Completions and communions

I read myself in Shakespeare. I read Shakespeare in me.

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Not long after I finished the complete works, I popped into a bookstore. I knew exactly where to find him. He has his own section. He always has his own section.

I strutted straight over. Shakespeare.

Top to bottom, shelf by shelf, I eyed all the Macbeth’s and Much Ado About Nothing’s, all the Romeo and Juliet’s and Richard III’s. I puffed out my chest. I cocked back my chin.

Think your so tough? I said to myself. I read you. I pointed to Hamlet. I read you. I pointed to The Tempest. I read you and you and you. I even read you, singling out a copy of Cymbeline I was surprised, and impressed, to see stocked. Whatcha got on me?    

Wait. I stepped off.

What do you got on me, Shakespeare?

What did I learn? How am I different now? How has the experience changed me?

No, no, I know my writing will never inspire my own section in bookstores and change Western literature as we know it. I don’t mean that. I don’t want that. (But would I turn it down?) I mean: Why not read all of Shakespeare’s works in one year and see what I can learn from it? That’s what I wrote when I started out on Shakespeare Confidential. That was the whole point of this thing.

So? What did I learn? How am I different now? How has the experience changed me?

***

Before I tackle the big to be or not to be’s, though, some Shakespeare superlatives are in order. I think I’m qualified to pass a little judgment at this point. One’s likes and dislikes shift with time and experience, of course, so I’m basing these winners and losers specifically on how I feel at the other end of reading the complete works.

Most underrated play: The three parts of Henry VI. Action-packed. Ensemble cast. Huge set-pieces. Plus intrigue, given new evidence that Christopher Marlowe helped write the plays.

Most overrated play: It’s still a masterpiece, but Romeo and Juliet. Boy, girl, parents, hormones, yadda yadda yadda, double suicide.

Favorite character: This is a tough one. Portia’s intelligence and selflessness amaze me in The Merchant of Venice, as does Helena’s in All’s Well That Ends Well. I feel some sort of spiritual affinity with melancholy Jaques in As You Like It and would love to drink some sack with Falstaff. Not that I want to be friends with them, but there’s so much to Iago, Macbeth, and Lear’s tortured and torturing psyches. But I think Hamlet wins this crown. He’s a remarkable literary creation, for one, and his lines always yield, no matter how many times I revisit them, profound and difficult Truths About The Human Condition. 

That I’m still shaken by the passage over 400 years after Shakespeare wrote it – that’s powerful.

Best comedy: This goes to an underdog, The Comedy of Errors. The twins/mistaken identity plot is at once hilarious and disturbing. 

Best tragedy: King Lear. Once I found my personal connection to the play, I’ve been haunted by the idea of Lear witnessing himself lose his own mind ever since. 

Best history: Henry IV Part I. It’s a time machine back to Merrie England and Shakespeare at his bawdy best, but not without darker undertones.

Best romance: Another underdog, Cymbeline. I know The Tempest is the more canonical choice, but Cymbeline, in all of its odd plots twists, I found more transportive.

Favorite line/passage: An impossible question, but here goes. I certainly linger longest on Shakespeare’s expressions of the fleeting nature of our lives. Lord Hastings in 2 Henry IV: “We are time’s subjects” (1.3.110). Edmund in King Lear: “The wheel is come full circle! I am here” (5.3.173). Hamlet: “That skull had a tongue in it and could sing once” (5.1.70). Prospero in The Tempest: “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep” (4.1.156-58). But the top prize has to go to Macbeth: “It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing” (5.5.25-26). It’s dark, I know, but it’s very dramatic. Its language is vivid, its music forceful, its metaphor appropriately theatrical, and its sense, ultimately, ironic: In spite of its nihilism, the line’s poetry does have meaning. That I’m still shaken by it over 400 years after Shakespeare wrote it – that’s powerful.

Most difficult play to read: Troilus and Cressida. I had a very hard time with the long monologues in this play. Also, the pacing was lagging. Runners-up: The Rape of Lucrece and his first 18 sonnets. *Shudder.*

Most accessible play: Julius Caesar. We know the story. We know its famous lines. It reads quick. It drives its themes home. Bonus: prophesies, dreams, and ghosts. Just after I started Shakespeare Confidential, my father-in-law, who is the first to admit he’s no Shakespeare scholar, asked me to recommend a play when I finished. It’s this one, Tim.

