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.

***

752px-n64-controller-gray
“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.

Glass houses and jelly meerkats: King Lear, Part 2

Dysfunctional Shakespearean families: They’re just like us!

I have a lot of questions about King Lear. Like what is wrong with these people?

“Which of you shall we say doth love us most?” a retiring King Lear asks his three daughters, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia, as he divides his kingdom up among them (1.1.49). Unlike her sisters, Lear’s favorite, Cordelia, doesn’t fawn over him with the false flattery he’s fishing for. And Lear loses it. He disowns her, sending her off to the King of France without dowry, “for we / Have no such daughter, nor shall ever see / That face of hers again” (1.1.263-65).

Why would you ask that question, Lear? Don’t you think you took things way out of proportion? Did you really listen to what Cordelia what was saying? What were you thinking? This has been my struggle with Lear: Everything escalates so quickly. From 0 to insanity in one act.

Later, Goneril, now heiress to half her father’s kingdom, can’t handle her father’s retinue, who “hourly carp and quarrel, breaking forth / In rank and not-to-be-endured riots” (1.4.175-78). They’re unruly house guests, to be sure, but Lear is none too pleased with her ingratitude: “Into her womb convey sterility! / Dry up in her the organs of increase” (1.4.255-56). “Infect her beauty,” he later curses, “You fen-sucked fogs, drawn by the powerful sun, / To fall and blast her pride!” (2.4.159-61)

He did give you half his kingdom, Goneril. Can’t your father enjoy his waning days? But Lear, again, do you have to ratchet things up so much? I mean, you gave up your crown. Do you think you get to act like a king still?

I thought my family was dysfunctional. But the Lears are just batshit cra–like us.

Regan adds insult to injury: “O, sir, you are old” (2.4.139). She won’t put up with Lear’s knights either. “I gave you all–” Lear points out; Regan, like an entitled millennial, answers that it was about time he did (2.4.245). Everyone sees that Lear is cracking, especially when, martyr-like, he threatens to stay out in a violent storm after his daughters refuse to house his full retinue. But his daughters think he “must needs taste his folly” (2.4.286). “Shut up your doors,” Regan orders, and they actually lock their old father out (2.4.299).

Who do you think you are, Regan? Your dad’s losing his mind. Now’s not the time to make him learn a lesson – and out in the storm of the century at that. What is wrong with these people? I thought my family was dysfunctional. But the Lears are just batshit cra–like us.

***

“Goddamnit,” I complain, vainly thrusting the broom handle under the fridge. “How the hell did it get all the way back there? Jesus.” I stormed into the sitting room. “Aren’t you going to help me?”

“Are you listening to yourself right now?” My wife gets up from the couch. “I was trying to but you didn’t want me pulling out the fridge.”

We argue our way back to the kitchen. “I’m pulling out the fridge.”

“But you said it was gonna scratch the floor!”

“Well, I don’t know how our landlady expects us to keep these fucking floors perfect.”

“Just leave it back there then.”

“Leave it back there? It’ll attract ants and mice. What do you mean, leave it back there?”

“Well, you’re the one so concerned about the floors.”

“You’re not concerned with the floors? See, this is why you’re a slob. This is why we don’t buy shit in checkout lines. It’s impulse. It’s crap.”

“This is why you’re a dick.” My wife stomped back to the sitting room and slammed the door.

I carefully pulled out the fridge, reached back, and picked it up. I was tempted to march into the sitting room and present it to her: “You still fucking want this?”

Sometimes it just takes a gummy candy in the unusual shape of a meerkat that, after my wife accidentally dropped it, somehow fell all the way under the back of the fridge.

Then I thought about Lear. I lightly rap on the door. “I’m sorry, honey.”

***

When we first meet him in the Royal & Derngate’s production of King Lear, Edgar is carrying a bottle and slurring his words. (In a parallel plot, Gloucester’s so Edgar has a half-brother , the bastard Edmund, who convinces their father that Edgar is scheming to kill him for their inheritance.) I didn’t really give much attention to Edgar’s drunkenness – a directorial decision – until I later came read a short review by Lyn Gardner in The Guardian. She observes:

This is a production that makes you wonder what has been going on in the Lear household to produce three such dysfunctional daughters, and the emphasis is very much on the younger generation. Interesting, but it has the effect of sidelining Michael Pennington’s king, who seldom seems more than a volatile domestic tyrant.

Perhaps it does sideline Lear, but to good effect, because why does everyone in King Lear just fall to pieces?

In his opening soliloquy, Edmund grumbles: “Why brand they us / With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?” (1.2.9-10). Historically, we might appreciate his bitterness: His father’s sexual indiscretions cut him off from inheritance. Over 400 years ago, Shakespeare’s audience, familiar with primogeniture, would have felt his plight more keenly – not that it justifies plotting against his family. But in 2016, his motivation is much less immediate, making Edmund seem purely evil. And it’s hard to relate to pure evil.

