Her laughter was the clue that there were deeper meanings at work in words – and an invitation for us to solve their secrets.
I’m not moving on from Julius Caesar just quite yet. Yes, I am procrastinating on writing up Antony and Cleopatra; I had a difficult time with the play. But also Julius Caesar marks my earliest memory of Shakespeare. Maybe even one of my earliest memories of literature. You know, Literature – with a capital L.
I was in fifth grade, Mrs. Wagner’s Language Arts class.
She had a mean reputation, Mrs. Wagner. One recess, near the end of fourth grade, some junior high kids told a few of us what to expect next year. They had already survived her. “Wagner the Witch. She’s cold,” they said.
I had seen her around the school. Her hair was long, straight, and a stony gray, like the color of her eyes behind her glasses. Her dresses would swoosh around her ankles as she sliced down the corridors with a sharp purpose. She didn’t sing much during mass.
An eighth-grader moved in closer. “They say she even disowned her son.” I didn’t know what the word disown meant, but I knew it was bad.
The older boys loomed like pubescent giants in the navy-blue pants and starched, white button-downs of our Catholic school uniform. The girls, with their plaid skirts rolled-up just above their fleshy knees and newly-needed bras faintly showing through their blouses, made me blush and look away when they called me “little Kelly.” They knew my older brothers, who had already moved on to high school. The older kids were tall, beautiful, cool. Some of them even smoked cigarettes. I had every reason to believe them.
I looked up disown in the dictionary later that day. I even asked my dad about it, I think. Forget not knowing it was a word. I didn’t know it was a thing one could do –would do – to a family member. What could her son have possibly done?
It turns out I learned a lot of words from Mrs. Wagner.
I talked out of turn often in her class. One period, a classmate, Chris, made a dorky comment. He was at the front of the class. I, form the back, shouted across the full length of those those worn and wooden schoolroom floors: “You’re so queer, Chris.” Mrs. Wagner had a word with me after class. It was then I learned that queer doesn’t just mean “weird.” I had to write a formal apology. I made sure to write the word queer several times in the note.
Another time, I made a snide remark during a movie. I think I called it “boring.” (It was boring.) She sent me out in the locker-lined hallway with a dictionary. Instead of watching the movie, I had to copy out, longhand, an entire page of the dictionary. You could find the definition of the word scorn on this page. She ordered me to pay especial attention to the derived form, scornful. I can still feel that cold, metal locker jutting into my lower back as I sat on the tiled floor, taking my lexical lumps.
Other words got me in trouble, too. One out-of-uniform day, I wore a t-shirt I got at a Crazy Shirts one family trip to San Francisco. It was brandishing some kind of beer or tequila with the slogan: “Warms the gut, burns the butt.” The Lord didn’t approve. I don’t why my parents approved the purchase – or me wearing it to school.
But I learned a lot in her class for all the headaches I caused. (Hey, I still earned my A’s). I read my first real long book: Watership Down. I wrote my first genuinely creative essay; she praised the colloquial color “C’mon” added to my dialogue in it. And I read my first Shakespeare.
It was an adapted text of Julius Caesar with a pink and white cover. A few student volunteers passed them out to the class, our desks arranged face-to-face in two long columns this quarter. We cracked them open and started reading aloud.
If you’ve read the play, you might remember it opens with two tribunes admonishing some tradesman, a carpenter and a cobbler, for rushing off to Caesar’s triumphal parade. They exchange some witty words and sharp barbs:
MURELLUS. But what trade are thou? Answer me directly.
COBBLER. A trade, sir, that I hope I may use with a safe conscience, which is indeed, sir, a mender of bad soles. (1.1.12-14)
At this point, however it was precisely rendered in our adapted text, Mrs. Wagner laughed. She was the only one who laughed. She was the only one who got the joke. Most of us had just learned what a cobbler was.
Mrs. Wagner didn’t stop to explain the joke. She just let it hang there as we kept reading. But her laughter was the clue that there were deeper meanings at work in words – and an invitation for us to solve their secrets.
