Completions and communions

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

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.

Balcony scenes: Romeo and Juliet

It’s the story, stupid.

1.1
Outside Capulet’s house

When I cupped her boob, laughter erupted.

“What’s so funny?” I asked my friend.

“You’re standing, like, five feet away from her,” he said.

His father thrust his hips back and shot an arm high into the air. “Get a good feel there, Johnny?”

Even my friend’s mother was snickering as she captured my clumsy groping for all time.

I cleared the way and watched the next tourist, who posed for the camera – at a reasonable, comfortable distance.

“Least I did it,” I elbowed my friend.

He was too shy to touch the boob. Juliet Capulet’s boob, that is.

In a medieval courtyard in Verona, the brick thick with ivy and lovers’ graffiti, stands a statue of Juliet Capulet, her bronze breast polished smooth and shiny by countless hands, underneath the very balcony, legend has it, Shakespeare immortalized in The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.

Touching her breast, tradition has it, brings luck in love. Touched, indeed: In 2014, the city had to remove and repair the statue, for a crack had appeared in her talismanic breast as well as in her arm.

***

4.3
An airplane over the Atlantic

That was one of my earliest memories of this play, as I recalled my awkward statue molestation while reading Romeo and Juliet for the fourth time 30,000 feet in the air. The summer before I went into high school, my friend, his father, and I tagged along an educational European tour for high-schoolers where his mother taught.

My wife and I were heading home for Christmas, a direct flight from Dublin to Los Angeles. I had three plays left, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Edward III, some odd poems, and only two busy and booze-filled weeks to finish. This flight was essential. But the airborne Bard hadn’t treated me so well in the past. The Sonnets left me short on attention, you’ll remember, and on cabernet sauvignon.

I’ll scroll through the movies option, I allowed. Just in case I need a little break…or deserve a reward. I tapped my touchscreen. It wasn’t responding. I tapped it again. Then I peppered it with jabs. The system jerkily caught up with my commands and sent me to the family movie section. A thumbnail of Gnomeo & Juliet popped up. Of course. But did they really premise this entire film on wordplay?

“Something to drink, sir?” Drink service arrived to my row.

“Uh, yes. Red wine, please.” Clearly I hadn’t learned my lesson about Shakespeare, wine, and airplanes. I saw the flight attendant eye my Norton doorstopper.

“What do you have your head in there?” he asked.

“Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet.”

“Ah, Romeo and Juliet,” he trilled. “Light reading for a flight.”

“You can say that again.”

“‘O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!’” he intoned above the din of jet engines. I had just finished that scene, incredibly. Then he – the most charming steward I’d ever met, and the most knowledgeable about Shakespeare, to be sure – burst into chuckles as he recalled some hilarious production of the play he’d seen.

Everyone has a story about Romeo and Juliet, I thought. If person has read only one Shakespeare play, it’s gotta be Romeo and Juliet. But I, for one, have never really understood the infatuation.

***

3.0
[Enter] CHORUS

Permit me a little soapboxing, er, shouting from the balcony:

First, Romeo starts out in love, albeit unrequited, with a young woman named Rosaline. It when he sneaks into a Montague masquerade, for the express purpose of checking out Rosaline, that he glimpses, and instantly falls in love with, Juliet.

Second, Juliet is 13. Forget all you’ve heard about Elizabethans, Shakespeare’s original audience, mind you, marrying young. During the Bard’s day, the mean age of marriage was 27.

True love? Or just being horny? What do you think Shakespeare is getting at with all of Mercutio’s sex jokes, and his puns on the firm steel of a drawn sword? And in the famous balcony scene, after Romeo’s famed “It is the east” opening, he launches right into the poetic equivalent of ‘Have sex with me.’ Don’t be the maid of Diana, goddess of chastity, he says: “Her vestal livery is but sick and green, / And none but fools do wear it; cast it off” (2.1.50-51). Then, when he proposes immediate marriage, just after his first disclosure of his love, even Juliet says, “It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden / Too like the lightning which doth cease to be / Ere one can say it lightens” (2.1.160-62).