This is why I find the director’s choice (or the actor’s) to make Edgar drunk so brilliant. This is why the Royal & Derngate’s Lear helped bring the drama of this trumpeted tragedy to life. We get hits of motivation. Edgar initially comes across as a cocky, entitled rich kid, and Edmund, a quietly suffering loner. Again, not that this justifies Edmund ruining his family (and, in part, Lear’s), but that bottle, that drunken swagger, hints at so much emotional baggage, pent-up resentment, and complicated family history. Do Goneril and Regan hold it against their father for favoring Cordelia? Is Lear just looking for a little filial reassurance as he confronts his mortality? What past wounds are reopened when Lear feels so totally rejected by his daughter’s slights? Have the youth of this play somehow been held back the systems of inheritance? Do the youth of this play take for granted their inheritance?

***

We don’t see the tension build up in King Lear. We just see it boil over. We just see the jelly meerkat: Not all the previous arguments about cleanliness, control, respect, and tone it triggers, the ongoing friction of two strong-willed personalities learning interdependence, the monetary and career burdens my wife takes on for me to write, the enduring trauma of divorce and how it shapes my communication habits and values, insecurities about body image and anxieties about what it means to be alive and –

What has been going on in the Lear household? Perhaps in King Lear Shakespeare wants us to imagine our own. Mine, for one, is made of glass. And you know what they say about glass houses and jelly meerkats.

The Newtonian mechanics of friendship: Henry IV, Part 2

“We are all time’s subjects.” And space’s, too.

I merge onto the 55 north from the 5 north. I have at least an hour, depending on traffic in Corona.

There aren’t any podcasts I really feel like listening to as I drive back from dog-sitting in Orange County to my in-laws’ in Temecula, where my wife and I have been staying before we move to Ireland next week.

It’s a perfect time to catch up with some friends. I have Siri dial one up.

Just as the number starts ringing, I hang up. It’s about 12:30pm on a Sunday, his time. He’s probably having a Bloody Mary at his parents’ or catching up on chores around his house. I shouldn’t bug him.

But I can hear my friend venting about how his girlfriend never pitches in. About how he still puts together dinner after an 11-hour workday. About news I saw on Facebook of the latest engagement, job promotion, home ownership, or birth announcements from old friends we shared over a decade ago. About friends still working at the same jobs they had in high school. About him saying he’ll try to make a visit. He’s got a lot going on, I know. I wonder if he’ll get engaged soon.

I have Siri dial him up again. Through my Prius’ Bluetooth, each subsequent ring sounds louder and louder as I come into the Inland Empire on the 91 east.

I don’t leave a voicemail.

You don’t have to tell an old friend who you are. The knowledge is automatic, like the way you can scratch an itch on an impossibly small part of your back without even thinking about it.

We’ve had a little rain recently. The canyons burst with green, but they’ll be brown again soon. It’s not clear enough today to see if there’s any snow left on top the distant San Gabriels.

I try another friend. I’ll ask him how he’s been doing after everything he’s been through recently. He’ll speak thoughtfully about his goings-on, philosophically about his current orientation in our cold and ever-expanding universe. He’ll recommend an author, a director, an artist I’ll pretend I’ve heard of. I’m sure he’ll be excited about my move to Dublin, but somehow I’ll never quite hear it in his voice. I’ll ask him more questions.

The phone rings through. He’s probably at the gym. I don’t leave a voicemail.

I don’t try a third friend I’ve been meaning to call. I can’t think of the last time he reached out to me since he remarried and became a father. He works so hard for his family. I think of him often. I’m sure he thinks of me, too.

At the 15, overpasses and onramps in mid-construction bestride the existing highways like the arching ribs of a cement giant. The air is hazy with smog from traffic, already thickening even though it’s a Sunday morning. With dust from constant bulldozers, with dirt kicked up by the desert winds. It’s hard to tell whether the colossal structures are being built or demolished.

My mom answers my next phone call. We chat until I’m just about back.

003_PE_R_CORONAGEDDONII_0129kfm.jpg_.jpg
Construction on State Route 91 by Corona, CA. Image by Kurt Miller, Orange County Register File Photo

***

In Henry IV, Part 2, we see Prince Harry complete his maturation from madcap youth to new monarch, King Henry V, after his father dies from illness. Just as he accepts the crown, he rejects his old friend, Falstaff:

FALSTAFF. My king, my Jove, I speak to thee, my heart.

KING HARRY. I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.…
Presume not that I am the thing I was,
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turned away from my former self;
So will I those that kept me company. (5.5.44-57)

The new king continues, banishing Falstaff and his old companions from coming within 10 miles of him. He declares he will provide for them, so that “lack of means enforce [them] not to evils,” welcoming them back only if they leave their drunken, lascivious, and thieving ways (5.5.65).

