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.

Wine, women, and tray tables: The Sonnets

It’s the little things.

I knocked over my wine, sending droplets on the opening lines of “Sonnet 15”:

When I consider every thing that grows
Holds in perfection but a little moment…

You can say that again. That was like 3 euros of wine.

A little bit splashed on the closing couplet of “Sonnet 14,” too:

Or else of thee this I prognosticate:
Thy end is truth’s and beauty’s doom and date.

Fortunately, I still had some left in the bottle.

Wine, check. I managed to spill very little on my text and none of myself. Shakespeare, check. Shirt and trousers, check. Priorities, people.

Then I checked around my seat. The entire side of the cabin liner below the porthole was purple. Thank God I had a window seat. You’d think Shakespeare’s Sonnets, compact and self-contained as they are, would be a great read for a flight. Wrong.

The couple seated to my left didn’t look up from the movie they were watching on a laptop, but the lady did twitch her nose and brow. I wonder if she was detecting notes of oak and black currant. A flight attendant walked by. I hunched over my tray table to hide my wine curtain and flagged her for a napkin. She signaled she’d be right back. The napkin never came.

Cabin liners, I’m sure, are designed to handle sonnet-induced spills.

I looked back at my seat mates. They were settled in. I looked at the wine, slowly dripping down the liner. The couple looked comfortable. They’d have to pause the film, take out their earbuds, close the laptop, close the tray table, unbuckle their seat belts, get up and out into the aisle, sit back down, wait to resume the movie until I returned from the bathroom, get back up and out and down, put down the tray table, open up the laptop, put their earbuds back in, and remember what was going on when they left off. Every little movement on an airplane sets off a small chain of readjustments. Every jostle a turbulence of inconvenience. Like changing a single word in a sonnet, disrupting the pentameter and toppling the rhyme scheme. 

So I read few more poems, finished my wine, and waited until I actually had to go. Being considerate ends with the bladder.

The bathroom towels wiped up the wine well. Cabin liners, I’m sure, are designed to handle sonnet-induced spills. But it did have an ever-so-faint hue of violet.

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee. (18.13-14)

Shakespeare immortalized the fair youth in his poetry, I on the walls of a Boeing 737.

***

You’d also think the Sonnets would be a romantic read for a weekend getaway with your wife in Barcelona. Not exactly. 

Some “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” over sangria (18.1)? “O know, sweet love, I always write of you, / And you and love are still my argument” floating up with the dreamlike spires of La Sagrada Familia (76.9-10)? Maybe Javier Bardem will even appear at the dinner table and whisking you off into a sultry Spanish night with his voice like a buttery guitar: “Fair, kind, and true have often lived alone, / Which three till now never kept seat in one” (105.13-14).   

Shakespeare’s Sonnets, which he capped with the poem A Lover’s Complaint, are difficult. You can’t just sip on them like a late-day caña or stroll their iambs like the winding corridors of the Gothic Quarter. You need a map for their tangled syntax. You need a translator for their dense metaphors. You have to read all the plaques to appreciate what you’re looking at in them.

Their language is hard. Their meaning is hard. Their repetition is hard (procreate, fair youth, already!). Their conception of love is hard.

Don’t get me wrong: Shakespeare accomplished incredible things with them. There’s the intense homosexual desire of the first 126 sonnets:

But since [nature] pricked thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure. (20.13-14)

There’s moving and deeply human reflections on aging, on death:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sing. (73.1-4)

The pained justification of the youth’s love affairs:

These petty wrongs that liberty commits
When I am sometime absent from they heart… (41.1-2)

The pained view of women:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red. (130.1-2)

Considerations of the nature of poetry, of love, itself:

Yet do thy worst, old time; despite my wrong
My love shall in my verse ever live young (19.13-14).

The beautiful and masterful craft Shakespeare applies to build up such expansive ideas within the tiny, demanding confines of the sonnet form – in spite of any “tongue-tied muse” he alleges (85.1)

But I don’t recommend trying to read them all, all 154 of them, in one go. Rather, savor them.

Like tapas at an unassuming restaurant you discovered with your wife while wandering Barcelona’s narrow old streets, aglow with the laughter and warm lights of a balmy Friday night, when you’re slightly buzzed from the red wine you’re drinking while squeezed in a small table, almost rubbing elbows with a neighboring couple, the clinking of silverware and glasses punctuating the sizzle of cooking and conversation, as you’re forking up a bite of chipirones spritzed with just the right amount of lemon and your wife recites one, memorized long before you ever met her:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no, it is an ever fixèd mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring barque,
Whose worth’s unknown although his height be taken.
Love’s not time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved. (116)

Fighting stances: The Tragedy of Coriolanus

Stand up and be a man – or at least try not to trip.

The kid kicked at my shoes but I didn’t fall.

“That’s fine,” I answered without losing my brisk pace. But he – and three or four other friends, I didn’t really slow down to take count – kept up.

That’s fine,” he parroted in a mock American accent. “Take a look at this Yank,” he aped my determined gait.

