Mothers of self-invention

I had a pulled a Shakespeare: Where was my mother?

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I issued the usual complaint to my wife: “I don’t know what to write about.”

Henry VIII was in the books but no inspiration was coming to me. I had come down with a bad case of PPMD: Post-play Moping Disorder. Symptoms include: writer’s block, acute unoriginality, sore purpose, intellectual nausea, and mild gas.

“Your mother,” she said.

“Huh? My mother?”

“You haven’t written about your mother.”

She was right. I had written about my stepmother. I had written about my brothers. About my father and grandfather. About old friends and new friends. I had written on many occasions about my wife (and our many arguments). I had called up grade-school teachers and past girlfriends. I had even dedicated a whole post to my dog.

But my mother? She was nowhere to be found.

I had pulled a Shakespeare.

***

What happened to Queen Lear? In The Tempest, why don’t we hear about Miranda’s mother? Desdemona’s father plays a major part in Othello, but what about her mom? So too with The Taming of the Shrew. We hear about Portia’s father in The Merchant of Venice but not his counterpart. Titus Andronicus has a whole brood of children (25 at one point) but no mention of their mum. Nada, zilch, squat on Prince Hal’s mother from what I recall in Henry IVmaybe that’s why he was acting out. As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, Cymbeline. The list goes on.

In so many of Shakespeare’s plays, mothers are conspicuously absent.

And some of the mothers he does feature aren’t exactly getting a call on Mother’s Day. The un-bereaved Gertrude in Hamlet? The vengeful Tamora in Titus Andronicus? Distant Lady Capulet in Romeo and Juliet? Even Lady Macbeth. When she’s laying into her husband for lacking cojones to kill King Duncan, she suggests she once had a child:

…I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me.
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn
As you have done to this. (1.7.54-59).

When there are strong mothers, they’re often vilified: King Leontes tyrannizes Queen Hermione in A Winter’s Tale and Queen Margaret, whose hard-nosed leadership is viewed as too masculine, is deemed unnatural in Henry VI. Volumnia in Coriolanus, meanwhile, strikes many critics as over-mothering to the point of warmongering.

What gives, Shakespeare? What do you have against moms? People like to joke Shakespeare’s absent wives and queens divorced their husbands long before Act I. Take Prospero, who spent all his time reading magic books, and you can imagine King Lear was pretty controlling. Would you stick around for these two? (I think I should hide these two plays from my own wife.)

But jokes aside, was Shakespeare short on talent? Young boys played female characters on the Elizabethan stage; perhaps they weren’t seen as believable in the role of adult women. Or was Shakespeare just heavy on patriarchy? Wives, sadly, were largely relegated to the private sphere in Shakespeare’s day, thereby removing them from the public action that drives the plots of his plays.

One of his most women-centric plays, case in point, is a domestic comedy: The Merry Wives of Windsor (Mistress Margaret Page has a daughter and a son). But the wives, you may recall, hilariously outwit the lusty Falstaff and have some good clean fun at their husbands’ expense. Perhaps Shakespeare was actually pushing the Renaissance husband-wife/father-mother envelope, even if just a skosh?

***

And what’s my excuse, you ask? I’m putting the question right back on you: Do you think the likes of Lady Macbeth in any way makes me think of my dear mother?! Well, a few glasses of chardonnay in, my mother does like to joke of my birth: “They pulled you from my womb. They pulled you from my body.” That’s kind of Lady Macbeth-level graphic, isn’t it? I can hear one of my brothers bellowing: “Mom, c’mon! That’s gross!”

Maybe Shakespeare didn’t write mothers into his plays because he got along with his mother.

The truth is, I chased Shakespeare’s emotional ambulances. Conflict is my way into his plays. Conflict is essential to any good story, my writing here included. And conflict is something, other than me being occasionally too judgmental of her when we talk on the phone, that my mother and I, fortunately, haven’t experienced much of.

Maybe Shakespeare didn’t write mothers into his plays because he also got along with his mother.

***

Mary Shakespeare, née Arden, came from some money and status. Shakespeare’s father, John, was a farmer’s son. Mary married down. Did she marry for love, for fulfillment? Did she exercise more choice and will than your typical Elizabethan woman?

I also can’t help but wonder how Mary and John reacted when young Bill said he was going into theater. I’m sure you can hear it today, too, when one tells their parents, oh, I don’t know, you’re quitting your job to read the complete works of Shakespeare.

But maybe Mary was supportive. Maybe Shakespeare modeled one of his best mothers, the caring but fair Countess in All’s Well That Ends Well, after his own. The advice she gives to her (ungrateful) son Bertram as he’s going abroad is something every son should heed today:

Be thou blessed, Bertram, and succeed thy father
In manners as in shape. Thy blood and virtue
Contend for empire in thee, and thy goodness
Share with thy birthright. Love all, trust a few,
Do wrong to none. Be able for thine enemy
Rather in power than use, and keep thy friend
Under thy own life’s key. Be checked for silence
But never taxed for speech…(1.1.54-61)

I’ve revisited this passage several times since finishing the play. In part because I find her advice so pure, wise, simple, and true. In part because I find it remarkable Shakespeare left us such lucid moral instruction. And in part because I hear the guidance my own mother has always provided me at crossroads in my life: “Follow your heart.”

***

I’ve often struggled with her words. A lot of times, I didn’t know how to listen to my heart. I didn’t know what it was trying to tell me. Other times, I just wanted someone else to make the big decision for me. And, to be honest, I’ve struggled with them because she’s said them so damned often – you I know I love you, Mom – that they just lost all their meaning. They’re like a truism, a verbal tic.

Following one’s heart: That requires self-invention. And there’s nothing more Shakespearean than that.

But something I never considered until I thought about Shakespeare’s mothers was: Why those words? Why that expression? Why that particular advice? Why did my mother always tell me to follow my heart?

There were times in her life, I think, when she wasn’t allowed to follow her heart, perhaps restricted like a Renaissance mother. Then there came a point when she could. This shift, this freedom, though born of painful circumstance, let her reinvent herself, who she is, what she could be, what could she do.

Following one’s heart: That requires self-invention. And there’s nothing more Shakespearean than that.

My mother pulled a Shakespeare – a proper Shakespeare.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can be such a Bertram.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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