Completions and communions

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

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

I strutted straight over. Shakespeare.

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

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

Wait. I stepped off.

What do you got on me, Shakespeare?

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Favorite play:

Let’s try this again. Drum roll.

Favorite play:

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I carry so much Shakespeare around with me now.

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taking apart selves (and shelves): The Comedy of Errors

I’ve been thinking a lot about how things are put together as I take them apart.

Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors is the IKEA EXPEDIT   – well, now the KALLAX – shelving unit of his plays.

You know the one, black-brown with the 5×5 cubbies you can get those drawer-like inserts for. Every millennial apartment has one, or its 4×2 cousin in the very least.

We got an EXPEDIT a few years back when my wife and I moved from Cincinnati, OH to Minneapolis, MN. I remember putting it together in the room – the “den,” I called it, or the “library,” as my wife insisted – at the back of the house we rented, whose doors opened up to a backyard our dog, Hugo, would never do his business in.

IKEA furniture, we all know, is, pardon my French, already a bitch to assemble, but this big boy was a straight-up motherfucker to put together. Somehow, I constructed the behemoth by my lonesome, nearly crushing my fingers when I muscled it upright from the floor.

After about year, the shelf moved with us from Minneapolis to Laguna Beach, CA, where it became a centerpiece of our living room, its particleboard faded by the sunlight, brackish air, and neighbor’s secondhand smoke that constantly washed in through our windows. We were nervous when the movers got the shelf up the stairs to our apartment; if the doorframe were any shorter, the shelf would have gone to the curb.

It moved with us, too, about a year-and-a-half later from Laguna Beach to Irvine, CA. (My wife’s worked has afforded us a series of relocations, you must be wondering at this point, including our next big one overseas.) The movers had to strap it up and heave it into our loft; the narrow, spiraling stairs up would in no way accommodate its girth. Worried it would snap under its own weight and damage our brand-new unit, I can still see it precariously dangling from the massive arms of our moving crew. They ended up having fun; my wife had to leave the room while they were doing it.

The EXPEDIT housed many books over the years, its shelves adorned with knickknacks and keepsakes we’ve collected from our travels, its broad top displaying pictures, canvases, diplomas, houseplants, dust.

But it won’t be moving with us to Dublin, Ireland. (Little will.) In fact, it didn’t even make it down our loft in one piece. After a couple of beers the other night – ok, deep into a six-pack – I picked its heavy, cumbersome bones apart.

EXPEDIT shelf.jpg
RIP, EXPEDIT. Photo by me.

***

I feel I redeemed myself with The Comedy of Errors. Much Ado About Nothing, you’ll recall, made me feel like the Hamlet of reading.

I read this early comedy this week because it’s short – the shortest of Shakespeare’s plays, in fact. My sister-in-law’s boyfriend was visiting from Portland for the weekend. We had a lot of beer to drink.

But I also wanted to get back on my reading schedule. A man has to have standards.

Many critics consider The Comedy of Errors less accomplished than his other plays, a sort of apprentice drama, exhibiting more so the development of his craft rather than the heights of it.

Well, critics be damned.

So, these parents have twin sons, both named Antipholus, served by twin bondmen born on the same day, both named Dromio, as it happens. Bad weather sunders the family, sailing home one day, in two. One Antipholus/Dromio end up in Ephesus, the other in Syracuse. Years later, the Syracusian pair (as well as the twins’ estranged father, Egeon, detained by some arcane commerce laws) find themselves in Ephesus. All identity hell – and hilarity – breaks loose as the servants confuse their masters, masters their servants, and various Ephesians, including the Ephesian Antipholus’ own wife, Adriana, the play’s central foursome. In the end, the truth outs: real identities are restored and the family is even reunited.

The play’s thematic doubleness dramatically destabilizes any sense of unity or integrity in our ideas of identity and self. As Adriana muses amid the play’s confusion:

…O how comes it
That thou art then estranged from thyself?–
Thy ‘self’ I call it, being strange to me
That, undividable, incorporate,
Am better than they dear self’s better part. (2.2.119-123)

The play, no doubt, challenges such an “undividable” self. It challenges the very idea of a self.

But the play can really hit you over the head with this theme. Not unlike, in fact, all of the hitting in the play.

Due to the all this confusion, the Dromios take a lot of abuse. It makes for some fun pratfalls and punning. “Am I so round with you as you with me, / That like a football you do spurn me thus?” Dromio of Ephesus asks of his master’s wife, Adriana, after a beating (12.1.81-82).