Falstaff mets Harry’s decree with denial. As he tries to convince a minor law official, Shallow, (and himself): “I shall be sent for in private to him. Look you, he must seem thus to the world” (5.5.74-75). But Falstaff is only sent to prison.

Granted, Falstaff is mostly interested in how he will richly benefit from his association with the new king when he learns of Harry’s coronation. But for all the fat knight’s vices, it’s hard not to commiserate with him.

And it’s hard not to condemn Harry for using his former friends, as we saw in Henry IV, Part I.

The Earl of Warwick, a supporter of King Henry IV, echoes Harry’s maturational strategy. When a moribund Henry, unaware of his son’s metamorphosis, imagines the “rotten times” (4.3.60) England has ahead when Harry succeeds him, Warwick offers:

The Prince but studies his companions,
Like a strange tongue, wherein to gain the language,
’Tis needful that the most immodest word
Be looked upon and learnt, which once attained,
Your highness knows, comes to no further use
But to be known and hated…(4.3.67-73)

It’s a very curious way to go about virtue. I guess Harry found a way to have his cake and eat it, too.

But it’s not all quite so easy for Harry, to be fair. We see him craving nothing more than a light beer, a drink below his royal rank, early in the play: “Doth it not show vilely in me to desire small beer?” (2.2.6). Later, we see him prematurely try on his father’s heavy crown, “to try with it, as with an enemy,” when he thinks his father, only asleep, has passed on (4.3.294).

His cake isn’t always so sweet.

***

In my wife’s old bedroom, squeezed between two dogs, I startle myself awake when I drop the book I’m reading about Ancient Rome. I set my phone alarms, cue up a podcast, and hit the light.  I have not heard back from my friends that day, I realize. Not that I expected them to, if I’m honest. I mostly forgot about it. Mostly.

The bluish light of my iPhone illuminates the room as I check my messages and phone log once more time.

***

Henry IV, Part 2 has really gotten me thinking about friendship. Not anything quite so dramatic as Harry’s bald repudiation of Falstaff, but about the ways we come in and out of each other’s lives.

Reflecting on the changing alliances between rulers and rebels in recent memory, on the ways in which we think we know the people in our lives, King Henry IV observes:

O God, that one might read the book of fate,
And see the revolution of the times
Make mountains level, and the continent
Weary of solid firmness, melt itself
Into the sea…(3.1.44-48)

But we can’t, as I’m sure Henry would agree.

“We are all time’s subjects,” one of the king’s opponents sums its up. And space’s, too.

***

I usually say I have about five close friends, almost all back in my hometown, Cincinnati. Lately, it can feel like one or two. I didn’t really make any new ones after I left. Not in Minneapolis. Not in Laguna Beach. Certainly not in Irvine.

Time gives friendship inertia. Space takes away its momentum.

I suppose I could have worked harder at it, but I’ve liked saving that effort to keep up with phone calls and making visits back home. Plus, there was family to get closer to out here in California and new colleagues when I was working in the autism field.

And age.

Does one really make new, close friends after a certain point? It feels hard to get to know someone after 30. Our pasts become so dense and opaque. You don’t have to tell an old friend who you are, who you really are. The knowledge is assumed and invisible. Automatic, like the way you can scratch an itch on an impossibly small part of your back without even thinking about it. How do you recreate gravity?

Time gives friendship inertia, fortunately. Thanks to that shared history, a college tall-tale and a couple of beers can make it feel like you’ve never missed a beat. There’s a shared psychology, too, with childhood friends. The selves you fulfilled. The many more you didn’t. Blame, perspective, circumstances.

But space, geography, takes away friendship’s momentum. Yes, there’s Facebook and FaceTime, weddings and holidays, but you just can’t call up your friend across the country Friday after work to see if he wants a beer. All those missed drinks accrete.

Just because you act as a sort of Hal, moving on, doesn’t mean your friends are Falstaffs, never changing. They move on, too. You can’t begrudge them that you’ve moved away. You can’t begrudge them circumstances.

This has been easy for me to forget.

We are all our own Hals, turning away from our former selves. For new crowns heavy with the weight of bills, obligations. Glistening with new possibilities.

We are all our own Hals. We are all our own Falstaffs.

We are all our own Falstaffs, inveterately ourselves, naively ourselves in our petty and pompous everyday lives as they unfold in time and space – which, beautifully, thankfully, we get to share, sometimes more often, sometime less, with others.

This is so easy to forget.

***

A few days later, I shoot my friends a text sometime before dinnertime, Pacific Time.  Eventually, I hear back from one: “miss you man.”

It’s enough, like a tiny bit of thrust in a spacecraft sent adrift.

It’s a dog’s life? The Two Gentlemen of Verona

The things we do for love.

