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. 

What Richard III taught me about my nipples

Richard III was a horrible man, but he does have a thing or two to teach us about our struggles with body image.

They called Richard III “crookback.” But if I were an evil, Shakespearean villain, I think they’d call me “pointy nipples.” Case in, er, point:

The other day, I greeted my wife when she got home from work. She took one quick look at me and laughed.

“What?” I asked.

“Your shirt! Just – take a look in the mirror.”

I presented my plain, purple T-shirt to the bathroom mirror. It presented back three white spots about the size of silver dollars: one over each of my nipples, the third over my belly button.

“It’s the shirt!” I defended from the bathroom with all the whininess of a post-pool George Costanza. “The color’s fading!”

“No, I can actually see your right nipple. It’s sticking out through the shirt,” my wife fact-checked. “It’s so not the shirt. It’s this.” She imitated this, well, behavior of mine. One hand rubbed the ball of her thumb over her chest, the other a few her fingers over her stomach. ““Oh my God, I hope you’re not wearing it in public.”

“It’s one of those cheap Mossimo shirts I got from Target,” I insisted as I ran up the stairs to the bedroom. I closed the door, took off the shirt, and confronted it. Face-to-face. The three, white, threadbare circles stared back at me like some cruel, mocking emoji. Is this why the barista was giving me a funny look at the café the other day?

I had never ruined a shirt before with this nervous, self-conscious touching of my chest and stomach, but I can’t say I’m all that surprised. I’ve been waging war against my torso – my nipples being key targets – since I was a chubby preteen. See, I’ve always felt that – God, I can’t believe I’m sharing this – that I looked thinner when my nipples were hard. In my twisted thinking, harder means smaller, smaller means skinnier, and skinnier means better.

But I think we all have these tics in one shape or another. Hell, even old crookback Richard III – Shakespeare’s most villainous of villains – could relate to these neuroses of body image.

Continue reading “What Richard III taught me about my nipples”

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.

Shake well: The Tragedy of Julius Caesar

Maybe I am misreading this whole “greatness” thing.

Greatness, I think to myself as I crouch down in the dressing aisle of the grocery store.

It’s just after 9:00am in the middle of the work week. I’ve dropped my wife off at her office and am picking up some odds and ends for the house since I’m already out.

It takes me a minute to find the dressing I’m looking for. There are so many brands. Each brand has so many flavors. Each flavor comes in so many options. Original. Low fat. Fat free.

I do this often at the grocery store. I marvel at all the Greek yogurt we can buy. I find myself in awe of the many kinds of tortilla chips for sale. Today, I stand before this bottled shrine to salad, one of our many temples erected to honor one of our great capitalist gods, Choice. We have so much choice. I, for one, sacrifice my ability to make a decision at its altar.

I find Newman’s Own Caesar. There’s Caesar. There’s also Creamy Caesar. Et tu, Paule?

I stare at the labels, which feature the bust of the brand’s namesake, actor Paul Newman. He’s wearing a laurel wreath. Like Caesar wore – and not just as a symbol of triumph. I recently read in Mary Beard’s SPQR that the wreath also covered up a bald spot. Greatness, I think.

Creamy Caesear – Version 2It’s $3.49 with my Ralph’s card. That seems a bit high, I start debating with myself. But all proceeds go to charity. Julius Caesar did a lot for the Roman poor,  I recall. Still, I’m not bringing in any money since I’ve quit my job to write and we’ve already got plenty of olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette at home.

I realize I’ve starting debating myself out loud. I look around. Except for an elderly couple slowly pushing a cart at the end of the aisle, the store is practically empty at 9:00am, of course. No one hears me.

And this is what scares me.

***

Since reading The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, my third play for Shakespeare Confidential, I’ve been thinking a lot about greatness.

It’s hard not to think about greatness after this play. It’s centered on a great man, for one. Aiding administration and agriculture, Julius Caesar left behind the Julian calendar and the month of July, both named for him. He also reformed the Roman government, including centralization and social programs. His military conquests vastly expanded the reach of the Roman Republic, which his ascendancy – and subsequent assassination – transformed into the Roman Empire. He was a pretty good writer, too.

