“Do you ever get sick of Shakespeare?” my sister-in-law asked me.
It was late morning, an unusually rainy day. I was sitting in a reclining chair, Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis open on my lap, and I was making absolutely no progress in the poem. If only I could read like I drank coffee: No cream, no sugar, all day long, with lots of trips to the bathroom.
People were putting together their breakfasts in the kitchen, planning out activities and to-dos for the day, mapping out who would use the cars when, dogs barking out the window at passers-by, chickens squawking in the coop out back, a FaceBook video blaring on an iPhone, a call for “Who wants another cup of coffee?” (“I do.”) We were all back home at Christmas headquarters, my in-laws in Southern California. It wasn’t an ideal environment for a focused reading of Shakespeare, to be sure, but it wasn’t like I was making a dent in the poem. And this morning, my efforts were particularly half-assed.
“I wouldn’t say I get sick of Shakespeare, but I would say I get mad at him.”
“Sick? I wouldn’t say I get sick of him.” I explained to her how starting a new play was like jumping into cold water. You hesitate, fearing the initial shock of the icy immersion, the work you have to do warm up, but you soon acclimate to the temperature and love splashing around.
Then I looked down to Venus and Adonis.
I had been trying to wrap up Shakespeare’s other, non-Sonnets poems – including this one, The Rape of Lucrece, and a handful of other random little ditties – for a few days now. These felt like a long hike in the dessert.
“But I would say I get mad at him.”
Goddamnit, Shakespeare, I moaned to myself, my eyes glazing over at the fourth stanza into some extended metaphor about Adonis’ sexbod. Venus and Adonis is a narrative poem, 1194 lines long, about Venus, Roman goddess of love, falling in love with Adonis, a beautiful young man. Venus wants to jump Adonis’ bones, but Adonis is only interested in hunting. He does, the next day, but is killed by a boar. Venus is devastated, which is why, in the logic of myth, love is now so complicated. As she concludes:
Since thou art dead, lo, here I prophesy
Sorrow on love hereafter shall attend,
It shall be waited on with jealousy,
Find sweet beginning, but unsavoury end.
Ne’er settled equally, but high or low,
That all love’s pleasure shall not match his woe. (1135-40)
She goes in, in poignant lines about how love hurts: “It shall be fickle, false, and full of fraud” (1141). But goddamnit, Shakespeare, why did you have to make us wait for over 1000never-freaking-ending lines for this?
It’s funny. Venus and Adonis was the first work Shakespeare published, and, arguably, his most popular. (Plays, back then, were owned by the theater, so the publication process, as well as the concept of authorship, was a different animal.) But now, with only Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Edward III standing in the way of my completist goal, Venus and Adonis felt like homework. Like a chore. And I, a recalcitrant schoolboy, having a tantrum about it.
I was taking far too much time to read Shakespeare’s “Other Poems.” Sure, there was day-drinking, outings, visits with friends and families, holiday parties, and all sorts of welcome and ready distractions. But I had more than enough time in between to put back these verses. So I snuck out to a Starbucks one under-scheduled afternoon to take on The Rape of Lucrece. This (motherfuckin’ 1855 lined rhyme royal) recounts how the son of the last king of Rome, Tarquin, rapes Lucretia, wife of a fellow soldier. Shamed and dishonored, Lucretia kills herself, leading to Tarquin’s banishment – and the founding of the Roman republic.
But then here I was, bored to tears about a poem treating the horrifying rape of a woman.
I kept nodding off in the oversized café chair. I’d rub my eyes, try to get my finicky phone on WiFi one more time, and groan, “This is so boring.”
At one point, a group of late-middle-aged and older women gathered around a table nearby my seat. They were sporting Christmas sweaters and passing around Christmas cookies. They chatted – polite, soft-spoken, attentive – about the holidays, their kids and grandkids, movies and TV, and then politics.
I pretended I was reading (not that this required much of a change) and eavesdropped. “I just don’t know what the Access Hollywood video had to do anything. I mean, it doesn’t concern policy or anything.” She was referring to the tapes showing Donald Trump bragging about sexual assault.
