Shakespeare, Trump, and radical experiments of self-government: The Winter’s Tale

All politics is personal.

I’ve been preoccupied with two people this year. The first, of course, is William Shakespeare. The other, alack, is Donald Trump.

I’ve avoided writing about the latter. It’s not that I don’t see the man everywhere in Shakespeare’s plays. I see him in Richard III’s Machiavellian machinations. In Richard II’s incompetence, overreach, and rashness. I see him in Iago’s Janus-faced manipulations. In Timon of Athen’s extreme egotism. In the glib sexual presumption of Falstaff as he appears in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

It’s that I’ve wanted to keep the two separated. Maybe because I’ve felt the connections were too pat, that discussing today’s politics would be such an obvious, unoriginal move. Maybe because I haven’t wanted to talk about him – because he’s all we ever talk about anymore.

You don’t get to ruin Shakespeare, too, damnit.

Or maybe it’s because, in spite of my efforts to make sense of my mundane life in 2016, I’ve ended up seeking escape in the Bard, trying to locate, somehow, even my self-divulging, self-indulging reflections in a kind of sacrosanct timelessness I want unsullied by the small, groping, orange hands of the 45th president of the United States. You don’t get to ruin Shakespeare, too, damnit.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Shakespeare, it’s that all politics is personal.

***

I’m shocked. I’m angry. I’m scared. I’m eager for action – no,  this middle-class white guy isn’t pretending this essay on Shakespeare makes a meaningful difference. But I’m also longing to understand. To understand my country. To understand people I know – family, for God’s sake – who cast their vote for a bigot. To understand “what happened,” as we’ve been widely referring to Trump’s election.

And it’s this “what happened” that I’ve been stuck on when it comes to Trump and Shakespeare. “What happened?” we ask, bewildered, when Othello kills Desdemona. “How the hell did this happen?” we ask when Lear cradles a dead Cordelia. “Why in God’s name did we end up here?” when ask, beholding Macbeth’s bloodbath. “What happened?” millions of America’s are asking, dazed and gobsmacked, since November 9. The aftermath all seems so unlikely, so improbable, so dramatic. Too dramatic. Laughably dramatic.

What Leontes wreaks is catastrophic, but his original sin is all too ordinary.

Like in The Winter’s Tale. In this romance play, Leontes, King of Sicilia, sees his wife, Hermione, innocently clasp hands with his lifelong friend and King of Bohemia, Polixenes. He becomes paranoid. He silences his advisers. He plots to kill Polixenes. He imprisons his wife, who is pregnant and gives birth while jailed. He wants the newborn burned until deciding to have her abandoned in the wilderness. And, oh my, the ways he talks about women: hag, harlot, callat, hobby-horse, thing. (I’d like to say I’m fishing for Trumpian comparisons here, but no. It’s all there.) And Leontes causes so much terror and stress it ends up killing Leontes’ dear son and Hermione.

How did this happen?

The events are so hyperbolic that we tend to attribute it to larger-than-life personalities and passions, to outsized faults and flaws. Celebrities and Shakespearean villains – they’re just not like us. But we confound the outcome with the cause. What Leontes wreaks is catastrophic, but his original sin is all too ordinary: “I have too much believed mine own suspicion,” Leontes plainly sums it when he first reckons with the death of his wife and son (3.2.149).

Shakespeare, in that extraordinary way the playwright takes us into that interior stage of the mind, lets us glimpse how ‘it happened’ for Leontes. As he works himself up into a frenzy, Leontes rampages:

…Is whispering nothing?
Is leaning cheek to cheek? Is meeting noses?
Kissing with inside lip? Stopping the career
Of laughter with a sigh? – a note infallible
Of breaking honesty. Horsing foot on foot?
Skulking in corners? Wishing clocks more swift,
Hours minutes, noon midnight? And all eyes
Blind with the pin and web but theirs, theirs only,
That would be unseen be wicked? Is this nothing?
Why then the world and all that’s in’t is nothing,
The covering sky is nothing, Bohemia is nothing,
My wife is nothing, nor nothing have these nothings
If this be nothing. (1.2.286-98)

What happened? How did we get here? It was a whisper. It was nothing.

***

We read Shakespeare, we often say, because of how profoundly he probes and depicts human nature. We try to distill his characters down to raw elements: jealousy, ambition, power, hesitation, arrogance, suspicion. Yes, these, but I think Shakespeare ultimately strikes a deeper vein: irrationality.

It seems Shakespeare had something in common with the Founding Fathers: a belief in self-government, and just how radical an experiment it really is.