Mrs. Wagner was a witch in her own way, I suppose. She knew how to cast the spell of literature. And I’ve been under it ever since.
I never did learn what happened with her son, though.
Maybe I am misreading this whole “greatness” thing.
Greatness, I think to myself as I crouch down in the dressing aisle of the grocery store.
It’s just after 9:00am in the middle of the work week. I’ve dropped my wife off at her office and am picking up some odds and ends for the house since I’m already out.
It takes me a minute to find the dressing I’m looking for. There are so many brands. Each brand has so many flavors. Each flavor comes in so many options. Original. Low fat. Fat free.
I do this often at the grocery store. I marvel at all the Greek yogurt we can buy. I find myself in awe of the many kinds of tortilla chips for sale. Today, I stand before this bottled shrine to salad, one of our many temples erected to honor one of our great capitalist gods, Choice. We have so much choice. I, for one, sacrifice my ability to make a decision at its altar.
I find Newman’s Own Caesar. There’s Caesar. There’s also Creamy Caesar. Et tu, Paule?
I stare at the labels, which feature the bust of the brand’s namesake, actor Paul Newman. He’s wearing a laurel wreath. Like Caesar wore – and not just as a symbol of triumph. I recently read in Mary Beard’s SPQR that the wreath also covered up a bald spot. Greatness, I think.
It’s $3.49 with my Ralph’s card. That seems a bit high, I start debating with myself. But all proceeds go to charity. Julius Caesar did a lot for the Roman poor, I recall. Still, I’m not bringing in any money since I’ve quit my job to write and we’ve already got plenty of olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette at home.
I realize I’ve starting debating myself out loud. I look around. Except for an elderly couple slowly pushing a cart at the end of the aisle, the store is practically empty at 9:00am, of course. No one hears me.
And this is what scares me.
Since reading The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, my third play for Shakespeare Confidential, I’ve been thinking a lot about greatness.
It’s hard not to think about greatness after this play. It’s centered on a great man, for one. Aiding administration and agriculture, Julius Caesar left behind the Julian calendar and the month of July, both named for him. He also reformed the Roman government, including centralization and social programs. His military conquests vastly expanded the reach of the Roman Republic, which his ascendancy – and subsequent assassination – transformed into the Roman Empire. He was a pretty good writer, too.
A technocratic commander who helps the poor? Democrats, Republicans, and Independents would all hail: Caesar 2016! His campaign slogan would surely be Venimus, vidimus, vicimus. I don’t think libertarians and the Tea Party would support his constitutional interpretations, though; evangelists would balk at his paganism. And then there’s that whole dictator thing.
OK, but how do we really remember his greatness? Mention Julius Caesar to most people and they’ll say, “Et tu, Brute?” “You too, Brutus?”
He didn’t even say those words.
Alright, a synopsis (or, if that’s, er, Greek to you, a summary):
It’s 44 B.C. Julius Caesar has just defeated the sons of an old enemy, Pompey. He returns to Rome, triumphant, but is famously warned to beware the ides of March (March 15). Mark Antony offers to crown Caesar as king; Cesar refuses, 3 times, in fact, followed by an epileptic seizure. Meanwhile, Cassius compels a conflicted Brutus (once allies of Caesar) and other senators to conspire against his “ambitions,” which threaten to turn the Roman Republic into Caesar’s empire.
On the level of imagery and language, I am particularly struck by the way Shakespeare develops this idea of interpretation throughout the play. Its characters are constantly reading faces and deciphering omens – and often incorrectly.
On a stormy night when lions roam the street and men walk on fire, Caesar’s wife has a portentous dream, but Caesar ultimately disregards it and heads to the Capitol. There, he’s assassinated – stabbed 33 times, in fact. (It all happens pretty quickly in the play; Caesar’s killed in 3.1.) Brutus allows Mark Antony to speak at Caesar’s funeral, and his oratory rouses the populace, especially when he notes that Caesar willed money to the people.
