A heavy lift: traveling with the Bard

Shakespeare can literally weigh you down.

I’m a bit sore today, thanks to Shakespeare.

My wife and I have made our big move at last, staying for a week or so in Oxford, England before our final destination, Dublin.

Yes, there was the sardine-canned, 10-hour flight from Los Angeles to London. The row ahead, some infrequent fliers didn’t turn off the Norwegian Air In-flight Entertainment screens on the back of the headrests as we flew into the night. The glow burned white right through the gap in the seats precisely where I could contort my neck without needing a chiropractor. The young boy in the middle seat never quite got around to watching Ace Ventura, apparently.

And engineers designed Dreamliners to be so efficient that the toilets, which we were seated by, roared liked jet engines each time someone flushed. Fortunately, the erratic howling of a very unhappy toddler drowned out the flushing in the middle of the night. I felt soothed, too, by her poor parents’ loving – and urgent – hushing when they walked her up and down the aisle.

Sleep was also fitful on our two-hour bus ride from London into Oxford. The coach was quiet, roomy, and smooth-going, but the bright sun in a cloudless sky, usually such a welcome sight in these climes, seesawed my orientation between Southern California and Southern England, between Pacific Time and British Summer Time. I was long overdue for a coffee – or a beer, whatever time it was.

Travel-wise, all of this is normal, to be sure. What’s not so normal this time is checked baggage. Luggage. It’s easy to forget that the word is rooted in the verb to lug when you’re an insistently light packer such as myself. But my wife and I aren’t traveling this trip. We’re actually moving.

One does need clothes, after all – and Shakespeare. I had to make sure I had enough room for all four volumes of my Norton Shakespeare.

Between us, we packed up our new life in eight pieces. We checked three roller suitcases of clothes – two of which which were essentially Smart cars sans engines – and my classical guitar. My wife carried on another roller, mostly clothes, and her all-purpose work purse. I carried on a backpack stuffed with notebooks, writing utensils, my laptop, laptop paraphernalia, a few books, and personal affects. I also lugged on a duffel bag.

Originally, I intended this carry-on as a book bag. I mean, quite literally, a bag of books. But when my big suitcase (the blue Smart Car) came in 10 pounds too heavy when we weighed it back home before departing, I had to repack a variety of clothes into the duffel bag.

Most of the etymological dictionaries I use for my Mashed Radish writing had to stay behind at my in-laws’. I’ll miss these friends, of course, but we can mostly keep in touch online, thankfully. One does need clothes, after all – and Shakespeare. I had to make sure I had enough room for all four volumes of my Norton Shakespeare.

Norton Shakespeare Stack.JPG
You heavy bastards. 

I suppose I could have acquired a lighter Complete Works, but I wanted to keep my reading consistent. The paperback Folger’s of Much Ado About Nothing I took down to Costa Rica already wrenched my reading enough. Plus, I’m cheap. But mostly, I rely so much on the Norton edition’s glosses, footnotes, and explanatory materials. I mean, he did write this stuff over 400 years ago.

Self-deceptively thinking I would do some writing on Titus Andronicus during the flight, I squeezed the Tragedies volume into my backpack and lined the bottom of the duffel bag with the Histories, Comedies, and Romances and Poems.  Then, I packed in some clothes and a few slimmer books, finding just enough room to squeeze in my bulky but surprisingly lightweight Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology on top , somehow without splitting the zipper.

Thank God Norwegian Air didn’t weigh my carry-ons. Even without the dictionaries I originally hoped to pack, even without the fattest volume, Tragedies, Shakespeare still really weighed this bag down.

He was a real pain in the ass – or arm and shoulder, I should say. Well, the whole upper body, actually. And legs, too, as I eventually took to shoving the duffel bag along the floor when waiting in LAX’s security line and LGW’s passport control queue.

He sliced into my shoulder as we zigzagged our way out of the airport, throwing off my balance as I steered our Smart cars ahead of me and nearly causing us to miss the last call of the Oxford-bound bus. Off the bus, as we searched, exhausted, for our Airbnb along the bumpy bricks of Headington, I swear the Bard almost dislocated my shoulder.

Shakespeare must have slowed me down enough for our Airbnb landlord to spot us out of her window just as we dragged past the property. She called out, welcomed us in, and urged us to rest our bags – and bones. “How was the journey?” she asked as she started to show us around the flat.

“Good, pretty smooth! Thank you for asking!” I cheerfully responded, now lighter.

I rubbed my right shoulder and circled my neck. I glowered at the duffel bag. I knew reading and writing about the complete works of Shakespeare would be a heavy lift, but I didn’t anticipate it being quite so literal.

The Newtonian mechanics of friendship: Henry IV, Part 2

“We are all time’s subjects.” And space’s, too.

I merge onto the 55 north from the 5 north. I have at least an hour, depending on traffic in Corona.

There aren’t any podcasts I really feel like listening to as I drive back from dog-sitting in Orange County to my in-laws’ in Temecula, where my wife and I have been staying before we move to Ireland next week.

It’s a perfect time to catch up with some friends. I have Siri dial one up.

Just as the number starts ringing, I hang up. It’s about 12:30pm on a Sunday, his time. He’s probably having a Bloody Mary at his parents’ or catching up on chores around his house. I shouldn’t bug him.

But I can hear my friend venting about how his girlfriend never pitches in. About how he still puts together dinner after an 11-hour workday. About news I saw on Facebook of the latest engagement, job promotion, home ownership, or birth announcements from old friends we shared over a decade ago. About friends still working at the same jobs they had in high school. About him saying he’ll try to make a visit. He’s got a lot going on, I know. I wonder if he’ll get engaged soon.

I have Siri dial him up again. Through my Prius’ Bluetooth, each subsequent ring sounds louder and louder as I come into the Inland Empire on the 91 east.

I don’t leave a voicemail.

You don’t have to tell an old friend who you are. The knowledge is automatic, like the way you can scratch an itch on an impossibly small part of your back without even thinking about it.

We’ve had a little rain recently. The canyons burst with green, but they’ll be brown again soon. It’s not clear enough today to see if there’s any snow left on top the distant San Gabriels.

I try another friend. I’ll ask him how he’s been doing after everything he’s been through recently. He’ll speak thoughtfully about his goings-on, philosophically about his current orientation in our cold and ever-expanding universe. He’ll recommend an author, a director, an artist I’ll pretend I’ve heard of. I’m sure he’ll be excited about my move to Dublin, but somehow I’ll never quite hear it in his voice. I’ll ask him more questions.

The phone rings through. He’s probably at the gym. I don’t leave a voicemail.

I don’t try a third friend I’ve been meaning to call. I can’t think of the last time he reached out to me since he remarried and became a father. He works so hard for his family. I think of him often. I’m sure he thinks of me, too.

At the 15, overpasses and onramps in mid-construction bestride the existing highways like the arching ribs of a cement giant. The air is hazy with smog from traffic, already thickening even though it’s a Sunday morning. With dust from constant bulldozers, with dirt kicked up by the desert winds. It’s hard to tell whether the colossal structures are being built or demolished.

My mom answers my next phone call. We chat until I’m just about back.

003_PE_R_CORONAGEDDONII_0129kfm.jpg_.jpg
Construction on State Route 91 by Corona, CA. Image by Kurt Miller, Orange County Register File Photo

***

In Henry IV, Part 2, we see Prince Harry complete his maturation from madcap youth to new monarch, King Henry V, after his father dies from illness. Just as he accepts the crown, he rejects his old friend, Falstaff:

FALSTAFF. My king, my Jove, I speak to thee, my heart.

KING HARRY. I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.…
Presume not that I am the thing I was,
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turned away from my former self;
So will I those that kept me company. (5.5.44-57)

The new king continues, banishing Falstaff and his old companions from coming within 10 miles of him. He declares he will provide for them, so that “lack of means enforce [them] not to evils,” welcoming them back only if they leave their drunken, lascivious, and thieving ways (5.5.65).

Falstaff mets Harry’s decree with denial. As he tries to convince a minor law official, Shallow, (and himself): “I shall be sent for in private to him. Look you, he must seem thus to the world” (5.5.74-75). But Falstaff is only sent to prison.

Granted, Falstaff is mostly interested in how he will richly benefit from his association with the new king when he learns of Harry’s coronation. But for all the fat knight’s vices, it’s hard not to commiserate with him.

And it’s hard not to condemn Harry for using his former friends, as we saw in Henry IV, Part I.

The Earl of Warwick, a supporter of King Henry IV, echoes Harry’s maturational strategy. When a moribund Henry, unaware of his son’s metamorphosis, imagines the “rotten times” (4.3.60) England has ahead when Harry succeeds him, Warwick offers:

The Prince but studies his companions,
Like a strange tongue, wherein to gain the language,
’Tis needful that the most immodest word
Be looked upon and learnt, which once attained,
Your highness knows, comes to no further use
But to be known and hated…(4.3.67-73)

It’s a very curious way to go about virtue. I guess Harry found a way to have his cake and eat it, too.

But it’s not all quite so easy for Harry, to be fair. We see him craving nothing more than a light beer, a drink below his royal rank, early in the play: “Doth it not show vilely in me to desire small beer?” (2.2.6). Later, we see him prematurely try on his father’s heavy crown, “to try with it, as with an enemy,” when he thinks his father, only asleep, has passed on (4.3.294).

His cake isn’t always so sweet.

***

In my wife’s old bedroom, squeezed between two dogs, I startle myself awake when I drop the book I’m reading about Ancient Rome. I set my phone alarms, cue up a podcast, and hit the light.  I have not heard back from my friends that day, I realize. Not that I expected them to, if I’m honest. I mostly forgot about it. Mostly.

The bluish light of my iPhone illuminates the room as I check my messages and phone log once more time.

***

Henry IV, Part 2 has really gotten me thinking about friendship. Not anything quite so dramatic as Harry’s bald repudiation of Falstaff, but about the ways we come in and out of each other’s lives.

Reflecting on the changing alliances between rulers and rebels in recent memory, on the ways in which we think we know the people in our lives, King Henry IV observes:

O God, that one might read the book of fate,
And see the revolution of the times
Make mountains level, and the continent
Weary of solid firmness, melt itself
Into the sea…(3.1.44-48)

But we can’t, as I’m sure Henry would agree.

“We are all time’s subjects,” one of the king’s opponents sums its up. And space’s, too.

***

I usually say I have about five close friends, almost all back in my hometown, Cincinnati. Lately, it can feel like one or two. I didn’t really make any new ones after I left. Not in Minneapolis. Not in Laguna Beach. Certainly not in Irvine.

Time gives friendship inertia. Space takes away its momentum.

