The Merchant, er, Mooch, of Venice

The quality of mercy is not strained – but it shouldn’t be taken for granted.

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“I will do anything, Nerissa, ere I will be married to a sponge,” Portia tells her personal assistant early on in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (1.2.83). This sponge is one of her suitors, a heavy-drinking German. But she does end up marrying a sponge, Bassanio. He’s just a different sort of sponge. The mooch kind. The bum kind.

Consider this Bassanio. He asks his buddy Antonio for money to help him compete against her richer, princelier wooers. Antonio has to borrow it from Shylock three thousand ducats to be repaid in three months on forfeit of the famed pound of flesh – and thinks he’s good for it, what with all the merchandise he has out at sea.

Bassanio goes off for Portia. To win her hand in marriage, as Portia’s father so stipulated, he has to choose among a gold, silver, and lead chest, “whereof who chooses his meaning chooses you,” as Nerissa explains (1.2.26-27). He chooses lead, as the “world is still deceived with ornament” (3.2.74), and chooses correctly. Lovely. Let’s give you that one, Bassanio.

But just as they’re about to be married, they hear word that Antonio’s ships are wrecked and that Shylock (depicted, I must note, with a hotly debated antisemitism) is demanding his retribution. Yeah, Bassanio didn’t let Portia in on any of that before. Class act, man. And your best friend is about to die so you can get the girl you wanted.

Not that I’m one to talk.

***

A few leftover crusts littered our plates. Empty pints, wine glasses, and cocktail tumblers crowded the table. The wives left for the facilities before we headed to a pub across the street to continue the craic. The husbands – plus my father and brother, for whose visit I organized this gathering with our friends at a trendy pizza place in Dublin – split the bill, couples covering couples. I grabbed the AmEx. My wife’s. Out of her purse. Without asking. For a dinner I set up.

I bring in a little money freelancing, usually covering (most) groceries, dog food, pints when I’m on the town, and occasionally some nicer meals out every now again. Notice what’s not covered: rent, utilities, travel. Her job provides my health insurance. Savings. All the big stuff. She makes huge sacrifices so that I can give this whole privileged writing thing a go. And she makes these sacrifices – and she never complains about it.

I’m not quite what explains this urge, to do something nice, out of a genuine desire, and yet rust the gesture with mercenary grouses.

It’s just that meals like these wipe me out. It’s not that we can’t afford it per se. It’s that I can’t afford it. Which is precisely the problem. Not the money. The I. She picks up these sorts of tabs all the time. For us.

And whenever I do pay for bigger stuff, I can’t help but make some sort of comment about it. Like her 30th birthday present, back when I was working full-time. She had set a goal to visit all 50 states before she turned 30. Alaska was her last, so we organized some family together to do a cruise. “It’s not a gift when you tell me how much you had to spend,” I remember her explaining when I was booking.

I’m not quite sure what explains this urge, to do something nice, out of a genuine desire, and yet rust the gesture with mercenary grouses. Maybe that word privileged is the key. I’ve had a privileged life, so it’s not like parting with money represents some affront to hardscrabble frugality. Perhaps it’s some baked-in entitlement – my upper middle-classness, my maleness, my whiteness, my private education, making me a kind of reverse Invisible Man, invisible to himself, who gets to enjoy the taken-for-granted ease of never being forced to confront his identity, as his identity is enmeshed with the covert fabric of power and normativity, and yet who is outraged by the slightest jostling of his hegemonic comfort. Or maybe I’m just a selfish cheapskate.

***

How does Portia respond to Bassanio’s revelation? An all-out blitz – of unconditional generosity, big-heartedness, selflessness.

Pay him six thousand and deface the bond.
Double six thousand, and then treble that,
Before a friend of this description
Shall lose a hair thorough Bassanio’s fault.
First go with me to church and call me wife,
And then away to Venice to your friend;
For never shall you lie by Portia’s side
With an unquiet soul. You shall have gold
To pay the petty debt twenty times over. (3.2.298-306)

Then, unbeknownst to Bassanio, Portia disguises herself as a doctor of law and goes to Venice to badass a victory for Antonio in court: “This bond doth give thee no jot of blood. / The words expressly are ‘a pound of flesh’.” (4.1.301-02). Generous, loving, and smart as hell.

“The quality of mercy is not strained,” Portia famously monologues as she tries to convince Shylock to back off from revenging Antonio (4.1.179). Same, too, for generosity. For doing things for other people because you support them, love them, believe in them.

This is what kills me about Portia: It’s how instantly she comes to the aid of her husband’s friend.

