Past, present, and macaroni salad: Henry VIII 

Why do we make the choices we make?

“We’ve got…,” I said with a suspenseful pause as I pulled tupperware out of the reusable grocery bag, “Monte Cristo sandwiches and macaroni salad.”

“Holy shit. Thanks, man,” my friend said. 

“Thank my stepmom. We had leftovers.”

We sat in his KIA sedan parked at a Love’s off I-65. A water tower read White County. It was a clear day, seasonably cold. Everything around us was flat for miles and miles and miles. We were closing in on Chicago, where we were visiting a friend for the weekend before I finally flew back to Dublin after nearly a month in the States.

Something felt so adult about eating lunch with an old high school friend in a car off the side of the road, your hometown hundreds of miles behind you, in a few days, thousands more.

And yet something felt so childlike about forking macaroni salad out of GladWare. Packed lunches, certainly, have that effect, but this wasn’t just any macaroni salad. I must have been eating this same salad, this same exact recipe, for over 20 years.

My mind drifted out and over thousands of conversations I’ve had with my family. Out and over thousand of conversations we’ve never had. And it landed on Shakespeare.

The taste plunged me back to the honey-colored wood of the kitchen table and terra-cotta tiled floor. Back to glass bowls of grapes and strawberries, of blackberries and bananas, that made their way from plate to plate. Back to my stepmother slicing those bananas by pushing a paring knife up towards a callused thumb so a perfect little chunk would tumble right into the bowl. Back to a cutting board propping up that long Monte Cristo, my father bringing a longer-seeming serrated knife down through its many layers and divvying out neat, even wedges.

“How does your stepson, you know, handle everything?” I asked, breaking my own flashback. Stepson. The word thrust me right back into the present, to adulthood.

My friend spoke thoughtfully about shared custody, about the different roles divorced parents take on. He spoke about his own identity, negotiating new territories of parenthood and stepfatherhood. He spoke about how his six-year-old stepson grasps it all.

“How was it for you?” he asked. “Weren’t you pretty young when your parents divorced?”

I scooped up my last bite of salad. My mind drifted out and over the never-ending flatness of Indiana. Out and over countless suitcases, bedrooms, car rides. Out and over thousands of conversations I’ve had with my family. Out and over thousands of conversations we’ve never had.

And it landed on Shakespeare.

***

It had been some weeks since I finished All is True (Henry VIII). This history centers, mostly, on the fall of Cardinal Wolseley, King Henry VIII’s powerful and self-serving advisor, after he fails to secure an annulment for Henry VIII so he can marry Ann Boleyn.

I sat on this play for quite some time because I had trouble locating myself in the drama. There were obvious connections, like Henry VIII’s divorce of Queen Katherine. But this, the subject of divorce in and of itself, didn’t grab me.

For one, I have no mind to air any dirty laundry here. For another, I’m just no longer all that interested in the gritty details of my parents’ divorce. I think I processed them plenty in the reims of reflective essays I churned out for high school English and religion classes.

I’m not sure that the heart isn’t a dark and opaque organ at the end of the day, keeping itself alive with molecules and membranes we will never really understand.

About twenty-six years later, the wounds have healed. But the body is never exactly the same as it was before its injury. It works. It functions. It’s repaired. But it’s a different body, even if just by the scars it bears. Often you forget they are even there. But they are always with you, the scars. And every so often, you’ll stop and run your hands over them. You’ll stare at their shape. You’ll marvel that the body can even do it at all, this miracle work of healing, weaving together all that new skin. It’s magic, when you really think about it.