A civil war breaks about between the second triumvirate – Antony, this dude Lepidus, and Octavius, Caesar’s great-nephew and adoptive son – and Brutus and Cassius. Caesar’s ghost appears to Brutus and warns him he will see him again at the the Battle of Philippi, where Brutus and Cassius take on Antony and Octavius.
Before battle, Brutus and Cassius fight about money (and virtue), and Brutus reveals his wife has committed suicide. Cue the tragic bloodbath. During battle, Cassius thinks his friend, Titinius gets captured, although Titinius is actually only celebrating a victory their side achieved. Cassius has his servant kill him, Titinius then kills himself after discovering so, and Brutus, seeing Cassius, falls on the sword his servant holds out for him. Antony marks his death by honoring Brutus’s noble virtue.
The play, which some believe to be the first staged on the Globe in 1599, is relatively short and the action fast. And Shakespeare certainly takes liberties with history for dramatic purposes.
Julius Caesar is also a great play by another great man: Shakespeare. Even if you desperately avoid the Bard, you can’t run from some of this play’s lines. I mean, it’s incredible.
“Et tu, Brute“? As far as we can tell, Caesar never actually said these words. Not even the great Shakespeare said them.
“Beware the ides of March” (Soothsayer, 1.2.19). Shakespeare did it.
“He doth bestride the narrow world / Like a Colossus, and we petty men / Walk under his huge legs, and peep about / To find ourselves dishonourable graves” (Cassius, 1.2.136-39). Shakespeare did it.
“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings” (Cassius, 1.2.141-42). Shakespeare. Same monologue as quoted above.
“…it was Greek to me.” (Casca, 1.2.278) Yep, Shakespeare.
The above lines, now idioms in the English language, come from 1.2 alone.
“I am as constant as the Northern Star…” (Caesar, 3.1.60)
“Cry ‘havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war…” (Antony, 3.1.276)
“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.” (Antony, 3.2.70)
“The evil that men do lives after them; / The good is oft interred with their bones.” (Antony, 3.2.72-73).
“But Brutus says he was ambitious, / And Brutus is an honourable man.” (Antony, 3.2.83-84).
By the way, Antony orates these last three quotes in a single speech.
And oh yeah, as Caesar famously utters upon his assassination: “Et tu, Brute?”(3.1.76) As far as we can tell, Caesar never actually said these words. We believe he either said nothing at all or said to Brutus in Greek: “Kai su, teknon?” “You too, my child?” The precise meaning is up for interpretation.
Also as far as we can tell, Shakespeare didn’t say them up either, although we can probably thank him for keeping these already popular words popular today.
Not even the great Shakespeare said them. Et tu, Gulielme?
Julius Caesar engages great themes. As developed by his words throughout the play, he pits “ambition” (3.2.26) against “virtue” (1.2.92), “conspiracy” (2.1.81) against “constancy,” “fear” (1.3.60) against “mettle” (1.2.303), “faults” (1.2.141) against “fates” (1.2.140), “tyranny” (3.1.77) against “liberty” (3.1.77).
What does it mean to be honorable and noble? How we are to interpret what it means to be “true Romans” (2.1.222)?
On the level of imagery and language, I am particularly struck by the way Shakespeare develops this idea of interpretation throughout the play. Its characters are constantly reading faces and deciphering omens – and often incorrectly. As Caesar asks after his wife, Calpurnia, shares her dream of a bloody, deathly Capitol: “What say the augerers?” (2.2.37)
Caesar has to read the soothsayer’s prophesy. He ignores it. Bad move.
Cassius reads Brutus’ internal conflict on his face. He exploits it.
Caesar reads a “lean and hungry look” on Cassius’ face. Should have acted.
Brutus, Casca, and Cassius have to interpret Caesar’s refusal of the crown and subsequent fainting. Showy and weak?