I suppose I could have worked harder at it, but I’ve liked saving that effort to keep up with phone calls and making visits back home. Plus, there was family to get closer to out here in California and new colleagues when I was working in the autism field.

And age.

Does one really make new, close friends after a certain point? It feels hard to get to know someone after 30. Our pasts become so dense and opaque. You don’t have to tell an old friend who you are, who you really are. The knowledge is assumed and invisible. Automatic, like the way you can scratch an itch on an impossibly small part of your back without even thinking about it. How do you recreate gravity?

Time gives friendship inertia, fortunately. Thanks to that shared history, a college tall-tale and a couple of beers can make it feel like you’ve never missed a beat. There’s a shared psychology, too, with childhood friends. The selves you fulfilled. The many more you didn’t. Blame, perspective, circumstances.

But space, geography, takes away friendship’s momentum. Yes, there’s Facebook and FaceTime, weddings and holidays, but you just can’t call up your friend across the country Friday after work to see if he wants a beer. All those missed drinks accrete.

Just because you act as a sort of Hal, moving on, doesn’t mean your friends are Falstaffs, never changing. They move on, too. You can’t begrudge them that you’ve moved away. You can’t begrudge them circumstances.

This has been easy for me to forget.

We are all our own Hals, turning away from our former selves. For new crowns heavy with the weight of bills, obligations. Glistening with new possibilities.

We are all our own Hals. We are all our own Falstaffs.

We are all our own Falstaffs, inveterately ourselves, naively ourselves in our petty and pompous everyday lives as they unfold in time and space – which, beautifully, thankfully, we get to share, sometimes more often, sometime less, with others.

This is so easy to forget.

***

A few days later, I shoot my friends a text sometime before dinnertime, Pacific Time.  Eventually, I hear back from one: “miss you man.”

It’s enough, like a tiny bit of thrust in a spacecraft sent adrift.

The (eventually) sober light of day: Henry IV, Part I

I feel you, Falstaff, you fat-kidneyed rascal.

Outside, a sterile sun was already burning through the gauzy clouds over the mountains. Dumping out the dregs of yesterday’s coffee, I spotted pink chunks in the sink. Some washed down the drain as I filled up the carafe; others were crusted onto the stainless steel.

Was this me? I thought. I don’t remember doing this. 

I remember a bouncer all of sudden asked me to leave the bar. I know I wasn’t rowdy. I wasn’t even terribly drunk, I think. I remember folding slices of peppered salami and sourdough bread into my face after the taxi got us home, as I remember we didn’t eat dinner before going out. But I don’t remember puking in my own kitchen sink.

Pathetic. I rinsed out the sink and measured out the coffee.

A mild headache signaled I was still a little drunk the morning after my sister-in-law’s boyfriend – I’ll call him Rob – and I patronized a gritty dive bar. He came down from Portland to Orange County for the weekend; my wife and her brother, meanwhile, headed up there to enjoy some sibling time.

I don’t whether I’m relieved it wasn’t me or ashamed that I was ready to claim it.

I had a cup or two and made some half-hearted efforts to tidy up when Rob emerged. “Dude, I’m so sorry,” he said, looking at the sink as he poured some coffee. “I puked in your sink last night.”

“Wait, that was you?”

“Yeah, I didn’t make it to the bathroom, but thank God I got down the stairs. I just had dropped down on the air mattress last night when – ”

“ – oh, good! I thought it was…I don’t whether I’m relieved it wasn’t me or ashamed that I was ready to claim it.”

We laughed, carefully, as if not to tug at fresh stitches after a surgery.

I rubbed my eyes, shrunken from dehydration. “Jesus,” I groaned. This was my second friend to throw up in my apartment, I recalled. The first made it to the balcony. Mostly. Oh, god. I’m in my thirties now. 

I looked out at the hospital-white sky and poured some more coffee. “Looks like it’s gonna be another beautiful day in sunny Southern California.”

***

falstaff_11
Orson Welles in his acclaimed 1965 portrait of a more tragic Falstaff in “Chimes at Midnight.” Image from whatsontv.co.uk.

“Thou art so fat-witted with drinking of old sack,” Prince Harry teases his friend Falstaff in 1 Henry IV (1.2.2).

Well, I feel you, Falstaff.

With all the boozing I’ve been doing these past few months, I think I’ve racked up quite the tab up at the Eastcheap tavern.

Shakespeare’s The History of Henry IV, or Henry IV, Part I, isn’t heavy on plot. It is heavy, though, on the fat knight, Sir John Falstaff, and other memorable characters, locations, and use of language. This celebrated history play features rebels – including the zealous Henry Percy, aptly called Hotspur, and an occultist Welshman, Glyndwr – who fail to overthrow King Henry IV. (Henry IV, as you may recall from my last post, deposed Richard II, which dogs his reign.) Meanwhile, a wild-oats-sowing Prince Harry revels with common whores, thieves, and drunks – most notably Falstaff – in the bars, brothels, and byways of London until, maturing, he shines on the battlefield and kills Hotspur.

The tavern scenes are particularly legendary, as are Prince Harry’s insults to Falstaff, whom he variously calls a “fat-kidneyed rascal” (2.2.6), “a obscene whorseon greasy tallow-catch,”(2.5.210-11), and a “stuffed cloak-bag of guts” (2.5.411-12).

Now, I don’t quite identify with the Falstaff’s appetite for food, but for drink? I can be quite guilty. As Prince Harry mocks him, “O villain, thy lips are scarce wiped since thou drunkest last” (2.5.139-40).

***

I eat well and exercise daily. I opt for seltzer water or tea during weeknights – or try to.

But it’s been a hectic few months. And one drink has this way of turning into, well, more than one, I’ll say.

“Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world”

I had a goodbye party at work. Christmas followed. My in-laws live in wine country, understand. I flew back to Cincinnati over New Year’s. I had to catch up with old friends – and old watering holes. Then, we had some Minnesota family in town for a few weekends; their conversation pairs so well with a cocktail. Soon after, we learned we’re moving to Ireland. One must celebrate, of course. And Costa Rica was lovely. The chiliguaro made for a proper cultural immersion, and an Imperial (or two or three or four) eased the tension after some long drives.

Rob came down. And back up, in a manner of speaking.

My wife and I then started bidding farewell to various friends, family, colleagues. And to SoCal: beef-tongue tacos at a Santa Ana taqueria and jumping into the Pacific (naked) after the bars closed? I mean, how would you say goodbye?

Then there’s selling and donating just about everything you own, living in limbo as you wait for the Irish government to process your visas, trying not to feel like a fraud and ingrate as a willfully unemployed ‘writer’ (ack) while you’re supported by an amazingly talented and accomplished wife who’s additionally shouldering all the logistics of our move…yes, finish off the gin. Throwing it away as you empty out our apartment would be wasteful.

And not only are we’re moving to Dublin in country already famed enough for its drinking, but my wife will actually be working in the alcohol industry there.

Now, we’re staying at my in-laws’s before we fly out in a week or so. They live in wine country, remember?

Zounds.

Yet, as Falstaff wisely notes, “Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world” (2.5.437). Then again, as he later observes, “The better part of valour is discretion” (5.4.117-8). Not that our beloved, bloated bloviator ever follows his own sanctimonious proclamations.

***

In Henry IV, Part I it’s hard to look away from Falstaff. His larger-than-life antics – and sweaty self-justifications – certainly make you want to have the underskinker fetch another round of sack and not cut it with too much sugar.

But we shouldn’t overlook Harry’s maturation so central to the play. As he soliloquizes early in the play:

I know you all, and will a while uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness.
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him. (1.2.175-182)

Harry likens himself to the sun, a royal symbol, and his lowly comrades to the clouds, whose baseness he, like a prodigal son, will burn through. It’s cold and calculating.

For me, as I recall the sun burning off the clouds that Saturday morning with Rob, I can’t help but think of Harry’s metaphor more literally. The sober light of day can be harsh – and soul-baring.

I’ll stick with just one drink tonight. Ha. Good thing it’s pretty overcast in Dublin.

The ‘metacatharsis’ of Richard II

Self-pity has never been so exquisite.

Do you ever imagine your own funeral?

I don’t mean where you want your ashes scattered or what songs you’d like sung at the ceremony or even the drunken “celebration of life” you hope your loved ones throw in your memory.

I mean, do you ever really imagine it? Your family sobs out eulogies, mascara stains cheeks, men conceal their teary eyes with their hands and mutter something about allergies. As all the pews have been filled, your colleagues line the back wall of the church. At the reception, your friends chain-smoke, pass around a bottle of bourbon, and trade fond remembrances out back of the reception.

If we could be so lucky.

I imagine my own funeral from time to time. Back in our pretentious, angsty days, not that I’ve quite outgrown them, my good friend promised me he’d toss two cartons of Camel Lights and dump a pot of coffee on my casket if I went before him. God love ’em, he’ll do it. I should note this in my will, though, else he be escorted from the burial.

These are dark thoughts, I know – and incredibly narcissistic. But I also think they’re very human.

Deep down, don’t we all need to know that we will be missed?

As humans, we’re self-aware. Our consciousness lets us grasp futurity, which forces us to confront our own finality. This makes me, for one, not fear my own death but dread some ultimate futility. What was this all for? Did I mean something? Will people grieve me?

Yes, these morbid musings are vain, but don’t we all need to know, deep down in our small and trembling hearts, that we will be missed? In some primal and ironic way, these existential insecurities underscore how fundamentally other-centered our self-centeredness is.

Nobody, though, throws a pity party like the tragic Richard II.

***

This week, I’ve returned to Shakespeare’s history plays. I’ve decided to round out the so-called “second tetralogy” or “Henriad”: Richard II, the History of Henry IV, and the Second Part of Henry IV. The tetralogy culminates in Henry V, which I read egregiously out of order.

In Richard II, a very kingly Richard exiles his cousin Harry Bolingbroke after his dispute with Thomas Mowbray over the death of the Duke of Gloucester, whose murder the king himself we believe ordered. Following the death of Henry’s father, John of Gaunt, Richard seizes the property – and title – Harry was to inherit. While Richard is waging a campaign in Ireland funded by forced loans from his subjects, Harry stages an overthrow and ascends to the crown. Meanwhile, the uncle to Richard and Harry, the Duke of York, helps foil an assassination plot (which his own son conspired in) against the new monarch, Harry, now Henry IV. A nobleman murders an abject Richard, who’s been penned up in a castle prison.

richard_ii_king_of_england
This ca. 1390 oil portrait of King Richard II in the Westminster Abbey is believed to be the oldest known portrait of an English monarch. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Richard II raises king-size questions about the institution of the English monarchy, the tyrannical possibilities of a monarch’s authority, and the problem of his subjects’ loyalty therein.