It’s not strained, it’s not forced. This is what kills me about Portia: It’s how instantly, how without question or qualification, without complaint or self-consideration, she comes to the aid of her husband’s friend, because she supports them, loves them, believes in them. And she doesn’t even need credit, praise, recognition for it. This is what kills me about my wife.

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes. (179-82)

Make that her that gives, and him that takes.

***

Of course, as a token of thanks, Bassanio gives Portia-cum-lawyer (who is cleverly testing him) the special ring Portia gave him – “when this ring / Parts from this finger, then parts life from hence” (3.2.183-84). His excuse? “I was beset with shame and courtesy. / My honour would not let ingratitude / So much besmear it” (5.1.216-18). And then the promises: “Pardon this fault, and by my soul I swear / I never more will break an oath with thee” (246-48). Classic. And here’s the kicker. “Were you the doctor and I knew you not?” Bassanio asks Portia (5.1.279). Bassanio, Bassanio, Bassanio. Even I know better.

***

As we left the restaurant, the rain started lashing. The group sprinted across the street in a gap in the traffic. My wife and I waited under the awning of the restaurant until the cars let up. She was silent, expressionless, which meant she was pissed.

“It’s that I didn’t ask,” I said, offering up no Bassanio-esque self-defenses, feeling a due, childlike embarrassment and shame. The quality of mercy, of generosity, is not strained, but it should never be taken for granted.

What do they see in us, these Portias?

An opening appeared. She ran through the rain across the street. And I ran after. 

Sitcom chivalry: The Two Noble Kinsmen

It’s like that Seinfeld episode! No, it’s like that Frasier episode!

And they say chivalry is dead.

I’m not talking about holding the door open for women. Nor standing up when they enter or leave the room. Picking up the check at dinner? Nah. Walking closest to the curb. Un-uh.

I’m talking about ruining holiday gatherings over smalltalk about ‘90s television. Oh, chivalry is far from dead.

***

“I do not think it possible our friendship / Should ever leave us,” Palamon assures Arcite in The Two Noble Kinsmen (2.2.114-15), which Shakespeare is believed to have cowritten with his protégé, John Fletcher. The two titular kinsmen, jailed in Athens after Duke Theseus deposed the brutal king of their native Thebes, are trying to make the best of their situation.

But just a few beats later, Palamon is assailing his cousin: “I shall live to knock thy brains out with my shackles” (2.2.222-23).

What happened?

“I saw her first” (2.2.163).

“You are mad,” you might say. In fact, Arcite does (2.2.204).

From their cell, the kinsmen had spied Emilia, sister to Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons and betrothed to Theseus. They both fall instantly in love, but Palamon saw her first.

And just look at these two bicker:

PALAMON. What think of this beauty?
ARCITE. ’Tis a rare one.
PALAMON. Is’t but a rare one?
ARCITE. Yes, a matchless beauty.
PALAMON. Might not a man well lose himself and love her?
ARCITE. I cannot tell what you have done; I have,
Beshrew mine eyes for’t. Now I feel my shackles.
PALAMON. You love her then?
ARCITE. Who would not?
PALAMON. And desire her?
ARCITE. Before my liberty.
PALAMON. I saw her first.
ARCITE. That’s nothing.
PALAMON. But it shall be.
ARCITE. I saw her too.
PALAMON. Yes, but you must not love her.

I that first saw her, I that took possession
First with mine eye of all those beauties
In her revealed to mankind. If thou lov’st her,
Or entertain’st a hope to blast my wishes,
Thou art a traitor, Arcite, and a fellow
False as thy title to her. Friendship, blood,
And all the ties between us I disclaim,
If thou once think upon her. (2.2.154-177)

Ladies and gentleman, I give you your much-mourned chivalry.

Iterations of the medieval chivalric code – which Shakespeare/Fletcher draw on in this stage adaptation of Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale,” itself written when the code would have been in some effect – vary, but it would have compelled, at least if taken to a comical extreme, Palamon and Arcite to defend their honor or whatever the hell they think they’re doing. (I’m not even going to try to touch how they think they can call dibs on a woman. That’s, well, Trumpian.)

And defend they do. And after a series of events and subplots that gets them both out of prison. By a fight to the death. Well, Theseus orders them to duke it out in a tournament, with the winner, literally the victor in a game of king of the hill, gets Emilia. The loser gets death. (I’m not even going to to try to touch how they think they can put up a woman like a trophy. That’s, well, yeah.) 

But Palamon and Arcite’s bickering. It sounds like Niles and Frasier Crane competing over a spot in Seattle’s Empire Club – no, no, I will not admit defeat!