I can’t help but think Shakespeare’s winking at us with his sensational finale. There’s an element of comedy in their over-the-top deaths.

Third is their ridiculous double suicide. Recall that Romeo is a Montague, long feuding with the Capulets, Juliet’s family. This precipitates 1) their secret, forbidden marriage and 2) a fight in which Romeo kills Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin, prompting Romeo’s exile. Friar Laurence concocts a plan to reunite them, including Juliet taking a sleeping potion that causes Romeo to think she’s dead. So, he downs some lethal poison, leading Juliet to stab herself to death when she discovers his corpse after coming to.

Passion? Pshaw. This is just the heedless, reckless impulsivity of adolescence. I side with the cooling wisdom of Friar Laurence: “These violent delights have violent ends…Therefore love moderately. Long love doth so. / Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow” (2.5.9-15). And I can’t help but think Shakespeare’s winking at us with his sensational finale. There’s an element of comedy in their over-the-top deaths.

Finally, everyone constantly misquotes some of the play’s most famous lines. “Star-crossed lovers” (P.6)? Star-crossed isn’t a good thing. It refers, in the astrology of the day, to the stars that appeared when they were born; here, the stars thwarted, or crossed, the lovers’ destinies.

And as for the play’s most famous line of all? “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” (2.1.74-75)

***

2.5
A classroom in Cincinnati, Ohio

“What does ‘wherefore’ mean?” I asked the ninth-graders, who were about the same age I was when I touched the Juliet nearly 15 years before.

This was the only time I properly taught Shakespeare, my semester of student-teaching. (Technically, I aided instruction of an adapted text The Merchant of Venice to a small group of seniors with learning disabilities. They found Portia’s “pound of flesh” strategy brilliant.)

Preparing for the unit, I reread Romeo Juliet, which I can vaguely remember reading my own freshman year, in the very same Norton Shakespeare I used this time around. There is evidence of my lesson planning in the margins. Symbolism of nurse, I jotted and heavily underlined. Opposites: Poison in beautiful flowers. Oxymorons, I wrote next to Romeo’s  “O brawling love, O loving hate” (1.1.169). Love turns everything upside down. Reversing/turning meanings. Their love is pure, but irony that the pretense to meet is under shrift/confession. Who’s responsible for the deaths? Themselves? Friar? Capulet/Montague? Friar John?

“‘Where’?” a student offered.

“That’s what it definitely sounds like. Plus, Juliet thinks she’s all alone, pining for her absent lover. Good thinking, but not quite. Anyone else?”

“It means ‘why’,” another student supplied.

“Yes! She’s saying, ‘Why does your name have to be Romeo?’ A Montague. The enemy of her family. How did you know that?”

“It says it in the book. I ain’t no dummy, Mr. Kelly!”

“And you ain’t gotta be salty about it!” The class erupted in laughter. “I was giving you props.”

“Let me tell you something,” I continued. I switched from teacherspeak to ‘real talk’ as I circulated the room, high up on my imaginary pulpit. “There’s no secret to being smart. Smart is knowing how to use your resources. Like your book, which defines some of those old-sounding words that make Shakespeare seem hard. You think I know what all those words mean? No. I just know what tools are available to me and how to use them. Wherefore sounds like where. But language changes. Words change. Take Slang. Does anyone here say phat anymore? No. You’ll sound like a…” I paused for dramatic effect. “A biscuit head.” Laughter. It was probably most effective tactic as a teacher. Not irony or oxymoron or critical thinking questions. Self-deprecation.

***

3.5
An apartment in Irvine, California

Early on in Shakespeare Confidential, before we moved to Dublin, my wife suggested I read Romeo and Juliet so we could act out the balcony scene. Our apartment had a very tall loft overlooking the living room.

I had no mind to read Romeo and Juliet just yet, thinking it one of the more overhyped plays in his oeuvre. But I did agree to try the scene.

“Where’s your passion? Where’s your spontaneity? Where’s your sense of fun?”

I started with some spirit:

“‘But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? / It the east, and Juliet is the sun. / Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon…’” (2.1.44-46).

The crown of my wife’s head comically emerged up from the ledge when I got to [Enter JULIET aloft].