But what did grab me, in that chew-ful moment of silence before my reply, was a speech by Cardinal Wolseley right after his decline. Before heading to court to answer charges of treason, an ailing Cardinal Wolseley, who, mind you, has been an absolute bastard his entire career, has a sudden change of heart:

Farewell, a long farewell, to all my greatness!
This is the state of man. Today he puts forth
The tender leaves of hope; tomorrow blossoms,
And bears his blushing honours thick upon him;
The third day comes a frost, a killing frost,
And when he thinks, good easy, man, full surely
His greatness is a-ripening, nips his rot,
And then he falls, as I do. I have ventured,
Like little wanton boys that swim on bladders,
This many summers in a sea of  glory,
But far beyond my depth; my high-blown pride
At length broke under me, and now has left me
Weary, and old with service, to the mercy
Of a rude stream that must for ever hide me.
Vain pomp and glory of this world, I hate ye!
I feel my heart new opened. O, how wretched
Is that poor man that hangs on princes’ favours!
There is betwixt that smile we would aspire to,
That sweet aspect of princes, and their ruin,
More pangs and fears than wars or women have,
And when he falls, he falls like Lucifer,
Never to hope again. (3.2.352-73)

“Well, that was quick,” as I wrote in the margins. Wolseley goes from utter villainy to complete reformation. Of course, this is drama, so, chop chop, metanoia. Still, where does he get off? Who does he think he is? What did he, do, really, to earn this epiphany?

Yet in my friend’s car, I heard the monologue differently. His repentance pointed me to the mysteries of our own psychology and behavior. Why do we make the choices we make? How do we think about our own decisions? When are we truly honest with ourselves? Why do we feel what we feel? How well can we actually know ourselves?

I went on to tell my friend, yes, about shared custody, about the different roles divorced parents take on, about my own identity, straddling two households and two sets of parents. About how I grasped the situation as a younger man, questioning its reality and aching to know why it all happened as it did. Perhaps I even wanted my parents to feel particular things, to say particular things, and those feelings and those words would make it all make sense.

Maybe there is peace in the pastness of some things, as much as its true nature haunts us.

But I ask a very different questions of my parents’ divorce now. Its reality, its objectivity, opens it up to an emotional, even epistemological, empiricism. I examine it as a curious specimen, craving knowledge without judgment, as if to satisfy a deeper curiosity, as if a stranger or alien. To understand the heart as an organ. To understand my parents as organisms. To see them as adults, as people. To understand myself no longer as child, but as grown-up and husband, who’s made mistakes, who’s made changes. Why do we make the choices we make? How well can we actually know ourselves? What really makes us behave the way do? To love and not love? To move on and not move on? To forgive and–?

“I know myself now,” Wolseley goes on, “and I feel within me / A peace above all earthly dignities, / A still and quiet conscience” (3.2.378-81).

That sounds like a sublime peace indeed. I’m not so sure we are ultimately knowable to ourselves. I’m not sure that the heart isn’t a dark and opaque organ at the end of the day, keeping itself alive with molecules and membranes we will never really understand.

But maybe there is peace, too, in the pastness of some things, as much as its true nature haunts us. For the past, in its own stubborn inertia, and one’s life, in that invisible accretion of decisions and boredoms and job applications and sleeping and fucking and eating and failures and photographs and moving boxes, takes on an inevitability, as if it could have unfolded no other way. There can be a peace in this factness, this livedness, this fixedness, this thingness, this thereness.

Or at least in the acceptance of them.

***

“But it’s just sort of what you know,” I added. “I just don’t know things any other way. You know what I mean? I don’t know any other reality.” I started into my sandwich, and it tasted it exactly as it did so many years ago.

Tampons, induced vomiting, and Shakespeare’s King John

The Bard truly shows up everywhere.

He greeted me as he always does when I come home. Through the frosted glass of the front door, I could see him perched atop the shoe bench, a shaggy black mass shimmying in excitement as I unlocked the door. He twirled. He jumped. I gave him some pets. He’s a great dog, Hugo is, and I told him as much in baby-talk hellos. He’s docile. He’s quiet. He loves to play. He loves to cuddle. But he does have one weakness.

Tampons.

I spotted a crumbled tissue in the hallway, which lead to a mangled tampon in the kitchen, which lead to a pile of detritus on the landing of the stairs. In the bathroom, the wastebasket was overturned, ransacked – because my wife left the door open when she left for her yoga certification course.