Brutus reads Cassius’ planted letter urging him to join the conspiracy against Caesar. Did you ask who really authored it, Brutus?
Artemidorus fails to get Caesar to read a letter exposing the assassination. Caesar, we’ve tried to help you so many times.
Brutus has to read the warning of Caesar’s ghost. Should have thought twice going into battle, Marcus.
Cassius reads auguries before the battle. He saw eagles, that’s good, then some lesser birds. Not so good. He also has to determine from afar whether or not Titinius is captured. If you just waited a little longer, man.
And this is just the text of the play. How is Shakespeare interpreting Julius Caesar? How is he reading history? How do we interpret Shakespeare? How do we read history?
How do I read greatness?
The temple of dressings loom larger. I feel light-headed. My thoughts spin.
No one hears me talk to myself because most people are working. Here I am, talking to myself about Julius Caesar and salad dressing on my way back home to write at 9:00am in the morning. There are billions of people in the world, over a billion live in extreme poverty. Half of the people in the world don’t make in a day what this single bottle of dressing costs. Most working folk would be happy to get their shopping done when the store’s so empty. Who am I? Who am I? This is a true luxury, this is true privilege. But shouldn’t I then be taking better advantage of it? I’m an educator by trade; I’ve helped people, I’ve made differences. Yet look at what Caesar accomplished. True, I don’t aspire to power. Or being assassinated.
We don’t have control over our greatness. We don’t have control over how we’re remembered.
Look at what Shakespeare accomplished. I’m poring over his words – a whole industry of people pore over his words – 400 years after his death? And me? I just blog. I’ve never even made enough on my own writing to buy this bottle of Creamy Caesar. In one play surely he leaves us more genius lines than I can ever hope to in a lifetime. What does it mean to be something? Is this my motivation – to make it, to be great? Is to make it to be remembered? There are at least 200 different dressings I could buy right this minute. We only get about 80 years, who knows how many of them good, before we kick the bucket. What do we do with that time, with, if we’re lucky, all the choice we have in our lives? Yet Shakespeare didn’t even make an effort to compile or publish his plays. “What should be in that ‘Caesar’?”
Caesar and Shakespeare are remembered for words they didn’t even say. Et tu, Brute? We don’t have control over our greatness. We don’t have control over how we’re remembered. By sheer association, Caesar’s name lives on in a dressing he had nothing to do with. That’s credited to a Caesar Cardini in Tijuana, Mexico in 1924. Not that we remember that. I imagine even Paul Newman is probably known by many as the dressing guy, not as the award-winning actor and philanthropist.
It’s all up for interpretation.
“This was the noblest Roman of them all,” Antony remembers Brutus.
All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did envy in great Caesar.
He only in a general honest thought
And common good to all made on of them.
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mixed in him that nature might stand up
And say to all the world ‘This was a man’. (5.5.67-74)
I read the bottle of Creamy Caesar. Shake well! A good dressing, like the character of a man, has to be balanced, well-mixed.
Maybe I am misreading this whole greatness thing.
I put the dressing back on the shelf. I think I got more than $3.46 out of it.
Even if Shakespeare had all the effects at J. J. Abrams’ disposal, his most powerful weapon remains his words: “Your naked infants spitted upon pikes.”
“One for Star Wars, please,” I tell the ticket taker.
I like to imagine that some other John, over 400 years ago, stopped by his equivalent of Ralph’s at 2pm on a Tuesday to buy a Tetra Pak of cab sauv, which he snuck into an afternoon showing of Star Wars after eating cucumber avocado rolls in his Prius on his way to the theater.
See, I wasn’t able to write anything meaningful about The Life of Henry the Fifth (Henry V) at home. Naturally, I decided to day-drink at the movies.
For my first, I re-read The Taming of the Shrew. For the second, I thought I would tackle something new. Something difficult – for me at least. I have a blind spot for a few things: the stock market, calendars, monarchical lineages, remembering exactly what my wife does for work, following plots.
