Hearing heirs: The Tempest

Should I get my ears checked?

My nephew waved his chubby fingers at the camera. He smiled and then stared, transfixed, as babies are, as we all are, at the moving images and intermittent sounds from the iPad. Over 3500 miles away, he was basking in the center of attention at a belated Thanksgiving celebration at my father’s house. My father, middle brother, stepmother, and stepsister each passed through the FaceTime picture, the commotion of cooking and dogs, chatter and moving bodies, the commotion of family and gathering, in the background.

“How are you, buddy?” I said. “Are you looking forward to dinner?” I never know what to say to babies. I try out a little baby-talk but inevitably shake it off for normal speech. I waved back, smiled, and then stared back, transfixed.

I was transfixed, of course, by his shaggy, sandy-colored bangs. By his plump, grinning cheeks, his eyes, nutty-brown and just as plump. But I was also transfixed by my nephew as such. That he was my brother’s child. That he was this emerging being who could walk, loved music, and called everything in his nascent lexicon “blue.” That he exists. That he is. “O wonder!” as Miranda says in The Tempest after she sees her first humans other than her father and his slave Caliban:

How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in’t! (5.1.184-87)

I took my nephew in. I looked for my brother in his face. I looked for my family, our eyes and noses, our jaws and brows. I looked for myself, too, and I tried to my imagine my own child. But I couldn’t.

***

In The Tempest, we learn Prospero, Duke of Milan, fled to an island in the Mediterranean with his three-year-old daughter, Miranda, after his brother, Antonio, usurped him and pledged tribute to the enemy state of Naples. As Prospero explains: “The government I cast upon my brother, / And to my state grew stranger, being transported / And rapt in secret studies” (1.2.75-77). From his books (“volumes I prize above my dukedom”), he learned magic, using them to control Ariel, a spirit, and Caliban, a grotesque native (1.2.169-70). Twelve years later, he wields his magic to conjure up a storm that shipwrecks Antonio, the Duke of Naples, his son Ferdinand, and other royal characters on the island. This sets in motion having Ferdinand and Miranda fall in love and marry, restoring his dukedom, and pardoning his brother. In the end, he abandons his magic to return to Milan: “Now my charms are all o’erthrown, / And what strength I have’s mine own,” Prospero says in an epilogue some consider to be Shakespeare’s farewell address to the theater (1-2).

In telling The Tempest, Shakespeare constructs – and I don’t think I’d ever have noticed this if my college Shakespeare professor hadn’t brilliantly pointed it out – an elaborate system of wordplay: hair, art, ear, air, hear, and Ariel. All of these, furthered by motifs of sounds and listening throughout the play, pun on the word heir. And The Tempest is indeed rapt with the issue of heirs. After the storm, Alonso, the Duke of Naples, believes he has lost Ferdinand, his “heir / Of Napes and of Milan” (2.1.111-12). One of the nobles, Gonzalo, imagines a utopian state free of “succession,” or the inheritance of property (2.1.151). Prospero was deposed from power by his brother but himself deposes Caliban, the rightful heir of the island. In a subplot, two of Alonso’s servants get Caliban drunk, and Caliban plots to help them overtake Prospero and serve them as his new masters. In another subplot, Antonio encourages Sebastian to overthrow his own brother, the Duke of Naples. Prospero marries Miranda and Ferdinand, his new heir, and in a celebratory masque, has a spirit “bless this twain, that they may prosperous be, / And honoured in their issue” (4.1.104-05).

***

Heirs are about political and financial power, of course, and The Tempest no doubt fully explores this. But heirs concern a more personal power, too, a kind of masculine power: In our children, there is a this-is-my-flesh-and-blood authority, an I-made-this pride and legacy. Even Prospero, wants what’s his, even if he more’s interested in magic than administration: his inherited dukedom and for his heirs to succeed him. Or so I imagine. Because I don’t have children – and I’m not sure I’ll ever want to.

But I’ve also just never felt that more ancient instinct: the this-is-my-flesh-and-blood, I-made-this paternity. To pass down my genes. To pass down my name. To bring a little me into the world.

This is not an issue with my wife. She feels the same way.  We both think we would be great parents, yes, and we both know our families would love it if we did. But currently we’re just not interested in it. Maybe this is because were early-30s millennials, the idea of children inconveniencing our career goals, our travels, our lifestyle, er, drinking. Maybe this is because were concerned about the future. Does our suffering planet need our kids? Do we want to bring a kid into a world, to be perfectly honest, where Donald Trump is president?