***

In my household, we’ve scrapped all that courtly love chivalry: We’re both knights. Actually, she’s probably more like the knight and I, a less-than-deal princess. But hey, I cook, I clean, I launder, I shine the armor.

I wouldn’t want to humiliate the bride on her wedding day.

When it comes to one topic though, the gauntlet is thrown: Which show had a greater cultural impact, Seinfeld vs. Frasier?

“You are mad,” you might say. In fact, I do.

Obviously, the answer is Seinfeld.

Of course she can like Frasier better; after all, de gustibus non est disputandum (not that she’s ever actually spent any serious time with the competitor.) But claiming Frasier had a great impact on culture writ large? Her evidence: Frasier had more seasons, the dog, Marty, Frasier and Niles’ vocabulary. “Marty.” Pshaw. No soup for you. Man hands. I was in the pool! Even if you don’t know Seinfeld, you know those phrases. That alone wins my case.

But no.

Double dates. Family outings. July Fourth barbecues. Thanksgiving dinner. Christmas. No matter the event, no matter the gathering, no matter company:

“…Can these two live, / And have the agony of love about ‘em, / And not kill one another?” an observer, like Theseus, worries (3.6.218-20). “What a mere child is fancy, / That having two fair gauds of equal sweetness, / Cannot distinguish, but must cry for both!” another, undecided between her two wooers like Emilia, despairs (4.2.52-54). 

Good thing we didn’t do a Seinfeld vs. Frasier quiz at our wedding like my wife suggested. For one thing, Frasier would have lost, and I wouldn’t want to humiliate the bride on her wedding day. The chevalier cannot back down from a challenge.

But I should be careful. Arcite wins the tournament, but just as Palamon is on the chopping block, we learn that he falls off his horse and soon after dies.

So, every now and again, I do the chivalrous thing. She keeps a few seasons – seasons, mind you – on her iCloud. Having seen the whole show so many times, it’s like white noise that helps her fall asleep. But if she really can’t fall asleep, I lay aside my jousting lance and watch a few episodes with her. Which reminds of that one episode when Niles tries to – no, no, “I’ll be cut a-pieces / Before I take this oath – forget I love her?” (3.6.256-7).

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)

Through the pint glass: All’s Well That Ends Well

“Our rash faults make trivial price of serious things we have.”

Of course, I decided to pick a fight the last night he was in town.

My brother and I were at John Morrissey’s, a divey local not even a block from my house. It serves the cheapest Guinness I’ve yet found in Dublin. He’d been in town with my father over the past week, and had to leave for the airport at a head-throbbing 6:30 the next morning. We’d already been drinking the better part of the day – Guinness, whiskey, wine, more wine, dessert wine, Guinness, Guinness, whiskey – so, naturally, we were capping off the day, the visit, with a final drink.

With my first sip, I drained a few inches from my pint and then, out of that unquenchable compulsion for fraternal criticism, fired off my complaints. He was “disengaged” for much of the trip, I charged. Uncharacteristically quiet, sometimes bored-seeming, preoccupied with petty annoyances, grumpy, capturing moment without ever being in the them. “This time is so valuable. This time is precious. I don’t get to see you but twice a year. This time is special,” I preached. 

He fired back that many of my efforts were “forced” and “fake.” The small talk I made when the three of us fell silent during many moments in the trip. The random questions I asked about jobs, girlfriends, interests. “Why can’t we just not talk sometimes? We talk on the phone all the time. So what if there’s nothing new to say?” He disappeared several black ounces of his own, wiped away the foamy mustache, and added, “Why do you think you’re so much better than me?”

The barman came by. My brother signaled for another round.

I can be such a Bertram.

***

In Shakespeare’s comedy All’s Well That Ends Well, lowly, orphaned Helen is secretly in love with Bertram, the young Count of Roussillon who, having just lost his father, becomes a ward of the King of France. The King is deathly ill, and Helen is in possession of a powerful remedy left to her by her father. After she convinces him to administer the medicine, the King offers Helen a reward of her choosing. She chooses Bertram in marriage.

Everybody loves Helen – she is “all that is virtuous” (2.3.118) – except for her future husband. Here’s Bertram’s oh-so-gracious response when he learns that the King promised his hand to her:

…I know her well:
She had her breeding at my father’s charge.
A poor physician’s daughter, my wife? Disdain
Rather corrupt me forever. (2.3.109-112).

“Proud, scornful boy, unworthy this good gift,” the King rejoins. “Check thy contempt” (2.3.147-53).  Bertram gives agreement to the marriage only to run off to fight (and have his fun) in some Tuscan wars.