Shakespeare’s histories, I knew, would prove quite relevant to American politics today, crazy as the 2016 race has been already. Dynasties, outsiders, campaigns, costumes, power – and so much rhetoric and performance.
So, I flipped through my Norton Shakespeare: Histories and settled on Henry V.
Henry V and Star Wars both intermix the serious with the comic. Both follow a small squad defeating a massive army against impossible odds. Both have triumphant, if suggestive, endings. Both are underdog action flicks with sequel hooks, such are some of the enduring elements of narrative. And both have sabers, of a sort, too.
Blind spot confirmed: I have no mind for plots. As Katherine Maus makes clear in her introduction to the play in my Norton volume: “Shakespeare’s Henry V is the last written of a set of eight plays on medieval English history.” Shit. There are significant parts of Henry V that would have made much more sense – say, the death of Falstaff and why the French don’t take Henry seriously – if I had read the two parts of Henry IV.
But I kind of like it this way. We may study history chronologically in the classroom, but in life, we often come to know it in reverse, don’t we?
I bet a lot of people saw the new episode of Star Wars without having seen the first six.
I didn’t think Henry V and Star Wars would have a lot in common. I was wrong.
Sequels? Check. Prologues? Check. Actors speaking different varieties of English? Check. Men bragging about weapons and kills? Check. Traitors? Check. Political leaders engaging in direct combat? Check. Dudes getting the girl at the end? Check. Droids? Check. Er, that must have been the cab.
Seriously though, there are significant structural similarities. Henry V and Star Wars both intermix the serious with the comic. Both follow a small squad defeating a massive army against impossible odds. Both have triumphant, if suggestive, endings. They are underdog action flicks with sequel hooks, such are some enduring elements of narrative.
And both works have sabers, of a sort, too.
Basically, Henry V is the Battle of Agincourt. Citing some old legal technicalities, the Church assures Harry (Henry goes by Harry) that he has a claim to the French throne. The English mount an attack. Vastly outnumbered and underestimated by the French, they kick some serious ass, aided in no small part by Henry’s pep talks. Henry becomes heir to the French crown and marries the French princess, Catherine.
If I were at the Globe in 1599, I guess I’d be chanting HARRY! HARRY! HARRY! at the curtain call.
There are subplots, too, featuring traitors, lowly plunderers, feisty Welsh, Irish, and Scottish captains, cocky French nobles, the French princess’ hilarious English lesson, and some theatrical time travel.
All in all, the play’s a triumph for Harry, the once reckless youngster now a proven leader – “the strawberry grows underneath the nettle,” as Bishop Ely puts it well in 1.1.61. Of course, I would have better understood his transformation had I first read the preceding histories.
But, as with all things Shakespeare, the play’s more complicated than that. Its Chorus sounds a darker final note as it looks ahead to future military losses, casting a shadow on Harry’s success.
“Tennis balls, my liege.”
In 1.2, the French ambassador presents to the English nobles a treasure chest, the Dauphin’s response to England’s claims on the French throne. Harry asks his uncle, Exeter, to see what’s inside. Exeter answers: “Tennis balls, my liege” (1.2.258).
The French don’t take Harry seriously, his youthful indiscretions still tainting his reputation. It’s an incredible insult. It’s an incredible line. “Tennis balls, my liege.” Did Mel Brooks write this?
After serving up an elaborate tennis simile, Harry responds:
…tell the pleasant Prince this mock of his
Hath turned his balls to gunstones, and his soul
Shall stand sore charged for the wasteful vengeance
That shall fly from them–for many a thousand widows
Shall this his mock mock out of their dear husbands,
Mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down;
Ay, some are yet ungotten and unborn
That shall have cause to curse the Dauphin’s scorn. (1.2.281-88)
Do not mock King Harry. My goodness.
As I was reflecting on this scene, I realized that this is what has really stayed with me from the play: Harry’s language.