Today, we watch movies where our leaders are usurped or even killed, but in the sixteenth-century, texts of the play – and likely performances – omitted the parts where Richard gives his crown to Harry, as my Norton Shakespeare informed me. Shakespeare’s history plays were no doubt The House of Cards of his day, but actually staging a deposition was a subversive act, though, from what I’ve read, some opponents to Elizabeth I indeed paid Shakespeare’s company to put on a performance of this play.

Here’s an excerpt of Richard’s regal resignation:

BOLINGBROKE Are you contented to resign the crown?

RICHARD: Ay, ay; no, ay; for I must nothing be;
Therefore no, no, for I resign to thee.
Now mark me how I will undo myself.
I give this heavy weight from off my head,
[BOLINGBROKE accepts the crown]
And this unwieldy sceptre from my hand,
[BOLINGBROKE accepts the sceptre]
The pride of kingly sway from out my heart.
With mine own tears I wash away my balm,
With mine own hands I give away my crown,
With mine own tongue deny my sacred state,
With mine own breath release all duteous oaths. (4.1.190-200)

Richard continues in his majestic – and megalomaniacal – monologue. The passage vividly exemplifies the costume of power and the performance of identity, thematic obsessions in Shakespeare’s body of work. By literally taking off his crown, Richard is “unkinged” (4.1.210).

But more interesting to me than the “hollow crown” (3.2.156) is the very intense and perceptive psychological portrait Shakespeare gives us in Richard when he’s unkinged, unselved, undone.

No longer a king, Richard becomes a drama queen. After he’s imprisoned, Richard asks for a mirror following the coronation of King Henry and literally self-reflects in one of the play’s most famous scenes:

A brittle glory shineth in this face.
As brittle as the glory is the face,
[He shatters the glass]
For there it is, cracked in an hundred shivers. (4.1.277-79)

(Richard should have watched more modern cinema. He could have hidden a shard of glass to attack his captors.)

Self-pity has never been so poetic. Self-pity has never been so exquisite. But at this point in the play, Richard has already transcended self-pity, even. He has climbed the proud heights – or sounded the pathetic depths, depending on how you want to look it – of self-mythology. Before he’s separated from his wife (she’s been exiled to France) and imprisoned at Pomfret, Richard consoles his wife – and himself:

Good sometimes Queen, prepare thee for France.
Think I am dead, and that even here thou tak’st,
As thou from my death-bed, thy last living leave.
In winter’s tedious nights, sit by the fire
With good old folks, and let them tell thee tales
Of woeful ages long ago betid;
And ere thou bid goodnight, to quit their griefs
Tell thou the lamentable fall of me,
And send the hearers weeping to their beds;
Forwhy the senseless brands will sympathize
The heavy accent on thy moving tongue,
And in compassion weep the fire out;
And some will mourn in ashes, some coal black,
for the deposing of a rightful king. (5.1.37-50)

That’s a lot of wallowing, Richard, but damn, your mud sounds as soft as velvet.

***

In his Poetics, Aristotle presents catharsis as a metaphor for our experience of theater, especially tragedy, which arouses – and subsequently purges – our pity and fear. Yes, we experience catharsis in the tragic demise of Richard II after his egregious abuse of power. But, as he imagines his wife telling the “sad stories of the death of kings” (3.2.152), we experience a second catharsis as Richard induces his own catharsis. Call it a “metacatharsis.”  (Permission to punch me in the nose).

For me, this is Shakespeare’s genius: Four hundred years ago, casting his light into the shadowy recesses of the human psyche and condition, he understood why our favorite songs are the sad ones, why we need rainy day , or why imagine our own funerals from time to time. In the theater of the human mind, we like to perform – we need to perform –our own catharsis.

Taking apart selves (and shelves): The Comedy of Errors

I’ve been thinking a lot about how things are put together as I take them apart.

Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors is the IKEA EXPEDIT   – well, now the KALLAX – shelving unit of his plays.

You know the one, black-brown with the 5×5 cubbies you can get those drawer-like inserts for. Every millennial apartment has one, or its 4×2 cousin in the very least.

We got an EXPEDIT a few years back when my wife and I moved from Cincinnati, OH to Minneapolis, MN. I remember putting it together in the room – the “den,” I called it, or the “library,” as my wife insisted – at the back of the house we rented, whose doors opened up to a backyard our dog, Hugo, would never do his business in.

IKEA furniture, we all know, is, pardon my French, already a bitch to assemble, but this big boy was a straight-up motherfucker to put together. Somehow, I constructed the behemoth by my lonesome, nearly crushing my fingers when I muscled it upright from the floor.

After about year, the shelf moved with us from Minneapolis to Laguna Beach, CA, where it became a centerpiece of our living room, its particleboard faded by the sunlight, brackish air, and neighbor’s secondhand smoke that constantly washed in through our windows. We were nervous when the movers got the shelf up the stairs to our apartment; if the doorframe were any shorter, the shelf would have gone to the curb.

It moved with us, too, about a year-and-a-half later from Laguna Beach to Irvine, CA. (My wife’s worked has afforded us a series of relocations, you must be wondering at this point, including our next big one overseas.) The movers had to strap it up and heave it into our loft; the narrow, spiraling stairs up would in no way accommodate its girth. Worried it would snap under its own weight and damage our brand-new unit, I can still see it precariously dangling from the massive arms of our moving crew. They ended up having fun; my wife had to leave the room while they were doing it.

The EXPEDIT housed many books over the years, its shelves adorned with knickknacks and keepsakes we’ve collected from our travels, its broad top displaying pictures, canvases, diplomas, houseplants, dust.

But it won’t be moving with us to Dublin, Ireland. (Little will.) In fact, it didn’t even make it down our loft in one piece. After a couple of beers the other night – ok, deep into a six-pack – I picked its heavy, cumbersome bones apart.

EXPEDIT shelf.jpg
RIP, EXPEDIT. Photo by me.

***

I feel I redeemed myself with The Comedy of Errors. Much Ado About Nothing, you’ll recall, made me feel like the Hamlet of reading.

I read this early comedy this week because it’s short – the shortest of Shakespeare’s plays, in fact. My sister-in-law’s boyfriend was visiting from Portland for the weekend. We had a lot of beer to drink.

But I also wanted to get back on my reading schedule. A man has to have standards.

Many critics consider The Comedy of Errors less accomplished than his other plays, a sort of apprentice drama, exhibiting more so the development of his craft rather than the heights of it.

Well, critics be damned.

So, these parents have twin sons, both named Antipholus, served by twin bondmen born on the same day, both named Dromio, as it happens. Bad weather sunders the family, sailing home one day, in two. One Antipholus/Dromio end up in Ephesus, the other in Syracuse. Years later, the Syracusian pair (as well as the twins’ estranged father, Egeon, detained by some arcane commerce laws) find themselves in Ephesus. All identity hell – and hilarity – breaks loose as the servants confuse their masters, masters their servants, and various Ephesians, including the Ephesian Antipholus’ own wife, Adriana, the play’s central foursome. In the end, the truth outs: real identities are restored and the family is even reunited.

The play’s thematic doubleness dramatically destabilizes any sense of unity or integrity in our ideas of identity and self. As Adriana muses amid the play’s confusion:

…O how comes it
That thou art then estranged from thyself?–
Thy ‘self’ I call it, being strange to me
That, undividable, incorporate,
Am better than they dear self’s better part. (2.2.119-123)

The play, no doubt, challenges such an “undividable” self. It challenges the very idea of a self.

But the play can really hit you over the head with this theme. Not unlike, in fact, all of the hitting in the play.

Due to the all this confusion, the Dromios take a lot of abuse. It makes for some fun pratfalls and punning. “Am I so round with you as you with me, / That like a football you do spurn me thus?” Dromio of Ephesus asks of his master’s wife, Adriana, after a beating (12.1.81-82).

While the play may be a bit slapstick-y and heavy-handed, I still think it’s a real hoot.

There’s a point in the play, for instance, when Dromio of Syracuse is suddenly wedded off to Nell (I don’t know how that works, but hey), a kitchen-maid he despairingly describes as a “wondrous fat marriage” (3.2.92).

I hesitate to laugh at appearance-based insults, but Dromio’s ensuing description of Nell is just really funny. They read like early “yo’ mamma’s so fat” or “ugly” jokes. I won’t copy out the full text here (3.2.90-144), so here’s a highlight:

ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE What’s her name?

DROMIO OF SYRACUSE Nell, sir. But her name and three-quarters–that’s an ell [a yard] and three-quarters–will not measure her from hip to hip.

ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE Then she bears some breadth?

DROMIO OF SYRACUSE No longer from head to foot than from hip to hip. She is spherical, like a globe. I could find out countries in her.

ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE In what part of her body stands Ireland?

DROMIO OF SYRACUSE Marry, sir, in her buttocks. I found it out by the bogs.

ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE Where Scotland?

DROMIO OF SYRACUSE I found it by the barrenness, hard in the palm of her hand. (3.2.107-120)

Antipholus of Syracuse continues, asking Dromio where he finds (and ribs) various countries on Nell – including America, interestingly enough (and the Indies, whose jewels he likens to zits on her nose).

***

Sure, the EXPEDIT demanded a Herculean effort to build and move around, but, once constructed, once re-situated, the shelf just sort came part of our lives, receding into the texture of our everyday lives. Taken-for-granted, always there.

But the other night, when I started taking it apart, I came to appreciate its design. A top, bottom, two sides, four long planks in the middle, 16 square planks to create the cubbies, a whole bunch of those little pegs (that slip into the pre-made sockets with a mallet and many expletives), and 8 bigger screws Allen-wrenched into place.

But once you start taking the comedy apart, you start appreciating its craft and detail, its efficiency and modernity. The complexity belying its simplicity.

It’s not a lot of material, but it all holds together – and ingeniously. I can put it together, but I could never have designed it. (I could neither have put anything like The Comedy of Errors together nor have designed it, for the record.)

I unscrewed the bolts and pulled off the top and bottom. Some of the little pegs fell out on their own, many needed just a bit of tug, a lot (most) I simply broke off. I didn’t quite forget the effort it took the make the damn thing, but in ripping it apart, I no doubt appreciated it all over again.

The Comedy of Errors resembles this shelf for me, if you haven’t guessed my unwieldy metaphor so far. Like our EXPEDIT, the play’s easy to take for granted: Shakespeare’s themes of identity, self, relationships, social roles are big and bulky, especially when the dualities pound you over the head. But once you start taking the comedy apart, you start appreciating its craft and detail, its efficiency and modernity. The complexity belying its simplicity.

Shakespeare frequently has characters speaking in rhyming couplets, using his form to mirror his content and heighten his thematic twinning. The Ephesian Antipholus had a goldsmith fashion a fancy, expensive chain for his wife, which creates further confusion in the plot but also the perfect image to convey how interlinked the characters are – how interlinked all of ourselves, our selves, are.