I squeeze out some toothpaste. It’s peanut butter flavored. Out of a strange, boyish curiosity, I am tempted to try it. Hugo at first cowers but surrenders. I move the toothbrush across his incisors, trying to reach his back teeth past his black gums and pink, writhing tongue, which fights this harpoon of hygiene like the tentacles of a giant squid. He doesn’t like it. But his breath stinks. Hugo never chews with his molars for some reason, so they’re getting a little gnarly.

I don’t brush his teeth as often as I should. The American Pet Association, I recall, advises dog owners to brush their pets’ teeth once a day. Once a day. That seems a bit absurd, I think, imaging dogs out there getting violin lessons and SAT tutoring. Because their owners – their parents – are better and love them more.

Still, I think, my dog has better healthcare than billions of people on this planet. I often like to make this comment in jest when our pets come up in conversation with friends and family, but it’s actually no joke. In many ways, Hugo – and likely your dog, too – has a better quality of life than so many humans across the globe, at least materially speaking.

Hugo gets consistent meals and fresh water. Organic dog food, even. Each time he goes outside, I give him a treat. Some of them are tasty – and don’t act like you haven’t tried them. He gets regular exercise. He has lots of toys. He gets loads of attention. He sleeps with us in a queen-sized bed. He gets his shots. He gets warm baths. He gets hair cuts. Every now and again, I even brush his teeth and clean his ears – not that he likes those.

Hugo has even travelled more than some people I know. We rescued him in Minneapolis, where he loved in the snow. He travelled by plane with us to Laguna Beach, where he ran on the beach. When I was in between the Twin Cities and the Queen City, Hugo rode shotgun with me when I drove back and forth, where he did not like the passenger seat. Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin? Cross those states off his list. He’s hiked in the Sierra Mountains and ran down the vineyards rows in Temecula wine country.

Now, our dog is moving with us to Dublin. It’s one of the first questions we get about our move: “What are you doing with Hugo?”

“He’s going with us,” we quickly say. “Duh!” And then one of us tries to bark in a Irish accent. It’s absurd.

Modern dogs have it pretty good, but Lance’s dog Crab in The Two Gentlemen of Verona has got it made.

Apart from securing visas and selling everything we own, we’re starting to coordinate Hugo’s transport. It’s a complicated process – and I won’t go into the associated costs. It’s an emotional one, too. For international flights, dogs have to fly in cargo. You can’t sedate them; their ears won’t pop if you do, apparently. So, we’ll have to crate him up and expect a shit-covered, piss-soaked cage and a shivering, confused pup on the other side.

It’s a little less complicated to fly a dog to the European continent, my wife’s figured out. We’ve discussed flying him to Paris and taking various trains and ferries from there.  I don’t know how that’s less complicated, but he’d definitely get some stamps on his passport. My wife tells me there’s some even sort of puppy passport.

Clearly, we do a lot for our dog, as I’m sure you do for yours. Such are our pets – as I’m sure most of say, our families – in 2016.

Hugo_toys
“You can only pack one for Dublin, Hugo.” He’ll definitely pick that nasty looking potato, which started out as an anthropomorphic baguette. iPhone photo by me.

As I work the toothpaste across Hugo’s little teeth, I can’t help but imagine Shakespeare, perched on the ledge of the tub as he shaping up his cuticles with an emery board, rolling his eyes at me.

See, in the Bard’s house, dogs aren’t exactly man’s best friend.

***

You may recall that I’ve been tracking a few things as I make my way through the complete works of Shakespeare in 2016. I am keeping tabs on unusual words, I am recording instances of strong language, I am looking for interesting occupations, and I am noting dogs.

So far, PETA would not be pleased with our playwright.

Take Henry V, where dogs are often used as terms of abuse. A common soldier, Pistol, issues some choice words to Nim, as they quarrel over a woman: “Pish for thee, Iceland dog. Thou prick-eared cur of Iceland” (2.1.36). This breed, my Norton Shakespeare glosses, is particularly small and hairy one. Pistol goes on to call Nim an “egregious dog” (2.1.40) and “hound of Crete” (2.1.66). Or take Antony and Cleopatra, when an impassioned Cleopatra cries to Octavius after his victory: “Slave, soulless villain, dog!” (5.2.153).

We dogs as objects of abuse in Cymbeline. The Queen, seeking poison from the doctor, Cornelius, pretends: “I will try the forces / Of these thy compounds on such creatures as / We count not worth the hanging, but none human, / To try the vigour of them, and apply / Allayments to their act, and by them gather / Their several virtues and effects” (1.5.18-23). Cornelius senses her ulterior motives (she wants to kill off Innogen’s means of communication with her banished husband, his messenger Pisanio): “She’ll prove on cats and dogs, / Then afterward up higher” (1.5.38-39). Fortunately, no dogs were harmed in the making of Cymbeline; Cornelius tricks the Queen by supplying a fake poison, anyways.