Over there, he tries to woo a woman, Diana, but Helen, ever the enterprising heroine, manages to track them all down and pull off the old “bed trick”: Bertram thinks he sleeps with Diana, but he can’t tell it’s actually Helen in the dark. Helen also executes some crafty ring exchanges, which become tell-tale signs of his dishonesty when Bertram returns to the French court. Bertram, caught and suddenly transformed, pledges to “love her dearly, ever ever dearly,” his now pregnant wife (5.3.313).

Though the modern woman may have long since ditched the somehow speedily redeemed Bertram, Helen does get the last word. She delivers an ultimatum: “If it appear not plain,” she says of Bertram’s vow, “and prove untrue, / Deadly divorce step between me and you” (5.3.314-15).

***

Gender, class, sex, love, marriage, character – All’s Well That Ends Well, as we are accustomed from the Bard, trades in big, complex themes. One leaves this play struggling to reconcile Helen’s steadfast commitment to a dirtbag. But one leaves it, too, admiring her, ever ambitious, clever, persuasive, and effective, judged by her inner virtue, not her social station. Except by that blasted ingrate, Bertram. And we should remember Helen was an un-titled, un-moneyed orphan who used her brains and tenacity to – forget love – land her a Count and a dowry from the King. Why, we might even Helen really leaned in.

Intermixed in All’s Well is some terrific comedy, too. Word nerd that I am, I have to share one subplot: Some French lords trick Paroles, Bertram’s all-talk buddy, to expose him for the coward and liar he is. Their plot involves a fake ransom, and the lords decide to speak in a gibberish to disorient a captured Paroles. Shakespeare’s made-up words here are simply delightful and give us a fascinating insight into his linguistic imagination: “Oscorbidulchos volvicoro” (4.1.74) and “Boblinbindo chicurmurcho” (4.3.122), as one lord utters. These are incredible, fanciful specimens from the man whose actual words are a bible and dictionary for the English language. What was his thought process when he created this verbiage?

All’s Well That Ends Well’s messages have really lingered with me. It’s probably because I see too much of myself in Bertram’s pride and scorn.

And then we have the moralizing. Usually, any shade of lesson-mongering leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, but some of All’s Well messages have, well, really lingered with me. It’s probably because I see too much of myself in Bertram’s pride and scorn. Here are a few examples:

Before Bertram’s widowed mother sends him off to the King, she offers up some really solid life advice:

…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. (1.1.57-61)

Later, as he rebukes Bertram for his repugnant snubbing of Helen, the King waxes moral on the nature of honor: “…honours thrive / When rather from our acts we them derive / Than our foregoers” (2.3.131-33). 

The King again speaks some truth after Bertram returns from the war. This is before the King learns of Bertram’s lies. At this point, the King thinks Helen has died and, now a widower, Bertram has married Diana, which the King forgives. (Yeah, Bertram was real class.) Plot aside, the King’s remarks at this point are quite moving:

…Our rash faults
Make trivial price of serious things we have,
Not knowing them until we know their grave.
Oft our displeasures, to ourselves unjust,
Destroy our friends and after weep their dust.
Our own love waking cries to see what’s done,
While shameful hate sleeps out the afternoon. (5.3.61-67)

Words of wisdom sound so much wiser when they are dressed up by Shakespeare, don’t they? It certainly doesn’t hurt that they are not coming from own mothers and fathers. From our own older brothers.

***

We waited for the fresh pints to settle. My brother went to the bathroom, stepped outside, or, for all I can remember at that point, sat beside me on his barstool without talking. I didn’t check him for silence. I wasn’t taxed for speech.

I angled back to force the flat, sour sediment down, and, in the wan and sticky light of Morrissey’s late-night pub, it glowed nobly with a faint ruby red.

I swayed and swerved in a drunkenness, a tiredness, a sadness for endings and farewells that sits in the stomach, heavy, dark, and lukewarm like the dregs of a Guinness, the foamy residue of little, niggling regrets sticking to the walls of my head, layer after layer until it sinks down in its frothy bottom. Our rash faults make trivial price of serious things we have. Where do these expectations come from? Proud, scornful boy. This posturing, this sanctimony? “Why do you think you’re so much better than me?” Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none. This judgment, this passive-aggressive shaming? Oft our displeasures, to ourselves unjust, destroy our friends and after weep their dust. To be blind to, to choose to be blind to, all the good that’s before us while yet chiding them for the same, knowing well later it will only issue remorse, apology? “Why do you think you’re so much better than me?” To make such effort for a free-flowing, self-unclouded authenticity and being-present-ness that can never be compelled? Honours thrive when rather from our acts we derive them. To dream up better-selves and sneer at how they fail to perform their imaginary parts and deliver their unassigned lines? In pursuit of some elsewhere here, some else-time now, orphaning the very longed-for present? Why do you think you’re so much better than me, callow, haughty Bertram, “thou dislik’st / Of virtue for the name” (2.3.119-120). 