A technocratic commander who helps the poor? Democrats, Republicans, and Independents would all hail: Caesar 2016! His campaign slogan would surely be Venimus, vidimus, vicimus. I don’t think libertarians and the Tea Party would support his constitutional interpretations, though; evangelists would balk at his paganism. And then there’s that whole dictator thing.

OK, but how do we really remember his greatness? Mention Julius Caesar to most people and they’ll say, “Et tu, Brute?” “You too, Brutus?”

He didn’t even say those words.

***

Alright, a synopsis (or, if that’s, er, Greek to you, a summary):

It’s 44 B.C. Julius Caesar has just defeated the sons of an old enemy, Pompey. He returns to Rome, triumphant, but is famously warned to beware the ides of March (March 15). Mark Antony offers to crown Caesar as king; Cesar refuses, 3 times, in fact, followed by an epileptic seizure. Meanwhile, Cassius compels a conflicted Brutus (once allies of Caesar) and other senators to conspire against his “ambitions,” which threaten to turn the Roman Republic into Caesar’s empire.

On the level of imagery and language, I am particularly struck by the way Shakespeare develops this idea of interpretation throughout the play. Its characters are constantly reading faces and deciphering omens – and often incorrectly.

On a stormy night when lions roam the street and men walk on fire, Caesar’s wife has a portentous dream, but Caesar ultimately disregards it and heads to the Capitol. There, he’s assassinated – stabbed 33 times, in fact. (It all happens pretty quickly in the play; Caesar’s killed in 3.1.) Brutus allows Mark Antony to speak at Caesar’s funeral, and his oratory rouses the populace, especially when he notes that Caesar willed money to the people.

A civil war breaks about between the second triumvirate – Antony, this dude Lepidus, and Octavius, Caesar’s great-nephew and adoptive son – and Brutus and Cassius. Caesar’s ghost appears to Brutus and warns him he will see him again at the the Battle of Philippi, where Brutus and Cassius take on Antony and Octavius.

Before battle, Brutus and Cassius fight about money (and virtue), and Brutus reveals his wife has committed suicide. Cue the tragic bloodbath. During battle, Cassius thinks his friend, Titinius gets captured, although Titinius is actually only celebrating a victory their side achieved. Cassius has his servant kill him, Titinius then kills himself after discovering so, and Brutus, seeing Cassius, falls on the sword his servant holds out for him. Antony marks his death by honoring Brutus’s noble virtue.

The play, which some believe to be the first staged on the Globe in 1599, is relatively short and the action fast. And Shakespeare certainly takes liberties with history for dramatic purposes.

***

Julius Caesar is also a great play by another great man: Shakespeare. Even if you desperately avoid the Bard, you can’t run from some of this play’s lines. I mean, it’s incredible.

Et tu, Brute“? As far as we can tell, Caesar never actually said these words. Not even the great Shakespeare said them.

“Beware the ides of March” (Soothsayer, 1.2.19). Shakespeare did it.

“He doth bestride the narrow world / Like a Colossus, and we petty men / Walk under his huge legs, and peep about / To find ourselves dishonourable graves” (Cassius, 1.2.136-39). Shakespeare did it.

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings” (Cassius, 1.2.141-42). Shakespeare. Same monologue as quoted above.

“…it was Greek to me.” (Casca, 1.2.278) Yep, Shakespeare.

The above lines, now idioms in the English language, come from 1.2 alone.

“I am as constant as the Northern Star…” (Caesar, 3.1.60)

“Cry ‘havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war…” (Antony, 3.1.276)

“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.” (Antony, 3.2.70)

“The evil that men do lives after them; / The good is oft interred with their bones.” (Antony, 3.2.72-73).

“But Brutus says he was ambitious, / And Brutus is an honourable man.” (Antony, 3.2.83-84).

By the way, Antony orates these last three quotes in a single speech.

