reactions in Hubert’s report:

Young Arthur’s death is common in their mouths,
And when they talk of him they shake their heads,
And whisper one another in the ear
And he that speaks doth grip the hearer’s wrist,
Whilst he that hears makes fearful action,
With wrinkled brows, with nods, with rolling eyes.
I saw a smith stand with his hammer,  thus,
The whilst his iron did on the anvil cool,
With open mouth swallowing a tailor’s news,
Who with his shears and measure in his hands,
Standing on slippers which his nimble haste
Had falsely thrust upon contrary feet
Told of a many thousand warlike French
That were embattailed and ranked in Kent
Another lean unwashed artificer
Cuts off his tale, and talks of Arthur’s death. (4.2.188-203)

The gripped wrist, the stopped work, the shoes put on backwards: These details are tiny but so real, so human. As is King John’s reaction:

Why urgest thou so oft young Arthur’s death?
Thy hand hath murdered him. I had a mighty cause
To wish him dead, but thou hadst none to kill him. (205-07)

But Hubert’s not having it: “Why, did you not provoke me?…Here is your hand and seal for what I did” (208-16). Hubert shows King John his own written order to kill Arthur. 

Arthur, pettily, petulantly, comes back with:

How oft the sight of means to do ill deeds
Make deeds ill done! Hadst not thou been by,
A fellow by the hand of nature marked,
Quoted, and signed to do a deed of shame,
This murder had not come into my mind.
But taking note of thy abhorred aspect,
Finding thee fit for bloody villainy,
Apt, liable to be employed in danger,
I faintly broke with thee of Arthur’s death;
And thou, to be endeared to a king,
Made it no conscience to destroy a prince. (220-30)

Thats right: King John blames Arthur’s death on Hubert’s ugliness. His ugliness gave King John the idea. His ugliness compelled Hubert to make inferences from a small suggestion. His ugliness drove Hubert to carry out the deadly act. His ugliness.

King John cools off after Hubert reveals he didn’t actually kill him. In the very next scene, though, Arthur, whom Hubert freed from his shackles, jumps off the castle wall, apparently trying to escape. He dies in his fall.

***

I, too, cooled off after Hugo stopped vomiting. I thought about King John, so quick to blame Hubert for his own doing, so irrational in his small-minded arguments. I thought about me, my first reaction to our dog’s welfare being to fault my wife, to accuse her of intentional stupidity as opposed to looking past a lapsus mentis and working together to solve the problem. 

King John goes on to apologize to Hubert:

Forgive the comment that my passion made
Upon thy feature, for my rage was blind,
And foul imaginary eyes of blood
Presented thee more hideous than thou art. (4.2.264-67)

Ironically enough, King John is later poisoned to death. Too bad he didn’t have any hydrogen peroxide on hand.

I washed off the puke-y, medicinal smell from Hugo’s beard. I lay down with him and gave him some gentle pets. I thought about Shakespeare. About his incredible insight even into our temper flareups, our self-defensive, first instinct to blame others, to take our frustrations out on other people. And I thought about how one of the greatest writers of the English language, of all language, can wriggle his way even mangled tampons and induced vomiting. I guess this is what happens when you read too much Shakespeare.