I looked at my old pint glass. An inch of spit-spumed, muddy-colored sludge curdled at its butt. I certainly don’t think I’m better than these last, stale drops. I angled back to force the flat, sour sediment down, and, in the wan and sticky light of Morrissey’s late-night pub, it glowed nobly with a faint ruby red.

We moved on – and to our last pints, cool to the touch and creamy on the tongue. “All yet seems well; and if it end so meet, / The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet” (5.3.329-30).

The Merry Wives of Windsor, the doltish husbands of Dublin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, no!” we three husbands cried.

“What’s the matter with it?” I asked.

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

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

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

“Wait, no…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

Over and over and over: The Tragedy of Othello

It’s not the jealousy that pushes you over. It’s the obsession.

Today I can laugh about it. She ended up dumping him and came out as a lesbian, I learned through the grapevine years later. And when asked to explain that semester out of school, I usually just leave it as a “personal matter,” as if it was an illness. I suppose it was, in a way.

I don’t talk to either of them now, though from time to time, late-night whiskey steers me towards Facebook. He’s helping launch a craft brewery. She’s married and has a child with her partner. I’m happy for them. Really. And I actually can’t say it took me a long time to get there. Once I was over it, of course.

In our third session, my therapist recommended Prozac. She didn’t think I was depressed: She thought I was obsessive. I can’t disagree. But at the time, I didn’t like how high the dosage was. Apparently obsessive behaviors warrant more milligrams than depression. At the time, like so many individuals at their breaking points, I didn’t want to rely on any medication. I wanted to restore equilibrium from within, by my own wherewithal. Fortunately, that session, that recommendation, triggered in me for the first time anger, then indifference. Then I moved on.

Othello articulates a very particular psychological state. The state between ignorance and certainty, between the not-knowing and knowing: the not-not-knowing, where obsession oozes from the darker recesses of the mind and takes over the whole body, like food poisoning. Where obsession becomes possession.

Fortunately, I didn’t kill anybody. Unlike Othello. But I did pull out of college after thinking about jumping onto US 29 from K Street by the Washington Circle the very night I drove back from summer break to start my second year of college.

***

Jealousy, that “green-eyed monster,” is just the trigger (3.3.170). The rapid descent is thanks to obsession. To the over and over and over, thoughts always hissing in your ear like Iago, slithering, compulsive, ubiquitous, until the merest suggestion, “trifles light as air,” pushes the boulder of sanity over the precipice (3.3.326).

In The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice, Iago, through Janus-faced cunning, racial and religious resentment, and envy-mongering, drives Othello, the Venetian general, to kill his wife, Desdemona, and ultimately himself, by convincing Othello his lieutenant, Cassio, is having an affair with her. Why? The text says devilishly little on the motive for Iago’s all-consuming hatred: He begrudges Othello for promoting Cassio, not him, to his lieutenancy and believes rumors that Othello slept with his wife, Emilia. Here’s Iago’s insidious craft at work:

IAGO Will you think so?
OTHELLO Think so, Iago?
IAGO What, to kiss in private?
OTHELLO An unauthorized kiss.
IAGO Or to be naked with her friend in bed
An hour or more, not meaning any harm?
OTHELLO Naked in bed, Iago, and not mean harm?
It is hypocrisy against the devil.
They that mean virtuously and yet do so,
The devil their virtue tempts, and they tempt heaven.
IAGO If they do nothing, ’tis a venial slip.
But if I give my wife a handkerchief – (4.1.1-10)

The handkerchief Iago refers to is the love token Othello gave to Desdemona, and which Iago manages to manipulate as ‘evidence’ of her infidelity: “Trifles light as air,” as Iago famously observes, “Are to the jealous confirmations strong / As proofs of holy writ” (3.3.326-28).

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve memorized pathetically few lines of Shakespeare. This is one of them.

Iago is an evil genius who anticipated and mastered so much of psychology du jour: the powers of suggestion and visualization. He sprinkles questions and sows doubt. He paints a torturously vivid mental picture of Desdemona lying naked in bed with his lieutenant. Othello does the rest himself. At first it niggles. Then it rankles. Finally, it metastasizes.

He works himself into a trance as he plays over – and over and over and over – the thought, the possibility, the fleshy image of Desdemona having sex with Cassio.

As for me? I worked myself into panic attacks.