Any calm she might have been prepping for ahead of class was bombed out when she answered my phone call. I machine-gunned my anger: “I came home and there’s bloody fucking tampons everywhere and I don’t know whether he ate any but there’s shit everywhere so he must have eaten some and why did you leave the goddamn door open, I mean how many times do we have to deal with this because there’s fucking tampons everywhere so how much hydrogen peroxide do I give him? seriously how did you not think to close the door, tampons, tampons everywhere and you’re not being helpful!” and I hung up.

As I wiped up the nasty piles, occasionally mopping up goopy strands from his schnauzer beard, I couldn’t help but think of Shakespeare’s King John.

The dog was hiding under the kitchen table at this point, a tampon potentially already starting to swell up, blocking his intestines and leading  to his blended cotton-rayon demise. My wife called back. I declined. She called back. I declined. She called back. I declined. The pattern didn’t relent as I googled vet websites and scribbled out some dilution calculations. Funnily my wife had just bought some hydrogen peroxide (which she had been using for homemade teeth whitening) and I happened to have an dental irrigator (which I haven’t been using to clean some gums in the back of my mouth). Like some mad scientist I measured out and mixed water and peroxide in a tupperware container, drew it into the irrigator, opened Hugo’s confused maw, and squirted the emetic down his hatch.

Then I waited for him to vomit.

I thought about calling my wife back to fire off some more blame. I thought about how, if the dog died, it would all be her fault because she left the bathroom open, because she had to dispose of tampons in the little wastebasket we had in the bathroom, because she just – Hugo’s bowels lurched. He belched out an oozy white pancake of saliva, bile, water, frothy hydrogen peroxide, and a tampon. I was relieved. I texted my wife Hugo was OK and trailed after the poor little guy as he paced his retching way across room. And as I wiped up the nasty piles, occasionally mopping up goopy strands from his schnauzer beard,I couldn’t help but think of Shakespeare’s King John.

***

Love, hate, jealousy, mercy, pride, vengeance: Shakespeare never skimps on the big emotions, the big experiences of the human condition. But amid his big themes he also captures so damned well the little stuff that makes us so human, too. Take this moment in King John.

A little context. The history play, in a nutshell, dramatizes King John’s efforts to stave off a challenge to his tenuous claim to the throne from his nephew, Arthur. (It’s more so Arthur’s mother and French allies who lead the charge.) He orders a French citizen, Hubert, to kill Arthur, which Hubert pretends to do after Arthur’s been imprisoned. Meanwhile, some nobles convince King John to free Arthur. The next time they meet, Hubert tells King John how the people have taken the ‘news’ that Arthur is dead. Observe the wonderful micro-reactions in Hubert’s report:

Young Arthur’s death is common in their mouths,
And when they talk of him they shake their heads,
And whisper one another in the ear
And he that speaks doth grip the hearer’s wrist,
Whilst he that hears makes fearful action,
With wrinkled brows, with nods, with rolling eyes.
I saw a smith stand with his hammer,  thus,
The whilst his iron did on the anvil cool,
With open mouth swallowing a tailor’s news,
Who with his shears and measure in his hands,
Standing on slippers which his nimble haste
Had falsely thrust upon contrary feet
Told of a many thousand warlike French
That were embattailed and ranked in Kent
Another lean unwashed artificer
Cuts off his tale, and talks of Arthur’s death. (4.2.188-203)

The gripped wrist, the stopped work, the shoes put on backwards: These details are tiny but so real, so human. As is King John’s reaction:

Why urgest thou so oft young Arthur’s death?
Thy hand hath murdered him. I had a mighty cause
To wish him dead, but thou hadst none to kill him. (205-07)

But Hubert’s not having it: “Why, did you not provoke me?…Here is your hand and seal for what I did” (208-16). Hubert shows King John his own written order to kill Arthur. 

Arthur, pettily, petulantly, comes back with:

How oft the sight of means to do ill deeds
Make deeds ill done! Hadst not thou been by,
A fellow by the hand of nature marked,
Quoted, and signed to do a deed of shame,
This murder had not come into my mind.
But taking note of thy abhorred aspect,
Finding thee fit for bloody villainy,
Apt, liable to be employed in danger,
I faintly broke with thee of Arthur’s death;
And thou, to be endeared to a king,
Made it no conscience to destroy a prince. (220-30)

Thats right: King John blames Arthur’s death on Hubert’s ugliness. His ugliness gave King John the idea. His ugliness compelled Hubert to make inferences from a small suggestion. His ugliness drove Hubert to carry out the deadly act. His ugliness.