I was shocked. How could she – a woman, a mother, a grandmother, a Christian, from what my eavesdropping gathered – shrug off Trump’s “Grab ‘em by the pussy”?
But then here I was, bored to tears about a poem treating the horrifying rape of a woman.
In the Roman psyche, a woman’s rape brought shame to her husband and family. And in the Elizabethan mind, women were seen as weak. “Those proud lords, to blame, / Make weak-made women tenants to their shame” (1259-60). Rape of Lucrece is far from any feminist anthem, at least people got up in arms about Tarquin’s heinous act.
Stand up and be a man – or at least try not to trip.
The kid kicked at my shoes but I didn’t fall.
“That’s fine,” I answered without losing my brisk pace. But he – and three or four other friends, I didn’t really slow down to take count – kept up.
“That’s fine,” he parroted in a mock American accent. “Take a look at this Yank,” he aped my determined gait.
I responded with something about how I had moved to Dublin months ago. I’m not quite sure what the intended effect of this was. Perhaps to ease some larger territoriality I perceived, to lend myself some street cred? I was a bit disoriented. This stretch of the busy road up from the stadium, which my brother and I had left a little early to beat the crowds before the football match let out, had taken a darker and quieter turn. I had noticed the teenaged boys, mostly track-suited and probably a bit drunk, swaggering their way ahead of me, but I was surprised when I had somehow walked right into their ruckusing.
I can’t help but wonder if I didn’t want her know I didn’t stand up for myself.
The kid continued his blustery taunts, which I was now ignoring, when my ear suddenly stung and rang. Swiftly and sharply, and with a cocky little jump completely superfluous to the delivery of his blow, he had boxed the side of my head just as the road bent back towards more traffic and light.
They took off down a side street. I looked back. My brother, who had been some steps behind when the boys swarmed around me, planted himself at the intersection and stared down their fleeing backs.
“This is what they want, man. It’s not worth it. Let’s go,” I waved him along. “They’ll get what’s coming to when they find out where this kind of shit takes them in life.”
We headed towards a pub just ahead. “And don’t tell my wife,” I added.
At the moment, I had meant that I didn’t want her worrying she’d be unsafe walking Dublin’s streets, as she does regularly by herself. But since reading Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Coriolanus, in all of its complicated portrait of masculinity, I can’t help but wonder if I didn’t want her know I didn’t stand up for myself.
“You shames of Rome!” Caius Martius, later Coriolanus, curses his fellow soldiers as they retreat from their Volscian foes:
You herd of–boils and plagues
Plaster you o’er, that you may be abhorred
Farther than seen, and one infect another
Against the wind a mile! You souls of geese
That bear the shapes of men, how have you run
From slaves that apes would beat! (1.5.2-7)
Coriolanus beats back the Volsci as they pour out of the gates of their town, but he, and he alone, gets shut in. Coriolanus, valiant Coriolanus, takes them on and forces his rival, Aufidius, into retreat once more.
“Rome must know the value of her own,” the general Cominius publicly celebrates Coriolanus when returns to Rome, all the more heroic for his fresh battle wounds (1.10.20-21).
For the ancient Romans, Coriolanus – the courageous warrior, steadfast in his defense of home and country – was a proper man. And this made him virtuous, a word which literally derives from the Latin for “man.” As Cominius again boasts of his great solider: “It is held / That valour is the chiefest virtue, and / Most dignifies the haver. If it be, / The man I speak of cannot in the world / Be singly counterpoised” (2.2.79-83).
I am no Coriolanus.
As much as I like to imagine we – as men, as a society – have outgrown the self-measure of muscles and might, that dialogue overpowers deltoids, some primal, primate urge to flex and fight, to prove and prevail, is still strong in our sinews.
Or at least some of our sinews.
As much as I like to imagine we value, as I do, the modern model of a refined , enlightened, and reasoning masculinity, I’m not so sure we still don’t admire, even cheer on, a good-ol’-had-it-comin’-to-ya ass-kicking.