While the play may be a bit slapstick-y and heavy-handed, I still think it’s a real hoot.

There’s a point in the play, for instance, when Dromio of Syracuse is suddenly wedded off to Nell (I don’t know how that works, but hey), a kitchen-maid he despairingly describes as a “wondrous fat marriage” (3.2.92).

I hesitate to laugh at appearance-based insults, but Dromio’s ensuing description of Nell is just really funny. They read like early “yo’ mamma’s so fat” or “ugly” jokes. I won’t copy out the full text here (3.2.90-144), so here’s a highlight:

ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE What’s her name?

DROMIO OF SYRACUSE Nell, sir. But her name and three-quarters–that’s an ell [a yard] and three-quarters–will not measure her from hip to hip.

ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE Then she bears some breadth?

DROMIO OF SYRACUSE No longer from head to foot than from hip to hip. She is spherical, like a globe. I could find out countries in her.

ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE In what part of her body stands Ireland?

DROMIO OF SYRACUSE Marry, sir, in her buttocks. I found it out by the bogs.

ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE Where Scotland?

DROMIO OF SYRACUSE I found it by the barrenness, hard in the palm of her hand. (3.2.107-120)

Antipholus of Syracuse continues, asking Dromio where he finds (and ribs) various countries on Nell – including America, interestingly enough (and the Indies, whose jewels he likens to zits on her nose).

***

Sure, the EXPEDIT demanded a Herculean effort to build and move around, but, once constructed, once re-situated, the shelf just sort came part of our lives, receding into the texture of our everyday lives. Taken-for-granted, always there.

But the other night, when I started taking it apart, I came to appreciate its design. A top, bottom, two sides, four long planks in the middle, 16 square planks to create the cubbies, a whole bunch of those little pegs (that slip into the pre-made sockets with a mallet and many expletives), and 8 bigger screws Allen-wrenched into place.

But once you start taking the comedy apart, you start appreciating its craft and detail, its efficiency and modernity. The complexity belying its simplicity.

It’s not a lot of material, but it all holds together – and ingeniously. I can put it together, but I could never have designed it. (I could neither have put anything like The Comedy of Errors together nor have designed it, for the record.)

I unscrewed the bolts and pulled off the top and bottom. Some of the little pegs fell out on their own, many needed just a bit of tug, a lot (most) I simply broke off. I didn’t quite forget the effort it took the make the damn thing, but in ripping it apart, I no doubt appreciated it all over again.

The Comedy of Errors resembles this shelf for me, if you haven’t guessed my unwieldy metaphor so far. Like our EXPEDIT, the play’s easy to take for granted: Shakespeare’s themes of identity, self, relationships, social roles are big and bulky, especially when the dualities pound you over the head. But once you start taking the comedy apart, you start appreciating its craft and detail, its efficiency and modernity. The complexity belying its simplicity.

Shakespeare frequently has characters speaking in rhyming couplets, using his form to mirror his content and heighten his thematic twinning. The Ephesian Antipholus had a goldsmith fashion a fancy, expensive chain for his wife, which creates further confusion in the plot but also the perfect image to convey how interlinked the characters are – how interlinked all of ourselves, our selves, are.

Water metaphors run throughout the comedy, further illustrating the fluidity of self, as Antipholus remarks: “I to the world am like a drop of water / That in the ocean seeks another drop” (1.2.35-36). Shakespeare repeatedly likens reputations to their monetary credit, deepening – and complicating – ideas of identity, worth, value, and character.

And the whole experience of mistaken identity compels the Antipholus of Syracuse to question reality: “Am I in earth, in heaven, or in hell?  / Sleeping or waking? Mad or well-advised? / Known unto these, and to myself disguised!” (2.2.212-14). The Ephesians even try to perform an exorcism on the hometown Antipholus, as the townsfolk think he’s been possessed – a rather intense, if comically staged, image for the problems of individuality the play develops.

***

I know my metaphor’s overwrought. And I know its entire premise is, in fact, questionable, especially as I’m not yet 10 plays into the Bard’s oeuvre and am no Elizabethan drama expert. But, as we ready for our big move to Dublin, we’ve been selling and donating just about everything we own – it’s just amazing how much stuff, even when you’ve gone through several downsizes as we’ve done and am anal, anti-clutter, anti-crap, anti-possession like I am . So, I’ve been thinking a lot about how things are put together as I take them apart.

The Comedy of Errors may not be the sophisticated, hand-crafted, solid-wood antique that will furnish one’s more settled, adult home, but there’s something to be said about the the EXPEDIT.