Water metaphors run throughout the comedy, further illustrating the fluidity of self, as Antipholus remarks: “I to the world am like a drop of water / That in the ocean seeks another drop” (1.2.35-36). Shakespeare repeatedly likens reputations to their monetary credit, deepening – and complicating – ideas of identity, worth, value, and character.

And the whole experience of mistaken identity compels the Antipholus of Syracuse to question reality: “Am I in earth, in heaven, or in hell?  / Sleeping or waking? Mad or well-advised? / Known unto these, and to myself disguised!” (2.2.212-14). The Ephesians even try to perform an exorcism on the hometown Antipholus, as the townsfolk think he’s been possessed – a rather intense, if comically staged, image for the problems of individuality the play develops.

***

I know my metaphor’s overwrought. And I know its entire premise is, in fact, questionable, especially as I’m not yet 10 plays into the Bard’s oeuvre and am no Elizabethan drama expert. But, as we ready for our big move to Dublin, we’ve been selling and donating just about everything we own – it’s just amazing how much stuff, even when you’ve gone through several downsizes as we’ve done and am anal, anti-clutter, anti-crap, anti-possession like I am . So, I’ve been thinking a lot about how things are put together as I take them apart.

The Comedy of Errors may not be the sophisticated, hand-crafted, solid-wood antique that will furnish one’s more settled, adult home, but there’s something to be said about the the EXPEDIT.

Much Ado About Reading

Reading Shakespeare is hard.

I have fallen a bit behind in my reading schedule. I had planned on finishing my seventh play this year, Much Ado About Nothing, last Friday. I only just wrapped it up yesterday.

I could blame this on Costa Rica. My wife and I took a trip down to this luscious land last week. I could blame it, too, on moving to Ireland. We’ve got less than a month to sell just about everything we own and get over to Dublin, including our dog. We had friends in town, too. Plus, my mom and stepdad, who’ve been wintering in Southern California in their RV, are hitting the road again soon.

These are all valid reasons, I suppose, to take a few extra days to read this Shakespearean comedy, which many consider to be his best.

You could say I’m making, well, much ado about nothing. Travel, moving overseas, spending time with friends and family. Life’s rough, I know.

And none of this is to mention that my project is self-imposed. My deadlines are arbitrary. If I miss them, they don’t have real consequences.

Still, reading Shakespeare is hard.

Of course, Shakespeare’s words are challenging, as language and as literature. His plays, moreover, are meant for the stage; watching them aids enjoyment and understanding.

Each time I crack open a new play, I struggle to get started, as if in physical therapy, slowly, arduously moving one foot forward. Sometimes, I can find my stride and read a whole play in a few sittings, getting back that old muscle memory vitiated by the digital age. But other times, as with Much Ado, it’s a different story.

Yes, the “skirmish of wits” (1.1.61) between Benedick and Beatrice is the pinnacle of Shakespearean wordplay. The story – jealous of Claudio, who just defeated him in battle, Don John the Bastard schemes to thwart his marriage to Hero, while Don Pedro schemes to bring Benedick and Beatrice, doggedly opposed to marriage, together – is superbly crafted. The play’s thematic gender politics surrounding marriage, fidelity, and masculinity is still compelling and relevant 400 years later. As always, the Bard weaves a thick tapestry of language; I especially enjoyed the many ways he plays with the language of “horns,” a symbol of cuckoldry, a central anxiety of men in the play. And of course, the bumbling constable, Dogberry, is a legendary character.

But I have to be honest, I should probably just re-read Much Ado About Nothing.

***

Ahead of our move, I’ve been backing up old papers I’ve written, which prompted some reflections I recently shared.

I’ve also been sorting through old books, bidding farewell to lots of beloved texts I’ve read through my years, so many of them beat up with annotations, highlights, underlinings, dog-eared pages, creased bindings, the wear and tear of loving use. I’m still holding onto a good number (I’ll always keep my high school copy of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), but I tried to sell the rest. My writing isn’t bringing in any money after all. Just ask my wife.

This must be the first bookstore I’ve ever been to that hasn’t had a single copy of Shakespeare.

I hauled several crate-loads to a used bookstore. “We’ll call you in three hours and then make an offer,” the clerk let me know. Three hours? That sounded promising. That sounded like my trove will put them to work.

I don’t expect much from used books, especially paperbacks, in spite of the immense intellectual wealth they’ve brought me. “How much did you say again?” I asked the clerk when the bookstore called me back. “Twenty-two sixty-seven?”

$22.67.

That’s even not the rub, though. I wasn’t paying close attention when I signed the line that I agreed the bookstore would throw away – yes, throw away – the books it couldn’t sell.

I felt like Lady Macbeth, vainly washing her hands of blood for this horrible crime I committed.

They said something about store policy and stolen merchandise. I imagined a cop shows up and shouts, “Drop the book! Drop the book!” The guilty reader slowly lowers an 1818 edition of Shelley’s Frankenstein to the ground.

After accepting my blood money, I looked around the bookstore for a cheap, small copy of a Shakespeare play. I didn’t want to lug around my Norton Shakespeare in Costa Rica. It’s heavy and bulky. But, deep down, I knew I was asking myself, “Do you really think you’re going to read any Shakespeare on this trip?” Fie!

I took a couple of laps around the store. I finally spotted a small drama section. No more than 10 books, and no Shakespeare. I see Bloom’s The Invention of the Human, a seminal piece of literary criticism about Shakespeare. But no actual Shakespeare.

I suspected I was missing the Shakespeare section. I couldn’t think of a bookstore that doesn’t have a Shakespeare section. Even in non-English bookstores – in Istanbul or Bangkok, say – I’ve found Shakespeare sections. I even picked up copy of Hamlet in Spanish from a bookstore in downtown San José.

I went back to the clerk who handed me my $22.67. “Is there, um, like, a Shakespeare section in the store?” She pointed me back to those meager volumes of drama. “You’d find it there, if we have any.”

“If we have any.” This must be the first bookstore I’ve ever been to that hasn’t had a single copy of Shakespeare.

Except for the volume I just sold them. It was one of those Literary Classics complete works hardcovers designed less for reading and more for making it look like you’re a serious reader.  There was no way I was buying that back.

So, the night before we head to Costa Rica, my wife and I ran a couple of errands, including swinging by Barnes & Noble. The store, of course, has a nice section clearly marked “Shakespeare.” The section exists, no doubt, because we still assign Shakespeare in high school. Some will read Shakespeare in college, but you can get easily get a bachelor’s degree without cracking open a single play, I’m sure.

I can only remember that I had Shakespeare make a terrible joke whose punchline was “much ado about nothing.” And when Confucius said goodbye, the Bard said, “All’s well that end’s well.”

A whole shelf neatly displayed rows of No Fear Shakespeare as well as the Folger’s classic standbys.

I picked a Folger copy of Much Ado About Nothing. Why? Its titular nothing made me think of sloths. We really wanted to see some sloths in Costa Rica. And we did. Incredible. (Nothing, it turns, out, should have made me think of notes and vagina. The word was pronounced more like we might say noting today, working well with the play’s many musical, writing, gossiping, ad observational puns. It also served as Elizabethan slang for female genitalia; use your imagination.)

I knew the title well. We all do. Much Ado is headline fodder. I’ve taken advantage of it in this very piece. But I knew nothing about it other than it’s a comedy – and that I used it as a punchline in a creative writing assignment I did in fifth grade. In Mrs. Wagner’s class, the same class where I first remember reading Shakespeare.

I can’t remember the assignment’s point exactly, but, for some reason, I had Confucius meet Shakespeare at a park. They talked. For their dialogue, I looked up memorable quotes and titles of their works in books I checked out from our little school library and the old green- and cream-colored World Book Encyclopedia volumes I used to spend hours in at home – and used for research papers before the Internet changed everything.

I fashioned some sort of conversation out of my cursory findings. Mrs. Wagner loved it, I recall. I can only remember that I had Shakespeare make a terrible joke whose punchline was “much ado about nothing.” And when Confucius said goodbye, the Bard said, “All’s well that end’s well.”

The birth of a writer, my dear readers.

***

I love traveling, if our upcoming move to Dublin is any measure. My wife and I have had the privilege to travel quite a bit around the world.

We hadn’t been to Costa Rica, or Central America for that matter. We thought we’d check out its many greens (and blues) before heading over to the many greens (and grays) of the Emerald Isle.

I have no distractions, other than the wind, the clear night sky overhead, lots of beers, and leftover empanadas I got from the grocery store. Why can’t I read this?

And the more we travel, I realize, the less planning I’ve come to do. I usually do a ton of reading, research, and preparation, especially if we’re hitting a once-in-a-lifetime or culturally dense place. To make the most of it, of course.

It’s kind of like being in a museum exhibit, reading before traveling is. I try to read all the texts and labels on the wall. For one thing, they’re usually well written. For another, I like to know what’s going on in the Cezanne painting or bronze artifact so as to better appreciate it. But this often comes at the expense of actually engaging with the art or history itself. So, I end up just scanning the museum texts, but not in the same way I half-read an article online, an email, or the like. I can’t quite describe it, but I can say I walk away with an amorphous goop of dates, names, and media.

Reading ahead of visiting a new country can be like this, too. I get a variety of travel books from the library, typically later buying one to take with me for ongoing reference in situ, and walk away with a fog-like blur of history, language, sites, culture.

This trip, we mapped out a basic itinerary, booked a rental car, and made sure we had lodging the first two nights. Otherwise, we left the rest wide open. There’s something truly lovely about letting a country disclose itself to you versus planning a touristic siege, of conquering a place as if a colonizer for a week.

There’s something truly lovely about letting a country disclose itself to you versus planning a touristic siege, of conquering a place as if a colonizer for a week.

We booked an Airbnb hidden in the hills outside of San Ramón, a busy city not far from the capital. It’s not known for much, touristically speaking, though it proved to be a great launching point for Costa Rica’s volcanoes and cloud forests – and politically, I learned from reading our host’s welcome packet, a great launching point for many of the country’s presidents.

Streets aren’t really marked in Costa Rican cities, excepting the capital, though even that was like the other urban labyrinths that constantly shifted around as we drove through them. We got lost finding the place, but I did learn a bit more Spanish in our efforts to find our rental – and a few construction workers paving a road up in the winding hills learned a bit more English, too, I suppose.

The house was atop a hill, chilly and windswept, eerily spacious, overlooking the rolling greens and golds of the Costa Rican highlands. But the gusts of wind loudly rattled the house, all day and night, reminding us of the force of its nature.

