Past, present, and macaroni salad: Henry VIII 

Why do we make the choices we make?

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“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.

Goddamnit, Shakespeare: Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece

He’s good even when he’s not.

“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 1000  never-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.

Goddamnit, Shakespeare. You did it again. 

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…

The rest is…definitely not silence

That was a whole lot of Shakespeare.

On January 10, 2016, I set out to read the complete works of William Shakespeare – every last iamb thought to come from his quill – in 2016. I didn’t technically finish before 11:59:59 on December 31, but the spirit of my goal, I trust you’ll agree with my just-off-new-year start date, was to tackle the Bard’s oeuvre in one year. That I did, and with a few days to spare. On January 5, 2017 at 2:59pm, I read the word “queen,” the final word of The Reign of Edward III, which many editors think Shakespeare wrote in part.

I stood up from the couch in the basement guest room of my dad’s house in Cincinnati, fist pumped, and then collapsed on the (delightfully soft) carpet. I felt relieved. I felt proud. I felt excited and freed to read something not-Shakespeare.

Like science fiction. I looked over at a stack of books in my suitcase. On top was Station Eleven (2014) by Emily St. John Mandel, which my stepfather gave it to me. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic world and follows a troupe called the Traveling Symphony, which primarily performs…Shakespeare. I’ll never get away from the Bard. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I’m back in Dublin on Monday, when I’ll be writing up my remaining posts on Henry VIII, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, various poems including Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, and Edward III. I may be finished reading, but I’m not finished writing – and I’m certainly not finished with Shakespeare.

Thanks for following along, and stay posted for much, much more.

Twelfth Night, Or the Five Stages of Trying Not to Sound Like a Douchebag

Is the worst kind of impostor the one who deceives himself?

When I started reading the complete works of Shakespeare this year, I was more eager to write about the plays than read them. Now, almost a year later, a few mere plays and a handful of poems from the end, I am putting off writing to read.

The year is almost over and I am still behind schedule, so, yes, I have some work to do if I am to claim I’ve read all of Shakespeare in 2016. That the end is in sight? Like the final sprint of a race, this certainly picks up my speed.

And while in themselves I wouldn’t say the plays get easier to read, Shakespeare’s landscape has become much more familiar, the terrain easier to negotiate. (It better have, damnit.) I enjoy inhabiting Shakespeare’s world. I look forward to escaping into it, especially in these trying political times. But when I cross back into my own world, I’ve been finding it more and more difficult to write about my experiences in light of Shakespeare.

“I’m stuck. I’m not sure what to say,” I’ll complain to my wife as I make my eighth cup of tea in a robe at 3:30pm on a Sunday. This is a script she’s gotten quite used to. 

“Are you sure you want to be doing this? You always sound like you’re in agony,” she answers. 

When I stare into this question, when I’m brave enough to look hard into its self-exposing eyes, I know my fear is fraud.

Sometimes it takes work to tease out meaningful connections between the Bard and me, particularly without mapping yet another argument with my wife onto whatever play I last finished. Sometimes I have to suppress content, too. I trust, dear reader, you are not interested in my digestive system (very active) and sex life (not as active). And I still want my friends and family to, you know, actually like me after all this.

But I know lurking underneath my writer’s block is the gut-hollowing question I’d rather not confront: Why? I mean, who cares, really, about how Shakespeare relates to my boring life? (I know, I haven’t even gotten to Hamlet yet.) When I stare into this question, when I’m brave enough to look hard into its self-exposing eyes, I know my fear is fraud.

I feel like an impostor. And you know who knows a thing or two about impostors?

***

In Twelfth Night, Or What You Will, Shakespeare goes full meta: The comedy features a young man dressed up as a young woman who dresses up as a young man. Female roles, we’ll recall of Elizabethan theater, were played by adolescent boys, a tension which Shakespeare much milked in his body of work, both for comedic effect and in his obsessive exploration of identity. But in Twelfth Night, Shakespeare especially heightens the tension of imposture.