Much Ado About Reading

Reading Shakespeare is hard.

I have fallen a bit behind in my reading schedule. I had planned on finishing my seventh play this year, Much Ado About Nothing, last Friday. I only just wrapped it up yesterday.

I could blame this on Costa Rica. My wife and I took a trip down to this luscious land last week. I could blame it, too, on moving to Ireland. We’ve got less than a month to sell just about everything we own and get over to Dublin, including our dog. We had friends in town, too. Plus, my mom and stepdad, who’ve been wintering in Southern California in their RV, are hitting the road again soon.

These are all valid reasons, I suppose, to take a few extra days to read this Shakespearean comedy, which many consider to be his best.

You could say I’m making, well, much ado about nothing. Travel, moving overseas, spending time with friends and family. Life’s rough, I know.

And none of this is to mention that my project is self-imposed. My deadlines are arbitrary. If I miss them, they don’t have real consequences.

Still, reading Shakespeare is hard.

Of course, Shakespeare’s words are challenging, as language and as literature. His plays, moreover, are meant for the stage; watching them aids enjoyment and understanding.

Each time I crack open a new play, I struggle to get started, as if in physical therapy, slowly, arduously moving one foot forward. Sometimes, I can find my stride and read a whole play in a few sittings, getting back that old muscle memory vitiated by the digital age. But other times, as with Much Ado, it’s a different story.

Yes, the “skirmish of wits” (1.1.61) between Benedick and Beatrice is the pinnacle of Shakespearean wordplay. The story – jealous of Claudio, who just defeated him in battle, Don John the Bastard schemes to thwart his marriage to Hero, while Don Pedro schemes to bring Benedick and Beatrice, doggedly opposed to marriage, together – is superbly crafted. The play’s thematic gender politics surrounding marriage, fidelity, and masculinity is still compelling and relevant 400 years later. As always, the Bard weaves a thick tapestry of language; I especially enjoyed the many ways he plays with the language of “horns,” a symbol of cuckoldry, a central anxiety of men in the play. And of course, the bumbling constable, Dogberry, is a legendary character.

But I have to be honest, I should probably just re-read Much Ado About Nothing.

***

Ahead of our move, I’ve been backing up old papers I’ve written, which prompted some reflections I recently shared.

I’ve also been sorting through old books, bidding farewell to lots of beloved texts I’ve read through my years, so many of them beat up with annotations, highlights, underlinings, dog-eared pages, creased bindings, the wear and tear of loving use. I’m still holding onto a good number (I’ll always keep my high school copy of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), but I tried to sell the rest. My writing isn’t bringing in any money after all. Just ask my wife.

This must be the first bookstore I’ve ever been to that hasn’t had a single copy of Shakespeare.

I hauled several crate-loads to a used bookstore. “We’ll call you in three hours and then make an offer,” the clerk let me know. Three hours? That sounded promising. That sounded like my trove will put them to work.

I don’t expect much from used books, especially paperbacks, in spite of the immense intellectual wealth they’ve brought me. “How much did you say again?” I asked the clerk when the bookstore called me back. “Twenty-two sixty-seven?”

$22.67.

That’s even not the rub, though. I wasn’t paying close attention when I signed the line that I agreed the bookstore would throw away – yes, throw away – the books it couldn’t sell.

I felt like Lady Macbeth, vainly washing her hands of blood for this horrible crime I committed.

They said something about store policy and stolen merchandise. I imagined a cop shows up and shouts, “Drop the book! Drop the book!” The guilty reader slowly lowers an 1818 edition of Shelley’s Frankenstein to the ground.

After accepting my blood money, I looked around the bookstore for a cheap, small copy of a Shakespeare play. I didn’t want to lug around my Norton Shakespeare in Costa Rica. It’s heavy and bulky. But, deep down, I knew I was asking myself, “Do you really think you’re going to read any Shakespeare on this trip?” Fie!

I took a couple of laps around the store. I finally spotted a small drama section. No more than 10 books, and no Shakespeare. I see Bloom’s The Invention of the Human, a seminal piece of literary criticism about Shakespeare. But no actual Shakespeare.

I suspected I was missing the Shakespeare section. I couldn’t think of a bookstore that doesn’t have a Shakespeare section. Even in non-English bookstores – in Istanbul or Bangkok, say – I’ve found Shakespeare sections. I even picked up copy of Hamlet in Spanish from a bookstore in downtown San José.

I went back to the clerk who handed me my $22.67. “Is there, um, like, a Shakespeare section in the store?” She pointed me back to those meager volumes of drama. “You’d find it there, if we have any.”