Desert island play: Nobody wants to be stuck inside Hamlet’s head for the rest of their lives. I’m going with Henry IV, as long as I get to bring both parts. There’s so much humanity in this play.

Least favorite play: As much as Love’s Labour’s Lost irks me, Measure for Measure was meh. It just didn’t do all that much for me.

And now for the big one. Drum roll, please.

Favorite play:

Let’s try this again. Drum roll.

Favorite play:

Gah! “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” I’m just not ready.

***

When I think back on all I’ve read, a funny, and frustrating, thing happens: It’s like I can’t remember anything at all. All of Shakespeare becomes one giant blur. I re-thumb through the hundreds of the pages I read. I scroll through every title. And yet I struggle to call up character names, plots, lines. As You Like It bleeds into All’s Well That Ends Well. The histories rewrite themselves. “These violent delights have violent ends” issues from King Lear, not Romeo and Juliet. I forget Pericles even exists until I review the spreadsheet I used to track my progress. Concerned by my amnesia, I even tested myself with a few online quizzes – you know, one of those Think You’re the Ultimate Bardolater? Match the Quote with the Play. 7/8 on one. Not horrible. 20/30 on another. Zwounds. 

Now, I didn’t take on this project to become a Shakespeare encyclopedia, dazzling people with an apt allusion at a dinner party or dispensing a comforting quote upon some trying occasion. Nor did I take it on to become an expert, parsing arcane discrepancies between Quarto and Folio editions or waxing historical on Elizabethan sumptuary codes and the role of the costumed self in Shakespeare’s early comedies. Plus, reading so many plays back to back – the blur is understandable. Still, being able to drop a few verses would be nice.

Are these even Shakespeare’s details? Or are they mine? Maybe they’re ours now. Maybe they belong to both of us.

But what does emerge from the fog are these little trivial details. The dogeared page of a book. Sadness over the death of a deer. Love notes left on trees. A grocery list. Underskinkers and ostlers. A wrestling match. The strawberry pattern of a handkerchief. A king who wished he didn’t have to bring work home. A joke about Welshmen loving cheese. The word butt-shaft. The word welkin. A singular reference to America. The names of taverns and the drinks served there. That executioners got to keep their victims’ clothes. That vision was believed possible because the eyes emitted light. That sighing was thought to draw blood away from the heart and shortened one’s life. 

At first, I can’t place any of these bits and pieces. I can’t remember which play they come from. Am I just imagining them? Did I read them somewhere else? Were they residue from some dream I had? Did I dislodge them from some deep memory?

Are these even Shakespeare’s details? Or are they mine? Maybe they’re ours now. Maybe they belong to both of us. And maybe these little details aren’t so trivial after all.

***

I have learned some lessons. Or rather, one big one, if I’m so brazen to boil Shakespeare’s 38 plays and immeasurable cultural legacy down to a single takeaway:

Our egos cause a lot of problems, sometimes comic, sometimes tragic. Because we want sex, power, and fame. Because we to be right and to be loved. Because we want to matter, because we know we’re going to die. And it takes a hell of a lot of love and humility to override our egos. But we usually fail. People suffer and die, often ourselves. We repent. We reconcile. We go on, cleaning up our messes and telling stories and singing songs about where we’ve been. We promise we won’t repeat our mistakes but the Fools know we can’t really help ourselves.

Scenes end, but the play never does. “All the world’s a stage / And all the men and women mere players,” Jaques famously says in As You Like It.They have their exits and entrances, / And one man in his time plays many parts” (2.7.138-41).

I don’t think my Big Conclusion is terribly profound or original. Nor do I think any of it’s exclusive to the Bard. It’s Story. It’s Humanity. It’s World.

Am I smarter for this? Am I wiser? Did The Taming of the Shrew make me a better husband? Did All’s Well That Ends Well make me a better brother? Did King Lear make me a better son? Did Othello or Henry VIII put past hurts to rest? Did Hamlet ease present anxieties? I don’t know.

After reflecting on my past year play by play, Shakespeare has become a habit, a reflex, a coping mechanism, a meditation practice, a frame of reference.

