Everything and nothing: Hamlet, Part 2

It’s a ghost story, after all.

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December 31 – January 1

Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio – a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred my imagination is!…Where be your gibes now, your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? (5.1.171-77).

“How would you normally get there?” my father asked when we left to drop me off at my rental car, which I left by the bar.

“Uhh,” I tapped the window as the directions, like old home-phone numbers and Catholic school prayers, came back to me. “71-South to the Lateral to 75-South. Get off at St. Bernard and take Clifton up.”

The highway curved around hillsides, revealing familiar steeples and factory chimneys under an ashen sky, and new buildings, too. A medical center where the movie theater used to be. A business complex on a long-empty lot. Like a new couch in your parents’ living room, the structures. Changing everything and nothing.

***

I got a coffee from United Dairy Farmers. Displays for local craft beers loudly capped the aisles. But the same smell of malt powder and cake cones hung in the air.

Then I crossed the street and picked up two coneys – “Mustard and onion, please” – and a small 3-way from the nearby Skyline Chili to bring back for my wife. We had wanted to partake of some old favorites, to visit some old stomping grounds, while we were in town, but she came down with a fever and was laid up for several days.

The restaurant had new paint. They were selling t-shirts now. The conies climbed to over two bucks a piece. But the shredded cheese was just as yellow and melty, the windows just as fogged up from the bun steamer.

I lingered past a former apartment I spent years in on my drive back. Past corners of the university campus I walked for work and class. The Vietnamese spot moved across the street.

If the building were speaking to me, I couldn’t hear them. What did I expect them to say? What I want them to say?

Places move on.

***

Later that night, I met up with an old friend – the same who wouldn’t touch Juliet’s boob – for New Year’s. For weeks I had been nagging him about plans when I was in town. There was a need for organization and preparation, I felt, when you’re only back once a year. I could never reach him on FaceTime or email so I resorted to Facebook. I’d detour on pictures of camping trips and group selfies. I’d try to imagine myself in the frame.

It’s so beautiful, and so strange, how we come in and out of each other’s lives, like ghosts.

We went over to his buddy’s house, who was hosting a small get-together. At one point, my friend and I were the only two people on the couch in the living room, both drinking some Cincinnati craft beer, the Dick Clark New Years Rockin’ Eve duly muted in the  background.

“Did my…FaceTime Audio ever go through to you? Sometimes they don’t go through.”

“Uh, maybe a few? I’m not really sure.”

“Ah, yeah. They probably showed up as ‘Unknown.’”

What did I expect him to say? What did I want him to say? People move on.

“You need a beer?” I asked. 

“Yeah. Mine are on the porch.”

I stopped to take in the cool air. The porch overlooked Wasson and Paxton: Railroad tracks I had often walked, a grocery store where I had often shopped. But I had never seen them from this angle before, flattened and seeming so small from this height.

I grabbed my friend a Truth.

Back inside, the host presented me with a tumbler. He wanted me to taste his Midsummer Night’s Dram, of all things. A rye finished in French oak port barrels. I rolled it around my tongue watching Ryan Seacrest and Jenny McCarthy move their lips. I’m John. I go way back with Matt, I replayed my introduction to the host. Oh, I know who you are, he said. I’ve heard a lot of stories about you.

***

Just ahead of the ball-drop, we all crammed Cincinnati craft beers into our pockets and walked down to a local square. A community Facebook page promised a neighborhood party, food trucks, beer stalls, fireworks. But the square was empty except for another group, who also were expecting the event. Someone with us lead the countdown on their phone. We finished a few seconds before the other group, who were following a different countdown, apparently. At the eruption of their Happy New Year!, one of the guys dropped to his knee and proposed to his girlfriend. She said yes. We took their photos. We said our congratulations. Fireworks went off. 

Walking back to the house, I commented to another partygoer how we witnessed this intense and intimate moment for the couple, this defining moment, and yet, in all odds, we’ll never see them again. Further small talk led us to discover we went to the same dentist as kids.

It’s so beautiful, and so strange, how we come in and out of each other’s lives, like ghosts.

***

Not long after midnight, my friend drove me home. He stopped drinking a while back. We were tried. Or bored. Or both. Or…Unspoken words are like ghosts.

I tried not to make too much noise when I ate the Skyline over the kitchen sink in the dark. I thought about the tiny fissure of time between our New Year countdowns. As if it set off two separate new years unfolding in two separate universes.

***

January 2-3, 2017

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in our philosophy. (1.5.168-69)

Sometime around one in the morning, I softly, deliberately, closed Hamlet. I smoothed over the cover and squared the volume with my notebooks and laptop on the dining table. In the soft glow of the reading lamp, over my final sips of tea, I listened. I waited. I didn’t know what for. 

***

I had been finishing the play, Shakespeare’s longest, in snatches stolen here and there at my oldest brother’s house in Columbus, where I stayed for a few days to spend some extra time with my nephew.

“How’s Hammy?” my brother asked me at one such reading.

I laughed. “You know, I had forgotten that he was 30 in the play.”

“Least you could forget it. I’ve never read it. I’m running out to get some beers – no Rhinegeist, Hammy be damned. I’m good on Rhinegeist.”

***

In all his squeals and giggles, in all his tumbles and preverbal clamors, my nephew is raw life, unmediated, unburdened, by the mind knowing itself as a mind. He is decisively, blissfully, un-Hamletian.

It’s hard reading Hamlet with a toddler around, because it’s hard wanting to read Hamlet with a toddler around. Eating, crying, playing, shitting: These are welcome distractions. In all his squeals and giggles, in all his tumbles and preverbal clamors, my nephew is raw life, unmediated, unburdened, by the mind knowing itself as a mind. He is decisively, blissfully, un-Hamletian. And so, too, I find my brother. Feeding, soothing, entertaining and teaching, cleaning: The parent of the toddler is managing the relentless onslaught of life, unconcerned with, unavailable to, the self-indulgent dread of that deeper, darker self-knowledge. There are no expectations. No demands, no disappointments. Just the immediate business of living. 