“If we have any.” This must be the first bookstore I’ve ever been to that hasn’t had a single copy of Shakespeare.

Except for the volume I just sold them. It was one of those Literary Classics complete works hardcovers designed less for reading and more for making it look like you’re a serious reader.  There was no way I was buying that back.

So, the night before we head to Costa Rica, my wife and I ran a couple of errands, including swinging by Barnes & Noble. The store, of course, has a nice section clearly marked “Shakespeare.” The section exists, no doubt, because we still assign Shakespeare in high school. Some will read Shakespeare in college, but you can get easily get a bachelor’s degree without cracking open a single play, I’m sure.

I can only remember that I had Shakespeare make a terrible joke whose punchline was “much ado about nothing.” And when Confucius said goodbye, the Bard said, “All’s well that end’s well.”

A whole shelf neatly displayed rows of No Fear Shakespeare as well as the Folger’s classic standbys.

I picked a Folger copy of Much Ado About Nothing. Why? Its titular nothing made me think of sloths. We really wanted to see some sloths in Costa Rica. And we did. Incredible. (Nothing, it turns, out, should have made me think of notes and vagina. The word was pronounced more like we might say noting today, working well with the play’s many musical, writing, gossiping, ad observational puns. It also served as Elizabethan slang for female genitalia; use your imagination.)

I knew the title well. We all do. Much Ado is headline fodder. I’ve taken advantage of it in this very piece. But I knew nothing about it other than it’s a comedy – and that I used it as a punchline in a creative writing assignment I did in fifth grade. In Mrs. Wagner’s class, the same class where I first remember reading Shakespeare.

I can’t remember the assignment’s point exactly, but, for some reason, I had Confucius meet Shakespeare at a park. They talked. For their dialogue, I looked up memorable quotes and titles of their works in books I checked out from our little school library and the old green- and cream-colored World Book Encyclopedia volumes I used to spend hours in at home – and used for research papers before the Internet changed everything.

I fashioned some sort of conversation out of my cursory findings. Mrs. Wagner loved it, I recall. I can only remember that I had Shakespeare make a terrible joke whose punchline was “much ado about nothing.” And when Confucius said goodbye, the Bard said, “All’s well that end’s well.”

The birth of a writer, my dear readers.

***

I love traveling, if our upcoming move to Dublin is any measure. My wife and I have had the privilege to travel quite a bit around the world.

We hadn’t been to Costa Rica, or Central America for that matter. We thought we’d check out its many greens (and blues) before heading over to the many greens (and grays) of the Emerald Isle.

I have no distractions, other than the wind, the clear night sky overhead, lots of beers, and leftover empanadas I got from the grocery store. Why can’t I read this?

And the more we travel, I realize, the less planning I’ve come to do. I usually do a ton of reading, research, and preparation, especially if we’re hitting a once-in-a-lifetime or culturally dense place. To make the most of it, of course.

It’s kind of like being in a museum exhibit, reading before traveling is. I try to read all the texts and labels on the wall. For one thing, they’re usually well written. For another, I like to know what’s going on in the Cezanne painting or bronze artifact so as to better appreciate it. But this often comes at the expense of actually engaging with the art or history itself. So, I end up just scanning the museum texts, but not in the same way I half-read an article online, an email, or the like. I can’t quite describe it, but I can say I walk away with an amorphous goop of dates, names, and media.

Reading ahead of visiting a new country can be like this, too. I get a variety of travel books from the library, typically later buying one to take with me for ongoing reference in situ, and walk away with a fog-like blur of history, language, sites, culture.

This trip, we mapped out a basic itinerary, booked a rental car, and made sure we had lodging the first two nights. Otherwise, we left the rest wide open. There’s something truly lovely about letting a country disclose itself to you versus planning a touristic siege, of conquering a place as if a colonizer for a week.

There’s something truly lovely about letting a country disclose itself to you versus planning a touristic siege, of conquering a place as if a colonizer for a week.

We booked an Airbnb hidden in the hills outside of San Ramón, a busy city not far from the capital. It’s not known for much, touristically speaking, though it proved to be a great launching point for Costa Rica’s volcanoes and cloud forests – and politically, I learned from reading our host’s welcome packet, a great launching point for many of the country’s presidents.

Streets aren’t really marked in Costa Rican cities, excepting the capital, though even that was like the other urban labyrinths that constantly shifted around as we drove through them. We got lost finding the place, but I did learn a bit more Spanish in our efforts to find our rental – and a few construction workers paving a road up in the winding hills learned a bit more English, too, I suppose.