If you haven’t read or seen Henry V, you still probably know two of its most famous lines: “Once more unto the breach” (3.1.1) and “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” (4.3.60).
King Henry does some legendary rallying in the play. Let’s put these quotes in context.
In the first, Harry is rousing his men as they siege the port city of Harfleur in Normandy, France:
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more,
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility,
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger.
Stiffen the sinews, conjure up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favoured rage. (3.1.1-8)
Closing up the hole in their defenses with dead soldiers. Wow. What an image.
The second comes from Henry’s St. Crispin’s Day speech (the Battle of Agincourt took place on that feast day). In the following excerpt, Harry again rallies his men, greatly outnumbered by the French:
This story shall the good man teach his son,
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by
From this day to the ending of the world
But we in it shall be remembered,
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition.
And gentlemen in England now abed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day. (4.3.56-67)
Coach Taylor and Braveheart definitely learned a thing or two from King Henry.
And apparently Republican presidential candidate, Senator Ted Cruz. Taking a break from building their Supreme Court case to end the Florida recount during the 2000 election, members of President George W. Bush’s legal team, including then-policy adviser Cruz, joined hands and read the St. Crispin’s Day speech.
What an image.
So yes, Henry delivers incredible battle speeches. His words still inform that sense of fraternity – of a self-sacrificing manliness, of a larger-than-oneself camaraderie – that many modern soldiers (and other tight-knit teams) still experience. It still imbues concepts of patriotism, service, and national identity.
And we like to romanticize it. Politicians even like to capitalize on it.
President Obama takes a lot of flak for not sounding tough enough when he addresses ISIS. Many ridicule him for not calling these terrorists “radical Islamists.” And even if he did talk like Harry, Obama still probably wouldn’t please his critics.
But King Harry knows a thing or too about the loneliness of the office.
There’s this amazing moment in the play. In disguise, King Henry talks to some common soldiers, who think he’s just a fellow fighter. Knowing that the numbers are against them and they may thus lose their lives in vain, the soldiers question the King’s leadership. One, Williams, argues the King may even be responsible for the souls of the slain: “But if the cause be not good, the King himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle shall join together at the latter day…” (4.1.128-31). He’s referring to Judgment Day.
There’s much more to the scene, but, when the soldiers leave the stage, King Henry soliloquizes on the great burden placed “Upon the King”:
‘Let us our lives, our souls, our debts, our care-full wives,
Our children, and our sins, lay on the King.’
We must bear all. O hard condition,
Twin-born with greatness: subject to the breath
Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel
But his own wringing. What infinite heartease
Must kings neglect that private men enjoy?
And what have kings that privates have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?
And what art thou, thou idol ceremony? (4.1.212-22)
The president is our national lightning rod, but we have no idea how heavy the rain, how loud the thunder, how dark the skies of power can be.
But this, too, we like to romanticize. As King Harry observes: “I think the King is but a man” (4.1.99). And in his courting of Catherine (his game is endearingly awkward), he humbly submits: “…take me, take a soldier; take a soldier, take a king” (5.2.160).
That’s so crazy to me now: unlike our modern leaders, Harry fought on the battlefield. Imagine Obama and Putin drawing longswords – some presidential candidates claim that this is how they’ll lead – instead of getting briefed by generals on data collected by drones in situation rooms.
There’s a brutal, physical, and personal violence that comes across so vividly in Harry’s language.
How warfare has changed. Heralds would deliver messages to the opposition in person. In the middle of fighting, parleys would sound so the two sides would cease fighting to negotiate. At the end of a battle, survivors, as the French Herald Montjoy does after the English win the Battle of Agincourt, would “wander o’er this bloody field / To book our dead and then to bury them…” (4.7.64-65). Imagine doing that body count.
Warfare was so direct and immediate. And is, no doubt, for soldiers – and civilians – who’ve experienced war no matter how it’s evolved, as it’s all too easy to forget as we are entertained by so much violence screened in the comfort of our multiplexes.
