A heavy lift: traveling with the Bard

Shakespeare can literally weigh you down.

I’m a bit sore today, thanks to Shakespeare.

My wife and I have made our big move at last, staying for a week or so in Oxford, England before our final destination, Dublin.

Yes, there was the sardine-canned, 10-hour flight from Los Angeles to London. The row ahead, some infrequent fliers didn’t turn off the Norwegian Air In-flight Entertainment screens on the back of the headrests as we flew into the night. The glow burned white right through the gap in the seats precisely where I could contort my neck without needing a chiropractor. The young boy in the middle seat never quite got around to watching Ace Ventura, apparently.

And engineers designed Dreamliners to be so efficient that the toilets, which we were seated by, roared liked jet engines each time someone flushed. Fortunately, the erratic howling of a very unhappy toddler drowned out the flushing in the middle of the night. I felt soothed, too, by her poor parents’ loving – and urgent – hushing when they walked her up and down the aisle.

Sleep was also fitful on our two-hour bus ride from London into Oxford. The coach was quiet, roomy, and smooth-going, but the bright sun in a cloudless sky, usually such a welcome sight in these climes, seesawed my orientation between Southern California and Southern England, between Pacific Time and British Summer Time. I was long overdue for a coffee – or a beer, whatever time it was.

Travel-wise, all of this is normal, to be sure. What’s not so normal this time is checked baggage. Luggage. It’s easy to forget that the word is rooted in the verb to lug when you’re an insistently light packer such as myself. But my wife and I aren’t traveling this trip. We’re actually moving.

One does need clothes, after all – and Shakespeare. I had to make sure I had enough room for all four volumes of my Norton Shakespeare.

Between us, we packed up our new life in eight pieces. We checked three roller suitcases of clothes – two of which which were essentially Smart cars sans engines – and my classical guitar. My wife carried on another roller, mostly clothes, and her all-purpose work purse. I carried on a backpack stuffed with notebooks, writing utensils, my laptop, laptop paraphernalia, a few books, and personal affects. I also lugged on a duffel bag.

Originally, I intended this carry-on as a book bag. I mean, quite literally, a bag of books. But when my big suitcase (the blue Smart Car) came in 10 pounds too heavy when we weighed it back home before departing, I had to repack a variety of clothes into the duffel bag.

Most of the etymological dictionaries I use for my Mashed Radish writing had to stay behind at my in-laws’. I’ll miss these friends, of course, but we can mostly keep in touch online, thankfully. One does need clothes, after all – and Shakespeare. I had to make sure I had enough room for all four volumes of my Norton Shakespeare.

Norton Shakespeare Stack.JPG
You heavy bastards. 

I suppose I could have acquired a lighter Complete Works, but I wanted to keep my reading consistent. The paperback Folger’s of Much Ado About Nothing I took down to Costa Rica already wrenched my reading enough. Plus, I’m cheap. But mostly, I rely so much on the Norton edition’s glosses, footnotes, and explanatory materials. I mean, he did write this stuff over 400 years ago.

Self-deceptively thinking I would do some writing on Titus Andronicus during the flight, I squeezed the Tragedies volume into my backpack and lined the bottom of the duffel bag with the Histories, Comedies, and Romances and Poems.  Then, I packed in some clothes and a few slimmer books, finding just enough room to squeeze in my bulky but surprisingly lightweight Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology on top , somehow without splitting the zipper.

Thank God Norwegian Air didn’t weigh my carry-ons. Even without the dictionaries I originally hoped to pack, even without the fattest volume, Tragedies, Shakespeare still really weighed this bag down.

He was a real pain in the ass – or arm and shoulder, I should say. Well, the whole upper body, actually. And legs, too, as I eventually took to shoving the duffel bag along the floor when waiting in LAX’s security line and LGW’s passport control queue.

He sliced into my shoulder as we zigzagged our way out of the airport, throwing off my balance as I steered our Smart cars ahead of me and nearly causing us to miss the last call of the Oxford-bound bus. Off the bus, as we searched, exhausted, for our Airbnb along the bumpy bricks of Headington, I swear the Bard almost dislocated my shoulder.

Shakespeare must have slowed me down enough for our Airbnb landlord to spot us out of her window just as we dragged past the property. She called out, welcomed us in, and urged us to rest our bags – and bones. “How was the journey?” she asked as she started to show us around the flat.

“Good, pretty smooth! Thank you for asking!” I cheerfully responded, now lighter.

I rubbed my right shoulder and circled my neck. I glowered at the duffel bag. I knew reading and writing about the complete works of Shakespeare would be a heavy lift, but I didn’t anticipate it being quite so literal.

Taking selfies with Shakespeare?

So, I quit my job and decided to read the complete works of William Shakespeare this year.

Alright, it’s more complicated than that. My wife and I are hoping to move to Europe sometime in the spring. We’ve been in Orange County for a few years now and itching to go. We want rain, we want clouds.

We want change. And her work – consumer insights, I think I can sum it up – may well afford us this incredible opportunity. It’s been a dream of ours to live abroad.  (A dream of hers, originally, but she’s given me the bug.)