Is this selfish? Privileged? Naive? Insulting to couples who want to have children but can’t? Are we denying ourselves of some greater fulfillment, purpose, and actualization by not being parents, by never so wholly caring for someone other than yourself? Is it on some level hypocritical, as the decision not to have children is only possible because my parents decided to have us? Is it on some level anti-biological, denying my genes their evolutionarily hard-fought, hard-wired expression?

All of that may very well be. But I’ve also just never felt that more ancient instinct: the this-is-my-flesh-and-blood, I-made-this paternity. To pass down my genes. To pass down my name. To bring a little me into the world. Of course, there is so much more to parenthood than my crude characterization. There is the profound love and joy. The opportunity to mould the next Albert Einstein or Marie Curie, Billie Holiday or William Shakespeare. Historically at least, there is the economic support of extra labor on the farm, of care for aging parents. And there’s sociocultural reality, the biological reality, that reproduction is simply what we do – and that most of us never question we will do, because we know we will do it, because we’ve always known we will do it, because having children is what we do, as couples, as members of a culture or nation or religion, as descendants of a tribe, as men, as women, as humans, as penises and vaginas, as organisms, as self-replicating DNA. That deep urge to be parents is literally in our bones.

Even if I don’t want children, why have I never heard it in mine? It’s one thing to make a principled decision not to have children. But isn’t it another when you listen out for the primal impulse and come up deaf? Why don’t I hear heir? And does this silence make me abnormal, less-than, like some Caliban? Hell, even Caliban “peopled else / This isle with  Calibans” (1.2.353-54).

***

My nephew freed his gaze from the iPad’s mesmerism. He smiled, looked up at his dad, lifted his blue-striped shirt to show off his stomach, and then laughed. “Is that your bellybutton?” my brother laughed with him. “Is that your bellybutton?” I may not hear the parental calling myself, but I’m not blind to its magic.

Shakespeare, Trump, and radical experiments of self-government: The Winter’s Tale

All politics is personal.

I’ve been preoccupied with two people this year. The first, of course, is William Shakespeare. The other, alack, is Donald Trump.

I’ve avoided writing about the latter. It’s not that I don’t see the man everywhere in Shakespeare’s plays. I see him in Richard III’s Machiavellian machinations. In Richard II’s incompetence, overreach, and rashness. I see him in Iago’s Janus-faced manipulations. In Timon of Athen’s extreme egotism. In the glib sexual presumption of Falstaff as he appears in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

It’s that I’ve wanted to keep the two separated. Maybe because I’ve felt the connections were too pat, that discussing today’s politics would be such an obvious, unoriginal move. Maybe because I haven’t wanted to talk about him – because he’s all we ever talk about anymore.

You don’t get to ruin Shakespeare, too, damnit.

Or maybe it’s because, in spite of my efforts to make sense of my mundane life in 2016, I’ve ended up seeking escape in the Bard, trying to locate, somehow, even my self-divulging, self-indulging reflections in a kind of sacrosanct timelessness I want unsullied by the small, groping, orange hands of the 45th president of the United States. You don’t get to ruin Shakespeare, too, damnit.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Shakespeare, it’s that all politics is personal.

***

I’m shocked. I’m angry. I’m scared. I’m eager for action – no,  this middle-class white guy isn’t pretending this essay on Shakespeare makes a meaningful difference. But I’m also longing to understand. To understand my country. To understand people I know – family, for God’s sake – who cast their vote for a bigot. To understand “what happened,” as we’ve been widely referring to Trump’s election.

And it’s this “what happened” that I’ve been stuck on when it comes to Trump and Shakespeare. “What happened?” we ask, bewildered, when Othello kills Desdemona. “How the hell did this happen?” we ask when Lear cradles a dead Cordelia. “Why in God’s name did we end up here?” when ask, beholding Macbeth’s bloodbath. “What happened?” millions of America’s are asking, dazed and gobsmacked, since November 9. The aftermath all seems so unlikely, so improbable, so dramatic. Too dramatic. Laughably dramatic.

What Leontes wreaks is catastrophic, but his original sin is all too ordinary.