***

At some point, she’d started talking to her ex-boyfriend again. They had had a long, complicated relationship. We used to talk about that relationship after shifts at a Ruby Tuesday, where we both worked a few years before we ran into each other at a Barnes & Noble when I was back home from college during winter break. We’d chain-smoke in her silver Pontiac Grand Am. She’d always put Ani DiFranco or Pearl Jam on very low as I talked her through the turbulence. She’d always manage to keep that car smelling nice in spite of the smoke, too.

After that chance encounter at the bookstore, we fell into a long-term relationship between Cincinnati and D.C. At first it was intense and passionate, but just a half-year in, she started pulling away.

But in his pacing, breathing, sweating, head-clutching, gripped by the over and over and over by the slightest and lightest whisper of his wife’s adultery, I felt once again that loop, that broken record, that inexorable thought-cycle, that over and over and over overtake me.

Maybe there was nothing going on between them. She said there was nothing going on between them. But the evidence pointed otherwise. I saw the log on her cordless phone. Calls to Florida, where the ex lived. I learned from a friend that they met up when he was back in their hometown in Kentucky while she was herself visiting. This led me to check her mobile when she was in the shower. There were lots of calls. Long calls. Perhaps they were processing us as she and I once processed them. She insisted otherwise. I persisted anyways.

The ex dropped out of the picture, but maybe I drove her to spend more time with my best friend. We were writing music over that summer break when was I back home from school, even playing a few gigs here and there. I was semi-moved in to her place, which happened to be just down the road from my mother’s house at the time.

He was always around. They started smoking a lot of pot together.

One night, they encouraged me to grab my guitar down from my mother’s house. It felt like a strange request. They were sitting close and he was making her laugh. Reluctantly, I raced down and fetched my guitar. The dusk light illuminated their goofy half-smiles when I returned. They were seated just a bit more awkwardly.

I’d ring her after work. She’d already be hanging out with him at a mutual friend’s. I’s fell off from I love you’s. We were over in all but name. All but my acceptance, perhaps. But for some reason, I’d still tag along with them. One night, the three of us went out salsa dancing. She was a dance instructor studying to become a message therapist. I was terrible on the floor. So was my friend. But his clumsy maneuvers made her laugh. Desperately I’d insert myself, beats behind the sultry pulse. I’d get in a step or two and another partner had the dance.

***

“I had been happy if the general camp, / Pioneers and all, had tasted her sweet body, / So I had nothing known,” Othello remarks after he’s fallen for Iago’s plot. “O, now for ever / Farewell the tranquil mind, farewell content, Farewell the plumed troops and the big wars / That makes ambition virtue!” (3.3.350-55). He continues, curiously, bidding farewell to his military career, as if emasculated or, in the politics of the tragedy, stripped of the identity that gives him place as a black Moor in a white, Christian Venice. Grabbing Iago by the throat, he demands, “Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore” (3.3.364).

I think Othello begins to articulate to a very particular psychological state here. The state between ignorance and certainty, between the not-knowing and knowing: the not-not-knowing, where obsession oozes from the darker recesses of the mind and takes over the whole body, like food poisoning. Where obsession becomes possession.

***

One sleepless night, every 15 minutes or so I’d go outside and light a cigarette. Stepping into the middle of the empty street, into the jaundiced glow of the streetlights, I looked all the way down Ivanhoe Avenue. It was after two in the morning and her car still wasn’t parked in its usual spot. Eventually, I wore myself out. Or ran out of cigarettes. Whichever came first. First thing when I got up, the ritual punctuated by a few, thin hours of sleep, I went right outside. Still no sign of that goddamn Grand Am at the end of the street.

I wasn’t able to breath. Why were they there? Why was I there?

Another night, her car was there in the early evening and I obsessively checked to make sure it stayed there. During one round, I noticed his car, that old baby-blue Corolla hatchback, parked opposite. I learned my lesson: I bought a two-for-one Camel Lights special at the corner UDF. Then I drank the rest of my stepfather’s Heineken and my mother’s cheap chardonnay, listening to the Postal Service’s Give Up on repeat. My iPod’s white display pierced the humid and still late-summer dark. The buzz of the streetlights and cicadas droned. A police cruiser swept the blocks like an occasional, sticky breeze.

I had to walk down. I shouldn’t walk down. I needed to walk down. I knew it wasn’t going to make me feel any better if I walked down. But how could I not walk down? I won’t be able to stop thinking about until I walked down.

I walked down.

I stood under her window. Through the vinyl blinds the blue light of a TV flickered. They must have fallen asleep on her couch. She used to like to snuggle into my lap, her back nestling in between my legs, head on my chest, her two cocker spaniels at her feet. I imagined them sleeping there like that, as we had once.