And oh yeah, as Caesar famously utters upon his assassination: “Et tu, Brute?” (3.1.76) As far as we can tell, Caesar never actually said these words. We believe he either said nothing at all or said to Brutus in Greek: “Kai su, teknon?” “You too, my child?” The precise meaning is up for interpretation.

Also as far as we can tell, Shakespeare didn’t say them up either, although we can probably thank him for keeping these already popular words popular today.

Not even the great Shakespeare said them. Et tu, Gulielme?

***

Julius Caesar engages great themes. As developed by his words throughout the play, he pits “ambition” (3.2.26) against “virtue” (1.2.92), “conspiracy” (2.1.81) against “constancy,” “fear” (1.3.60) against “mettle” (1.2.303), “faults” (1.2.141) against “fates” (1.2.140), “tyranny” (3.1.77) against “liberty” (3.1.77).

What does it mean to be honorable and noble? How we are to interpret what it means to be “true Romans” (2.1.222)?

On the level of imagery and language, I am particularly struck by the way Shakespeare develops this idea of interpretation throughout the play. Its characters are constantly reading faces and deciphering omens – and often incorrectly. As Caesar asks after his wife, Calpurnia, shares her dream of a bloody, deathly Capitol: “What say the augerers?” (2.2.37)

Caesar has to read the soothsayer’s prophesy. He ignores it. Bad move.

Cassius reads Brutus’ internal conflict on his face. He exploits it.

Caesar reads a “lean and hungry look” on Cassius’ face. Should have acted.

Brutus, Casca, and Cassius have to interpret Caesar’s refusal of the crown and subsequent fainting. Showy and weak?

Brutus reads Cassius’ planted letter urging him to join the conspiracy against Caesar. Did you ask who really authored it, Brutus?

Artemidorus fails to get Caesar to read a letter exposing the assassination. Caesar, we’ve tried to help you so many times.

Brutus has to read the warning of Caesar’s ghost. Should have thought twice going into battle, Marcus.

Cassius reads auguries before the battle. He saw eagles, that’s good, then some lesser birds. Not so good.  He also has to determine from afar whether or not Titinius is captured. If you just waited a little longer, man.

And this is just the text of the play. How is Shakespeare interpreting Julius Caesar? How is he reading history? How do we interpret Shakespeare? How do we read history?

***

How do I read greatness?

The temple of dressings loom larger. I feel light-headed. My thoughts spin.

No one hears me talk to myself because most people are working. Here I am, talking to myself about Julius Caesar and salad dressing on my way back home to write at 9:00am in the morning. There are billions of people in the world, over a billion live in extreme poverty. Half of the people in the world don’t make in a day what this single bottle of dressing costs. Most working folk would be happy to get their shopping done when the store’s so empty. Who am I? Who am I? This is a true luxury, this is true privilege. But shouldn’t I then be taking better advantage of it? I’m an educator by trade; I’ve helped people, I’ve made differences. Yet look at what Caesar accomplished. True, I don’t aspire to power. Or being assassinated.

We don’t have control over our greatness. We don’t have control over how we’re remembered.

Look at what Shakespeare accomplished. I’m poring over his words – a whole industry of people pore over his words – 400 years after his death? And me? I just blog. I’ve never even made enough on my own writing to buy this bottle of Creamy Caesar. In one play surely he leaves us more genius lines than I can ever hope to in a lifetime. What does it mean to be something? Is this my motivation – to make it, to be great? Is to make it to be remembered? There are at least 200 different dressings I could buy right this minute. We only get about 80 years, who knows how many of them good, before we kick the bucket. What do we do with that time, with, if we’re lucky, all the choice we have in our lives? Yet Shakespeare didn’t even make an effort to compile or publish his plays. “What should be in that ‘Caesar’?”

Greatness.

Caesar and Shakespeare are remembered for words they didn’t even say. Et tu, Brute? We don’t have control over our greatness. We don’t have control over how we’re remembered. By sheer association, Caesar’s name lives on in a dressing he had nothing to do with. That’s credited to a Caesar Cardini in Tijuana, Mexico in 1924. Not that we remember that. I imagine even Paul Newman is probably known by many as the dressing guy, not as the award-winning actor and philanthropist.