We, as humans, like to think we’re rational actors. That we make decisions based on the best available evidence. That we weigh choices based on risk and reward. Which is why Shakespeare’s Lears and Macbeths and Leontes evoke so much outrage, pity, and pathos. Why wouldn’t Lear just listen to what Cordelia was saying to him? Why did Macbeth carry out his assassinations in spite of his persistent moral reservations? How could Leontes let his suspicions get so out of hand and so quickly? If only they could see what they were doing, all the suffering, all the loss, all the grief, all the blood and gore would have been avoided. I would never act like that, we tell ourselves as Lear roves the heath and Macbeth talks to imaginary daggers. This is not what I would have done, we say as Leontes, foaming with self-feeding, despotic jealousy, justifies his anger.

Which is precisely why Shakespeare’s tragic figures are so horrifying. Because we do act like them. Because we’re irrational. We turn petty grievances into catastrophes. We let slights fester into disease. We take revenge on others because we are small, broken, needy beings. All for appearing right, to be recognized, not thinking ahead to, and never actually really wanting, the wreckage our egos leave in their wake. We feel guilty when we finally get what we say we want.

As Paulina, Hermione’s faithful attendant, stands up to Leontes:

…Thy tyranny, together working with thy jealousies –
Fancies too weak for boys, too green and idle
For girls of nine – O think, what they have done,
And the run made indeed, stark mad, for all
Thy bygone fooleries were but spices of it. (3.2.177-82).

We’re Leontes, ruled by the petty, childish tyrannies of our unreason – and our blind insistence otherwise – that bemonsters, Hulk-like and Hyde-like, whispers into so much woe. It seems Shakespeare had something in common with the Founding Fathers: a belief in self-government, and just how radical an experiment it really is.

***

Leontes repents. Sixteen years later, magically, it turns out his baby daughter, Perdita, had survived and was raised by a shepherd in Bohemia, where Polixenes’ son, Florizel, has fallen in love with her. But Polixenes will not have his son marry some country girl and responds with all the tyrannical violence of Leontes. The lovers flee to Sicilia, where Leontes reunites with his daughter and discovers Paulina, Hermione’s attendant, has been keeping the queen alive as a statue all this time.

It’s romantic idea, America, but is it a Romance play, where what’s lost is found, what’s divided is reunited? America’s going to need some repentance. It’s going to need some time. It’s going to need a whole lot of self-government, and that starts with checking our inner, irrational autocrats.

Some fairy-tale magic wouldn’t hurt, either. “It is required / You do awake your faith,” Paulina tells Leontes’ court when Hermione’s statue comes alive (5.3.94-95). But we should remember that while Leontes cried in the chapel everyday for 16 years, Paulina was attending to the statue of her Queen every day. That doesn’t just take faith. It takes commitment  and discipline – which require self-government.

And it’s not lost on me that the person who stands up to the tyrant, who puts in the work, is a woman.

That merry wanderer of my life: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Shakespeare’s got game.

I recently read that A Midsummer Night’s Dream – with the mischief its fairies wreak on the young lovers and the play the bumbling workmen stage for the newlywed duke and duchess – is currently the most performed of Shakespeare’s plays. This makes sense: Its language is accessible, its plot lends itself well to adaptation, its emotions and comedy are relatable, and its length, well, runs pretty short for the Bard.

We should not underestimate the power of shortness. We should never underestimate that the power of shortness.

To the article’s point, my wife and I caught a production of it just this weekend in Dublin. It was a fun show, and it pulled off all the liberties it took with the text, what with its opening standup act, a live-band, a riotous food fight, and even a bit of acrobatics. From page to stage, A Midsummer Night’s Dream indeed has a magic all its own – a magic, I  have realized since, that has quite literally charmed my life.

“I am the merry wanderer of the night,” Robin Goodfellow introduces himself, chief mischief-making puck of Oberon, King of the Fairies (2.1.43). Merry wanderer, too, A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been throughout my years, spiriting itself forth in ways big and small throughout my years.

*** 

This lantern doth the horned moon present.
Myself the man i’th’ moon do seem to be.
– Starveling, 5.1.235-36

Mrs. Wagner – whose laughter at the opening puns in Julius Caesar first awakened a sense of Shakespeare in me – divided our class into small groups and assigned each a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Several of us, including my own, were to stage passages from the play within the play, The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe. In my group, I was cast as Starveling the Tailor – ironically enough, for I was quite the chubby middle-schooler and always managed to have a little mustard or jelly stain on my ill-fitting school uniform.