I had been overseeing the academics for a company that helps adults with autism. Kind of like a college counselor meets intervention specialist. And managing our tutors. (My background’s in education.) It was meaningful work. According to a recent CDC survey, one in 45 persons is considered to be on the spectrum. Important work – especially in light of this selfish project, if I’m looking in the mirror.

I am a 31-year-old, unemployed, angsty, indecisive, aspiring writer who wants to make sense of his – of this – mortal coil. So why not read all of Shakespeare’s works in one year?

But I was also getting burnt out, to be honest. I may not think of myself as a millennial when it comes to things like technology or dating, but, when you get hungry for a new challenge after 2-3 years on a job (you can disregard that, future employers)…

Meanwhile, I’ve  been blogging about word origins. You should follow my weekly work at the Mashed Radish. It’s etymology meets current events. For instance, we had that big Powerball jackpot. On the Mashed Radish, I look into why we call it a jackpot. Over time, my following grew, my writing outlets expanded. Now I also write for Oxford Dictionaries’ blog every now and again, which is a great honor. Because Oxford Dictionaries. I also contribute to Strong Language, it’s a sweary blog about swearing, alongside some people I really admire. Idols really. I’ve even been picked up in Slate’s language blog, Lexicon Valley.

Now I want to be a writer. (“A writer.” Gosh, that sounds so pretentious, so privileged. More on privilege, soon.) God bless her, my wife is supporting me in doing it. Crazy.

But I needed a bigger goal (read also: my wife works in corporate sales) than just my regular blogging, which is bringing home no bacon, even if it is about why we say bringing home the bacon.

Shakespeare died 400 years ago this year. April 23, 1616, to be precise. He still looms so large over our linguistic and dramatic – our cultural – consciousness. If the world’s a stage, he has a hell of a lot of plays on it. And it has to signify something, in spite of whatever you say, Macbeth. Shakespeare is, like, The Canon.

Meanwhile, I am a 31-year-old, unemployed, angsty, indecisive, aspiring writer who wants to make sense of his – of this – mortal coil. So why not read all of Shakespeare’s works in one year and see what I can learn from it? And why not write about it along the way?

I want to be honest about not understanding passages. I want to laugh at penis jokes. I want to marvel at language that can sound out deeper meanings. I want to connect the goings-on of my life, of 2016, of this millennium with this enduring work. Not in an academic “This is what Shakespeare means” kind of way.

But in a human way, reading-wise and writing-wise. I want it to be personal, relevant, real. Perhaps you could say I’m looking for small-s shakespeare in big-s Shakespeare. Or taking a selfie with Shakespeare, so to speak.

shakespeare_droeshout_1623
It’s like he’s staring into my soul – or supremely bored by what I’m saying. I learned that this engraving featured in the First Folio is called the “Droeshout portrait,” after the artist.

Now, I did major in English for my undergrad, I should confess. I took a pretty hard Shakespeare course for that degree and even presented at an academic conference on Shakespeare as a result of it. And I research and write about historical English and language on the regular. So, I’m not coming from nowhere on this. But I’m not an authority. I’m not an expert. Nor will I claim to be at the end of it.

But I do think there is something to be learned in the process and I’m sure I’ll be changed at the end of it. I’m not sure what it is yet or how I’ll change, but with, depending on who you talk to, 38 plays plus other poems (e.g., the Sonnets), I’ll be figuring something out.

I settled on the goal as of January 10 (I told you I was indecisive), so, based on the math, I’ll be reading a play every 8 days to pace myself. That’s my main guideline for now. That and to enjoy the texts and try to write well. I’d like to see plays and watch film versions where I can, too.

I’m going to keep two journals. In one, I am tracking interesting words for the Mashed Radish and swearing/oaths, possibly for Strong Language. In the other, I am keeping general notes.

I don’t have a preordained reading list for the plays. I’m not proceeding chronologically, nor as their listed in the First Folio. I mean, the First Folio lists The Tempest first, which was Shakespeare’s last play written alone, if I’m not mistaken. And not all editions even classify plays the same way (romance vs. comedy, and whose to say how the bard himself would have done so.) So, at least to start, I’m tackling them as fancied, as inspired.

As for the texts, I’m working out of The Norton ShakespeareBased on the Oxford Edition (1997; ed. Stephen Greenblatt). I kept them from college. If they were good enough for my Shakespeare professor (she was excellent), they’re good enough for me. (And yeah, I couldn’t part with a lot of my college lit anthologies. It’s an identity-insecurity thing, I’m certain). The texts are heavy and take up a lot of space, a great thing to lug around when you are aiming to downsize to move abroad. But they’re thorough, comprehensive, with lots of additional background that surely will help me along the way.

Speaking of “along the way,” join me. I think it’ll be fun. I hope that, as Shakespeare, er, might say, my cake won’t be dough. Follow along on Twitter @bardconfidensh and get posts by email using the buttons on the sidebar.

First up? The Taming of the Shrew.