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

All politics is personal.

Advertisements

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.

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.

Mrs. Wagner, the Witch

Her laughter was the clue that there were deeper meanings at work in words – and an invitation for us to solve their secrets.

I’m not moving on from Julius Caesar just quite yet. Yes, I am procrastinating on writing up Antony and Cleopatra; I had a difficult time with the play. But also Julius Caesar marks my earliest memory of Shakespeare. Maybe even one of my earliest memories of literature. You know, Literature – with a capital L.

I was in fifth grade, Mrs. Wagner’s Language Arts class.

She had a mean reputation, Mrs. Wagner. One recess, near the end of fourth grade, some junior high kids told a few of us what to expect next year. They had already survived her. “Wagner the Witch. She’s cold,” they said.

I had seen her around the school. Her hair was long, straight, and a stony gray, like the color of her eyes behind her glasses. Her dresses would swoosh around her ankles as she sliced down the corridors with a sharp purpose. She didn’t sing much during mass.

An eighth-grader moved in closer. “They say she even disowned her son.” I didn’t know what the word disown meant, but I knew it was bad.

The older boys loomed like pubescent giants in the navy-blue pants and starched, white button-downs of our Catholic school uniform. The girls, with their plaid skirts rolled-up just above their fleshy knees and newly-needed bras faintly showing through their blouses, made me blush and look away when they called me “little Kelly.” They knew my older brothers, who had already moved on to high school. The older kids were tall, beautiful, cool. Some of them even smoked cigarettes. I had every reason to believe them.

I looked up disown in the dictionary later that day. I even asked my dad about it, I think. Forget not knowing it was a word. I didn’t know it was a thing one could do would do to a family member. What could her son have possibly done?

It turns out I learned a lot of words from Mrs. Wagner.

I talked out of turn often in her class. One period, a classmate, Chris, made a dorky comment. He was at the front of the class. I, form the back, shouted across the full length of those those worn and wooden schoolroom floors: “You’re so queer, Chris.” Mrs. Wagner had a word with me after class. It was then I learned that queer doesn’t just mean “weird.” I had to write a formal apology. I made sure to write the word queer several times in the note.

Another time, I made a snide remark during a movie. I think I called it “boring.” (It was boring.) She sent me out in the locker-lined hallway with a dictionary. Instead of watching the movie, I had to copy out, longhand, an entire page of the dictionary. You could find the definition of the word scorn on this page. She ordered me to pay especial attention to the derived form, scornful. I can still feel that cold, metal locker jutting into my lower back as I sat on the tiled floor, taking my lexical lumps.

Other words got me in trouble, too. One out-of-uniform day, I wore a t-shirt I got at a Crazy Shirts one family trip to San Francisco. It was brandishing some kind of beer or tequila with the slogan: “Warms the gut, burns the butt.” The Lord didn’t approve. I don’t why my parents approved the purchase – or me wearing it to school.

But I learned a lot in her class for all the headaches I caused. (Hey, I still earned my A’s). I read my first real long book: Watership Down. I wrote my first genuinely creative essay; she praised the colloquial color “C’mon” added to my dialogue in it. And I read my first Shakespeare.

It was an adapted text of Julius Caesar with a pink and white cover. A few student volunteers passed them out to the class, our desks arranged face-to-face in two long columns this quarter. We cracked them open and started reading aloud.

If you’ve read the play, you might remember it opens with two tribunes admonishing some tradesman, a carpenter and a cobbler, for rushing off to Caesar’s triumphal parade. They exchange some witty words and sharp barbs:

MURELLUS. But what trade are thou? Answer me directly.

COBBLER. A trade, sir, that I hope I may use with a safe conscience, which is indeed, sir, a mender of bad soles. (1.1.12-14)

At this point, however it was precisely rendered in our adapted text, Mrs. Wagner laughed. She was the only one who laughed. She was the only one who got the joke. Most of us had just learned what a cobbler was.

Mrs. Wagner didn’t stop to explain the joke. She just let it hang there as we kept reading. But her laughter was the clue that there were deeper meanings at work in words – and an invitation for us to solve their secrets.

Mrs. Wagner was a witch in her own way, I suppose. She knew how to cast the spell of literature. And I’ve been under it ever since.

I never did learn what happened with her son, though.