I responded with something about how I had moved to Dublin months ago. I’m not quite sure what the intended effect of this was. Perhaps to ease some larger territoriality I perceived, to lend myself some street cred? I was a bit disoriented. This stretch of the busy road up from the stadium, which my brother and I had left a little early to beat the crowds before the football match let out, had taken a darker and quieter turn. I had noticed the teenaged boys, mostly track-suited and probably a bit drunk, swaggering their way ahead of me, but I was surprised when I had somehow walked right into their ruckusing.

I can’t help but wonder if I didn’t want her know I didn’t stand up for myself.

The kid continued his blustery taunts, which I was now ignoring, when my ear suddenly stung and rang. Swiftly and sharply, and with a cocky little jump completely superfluous to the delivery of his blow, he had boxed the side of my head just as the road bent back towards more traffic and light.

They took off down a side street. I looked back. My brother, who had been some steps behind when the boys swarmed around me, planted himself at the intersection and stared down their fleeing backs. 

“This is what they want, man. It’s not worth it. Let’s go,” I waved him along. “They’ll get what’s coming to when they find out where this kind of shit takes them in life.”

We headed towards a pub just ahead. “And don’t tell my wife,” I added.

At the moment, I had meant that I didn’t want her worrying she’d be unsafe walking Dublin’s streets, as she does regularly by herself. But since reading Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Coriolanus, in all of its complicated portrait of masculinity, I can’t help but wonder if I didn’t want her know I didn’t stand up for myself.

***

“You shames of Rome!” Caius Martius, later Coriolanus, curses his fellow soldiers as they retreat from their Volscian foes:

You herd of–boils and plagues
Plaster you o’er, that you may be abhorred
Farther than seen, and one infect another
Against the wind a mile! You souls of geese
That bear the shapes of men, how have you run
From slaves that apes would beat! (1.5.2-7)

Coriolanus beats back the Volsci as they pour out of the gates of their town, but he, and he alone, gets shut in. Coriolanus, valiant Coriolanus, takes them on and forces his rival, Aufidius, into retreat once more.

“Rome must know the value of her own,” the general Cominius publicly celebrates Coriolanus when returns to Rome, all the more heroic for his fresh battle wounds (1.10.20-21).

For the ancient Romans, Coriolanus – the courageous warrior, steadfast in his defense of home and country – was a proper man. And this made him virtuous, a word which literally derives from the Latin for “man.” As Cominius again boasts of his great solider: “It is held / That valour is the chiefest virtue, and / Most dignifies the haver. If it be, / The man I speak of cannot in the world / Be singly counterpoised” (2.2.79-83).

***

I am no Coriolanus.

As much as I like to imagine we – as men, as a society – have outgrown the self-measure of muscles and might, that dialogue overpowers deltoids, some primal, primate urge to flex and fight, to prove and prevail, is still strong in our sinews.

Or at least some of our sinews.

As much as I like to imagine we value, as I do, the modern model of a refined , enlightened, and reasoning masculinity, I’m not so sure we still don’t admire, even cheer on, a good-ol’-had-it-comin’-to-ya ass-kicking.

I’m not so sure we still don’t admire, even cheer on, a good-ol’-had-it-comin’-to-ya ass-kicking.

And what stings, I think, isn’t any blow. It isn’t being singled out or picked on. And it’s not even the fact that I didn’t tell the kids off or take them on in some Coriolanian charge. This doesn’t bruise my manhood.   

What stings, or maybe what confuses me as I think about the incident and Coriolanus, is that I didn’t even feel the urge to – to posture, to stand the corner, as did my brother, and watch the little hoodlums diminish in the distance.

Does this make me somehow weaker? Somehow less? Do I lack some fundamental, inner quality or character? Would I run in the face of some real assault? Would I not come to others’ protection – of my friends, of my family, of my wife?

The kid kicked my shoes and I didn’t fall. But, in causing me to question my sense of virtue or manliness – even just in those small moments when the image of my brother standing the corner under the jaundiced streetlights flashes in my mind or when I picture an undeterred Coriolanus locked in behind the enemy gates – it did trip up my ego.

Just a bit. Surely only just a bit.

***

Coriolanus doesn’t get tested on the battlefield, but does get tested in the forum.

For all his guts and glory, Coriolanus is also a patrician who utterly despises the plebeians, who think, as one puts it, Coriolanus has “grown too proud to be so valiant” (1.2.249-50). So proud, in fact, that after the Senate (themselves patricians) put him up for consul, Coriolanus refuses to ask, even in feigned humility, for the votes of the commoners. They had just earned political representation, in the form of tribunes, after rising up over concerns the nobility was cheating them out of grain.

“Better it is to die, better to starve, / Than crave the hire which first we do deserve,” Coriolanus digs in (2.3.103-4). He sheds his own blood for his country: Why should he have to deign for their votes?