Like in The Winter’s Tale. In this romance play, Leontes, King of Sicilia, sees his wife, Hermione, innocently clasp hands with his lifelong friend and King of Bohemia, Polixenes. He becomes paranoid. He silences his advisers. He plots to kill Polixenes. He imprisons his wife, who is pregnant and gives birth while jailed. He wants the newborn burned until deciding to have her abandoned in the wilderness. And, oh my, the ways he talks about women: hag, harlot, callat, hobby-horse, thing. (I’d like to say I’m fishing for Trumpian comparisons here, but no. It’s all there.) And Leontes causes so much terror and stress it ends up killing Leontes’ dear son and Hermione.

How did this happen?

The events are so hyperbolic that we tend to attribute it to larger-than-life personalities and passions, to outsized faults and flaws. Celebrities and Shakespearean villains – they’re just not like us. But we confound the outcome with the cause. What Leontes wreaks is catastrophic, but his original sin is all too ordinary: “I have too much believed mine own suspicion,” Leontes plainly sums it when he first reckons with the death of his wife and son (3.2.149).

Shakespeare, in that extraordinary way the playwright takes us into that interior stage of the mind, lets us glimpse how ‘it happened’ for Leontes. As he works himself up into a frenzy, Leontes rampages:

…Is whispering nothing?
Is leaning cheek to cheek? Is meeting noses?
Kissing with inside lip? Stopping the career
Of laughter with a sigh? – a note infallible
Of breaking honesty. Horsing foot on foot?
Skulking in corners? Wishing clocks more swift,
Hours minutes, noon midnight? And all eyes
Blind with the pin and web but theirs, theirs only,
That would be unseen be wicked? Is this nothing?
Why then the world and all that’s in’t is nothing,
The covering sky is nothing, Bohemia is nothing,
My wife is nothing, nor nothing have these nothings
If this be nothing. (1.2.286-98)

What happened? How did we get here? It was a whisper. It was nothing.

***

We read Shakespeare, we often say, because of how profoundly he probes and depicts human nature. We try to distill his characters down to raw elements: jealousy, ambition, power, hesitation, arrogance, suspicion. Yes, these, but I think Shakespeare ultimately strikes a deeper vein: irrationality.

It seems Shakespeare had something in common with the Founding Fathers: a belief in self-government, and just how radical an experiment it really is.

We, as humans, like to think we’re rational actors. That we make decisions based on the best available evidence. That we weigh choices based on risk and reward. Which is why Shakespeare’s Lears and Macbeths and Leontes evoke so much outrage, pity, and pathos. Why wouldn’t Lear just listen to what Cordelia was saying to him? Why did Macbeth carry out his assassinations in spite of his persistent moral reservations? How could Leontes let his suspicions get so out of hand and so quickly? If only they could see what they were doing, all the suffering, all the loss, all the grief, all the blood and gore would have been avoided. I would never act like that, we tell ourselves as Lear roves the heath and Macbeth talks to imaginary daggers. This is not what I would have done, we say as Leontes, foaming with self-feeding, despotic jealousy, justifies his anger.

Which is precisely why Shakespeare’s tragic figures are so horrifying. Because we do act like them. Because we’re irrational. We turn petty grievances into catastrophes. We let slights fester into disease. We take revenge on others because we are small, broken, needy beings. All for appearing right, to be recognized, not thinking ahead to, and never actually really wanting, the wreckage our egos leave in their wake. We feel guilty when we finally get what we say we want.

As Paulina, Hermione’s faithful attendant, stands up to Leontes:

…Thy tyranny, together working with thy jealousies –
Fancies too weak for boys, too green and idle
For girls of nine – O think, what they have done,
And the run made indeed, stark mad, for all
Thy bygone fooleries were but spices of it. (3.2.177-82).

We’re Leontes, ruled by the petty, childish tyrannies of our unreason – and our blind insistence otherwise – that bemonsters, Hulk-like and Hyde-like, whispers into so much woe. It seems Shakespeare had something in common with the Founding Fathers: a belief in self-government, and just how radical an experiment it really is.

***

Leontes repents. Sixteen years later, magically, it turns out his baby daughter, Perdita, had survived and was raised by a shepherd in Bohemia, where Polixenes’ son, Florizel, has fallen in love with her. But Polixenes will not have his son marry some country girl and responds with all the tyrannical violence of Leontes. The lovers flee to Sicilia, where Leontes reunites with his daughter and discovers Paulina, Hermione’s attendant, has been keeping the queen alive as a statue all this time.