***

I heard nothing but the house its night noises. Boards creaked. Pipes tapped. Upstairs, my nephew issued a solitary cry in his sleep. I wondered what he was dreaming.

Balcony scenes: Romeo and Juliet

It’s the story, stupid.

1.1
Outside Capulet’s house

When I cupped her boob, laughter erupted.

“What’s so funny?” I asked my friend.

“You’re standing, like, five feet away from her,” he said.

His father thrust his hips back and shot an arm high into the air. “Get a good feel there, Johnny?”

Even my friend’s mother was snickering as she captured my clumsy groping for all time.

I cleared the way and watched the next tourist, who posed for the camera – at a reasonable, comfortable distance.

“Least I did it,” I elbowed my friend.

He was too shy to touch the boob. Juliet Capulet’s boob, that is.

In a medieval courtyard in Verona, the brick thick with ivy and lovers’ graffiti, stands a statue of Juliet Capulet, her bronze breast polished smooth and shiny by countless hands, underneath the very balcony, legend has it, Shakespeare immortalized in The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.

Touching her breast, tradition has it, brings luck in love. Touched, indeed: In 2014, the city had to remove and repair the statue, for a crack had appeared in her talismanic breast as well as in her arm.

***

4.3
An airplane over the Atlantic

That was one of my earliest memories of this play, as I recalled my awkward statue molestation while reading Romeo and Juliet for the fourth time 30,000 feet in the air. The summer before I went into high school, my friend, his father, and I tagged along an educational European tour for high-schoolers where his mother taught.

My wife and I were heading home for Christmas, a direct flight from Dublin to Los Angeles. I had three plays left, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Edward III, some odd poems, and only two busy and booze-filled weeks to finish. This flight was essential. But the airborne Bard hadn’t treated me so well in the past. The Sonnets left me short on attention, you’ll remember, and on cabernet sauvignon.

I’ll scroll through the movies option, I allowed. Just in case I need a little break…or deserve a reward. I tapped my touchscreen. It wasn’t responding. I tapped it again. Then I peppered it with jabs. The system jerkily caught up with my commands and sent me to the family movie section. A thumbnail of Gnomeo & Juliet popped up. Of course. But did they really premise this entire film on wordplay?

“Something to drink, sir?” Drink service arrived to my row.

“Uh, yes. Red wine, please.” Clearly I hadn’t learned my lesson about Shakespeare, wine, and airplanes. I saw the flight attendant eye my Norton doorstopper.

“What do you have your head in there?” he asked.

“Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet.”

“Ah, Romeo and Juliet,” he trilled. “Light reading for a flight.”

“You can say that again.”

“‘O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!’” he intoned above the din of jet engines. I had just finished that scene, incredibly. Then he – the most charming steward I’d ever met, and the most knowledgeable about Shakespeare, to be sure – burst into chuckles as he recalled some hilarious production of the play he’d seen.

Everyone has a story about Romeo and Juliet, I thought. If person has read only one Shakespeare play, it’s gotta be Romeo and Juliet. But I, for one, have never really understood the infatuation.

***

3.0
[Enter] CHORUS

Permit me a little soapboxing, er, shouting from the balcony:

First, Romeo starts out in love, albeit unrequited, with a young woman named Rosaline. It when he sneaks into a Montague masquerade, for the express purpose of checking out Rosaline, that he glimpses, and instantly falls in love with, Juliet.

Second, Juliet is 13. Forget all you’ve heard about Elizabethans, Shakespeare’s original audience, mind you, marrying young. During the Bard’s day, the mean age of marriage was 27.

True love? Or just being horny? What do you think Shakespeare is getting at with all of Mercutio’s sex jokes, and his puns on the firm steel of a drawn sword? And in the famous balcony scene, after Romeo’s famed “It is the east” opening, he launches right into the poetic equivalent of ‘Have sex with me.’ Don’t be the maid of Diana, goddess of chastity, he says: “Her vestal livery is but sick and green, / And none but fools do wear it; cast it off” (2.1.50-51). Then, when he proposes immediate marriage, just after his first disclosure of his love, even Juliet says, “It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden / Too like the lightning which doth cease to be / Ere one can say it lightens” (2.1.160-62).

I can’t help but think Shakespeare’s winking at us with his sensational finale. There’s an element of comedy in their over-the-top deaths.

Third is their ridiculous double suicide. Recall that Romeo is a Montague, long feuding with the Capulets, Juliet’s family. This precipitates 1) their secret, forbidden marriage and 2) a fight in which Romeo kills Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin, prompting Romeo’s exile. Friar Laurence concocts a plan to reunite them, including Juliet taking a sleeping potion that causes Romeo to think she’s dead. So, he downs some lethal poison, leading Juliet to stab herself to death when she discovers his corpse after coming to.

Passion? Pshaw. This is just the heedless, reckless impulsivity of adolescence. I side with the cooling wisdom of Friar Laurence: “These violent delights have violent ends…Therefore love moderately. Long love doth so. / Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow” (2.5.9-15). And I can’t help but think Shakespeare’s winking at us with his sensational finale. There’s an element of comedy in their over-the-top deaths.

Finally, everyone constantly misquotes some of the play’s most famous lines. “Star-crossed lovers” (P.6)? Star-crossed isn’t a good thing. It refers, in the astrology of the day, to the stars that appeared when they were born; here, the stars thwarted, or crossed, the lovers’ destinies.

And as for the play’s most famous line of all? “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” (2.1.74-75)

***

2.5
A classroom in Cincinnati, Ohio

“What does ‘wherefore’ mean?” I asked the ninth-graders, who were about the same age I was when I touched the Juliet nearly 15 years before.

This was the only time I properly taught Shakespeare, my semester of student-teaching. (Technically, I aided instruction of an adapted text The Merchant of Venice to a small group of seniors with learning disabilities. They found Portia’s “pound of flesh” strategy brilliant.)