Coriolanus is winning the support of the citizenry until the tribunes press him on his grain policy. Ever short-tempered, he loses his cool and lets them know how he really feels (though some see a kind of virtue in his unwillingness to play politics, to refuse to be untrue to himself, for all his pride):

For the mutable rank-scented meinie,
Let them regard me, as I do not flatter,
And therein behold themselves as I say again,
In soothing them we nourish ‘gainst the Senate
The cockle of rebellion, insolence, sedition,
Which we ourselves have ploughed for, sowed and scattered
By mingling them with us, the honoured number
Who lack not virtue, no, nor power, but that
Which they have given to beggars. (3.1.70-78)

Fearing the end of their influence, the tribunes conspire to stop Coriolanus by charging tyranny. Coriolanus barely escapes execution for exile, and in it, allies himself with his nemesis, Aufidius. They start a siege of Rome until Coriolanus’ mother changes her son’s hard heart: “That man was noble, / But with his last attempt he wiped it out,” she imagines posterity will say of him in her forceful plea (5.3.146-47). But just as he leads a charge to protect Rome, Aufidius, already planning to cross him, stabs him dead.     

***

I might have some Coriolanus in my chest – er, ego – after all.

“Yeah, you’re right,” I remember my brother had said over the pints. “They’ll go nowhere in life acting the way they do.”

Can I say that my justification for my virtue is actually noble?

This was validating. To me as a younger brother, as a man, as a person who prides himself as committed to the virtue of nonviolence. But when I really listened to my own words said back to me, I also wondered: Can I say, if I’m honest with myself, that my justification for my virtue is actually noble – or, should I say, isn’t entirely too noble?

Can I say I didn’t think, at least on some subconscious, self-defensive level, that the kids were probably lower class, poorly educated, lacked self-control and constructive outlets, impressed each other with displays of machismo prized in some more primitive value system, were angry at their prospects in life and took it out on others in small, petty, and random acts of violence, feeling as if this was the only power they could exert over their lives, their world?

These thoughts, too, are the posturing of a masculinity, a display of power.

And I can’t say I didn’t think it. Even if just a bit.

Unlike Coriolanus, I didn’t say it aloud. Unlike Coriolanus, I struggle even to fully admit it. There may yet be a cowardice in that, but it probably spared it me a good-ol’-had-it-comin’-to-ya ass-kicking.

Through the pint glass: All’s Well That Ends Well

“Our rash faults make trivial price of serious things we have.”

Of course, I decided to pick a fight the last night he was in town.

My brother and I were at John Morrissey’s, a divey local not even a block from my house. It serves the cheapest Guinness I’ve yet found in Dublin. He’d been in town with my father over the past week, and had to leave for the airport at a head-throbbing 6:30 the next morning. We’d already been drinking the better part of the day – Guinness, whiskey, wine, more wine, dessert wine, Guinness, Guinness, whiskey – so, naturally, we were capping off the day, the visit, with a final drink.

With my first sip, I drained a few inches from my pint and then, out of that unquenchable compulsion for fraternal criticism, fired off my complaints. He was “disengaged” for much of the trip, I charged. Uncharacteristically quiet, sometimes bored-seeming, preoccupied with petty annoyances, grumpy, capturing moment without ever being in the them. “This time is so valuable. This time is precious. I don’t get to see you but twice a year. This time is special,” I preached. 

He fired back that many of my efforts were “forced” and “fake.” The small talk I made when the three of us fell silent during many moments in the trip. The random questions I asked about jobs, girlfriends, interests. “Why can’t we just not talk sometimes? We talk on the phone all the time. So what if there’s nothing new to say?” He disappeared several black ounces of his own, wiped away the foamy mustache, and added, “Why do you think you’re so much better than me?”

The barman came by. My brother signaled for another round.

I can be such a Bertram.

***

In Shakespeare’s comedy All’s Well That Ends Well, lowly, orphaned Helen is secretly in love with Bertram, the young Count of Roussillon who, having just lost his father, becomes a ward of the King of France. The King is deathly ill, and Helen is in possession of a powerful remedy left to her by her father. After she convinces him to administer the medicine, the King offers Helen a reward of her choosing. She chooses Bertram in marriage.

Everybody loves Helen – she is “all that is virtuous” (2.3.118) – except for her future husband. Here’s Bertram’s oh-so-gracious response when he learns that the King promised his hand to her:

…I know her well:
She had her breeding at my father’s charge.
A poor physician’s daughter, my wife? Disdain
Rather corrupt me forever. (2.3.109-112).

“Proud, scornful boy, unworthy this good gift,” the King rejoins. “Check thy contempt” (2.3.147-53).  Bertram gives agreement to the marriage only to run off to fight (and have his fun) in some Tuscan wars.

Over there, he tries to woo a woman, Diana, but Helen, ever the enterprising heroine, manages to track them all down and pull off the old “bed trick”: Bertram thinks he sleeps with Diana, but he can’t tell it’s actually Helen in the dark. Helen also executes some crafty ring exchanges, which become tell-tale signs of his dishonesty when Bertram returns to the French court. Bertram, caught and suddenly transformed, pledges to “love her dearly, ever ever dearly,” his now pregnant wife (5.3.313).