It’s romantic idea, America, but is it a Romance play, where what’s lost is found, what’s divided is reunited? America’s going to need some repentance. It’s going to need some time. It’s going to need a whole lot of self-government, and that starts with checking our inner, irrational autocrats.

Some fairy-tale magic wouldn’t hurt, either. “It is required / You do awake your faith,” Paulina tells Leontes’ court when Hermione’s statue comes alive (5.3.94-95). But we should remember that while Leontes cried in the chapel everyday for 16 years, Paulina was attending to the statue of her Queen every day. That doesn’t just take faith. It takes commitment  and discipline – which require self-government.

And it’s not lost on me that the person who stands up to the tyrant, who puts in the work, is a woman.

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).

Pericles, Freelance Writer of Tyre

Avaunt, clickbait!

Incest, riddles, walls of human heads, pirates, sexual slavery, undead wives, visions of goddesses? Why, Pericles sounds a lot like freelance writing.

Pericles opens with Antiochus and his daughter, “with whom the father liking took, / And her to incest did provoke” (1.25-26). Ignorant of this, many suitors sought her, famed as she was for her beauty, but Antiochus tested them with a riddle, on pain of death, decorating his palace with their many, failed heads.

(Pitches are riddles. Should my email be a few, catchy lines? Should I develop my idea in a few grafs? Do I follow up in a few days, a week? Do I follow up at all? As for incest, well, it’s all about who you know. Once you’re in…And editors most certainly line their cubicles with all their felled rejects.) 

Then our Pericles comes from Tyre to try his hand at the riddle:

I am no viper, yet I feed
On mother’s flesh which did breed me.
I sought a husband, in which labour
I found that kindness in a father.
He’s father, son, and husband mild;
I mother, wife, and yet his child.
How this may be and yet in two,
As you will live resolve it you. (1.107-14)

Pericles figures it out – the answer is: Oh my god, you’ve been having sex with your own daughter?! – but doesn’t want to divulge it for fear of backlash. “Great King, / Few love to hear the sins they love to act” he hedges (1.134-35).

Pericles wasn’t supposed to figure out. No one’s supposed to figure it out. So, Antiochus sends out a goon to kill Pericles. Pericles, meanwhile, senses the pending danger but can only manage to mope back at Tyre, unsure of what to do, unable to act.

(This part comes after you send out a pitch. You stare at your inbox, waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting for a response.)

You stare at your inbox, waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting for a response.

Finally, he opens up to his trusted advisor, Helicanus, who advises him to flee.

(“Hi Richard, My name is John Kelly. I am big fan of your writing and, as an aspiring writer myself, I was wondering if you had any tips…” “Dear John, Thanks for reaching out. Here’s the thing about freelancing: Run!”)

As he hops about the ancient Mediterranean (a pitch here, a pitch there), he gets shipwrecked in Pentapolis (“Thanks, John, so much for your email, but…”). But, but, but, after an elaborate courtship involving much fanfare and jousting, Pericles, who learns of it from some fisherman who rescue him, ends up marrying the king of Pentapolis’ daughter, Thaisa, in spite of his humble, rusty armor (“Dear John, I love this idea!” The slightest compliment from the editor “seems like diamond to glass,” as Thaisa remarks of her soon-to-be husband in Scene 7, line 35).

The two shack up, get pregnant. But Pericles is called back to Tyre. On their way, Pericles’ wife dies in labor (kind of like the ratio of how much time you put in researching and writing your piece to how much you actually get paid for it). Pericles leaves his daughter to grow up with the king and queen he befriended Tarsus – well, he saved them from famine, actually– and gives his wife her sea-burial. But her casket washes up in Ephesus, where a doctor discovers she isn’t dead and manages to revive her (you’ll get paid for your writing…eventually).

The king and queen of Tarsus vow to raise Pericles’ daughter with care and honor. Pericles vows, in return, not to cut his hair: “Till she be married… / By bright Diana, whom we honor all, / Unscissored shall this hair of mine remain, / Though I show ill in’t” (13.27-30).

(Grooming, and any sort of self-respecting presentability, is also one of the first things the freelancer sacrifices.)

Grooming is also one of the first things the freelancer sacrifices.

Marina grows up, besties with the princess there, but she gets all the attention, all the praise. The queen of Tarsus is not pleased: she “with envy rare / A present murder does prepare / For good Marina, that her daughter / Might stand peerless by this slaughter” (15.37-40). But just as Marina is about to be killed, some pirates kidnap her and sell her to a brothel.