We famously see dogs’ ferocity in Julius Caesar: “Cry ‘havoc’! and let slip the dogs of war” (3.1.276). We see their service and servility, metaphorical hunters unleashed by their masters to catch the quarry of their desires in The Taming of the Shrew. For instance, Lucentio’s  servant, Tranio, remarks: “O sir, Lucentio slipped me like his greyhound, / Which runs himself and catches for his master” (5.2.53-54).

Dogs do seem to get a little love, though. In the First Induction of The Taming of the Shrew, the Lord comes back a hunt, pleased with his dogs:

Huntsman, I charge thee, tender well my hounds.
Breathe Merriman – the poor cur is embossed –
And couple Clowder with the deep-mouth brach.
Saw’st thou not, boy, how Silver made it good
At the hedge corner, in the coldest fault?
I would not lose the dog for twenty pound. (Induction 1.12-17)

You can imagine Merriman, Clowder, and Silver, whose names gives us a glimpse into the soul of the Elizabethan dog-owner,  happy and panting.

And then there’s The Two Gentleman of Verona, my sixth play so far in this project. You might know the play, especially if you’ve seen Shakespeare in Love, as “the one with the dog.”

***

The Two Gentleman of Verona is famous for two things.

First, it’s one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays and, according to most critics, one of his weakest. It’s not unlike pilot episodes. Take “The Seinfeld Chronicles.” This Seinfeld pilot lacks the masterful craft we’ve come to love in the sitcom, but the seeds of the show’s genius are still there.

I think, in many ways, Two Gentlemen of Verona is Seinfeldian: Both pay a lot of attention not to the actual relationships themselves but the way people talk about their relationships. There is an early scene in Two Gentlemen of Verona, for example, when Julia (I’ll get to the characters in a minute) is asking her servant, Lucetta, which of her suitors she thinks is best. They weigh pros and cons, not less superficially than Jerry and George discussing their latest dates. Later, Thurio asks Proteus what Silvia says about her. I can see Kramer jumping in, saying, “Why don’t you just ask her yourself?

Second, the play actually features a dog, Crab, comic companion to Lance, Proteus’ clownish servant.

Shakespeare certainly had no Instagram account where he exclusively posted pictures of his pug, but, for all the kicks dogs take in his works, the comic relationship between Lance and his dog is also somewhat sweet and tender.

OK, the play. The Two Gentleman of Verona is a comedy about two friends who compete over the same girl. Valentine goes off to Milan, where he falls in love with the Duke’s daughter, Silvia, who is supposed to marry Thurio. His best friend, Proteus, stays behind, lovestruck by Julia. But Proteus is urged to join Valentine abroad, where he falls in love Silvia. Valentine and Silvia plan to elope. Proteus betrays his friend – and Julia, of course – and lets the Duke in on the plan before trying to win over Silvia. Julia, meanwhile, disguises herself as boy page, her need to see Proteus so powerful, but soon learns of Proteus’ infidelity. Chased from the city, Valentine joins up with some outlaws. Silvia steals off to find him, as the Duke, Thurio, and Proteus go after her. Silvia is captured. Then the Duke and Thurio are captured by the outlaws. But soon all are freed, thanks to Valentine’s status with the outlaws (they needed, no joke, someone good at languages). The Duke finds Valentine worthy of his daughter. All are reunited and forgiven, including Julia and Proteus, friends and lovers alike.

Oh, the foolish things we do for love!

About that. There is a third thing the play’s known for. Actually, a fourth, too.

At the end of the play, Silvia wholly rejects Proteus, but he’s not understanding that “no” means “no”:

Nay, if the gentle spirit of moving words
Can no way change you to a milder form
I’ll woo you like a soldier, at arm’s end,
And love you ‘gainst the nature of love: force ye. (5.4.55-58)

Um, yeah. Proteus threatens rape.

And then – and then, Valentine comes forward and stops him. Proteus begs for forgiveness. Valentine is quickly moved:

…Once again I do receive thee honest.
Who by repentance is not satisfied
Is nor of heaven nor earth. For these are pleased:
By penitence th’ Eternal’s wrath’s appeased.
And that my love may appear plain and free,
All that was mine in Silvia’s thee. (5.4.78-83)

Yup. Mmm-hmm. Valentine offers Silvia to betoken his faith in their friendship. Silvia leaves with Valentine and Julia with Proteus, but Shakespeare leaves us with some real doozies about relationships.

The truly crazy things we do for love.

***

Speaking of crazy, for all the imperfections of The Two Gentleman of Verona, the Bard does mirror the human relationships with Lance’s relationship with his dog, Crab.

I think we’ve all blamed a little flatulence on the dog, but taking the fall for Fido? I guess when your dog’s going to be killed for it…

I’m not certain if the play was originally staged with a dog. I’ve read that William Kempe, a renowned comic actor in Shakespeare’s day and in several of his plays, played the part of Lance. Kempe, some claim, actually had a naughty dog named Crab he liked to bring to the theater and Shakespeare thus wrote some of the mischief into the play. Alas, this seems to be the stuff of theatre legend.