Though the modern woman may have long since ditched the somehow speedily redeemed Bertram, Helen does get the last word. She delivers an ultimatum: “If it appear not plain,” she says of Bertram’s vow, “and prove untrue, / Deadly divorce step between me and you” (5.3.314-15).

***

Gender, class, sex, love, marriage, character – All’s Well That Ends Well, as we are accustomed from the Bard, trades in big, complex themes. One leaves this play struggling to reconcile Helen’s steadfast commitment to a dirtbag. But one leaves it, too, admiring her, ever ambitious, clever, persuasive, and effective, judged by her inner virtue, not her social station. Except by that blasted ingrate, Bertram. And we should remember Helen was an un-titled, un-moneyed orphan who used her brains and tenacity to – forget love – land her a Count and a dowry from the King. Why, we might even Helen really leaned in.

Intermixed in All’s Well is some terrific comedy, too. Word nerd that I am, I have to share one subplot: Some French lords trick Paroles, Bertram’s all-talk buddy, to expose him for the coward and liar he is. Their plot involves a fake ransom, and the lords decide to speak in a gibberish to disorient a captured Paroles. Shakespeare’s made-up words here are simply delightful and give us a fascinating insight into his linguistic imagination: “Oscorbidulchos volvicoro” (4.1.74) and “Boblinbindo chicurmurcho” (4.3.122), as one lord utters. These are incredible, fanciful specimens from the man whose actual words are a bible and dictionary for the English language. What was his thought process when he created this verbiage?

All’s Well That Ends Well’s messages have really lingered with me. It’s probably because I see too much of myself in Bertram’s pride and scorn.

And then we have the moralizing. Usually, any shade of lesson-mongering leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, but some of All’s Well messages have, well, really lingered with me. It’s probably because I see too much of myself in Bertram’s pride and scorn. Here are a few examples:

Before Bertram’s widowed mother sends him off to the King, she offers up some really solid life advice:

…Love all, trust a few,
Do wrong to none. Be able for thine enemy
Rather in power than use, and keep thy friend
Under thy own life’s key. Be checked for silence
But never taxed for speech. (1.1.57-61)

Later, as he rebukes Bertram for his repugnant snubbing of Helen, the King waxes moral on the nature of honor: “…honours thrive / When rather from our acts we them derive / Than our foregoers” (2.3.131-33). 

The King again speaks some truth after Bertram returns from the war. This is before the King learns of Bertram’s lies. At this point, the King thinks Helen has died and, now a widower, Bertram has married Diana, which the King forgives. (Yeah, Bertram was real class.) Plot aside, the King’s remarks at this point are quite moving:

…Our rash faults
Make trivial price of serious things we have,
Not knowing them until we know their grave.
Oft our displeasures, to ourselves unjust,
Destroy our friends and after weep their dust.
Our own love waking cries to see what’s done,
While shameful hate sleeps out the afternoon. (5.3.61-67)

Words of wisdom sound so much wiser when they are dressed up by Shakespeare, don’t they? It certainly doesn’t hurt that they are not coming from own mothers and fathers. From our own older brothers.

***

We waited for the fresh pints to settle. My brother went to the bathroom, stepped outside, or, for all I can remember at that point, sat beside me on his barstool without talking. I didn’t check him for silence. I wasn’t taxed for speech.

I angled back to force the flat, sour sediment down, and, in the wan and sticky light of Morrissey’s late-night pub, it glowed nobly with a faint ruby red.

I swayed and swerved in a drunkenness, a tiredness, a sadness for endings and farewells that sits in the stomach, heavy, dark, and lukewarm like the dregs of a Guinness, the foamy residue of little, niggling regrets sticking to the walls of my head, layer after layer until it sinks down in its frothy bottom. Our rash faults make trivial price of serious things we have. Where do these expectations come from? Proud, scornful boy. This posturing, this sanctimony? “Why do you think you’re so much better than me?” Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none. This judgment, this passive-aggressive shaming? Oft our displeasures, to ourselves unjust, destroy our friends and after weep their dust. To be blind to, to choose to be blind to, all the good that’s before us while yet chiding them for the same, knowing well later it will only issue remorse, apology? “Why do you think you’re so much better than me?” To make such effort for a free-flowing, self-unclouded authenticity and being-present-ness that can never be compelled? Honours thrive when rather from our acts we derive them. To dream up better-selves and sneer at how they fail to perform their imaginary parts and deliver their unassigned lines? In pursuit of some elsewhere here, some else-time now, orphaning the very longed-for present? Why do you think you’re so much better than me, callow, haughty Bertram, “thou dislik’st / Of virtue for the name” (2.3.119-120). 

I looked at my old pint glass. An inch of spit-spumed, muddy-colored sludge curdled at its butt. I certainly don’t think I’m better than these last, stale drops. I angled back to force the flat, sour sediment down, and, in the wan and sticky light of Morrissey’s late-night pub, it glowed nobly with a faint ruby red.

We moved on – and to our last pints, cool to the touch and creamy on the tongue. “All yet seems well; and if it end so meet, / The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet” (5.3.329-30).

More from Shakespeare Confidential

Shakespeare waits for no one, but life doesn’t. Shakespeare Confidential – i.e., my Bard-logged brain – has been enjoying a brief respite with some family in town.