This is one those plays that’s not quick to sum up, thanks to the Bard’s many twists and turns:

In the play, Orsino, the Duke of Illyria, has fallen in love with a countess, Olivia, who has isolated herself to mourn the death of her brother. Then, a lady, Viola, shipwrecks off the coast of the city, believing her own brother – twin brother, at that – died in the accident. Thanks to Olivia’s withdrawal, the stranded Viola disguises herself as a young page, Cesario, to serve the duke. (She, in classic Shakespeare fashion, both immediately gets the job and falls in love with him). The duke puts Cesario straight to work to help him woo Olivia, but the plan backfires: Olivia falls in love with Cesario, who is really Viola, who is in love with Orsino.  (Oh boy.)

Next, we discover Viola’s twin brother, Sebastian, has actually survived. He ends up crossing paths with Olivia, who think he’s Cesario, and the two instantly agree to marry. (When it comes to love and marriage, Shakespeare’s characters don’t mess around. Badda bing, badda boom.) The ensuing confusion, ultimately, prompts the Big Reveal: The estranged twins reunite, Viola discloses her true identity, Olivia weds Sebastian, and Viola marries Orsino.

But Shakespeare isn’t done. (Of course there’s a parallel B-plot to thicken the theme.) While all the Viola-Olivia-Orsino shenanigans is going on, Sir Toby Belch, Olivia’s relative, his friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Olivia’s waiting-woman, Maria, have been playing pranks on Olivia’s butler, Malvolio. He’s a puritanical party-pooper who scolds Toby and Andrew’s drinking and merriment. The three trick Malvolio into believing Olivia is secretly in love with him, which compels him towards all sorts of comic self-humiliation – including dressing up in some ridiculously gaudy clothes completely uncharacteristic of the austere Malvolio. Yellow stockings and cross garters? For Shakespeare, those are knee-slappers.

***

“And what do you do?” she asked.

Over all the chatter, cheer, and Christmas music at the fancy hotel bar, I tried: “I, uh, I write.” 

“Oh. What do you write about?” She was the sister of the husband to my wife’s colleague. We were all out on the town for a Christmas celebration. 

In my mental script, my interlocutor would grab my tumbler out of my hand, polish it off in one, bold sip, slam the empty glass on the table, and then deliver a much-deserved slap across my smug face.

“Popular language topics. Shakespeare.” I took a big sip of my Negroni, which cost about one-tenth of my last freelance paycheck. I wondered how many words each sip was worth. Forty, forty-five? Then I remembered I didn’t pick up this round. The Campari lingered bitterly on the back of my tongue.

It took me some time to get comfortable saying those words. I had to go through the Five Stages of Telling Someone You’re Trying to Be A Writer (Without Feeling Too Much Like an Epic Douchebag).

First there was denial. I avoided talking about it because I thought it sounded supremely pretentious. I write about Shakespeare, he says as he tips back his hipster-appropriated cocktail in blithe disregard of all the nine-to-fivers, nay, eight-to-sixers, who drag themselves in and out office each day. In my mental script, my interlocutor would grab my tumbler out of my hand, polish it off in one, bold sip, slam the empty glass on the table, and then deliver a much-deserved slap across my smug face.

“O, you are sick of self-love,” Olivia chides Malvolio after he reproves her fool, Feste (1.5.77. Here, of means “with.”)

Then there was anger. I would feel small, like my bank ledger. I would feel illegitimate, not brining in much money. I would feel pathetic, my bylines so limited. I’m writing now, but you know, my last job in the states was as Academic Coordinator for adults with autism. Yeah, I once actually did something that meaningfully contributed to society and helped pay the bills.  I’d work in my master’s degree and teaching credential and allude to my time working in inner-city schools, as if in apology or self-defense.

“I am not that I play,” Viola, as Cesario, cleverly and obliquely remarks during her opening exchanges with Olivia. (1.5.164. For that, read “what.”)