Preparing for the unit, I reread Romeo Juliet, which I can vaguely remember reading my own freshman year, in the very same Norton Shakespeare I used this time around. There is evidence of my lesson planning in the margins. Symbolism of nurse, I jotted and heavily underlined. Opposites: Poison in beautiful flowers. Oxymorons, I wrote next to Romeo’s  “O brawling love, O loving hate” (1.1.169). Love turns everything upside down. Reversing/turning meanings. Their love is pure, but irony that the pretense to meet is under shrift/confession. Who’s responsible for the deaths? Themselves? Friar? Capulet/Montague? Friar John?

“‘Where’?” a student offered.

“That’s what it definitely sounds like. Plus, Juliet thinks she’s all alone, pining for her absent lover. Good thinking, but not quite. Anyone else?”

“It means ‘why’,” another student supplied.

“Yes! She’s saying, ‘Why does your name have to be Romeo?’ A Montague. The enemy of her family. How did you know that?”

“It says it in the book. I ain’t no dummy, Mr. Kelly!”

“And you ain’t gotta be salty about it!” The class erupted in laughter. “I was giving you props.”

“Let me tell you something,” I continued. I switched from teacherspeak to ‘real talk’ as I circulated the room, high up on my imaginary pulpit. “There’s no secret to being smart. Smart is knowing how to use your resources. Like your book, which defines some of those old-sounding words that make Shakespeare seem hard. You think I know what all those words mean? No. I just know what tools are available to me and how to use them. Wherefore sounds like where. But language changes. Words change. Take Slang. Does anyone here say phat anymore? No. You’ll sound like a…” I paused for dramatic effect. “A biscuit head.” Laughter. It was probably most effective tactic as a teacher. Not irony or oxymoron or critical thinking questions. Self-deprecation.

***

3.5
An apartment in Irvine, California

Early on in Shakespeare Confidential, before we moved to Dublin, my wife suggested I read Romeo and Juliet so we could act out the balcony scene. Our apartment had a very tall loft overlooking the living room.

I had no mind to read Romeo and Juliet just yet, thinking it one of the more overhyped plays in his oeuvre. But I did agree to try the scene.

“Where’s your passion? Where’s your spontaneity? Where’s your sense of fun?”

I started with some spirit:

“‘But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? / It the east, and Juliet is the sun. / Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon…’” (2.1.44-46).

The crown of my wife’s head comically emerged up from the ledge when I got to [Enter JULIET aloft].

“‘O, that I were a glove upon that hand,
That I might touch that cheek!’” (2.1.66-67).

My enthusiasm was started to wane, but my wife had no problem dusting off her drama chops from high school.

“‘O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?…
What’s in a name? That we which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet.’” (2.1.74-86).

She delivered it in artful diction.

“Ah, this is so corny,” I broke in, polishing off my bourbon.

“That’s not your line!” She drained the last of her gin and tonic.

“You don’t think Shakespeare actually wanted us to take seriously alls this flowery sweet talk from two teenagers, do you?”

“Where’s your passion? Where’s your spontaneity? Where’s your sense of fun?”

“But,  but…”

***

4.4
Terminal 2, Los Angeles International Airport

Over a grande black coffee outside the gate, where my wife and I waited for her sister and then-boyfriend to land, I finished the final act of Romeo and Juliet.

Closing the book with a sigh, I looked over at the Starbucks line. Everyone in line was Hispanic. Baristas called for “Double mocha frappuccino” as customers presented smartphones for payment. Families chatted, stared at cellphones, or paced restlessly with their coffee drinks. Loved ones would emerge. Hugs. Cheers. One man went in for a kiss to the women he was greeting. She playfully thwarted it and grabbed the frothy pink drink out of his hand. She made a joke in Spanish. He laughed. They embraced.

This is America, I thought. This is love.

“I finished Romeo and Juliet,” I told my wife, who was watching Netflix on LAX WiFi, her phone charging in one of the few remaining sockets.

“Nice!” She gave me a solid high-five.

Last year around this time, I caused a fight that almost pushed our marriage over the edge. The very fight that, in some ways, lead to me reading all this Shakespeare in the first place. 

“You remember that old couple we saw at Marks and Spencer’s?” We were at the department before we flew home because her father – part humorously, part tortuously, and mostly seriously – had asked for some silk boxers for Christmas.

“Oh, with the elderly man who asked his wife, ‘Honey, do I like boxers or briefs’? and then she had to show him how to shop for underwear?”

***

2.6
A classroom in Cincinnati, Ohio

In one short semester, I wasn’t going to get my students’ reading levels up to tackle the text of Romeo and Juliet on their own. But that didn’t mean they couldn’t appreciate Shakespeare. Far from it. Let’s not forget Shakespeare wasn’t meant to be read.

It was simple. They liked the story.

The students followed along a version of the text in those bulky, grade-level literature textbooks (remember those?) as we listened to an audio play. Then, dutifully, we watched Leonard DiCaprio and Claire Danes in Baz Luhrmann’s surprise 1996 hit Romeo + Juliet. Anymore, watching that film in the ninth-grade is as much a rite of passage as actually reading the play.

“He look so young!” one girl shrieked at DiCaprio. 

Broadsword. That’s tight!” a boy noted of the Luhrmann’s substitution of guns for swords.

No pontificating here. The students watched the movie raptly. Attendance was higher on those days, I noted.

It was simple. They liked the story.

***

3.6
Outside Capulet’s house

ROMEO. Lady, by yonder blessed moon I vow,
That tips with silver all these fruit-tree tops–

JULIET. O swear not by the moon, th’inconstant moon
That monthly changes in her circled orb,
Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.

ROMEO. What shall I swear by?

JULIET. Do not swear at all,
Or if thou wilt, swear by thy gracious self,
Which is the god of my idolatry,
And I’ll believe thee.

ROMEO. If my heart’s dear love–

JULIET. Well, do not swear. (2.1.149-58)

***

3.0
CHORUS

Friar Laurence objects to Romeo and Juliet’s hasty matrimony, but, come to think of it, he still marries them.