I’m not so sure we still don’t admire, even cheer on, a good-ol’-had-it-comin’-to-ya ass-kicking.
And what stings, I think, isn’t any blow. It isn’t being singled out or picked on. And it’s not even the fact that I didn’t tell the kids off or take them on in some Coriolanian charge. This doesn’t bruise my manhood.
What stings, or maybe what confuses me as I think about the incident and Coriolanus, is that I didn’t even feel the urge to – to posture, to stand the corner, as did my brother, and watch the little hoodlums diminish in the distance.
Does this make me somehow weaker? Somehow less? Do I lack some fundamental, inner quality or character? Would I run in the face of some real assault? Would I not come to others’ protection – of my friends, of my family, of my wife?
The kid kicked my shoes and I didn’t fall. But, in causing me to question my sense of virtue or manliness – even just in those small moments when the image of my brother standing the corner under the jaundiced streetlights flashes in my mind or when I picture an undeterred Coriolanus locked in behind the enemy gates – it did trip up my ego.
Just a bit. Surely only just a bit.
Coriolanus doesn’t get tested on the battlefield, but does get tested in the forum.
For all his guts and glory, Coriolanus is also a patrician who utterly despises the plebeians, who think, as one puts it, Coriolanus has “grown too proud to be so valiant” (1.2.249-50). So proud, in fact, that after the Senate (themselves patricians) put him up for consul, Coriolanus refuses to ask, even in feigned humility, for the votes of the commoners. They had just earned political representation, in the form of tribunes, after rising up over concerns the nobility was cheating them out of grain.
“Better it is to die, better to starve, / Than crave the hire which first we do deserve,” Coriolanus digs in (2.3.103-4). He sheds his own blood for his country: Why should he have to deign for their votes?
Coriolanus is winning the support of the citizenry until the tribunes press him on his grain policy. Ever short-tempered, he loses his cool and lets them know how he really feels (though some see a kind of virtue in his unwillingness to play politics, to refuse to be untrue to himself, for all his pride):
For the mutable rank-scented meinie,
Let them regard me, as I do not flatter,
And therein behold themselves as I say again,
In soothing them we nourish ‘gainst the Senate
The cockle of rebellion, insolence, sedition,
Which we ourselves have ploughed for, sowed and scattered
By mingling them with us, the honoured number
Who lack not virtue, no, nor power, but that
Which they have given to beggars. (3.1.70-78)
Fearing the end of their influence, the tribunes conspire to stop Coriolanus by charging tyranny. Coriolanus barely escapes execution for exile, and in it, allies himself with his nemesis, Aufidius. They start a siege of Rome until Coriolanus’ mother changes her son’s hard heart: “That man was noble, / But with his last attempt he wiped it out,” she imagines posterity will say of him in her forceful plea (5.3.146-47). But just as he leads a charge to protect Rome, Aufidius, already planning to cross him, stabs him dead.
I might have some Coriolanus in my chest – er, ego – after all.
“Yeah, you’re right,” I remember my brother had said over the pints. “They’ll go nowhere in life acting the way they do.”
Can I say that my justification for my virtue is actually noble?
This was validating. To me as a younger brother, as a man, as a person who prides himself as committed to the virtue of nonviolence. But when I really listened to my own words said back to me, I also wondered: Can I say, if I’m honest with myself, that my justification for my virtue is actually noble – or, should I say, isn’t entirely too noble?
Can I say I didn’t think, at least on some subconscious, self-defensive level, that the kids were probably lower class, poorly educated, lacked self-control and constructive outlets, impressed each other with displays of machismo prized in some more primitive value system, were angry at their prospects in life and took it out on others in small, petty, and random acts of violence, feeling as if this was the only power they could exert over their lives, their world?
These thoughts, too, are the posturing of a masculinity, a display of power.
And I can’t say I didn’t think it. Even if just a bit.
Unlike Coriolanus, I didn’t say it aloud. Unlike Coriolanus, I struggle even to fully admit it. There may yet be a cowardice in that, but it probably spared it me a good-ol’-had-it-comin’-to-ya ass-kicking.