Bargaining came along soon enough. Maybe if I mention that I wrote weekly for a blog on Slate, people will take me seriously. Most people, apparently, haven’t heard of Slate

“How have you made division of yourself? / An apple cleft in two in is not more twin / Than these two creatures,” remarks Antonio, a sailor who befriends Sebastian, when he sees Viola, still disguised as Cesario, next to her brother (5.1.215-217).

Then, I feared whoever I was talking to could see straight through me. Depression. I write, and with those words they can see me: Hunched over my laptop with a yet another cup of instant coffee, wearing a robe over my pajamas because I’m too cheap to turn the heat on while I’m at home by myself during the day, wearing a knit hat because I don’t feel like messing with my hair, getting distracted by Twitter as I make my way from a plot point I didn’t understand to Wikipedia, listening to William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops for the millionth time, picking my nose and passing occasional gas, as my wife rushes out of the house in the rain to catch a train to make a big, fiscal year-end meeting, the front door slamming before I can even answer her “Does this outfit look OK?”, all so that we actually have a roof to sleep under.

“Well, I will be so much a sinner to be a double-dealer,” Orsino says to Feste (5.1.31). 

***

Now, I’ve come to terms with it.

We chatted briefly about Shakespeare himself. And then: “How do you like working from home all day?” my fellow yuletide drinker asked. Working, I noticed. This is a keyword for me. It’s validating. “Do you ever change out of your pajamas? Do you get tempted by the TV? How about naps?” 

There is a normalizing comfort in the mundanity of my workday. There is a self-importance in dwelling on one’s feelings of unimportance.

I finished off my Negroni and went for it:  “I never write in bed and I never turn on the TV. And I always make sure I put on some kind of trousers or joggers. I’m up at 7, I take the dog out for 20 minutes, write for 4 hours. Then I go for a run and walk the dogs – the other is our friend’s I watch while they’re at work. There’s usually an over-long, afternoon shower. I work for three more hours. Go the grocery shop, make dinner, clean up, write for a few more hours, and then go to bed. There’s lots of online dithering, nail-biting, coffee, incessantly checking my email for a response from an editor or a pitch, and tremendous feelings of angst and privilege. But I never write in bed or turn on the TV.”

“I have taken a few midday naps, though,” I added, sucking the remaining gin off the ice. 

Poor lady. She was generous with her ear. But there it was: acceptance.

There is a normalizing comfort in the mundanity of my workday. There is a self-importance in dwelling on one’s feelings of unimportance. I write. I’m self-motivated. I’m disciplined. I actually get paid for some of my work. And damnit, a few people have even said they like the personal connections I make to Shakespeare.

Both Malvolio and Viola pretend to be someone they’re not. But it’s only Malvolio, in his hypocritical and narcissistic sanctimony, who ultimately only deceives himself.

“This fellow is wise enough to play the fool, / And to do that well craves a kind of wit,” Viola observes of the fool, Feste (3.1.53-54).

Home stretches

I think I can, I think I can.

Three plays left. Three, freakin’ plays.

Romeo and Juliet.

Edward III, which Shakespeare is believed to have collaborated on. My edition of The Norton Shakespeare does not include this play, although subsequent editions have. Joy. More reading.

And last but not least, Hamlet.

Then, to cap it off, there’s two (very long) poems: Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Did ya have to write those Shakespeare? I mean, couldn’t you have thought about me, your dear reader, 400 years in the future, scrambling to finish up the arbitrary project of trying to read your complete works in one year?

I’ve got fifteen days to do it. Normally, this wouldn’t be an issue, but I’ll be traveling back to the States for the holidays. There will be distractions. Like booze. Presents. And, oh yeah, family. I do have a few long flights ahead, but reading Shakespeare at 30,000 feet is truly one elite mile-high club, if my stab at the Sonnets were any measure.