I’ve been long overdue in sharing some of my other Shakespeare writing around the web. In the meantime, head over to Strong Language, where I look at the Bard’s bawdier side, and Slate, where you can find some additional Shakespeare-inspired essays, like Irish bards who could kill rats with their poetry. Yup, that was a thing.

New posts will be coming anon (see what I did there, eh, eh?).

Pericles, Freelance Writer of Tyre

Avaunt, clickbait!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Oy.)

On having nothing to say about Shakespeare, or Measure for Measure

Sometimes it’s Shakespeare that’s the background noise.

A mother and her son tore off chunks of sandwich bread and tossed them to pigeons. “We’ll go for sweets after. As a treat for coming with me,” she whispered.

Two ladies giggled when their tinnies of Guinness sharply hissed despite efforts to crack them discretely.

Limbs adjusted on picnic blankets. Spectators came and went. Overhead, helicopters chopped every now and again. A man chatted on a mobile phone. A father chided an unruly child.

The actors circled the garden, projecting their voices like echoey diameters. Sometimes nearer, sometimes farther. The audience laughed in waves, and seagulls matched. A soft flute and jingly guitar marked the scenes.

I loosely followed along, catching up in my text every dozen or so lines, sometimes repositioning myself towards the ever-shifting stage, sometimes closing my eyes as I rested my chin on my hands while I lie on my stomach.

Seated in the grass near me was an older man with his wife. He, too, was following along in a copy of the play he brought with him. He was smiling, perched on his elbow. I noticed he had the same wristwatch I had. Did he see me and imagine some younger self?   

It was an overcast Sunday afternoon. It was the last of a run of free performances in a round green enclosed by the old, gray walls of Dublin Castle. “Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure; / Like doth quit like, and measure still for measure,” the actor carefully articulated the Duke’s key lines near the close of the comedy (5.1.402-03).  We all tuned in, nodding, half-understanding.

It was Measure for Measure.

Weeks before I had read this comedy, centering, uncomically, on a Viennese Duke who feels the laws of his city have gone lax, so he makes an example of one, Claudio, by sentencing him to death for premarital sex. It has its jokes. It makes its points about austerity and mercy, about unjust judges.

The performance was fun, too. They didn’t cover every line. They didn’t need to. When out of scene, a few actors strolled among the reclining bodies. They posed for a picture or accepted a proffered chip, in character. The actors didn’t try to compete with all the stirring and squawking and distractions. They didn’t need to. 

It’s a good play. It was a pleasant performance. And I have absolutely nothing else to say about it.

Sometimes it’s Shakespeare that’s the background noise.

The Merry Wives of Windsor, the doltish husbands of Dublin

We can boil much of Shakespeare down to this simple fact: men are pretty dumb.

“‘Make sure you lock up the bikes,’” my friend parroted his wife while we were stopped at a traffic light. “What does she think we were going to do with them? Park them in the Liffey?”

“And what was this about: ‘Don’t miss your stop, boys’?” I answered, quoting my own wife’s admonition. “Do they think we are 8-year-olds or something? I mean, how dumb do they think we are?”

We grumbled. We laughed. The light changed, and we pedaled our city bikes to the train station, where we met another friend. Our wives took a car, supplies, and our dogs down to the country for our holiday weekend. The husbands: the train, rucksacks, and beers, of course, for the journey.

The closest station was about about a half-hour drive from our Airbnb, tucked into the Wicklow Mountains. This gave us the chance to enjoy some more pints before our friend’s wife scooped us up.

“We locked up the bikes, right?” I joked as I missed my shot on the pool table and knocked back a few inches of my Guinness.

“Are you sure this is the right stop?” he matched me in jest, shot, and drink.

We had a healthy buzz by the time my friend’s wife arrived. Our wives aren’t dumb; I’m sure they expected nothing less.

“Bad news, lads,” she greeted us as we piled into the car. “The house doesn’t look anything like the pictures.”

“Oh, no!” we three husbands cried.

“What’s the matter with it?” I asked.

“There’re spiders everywhere. The rooms are dirty.”

“We’ll give it a good clean when we get there,” one husband offered.

“And the owner’s place is right next door. No barbecuing or music or heavy drinking after 8pm.”

“Wait, no…”

“Yeah, she’s seem pretty nosy. Amanda’s really upset. She feels really bad that she booked this place that looks nothing like what we were promised.”

“That sounds like my wife. She’ll beat herself up about these things,” I explained.

“We’ll make do. We’ll make the best of it,” the other husband conciliated.

“Yeah, we’ve got food, drinks, good company,” I assured.

“Eh, just – you’ll see when you get there.”

We pulled off the road into a private drive. The gravel path curved around lush, green trees, opening up to a palatial manor. The other two wives came dashing out. They took a quick look at our cautious, serious faces and broke out in laughter.

“This place is amazing, you guys!” my wife shrieked. Our driver looked over at us with a victorious smirk.

***

Shakespeare knew it. In fact, I think you can boil much of his work down to this simple fact: men can be pretty dumb.