But I do feel heavier, fuller. My 2016 was a busy one, from moving into a new profession to moving to another country to moving into new places in my relationships, every change filtered through, processed through, Shakespeare. Rocky moments in my marriage are synonymous with The Taming of the Shrew. Feelings of fading friendships are Henry IV Part II. Hamlet is Christmas and New Year’s 2016. King Lear is my grandfather, nearing 100 somewhere in Cleveland on a nursing home bed, trapped in the dark expanse of his own mind.

I carry so much Shakespeare around with me now.

And yet at the same time I feel so much lighter and freer. Arguments and anxieties, inadequacies and insecurities, fears and failures that I lug around, like those cumbersome Norton Shakespeare volumes, no matter where I move to – these I’ve unloaded onto Shakespeare. Twelfth Night and Pericles have to help shoulder my imposter syndrome. Richard III has to deal with my body image issues, Henry VIII my parents’ divorce, Othello that dark D.C. night. Shakespeare shares the burden of my neuroses.

After reflecting on my past year play by play, Shakespeare has become a habit, a reflex, a coping mechanism, a meditation practice, a frame of reference. If I have a rough stretch freelancing and question my purpose, my adequacy: I call up Hamlet. If I have a bad fight with my wife and need some perspective: marital counseling in the Comedies. It’s grounding, it’s comforting that he’s there.

I read myself Shakespeare. I read Shakespeare in me. I wrote myself into Shakespeare. I wrote Shakespeare into me.

***

From his impact on our literature to his infiltration in our everyday language, Shakespeare, of course, has permeated our collective consciousness – and not just what it means to be well-educated, well-read, or well-cultured. Over the past 400 years, his work, both on its own terms and because we so privilege it, has steeped what we think art is, what drama is for, what language can do, what it means to be human.

I feel closer to Shakespeare. Not the playwright, not the entrepreneur, not Shakespeare the cultural institution and larger-than-life-idea we’ve created today. But Shakespeare the person, getting along the best way he knew how: scratching out one little word at a time.

Over this past year, his work also saturated my individual consciousness. My Big Conclusion, in all of its banality, was an education in Story, in World, Humanity. But now I’ve read everything Shakespeare had to say about it. I’ve met all his characters. I’ve visited all his settings. I’ve come along on all his plots. I’ve listened to all his voices, his comments, his puns, his jokes, his expressions of love and suffering. I’ve experienced all of his particular take on Story, World, Humanity – and all of his details swirl and slosh and jostle and jump around in my head, leaving their impressions as they bump into and bounce off my memories, my feelings, my sense of self, my thought patterns, my particular take on Story, Humanity, World.

And so I also feel closer. I don’t think I ‘get’ Shakespeare better. I don’t think I understand his work, his craft, his legacy, his truths more profoundly than anyone else. I’ve just spent so much time with him, really. If I had to call up a single image of this whole experience, it’d be me sitting at my black IKEA desk in the spare room of our house in Dublin, the soft glow of my desktop lamp illuminating the long and Bible-thin pages of a Norton volume, using its weight to keep open my notebook as I jotted down some interesting word, feeling, when it was very quiet and still and late, that I wasn’t alone, as if that word was a direct portal to the same letters Shakespeare inked down on a piece of parchment, lit from the fire in the kitchen of his house in Stratford-Upon-Avon so many years ago.

“May way is to conjure you,” says Rosalind in the epilogue in As You Like It (l. 9).

This communion makes me feel closer to Shakespeare. Not the playwright, not the entrepreneur, not Shakespeare the cultural institution and larger-than-life-idea we’ve created today. But Shakespeare the person, getting along the best way he knew how: scratching out one little word at a time.

Thirty-eight plays, some odd poems, and 365 days later (well, 361), I’ve read the complete works of William Shakespeare, but I don’t yet feel complete. I think I might reread As You Like It sometime soon.  That one’s my favorite play. At least this time through.

Sibling rivalries: As You Like It

Brothers will always wrestle – in one form or another.

My brother gripped my arms and twisted me to the ground. On my way down, I crashed into and through set of doors. That’s when our father came down. “What are you guys doing down here?”

We caught our breaths. We wiped sweat from our brows. Our faces were red from exertion. He had taken off his shirt. I rubbed my arms, chafing from rug burn and dinged up in my fall.

“Everything’s OK, Dad,” my brother answered. “We’re just, uh, doing some wrestling.”