There was a TV, but the wind knocked out the signal. And there was no WiFi. Perfect, I thought, for some serious reading of Much Ado About Nothing thousands of miles away from where Shakespeare originally inked the comedy. Perfect, too, for there would be no half-hearted headline reading on Twitter and news apps to distract me.

After some wine, dinner, and cards, I thought I’d sink into Much Ado, the gales howled around – through – the house, inspiring me like some sort of Romantic poet. Big, alien-like insects scurried us into the bedroom for the nights. With a can of Imperial, my notebook, and Much Ado, I read much of nothing.

Part of my struggle was just adjusting to the Folger’s format. I remembered it from high school, with its straight text on the right and notes on the left, but I had grown accustomed to Norton’s footnoting and glossing system. On the one hand, the Folger offers you the text, un-editorialized. On the other the hand, you find yourself ping-ponging your eyes – and attention.

Add to all of this that Much Ado is a comedy. Shakespearean comedies are as thick with wordplay as Costa Rica’s cloud forests are with biomass. Like the gorgeous birds in the jungle only the experienced eye can spy, this means a lot of jokes you know are there but just aren’t getting.

And add to this my note-taking. General notes, of course, but also strong language and interesting words, which for this play I tracked in a thinner, more travel-able notebook than the old-school composition notebooks I usually use.

I have no distractions, other than the wind, the clear night sky overhead, lots of beers, and leftover empanadas I got from the grocery store.

Why can’t I read this?

***

I tackled a few more pages by the trip’s end. Vacation isn’t exactly a great time to tackle literature, I suppose. Especially when the rest of your hotels are equipped with WiFi and really good happy hour specials.

One hidden treasure and pleasure of traveling is disconnecting. The world is increasing online, but you can still find those pockets (many more, of course, if you’re truly immersed in the wildernesses of the world) of quiet. Those pockets where your Facebook feed goes dark. It’s one of the few things I like about the U.S.’s cellular restrictions. Your scrolling thumb initially twitches with withdrawal, but the brain rewires. The brain rebuilds the muscles of sustained attention, observation, and thinking. But, like when a coworker brings Girl Scout Cookies into the office when you’ve just started a diet, it doesn’t take long for your synapses to binge on status updates, 140-character quips, and clickbait.

There’s something to be said about letting a text – or a painting, artifact, or the brilliant red of a quetzal’s belly emerging from the tangled greens and cloaking mists of a Costa Rican cloud forest  – disclose itself to you on its own terms, without agenda or predication

I still somehow feel defeated, though. I should be able to read the Bard in the rainforest, even if I’ve driven hundreds of miles across the country’s snaking and unsigned roads and transacted in a language I’m embarrassingly not fluent in.

So, it was a 6-hour flight back to L.A. OK, I told myself, you’re finishing this play. On the plane. No excuses.

The man seated next to me was reading José Saramago’s Blindness. “That’s a great read,” I noted. “Yeah? I’m loving it so far,” he replied. He looked at my Much Ado. I look at my Much Ado. You can do this, I told myself.

I was strong-willed at first, managing to finish Act 1 before I rewarded myself with a look, just a look, at the movie selections in the media center on the headrest in front of me. Ooh, The Martian. If I get through Act 3, I get to watch The Martian, I told myself.

I got through Act 2.

Then, a little nap, a podcast, some coffee. I was only into Act 3 by touchdown.

But, but! My wife was coming off our Costa Rica trip with a ladies’ weekend in L.A. to celebrate a friend’s birthday. I’ve got the weekend, I pep-rallied myself. I can do this. Then I remembered that Season 5 of Breaking Bad awaited me on Netflix. There was some Jameson I needed to finish before we move, too.

***

I did eventually finish the play a few days later in between tweets, workouts, dog-walking, chores, errands, and a whole bunch of Craigslist sales.

That’s OK, though.

Sure, my environment was a distracting one. Yes, attention is short and fragmented in the Internet age. But like a reading museum text or researching for travel, sometimes reading can get in the way of reading. There’s something to be said about letting a text – or a painting, artifact, or the brilliant red of quetzal’s belly emerging from the tangled greens and cloaking mists of a Costa Rican cloud forest  – disclose itself to us on its own terms, without agenda or predication.

I want to re-read Much Ado About Nothing. But not yet.

It’s a dog’s life? The Two Gentlemen of Verona

The things we do for love.

I squeeze out some toothpaste. It’s peanut butter flavored. Out of a strange, boyish curiosity, I am tempted to try it. Hugo at first cowers but surrenders. I move the toothbrush across his incisors, trying to reach his back teeth past his black gums and pink, writhing tongue, which fights this harpoon of hygiene like the tentacles of a giant squid. He doesn’t like it. But his breath stinks. Hugo never chews with his molars for some reason, so they’re getting a little gnarly.

I don’t brush his teeth as often as I should. The American Pet Association, I recall, advises dog owners to brush their pets’ teeth once a day. Once a day. That seems a bit absurd, I think, imaging dogs out there getting violin lessons and SAT tutoring. Because their owners – their parents – are better and love them more.

Still, I think, my dog has better healthcare than billions of people on this planet. I often like to make this comment in jest when our pets come up in conversation with friends and family, but it’s actually no joke. In many ways, Hugo – and likely your dog, too – has a better quality of life than so many humans across the globe, at least materially speaking.

Hugo gets consistent meals and fresh water. Organic dog food, even. Each time he goes outside, I give him a treat. Some of them are tasty – and don’t act like you haven’t tried them. He gets regular exercise. He has lots of toys. He gets loads of attention. He sleeps with us in a queen-sized bed. He gets his shots. He gets warm baths. He gets hair cuts. Every now and again, I even brush his teeth and clean his ears – not that he likes those.

Hugo has even travelled more than some people I know. We rescued him in Minneapolis, where he loved in the snow. He travelled by plane with us to Laguna Beach, where he ran on the beach. When I was in between the Twin Cities and the Queen City, Hugo rode shotgun with me when I drove back and forth, where he did not like the passenger seat. Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin? Cross those states off his list. He’s hiked in the Sierra Mountains and ran down the vineyards rows in Temecula wine country.

Now, our dog is moving with us to Dublin. It’s one of the first questions we get about our move: “What are you doing with Hugo?”

“He’s going with us,” we quickly say. “Duh!” And then one of us tries to bark in a Irish accent. It’s absurd.

Modern dogs have it pretty good, but Lance’s dog Crab in The Two Gentlemen of Verona has got it made.

Apart from securing visas and selling everything we own, we’re starting to coordinate Hugo’s transport. It’s a complicated process – and I won’t go into the associated costs. It’s an emotional one, too. For international flights, dogs have to fly in cargo. You can’t sedate them; their ears won’t pop if you do, apparently. So, we’ll have to crate him up and expect a shit-covered, piss-soaked cage and a shivering, confused pup on the other side.

It’s a little less complicated to fly a dog to the European continent, my wife’s figured out. We’ve discussed flying him to Paris and taking various trains and ferries from there.  I don’t know how that’s less complicated, but he’d definitely get some stamps on his passport. My wife tells me there’s some even sort of puppy passport.

Clearly, we do a lot for our dog, as I’m sure you do for yours. Such are our pets – as I’m sure most of say, our families – in 2016.

Hugo_toys
“You can only pack one for Dublin, Hugo.” He’ll definitely pick that nasty looking potato, which started out as an anthropomorphic baguette. iPhone photo by me.

As I work the toothpaste across Hugo’s little teeth, I can’t help but imagine Shakespeare, perched on the ledge of the tub as he shaping up his cuticles with an emery board, rolling his eyes at me.

See, in the Bard’s house, dogs aren’t exactly man’s best friend.

***

You may recall that I’ve been tracking a few things as I make my way through the complete works of Shakespeare in 2016. I am keeping tabs on unusual words, I am recording instances of strong language, I am looking for interesting occupations, and I am noting dogs.

So far, PETA would not be pleased with our playwright.

Take Henry V, where dogs are often used as terms of abuse. A common soldier, Pistol, issues some choice words to Nim, as they quarrel over a woman: “Pish for thee, Iceland dog. Thou prick-eared cur of Iceland” (2.1.36). This breed, my Norton Shakespeare glosses, is particularly small and hairy one. Pistol goes on to call Nim an “egregious dog” (2.1.40) and “hound of Crete” (2.1.66). Or take Antony and Cleopatra, when an impassioned Cleopatra cries to Octavius after his victory: “Slave, soulless villain, dog!” (5.2.153).

We dogs as objects of abuse in Cymbeline. The Queen, seeking poison from the doctor, Cornelius, pretends: “I will try the forces / Of these thy compounds on such creatures as / We count not worth the hanging, but none human, / To try the vigour of them, and apply / Allayments to their act, and by them gather / Their several virtues and effects” (1.5.18-23). Cornelius senses her ulterior motives (she wants to kill off Innogen’s means of communication with her banished husband, his messenger Pisanio): “She’ll prove on cats and dogs, / Then afterward up higher” (1.5.38-39). Fortunately, no dogs were harmed in the making of Cymbeline; Cornelius tricks the Queen by supplying a fake poison, anyways.

We famously see dogs’ ferocity in Julius Caesar: “Cry ‘havoc’! and let slip the dogs of war” (3.1.276). We see their service and servility, metaphorical hunters unleashed by their masters to catch the quarry of their desires in The Taming of the Shrew. For instance, Lucentio’s  servant, Tranio, remarks: “O sir, Lucentio slipped me like his greyhound, / Which runs himself and catches for his master” (5.2.53-54).

Dogs do seem to get a little love, though. In the First Induction of The Taming of the Shrew, the Lord comes back a hunt, pleased with his dogs:

Huntsman, I charge thee, tender well my hounds.
Breathe Merriman – the poor cur is embossed –
And couple Clowder with the deep-mouth brach.
Saw’st thou not, boy, how Silver made it good
At the hedge corner, in the coldest fault?
I would not lose the dog for twenty pound. (Induction 1.12-17)

You can imagine Merriman, Clowder, and Silver, whose names gives us a glimpse into the soul of the Elizabethan dog-owner,  happy and panting.

And then there’s The Two Gentleman of Verona, my sixth play so far in this project. You might know the play, especially if you’ve seen Shakespeare in Love, as “the one with the dog.”

***

The Two Gentleman of Verona is famous for two things.

First, it’s one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays and, according to most critics, one of his weakest. It’s not unlike pilot episodes. Take “The Seinfeld Chronicles.” This Seinfeld pilot lacks the masterful craft we’ve come to love in the sitcom, but the seeds of the show’s genius are still there.