I do know that so many stagings have an actual dog play its part, much to the delight and amusement of audiences. Shakespeare certainly had no Instagram account where he exclusively posted pictures of his pug, but, for all the kicks dogs take in his works, this comic relationship is also somewhat sweet and tender. The Lance-Crab scenes really steal the show.

In one, Lance is shedding some tears over leaving behind his family for Milan with his master, Proteus:

I think Crab, my dog, be the sourest-natured dog that lives. My mother weeping, my father wailing, my sister crying, our maid howling, our cat wringing her hands, and all our house in a great perplexity, yet did not this cruel-hearted cur shed one tear. He is a stone, a very pebble-stone, and has no more pity in him than a dog…(2.3.4-9).

Shakespeare in Love treats the scene well (0:53):

Later, reflecting on relationships between masters and servants, Lance shares an accident that happened at court with Crab, whom he “brought up of a puppy, one that I saved from drowning when three or four of his blind brothers  went to it” (4.4.2-4):

[Crab] had not been there – bless the mark – a pissing-while but all the chamber smelled him. ‘Out with the dog,’ says one. ‘What cur is that?’ says another. ‘Whip him out,’ says the third. ‘Hang him up,’ says the Duke. I, having been acquainted with the smell before, knew it was Crab, and goes me to the fellow that whips the dogs. ‘Friend,’ quoth I, ‘you meant to whip the dog.’ ‘Ay, marry do I,’ quoth. ‘You do him the more wrong,’ quoth I, ‘’twas I did the thing you wot of.’ He makes me no more ado, but whips me out of the chamber. How many masters would do this for his servant? (4.5.16-25)

Lance continues:

Nay, I’ll be sworn I have sat in the stocks for puddings he hath stolen, otherwise he had been executed. I have stood on the pillory for geese he hath killed, otherwise he had suffered for’t. (To Crab) Though think’st not of this now…When didst thou see me heave up my leg and make water against a gentle-woman’s farthingale? (4.5.25-33).

Now that’s love.

I think we’ve all blamed a little flatulence on the dog, but taking the fall for Fido? I guess when your dog’s going to be killed for it…

Modern dogs have it pretty good, but Lance’s Crab has got it made.

***

I finish brushing Hugo’s teeth. He looks up at me with wide, sad eyes, as if to say, “Why would you do this to me?” I can see Shakespeare, as unfriendly as his words may be to man’s best friend,  looking up from his nail-filing, saying, “Well, aren’t you going to give him a treat?”

Drink plenty of fluids: Antony and Cleopatra

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

I felt like the Queen of the Nile.

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

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

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

The opulence, the luxury!

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, in “Formation,” Beyoncé sings:

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

LEPIDUS. You have strange serpents there?

ANTONY. Ay, Lepidus.

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

ANTONY. They are so. (2.7.16-27)

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

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

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

Celebrities–they’re just like us!

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

Personality tests: The Taming of the Shrew

In 2016, it’s not the shrew that’s the problem. It’s the taming.

I don’t think I’m going to take my advice from Petruccio, exactly, but I do think The Taming of the Shrew definitely has something to teach me about marriage.

I’m just gonna lay it out here: My wife and I are going to be starting some couples counseling. Our relationship – especially our communication – needs some work.

THE PERSON OF THE PLAY*

LADY
LORD
HUGO, their dog

1.1

Location: Their apartment. The lady and lord are reading in bed before going to sleep.

[Loud thumps from apartment below]

LADY. What the hell? What are they doing down there?

LORD.  Oh, lighten up.

LADY. Excuse me?

LORD. If we’re gonna live in a big city, we gotta get used to some noise.

LADY. But you complain about that noise all the time.

LORD. Yeah, but I’m trying to be less negative, like we talked about. I’m trying to adapt. The neighbors do whatever they’re doing every night at this time. I think they’re just doing bedtime routine stuff, closing cabinets in their bathroom and such.

LADY. I appreciate that, but you don’t have to be so mean about how you say it.

LORD. Always with this “mean.” Anything I say. Even when I’m trying to say it nicely.

LADY. “Lighten up” is your idea of nice?

LORD. You know, I can’t always filter what I’m trying to say. [Gets up from bed.] We are living in the world, language is going to happen.

LADY. I’m your wife. You can be nice to me.

LORD. I only said “lighten up.”

LADY. You’re not listening to me

LORD. No, I hear you, I just resent always being totalized as “mean.” [Exit HUGO]

LADY. You’re not listening to me.

LORD. I don’t think you’re listening to me.

LADY. I’m your wife. You can be on my side about things. Let’s just–

LORD. – it’s just some noise downstairs. [Paces] You’re so sensitive.