King John cools off after Hubert reveals he didn’t actually kill him. In the very next scene, though, Arthur, whom Hubert freed from his shackles, jumps off the castle wall, apparently trying to escape. He dies in his fall.

***

I, too, cooled off after Hugo stopped vomiting. I thought about King John, so quick to blame Hubert for his own doing, so irrational in his small-minded arguments. I thought about me, my first reaction to our dog’s welfare being to fault my wife, to accuse her of intentional stupidity as opposed to looking past a lapsus mentis and working together to solve the problem. 

King John goes on to apologize to Hubert:

Forgive the comment that my passion made
Upon thy feature, for my rage was blind,
And foul imaginary eyes of blood
Presented thee more hideous than thou art. (4.2.264-67)

Ironically enough, King John is later poisoned to death. Too bad he didn’t have any hydrogen peroxide on hand.

I washed off the puke-y, medicinal smell from Hugo’s beard. I lay down with him and gave him some gentle pets. I thought about Shakespeare. About his incredible insight even into our temper flareups, our self-defensive, first instinct to blame others, to take our frustrations out on other people. And I thought about how one of the greatest writers of the English language, of all language, can wriggle his way even mangled tampons and induced vomiting. I guess this is what happens when you read too much Shakespeare.

The ‘metacatharsis’ of Richard II

Self-pity has never been so exquisite.

Do you ever imagine your own funeral?

I don’t mean where you want your ashes scattered or what songs you’d like sung at the ceremony or even the drunken “celebration of life” you hope your loved ones throw in your memory.

I mean, do you ever really imagine it? Your family sobs out eulogies, mascara stains cheeks, men conceal their teary eyes with their hands and mutter something about allergies. As all the pews have been filled, your colleagues line the back wall of the church. At the reception, your friends chain-smoke, pass around a bottle of bourbon, and trade fond remembrances out back of the reception.

If we could be so lucky.

I imagine my own funeral from time to time. Back in our pretentious, angsty days, not that I’ve quite outgrown them, my good friend promised me he’d toss two cartons of Camel Lights and dump a pot of coffee on my casket if I went before him. God love ’em, he’ll do it. I should note this in my will, though, else he be escorted from the burial.

These are dark thoughts, I know – and incredibly narcissistic. But I also think they’re very human.

Deep down, don’t we all need to know that we will be missed?

As humans, we’re self-aware. Our consciousness lets us grasp futurity, which forces us to confront our own finality. This makes me, for one, not fear my own death but dread some ultimate futility. What was this all for? Did I mean something? Will people grieve me?

Yes, these morbid musings are vain, but don’t we all need to know, deep down in our small and trembling hearts, that we will be missed? In some primal and ironic way, these existential insecurities underscore how fundamentally other-centered our self-centeredness is.

Nobody, though, throws a pity party like the tragic Richard II.

***

This week, I’ve returned to Shakespeare’s history plays. I’ve decided to round out the so-called “second tetralogy” or “Henriad”: Richard II, the History of Henry IV, and the Second Part of Henry IV. The tetralogy culminates in Henry V, which I read egregiously out of order.

In Richard II, a very kingly Richard exiles his cousin Harry Bolingbroke after his dispute with Thomas Mowbray over the death of the Duke of Gloucester, whose murder the king himself we believe ordered. Following the death of Henry’s father, John of Gaunt, Richard seizes the property – and title – Harry was to inherit. While Richard is waging a campaign in Ireland funded by forced loans from his subjects, Harry stages an overthrow and ascends to the crown. Meanwhile, the uncle to Richard and Harry, the Duke of York, helps foil an assassination plot (which his own son conspired in) against the new monarch, Harry, now Henry IV. A nobleman murders an abject Richard, who’s been penned up in a castle prison.

richard_ii_king_of_england
This ca. 1390 oil portrait of King Richard II in the Westminster Abbey is believed to be the oldest known portrait of an English monarch. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Richard II raises king-size questions about the institution of the English monarchy, the tyrannical possibilities of a monarch’s authority, and the problem of his subjects’ loyalty therein.