I think, in many ways, Two Gentlemen of Verona is Seinfeldian: Both pay a lot of attention not to the actual relationships themselves but the way people talk about their relationships. There is an early scene in Two Gentlemen of Verona, for example, when Julia (I’ll get to the characters in a minute) is asking her servant, Lucetta, which of her suitors she thinks is best. They weigh pros and cons, not less superficially than Jerry and George discussing their latest dates. Later, Thurio asks Proteus what Silvia says about her. I can see Kramer jumping in, saying, “Why don’t you just ask her yourself?

Second, the play actually features a dog, Crab, comic companion to Lance, Proteus’ clownish servant.

Shakespeare certainly had no Instagram account where he exclusively posted pictures of his pug, but, for all the kicks dogs take in his works, the comic relationship between Lance and his dog is also somewhat sweet and tender.

OK, the play. The Two Gentleman of Verona is a comedy about two friends who compete over the same girl. Valentine goes off to Milan, where he falls in love with the Duke’s daughter, Silvia, who is supposed to marry Thurio. His best friend, Proteus, stays behind, lovestruck by Julia. But Proteus is urged to join Valentine abroad, where he falls in love Silvia. Valentine and Silvia plan to elope. Proteus betrays his friend – and Julia, of course – and lets the Duke in on the plan before trying to win over Silvia. Julia, meanwhile, disguises herself as boy page, her need to see Proteus so powerful, but soon learns of Proteus’ infidelity. Chased from the city, Valentine joins up with some outlaws. Silvia steals off to find him, as the Duke, Thurio, and Proteus go after her. Silvia is captured. Then the Duke and Thurio are captured by the outlaws. But soon all are freed, thanks to Valentine’s status with the outlaws (they needed, no joke, someone good at languages). The Duke finds Valentine worthy of his daughter. All are reunited and forgiven, including Julia and Proteus, friends and lovers alike.

Oh, the foolish things we do for love!

About that. There is a third thing the play’s known for. Actually, a fourth, too.

At the end of the play, Silvia wholly rejects Proteus, but he’s not understanding that “no” means “no”:

Nay, if the gentle spirit of moving words
Can no way change you to a milder form
I’ll woo you like a soldier, at arm’s end,
And love you ‘gainst the nature of love: force ye. (5.4.55-58)

Um, yeah. Proteus threatens rape.

And then – and then, Valentine comes forward and stops him. Proteus begs for forgiveness. Valentine is quickly moved:

…Once again I do receive thee honest.
Who by repentance is not satisfied
Is nor of heaven nor earth. For these are pleased:
By penitence th’ Eternal’s wrath’s appeased.
And that my love may appear plain and free,
All that was mine in Silvia’s thee. (5.4.78-83)

Yup. Mmm-hmm. Valentine offers Silvia to betoken his faith in their friendship. Silvia leaves with Valentine and Julia with Proteus, but Shakespeare leaves us with some real doozies about relationships.

The truly crazy things we do for love.

***

Speaking of crazy, for all the imperfections of The Two Gentleman of Verona, the Bard does mirror the human relationships with Lance’s relationship with his dog, Crab.

I think we’ve all blamed a little flatulence on the dog, but taking the fall for Fido? I guess when your dog’s going to be killed for it…

I’m not certain if the play was originally staged with a dog. I’ve read that William Kempe, a renowned comic actor in Shakespeare’s day and in several of his plays, played the part of Lance. Kempe, some claim, actually had a naughty dog named Crab he liked to bring to the theater and Shakespeare thus wrote some of the mischief into the play. Alas, this seems to be the stuff of theatre legend.

I do know that so many stagings have an actual dog play its part, much to the delight and amusement of audiences. Shakespeare certainly had no Instagram account where he exclusively posted pictures of his pug, but, for all the kicks dogs take in his works, this comic relationship is also somewhat sweet and tender. The Lance-Crab scenes really steal the show.

In one, Lance is shedding some tears over leaving behind his family for Milan with his master, Proteus:

I think Crab, my dog, be the sourest-natured dog that lives. My mother weeping, my father wailing, my sister crying, our maid howling, our cat wringing her hands, and all our house in a great perplexity, yet did not this cruel-hearted cur shed one tear. He is a stone, a very pebble-stone, and has no more pity in him than a dog…(2.3.4-9).

Shakespeare in Love treats the scene well (0:53):

Later, reflecting on relationships between masters and servants, Lance shares an accident that happened at court with Crab, whom he “brought up of a puppy, one that I saved from drowning when three or four of his blind brothers  went to it” (4.4.2-4):

[Crab] had not been there – bless the mark – a pissing-while but all the chamber smelled him. ‘Out with the dog,’ says one. ‘What cur is that?’ says another. ‘Whip him out,’ says the third. ‘Hang him up,’ says the Duke. I, having been acquainted with the smell before, knew it was Crab, and goes me to the fellow that whips the dogs. ‘Friend,’ quoth I, ‘you meant to whip the dog.’ ‘Ay, marry do I,’ quoth. ‘You do him the more wrong,’ quoth I, ‘’twas I did the thing you wot of.’ He makes me no more ado, but whips me out of the chamber. How many masters would do this for his servant? (4.5.16-25)

Lance continues:

Nay, I’ll be sworn I have sat in the stocks for puddings he hath stolen, otherwise he had been executed. I have stood on the pillory for geese he hath killed, otherwise he had suffered for’t. (To Crab) Though think’st not of this now…When didst thou see me heave up my leg and make water against a gentle-woman’s farthingale? (4.5.25-33).

Now that’s love.

I think we’ve all blamed a little flatulence on the dog, but taking the fall for Fido? I guess when your dog’s going to be killed for it…

Modern dogs have it pretty good, but Lance’s Crab has got it made.

***

I finish brushing Hugo’s teeth. He looks up at me with wide, sad eyes, as if to say, “Why would you do this to me?” I can see Shakespeare, as unfriendly as his words may be to man’s best friend,  looking up from his nail-filing, saying, “Well, aren’t you going to give him a treat?”

Hard copies, soft selves

As I get ready for the big move, I sort through – and search for – identity in old papers and Shakespearean dress.

Maybe egg cartons or coffee cup sleeves? Cardboard boxes, envelopes? I wonder what they’ll become, those hundreds and hundreds of pages, those thousands and thousands of words. I dump load after load of papers I’ve written down the recycling chute in our building.

Each load contains countless late nights. Each load, enough coffee to make a medium-sized country jittery – I’m talking every man, woman, and child. Enough cigarettes to make me cough up a lung years after I’ve even had a smoke. Many miles of pacing the various dorms, houses, and apartments I’ve boarded over my years.

That 50-pager I wrote on the influence of bebop on the prophetic mysticism in Ginsberg’s Howl? One day, someone might be wiping their ass with toilet paper made from it.

Surely most paper is recycled back into paper. Napkins, paper towels. That 50-pager I wrote on the influence of bebop on the prophetic mysticism in Ginsberg’s Howl? One day, someone might be wiping their ass with toilet paper made from it.  Maybe some snotty school kids will one day blow their noses – or wipe away tears – with all those Modernist poems I imitated.

I feel lighter with each load that falls down into the dumpster. I had been lugging these papers around for years. They’ve made it from Cincinnati to Minneapolis, to Southern California. But they’re not going with me to Dublin. My wife and I should be moving there in just a few weeks. We’re very excited, but there’s a lot to be done before we go.

There’s a lot of stuff – a lot of self – to be unloaded.

***

I made sure I had a digital backup of each paper, of course. I scanned those that I didn’t already have on my computer. I ripped out each staple, I pulled off every paper clip. I reread teacher comments and grades. Tucked into some binder-clipped packets are rough drafts; I looked over editing marks I made. A carat, a spelling correction, a pilcrow. A whole paragraph crossed out in red ink.

I also feel a twinge of guilt and sadness, though, when the chute’s door slams shut. I will never get that copy back. On my computer, I can easily open an essay on Keats’ faery imagery from my English major days or a lesson plan on river symbolism in Langston Hughes’ works when I was doing my student teaching. I can do this more easily – and likely more often –  than digging them out of the storage bins, where they’ve sat unread in garages, basements, and closets.

Recycled paper.JPG
There’s a lot of stuff – a lot of self – to be unloaded. Image by me.

 

The hard copies have an aura, I think. They passed from my hands to my professor’s, whose ink marked up the margins, whose fingers thumbed through the pages, whose coffee sometimes spilled onto coversheets, whose messenger bags hauled them from campus to home and back.

The originals have an energy. Like dormant batteries, they hold the charge of so many ideas, arguments, and citations. So much effort.

Have I just outgrown them? Have they accrued within me, like Russian dolls? Does these persons, these unused batteries, still carry a charge?

But they also enshrine so many past selves. John in high school. Early essays on electric bass playing and my dead dog. An encomium to coffee. My parents’ divorce, a theme I revisited so many times in the many reflections required of my liberal arts education. Teacher commentary  on my wordiness, feedback also thematic throughout my school days. Senior-year arguments against the existence of God.

God.

John the musician. Stacks of sheet music of standards for bass parts when I played in jazz ensemble, stacks of guitar tablature for finger-style arrangements for Christmas gigs and weddings I once played. I like to think I could quickly relearn these songs.

John in undergrad. Close readings and technical analyses of obscure mid-century American poetry and existential French philosophy. “Not only/but also” theses, “both/and” ambiguity. Feedback encouraging me to respect length maximums, to go to graduate school.

John with his back to the ivory tower after undergrad. Poems using Roman mythology to register urban poverty when I went into work in public schools instead of a PhD program.

Idealistic graduate school personal statements about education. Research on multiple literacies and differentiated instruction, screeds trumpeting critical pedagogy and constructivist classrooms. Lesson plans, teacher evaluations. Resumes for teaching positions I declined.

Each paper preserves a vision I once had of myself, I once had of the world. They are archives of identity. Of past accomplishments and achievements, of former talents and ambitions.

I read some paragraphs and marvel at my overwritten bullshit. I read many others and wonder where this writer went. What happened to this person? The scholar. The musician. The educator. The idealist. Am I less than these persons now? Have I just outgrown them? Have they accrued within me, like Russian dolls? Does these persons, these unused batteries, still carry a charge?

***

For me, it’s papers. For Shakespeare, it’s dress.

I’ve been thinking a lot about identity since I’ve been reading all this Shakespeare. It’s no doubt an obsession of the Bard. He develops the theme through dress, disguise, costume, uniforms. Only a few plays in, I’ve already extensively encountered Shakespearean dress.

On Shakespeare’s stage, identity is fluid, unstable, slippery. Characters put on and cast off different costumes: different identities, different selves.