So, expect the writing side of things to be a bit quieter over the holiday. I still have much to say on Twelfth Night, Henry VIII, and argh, my nemesis play, Love’s Labour’s Lost, which are already in the reading bag. 

In the meantime, I’ve guest-hosted a wonderful podcast called As We Like It, which discusses  adaptations of Shakespeare on the screen. Not too long back, I chatted with regular hosts Aven and Mark about Chimes at Midnight, Orson Welles’ epic and poignant treatment of Falstaff. And just this week, we had a vibrant conversation on Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 Hamlet. Stayed tuned for the podcast in January – and much more writing to come.

Happy Holidays!

Harrumphing Hellenes and house-hunters: Troilus and Cressida

Being a grownup? It’s easier to be a liberal Buddhist nihilist.

Me, shouting from upstairs to my wife in the kitchen: “Because African leopards are going extinct! Because facts are going extinct! Because, because…bullshit!”

Thersites, railing against Patroclus: “The common curse of mankind, folly and ignorance, be thine in great revenue!” (2.3.23-24).

Me, venting into the iPhone: “What’s the point? What’s the point? Money is a fetish. Things fall apart. Entropy. We’re all gonna die!”

Thersites, still railing against Patroclus: “Thou idle immaterial skein of sleave-silk, thou green sarsenet flap for a sore eye, thou tassel of a prodigal’s purse, thou! Ah, how the poor world is pestered with such waterflies! Diminutives of nature.” (5.1.25-28)

Me, rage-whispering to my wife during a tour: “The extra room for a yoga studio? Ludicrous! Absurd! Stupid!” I extended my arms in a broad sweep and looked up, as if indicating the universe, the totality of all that is and ever was. “It’s all stupid!” 

Thersites, quarreling with Ajax: “The plague of Greece upon thee, thou mongrel beef-witted lord!” (2.1.11-12).

If you haven’t guessed already, my wife and I have been house-hunting. Which is to say my wife has been house-hunting, and I’ve been coming to terms with it. Slowly. Bitterly. And with a philosophical vehemence I can’t help but recognize in Thersites, a Greek soldier who lambastes his fellow fighters with his crass-tongued cynicism in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida.

***

Troilus and Cressida is a challenging play. Indeed, some scholars have actually called it one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays.” These – including All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure, as well as Timon of Athens and The Merchant of Venice on some lists – are part-comic and part-tragic, leaving the reader without any real sense of thematic resolution at their close. In other words, as I said when I finished the play, “What the hell was that?”

The play takes place during the Trojan War. Troilus is madly in love with a fellow Trojan, Cressida, who gets traded to the Greeks in exchange for a captured soldier. The two pledge their fidelity to each other when she’s handed over, but, after later eavesdropping on her in the Greek camp, Troilus comes to believe Cressida has taken a new lover.

Aside: It’s not exactly clear what she does, but let’s be clear: 1) Cressida’s in enemy territory, so flirtatious appeasement may be a form of self-defense; 2) she was bartered by men like some object, so why should she keep any pledge? and 3) after they have sex, Troilus pulls away, just as she feared, like a dude who sneaks out of a girl’s apartment, leaving no note or number, before she wakes up on Saturday after a magical night on the town, in spite of all his talk about wanting “a deep and meaningful connection.” So, deal with it, Troilus.

But most of the action centers on the Greeks trying to get a too-proud Achilles out of his tent to fight, featuring to this end some very long, dense, and elaborate speeches from Ulysses about hierarchy and social order. (I jotted, brilliantly, in my margins at one point: “Difficult speeches.”) Ulysses tries to goad Achilles to action by glorifying the ox-dumb Ajax, but it’s the death of Patroclus, his comrade and likely lover, that spurs him back onto the field, where he kills, ignobly, the great Trojan warrior, Hector. The Trojans learn of their devastating loss, Troilus rallies to avenge Cressida’s apparent betrayal with Greek blood, and the play ends. Opaquely, like some modern novel or film.