***

1.2
Somewhere outside Verona

As luck would have it, I had my first kiss a few days after I touched Juliet’s breast. With a high-schooler. At the end of trip, we exchanged wistful goodbye notes. I’m almost certain that, somewhere in my sappy, pretentious, and callow valediction, I included Juliet’s famous farewell: “Parting is such sweet sorrow…” (2.1.229).

Good Lord. But it’s true. Everyone has a story about Romeo and Juliet. It’s simple: We like the story.

Past, present, and macaroni salad: Henry VIII 

Why do we make the choices we make?

“We’ve got…,” I said with a suspenseful pause as I pulled tupperware out of the reusable grocery bag, “Monte Cristo sandwiches and macaroni salad.”

“Holy shit. Thanks, man,” my friend said. 

“Thank my stepmom. We had leftovers.”

We sat in his KIA sedan parked at a Love’s off I-65. A water tower read White County. It was a clear day, seasonably cold. Everything around us was flat for miles and miles and miles. We were closing in on Chicago, where we were visiting a friend for the weekend before I finally flew back to Dublin after nearly a month in the States.

Something felt so adult about eating lunch with an old high school friend in a car off the side of the road, your hometown hundreds of miles behind you, in a few days, thousands more.

And yet something felt so childlike about forking macaroni salad out of GladWare. Packed lunches, certainly, have that effect, but this wasn’t just any macaroni salad. I must have been eating this same salad, this same exact recipe, for over 20 years.

My mind drifted out and over thousands of conversations I’ve had with my family. Out and over thousand of conversations we’ve never had. And it landed on Shakespeare.

The taste plunged me back to the honey-colored wood of the kitchen table and terra-cotta tiled floor. Back to glass bowls of grapes and strawberries, of blackberries and bananas, that made their way from plate to plate. Back to my stepmother slicing those bananas by pushing a paring knife up towards a callused thumb so a perfect little chunk would tumble right into the bowl. Back to a cutting board propping up that long Monte Cristo, my father bringing a longer-seeming serrated knife down through its many layers and divvying out neat, even wedges.

“How does your stepson, you know, handle everything?” I asked, breaking my own flashback. Stepson. The word thrust me right back into the present, to adulthood.

My friend spoke thoughtfully about shared custody, about the different roles divorced parents take on. He spoke about his own identity, negotiating new territories of parenthood and stepfatherhood. He spoke about how his six-year-old stepson grasps it all.

“How was it for you?” he asked. “Weren’t you pretty young when your parents divorced?”

I scooped up my last bite of salad. My mind drifted out and over the never-ending flatness of Indiana. Out and over countless suitcases, bedrooms, car rides. Out and over thousands of conversations I’ve had with my family. Out and over thousands of conversations we’ve never had.

And it landed on Shakespeare.

***

It had been some weeks since I finished All is True (Henry VIII). This history centers, mostly, on the fall of Cardinal Wolseley, King Henry VIII’s powerful and self-serving advisor, after he fails to secure an annulment for Henry VIII so he can marry Ann Boleyn.

I sat on this play for quite some time because I had trouble locating myself in the drama. There were obvious connections, like Henry VIII’s divorce of Queen Katherine. But this, the subject of divorce in and of itself, didn’t grab me.

For one, I have no mind to air any dirty laundry here. For another, I’m just no longer all that interested in the gritty details of my parents’ divorce. I think I processed them plenty in the reims of reflective essays I churned out for high school English and religion classes.

I’m not sure that the heart isn’t a dark and opaque organ at the end of the day, keeping itself alive with molecules and membranes we will never really understand.

About twenty-six years later, the wounds have healed. But the body is never exactly the same as it was before its injury. It works. It functions. It’s repaired. But it’s a different body, even if just by the scars it bears. Often you forget they are even there. But they are always with you, the scars. And every so often, you’ll stop and run your hands over them. You’ll stare at their shape. You’ll marvel that the body can even do it at all, this miracle work of healing, weaving together all that new skin. It’s magic, when you really think about it.

But what did grab me, in that chew-ful moment of silence before my reply, was a speech by Cardinal Wolseley right after his decline. Before heading to court to answer charges of treason, an ailing Cardinal Wolseley, who, mind you, has been an absolute bastard his entire career, has a sudden change of heart:

Farewell, a long farewell, to all my greatness!
This is the state of man. Today he puts forth
The tender leaves of hope; tomorrow blossoms,
And bears his blushing honours thick upon him;
The third day comes a frost, a killing frost,
And when he thinks, good easy, man, full surely
His greatness is a-ripening, nips his rot,
And then he falls, as I do. I have ventured,
Like little wanton boys that swim on bladders,
This many summers in a sea of  glory,
But far beyond my depth; my high-blown pride
At length broke under me, and now has left me
Weary, and old with service, to the mercy
Of a rude stream that must for ever hide me.
Vain pomp and glory of this world, I hate ye!
I feel my heart new opened. O, how wretched
Is that poor man that hangs on princes’ favours!
There is betwixt that smile we would aspire to,
That sweet aspect of princes, and their ruin,
More pangs and fears than wars or women have,
And when he falls, he falls like Lucifer,
Never to hope again. (3.2.352-73)

“Well, that was quick,” as I wrote in the margins. Wolseley goes from utter villainy to complete reformation. Of course, this is drama, so, chop chop, metanoia. Still, where does he get off? Who does he think he is? What did he, do, really, to earn this epiphany?

Yet in my friend’s car, I heard the monologue differently. His repentance pointed me to the mysteries of our own psychology and behavior. Why do we make the choices we make? How do we think about our own decisions? When are we truly honest with ourselves? Why do we feel what we feel? How well can we actually know ourselves?