In The Taming of the Shrew, the beggar Christopher Sly becomes a noble when the mischievous Lord wraps him in “sweet clothes” and put “rings on his fingers” (Induction 1.34). Lucentio’s servant, Tranio, becomes his master when he dons his “coloured hat and cloak” (1.1.201), then a gentleman’s uniform. By wearing a simple garment in Henry V, the great king disguises himself as a common infantryman: “Lend me thy cloak, Sir Thomas” (4.1.24). In Julius Caesar, Casca thinks Caesar showily refuses Mark Antony’s offer the crown, which would top a king’s, not a republican’s, head: “Why, there was a crown offered him; and being offered, he put it by with the back of his hand, thus; and then the people fell a-shouting” (1.2.222-24). In Antony and Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt makes herself goddess-like with her garbs, as Enobarbus describes: “She did lie / In her pavilion – cloth of gold, of tissue – / O’er picturing that Venus where we see / The fancy outwork nature” (2.2.204-207).

And in the last play I read, Cymbeline, Cloten, when disguising himself as Posthumus, wonders why the lowly gentleman he’s imitating should be any more attractive to Innogen than he is, a prince:

How fit his garments serve me! Why should his mistress, who was made by him that made the tailor, not be fit too? – the rather – saving reverence of the word – for ’tis said a woman’s fitness comes by fits. Therein I must play the workman. I dare speak it to myself, for it is not vainglory for a man and his glass to confer in his own chamber. I mean the lines of my body are as well drawn as his: no less young, more strong, not beneath him in fortunes, beyond him in the advantage of the time, above him in birth, alike conversant in general services, and more remarkable in single oppositions. Yet this imperceiverant thing loves him in my despite. What mortality is! (4.1.2-13).

(Cloten’s decapitated before he ever realizes he’s an asshole – and that he smells bad. Yes, Shakespeare takes to the time to make sure the audience knows that Cloten literally stinks.)

On Shakespeare’s stage, characters could transform themselves by dress. They can become – and un-become – kings with donning and doffing of crowns. Identity is fluid, unstable, slippery. Characters put on and cast off different costumes: different identities, different selves.

But dress was also deterministic in Elizabethan England, as Stephen Greenblatt observes in his introductory materials to my Norton Shakespeare. In Cymbeline, Innogen orders Posthumus’ servant to fetch her a disguise: “…provide me presently / A riding-suit no costlier than would fit a franklin’s housewife” (3.2.75-77). She is referring to sumptuary laws of the day, which, among other things, regulated the different kinds of clothes different kinds of people could wear. Identity was ordered and prescribed based on class.

Where is the true self in all this? Cymbeline suggests that one’s true character will eventually show through. As the banished Belarius remarks, “How hard it is to hide sparks of nature!” (3.3.79). And yet how easy it is not to know ourselves. Referring to the Cymbeline’s two sons, which he kidnapped out of revenge and raised in the woods of Wales, he follows with: “These boys know little they are sons to th’ King…” (3.3.80).

Perhaps Shakespeare urges us to defy these fashion trends, so to speak. As he prepares a final stand against the Romans, Posthumus cries: “Let me make men know / More valour in me than my habits show. / Gods, put the strength o’ th’ Leonati in me. / To shame the guise o’ th’ world, I will begin / The fashion – less without and more within” (5.1.29-33). Yet, Posthumus makes his charge dressed as a poor Briton soldier. Not quite the person the person we meet at the beginning of the play.

No wonder it can be so hard to pick out an outfit in the morning.

***

I cast the last load of papers down the dark slot. There is a brief silence before it crashes on top of the pile of refuse four stories below. So many pages once in order, now scattered about empty beer bottles,  Amazon boxes, half-rinsed cans of beans. Where am I in all this?

Paper gets recycled into paper, yes. Including new office paper, blank and waiting for the ink of new words, new identities, new selves. Perhaps, one day, I’ll be loading into the printer for a new document I’ve written some paper recycled from all those many words, all those many pages, I once wrote.

The human’s in the details: Cymbeline, The King of Britain

The Bard knows you never drink just one beer.

Shakespeare gets it.

He feels your hangover. He knows that frantic scramble for your wallet, your keys, and your phone when you wake up on your friend’s couch after a night out drinking. That double-checking you got your credit card back from the bar. He hears you when ask your friend, “Oh my God, how much did I spend last night?” He understands you’re bloated from the pizza that saved your blood sugar levels at 3am. He, too, longs to dry out today but will inevitably be putting back beers in just a few hours. You’re only back home for Christmas for so long, he tells you. His thigh is also mysteriously sore. “Did I fall?” you ask your friend. “Yeah, when we were walking home.” “Jesus,” you laugh, repressing the vague ache of regret as you text friends how great it was to see them, getting flashes of how you talked too much about yourself and dropped a whole pint on the bar patio. “How did we use to do this all the time?” you wonder. You sit on your friend’s toilet, cradling your heavy head in your hands and trying to pull yourself together.

Shakespeare hands you some aspirin. Five of them.

shakespeare_and_jonson_at_the_mermaid_tavern
“Dude, you’ve told the story about how you swam across the Thames in February like, 20 times?” “Twenty? Thinkst thou doth overcount the recounting?” That’s totally what they sounded like. An 1860 newspaper imagination of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson getting into it at London’s famed Mermaid Tavern. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

***

This week, I read Cymbeline, The King of Britain. It’s a play many have heard of but few have read, as far as I can tell. Someone remarked – I can’t remember where I came across it – that Shakespeare was bored with writing when he wrote this late Romance. Indeed, the play’s not loved by all, at least historically; critics often fault its plot and structure.

I am really starting to delight in the little details that give us a glimpse into everyday life in Shakespeare’s England.

The story is truly bonkers. I won’t pretend I can even summarize it, but here are some highlights: a thwarted marriage between social classes, banishment, a wager on the princess’s chastity, deceit in said wager, two princes kidnapped as infants and raised in a Welsh cave, a conniving queen, an asshole prince, fake poison, a battle between Rome and England over tribute to Caesar, countless disguises, a decapitation, a dream sequence involving the god Jupiter – and, as it goes in the tragicomic Romance genre, the eventual reunion of the play’s central couple, Princess Innogen and Posthumus, low of rank but high of virtue. As a gentleman describes him in the beginning of the play, “I do not think / So fair an outward and such stuff within / Endows a man but he” (1.1.22-24).

Cymbeline is all over the place – and I enjoyed every last bit of it.

Yes, Cymbeline has big themes: national identity, gender, fidelity, family, the nature of character, the nature of truth, love. It musters mythology. It raises religion. It develops its ideas through recurring images of fabric and air, with wordplay on inward and outward. But five plays into my year of Shakespeare and five admittedly long posts on Big Ideas, I am really starting to delight in the little details that give us a glimpse into everyday life in Shakespeare’s England.

So, this post, I’m trying to stay small. Except for a little stargazing.

***

Early in Cymbeline, Innogen says to her attendant in her bedroom chamber: “I have read three hours then. Mine eyes are weak. Fold down the leaf where I have left” (2.2.3-4). I love this intimate and mundane detail. I love that Elizabethans also dog-eared the pages of their books. I can see Shakespeare turning down the corner of a page in Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, which he drew from as he wrote the play.

Sometimes the Bard gives us truths in beautiful, pithy, lofty packages. Other times, as with the jailer’s reflections, it’s through humorous, honest, and very human little details.

Later in the play, Belarius, who kidnapped the king’s sons when they were infants to retaliate against his wrongful banishment from his kingdom, says of Innogen, now disguised a rustic man they are nursing back to health in his cave – I told you the plot is a mess. Anyways, Belarius fondly says of the Innogen in disguise, “He cut our roots in characters” (4.2.51). My text glosses “characters” as “alphabet shapes.” This is like removing the crust from your kid’s sandwich or arranging a breakfast plate of eggs and bacon into a smiley face: a small, domestic touch still tender and playful 400 years later.

***

Then there are the stars – and lovely hints at Shakespeare’s astronomical knowledge that shine through.

On Brain Pickings, I read a lovely review of Dan Falk’s The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright’s Universe. Discussing the ways the astronomy of his day influenced the Bard, Falk takes a close look at Cymbeline (and scholarship on it), which he notes was written not long after Galileo published an important treatise. Falk cites some lines by Giacomo, the seedy who Italian who bets the banished Posthumus he can bed Innogen but ruinously cheats in the wager:

What, are men mad? Hath nature given them eyes
To see this vaulted arch and the rich crop
Of sea and land, which can distinguish ‘twixt
The fiery orbs above and the twinned stones
Upon th’unnumbered beach, and can we not
Partition make with spectacles so precious
‘Twixt fair and foul? (1.6.33-39)

Citing astronomy professor and Shakespeare scholar Peter Usher, Falk wonders if these spectacles aren’t an early telescope.

Near the end of the play, Posthumus dreams the ghosts of his family, which he never met. They circle him, according to the stage directions, before Jupiter descends. Falk muses if Shakespeare just isn’t alluding to the four moons of Jupiter, which Galileo had recently discovered.

800px-jupiter-moons
Jupiter and the Galilean moons. Copyright, Jan Sandberg. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

And in the final scene, when all the disguises come off, the truth comes forward, and the couple reunites, it caught my eye when Cymbeline remarks in disbelief: “Does the world go round?” (5.6.232).

Falk and Usher cite many other astronomical details in Cymbeline, but these little glimmers, if faint, are fascinating.

***

Finally, Shakespeare knows you never drink just one beer.

After he comes to from his dream, Posthumus – captured by the British because he’s been fighting for the Romans to hasten his death, so ruined by his belief that Innogen has cuckolded him – shares his eagerness to be hanged with his jailer. This occasions the jailer to muse on some possible benefits of death:

A heavy reckoning for you, sir. But the comfort is, you shall be called to no more payments, fear no more tavern bills, which are as often the sadness of parting as the procuring of mirth. You come in faint for want of meat, depart reeling with too much drink, sorry that you have paid too much and sorry that you are paid too much; purse and brain both empty: the brain the heavier for being too light, the purse too light, being drawn of heaviness. Of this contradiction you shall now be quit. O, the charity of a penny cord! (5.6.250-58).

Shakespeare: poet, playwright, actor, director, theater shareholder, homemaker, astronomer, sociologist, behavioral scientist.

Sometimes the Bard gives us truths in beautiful, pithy, lofty packages: “Our very eyes / Are sometimes like our judgements, blind” (4.2.303-4). Other times, as with the jailer’s reflections, it’s through humorous, honest, and very human little details.

Drink plenty of fluids: Antony and Cleopatra

I can hear my wife asking, “Honey, would you botch your suicide for me?” Well, I’d definitely get a fever.

I felt like the Queen of the Nile.

Recumbent on our peacock-green couch, propped up by our zebra-striped pillows, cooled by the rotating arcs of the floor fan, entertained by the Twitter feed on my laptop, and feted with snacks, I let myself enjoy Super Bowl 50.

That is, once I finally stopped fighting it, the decadent un-productivity of being sick.