Today, we watch movies where our leaders are usurped or even killed, but in the sixteenth-century, texts of the play – and likely performances – omitted the parts where Richard gives his crown to Harry, as my Norton Shakespeare informed me. Shakespeare’s history plays were no doubt The House of Cards of his day, but actually staging a deposition was a subversive act, though, from what I’ve read, some opponents to Elizabeth I indeed paid Shakespeare’s company to put on a performance of this play.

Here’s an excerpt of Richard’s regal resignation:

BOLINGBROKE Are you contented to resign the crown?

RICHARD: Ay, ay; no, ay; for I must nothing be;
Therefore no, no, for I resign to thee.
Now mark me how I will undo myself.
I give this heavy weight from off my head,
[BOLINGBROKE accepts the crown]
And this unwieldy sceptre from my hand,
[BOLINGBROKE accepts the sceptre]
The pride of kingly sway from out my heart.
With mine own tears I wash away my balm,
With mine own hands I give away my crown,
With mine own tongue deny my sacred state,
With mine own breath release all duteous oaths. (4.1.190-200)

Richard continues in his majestic – and megalomaniacal – monologue. The passage vividly exemplifies the costume of power and the performance of identity, thematic obsessions in Shakespeare’s body of work. By literally taking off his crown, Richard is “unkinged” (4.1.210).

But more interesting to me than the “hollow crown” (3.2.156) is the very intense and perceptive psychological portrait Shakespeare gives us in Richard when he’s unkinged, unselved, undone.

No longer a king, Richard becomes a drama queen. After he’s imprisoned, Richard asks for a mirror following the coronation of King Henry and literally self-reflects in one of the play’s most famous scenes:

A brittle glory shineth in this face.
As brittle as the glory is the face,
[He shatters the glass]
For there it is, cracked in an hundred shivers. (4.1.277-79)

(Richard should have watched more modern cinema. He could have hidden a shard of glass to attack his captors.)

Self-pity has never been so poetic. Self-pity has never been so exquisite. But at this point in the play, Richard has already transcended self-pity, even. He has climbed the proud heights – or sounded the pathetic depths, depending on how you want to look it – of self-mythology. Before he’s separated from his wife (she’s been exiled to France) and imprisoned at Pomfret, Richard consoles his wife – and himself:

Good sometimes Queen, prepare thee for France.
Think I am dead, and that even here thou tak’st,
As thou from my death-bed, thy last living leave.
In winter’s tedious nights, sit by the fire
With good old folks, and let them tell thee tales
Of woeful ages long ago betid;
And ere thou bid goodnight, to quit their griefs
Tell thou the lamentable fall of me,
And send the hearers weeping to their beds;
Forwhy the senseless brands will sympathize
The heavy accent on thy moving tongue,
And in compassion weep the fire out;
And some will mourn in ashes, some coal black,
for the deposing of a rightful king. (5.1.37-50)

That’s a lot of wallowing, Richard, but damn, your mud sounds as soft as velvet.

***

In his Poetics, Aristotle presents catharsis as a metaphor for our experience of theater, especially tragedy, which arouses – and subsequently purges – our pity and fear. Yes, we experience catharsis in the tragic demise of Richard II after his egregious abuse of power. But, as he imagines his wife telling the “sad stories of the death of kings” (3.2.152), we experience a second catharsis as Richard induces his own catharsis. Call it a “metacatharsis.”  (Permission to punch me in the nose).

For me, this is Shakespeare’s genius: Four hundred years ago, casting his light into the shadowy recesses of the human psyche and condition, he understood why our favorite songs are the sad ones, why we need rainy day , or why imagine our own funerals from time to time. In the theater of the human mind, we like to perform – we need to perform –our own catharsis.