It’s all up for interpretation.

“This was the noblest Roman of them all,” Antony remembers Brutus.

All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did envy in great Caesar.
He only in a general honest thought
And common good to all made on of them.
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mixed in him that nature might stand up
And say to all the world ‘This was a man’. (5.5.67-74)

I read the bottle of Creamy Caesar. Shake well! A good dressing, like the character of a man, has to be balanced, well-mixed.

Maybe I am misreading this whole greatness thing.

I put the dressing back on the shelf. I think I got more than $3.46 out of it.

I stand up. The blood returns to my head.

***

Using the force (of language): The Life of Henry the Fifth

Even if Shakespeare had all the effects at J. J. Abrams’ disposal, his most powerful weapon remains his words: “Your naked infants spitted upon pikes.”

“One for Star Wars, please,” I tell the ticket taker.

I like to imagine that some other John, over 400 years ago, stopped by his equivalent of Ralph’s at 2pm on a Tuesday to buy a Tetra Pak of cab sauv, which he snuck into an afternoon showing of Star Wars after eating cucumber avocado rolls in his Prius on his way to the theater.

See, I wasn’t able to write anything meaningful about The Life of Henry the Fifth (Henry V) at home. Naturally, I decided to day-drink at the movies.

In the name of writing.

***

I chose Henry V as my second read for my yearlong immersion in the complete works of Shakespeare.

For my first, I re-read The Taming of the Shrew. For the second, I thought I would tackle something new. Something difficult – for me at least. I have a blind spot for a few things: the stock market, calendars, monarchical lineages, remembering exactly what my wife does for work, following plots.

Shakespeare’s histories, I knew, would prove quite relevant to American politics today, crazy as the 2016 race has been already. Dynasties, outsiders, campaigns, costumes, power – and so much rhetoric and performance.

So, I flipped through my Norton Shakespeare: Histories and settled on Henry V.

Henry V and Star Wars both intermix the serious with the comic. Both follow a small squad defeating a massive army against impossible odds. Both have triumphant, if suggestive, endings. Both are underdog action flicks with sequel hooks, such are some of the enduring elements of narrative. And both have sabers, of a sort, too.

Blind spot confirmed: I have no mind for plots. As Katherine Maus makes clear in her introduction to the play in my Norton volume: “Shakespeare’s Henry V is the last written of a set of eight plays on medieval English history.” Shit. There are significant parts of Henry V that would have made much more sense – say, the death of Falstaff and why the French don’t take Henry seriously – if I had read the two parts of Henry IV.

But I kind of like it this way. We may study history chronologically in the classroom, but in life, we often come to know it in reverse, don’t we?

I bet a lot of people saw the new episode of Star Wars without having seen the first six.

***

I didn’t think Henry V and Star Wars would have a lot in common. I was wrong.

Sequels? Check. Prologues? Check. Actors speaking different varieties of English? Check. Men bragging about weapons and kills? Check. Traitors? Check. Political leaders engaging in direct combat? Check. Dudes getting the girl at the end? Check. Droids? Check. Er, that must have been the cab.

Seriously though, there are significant structural similarities. Henry V and Star Wars both intermix the serious with the comic. Both follow a small squad defeating a massive army against impossible odds. Both have triumphant, if suggestive, endings. They are underdog action flicks with sequel hooks, such are some enduring elements of narrative.

And both works have sabers, of a sort, too.

***

Basically, Henry V is the Battle of Agincourt. Citing some old legal technicalities, the Church assures Harry (Henry goes by Harry) that he has a claim to the French throne. The English mount an attack. Vastly outnumbered and underestimated by the French, they kick some serious ass, aided in no small part by Henry’s pep talks. Henry becomes heir to the French crown and marries the French princess, Catherine.

If I were at the Globe in 1599, I guess I’d be chanting HARRY! HARRY! HARRY! at the curtain call.

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The Battle of Agincourt, October 25, 1415. Do you know which are the English? Image from Wikimedia Commons.

There are subplots, too, featuring traitors, lowly plunderers, feisty Welsh, Irish, and Scottish captains, cocky French nobles, the French princess’ hilarious English lesson, and some theatrical time travel.