For rehearsal, we would meet at Greg’s house, tucked away in the sleepy, leafy streets of Hyde Park. It’s funny, I catch his updates on Facebook from time to time now. He lives in Sacramento, enjoys hockey and sports cars, and works in tech. I remember his family had moved to Cincinnati from San Diego, his dad courted that way to serve as City Manager. This lent them, even my unsophisticated fifth-grade brain understood, an aura, with San Diego looming exotic and otherworldly in my imagination.

Greg’s mother was so nice, always wearing a warm smile, never bothered that my mother or father, depending on whose house I was staying at that week, had to pick me up later than the rest of my peers. She would prepare us snacks and bring them down to the basement, where we plotted our pratfalls in costumes expertly sewed by another group-mate’s mother. Snug’s Lion, I recall, had a shaggy mane of gold and orange and brown yarn, ears rounded out of felt.

I suspect my chubbiness, now that I look back on it, was the real humor of my voice work.

In Pyramus and Thisbe, Starveling doubles as Moonshine. Like Starveling, I also used a lantern for my performance. It was a red lantern, a real one, too. I had acquired it as some sort of souvenir, I think, during one of those summers my father took my brothers and me and sometimes our friends hiking in the Smoky Mountains. Once, I had tried to light the lantern, as we did the lanterns in those chilly cabins we stayed in atop Mount Le Conte, warmed by alpaca blankets and hot chocolate. I filled my lantern with lighter fluid but ended up getting it all over my clothes and the carpet, which later got me in some trouble. The wick never caught the flame, its rope bearing that charred scar until one day it ended up at a thrift-shop, I have to imagine, after my dad moved again.

To heighten Starveling’s comic incompetence, I used this voice gag my classmates thought was hilarious, at least if its popularly in the fourth grade was any measure. It was a strange blend of Fat Albert, Pee-wee Herman, and Kermit the Frog. I suspect my chubbiness, now that I look back on it, was the real humor of my voice work. Not so for Ms. Pater, who was seated front and center during our first performance.

Mrs. Wagner had invited parents, of course, for our theatrical debuts, as well as other classes, much to our humiliation when the junior high-schoolers came down from the top floors of the school and squatted down like giants on our desk chairs. Ms. Pater taught sixth, seventh, and eighth-grade science. No other teacher inspired as much lore – and fear – as her. She was a full woman, shall we say. Her breasts would smother the elementary kids when she forced hugs out of them. Her voice drowned out the organ when she bellowed hymns at mass. A year later, when I had her for class, she got basic facts wrong in lessons  – “Uh, it says right here in the textbook, Ms. Pater, that worms have five hearts,” I remember a student, who wasn’t even one of the know-it-alls like me, corrected her. She’d lose assignments and penalize students for it. She’d test information we hadn’t yet covered. One of Ms. Pater’s desk drawer was filled with her own snacks, and, when they ran low, she’d send a student down to a corner shop just past the playground for some fresh Twinkies. One time, she even got stuck in her roller chair and, trying to squirm out, fell back on the floor. Students had to help her up and out. “I don’t have to like you,” was her darkly Catholic motto, “but as a Christian, I have to love you.”

Ms. Pater was the most intimidating critic to have seated front and center. And when my lines came, I stood up on a chair, held out my lantern, and honked in my goofy fat-kid voice: “I am the moon.” (Our script was adapted, of course, for our still-developing brains.)

“We can’t understand you,” she coldly interjected, as if playing a meaner Theseus, the newlywed  Duke of Athens, who comments on his wedding-night entertainment. Her arms were resting atop her bosom, her eyes shot out like daggers from behind her glasses. That was the end of my goofy fat-kid voice.

***

My Oberon, what visions have I seen!
Methought I was enamoured of an ass.
– Titania, 4.1.73-74

The blue Previa pulled up to the curb. “Have fun, kids! I’ll pick you up 15 minutes after the movie’s out. Remember, Kelly, 15 minutes.” We piled out of the car and raced inside towards the cinemas at the Kenwood Town Center. We weren’t late for the movie. We, in the gangly agony of pubescent self-consciousness, just didn’t want any older kids to see that we had to be dropped off at the mall.

I can’t remember who else was there, but I was there with Kelly. (Facebook: wife, mother, home-owner, educator. God, our youth can seem as if it was a dream.) We were trying out one of those junior high romances that materialize – and just as quickly vanish – out of pure curiosity and callow experimentation in the world of adult amatory relationships. The crux of our connection, from what I can recall, was the imagined hilarity of our matrimony: “Can you believe, if we got married, your name would be, like, Kelly Kelly?!”

I went for it: I reached out and placed my arm around her shoulders.