The stage directions alone in this play are shockingly violent. But the real horror may be in what’s not staged.
The late afternoon sun washed the Italian cypresses and eucalyptus trees in gold. A light wind made a lazy melody in the chimes. From a neighboring yard somewhere over the rolling, low-desert hills, a horse occasionally neighed. Except for the dogs, twitching their ears at far-off stirrings in their half-asleep sunning, no one else was home. I topped off my glass of a big red from a local vineyard. My in-laws’ Southern Californian porch was a perfectly peaceful place for “Human sacrifice. Gang rape. Ritual butchery. Mother-son cannibalism,” as my Norton Shakespeare introduces it.
The Most Lamentable Tragedy of Titus Andronicus is a most violent play.
Even if Shakespeare had all the effects at J. J. Abrams’ disposal, his most powerful weapon remains his words: “Your naked infants spitted upon pikes.”
“One for Star Wars, please,” I tell the ticket taker.
I like to imagine that some other John, over 400 years ago, stopped by his equivalent of Ralph’s at 2pm on a Tuesday to buy a Tetra Pak of cab sauv, which he snuck into an afternoon showing of Star Wars after eating cucumber avocado rolls in his Prius on his way to the theater.
See, I wasn’t able to write anything meaningful about The Life of Henry the Fifth (Henry V) at home. Naturally, I decided to day-drink at the movies.
For my first, I re-read The Taming of the Shrew. For the second, I thought I would tackle something new. Something difficult – for me at least. I have a blind spot for a few things: the stock market, calendars, monarchical lineages, remembering exactly what my wife does for work, following plots.
Shakespeare’s histories, I knew, would prove quite relevant to American politics today, crazy as the 2016 race has been already. Dynasties, outsiders, campaigns, costumes, power – and so much rhetoric and performance.
So, I flipped through my Norton Shakespeare: Histories and settled on Henry V.
Henry V and Star Wars both intermix the serious with the comic. Both follow a small squad defeating a massive army against impossible odds. Both have triumphant, if suggestive, endings. Both are underdog action flicks with sequel hooks, such are some of the enduring elements of narrative. And both have sabers, of a sort, too.
Blind spot confirmed: I have no mind for plots. As Katherine Maus makes clear in her introduction to the play in my Norton volume: “Shakespeare’s Henry V is the last written of a set of eight plays on medieval English history.” Shit. There are significant parts of Henry V that would have made much more sense – say, the death of Falstaff and why the French don’t take Henry seriously – if I had read the two parts of Henry IV.
But I kind of like it this way. We may study history chronologically in the classroom, but in life, we often come to know it in reverse, don’t we?
I bet a lot of people saw the new episode of Star Wars without having seen the first six.
I didn’t think Henry V and Star Wars would have a lot in common. I was wrong.
Sequels? Check. Prologues? Check. Actors speaking different varieties of English? Check. Men bragging about weapons and kills? Check. Traitors? Check. Political leaders engaging in direct combat? Check. Dudes getting the girl at the end? Check. Droids? Check. Er, that must have been the cab.
Seriously though, there are significant structural similarities. Henry V and Star Wars both intermix the serious with the comic. Both follow a small squad defeating a massive army against impossible odds. Both have triumphant, if suggestive, endings. They are underdog action flicks with sequel hooks, such are some enduring elements of narrative.
And both works have sabers, of a sort, too.
Basically, Henry V is the Battle of Agincourt. Citing some old legal technicalities, the Church assures Harry (Henry goes by Harry) that he has a claim to the French throne. The English mount an attack. Vastly outnumbered and underestimated by the French, they kick some serious ass, aided in no small part by Henry’s pep talks. Henry becomes heir to the French crown and marries the French princess, Catherine.
If I were at the Globe in 1599, I guess I’d be chanting HARRY! HARRY! HARRY! at the curtain call.
There are subplots, too, featuring traitors, lowly plunderers, feisty Welsh, Irish, and Scottish captains, cocky French nobles, the French princess’ hilarious English lesson, and some theatrical time travel.