His car was still there come morning.

On yet another, I chanced to look out the window when her car drove by around 11pm. We had spoken just a half-hour before. I was surprised she had answered. It was probably a tactical appeasement. It must be exhausting, I imagine, to silence call after call. It was exhausting, too, to hit redial on that old Nokia, hearing her Kentucky drawl in her voicemail each time: “Hi, you’ve reached…” She said she was staying in. As her car passed, her brake lights burned like taunting flares.

I had a hunch. I got into my car, chain-smoked my way over to another friend’s whose parents were away from the summer. They had a big house, a fancy house, with a hot tub. I pulled up, cautiously. Slicing through the dark, my headlights found the silver of her car parked behind the blue of his.

I lit a cigarette but I wasn’t able to breath. Why were they there? Why was I there?

***

“Where is this rash and most unfortunate man?” demands Lodovico, relative of Desdemona’s father, Brabanzio, after Othello has killed Desdemona.

“That’s he that was Othello. Here I am,” Othello, the Other now self-othered, answers, as if literally beside himself, as if possessed, physically taken over and kicked out by his jealous obsession (5.2.289-90).

Othello is a psychological play and a political play. The performance I saw – yes, I’ve managed to see a second play, folks – at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin played to these dimensions. The small stage and sparse production was close, intimate, as if squeezing us into Iago’s twisted mind, Othello’s tormented psyche. The theater also produced the play as part of the centenary commemoration of Ireland’s independence from Great Britain in 1916. While I found mapping Ireland’s revolution onto Othello problematic, this framing also focused the role race, religion, and national identity plays in Othello’s destruction – and helps explain his suggestibility, aware of his vulnerability as a cultural outsider.

But above all, the Abbey production powerfully emphasized the physicality of Othello, the physicality of jealousy and obsession. I was seated on the stage and could see Iago spit as he hissed, Desdemona’s face pale and wrinkle as her marriage inexplicably collapses, and Othello, drenched in sweat, convulse and twitch with obsession, eaten by his jealousy.

***

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“That’s he that was Othello.” Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

There are some serious differences, of course. My friend was no Iago and girlfriend no Desdemona. I, no Othello. (I did reprogram their names as “Brutus the Backstabber” and “Medea the Murderer” in my phone, though.) But in his pacing, breathing, sweating, head-clutching, gripped by the over and over and over by the slightest and lightest whisper of his wife’s adultery, I felt once again that loop, that broken record, that inexorable thought-cycle, that over and over and over overtake me when I called a friend back home after I made it to DC.

“What are you up to, man?”

“Just chillin’ with a few people.”

“Nice. Is, uh, who are you hanging out with? What’s going on?” I tried casually. He said our mutual friend – the Backstabber – was over.

“Cool. Yeah. Alright, is uh–”

“–Yeah, she’s over here, man. He invited over. I know. It’s complicated. But we’re just playing some Mario Kart.”

I thought about them rolling some joints, cracking some beers. I could hear the next album the friend, the one I called, put on. I could see the solid red and green Nintendo 64 controllers being passed around. Brutus would tease her for losing every race. Medea would laugh. Those goofy smiles would hang on their faces. Trifles, really.

I suppose my ache wasn’t over any betrayal. It was over feeling replaced, substituted, pass around, pass over. I think that’s went sent Othello over. I think that’s what sent me over that night, too.

But thankfully not over that K Street railing.

The art of artifice (and the artifice of art): The Life of Timon of Athens

In which Shakespeare beats a Painter and Poet with a stick.

The Life of Timon of Athens isn’t a particularly celebrated play in Shakespeare’s oeuvre. Many critics think its language and plot don’t quite stack up to the Bard’s usual standards. Some argue it was never finished. Others conclude the play was a collaboration. Whatever its status in the canon, the tragedy stands out for its focus on money – and still has some warnings worth heeding.

Athenians love Timon because he lavishes them with gifts and parties: “Methinks I could deal kingdoms to my friends,/ And ne’er be weary” (1.2.215-16). His friendships are bought, but Timon is blind to this: “You shall perceive how you/ Mistake my fortunes. I am wealthy in my friends,” he responds when his servant relays that his creditors are demanding payment (2.2.178-79). His generosity is borrowed. And none of his friends bail him out.

The Senate threatens to execute Timon for defaulting on his debts. Fleeing the polis, a forsaken Timon himself forsakes the world. “I am sick of this false world!” (4.3.368) as he cries, cursing man and gold, “thou sweet king-killer,” alike (4.3.374).