I went on to tell my friend, yes, about shared custody, about the different roles divorced parents take on, about my own identity, straddling two households and two sets of parents. About how I grasped the situation as a younger man, questioning its reality and aching to know why it all happened as it did. Perhaps I even wanted my parents to feel particular things, to say particular things, and those feelings and those words would make it all make sense.

Maybe there is peace in the pastness of some things, as much as its true nature haunts us.

But I ask a very different questions of my parents’ divorce now. Its reality, its objectivity, opens it up to an emotional, even epistemological, empiricism. I examine it as a curious specimen, craving knowledge without judgment, as if to satisfy a deeper curiosity, as if a stranger or alien. To understand the heart as an organ. To understand my parents as organisms. To see them as adults, as people. To understand myself no longer as child, but as grown-up and husband, who’s made mistakes, who’s made changes. Why do we make the choices we make? How well can we actually know ourselves? What really makes us behave the way do? To love and not love? To move on and not move on? To forgive and–?

“I know myself now,” Wolseley goes on, “and I feel within me / A peace above all earthly dignities, / A still and quiet conscience” (3.2.378-81).

That sounds like a sublime peace indeed. I’m not so sure we are ultimately knowable to ourselves. I’m not sure that the heart isn’t a dark and opaque organ at the end of the day, keeping itself alive with molecules and membranes we will never really understand.

But maybe there is peace, too, in the pastness of some things, as much as its true nature haunts us. For the past, in its own stubborn inertia, and one’s life, in that invisible accretion of decisions and boredoms and job applications and sleeping and fucking and eating and failures and photographs and moving boxes, takes on an inevitability, as if it could have unfolded no other way. There can be a peace in this factness, this livedness, this fixedness, this thingness, this thereness.

Or at least in the acceptance of them.

***

“But it’s just sort of what you know,” I added. “I just don’t know things any other way. You know what I mean? I don’t know any other reality.” I started into my sandwich, and it tasted it exactly as it did so many years ago.

Just get on with it already: Love’s Labour’s Lost

This overachiever, though, makes no promises.

Love’s Labour’s Lost was my final comedy. I wasn’t sure I’d make it through all Shakespeare’s comedies, to be honest. There are 13 of them, by Norton’s classification, the most of any genre. Some of these plays are among Shakespeare’s best and most memorable: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Taming of the Shrew, Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice. Four hundred years after Shakespeare’s death, teachers are still assigning them in high schools and colleges, and for good reason. Four hundred years after his death, people like me are trying to read all of them in an ungodly, unnaturally short period of time.

For me, the comedies are among some of Shakespeare’s most difficult plays.

The Merchant of Venice, though, I’ve never found much humor in. Its antisemitism is more disturbing, though more relevant, than ever, and I’ve always had trouble reconciling this dimension of the play with Portia’s inspiring selflessness. But as a historical genre, of course, the comedy isn’t necessarily about ha-ha funny. As my friend conducts his Renaissance comedy litmus test: “Does it end with a marriage?” Disunion resolves in union. Ignorance finds knowledge. There is much more to it, of course.

But for me, the comedies are among some of Shakespeare’s most difficult plays. For one, humor is topical and doesn’t age well. I chuckle appreciatively at all their inversions (e.g., mistaken identities, disguises, gender-bending), and I nod knowingly at their keen commentary (i.e., social roles are performative and constructed), but they seldom elicit any guffaw from me. Well, Falstaff, in all of his Homer Simpsonian idiocy in The Merry Wives of Windsor is a notable exception. And I did laugh out loud when Armado, a swaggering Spaniard, says in Love’s Labour’s Lost, “Cupid’s butt-shaft is too hard for Hercules club” (1.2.156-56), but that’s because I gleefully, juvenilely, took Shakespeare out of context. Butt-shaft. It refers, just so you know, to an “unbarbed arrow.”

My mis-glossing of butt-shaft points to a second reason for the challenge of Shakespeare’s comedies for the modern reader: The language of the comedies is dense. The language of all the plays – 1) poeticized, 2) in an early form of English, and 3) from the quill of a writer with a super-human lexicon – is dense. But in the comedies, Shakespeare further heightens his language with 4) truly acrobatic wordplay.

Take this moment of banter in Love’s Labour’s Lost where Catherine, a lady attending on the French princess, says to Longueville, a lord attending on the King of Navarre: “‘Veal,’ quoth the Dutchman. Is not a veal a calf?” (5.2.247). This veal is, no joke, a quadruple pun. (Thank you, footnotes.) It riffs on veal as a Dutch pronunciation of well or the German word for much (viel). Historically, veal would have sounded more like veil. Then, veal plays on the second part of Longueville’s name while calling up the French word for “calf,” veau, and a calf was slang for a “dunce” in Renaissance English. I don’t know what any of this means, really, other than that Catherine is ripping on Longueville.

Veal: That’s one word. One word, people. One word among 884,647, according to one tally.

But Love’s Labour’s Lost is especially difficult – and I intentionally saved it for my final comedy. Or more accurately, I avoided it. I’ve read it before, in college, and I can’t stand it. Only part of that is due to the play itself, however.

***

Love’s Labour’s Lost kicks off with three lords who promise Ferdinand, King of Navarre, that they will study, fast, and forswear the company of women for the next three years. Ferdinand even decrees no woman is to come within one mile of his court.

This doesn’t last long, as The French Princess arrives, having some business to settle with Ferdinand before her sick father dies, along with her three ladies. (You can guess where this is going.) Thanks to Ferdinand’s decree, her royal retinue has to camp out in his field. (She rightfully calls him out for this, in case you were wondering.)

But the three lords and the king immediately fall in love with their counterparts and, against their oath, try to woo them. Here’s the hard part: Anytime they open their mouths – anytime any male character opens his mouth in this play – out comes a flowery stream of verbal diarrhea. In rhymed iambic pentameter. Sometimes even as whole sonnets. (I suppose shit can smell like roses.)

Listen to Biron, one of the three lords, wax amatory for Rosaline, one of the three ladies:

Lend me flourish of all gentle tongues–
Fie, painted rhetoric! O, she needs it not.
To things of sale a seller’s praise belongs.
She passes praise–then praise too short doth blot. (4.3.234-37).