LADY. That’s so sexist.

LORD. “Sexist” is characterizing my whole person as “mean.” [Exit JOHN]

*Later editions of this play list the dramatis personae as:

BEGGAR
LADY
HUGO, their dog

We resolved this argument, just as we’ve resolved so many others like it. Perhaps this disagreement seems pretty mundane, but we’re tired of having them. Here and there, fine. Conflicts are inevitable. But we really think we can do better as a couple. We want to do better.

So, as we start counseling, I thought I would open my yearlong project by reading The Taming of the Shrew. The play is centered on Katherine, told (by an older male, I should note) to go to “the devil’s dam” (1.1.105) – the devil’s mother, worse than the devil himself.

I think we both identify with her.

***

A quick summary is in order. Be advised: Some swearing is ahead.

The Taming of the Shrew is a comedy written by Shakespeare by 1592, at least. The main action actually unfolds as a play within a play. (Shakespeare, ever meta, would have owned postmodernism, I think. Some might argue he made it possible.)

“I knew a wench married in an afternoon as she went to the garden for parsley to stuff a rabbit”

The play opens with some nobles tricking this drunk guy, Christopher Sly, into thinking he is a lord. As part of their joke, they put on a play for him. (Classic prank. I used to get my buddies with this all the time.) In this play, various dudes, including a kind of creepy older one, want to marry the beautiful, well-mannered Bianca. But Bianca’s dad, Baptista, locks her up until his oldest daughter, the strong-willed and sharp-tongued Katherine feared and shunned by the men of the play, gets hitched. (That’s pretty fucked up, Mr. Minola.) Some of the suitors disguise themselves, acting as teachers, for example, or pretending to be a servant, in their efforts to win Bianca. Recruited by some other suitors, this Petruccio comes along and takes on the challenge of wooing Katherine. Basically, he “tames” her by out-shrewing her through reverse psychology, giving her a taste of her own medicine. They get married. (It all happens pretty fast.) So does Bianca, meanwhile, involving a subplot with some epic dowry negotiations and more identity changes. Having given up on Bianca, another suitor marries a widow. And Katherine, whom we see Petruccio whip into compliance, turns out to be the most obedient of all the wives.

I had read this play before (more on that in an upcoming post), but I don’t recall laughing as much the first time. There were a few one-liners that struck me as very modern.

First, when Sly awakes from his inebriated blackout, he is confused and then amazed. But all he really wants is another beer (this is how I feel when I go back home to Cincinnati for the holidays):

Upon my life, I am a lord indeed,
And not a tinker, nor Christopher Sly.
Well, bring our lady hither to our sight,
And once again a pot o’th’ smallest ale. (Induction 2.70-73)

Second, later in the play, the character Lucentio, who wins Bianca’s hand in marriage after promising her dad a ridiculous dowry he can’t immediately guarantee, races off to church to seal the deal. One of his servants, Biondello, remarks on their hurried nuptials: “I knew a wench married in an afternoon as she went to the garden for parsley to stuff a rabbit…” (4.5.23-24) This “wench” business aside, that’s a hilarious line. I could hear it from Dwight Schrute.

Finally, the war of wits between Katherine and Petruccio is extraordinary, particularly at 2.1.180. It truly demonstrates Shakespeare’s genius for wordplay. I swear, it’s like Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) and Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) in 30 Rock. As my wife characterizes their (Fey and Baldwin’s) relationship, “it’s insulting but also shows mutual respect.” The only difference here is some serious sexual tension between K and P, if the penis and vagina puns are any measure. They number high. The culmination of a run of puns, Petruccio punches: “What, with my tongue in your tail?” (2.1.214). Dayyum.

Theme-wise, The Taming of the Shrew is complex. By its end, historical identities and power dynamics, inverted throughout the characters’ various disguises, are restored. In her famous, closing monologue, Katherine waxes dutiful:

Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign, one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe,
And craves no other tribute at thy hands,
But love, fair looks, and true obedience,
Too little payment for so great a debt. (5.2.150-158)

Um, no.

Once playing masters, servants resume servility. After falling asleep during the play-within-theplay, Sly, in some additional passages, wakes up and returns home, just a lowly drunk once again.

But I can’t help but think that all the role reversals and identity changes and social fluidity, along with moments of what seems to be matched wits and mutual respect between Katherine and Petruccio, calls into question the order of things in Elizabethan England. Is Shakespeare ultimately being ironic?

Still, those identities, while fluid, are restored…

***

We took a personality test, my wife and I, when I was just a few scenes into the play. It could not have been more apt. Amanda (that’s my wife) read an article in Real Simple which pointed her to a Big Five personality test online. This one’s pretty nifty, because you can rate another person, such as a spouse or sibling, as you rate yourself.

