Completions and communions

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

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.

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.