Take the Merry Wives of Windsor. It’s like the Bard meets I Love Lucy and Punk’d. In this comedy, Sir John Falstaff – of Henry IV fame – is certain he can sleep with the comedy’s titular wives. He sends them both identical letters expressing his cocky desires, but they, unbeknownst to their husbands, decide to have a little fun with him and lead him on. This sets off a hilarious series of pranks and pratfalls.

Fake-seducing him, one of the wives invites Falstaff over while her husband is away, only for her husband to arrive home unexpectedly. First she has him hide in a closet – yes, even Shakespeare did the closest gag. Then the wife has her servants sneak him out in a laundry basket and dump him into the river. Here’s a taste of Falstaff’s mind after the prank:

Well, If I be served another such trick, I’ll have my brains ta’en out and buttered, and give them to a dog for a New Year’s gift. ‘Sblood, the rogues slighted me into the river with as little remorse as they would have drowned a blind bitch’s puppies, fifteen i’th’ litter! And you may know by my size that I have a kind of alacrity in sinking. If the bottom were as deep as hell, I should down. I had been drowned, but that the shore was shelvy and shallow – a death that I abhor, for the water swells a man, and what a thing should I have been when I had been swelled? By the Lord, a mount of mummy! (3.5.5-15)

On another occasion, they disguise Falstaff as “the fat woman of Brentford” to smuggle him out of the house after the husband’s surprise return again stymies the prank (4.2.61). Here’s a little bit about this the woman of Brentford: Legend has that, in her will, she bequeathed to her friends…20 farts.

In a final prank, the wives convince Falstaff to dress up as Herne the Hunter, a local, mythical spirt with antlers on his head, only to harass him with a horde of children disguised as fairies.

Their husbands, again, aren’t in on the joke at first. One, Master Ford, has zero trust in his wife’s honesty – to Shakespeare, chasteness – and gets pretty bent out of shape when he thinks his wife is cheating on him. “See the hell of having a false woman!” he wails (2.2.256-57):

I will rather trust a Fleming with my butter, Parson Hugh the Welshman with my cheese, an Irishman with my aqua-vitae bottle, or a thief to walk my ambling gelding, than my wife with herself (2.2.265-68).

Of course, like a selfish boor, he’s primarily concerned with his own good name:

My bed shall be abused, my coffers ransacked, my reputation gnawn at, and I shall not only receive this villainous wrong, but stand under the adoption of abominable terms…Terms! Names! ‘Amaimon’ sounds well, ‘Lucifer’ well, ‘Barbason’ well; yet they are devils’ additions, the names of fiends. But ‘cuckold’, ‘wittol’! ‘Cuckold–the devil himself hath not such a name. (2.2.257-64).

In the end, the mischief comes to light, and they all “laugh this sport o’er by a country fire” (5.5.219). And the husbands learn that “wives may be merry, and yet honest, too” (4.2.89). Just because they are having a bit of fun, free and out of sight of their husbands, doesn’t mean they are cheating on them.

***

We dropped our bags, cracked some drinks, and soaked in the afternoon sun in the garden around a patio table. The dogs bounded in the grass.

“You locked up the bikes, right?” my friend’s wife asked us.

“Oh yeah,” my friend and I responded in unison, promptly, earnestly. Wives may be merry – and husbands are none the wiser to it, but all the wiser for it.

Three firsts (and three cheers) for the three parts of Henry VI

To get into Shakespeare, apparently, don’t think too hard about Shakespeare.

It finally happened. I started dreaming about Shakespeare. It came in a very peculiar, decidedly non-bardic form, though: a tweet.

BREAKING: French slay English General John Talbot at battle in Bordeaux.

In my bizarre, cyber-medieval dreamscape, these 39 characters were the work of the Associated Press. Lots of retweets. Big news. The French took down Talbot. Talbot. Talbot!

I was surprised. No, not due to this strange merger of Shakespeare and Twitter. That pretty much sums up my life these days.

I was surprised because of the content of this oneiric tweet. I’m not a history buff. I’m not a military nut or monarchy maven. When it comes to Shakespeare, I like the language. I like the dark psychological anguish. And I like the sex jokes.

A Shakespeare dream about major casualty in a medieval European battle? I would have expected some pensive, artfully crafted, naughty pun.

So, a major casualty in a medieval European battle? I would have expected some pensive, artfully crafted, naughty pun.

I was also surprised by the particular play that first smuggled the Bard into my dreams. Not King Lear’s storm-struck heath. Not Othello’s storm-struck bedroom. Not the whimsical forest of As You Like It or the cave of Cymbeline. But, of all the nearly two dozen plays I’ve read so far, the battlefields of Henry VI, Part I.

I mean, other than completist maniacs like myself, who reads Henry VI? Does any theater ever stage it? Have you even heard of Henry VI?

Well, Henry VI has not one, not two, but three parts. They are long. Very long. They follow the War of the Roses, which entangles us in noble rivalries and competing claims to the English throne. They culminate in one very well-known history: Richard III, the very play I read before taking these three on. I clearly didn’t learn my lesson when I read the Henriad out of sequence.