Here are our results:

Big 5  - Amanda results
Amanda’s results. Her self-ranking is red, her ranking for me is blue.
Big 5 - John results
My results. My self-ranking is red, her ranking for me is blue.

You’ll note some disagreements. For instance, I rated myself as very Open to New Experiences; she rates me as much more Close-Minded. It looks like we agree to disagree, however: We both see ourselves and each other as Disagreeable (or froward, as the Bard might say).

Kate takes a personality test, too, so to speak. Or rather, the men of the play take it for her. In Elizabeth England, the Big Five was actually the Big Four: the four humors. Rooted in ancient philosophy, humoral theory believed that the four humors that made up the body – blood, black bile, phlegm, and yellow bile – influenced human behavior. Each was associated with what we might call personality traits today: blood (sanguine), black bile (melancholic), phlegm (phlegmatic), and yellow bile (choleric).

Kate is choleric, the play makes clear.

There’s a point in Taming of the Shrew when Petruccio is making Kate’s life a living hell. He denies her food, for instance, by pretending it’s horribly cooked and not good enough for her. He berates the servants in front of her, too, as (we are led to believe) she herself would once have done, to make an example of her nasty temper.

Here, Petruccio tosses aside his mutton, castigates his servants as “heedless jolt-heads” (4.1.147), and tells her the meat was:

….burnt and dried away,
And I expressly am forbid to touch it,
For it engenders choler, planteth anger,
And better ‘twere that both of us did  fast,
Since of ourselves ourselves are choleric,
Than feed it with such overroasted flesh. (4.1.151-156)

In other words, “we’re already pretty stubborn and strong-willed people. We’ve got too much yellow bile, and eating this overcooked meat will only add to it.”

Imbalances in the humors causes illness and explains temperaments. So, balancing out excesses was a key to health. (I think I should fast from meat for a bit.)

Which got me thinking. How do we think about personality today, especially when it comes to relationships?

***

In 2016, it’s not the shrew that’s the problem. It’s the taming.

Identity is so fluid in 2016. We can self-invent, much as we see the characters in Taming of the Shrew do. Popularly speaking, we saw this last year with Caitlyn Jenner. More controversially, we saw this with Rebecca Dolezal.

But I wonder sometimes if personality has become unassailable. If I’m a neat freak and don’t like leaving my comfort zone, for example, it’s up to me to find someone who will mesh wish that. OK. That seems kind of obvious. But does this close off serious reflection – and possible self-improvement – about how those attitudes affect my relationships?

We don’t orbit the sun like a planet in some clean ellipse; instead, our lives are like an asteroid belt.

So, in relationships, it can feel like changing your personality means selling out your authentic self – to compromise who you are, to let someone else control you. In a heated argument, something as mild as “You can be nicer” becomes an assault on one’s integrity: “Who the fuck are you to tell me how I should be?”

There’s no point in trying to re-juice an iPhone 4 with an iPhone 6 charger. Incompatible. Got to upgrade, get a new phone.

But as Amanda cautioned when I was reflecting on this with her, “We all risk ending up being our authentic selves – alone.”

And all this can make it feel like, when there are problems in relationships – or even if you aren’t always experiencing fulfillment and happiness all the time – you just haven’t found your soulmate.

Do our one-person cults of personality choke off meaningful efforts to improve ourselves?

You know, Amanda and I both had grandparents who were married to each other for over 50 years. Fifty fucking years. That’s crazy. We, meanwhile, argue about tone. But it’s easy to romanticize the past. The past didn’t hold the same possibilities for self as we have now. My wife’s the breadwinner in our family. I do, and enjoy doing, the chores. None of this challenges my masculinity. I embrace it.

Personality is not an entitlement.

But as identity is so fluid, as the social order shifts, it can be hard to know what to be, what to do with one’s life. (This, of course, is a crisis of privilege.) Nevertheless, this is why I think we cling to personality. The modern world can be so fragmented, so fast-changing. We switch majors, careers, lovers, spouses, friends, cars, phones, apartments, houses, cities. We don’t orbit the sun like a planet in some clean ellipse; instead, our lives are like an asteroid belt.

We need to know which Star Wars character we are most like to confirm who we are – or at least who we think we are. We need gravity, an orbit, a trajectory, else we burn up like a meteor in the atmosphere.

We thus face a veritably Shakespearean contradiction. We treat our interior personalities as stable (science actually largely backs this up) but our exterior identities as fluid (indeed, social roles are constructed).

This makes life confusing, stressful……or maybe I’m just being a controlling prick sometimes. These situations are not mutually exclusive.

The whole “taming” and “shrew” business is bad news by today’s standards, but Shakespeare’s comedy definitely shakes up my thinking about those arguments I have with my wife. My personality may predispose me to think and act in particular ways, but it is not an entitlement. What’s the harm in unknitting a “threat’ning, unkind brow” (5.2.140)?

Next, Henry V.