Even in acknowledging any “painted rhetoric” will fall short of her beauty, he paints his rhetoric. Just get on with it, man! OK, this is one of the aims of the play, to lampoon verbosity, especially the self-involved excesses of the language of their courtship, but just get on with it already!

***

Just get on with it already! I’m pretty sure my college Shakespeare professor was thinking exactly that as she read my essay on Love’s Labour’s Lost.

For my English major, I had to take one course in Shakespeare. We read Hamlet, Othello, The Tempest, A Winter’s Tale, Richard II, Richard III, The Taming of the Shrew, and Love’s Labour’s Lost. The latter is an unusual assignment, given all the other plays to choose from, coupled with the comedy’s difficult reputation. And, if I remember correctly, it was yet we read this play first. Kinda ballsy, especially as the class only had a smattering of English majors. The class roster thinned out a bit after this.

We had two writing assignments for the play. The first, a short reading response, I remember vividly. We had to pick a keyword in the opening scene or so of the play, look up its meaning in Shakespeare’s English, and then, when we finished the play, argue why it represented the work as a whole.

I chose conqueror. It’s from the King’s opening monologue. He’s addressing the three lords, saying they will achieve fame at his court through their study and self-denial:

Therefore, brave conquerors–for so you are,
That war against your own affections
And the huge army of the world’s desires–
Our late edict shall strongly stand in force. (1.1.8-11)

The edict, here, refers to the oaths they swear.

I have no idea why I chose conqueror, but I can recall thinking it was an inspired choice. (Not so.) Here’s my mini-thesis for the “Reading Response”:

The self-referential nature, irony, and issues of love, gender, class, and language that the word conqueror conveys in the opening of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost render it the most significant word in the entire first scene and one of the most important words in the play overall.

At the time, I thought this was great. Self-referential? The way I packed in irony, love, gender, class, and language in my first clause alone? I was making moves. English-major moves. (Oy.)

The second assignment was a full essay. I can’t remember the prompt. I can’t really remember my argument either, other than it had something to with appearance vs. reality. (So original.) My professor’s lecture must have emphasized on artificial language vs. natural language. That distinction, clearly, I failed to internalize in my own writing.

I do remember, though, that this was the lowest grade I ever got on a paper in college. It was a ‘B.’ I know, I know: the horror, the horror! I’m a perfectionist and an overachiever. What can I say? Crucify me. I always liked getting good grades and submitting my best work, even when I didn’t give a damn about the subject or assignment.

Out oozed, like one of those big pimples deep under the skin that are hard to pop and really hurt when you try, an overwritten sludge of overwrought and over-intellectualized over-ness about…well, I can’t even remember.

But it wasn’t the ‘B’ that bothered me. OK, the ‘B’ did bother me. I can’t deny my inner Lisa Simpson. But I was more so challenged by the fact that this was hardest paper I can remember writing, harder than that 50-page doorstopper on the prophetic mysticism of jazz in Ginsburg’s Howl, harder even than my Master’s thesis on reforms in teacher assessment. Harder, because I found I had absolutely nothing to say about Love’s Labour’s Lost.

I can remember starting this essay the day before it was due. That was uncharacteristic, because 1) I’m a slow writer and 2) I’m an overachiever, remember? (The day before an essay is due is the day for final editing, duh.) I’m not sure what delayed me this time, but when I sat down in my cold, empty-fridge apartment at the vintage turquoise-colored card table my late grandmother gave to me with my notes, text, oversized Dell laptop, and essay prompt, no ideas came to me. None. Zip. Zilch.  Zero. Nada. This spiked my anxiety, which constipated my imagination, which blockage in turn made me fear I wouldn’t be able to demonstrate to my professor that I was a good writer.

Isn’t so much of school, at least for nerds like me, wanting the recognition and praise of your teachers? Isn’t so much of work, life, and relationships that way? Even the lords in Love’s Labour’s Lost essentially show off their art and intellect in trying to win over the ladies.

And so the anxiety fed on itself: What if I’m out of ideas? What if I’m not as smart or as good a writer as I’ve always thought, always been told, I was? I, like the lords in Love’s Labour’s Lost, always have something to say, to contribute. Don’t I?

At one point in the evening, well before I had to burn the midnight oil, I had drive over to my father’s house for some bit of business, chain-smoking and refilling a Venti coffee from Starbucks along the way. Panicky, caffeinated, not even trying to cover up how much I reeked of Camel Lights in front of my dad, I shared my frustration. “Do your best,” he offered. “But sometimes you just have to know when you’ve done your best, call it a day, and move on.”

And so out oozed, like one of those big pimples deep under the skin that are hard to pop and really hurt when you try, an overwritten sludge of overwrought and over-intellectualized over-ness about…well, I can’t  even remember. How apt. Apparently it wasn’t horrible, if I landed a ‘B.’ My professor was a tough grader, but gave exceptional and in-depth feedback on composition. But I know I hid behind a whole lot of words, which is oh-so fitting for Love’s Labour’s Lost. And I know that my professor saw right through it, and, with that generous ‘B,’ must have seen something in me.

***

I didn’t see the irony of any of this at the time. I was too focused on myself to realize that I was acting like Biron, Longueville, and Dumaine, the third lord.

I didn’t appreciate how it was the ladies, by their wit, who brought them to their senses.

After hypocritical accusations, the three lords and the king reveal they are in love – and agree to bail on their oaths.  They disguises themselves as Russians to court the ladies. Because Shakespeare. The fanciful Spaniard gets a countrywoman pregnant. Because Shakespeare. There’s a comically bad play within a play. Because Shakespeare. Then suddenly, the princess learns her father has died and has to return home. Because Shakespeare. But the ladies, in parting, bid the noblemen to wait a year in some sort of punitive, ascetic condition, prove their love, before pursuing them again. Because Shakespeare.