***

When I first cracked open Henry VI, Part I, I took one look at the character list and went, “Holy shit.” The dramatis personae were broken down into a group of English characters and a group of French. So many sirs, so many earls. I actually moaned aloud, “I don’t think I can do this.” My wife heard me from the other room: “Are you OK?” She sounded legitimately concerned.

I had fallen behind in my reading (and writing) schedule and needed to make up some ground. So, I decided to bite off the three Henry VI plays: a big chunk. As a form of punishment, like some self-flagellating monk.

Or so I thought.

“Do you want to continue watching Henry VI?” my Elizabethan Netflix asked. “Oh hell, yes.” Part III.

Simply put, Henry VI was a lot of fun. And that meant I had another first, thanks to old King Henry VI: I read the plays back to back to back.

Normally, when I finish a play, I collapse as if at the finish line of a long run. Winded. Sweaty. Sore. Victorious. “I made it!” Just as when, starting a play, I flip to the end to see how far I must go, so when I complete a play, I flip back and pinch the thickness of the conquered pages: “I did this shit.” Then, I kick off my shoes, chug some water, and sink into a chair, relieved I don’t have to read Shakespeare for another a few days.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy reading Shakespeare. Otherwise, I would have bailed on my year of reading Shakespeare by now. But let me be clear: It’s not quite the same as binge-watching Breaking Bad. Most of the times. But when I made it to the end of Part I of Henry VI, I immediately started Part II. Same for Part II. “Do you want to continue watching Henry VI?” my Elizabethan Netflix asked. “Oh hell, yes.” Part III.

***

Plot-wise, Henry VI is fairly straightforward. OK, there’s actually a lot of intrigue and twists. But here’re the log lines, if you will:

In Part I, the English fend off a French uprising as a feud over the claim to the throne simmers at home. In Part II, the homegrown infighting boils over as the king survives conspiracies and rebellions, only to be forced to flee after a battle between the vying nobles. Part III sees the king’s rival win the crown. The king is killed in a climactic fight in spite of efforts to retain his power, and his rivals assume rule.

A little more context may help to situate these three Henry VI’s in Shakespeare’s broader corpus. Remember how Henry Bolingbroke deposes Richard II? This, in a nutshell, is the origin of the conflict in the House of Plantagenet. Bolingbroke becomes Henry IV. His son, the Prince Hal of the two Henry IV’s, becomes the heroic Henry V. And his son? He’s the Henry VI who rises – well, sort of warms up to room temperature – and falls in this trilogy. Jumping ahead, it’s a future Richard III who is hatching his plots to seize the kingship in Part III.

OK, I actually just shared all of this to show off: I didn’t look at a damned reference to map out these lineages. Not my notes, not the Norton introductions, not a Wikipedia page, not a Sparknotes summary. Me, who has to sit down with charts and graphs to figure out what a second cousin is. Me, who likes all the word-y, feel-y Shakespeare stuff. Boom. Mic drop.

I genuinely just enjoyed Henry VI’s blockbuster action and star-studded cast.

Which brings me to a third Shakespearean first. I genuinely just enjoyed Henry VI’s blockbuster action and star-studded cast.

***

Here are some highlights from each of the plays:

In 1 Henry VI, Joan la Pucelle – Joan of Arc – is an absolute badass. In an early test, Shakespeare has her boast: “And while I live, I’ll ne’er fly from a man” (1.3.82). And she proves this on the battlefield (and in the bed with the king). She even conjures up demons, who provide her with visions that aid the French in fighting. Granted, these demons fail her in the end, she is burned at the stake, and the French cede to the English – but Joan doesn’t take shit from anyone.

In 2 Henry VI, Jack Cade, a tradesman, leads a rebellion in London. He rallies his fellow craftsmen against the rich, hoity-toity upperclass who’ve been screwing them over, using their learnin’ against the little guy. And their insults against the elite are hysterical. A butcher, famously, cries: “The first thing we do let’s kill all the lawyers” (4.2.68). A weaver says of a clerk, “He can write and read and cast count,” to which Cade replies: “O monstrous!” (4.2.75-77). Cade then urges to “hang him with his pen and inkhorn around his neck” (4.2.96-97).

But Cade tops even this in a later rebuke of another lord:

It will be proved to thy face that thou hast men about thee that usually talk of a noun and a verb and such abominable words as no Christian ear can endure to hear. (4.7.32-34)

Now this a battlecry for all schoolchildren in all grammar lessons for all time.

In 3 Henry VI, King Henry VI makes a deal with his rival, Richard Duke of York: He agrees to hand over his crown to Richard after he dies, thus dispossessing his own son of royal inheritance. Queen Margaret – a power-hungry French noble he married after the fighting in Part I – has had it with her over-conciliatory, pushover husband. So she leads a fight against Richard herself.

