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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Or so I thought.

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Here are some highlights from each of the plays:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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