The house was atop a hill, chilly and windswept, eerily spacious, overlooking the rolling greens and golds of the Costa Rican highlands. But the gusts of wind loudly rattled the house, all day and night, reminding us of the force of its nature.

There was a TV, but the wind knocked out the signal. And there was no WiFi. Perfect, I thought, for some serious reading of Much Ado About Nothing thousands of miles away from where Shakespeare originally inked the comedy. Perfect, too, for there would be no half-hearted headline reading on Twitter and news apps to distract me.

After some wine, dinner, and cards, I thought I’d sink into Much Ado, the gales howled around – through – the house, inspiring me like some sort of Romantic poet. Big, alien-like insects scurried us into the bedroom for the nights. With a can of Imperial, my notebook, and Much Ado, I read much of nothing.

Part of my struggle was just adjusting to the Folger’s format. I remembered it from high school, with its straight text on the right and notes on the left, but I had grown accustomed to Norton’s footnoting and glossing system. On the one hand, the Folger offers you the text, un-editorialized. On the other the hand, you find yourself ping-ponging your eyes – and attention.

Add to all of this that Much Ado is a comedy. Shakespearean comedies are as thick with wordplay as Costa Rica’s cloud forests are with biomass. Like the gorgeous birds in the jungle only the experienced eye can spy, this means a lot of jokes you know are there but just aren’t getting.

And add to this my note-taking. General notes, of course, but also strong language and interesting words, which for this play I tracked in a thinner, more travel-able notebook than the old-school composition notebooks I usually use.

I have no distractions, other than the wind, the clear night sky overhead, lots of beers, and leftover empanadas I got from the grocery store.

Why can’t I read this?

***

I tackled a few more pages by the trip’s end. Vacation isn’t exactly a great time to tackle literature, I suppose. Especially when the rest of your hotels are equipped with WiFi and really good happy hour specials.

One hidden treasure and pleasure of traveling is disconnecting. The world is increasing online, but you can still find those pockets (many more, of course, if you’re truly immersed in the wildernesses of the world) of quiet. Those pockets where your Facebook feed goes dark. It’s one of the few things I like about the U.S.’s cellular restrictions. Your scrolling thumb initially twitches with withdrawal, but the brain rewires. The brain rebuilds the muscles of sustained attention, observation, and thinking. But, like when a coworker brings Girl Scout Cookies into the office when you’ve just started a diet, it doesn’t take long for your synapses to binge on status updates, 140-character quips, and clickbait.

There’s something to be said about letting a text – or a painting, artifact, or the brilliant red of a quetzal’s belly emerging from the tangled greens and cloaking mists of a Costa Rican cloud forest  – disclose itself to you on its own terms, without agenda or predication

I still somehow feel defeated, though. I should be able to read the Bard in the rainforest, even if I’ve driven hundreds of miles across the country’s snaking and unsigned roads and transacted in a language I’m embarrassingly not fluent in.

So, it was a 6-hour flight back to L.A. OK, I told myself, you’re finishing this play. On the plane. No excuses.

The man seated next to me was reading José Saramago’s Blindness. “That’s a great read,” I noted. “Yeah? I’m loving it so far,” he replied. He looked at my Much Ado. I look at my Much Ado. You can do this, I told myself.

I was strong-willed at first, managing to finish Act 1 before I rewarded myself with a look, just a look, at the movie selections in the media center on the headrest in front of me. Ooh, The Martian. If I get through Act 3, I get to watch The Martian, I told myself.

I got through Act 2.

Then, a little nap, a podcast, some coffee. I was only into Act 3 by touchdown.

But, but! My wife was coming off our Costa Rica trip with a ladies’ weekend in L.A. to celebrate a friend’s birthday. I’ve got the weekend, I pep-rallied myself. I can do this. Then I remembered that Season 5 of Breaking Bad awaited me on Netflix. There was some Jameson I needed to finish before we move, too.

***

I did eventually finish the play a few days later in between tweets, workouts, dog-walking, chores, errands, and a whole bunch of Craigslist sales.

That’s OK, though.

Sure, my environment was a distracting one. Yes, attention is short and fragmented in the Internet age. But like a reading museum text or researching for travel, sometimes reading can get in the way of reading. There’s something to be said about letting a text – or a painting, artifact, or the brilliant red of quetzal’s belly emerging from the tangled greens and cloaking mists of a Costa Rican cloud forest  – disclose itself to us on its own terms, without agenda or predication.

I want to re-read Much Ado About Nothing. But not yet.