Timon becomes his foil, Apemantus, a gadfly philosopher whose cynicism he well sums up in grace he says at one of Timon’s banquets early in the play:

Immortal gods, I crave no pelf.
I pray for no man but myself.
Grant I may never prove so fond
To trust man on his oath or bond,
Or a harlot for her weeping,
Or a dog that seems a-sleeping
Or a keeper with my freedom,
Or my friends if I should need ‘em.
Amen. So fall to’t.
Rich men sin, and I eat root. (1.2.61-70)

In his own root-eating misanthropy Timon fails to see his servant, Flavius, stays by his side. He fails to see to his comrade, Alcibiades, leads an uprising against the city to defend him. The Senate relents their too-cruel punishment, but too late, as Timon dies out in the wilderness.

***

Timon of Athens isn’t exactly the most artful social commentary, but it does develop a  compelling theme of artifice. We see the artifice of men and money, yes. You can’t buy love. Who can you really trust? But we also see the artifice of law. “We are for laws; he dies” (3.6.85), as one senator summarily sentences Timon. It’s a stark reminder that even morality is man-made.

He is as self-absorbed in his exile as he is in buying his countrymen’s affections.

We also see the artifice of Timon’s own self-pity: “I never had/ Honest man about me; ay, all I kept were knaves,/ To serve in meat to villains” (4.3.469-71). No, faithful Flavius doesn’t count; he’s just his lowly servant, as if only the rich and powerful are capable of any depth, or at least any sentiment of value.

There is a touching scene when all of Timon’s servants gather together at Timon’s house to mourn their master’s fall. “Yet do our hearts wear Timon’s livery./ That I see by our faces. We are fellows still,/ Serving alike in sorrow” (4.2.17-19). The master-servant relationship itself is not a natural construction, but Timon’s servants transcend the artifice of social roles and achieve true fellow feeling. “There’s none/ Can truly say he gives if he receives,” Timon earlier comments on the cycle of debt that a gift ignites (1.2.9-10). Only his servants prove otherwise.

But Timon certainly learns no lessons about egocentrism in his hermitage. He is as self-absorbed in his exile as he is in buying his countrymen’s affections. Timon may reject gold, but he doesn’t have to reject man – or the golden mean.

***

We’re always looking for clues to Shakespeare’s creative process. What did he think? What was his process like? How did he come up with his ideas? Did he know he was great? Did ever imagine that, 400 years after he died, some American dude would be cooped up in a spare room qua office in Dublin, spending the Sunday of his bank holiday weekend trying to glean some deep wisdom from the words of one of his lesser plays? Well, Timon of Athens may gives us some small glimpse into the poet’s poetics, but it may not glitter like gold: Shakespeare exposes the artifice of, well, art itself.

Art, counterfeit and fiction, is a made thing, fashioned from human hands, not from some divine imagination we mortals are not permitted to.

Shakespeare (and his collaborator, presumably) stages a Painter and Poet. In the beginning, we see them flattering Timon with portraits and verses. For patronage, of course. For money. For all their highfalutin words of inspiration, not even the artists transcend base greed. We see the pair again at the end of the play. They feign loyalty to the indigent hermit, hearing report of gold Timon discovers in the forest. But Timon overhears their mercenary dissembling and calls them out on it. He cleverly undercuts the Painter: “Thou draw’st counterfeit/ Best in all Athens; thou’rt indeed the best;/ Thou counterfeit’s most lively” (5.1.77-79). And the poet he lambastes: “And for thy fiction,/ Why, thy verse swells with stuff so fine and smooth/ That thou art even natural in thine art” (5.1.80-82). Then he beats the two with his stick. And natural, we should also remember, could mean “foolish” in Elizabethan vernacular – which just takes a sledgehammer to the play’s natural-artificial axis. Thanks, Shakespeare: You knew the artifice of sign and signifier all too well, too.

For as much as we like to worship great art and artists, as if the creator and their works exist in some higher sphere unsullied by the affairs of lowly man, Shakespeare recognizes that art is manufactured. That art, too, is often motivated by practical needs, by self-interest, by profit. The Bard had to make a living, after all. It can be deflating, even cheapening, to peek behind the creative curtain, like a son recognizing his father’s fallibility for the first time. But it’s also comforting, too, especially for the aspiring artist: Art, counterfeit and fiction, is a made thing, fashioned from human hands, not from some divine imagination we mortals are not permitted to.

But not all counterfeits, shall we say, are equally convincing. Not all fictions are equally credible. Not all makers are equally skilled. Not all art is equally good. Timon of Athens is no Hamlet. Still, I could never write a Timon of Athens.