My first time through this play, I focused on how the lords screwed themselves over: “The conquerors are themselves conquered, and largely by their own undoing,” I wrote in that reading response. I didn’t appreciate how it was the ladies, by their wit, who brought them to their senses.

I mean, for God’s sake, the Princess even explicitly mocks the poetry overkill the King sends her:

…as much love in rhyme
As would be crammed up in a sheet of paper
Writ o’ both sides of the leaf, margin and all,
That he was fain to seal on Cupid’s name. (5.2.6-9)

That essay – no, my professor’s feedback, on that paper and throughout the entire course – made me a much better writer. I’d probably say she provided the best writing instruction in my entire academic career, even. And I’d probably say that, while I still don’t like Love’s Labour’s Lost, but I’d say hate would be far too harsh.

As for that assignment, to pick one word most central to the play? For one, I’ve thought about that exercise every play I’ve read during this year, even selecting a representative word for a few plays just for the sake of it. And if I had a chance to redo it? Well, “butt-shaft” is very tempting…

That merry wanderer of my life: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Shakespeare’s got game.

I recently read that A Midsummer Night’s Dream – with the mischief its fairies wreak on the young lovers and the play the bumbling workmen stage for the newlywed duke and duchess – is currently the most performed of Shakespeare’s plays. This makes sense: Its language is accessible, its plot lends itself well to adaptation, its emotions and comedy are relatable, and its length, well, runs pretty short for the Bard.

We should not underestimate the power of shortness. We should never underestimate that the power of shortness.

To the article’s point, my wife and I caught a production of it just this weekend in Dublin. It was a fun show, and it pulled off all the liberties it took with the text, what with its opening standup act, a live-band, a riotous food fight, and even a bit of acrobatics. From page to stage, A Midsummer Night’s Dream indeed has a magic all its own – a magic, I  have realized since, that has quite literally charmed my life.

“I am the merry wanderer of the night,” Robin Goodfellow introduces himself, chief mischief-making puck of Oberon, King of the Fairies (2.1.43). Merry wanderer, too, A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been throughout my years, spiriting itself forth in ways big and small throughout my years.

*** 

This lantern doth the horned moon present.
Myself the man i’th’ moon do seem to be.
– Starveling, 5.1.235-36

Mrs. Wagner – whose laughter at the opening puns in Julius Caesar first awakened a sense of Shakespeare in me – divided our class into small groups and assigned each a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Several of us, including my own, were to stage passages from the play within the play, The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe. In my group, I was cast as Starveling the Tailor – ironically enough, for I was quite the chubby middle-schooler and always managed to have a little mustard or jelly stain on my ill-fitting school uniform.

For rehearsal, we would meet at Greg’s house, tucked away in the sleepy, leafy streets of Hyde Park. It’s funny, I catch his updates on Facebook from time to time now. He lives in Sacramento, enjoys hockey and sports cars, and works in tech. I remember his family had moved to Cincinnati from San Diego, his dad courted that way to serve as City Manager. This lent them, even my unsophisticated fifth-grade brain understood, an aura, with San Diego looming exotic and otherworldly in my imagination.

Greg’s mother was so nice, always wearing a warm smile, never bothered that my mother or father, depending on whose house I was staying at that week, had to pick me up later than the rest of my peers. She would prepare us snacks and bring them down to the basement, where we plotted our pratfalls in costumes expertly sewed by another group-mate’s mother. Snug’s Lion, I recall, had a shaggy mane of gold and orange and brown yarn, ears rounded out of felt.

I suspect my chubbiness, now that I look back on it, was the real humor of my voice work.

In Pyramus and Thisbe, Starveling doubles as Moonshine. Like Starveling, I also used a lantern for my performance. It was a red lantern, a real one, too. I had acquired it as some sort of souvenir, I think, during one of those summers my father took my brothers and me and sometimes our friends hiking in the Smoky Mountains. Once, I had tried to light the lantern, as we did the lanterns in those chilly cabins we stayed in atop Mount Le Conte, warmed by alpaca blankets and hot chocolate. I filled my lantern with lighter fluid but ended up getting it all over my clothes and the carpet, which later got me in some trouble. The wick never caught the flame, its rope bearing that charred scar until one day it ended up at a thrift-shop, I have to imagine, after my dad moved again.

To heighten Starveling’s comic incompetence, I used this voice gag my classmates thought was hilarious, at least if its popularly in the fourth grade was any measure. It was a strange blend of Fat Albert, Pee-wee Herman, and Kermit the Frog. I suspect my chubbiness, now that I look back on it, was the real humor of my voice work. Not so for Ms. Pater, who was seated front and center during our first performance.

Mrs. Wagner had invited parents, of course, for our theatrical debuts, as well as other classes, much to our humiliation when the junior high-schoolers came down from the top floors of the school and squatted down like giants on our desk chairs. Ms. Pater taught sixth, seventh, and eighth-grade science. No other teacher inspired as much lore – and fear – as her. She was a full woman, shall we say. Her breasts would smother the elementary kids when she forced hugs out of them. Her voice drowned out the organ when she bellowed hymns at mass. A year later, when I had her for class, she got basic facts wrong in lessons  – “Uh, it says right here in the textbook, Ms. Pater, that worms have five hearts,” I remember a student, who wasn’t even one of the know-it-alls like me, corrected her. She’d lose assignments and penalize students for it. She’d test information we hadn’t yet covered. One of Ms. Pater’s desk drawer was filled with her own snacks, and, when they ran low, she’d send a student down to a corner shop just past the playground for some fresh Twinkies. One time, she even got stuck in her roller chair and, trying to squirm out, fell back on the floor. Students had to help her up and out. “I don’t have to like you,” was her darkly Catholic motto, “but as a Christian, I have to love you.”

Ms. Pater was the most intimidating critic to have seated front and center. And when my lines came, I stood up on a chair, held out my lantern, and honked in my goofy fat-kid voice: “I am the moon.” (Our script was adapted, of course, for our still-developing brains.)