“‘O, that I were a glove upon that hand,
That I might touch that cheek!’” (2.1.66-67).

My enthusiasm was started to wane, but my wife had no problem dusting off her drama chops from high school.

“‘O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?…
What’s in a name? That we which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet.’” (2.1.74-86).

She delivered it in artful diction.

“Ah, this is so corny,” I broke in, polishing off my bourbon.

“That’s not your line!” She drained the last of her gin and tonic.

“You don’t think Shakespeare actually wanted us to take seriously alls this flowery sweet talk from two teenagers, do you?”

“Where’s your passion? Where’s your spontaneity? Where’s your sense of fun?”

“But,  but…”

***

4.4
Terminal 2, Los Angeles International Airport

Over a grande black coffee outside the gate, where my wife and I waited for her sister and then-boyfriend to land, I finished the final act of Romeo and Juliet.

Closing the book with a sigh, I looked over at the Starbucks line. Everyone in line was Hispanic. Baristas called for “Double mocha frappuccino” as customers presented smartphones for payment. Families chatted, stared at cellphones, or paced restlessly with their coffee drinks. Loved ones would emerge. Hugs. Cheers. One man went in for a kiss to the women he was greeting. She playfully thwarted it and grabbed the frothy pink drink out of his hand. She made a joke in Spanish. He laughed. They embraced.

This is America, I thought. This is love.

“I finished Romeo and Juliet,” I told my wife, who was watching Netflix on LAX WiFi, her phone charging in one of the few remaining sockets.

“Nice!” She gave me a solid high-five.

Last year around this time, I caused a fight that almost pushed our marriage over the edge. The very fight that, in some ways, lead to me reading all this Shakespeare in the first place. 

“You remember that old couple we saw at Marks and Spencer’s?” We were at the department before we flew home because her father – part humorously, part tortuously, and mostly seriously – had asked for some silk boxers for Christmas.

“Oh, with the elderly man who asked his wife, ‘Honey, do I like boxers or briefs’? and then she had to show him how to shop for underwear?”

***

2.6
A classroom in Cincinnati, Ohio

In one short semester, I wasn’t going to get my students’ reading levels up to tackle the text of Romeo and Juliet on their own. But that didn’t mean they couldn’t appreciate Shakespeare. Far from it. Let’s not forget Shakespeare wasn’t meant to be read.

It was simple. They liked the story.

The students followed along a version of the text in those bulky, grade-level literature textbooks (remember those?) as we listened to an audio play. Then, dutifully, we watched Leonard DiCaprio and Claire Danes in Baz Luhrmann’s surprise 1996 hit Romeo + Juliet. Anymore, watching that film in the ninth-grade is as much a rite of passage as actually reading the play.

“He look so young!” one girl shrieked at DiCaprio. 

Broadsword. That’s tight!” a boy noted of the Luhrmann’s substitution of guns for swords.

No pontificating here. The students watched the movie raptly. Attendance was higher on those days, I noted.

It was simple. They liked the story.

***

3.6
Outside Capulet’s house

ROMEO. Lady, by yonder blessed moon I vow,
That tips with silver all these fruit-tree tops–

JULIET. O swear not by the moon, th’inconstant moon
That monthly changes in her circled orb,
Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.

ROMEO. What shall I swear by?

JULIET. Do not swear at all,
Or if thou wilt, swear by thy gracious self,
Which is the god of my idolatry,
And I’ll believe thee.

ROMEO. If my heart’s dear love–

JULIET. Well, do not swear. (2.1.149-58)

***

3.0
CHORUS

Friar Laurence objects to Romeo and Juliet’s hasty matrimony, but, come to think of it, he still marries them.

***

1.2
Somewhere outside Verona

As luck would have it, I had my first kiss a few days after I touched Juliet’s breast. With a high-schooler. At the end of trip, we exchanged wistful goodbye notes. I’m almost certain that, somewhere in my sappy, pretentious, and callow valediction, I included Juliet’s famous farewell: “Parting is such sweet sorrow…” (2.1.229).

Good Lord. But it’s true. Everyone has a story about Romeo and Juliet. It’s simple: We like the story.