“At two in the morning? It sounds like an orgy!” His tone was bemused. I like to imagine our fraternal roughhousing was as nostalgic for him as it was for my brother and me. Seldom are the times when we all sleep under the same roof. Long past are the days when any late-night horseplay roused the sleeping patriarch.

“You brought the whole bottle down here?” My father pointed to the Maker’s Mark on the coffee table, which we pushed aside to make extra room for our inebriated and impromptu wrestling match in the basement guest suite at my father’s house. We had already polished off a special – and expensive – bottle of scotch he bought for our Christmas celebrations this year. Naturally, we moved onto bourbon. This, too, was a brand-new bottle purchased for the occasion.

“We’ll knock it off,” I assured.

He went back upstairs. The two of us laughed, took swigs of whiskey, and assumed our crouched stances.

***

“All the world’s a stage,” the gloomy nobleman Jaques famously muses in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. “And all the men and women merely players” (2.7.138-39). While a thematic obsession throughout his corpus, this comedy particularly plays with the theater of social identity.

It’s a brilliant and rewarding romantic comedy, but I was particularly struck by its attention to one particular social role in its cast of characters: being a brother.

As You Like It isn’t a busy play. Set almost entirely in a French forest, it features the romance of Orlando and Rosalind. Duke Frederick sets the play in motion after he usurps and banishes his younger brother, Duke Senior. Meanwhile, Orlando, the abused younger brother of Oliver, takes on Frederick’s wrestler and wins. At the match, he falls in love with Rosalind, Senior’s daughter and sister-like friend to his own daughter, Celia. Feeling threatened by Rosalind, Frederick banishes her. She, with Celia, flees to the forest, where Orlando has also fled to escape threats from the duke – and on his life from his own brother. Duke Senior likewise has taken refuge in the same woods. To flee, Rosalind disguises herself as a man, calling herself Ganymede, and Celia as a lowly rustic, Aliena.  (Adding to the comedy, of course, is that both women were played by men on Shakespeare’s stage, making them men posing as women posing as men.)

In the forest, Ganymede encounters a lovesick Orlando, whom, ironically, she mentors in wooing Rosalind – herself. Duke Frederick then comes searching for his daughter in the woods. So, too, Oliver to finish off his brother, but he changes his minds after Orlando saves his life. Duke Frederick also changes heart and restores his brother to his rightful rule. True to the pastoral genre, all real identities are revealed in the end. All disorder is ordered. All separated are (re)united, including Rosalind and Orlando, who marry.

As You Like It also features a wonderful clown, Touchstone; folk songs of historical note; some curious early animal rights activism; the jaded and melancholy monologues of Jaques; and the only known epilogue delivered by a woman (though, again, played by a man) in Elizabethan theater. It’s a brilliant and rewarding romantic comedy, but I was particularly struck by its attention to one particular social role in its cast of characters: being a brother.

***

Let’s take Oliver and Orlando. Oliver, the older brother, inherits his father’s estate, but he detests his younger brother, depriving him a gentleman’s education – not to mention trying to kill him. He explains his irrational hatred:

I hope I shall see the end of him, for my soul – yet I know not why – hates nothing more than he. Yet he’s gentle; never schooled, and yet learned; full of noble device; of all sorts enchantingly beloved; and indeed, so much in the heart of the world, and especially of my own people, who best know him, that I am altogether misprized. But it shall not be so long. (1.1.139-45)

Duke Frederick, the younger brother, is similarly jealous and tyrannical, as one of his attendants explains:

The other is daughter to the banished Duke,
And here detained by her usurping uncle
To keep his daughter company, whose loves
Are dearer than the natural bond of sisters.
But I can tell you that of late this Duke
Hath ta’en displeasure ‘gainst his gentle niece,
Grounded upon no other argument
But that the people praise her for her virtues
And pity her for her good father’s sake. (1.2.240-48)

Now, Oliver and Frederick’s actions are extreme. This, in part, ignites the plot and adds fuel to the comedic fire. But I think all brothers and sisters can relate to their reasons: sibling rivalry. And while he doesn’t directly grapple with his brother, Orlando’s match with Duke Frederick’s wrestler, Charles, perfectly encapsulates fraternal competition.