But during one of these battles, Henry takes to a molehill – yes, a molehill – and waxes bucolic:

O God! Methinks it were a happy life
To be no better than a homely swain…
So many hours must I tend my flock,
So many hours must I take my rest,
So many hours must I contemplate,
So many hours must I sport myself…(2.5.21-34)

His daydreaming is then interrupted by a son who realizes he has killed his father and a father who realizes he has killed his son. So much for his proto-four-hour-work-week reverie. 

***

With Shakespeare Confidential, I’m not really in the business of trying to fill the seats, to continue my movie metaphor. Sometimes you just need a mindless, big-budget action flick. Henry VI delivers. Pass the popcorn, Bill.

And, in a project like this, sometimes you just need an escape from self-reflection, from literary analysis, from Shakespeare-with-a-capital-S-Shakespeare. Incredibly, ironically, this is when Shakespeare most got under my skin. 

This is your brain on Shakespeare

Hurts so bad, but feels so good.

I’m 21 plays into my year of reading Shakespeare. But each time I crack into a new play, the process is the same:

I run through the Persons of the Play only to instantly forget who’s the daughter of which duke and which servant is attending on which lord’s uncle’s clown. I go to launch into 1.1, but first have to bat away a swarm of footnotes about historic London and the four humors. I hack off glosses of sith, troth-plight, and yarely as if taking a machete to a dense verbal jungle. 

Before even making it to the bottom of the first page, I’ve already suffocated the text with a scrawling geometry of circles, stars, arrows, and underlinings. The margins shout huge, over-general, 11th-grade-English-class ideas that will mean nothing to me when I revisit them later: IDENTITY, VIOLENCE, APPEARANCE vs. REALITY, SEX PUN. 

I flip to the end of the play to see how much further I have to go. I sigh. I check my phone for messages. Then email. Then Twitter. Regrouping, I confront a longer passage. “What the hell is this person even saying?!” I cry. (This can be embarrassing when I’m reading at a café.) 

By the time I reach the end of the scene, my hair is ruffled. I’m winded. Somehow my quads feel sore. I reward myself by checking my phone. Then email. Then Twitter.

Then 1.2.

Then something happens.

I wouldn’t say it’s a rhythm. I still shuttle back and forth between the text and footnotes, between the play and my notebooks, between whatever scene I’m in and the list of those characters I can’t keep track of. 

I wouldn’t say it’s comprehension. Plenty of similes and allusions fly right over my head. And, for as pesky as all those footnotes and glosses can feel, I lean heavily on them to understand Shakespeare’s language and references. 

Nor would I say it’s appreciation. I mean, it’s not like I needed convincing of the Bard’s genius going into this project; my project is basically premised on it. And it’s not like I’ll be stumbling upon something terribly new and profound 400 years after Shakespeare died, upon something we utterly missed after bazillions of pages of scholarship written on him, after gazillions of performance: “Hey, world! You’ve got to check this out! You won’t believe what I’ve found!” I just won’t have cause to say that. 

OK, I am getting better at reading Shakespeare. I better be getting better at reading him: I’ve read 21 goddamned plays so far. Am I faster? Yes. Understanding more? Sure. And I am getting more out of reading Shakespeare? Seeing deeper meanings, peeling back thicker layers? Making more connections in the text, between the texts, between Shakespeare and 2016? No doubt.

It’s that the change is something I feel in my brain. Because reading Shakespeare is like making my neurons and synapses go to a CrossFit class. They’re reluctant to start. The burn hurts. They want to quit right as the heart rate gets up and sweat starts pushing through the pores. They’re even wondering if CrossFit isn’t a little bit douchey. But after a few circuits, they start to enjoy it. After a few classes, they start to see results. And pretty soon, my brain is looking forward to Shakespeare.

I love Twitter. I love listicles. I love the Internet. But tabbed browsing, checking for breaking news and notifications and updates, scrolling and clicking and linking, starting and bailing on so many articles and so many videos – it’s addictive, it’s compulsive, it’s like mindless snacking, never quite sated because I don’t feel like taking the time to go to the store and prepare a proper meal. And this noisy, desultory info-binge builds up like toxins and fat cells, further straining the ability to concentrate, to sit still. To do one thing at a time, to think one thought a time, to be OK with slowness, to listen to someone else. To not know right away. To not have immediate answers. To not be productive. 

Yes, reading Shakespeare brings new knowledge, new ideas, new images, new vocabulary. It brings a sense of accomplishment, personally, intellectually, culturally. It brings a sense of immersion into history, a sense of wonder at one man’s legacy, at one man’s literary talent and insight into humanity.  

But decoding all of those anon’s and zounds’s, breaking down elaborate syntax just to figure out what the king is going to do next in the plot, contorting the brain to understand some seven-layered cuckoldry joke – this requires a sustained and focused effort. To get through a play, I can’t just scroll and jump from tab to tab. I have to slow things down. I have to turn things off, bracket things off. I have to be disciplined.

I have to put in the time.

This sustained and focused effort brings pleasure. It brings peace. It makes my brain feel lighter, quieter, calmer, more centered in a world of so much choice, information, and possibility. 

Reading Shakespeare is hard. When I start a new play, my brain hurts. But by the time I finish, my brain feels so good.