I grabbed the roll of toilet paper, ripped off some squares, and honked some green stuff out of my red, chapped nose. I looked over to my wife, who was finishing up some additional items in the kitchen, and smiled. “Do you want Pear, Mango, or Guava?” she asked, referring to some special juices she bought me. “If you’re feeling a better in a little bit, you could even sip some beer.”

The opulence, the luxury!

***

I ended up reading most of The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra in one day, once my head cleared out enough for me to fix my eyes on early modern English.

I had been laid up over the weekend with a sinus infection, the first time I’ve been sick in over two years. I wasn’t sick sick, but enough to be out of commission for a few days. The last thing I felt like doing was cracking open some Shakespeare, though I repeatedly attempted it in foolish denial of my achey limbs and sore throat. Eventually, I gave in and binged decongestants, herbal tea, and a whole lot of Breaking Bad.

I have a hard time being sick. It’s not the discomfort or pain. It’s the idleness. I don’t know how Antony and Cleopatra did it.

***

“The beds in i’th’ East are soft,” as Antony says in Antony and Cleopatra (2.6.50). Antony’s remark, of course, is a sexually charged one, if you’re familiar with the play, as is much of the figuration of Egypt and Cleopatra in the play. Standing in stark contrast is staid, austere Rome, Octavius its designated driver.

Nothing says “Valentine’s Day” like a double suicide.

I’m surprised the play didn’t knock the snot right out of me. It sledgehammers you with binaries. East. West. Egypt. Rome. Woman. Man. Vice. Virtue. Erotic. Stoic. Passion. Responsibility.  Private. Public. Whack. Whack. Whack. Whack.  And the romance between Antony, triumvir ruling over the Eastern part of the Roman empire, and Cleopatra, the powerful and voluptuous Queen of Egypt, swings manically from pole to pole.

OK, I’ll try to make this summary quick. It’s after Julius Caesar’s assassination. Rome is ruled by a triumvirate: Lepidus, Octavius, and Antony. (We met the latter two in Julius Caesar). Lepidus governs Mediterranean Africa, Octavius Europe, and Antony Asia. Antony has been luxuriating with Cleopatra in Alexandria, Egypt, much to the chagrin of his counterparts and to the neglect of his duties. He is called back to Rome after his wife, Fulvia, who previously and futilely rose up against Octavius, dies, and because Sextus Pompey is threatening their rule. Cleopatra is not happy about him leaving. Back in Rome, Antony makes good with Caesar with a political marriage to his sister, Octavia. Cleopatra gets word. She is not happy about this. The triumvirs make a deal with Pompey and go out drinking (though responsible Caesar goes home early). Antony ends up ditching Octavia and returns to Alexandria, where the two put on some godlike ceremonies. Caesar and Lepidus end up breaking the truce with Pompey. Caesar turns on Lepidus – and Antony. It’s civil war. Antony shamefully loses the Battle of Actium when he ditches his fleet after following Cleopatra, who flees the scene abruptly and for seemingly no reason. Antony loses the next battle and takes it out on Cleopatra. She pretends to kill herself out of grief to re-win his affections. Hearing the news, he botches his own suicide but soon dies after he is presented to Cleopatra. Rather than be trophied in defeat in Rome, Cleopatra smuggles some asps in a fig basket and dies from “all the joy of the worm” (5.2.253). Racy.

Antony and Cleopatra is no doubt epic, dynamic, histrionic. You should read it – nothing says “Valentine’s Day” like a double suicide.

the_death_of_cleopatra_arthur
The Death of Cleopatra by Reginald Arthur, 1892. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

***

During the Super Bowl Halftime Show, Beyoncé marched out in formation with her dancers – and over, as I think we were all thankful for, Coldplay. They were decked out as Black Panthers and performed the diva’s new song, “Formation,” a reclamation of her roots, her blackness, her femininity.  An anthemic ownership of her own power, as she closes the song: “Always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper.”

But what really strikes me about the Beyoncé in “Formation” and the Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra is their political power – and the way they intertwine sex and power.

I find compelling parallels between Queen Bey and the Queen of Egypt. Yes, many pop stars and movie stars have consciously styled themselves as Cleopatra over the years. I think many of these performances, though, tend to focus on Queen Cleopatra’s sexual power. But what really strikes me about the Beyoncé in “Formation” and the Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra is their political power – and the way they intertwine sex and power.

Before the events of the play, Cleopatra had already bedded Julius Caesar. In the play, Cleopatra takes her fleet out to the sea in the Battle of Actium. She helps suit up Antony in his armor. She fakes her suicide in an attempt to cool an enraged Antony after he loses the second battle to Octavius. When she learns he wounded himself, she has him lifted up to her own monument for their final, parting kiss. She hides money when the victorious Octavius asks after her accounts. She feigns allegiance to him before, in that most erotic of suicides, the asp bites her breast, else Octavius decorates himself with her in his triumphal parade back in Rome:

…Saucy lictors
Will catch at us like strumpets, and scald rhymers
Ballad us out o’ tune. The quick comedians
Extemporally will stage us, and present
Our Alexandrian revels. Antony
Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I’th posture of a whore. (5.2.210-17)

Yes, she kills herself to be eternally reunited with Antony, but at the same time, I can’t help but think that Cleopatra, the object of so much desire, will be the object of no empire. Throughout the play, Cleopatra indeed wields manly power, even to the point of emasculating the once-heroic Antony. As Octavius comments:

…From Alexandria
This is the news: he fishes, drinks, and wastes
The lamps of night in revel; is not more manlike
Than Cleopatra, nor the queen of Ptolemy
More womanly than he…(1.4.3-7)

Before he stabs himself – actually, before he asks his attendant, the aptly named Eros, to stab him, only to kill himself instead –  Antony cries: “She has robbed me of my sword!” Sword, manhood, eh, eh? And before she brings the phallic asp to her bosom, furthering the Elizabethan metaphor of dying as orgasm, she declares: “…I have nothing / Of woman in me” (5.2.234-5).

Now, in “Formation,” Beyoncé sings:

When he fuck me good I take his ass to Red Lobster, cause I slay
When he fuck me good I take his ass to Red Lobster, cause I slay
If he hit it right, I might take him on a flight on my chopper, cause I slay
Drop him off at the mall, let him buy some J’s, let him shop up, cause I slay
I might get your song played on the radio station, cause I slay
I might get your song played on the radio station, cause I slay
You just might be a black Bill Gates in the making, cause I slay
I just might be a black Bill Gates in the making

The traditional gender identities are reversed. Further complicating it, “slay,” as many cultural critics note, references a now widespread idiom that originated in the African-American gay community for “to succeed.”

What’s more, though, is the water imagery in Antony and Cleopatra and Beyoncé’s “Formation” video that reinforces the gender fluidity the queens are playing with.

Formation screen shot.jpg
Screen shot from a scene in Beyoncé’s “Formation” music video.

In Beyoncé’s video, we see her straddling a police cruiser sinking under the waters of Katrina. She all dances in the bottom of an empty pool. In Antony and Cleopatra, when Cleopatra learns Antony has married Octavia, she cries: “Melt Egypt into Nile, and kindly creatures / Turn all to serpents!” (2.5.78-9). This calls back Antony’s opening declaration of his love for Cleopatra when he is being called back to Rome: “Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch / Of the ranged empire fall” (1.1.35-46).

Beyoncé has hot sauce in her bag…Cleopatra asps in her fig basket? OK, OK. I won’t belabor the comparisons, but I think they’re complex and compelling. As Enobarbus describes Cleopatra: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety” (2.2.240-41). Beyoncé, to be sure, presents us with an equally complex figuration of femininity in “Formation.”

***

These resonances – historic, cultural, feminine, black – are meaningful and very worthwhile. I connected with Antony and Cleopatra, though, on a smaller, more personal level. Two scenes, in particular, stick out for me.

The first is when Antony is out drinking with the guys after the triumvirate strikes a truce with Pompey and company. He’s describing Egypt to his dudes:

ANTONY [to CAESAR]. Thus do they, sir: they take the flow o’th’ Nile
By certain scales i’th’ pyramid. They know
By th’ height, the lowness, or the mean, if dearth
Or foison follow. The higher Nilus swells
The more it promises; as it ebbs, the seedsman
Upon the slime and ooze scatters his grain,
And shortly come to harvest.

LEPIDUS. You have strange serpents there?

ANTONY. Ay, Lepidus.

LEPIDUS. Your serpent of Egypt is bred now of your mud by the operation of your son; so is your crocodile.

ANTONY. They are so. (2.7.16-27)

As always, there’s always much more under the surface of Shakespeare’s words, but as these most powerful of men party, it’s fun to imagine Antony sort of bragging about Egypt to his boys. Maybe even touting Alexandria as a way to try to justify to himself his problematic relationship with Cleopatra – his “lascivious wassails” (1.5.56) – that in no small part causes the whole mess of the play.

Meanwhile, Cleopatra asks her attendants to get a look at Octavia:

Go to the fellow, good Alexas, bid him
Report the feature of Octavia: her years,
Her inclination; let him not leave out
The colour of her hair–let him not, Charmian (2.6.112-16)
For all her power, she’s still insecure, still jealous.

Celebrities–they’re just like us!

And oh yeah, this is outrageous. One of Octavius’ men, Decretas, presents Antony’s sword to him:

…This is his sword.
I robbed his wound of it. Behold it stained
With most noble blood. (5.1.24-26).

But seriously, despite the epic scale of Antony and Cleopatra, despite the dizzying heights of their passion, Shakespeare still gives us some intimate glimpses into their private lives.

***

And this is where I, personally, register romance: on this smaller, more intimate plane.

Yes, for all of the themes of empire, politics, sex, power, and gender that attract my academic proclivities, I must remember one can still Antony and Cleopatra for its legendary romance. I can hear my wife asking, “Honey, would you botch your suicide for me?” Well, I’d definitely get a fever.

Being sick is rotten, no doubt, especially when you’re really sick. But when you’re, you know, moderately sick – feeling lousy enough to take a day off from work but not so ill you can’t watch an excessive, truly excessive amount of Netflix – it’s nice to be taken care of.

Gender roles are fluid in our abode. My wife’s the breadwinner. I tend to most of the chores: laundry, cleaning, grocery shopping, cooking. And I have a hard time relaxing, partially due to my own existential neuroses and partially to America’s own workaholic pathologies. I need to be reading something, writing something, creating something, cleaning something or else I feel I’m squandering the 80 good years we have here on earth.

So, when I am under the weather, it’s nice – nay, it’s lavish – to be tenderly ministered to: soup, Super Bowl, and my wife’s permission, nay, order, to do absolutely nothing. Let Rome in Tiber melt!