All in all, the play’s a triumph for Harry, the once reckless youngster now a proven leader – “the strawberry grows underneath the nettle,” as Bishop Ely puts it well in 1.1.61. Of course, I would have better understood his transformation had I first read the preceding histories.
But, as with all things Shakespeare, the play’s more complicated than that. Its Chorus sounds a darker final note as it looks ahead to future military losses, casting a shadow on Harry’s success.
“Tennis balls, my liege.”
In 1.2, the French ambassador presents to the English nobles a treasure chest, the Dauphin’s response to England’s claims on the French throne. Harry asks his uncle, Exeter, to see what’s inside. Exeter answers: “Tennis balls, my liege” (1.2.258).
The French don’t take Harry seriously, his youthful indiscretions still tainting his reputation. It’s an incredible insult. It’s an incredible line. “Tennis balls, my liege.” Did Mel Brooks write this?
After serving up an elaborate tennis simile, Harry responds:
…tell the pleasant Prince this mock of his
Hath turned his balls to gunstones, and his soul
Shall stand sore charged for the wasteful vengeance
That shall fly from them–for many a thousand widows
Shall this his mock mock out of their dear husbands,
Mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down;
Ay, some are yet ungotten and unborn
That shall have cause to curse the Dauphin’s scorn. (1.2.281-88)
Do not mock King Harry. My goodness.
As I was reflecting on this scene, I realized that this is what has really stayed with me from the play: Harry’s language.
If you haven’t read or seen Henry V, you still probably know two of its most famous lines: “Once more unto the breach” (3.1.1) and “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” (4.3.60).
King Henry does some legendary rallying in the play. Let’s put these quotes in context.
In the first, Harry is rousing his men as they siege the port city of Harfleur in Normandy, France:
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more,
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility,
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger.
Stiffen the sinews, conjure up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favoured rage. (3.1.1-8)
Closing up the hole in their defenses with dead soldiers. Wow. What an image.
The second comes from Henry’s St. Crispin’s Day speech (the Battle of Agincourt took place on that feast day). In the following excerpt, Harry again rallies his men, greatly outnumbered by the French:
This story shall the good man teach his son,
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by
From this day to the ending of the world
But we in it shall be remembered,
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition.
And gentlemen in England now abed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day. (4.3.56-67)
Coach Taylor and Braveheart definitely learned a thing or two from King Henry.
And apparently Republican presidential candidate, Senator Ted Cruz. Taking a break from building their Supreme Court case to end the Florida recount during the 2000 election, members of President George W. Bush’s legal team, including then-policy adviser Cruz, joined hands and read the St. Crispin’s Day speech.
What an image.
So yes, Henry delivers incredible battle speeches. His words still inform that sense of fraternity – of a self-sacrificing manliness, of a larger-than-oneself camaraderie – that many modern soldiers (and other tight-knit teams) still experience. It still imbues concepts of patriotism, service, and national identity.
And we like to romanticize it. Politicians even like to capitalize on it.
President Obama takes a lot of flak for not sounding tough enough when he addresses ISIS. Many ridicule him for not calling these terrorists “radical Islamists.” And even if he did talk like Harry, Obama still probably wouldn’t please his critics.
But King Harry knows a thing or too about the loneliness of the office.
There’s this amazing moment in the play. In disguise, King Henry talks to some common soldiers, who think he’s just a fellow fighter. Knowing that the numbers are against them and they may thus lose their lives in vain, the soldiers question the King’s leadership. One, Williams, argues the King may even be responsible for the souls of the slain: “But if the cause be not good, the King himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle shall join together at the latter day…” (4.1.128-31). He’s referring to Judgment Day.
There’s much more to the scene, but, when the soldiers leave the stage, King Henry soliloquizes on the great burden placed “Upon the King”:
‘Let us our lives, our souls, our debts, our care-full wives,
Our children, and our sins, lay on the King.’
We must bear all. O hard condition,
Twin-born with greatness: subject to the breath
Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel
But his own wringing. What infinite heartease
Must kings neglect that private men enjoy?