“We can’t understand you,” she coldly interjected, as if playing a meaner Theseus, the newlywed  Duke of Athens, who comments on his wedding-night entertainment. Her arms were resting atop her bosom, her eyes shot out like daggers from behind her glasses. That was the end of my goofy fat-kid voice.

***

My Oberon, what visions have I seen!
Methought I was enamoured of an ass.
– Titania, 4.1.73-74

The blue Previa pulled up to the curb. “Have fun, kids! I’ll pick you up 15 minutes after the movie’s out. Remember, Kelly, 15 minutes.” We piled out of the car and raced inside towards the cinemas at the Kenwood Town Center. We weren’t late for the movie. We, in the gangly agony of pubescent self-consciousness, just didn’t want any older kids to see that we had to be dropped off at the mall.

I can’t remember who else was there, but I was there with Kelly. (Facebook: wife, mother, home-owner, educator. God, our youth can seem as if it was a dream.) We were trying out one of those junior high romances that materialize – and just as quickly vanish – out of pure curiosity and callow experimentation in the world of adult amatory relationships. The crux of our connection, from what I can recall, was the imagined hilarity of our matrimony: “Can you believe, if we got married, your name would be, like, Kelly Kelly?!”

I went for it: I reached out and placed my arm around her shoulders.

Our group date was the 1999 film adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the one with Kevin Kline as Bottom. Thanks to Baz Luhrman’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet, Shakespeare enjoyed some popularity among certain 90s youth.  And it was during this screening I made my first ever “move” on a girl.

Early in the movie, but not too early, as I slickly strategized, I went for it: I reached out and placed my arm around her shoulders. No yawn-stretch maneuver for this guy. Then I tried to decipher her reaction. She didn’t push my arm off. That was good. She didn’t shift in her seat or lean away. That was also good. And maybe, I couldn’t quite tell, just maybe she even snuggled in ever so slightly. Very, very good.

The film itself had little impact on me. I can only conjure up swaths of mossy green, gossamer pink, and Kevin Kline’s eye makeup. But next Monday at school I followed up with Kelly’s best friend. “She said she likes you,” the friend divulged. “But her neck was a little stiff.”

“What do you mean?”

“She said it was really sweet you put your arm around her, but you left it there for the entire movie.”

***

Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind.
– Helena, 1.2.234

She didn’t just quote a few lines. She recited the whole damned thing. The whole damned thing.

My friend had to leave at this point. Over the music, he mouthed and gestured something about needing to take his dog out, but I knew the noise, crowd, and skinny jeans weren’t his thing. Plus, he wasn’t really hitting it off with any of the girls we were talking to.

He and I met around the corner at Neon’s, where we had met to celebrate his new job and where we randomly ended up having a round of shots with this group of girls at the adjacent table. One of them shouted over the jukebox that they were heading out to the next bar. This was our window.

Well, not really my window. I had been in and out of some short flings and hook-ups, coming off a series of longterm relationships before that. I was enjoying being single. I was in the thick of grad school. My friends, my brothers, encouraged me to enjoy being single. I just wanted to play wingman. “This is what you do, man. You follow after, but cool-like. I’ll buy you a whiskey.”

“It’s Latin. It means ‘but with the mind.’ It’s uh, it’s a long story.”

I was enjoying that whiskey. I was enjoying my conversation with her – the one who coyly invited us to come along but whose name I had already forgotten at this point. So I stayed. I ordered another whiskey.

A chat about work lead to a chat about books. I was training to be an English teacher, after all, at the time. I offered up that I was re-reading Macbeth in my free time. (Oh, I’ve got all the moves.) And she offered up Helena’s entire monologue – the entire monologue, mind you, without missing a single beat – after the lovers Hermia and Lysander reveal their plans to elope:

How happy some o’er other some can be!
Through Athens I am thought as fair as she.
But what of that? Demetrius thinks not so.
He will not know what all but he do know.
And as he errs, doting on Hermia’s eyes,
So I, admiring his qualities.
Things base and vile, holding no quantity,
Love can transpose to form and dignity.
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.
Nor hath love’s mind of any judgement taste;
Wings and no eyes figure unheedy haste.
And therefore is love said to be a child
Because in choice he is so oft beguiled.
As waggish boys in game themselves forswear,
So the boy Love is perjured everywhere.
For ere Demetrius looked on Hermia’s eyne
He hailed down oaths that he was only mine,
And when this hail some heat from Hermia felt
So he dissolved, and showers of oaths did melt.
I will go tell him of fair Hermia’s flight. 
Then to the wood will he tomorrow night
Pursue her, and for this intelligence
If I have thanks it is a dear expense.
But herein mean I to enrich my pain,
To have his sight thither and back again. (1.2.226-251)

Two and half years later, I handed the man the slip of paper. On it, I had written sed animo. “What does that mean?” he asked. 

“It’s Latin. It means ‘but with the mind.’ It’s uh, it’s a long story.”

I’m not sure why, exactly, I felt compelled to translate it, but the jeweler said it was much easier to engrave, being shorter, on the wedding band.

***

“The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact,” Jonathan Bate quoted Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (5.1.7-8). Bate, the eminent professor and Oxford provost, was lecturing on “The Magic of Shakespeare” at the Bodleian Libraries. The lecture, as luck had it, came but a few days after my wife and I had began our move to Dublin, staying, as we were, in Oxford until our Irish visas came through. 

Bate argued that Shakespeare viewed poetry as a kind of seduction, “a conjunction of eros and magic.” Both love and verse, he said, have a power to grip our minds, to change our mental states, like magic. During his lecture, I didn’t recall all the ways A Midsummer Night’s Dream cast its spell on my life. Nor, really, after I quickly read the play before the Dublin performance.

But as I stood in ovation to the actors, so far away in time and place and imagination from my chubby fifth-grade self, I realized how right Bate was: No play is quite so enchanting, and originally so, as A Midsummer Night’s Dream.