(Do you sell out for the viral BuzzFeed listicle? Does Huffington Post’s massive traffic tempt you even they want it from you for free?)

But Mariana stays strong: “If fires be hot, knives sharp, or waters deep, / Untied I still my virgin knot will keep” (16.129-30). And she tells her pimp and his profession: “Empty / Old receptacles or common sew’rs of filth, / Serve by indenture to the public hangman – Any of these are better than this” (19.188-90).

(No! You are a Writer. You are serious. You traffic in big ideas. Avaunt, clickbait! But real quick, how much did you say that garbage gig pays?)

No! You are a Writer. But real quick, how much did you say that garbage gig pays?

For Pericles, deep melancholy sets in: “A man who for this three months hath not spoken / To anyone, nor taken sustenance / But to prorogue his grief,” as Helicanus reveals when they land at the island where Marina happens to be (21.18-20).

(The freelancer despairs. What am I doing? What is all this for? How does everyone else do it, seem to so easily get all those bylines and book deals? Who am I kidding? “Writer.” Pshaw. )

Pericles soon discovers this Marina is his daughter. Then, a vision (the inspired idea, the big break, the clutch retweet?) of the goddess Diana sends Pericles to the very temple where his wife has been serving as a vestal.  We learn the baddies are punished: Antioch and his daughter have died, the people of Tarsus revolt against their nefarious rulers.

(I’m still waiting on this one. Editors, literary agents, publishers. This is your cue.)

As a play, Pericles is an absolute mess. Editors have had to patch it together from manuscripts. The plot jumps around, the verse jumps around. This narrator, John Gower, relates the action in an English that would have sounded a bit archaic even to Elizabethan ears. Due to this pell-mell, scholars think Shakespeare actually co-authored this lesser work with one George Wilkins – a playwright, a freelance playwright.

(Oy.)

The human’s in the details: Cymbeline, The King of Britain

The Bard knows you never drink just one beer.

Shakespeare gets it.

He feels your hangover. He knows that frantic scramble for your wallet, your keys, and your phone when you wake up on your friend’s couch after a night out drinking. That double-checking you got your credit card back from the bar. He hears you when ask your friend, “Oh my God, how much did I spend last night?” He understands you’re bloated from the pizza that saved your blood sugar levels at 3am. He, too, longs to dry out today but will inevitably be putting back beers in just a few hours. You’re only back home for Christmas for so long, he tells you. His thigh is also mysteriously sore. “Did I fall?” you ask your friend. “Yeah, when we were walking home.” “Jesus,” you laugh, repressing the vague ache of regret as you text friends how great it was to see them, getting flashes of how you talked too much about yourself and dropped a whole pint on the bar patio. “How did we use to do this all the time?” you wonder. You sit on your friend’s toilet, cradling your heavy head in your hands and trying to pull yourself together.

Shakespeare hands you some aspirin. Five of them.

shakespeare_and_jonson_at_the_mermaid_tavern
“Dude, you’ve told the story about how you swam across the Thames in February like, 20 times?” “Twenty? Thinkst thou doth overcount the recounting?” That’s totally what they sounded like. An 1860 newspaper imagination of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson getting into it at London’s famed Mermaid Tavern. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

***

This week, I read Cymbeline, The King of Britain. It’s a play many have heard of but few have read, as far as I can tell. Someone remarked – I can’t remember where I came across it – that Shakespeare was bored with writing when he wrote this late Romance. Indeed, the play’s not loved by all, at least historically; critics often fault its plot and structure.

I am really starting to delight in the little details that give us a glimpse into everyday life in Shakespeare’s England.

The story is truly bonkers. I won’t pretend I can even summarize it, but here are some highlights: a thwarted marriage between social classes, banishment, a wager on the princess’s chastity, deceit in said wager, two princes kidnapped as infants and raised in a Welsh cave, a conniving queen, an asshole prince, fake poison, a battle between Rome and England over tribute to Caesar, countless disguises, a decapitation, a dream sequence involving the god Jupiter – and, as it goes in the tragicomic Romance genre, the eventual reunion of the play’s central couple, Princess Innogen and Posthumus, low of rank but high of virtue. As a gentleman describes him in the beginning of the play, “I do not think / So fair an outward and such stuff within / Endows a man but he” (1.1.22-24).