And what have kings that privates have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?
And what art thou, thou idol ceremony? (4.1.212-22)
The president is our national lightning rod, but we have no idea how heavy the rain, how loud the thunder, how dark the skies of power can be.
But this, too, we like to romanticize. As King Harry observes: “I think the King is but a man” (4.1.99). And in his courting of Catherine (his game is endearingly awkward), he humbly submits: “…take me, take a soldier; take a soldier, take a king” (5.2.160).
That’s so crazy to me now: unlike our modern leaders, Harry fought on the battlefield. Imagine Obama and Putin drawing longswords – some presidential candidates claim that this is how they’ll lead – instead of getting briefed by generals on data collected by drones in situation rooms.
There’s a brutal, physical, and personal violence that comes across so vividly in Harry’s language.
How warfare has changed. Heralds would deliver messages to the opposition in person. In the middle of fighting, parleys would sound so the two sides would cease fighting to negotiate. At the end of a battle, survivors, as the French Herald Montjoy does after the English win the Battle of Agincourt, would “wander o’er this bloody field / To book our dead and then to bury them…” (4.7.64-65). Imagine doing that body count.
Warfare was so direct and immediate. And is, no doubt, for soldiers – and civilians – who’ve experienced war no matter how it’s evolved, as it’s all too easy to forget as we are entertained by so much violence screened in the comfort of our multiplexes.
There’s a brutal, physical, and personal violence that comes across so vividly in Harry’s language. It’s actually pretty terrifying.
Before Agincourt, telling the Governour of Harfleur what he will do if he doesn’t surrender, Harry threatens:
The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,
And the fleshed soldier, rough and hard of heart,
In liberty of bloody hand shall range
With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass
Your fresh fair virgins and flow’ring infant. (3.3.87-91)
But he’s not done:
…–why, in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dashed to the walls;
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds, as the did the wives of Jewry
At Herod’s bloody-hunting slaughtermen.
What say you? Will you yield, and this avoid?
Or, guilty in defence, be thus destroyed? (3.3.110-20)
Holy shit. That is nuts. If I were the Governour of Harfleur, I’d be like, “Uh, yeah man. We’re good. We’re done here.”
In Henry V, we are told that body count yields ten thousand French slain, under 30 English.
That violence isn’t real to me. I don’t think we process violence in terms of the big battle or on such an epic scale. See, even if Shakespeare had all the effects at J. J. Abrams’ disposal, his most powerful weapon remains his words: “Your naked infants spitted upon pikes.”
This is the real power of Shakespeare’s language in Henry V. With these words, we are forced to imagine this disturbing scene.
This is the same reason why in The Force Awakens (yeah, I’m really making this connection) we are disturbed when the Jakku junk dealer offers 60 portions of food for the adorable droid, BB-8. We have to conjure up the little guy being scrapped.
I’m glad that warfare isn’t what it used to be, even if we still cling to long-held visions of heroism. Way fewer people die. I don’t think there is anything more or less heroic about a leader killing enemies with his own hands than by ordering a drone strike.
So, sitting comfortably with boxed wine at a theater in Irvine, Calif., my feet kicked up on the back of the empty seats in front of me, watching the First Order (spoiler) literally blow up a whole star system, I couldn’t help but think how abstract violence has become.
That’s why terrorism is so scary. The violence is personal. Immediate, direct, real. We all have been eating at a cafe or a holiday party.
And that’s why saying things like “bombing the shit out of” or “carpet-bombing” – “once more unto the breach”? – a whole region is easy rhetoric. It’s abstract, far away, somewhere else. Yes, it sounds tough. But it doesn’t force us imagine the little kid returning from the market with some flour for his mom to make bread. It doesn’t force us to imagine the young soldier – a modern-day Williams – risking their life in vain.
Thanks to Harry’s language, at once mighty and menacing, my takeaways from Henry V feel muddied. Shakespeare loves to play in the mud.
But one thing’s for sure, though. Use the force – of language – wisely.