All in all, the play’s a triumph for Harry, the once reckless youngster now a proven leader – “the strawberry grows underneath the nettle,” as Bishop Ely puts it well in 1.1.61. Of course, I would have better understood his transformation had I first read the preceding histories.

But, as with all things Shakespeare, the play’s more complicated than that. Its Chorus sounds a darker final note as it looks ahead to future military losses, casting a shadow on Harry’s success.

***

“Tennis balls, my liege.”

In 1.2, the French ambassador presents to the English nobles a treasure chest, the Dauphin’s response to England’s claims on the French throne. Harry asks his uncle, Exeter, to see what’s inside. Exeter answers: “Tennis balls, my liege” (1.2.258).

The French don’t take Harry seriously, his youthful indiscretions still tainting his reputation. It’s an incredible insult. It’s an incredible line. “Tennis balls, my liege.” Did Mel Brooks write this?

After serving up an elaborate tennis simile, Harry responds:

…tell the pleasant Prince this mock of his
Hath turned his balls to gunstones, and his soul
Shall stand sore charged for the wasteful vengeance
That shall fly from them–for many a thousand widows
Shall this his mock mock out of their dear husbands,
Mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down;
Ay, some are yet ungotten and unborn
That shall have cause to curse the Dauphin’s scorn. (1.2.281-88)

Do not mock King Harry. My goodness.

As I was reflecting on this scene, I realized that this is what has really stayed with me from the play: Harry’s language.

***

If you haven’t read or seen Henry V, you still probably know two of its most famous lines: “Once more unto the breach” (3.1.1) and “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” (4.3.60).

King Henry does some legendary rallying in the play. Let’s put these quotes in context.

In the first, Harry is rousing his men as they siege the port city of Harfleur in Normandy, France:

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more,
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility,
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger.
Stiffen the sinews, conjure up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favoured rage. (3.1.1-8)

Closing up the hole in their defenses with dead soldiers. Wow. What an image.

The second comes from Henry’s St. Crispin’s Day speech (the Battle of Agincourt took place on that feast day). In the following excerpt, Harry again rallies his men, greatly outnumbered by the French:

This story shall the good man teach his son,
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by
From this day to the ending of the world
But we in it shall be remembered,
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition.
And gentlemen in England now abed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day. (4.3.56-67)

Coach Taylor and Braveheart definitely learned a thing or two from King Henry.

And apparently Republican presidential candidate, Senator Ted Cruz. Taking a break from building their Supreme Court case to end the Florida recount during the 2000 election, members of President George W. Bush’s legal team, including then-policy adviser Cruz, joined hands and read the St. Crispin’s Day speech.

What an image.

***

So yes, Henry delivers incredible battle speeches. His words still inform that sense of fraternity – of a self-sacrificing manliness, of a larger-than-oneself camaraderie – that many modern soldiers (and other tight-knit teams) still experience. It still imbues concepts of patriotism, service, and national identity.

And we like to romanticize it. Politicians even like to capitalize on it.

President Obama takes a lot of flak for not sounding tough enough when he addresses ISIS. Many ridicule him for not calling these terrorists “radical Islamists.” And even if he did talk like Harry, Obama still probably wouldn’t please his critics.

But King Harry knows a thing or too about the loneliness of the office.

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King Henry V. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

There’s this amazing moment in the play. In disguise, King Henry talks to some common soldiers, who think he’s just a fellow fighter. Knowing that the numbers are against them and they may thus lose their lives in vain, the soldiers question the King’s leadership. One, Williams, argues the King may even be responsible for the souls of the slain: “But if the cause be not good, the King himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle shall join together at the latter day…” (4.1.128-31). He’s referring to Judgment Day.

There’s much more to the scene, but, when the soldiers leave the stage, King Henry soliloquizes on the great burden placed “Upon the King”:

‘Let us our lives, our souls, our debts, our care-full wives,
Our children, and our sins, lay on the King.’
We must bear all. O hard condition,
Twin-born with greatness: subject to the breath
Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel
But his own wringing. What infinite heartease
Must kings neglect that private men enjoy?
And what have kings that privates have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?
And what art thou, thou idol ceremony? (4.1.212-22)

The president is our national lightning rod, but we have no idea how heavy the rain, how loud the thunder, how dark the skies of power can be.