Our group date was the 1999 film adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the one with Kevin Kline as Bottom. Thanks to Baz Luhrman’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet, Shakespeare enjoyed some popularity among certain 90s youth.  And it was during this screening I made my first ever “move” on a girl.

Early in the movie, but not too early, as I slickly strategized, I went for it: I reached out and placed my arm around her shoulders. No yawn-stretch maneuver for this guy. Then I tried to decipher her reaction. She didn’t push my arm off. That was good. She didn’t shift in her seat or lean away. That was also good. And maybe, I couldn’t quite tell, just maybe she even snuggled in ever so slightly. Very, very good.

The film itself had little impact on me. I can only conjure up swaths of mossy green, gossamer pink, and Kevin Kline’s eye makeup. But next Monday at school I followed up with Kelly’s best friend. “She said she likes you,” the friend divulged. “But her neck was a little stiff.”

“What do you mean?”

“She said it was really sweet you put your arm around her, but you left it there for the entire movie.”

***

Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind.
– Helena, 1.2.234

She didn’t just quote a few lines. She recited the whole damned thing. The whole damned thing.

My friend had to leave at this point. Over the music, he mouthed and gestured something about needing to take his dog out, but I knew the noise, crowd, and skinny jeans weren’t his thing. Plus, he wasn’t really hitting it off with any of the girls we were talking to.

He and I met around the corner at Neon’s, where we had met to celebrate his new job and where we randomly ended up having a round of shots with this group of girls at the adjacent table. One of them shouted over the jukebox that they were heading out to the next bar. This was our window.

Well, not really my window. I had been in and out of some short flings and hook-ups, coming off a series of longterm relationships before that. I was enjoying being single. I was in the thick of grad school. My friends, my brothers, encouraged me to enjoy being single. I just wanted to play wingman. “This is what you do, man. You follow after, but cool-like. I’ll buy you a whiskey.”

“It’s Latin. It means ‘but with the mind.’ It’s uh, it’s a long story.”

I was enjoying that whiskey. I was enjoying my conversation with her – the one who coyly invited us to come along but whose name I had already forgotten at this point. So I stayed. I ordered another whiskey.

A chat about work lead to a chat about books. I was training to be an English teacher, after all, at the time. I offered up that I was re-reading Macbeth in my free time. (Oh, I’ve got all the moves.) And she offered up Helena’s entire monologue – the entire monologue, mind you, without missing a single beat – after the lovers Hermia and Lysander reveal their plans to elope:

How happy some o’er other some can be!
Through Athens I am thought as fair as she.
But what of that? Demetrius thinks not so.
He will not know what all but he do know.
And as he errs, doting on Hermia’s eyes,
So I, admiring his qualities.
Things base and vile, holding no quantity,
Love can transpose to form and dignity.
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.
Nor hath love’s mind of any judgement taste;
Wings and no eyes figure unheedy haste.
And therefore is love said to be a child
Because in choice he is so oft beguiled.
As waggish boys in game themselves forswear,
So the boy Love is perjured everywhere.
For ere Demetrius looked on Hermia’s eyne
He hailed down oaths that he was only mine,
And when this hail some heat from Hermia felt
So he dissolved, and showers of oaths did melt.
I will go tell him of fair Hermia’s flight. 
Then to the wood will he tomorrow night
Pursue her, and for this intelligence
If I have thanks it is a dear expense.
But herein mean I to enrich my pain,
To have his sight thither and back again. (1.2.226-251)

Two and half years later, I handed the man the slip of paper. On it, I had written sed animo. “What does that mean?” he asked. 

“It’s Latin. It means ‘but with the mind.’ It’s uh, it’s a long story.”

I’m not sure why, exactly, I felt compelled to translate it, but the jeweler said it was much easier to engrave, being shorter, on the wedding band.

***

“The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact,” Jonathan Bate quoted Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (5.1.7-8). Bate, the eminent professor and Oxford provost, was lecturing on “The Magic of Shakespeare” at the Bodleian Libraries. The lecture, as luck had it, came but a few days after my wife and I had began our move to Dublin, staying, as we were, in Oxford until our Irish visas came through. 

Bate argued that Shakespeare viewed poetry as a kind of seduction, “a conjunction of eros and magic.” Both love and verse, he said, have a power to grip our minds, to change our mental states, like magic. During his lecture, I didn’t recall all the ways A Midsummer Night’s Dream cast its spell on my life. Nor, really, after I quickly read the play before the Dublin performance.

But as I stood in ovation to the actors, so far away in time and place and imagination from my chubby fifth-grade self, I realized how right Bate was: No play is quite so enchanting, and originally so, as A Midsummer Night’s Dream.