Cymbeline is all over the place – and I enjoyed every last bit of it.

Yes, Cymbeline has big themes: national identity, gender, fidelity, family, the nature of character, the nature of truth, love. It musters mythology. It raises religion. It develops its ideas through recurring images of fabric and air, with wordplay on inward and outward. But five plays into my year of Shakespeare and five admittedly long posts on Big Ideas, I am really starting to delight in the little details that give us a glimpse into everyday life in Shakespeare’s England.

So, this post, I’m trying to stay small. Except for a little stargazing.

***

Early in Cymbeline, Innogen says to her attendant in her bedroom chamber: “I have read three hours then. Mine eyes are weak. Fold down the leaf where I have left” (2.2.3-4). I love this intimate and mundane detail. I love that Elizabethans also dog-eared the pages of their books. I can see Shakespeare turning down the corner of a page in Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, which he drew from as he wrote the play.

Sometimes the Bard gives us truths in beautiful, pithy, lofty packages. Other times, as with the jailer’s reflections, it’s through humorous, honest, and very human little details.

Later in the play, Belarius, who kidnapped the king’s sons when they were infants to retaliate against his wrongful banishment from his kingdom, says of Innogen, now disguised a rustic man they are nursing back to health in his cave – I told you the plot is a mess. Anyways, Belarius fondly says of the Innogen in disguise, “He cut our roots in characters” (4.2.51). My text glosses “characters” as “alphabet shapes.” This is like removing the crust from your kid’s sandwich or arranging a breakfast plate of eggs and bacon into a smiley face: a small, domestic touch still tender and playful 400 years later.

***

Then there are the stars – and lovely hints at Shakespeare’s astronomical knowledge that shine through.

On Brain Pickings, I read a lovely review of Dan Falk’s The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright’s Universe. Discussing the ways the astronomy of his day influenced the Bard, Falk takes a close look at Cymbeline (and scholarship on it), which he notes was written not long after Galileo published an important treatise. Falk cites some lines by Giacomo, the seedy who Italian who bets the banished Posthumus he can bed Innogen but ruinously cheats in the wager:

What, are men mad? Hath nature given them eyes
To see this vaulted arch and the rich crop
Of sea and land, which can distinguish ‘twixt
The fiery orbs above and the twinned stones
Upon th’unnumbered beach, and can we not
Partition make with spectacles so precious
‘Twixt fair and foul? (1.6.33-39)

Citing astronomy professor and Shakespeare scholar Peter Usher, Falk wonders if these spectacles aren’t an early telescope.

Near the end of the play, Posthumus dreams the ghosts of his family, which he never met. They circle him, according to the stage directions, before Jupiter descends. Falk muses if Shakespeare just isn’t alluding to the four moons of Jupiter, which Galileo had recently discovered.

800px-jupiter-moons
Jupiter and the Galilean moons. Copyright, Jan Sandberg. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

And in the final scene, when all the disguises come off, the truth comes forward, and the couple reunites, it caught my eye when Cymbeline remarks in disbelief: “Does the world go round?” (5.6.232).

Falk and Usher cite many other astronomical details in Cymbeline, but these little glimmers, if faint, are fascinating.

***

Finally, Shakespeare knows you never drink just one beer.

After he comes to from his dream, Posthumus – captured by the British because he’s been fighting for the Romans to hasten his death, so ruined by his belief that Innogen has cuckolded him – shares his eagerness to be hanged with his jailer. This occasions the jailer to muse on some possible benefits of death:

A heavy reckoning for you, sir. But the comfort is, you shall be called to no more payments, fear no more tavern bills, which are as often the sadness of parting as the procuring of mirth. You come in faint for want of meat, depart reeling with too much drink, sorry that you have paid too much and sorry that you are paid too much; purse and brain both empty: the brain the heavier for being too light, the purse too light, being drawn of heaviness. Of this contradiction you shall now be quit. O, the charity of a penny cord! (5.6.250-58).

Shakespeare: poet, playwright, actor, director, theater shareholder, homemaker, astronomer, sociologist, behavioral scientist.

Sometimes the Bard gives us truths in beautiful, pithy, lofty packages: “Our very eyes / Are sometimes like our judgements, blind” (4.2.303-4). Other times, as with the jailer’s reflections, it’s through humorous, honest, and very human little details.