But this, too, we like to romanticize. As King Harry observes: “I think the King is but a man” (4.1.99).  And in his courting of Catherine (his game is endearingly awkward), he humbly submits: “…take me, take a soldier; take a soldier, take a king” (5.2.160).

***

That’s so crazy to me now: unlike our modern leaders, Harry fought on the battlefield. Imagine Obama and Putin drawing longswords – some presidential candidates claim that this is how they’ll lead – instead of getting briefed by generals on data collected by drones in situation rooms.

There’s a brutal, physical, and personal violence that comes across so vividly in Harry’s language.

How warfare has changed. Heralds would deliver messages to the opposition in person. In the middle of fighting, parleys would sound so the two sides would cease fighting to negotiate. At the end of a battle, survivors, as the French Herald Montjoy does after the English win the Battle of Agincourt, would “wander o’er this bloody field / To book our dead and then to bury them…” (4.7.64-65). Imagine doing that body count.

Warfare was so direct and immediate. And is, no doubt, for soldiers – and civilians – who’ve experienced war no matter how it’s evolved, as it’s all too easy to forget as we are entertained by so much violence screened in the comfort of our multiplexes.

There’s a brutal, physical, and personal violence that comes across so vividly in Harry’s language. It’s actually pretty terrifying.

Before Agincourt, telling the Governour of Harfleur what he will do if he doesn’t surrender, Harry threatens:

The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,
And the fleshed soldier, rough and hard of heart,
In liberty of bloody hand shall range
With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass
Your fresh fair virgins and flow’ring infant. (3.3.87-91)

But he’s not done:

…–why, in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dashed to the walls;
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds, as the did the wives of Jewry
At Herod’s bloody-hunting slaughtermen.
What say you? Will you yield, and this avoid?
Or, guilty in defence, be thus destroyed? (3.3.110-20)

Holy shit. That is nuts. If I were the Governour of Harfleur, I’d be like, “Uh, yeah man. We’re good. We’re done here.”

***

In Henry V, we are told that body count yields ten thousand French slain, under 30 English.

That violence isn’t real to me. I don’t think we process violence in terms of the big battle or on such an epic scale. See, even if Shakespeare had all the effects at J. J. Abrams’ disposal, his most powerful weapon remains his words: “Your naked infants spitted upon pikes.”

This is the real power of Shakespeare’s language in Henry V. With these words, we are forced to imagine this disturbing scene.

This is the same reason why in The Force Awakens (yeah, I’m really making this connection) we are disturbed when the Jakku junk dealer offers 60 portions of food for the adorable droid, BB-8. We have to conjure up the little guy being scrapped.

I’m glad that warfare isn’t what it used to be, even if we still cling to long-held visions of heroism.  Way fewer people die. I don’t think there is anything more or less heroic about a leader killing enemies with his own hands than by ordering a drone strike.

So, sitting comfortably with boxed wine at a theater in Irvine, Calif., my feet kicked up on the back of the empty seats in front of me, watching the First Order (spoiler) literally blow up a whole star system, I couldn’t help but think how abstract violence has become.

That’s why terrorism is so scary. The violence is personal. Immediate, direct, real. We all have been eating at a cafe or a holiday party.

And that’s why saying things like “bombing the shit out of” or “carpet-bombing” – “once more unto the breach”? – a whole region is easy rhetoric. It’s abstract, far away, somewhere else. Yes, it sounds tough. But it doesn’t force us imagine the little kid returning from the market with some flour for his mom to make bread. It doesn’t force us to imagine the young soldier – a modern-day Williams – risking their life in vain.

***

Thanks to Harry’s language, at once mighty and menacing, my takeaways from Henry V feel muddied. Shakespeare loves to play in the mud.

But one thing’s for sure, though. Use the force – of language – wisely.