And throughout all this, we have Thersites issuing his unsolicited criticisms like a snarling Greek chorus.

***

Thersites and I have a lot of differences, of course. For one thing, he’s a soldier in the ninth year of the Trojan War. I’m just pushing back against home ownership. (No easy marriage jokes here: I’ve only been married for two years. Rimshot. Dublin’s housing market is like a battlefield, however.) For another, Thersites vents his vexation through many more personal insults than I do, although my wife would surely disagree.

And yet the harrumphing Hellene and I do have a lot in common. We both speak our mind, even when we should bite our tongues. We both approach situations with negativity and pessimism. And neither of us is an immediate actor in the plot. Thersites doesn’t take up his sword in the fray, only his snark from the peanut gallery. I’m not finding the properties, setting up viewings, talking to agents, or calculating expenses. I need a coffee and a sweet just to lure me to a viewing.

But whenever my wife texts me a link to a property online or phones me up to say a new viewing window of a house has opened, I leap immediately to a strange and volatile mix of cynicism and alarmism about the world.

But where I feel most kindred to Thersites is the nature of our objections. Our complaints, ultimately, take a broader, more universal view. Thersites exposes the deeper follies of the Greek model of heroism and masculinity. I lay bare the delusions of bourgeois materialism, of capitalist teleology.

OK, these are very generous readings of our general petulance.

See, I don’t object to homeownership as a matter of cost or  on the grounds of middle-aged striving and settling. But whenever my wife texts me a link to a property online or phones me up to say a new viewing window of a house has opened, I leap immediately to aa strange and volatile mix of cynicism and alarmism about the world – about climate change, about our slaughter of wildlife, about our political and social failure to address poverty and oppression and inequality, about the burden of things, about the transience of all things, about mortality, about man’s puny place in the cosmos.

Why buy a house? I think. Our renovations are only going to add carbon to the atmosphere in one way or another. Why buy a house? Donald Trump won the presidency – we must do all we can to fight back! Why buy a house? You know, one day the sun will burn out. I’m not claiming it’s logical, but in my strange Buddhist social justice nihilism, buying a house makes me exclaim, like Thersites: “Lechery, lechery, still wars and lechery! Nothing else holds fashion” (5.2.193-94).

***

Of course, there are two sides to the conversation.

Me: “The extra room for a yoga studio? Ludicrous. Absurd. Stupid.”

My wife, exasperated: “You’re being an asshole. Good Lord, let a woman daydream.”

Me: “Because African leopards are going extinct! Because facts are going extinct! Because, because…bullshit!”

My wife, shouting back: “You act like your life is so hard. You get to spend your days doing something you’re passionate about. If you care so much about leopards, do something about it.”

It’s easier to hide behind ontological abstractions and ethical high-horses, I admitted to myself.

Me: “What’s the point? What’s the point? Money is a fetish. Things fall apart. Entropy. We’re all gonna die!”

My wife, explaining herself for the final time: “Because I work really freakin’ hard and just want a place I can come home to at the end of the day and feel like myself.”

It sinks in. Slowly. Bitterly. “I know, I know, I know, I know, I know. You deserve that.”

“Then why do you act like the world’s on fire?”

“Because homeownership is just so…adult.”

It’s easier to hide behind ontological abstractions and ethical high-horses, I admitted to myself.

“I do like your ideas about herringbone tiles in the kitchen,” I continued. “And the place does have lovely old sash windows.”

I was met with a suspicious silence.

***

There were two sides to Thersites’ conversations, too. After Hector surprises Thersites on the battlefield, he asks whether he should kill him: “What are thou, Greek? Art thou for Hector’s match? Art thou of blood and honour?”

Thersites: “No, no, I am a rascal, a scurvy railing knave, a very filthy rogue.”

Hector: “I do believe thee: live.”

Thersites: “God-a-mercy, that thou wilt believe me – [Exit Hector] but a plague break thy neck for frighting me.” (5.4.22-28)