There’s a brutal, physical, and personal violence that comes across so vividly in Harry’s language. It’s actually pretty terrifying.
Before Agincourt, telling the Governour of Harfleur what he will do if he doesn’t surrender, Harry threatens:
The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,
And the fleshed soldier, rough and hard of heart,
In liberty of bloody hand shall range
With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass
Your fresh fair virgins and flow’ring infant. (3.3.87-91)
But he’s not done:
…–why, in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dashed to the walls;
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds, as the did the wives of Jewry
At Herod’s bloody-hunting slaughtermen.
What say you? Will you yield, and this avoid?
Or, guilty in defence, be thus destroyed? (3.3.110-20)
Holy shit. That is nuts. If I were the Governour of Harfleur, I’d be like, “Uh, yeah man. We’re good. We’re done here.”
In Henry V, we are told that body count yields ten thousand French slain, under 30 English.
That violence isn’t real to me. I don’t think we process violence in terms of the big battle or on such an epic scale. See, even if Shakespeare had all the effects at J. J. Abrams’ disposal, his most powerful weapon remains his words: “Your naked infants spitted upon pikes.”
This is the real power of Shakespeare’s language in Henry V. With these words, we are forced to imagine this disturbing scene.
This is the same reason why in The Force Awakens (yeah, I’m really making this connection) we are disturbed when the Jakku junk dealer offers 60 portions of food for the adorable droid, BB-8. We have to conjure up the little guy being scrapped.
I’m glad that warfare isn’t what it used to be, even if we still cling to long-held visions of heroism. Way fewer people die. I don’t think there is anything more or less heroic about a leader killing enemies with his own hands than by ordering a drone strike.
So, sitting comfortably with boxed wine at a theater in Irvine, Calif., my feet kicked up on the back of the empty seats in front of me, watching the First Order (spoiler) literally blow up a whole star system, I couldn’t help but think how abstract violence has become.
That’s why terrorism is so scary. The violence is personal. Immediate, direct, real. We all have been eating at a cafe or a holiday party.
And that’s why saying things like “bombing the shit out of” or “carpet-bombing” – “once more unto the breach”? – a whole region is easy rhetoric. It’s abstract, far away, somewhere else. Yes, it sounds tough. But it doesn’t force us imagine the little kid returning from the market with some flour for his mom to make bread. It doesn’t force us to imagine the young soldier – a modern-day Williams – risking their life in vain.
Thanks to Harry’s language, at once mighty and menacing, my takeaways from Henry V feel muddied. Shakespeare loves to play in the mud.
But one thing’s for sure, though. Use the force – of language – wisely.
In 2016, it’s not the shrew that’s the problem. It’s the taming.
I don’t think I’m going to take my advice from Petruccio, exactly, but I do think The Taming of the Shrew definitely has something to teach me about marriage.
I’m just gonna lay it out here: My wife and I are going to be starting some couples counseling. Our relationship – especially our communication – needs some work.
THE PERSON OF THE PLAY*
HUGO, their dog
Location: Their apartment. The lady and lord are reading in bed before going to sleep.
[Loud thumps from apartment below]
LADY. What the hell? What are they doing down there?
LORD. Oh, lighten up.
LADY. Excuse me?
LORD. If we’re gonna live in a big city, we gotta get used to some noise.
LADY. But you complain about that noise all the time.
LORD. Yeah, but I’m trying to be less negative, like we talked about. I’m trying to adapt. The neighbors do whatever they’re doing every night at this time. I think they’re just doing bedtime routine stuff, closing cabinets in their bathroom and such.
LADY. I appreciate that, but you don’t have to be so mean about how you say it.
LORD. Always with this “mean.” Anything I say. Even when I’m trying to say it nicely.
LADY. “Lighten up” is your idea of nice?
LORD. You know, I can’t always filter what I’m trying to say. [Gets up from bed.] We are living in the world, language is going to happen.