***

I am the youngest of three brothers. My oldest is six years my senior. My middle brother, my wrestling opponent, four. The three of us are very close, thanks in large part to my parent’s divorce, I think. We sought refuge in each other – like the forest sanctuary in As You Like It – during the shared trial. We still process it nearly 25 years later. In spite of it, good parenting, and perhaps our native personalities, helped to bond us especially tightly.

The forest is a place where true selves are liberated from their social constructions and meditations, where brothers can put aside their rivalries, meeting not in competition but in play.

But we’ve also wrestled over the years. I wrestled especially with my middle brother.  Growing up, he’d let me tag along with his friends after school. He’d watch after me on playgrounds. We’d share rooms, beds. Years later, cigarettes, drinks, dreams – and not a few insecurities that only affinity and intimacy can set off.

He made a snarky comment one Christmas Eve dinner when we were both in our twenties, or at least I very near it. I accidentally poured too much sauce onto some meat. “You want some steak with that sauce?” he teased me.

“Why do you have to comment on everything I do?” I snapped. He hit a nerve. I overreacted. From there, well, let’s just say we ruined dinner.

Now both in our thirties, I hit my own nerve just the other day. He was in a rough patch but I still preachily niggled him over some self-exaggerated affront. “Why do you always think you’re better than me?” he said. Er, shouted. I pushed his buttons. But that’s siblings: We go postal over the pettiest slights, feeling in their inconsequence the blood-thickest of import.

But just as we erupt like H-bombs, so do siblings forgive and forget. Shouts and curses hotter than Satan’s own fire and brimstone quickly cool off with apologies and affections.

Here’s how Oliver comes back to his senses. Slowly revealing his identity by referring to himself in the third-person, he relates, with shame and humility, how his brother saves his life when he’s asleep in the woods:

…About his neck
A green and gilded snake had wreathed itself,
Who with her head, nimble in threats, approached
The opening of his mouth. But suddenly
Seeing Orlando, it unlinked itself,
And with indented glides did slip away
Into a bush, under which bush’s shade
A lioness, with udders all drawn dry,
Lay crouching, head on ground, with catlike watch
When that the sleeping man should stir. For ’tis
The royal disposition of that beast
To prey on nothing that doth seem as dead.
This seen, Orlando did approach the man
And found it was his brother, his elder brother…
Twice did he turn his back, and purposed so.
But kindness, nobler ever than revenge,
And nature, stronger than his just occasion,
Made him give battle to the lioness,
Who quickly fell before him…(4.3.106-30)

Orlando rescues his brother, though he did think about leaving him to the lion. Twice. (Brothers.)

As for Duke Frederick, he apparently has a sudden religious awakening. As Jaques reports:

Duke Frederick, learning how that every day
Men of great worth resorted to this forest,
Addressed a mighty power, which were on foot,
In his own conduct purposely to take
His brother here, and put him to the sword.
And to the skirts of this wild wood he came
Where, meeting with an old religious man,
After some question with him was converted
Both from his enterprise and from the world,
His crown bequeathing to his banished brother,
And all their lands restored to them again
That were with him exiled. (5.4.143-54)

Oliver and Ferdinand’s seismic metanoia might seem like some incredulous plot device serving only to drive the play’s climactic unions. But for all its convenience, their changes thicken the symbolism of the forest in the play. The woods are a dangerous place where lions and snakes lurk. Mysterious, hermitic spiritualists find home there, too. It’s a place of hunger, as we see many characters complaining of appetites as ravenous as its skulking beasts’. It’s a place of disguise and magic. It’s a place of transformation, of wildness and authenticity, removed from the political artifices, vanities, crises, and considerations of the city and the court. A place where true selves are revealed, re-calibrated. Liberated, even, from their social constructions and meditations, where brothers can put aside their rivalries, meeting not in competition but in play.

***

The next morning, we slept late. Remarkably, neither of us rubbed our foreheads for as much as we boozed. But we did rub our arms and shoulders and thighs. We aren’t such young men anymore.

“I had you in a couple of pins last night,” my brother bragged.

“You didn’t pin me. I wriggled out of each one.”

“Dude, I threw you through a set of doors.”

“And you called it a night right as I had you pressed on the ground.”

We aren’t such young men anymore, but we are brothers – and brothers will always wrestle in one form or another.