LADY. I’m your wife. You can be nice to me.
LORD. I only said “lighten up.”
LADY. You’re not listening to me
LORD. No, I hear you, I just resent always being totalized as “mean.” [Exit HUGO]
LADY. You’re not listening to me.
LORD. I don’t think you’re listening to me.
LADY. I’m your wife. You can be on my side about things. Let’s just–
LORD. – it’s just some noise downstairs. [Paces] You’re so sensitive.
LADY. That’s so sexist.
LORD. “Sexist” is characterizing my whole person as “mean.” [Exit JOHN]
*Later editions of this play list the dramatis personae as:
HUGO, their dog
We resolved this argument, just as we’ve resolved so many others like it. Perhaps this disagreement seems pretty mundane, but we’re tired of having them. Here and there, fine. Conflicts are inevitable. But we really think we can do better as a couple. We want to do better.
So, as we start counseling, I thought I would open my yearlong project by reading The Taming of the Shrew. The play is centered on Katherine, told (by an older male, I should note) to go to “the devil’s dam” (1.1.105) – the devil’s mother, worse than the devil himself.
I think we both identify with her.
A quick summary is in order. Be advised: Some swearing is ahead.
TheTaming of the Shrew is a comedy written by Shakespeare by 1592, at least. The main action actually unfolds as a play within a play. (Shakespeare, ever meta, would have owned postmodernism, I think. Some might argue he made it possible.)
“I knew a wench married in an afternoon as she went to the garden for parsley to stuff a rabbit”
The play opens with some nobles tricking this drunk guy, Christopher Sly, into thinking he is a lord. As part of their joke, they put on a play for him. (Classic prank. I used to get my buddies with this all the time.) In this play, various dudes, including a kind of creepy older one, want to marry the beautiful, well-mannered Bianca. But Bianca’s dad, Baptista, locks her up until his oldest daughter, the strong-willed and sharp-tongued Katherine feared and shunned by the men of the play, gets hitched. (That’s pretty fucked up, Mr. Minola.) Some of the suitors disguise themselves, acting as teachers, for example, or pretending to be a servant, in their efforts to win Bianca. Recruited by some other suitors, this Petruccio comes along and takes on the challenge of wooing Katherine. Basically, he “tames” her by out-shrewing her through reverse psychology, giving her a taste of her own medicine. They get married. (It all happens pretty fast.) So does Bianca, meanwhile, involving a subplot with some epic dowry negotiations and more identity changes. Having given up on Bianca, another suitor marries a widow. And Katherine, whom we see Petruccio whip into compliance, turns out to be the most obedient of all the wives.
I had read this play before (more on that in an upcoming post), but I don’t recall laughing as much the first time. There were a few one-liners that struck me as very modern.
First, when Sly awakes from his inebriated blackout, he is confused and then amazed. But all he really wants is another beer (this is how I feel when I go back home to Cincinnati for the holidays):
Upon my life, I am a lord indeed,
And not a tinker, nor Christopher Sly.
Well, bring our lady hither to our sight,
And once again a pot o’th’ smallest ale. (Induction 2.70-73)
Second, later in the play, the character Lucentio, who wins Bianca’s hand in marriage after promising her dad a ridiculous dowry he can’t immediately guarantee, races off to church to seal the deal. One of his servants, Biondello, remarks on their hurried nuptials: “I knew a wench married in an afternoon as she went to the garden for parsley to stuff a rabbit…” (4.5.23-24) This “wench” business aside, that’s a hilarious line. I could hear it from Dwight Schrute.
Finally, the war of wits between Katherine and Petruccio is extraordinary, particularly at 2.1.180. It truly demonstrates Shakespeare’s genius for wordplay. I swear, it’s like Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) and Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) in 30 Rock. As my wife characterizes their (Fey and Baldwin’s) relationship, “it’s insulting but also shows mutual respect.” The only difference here is some serious sexual tension between K and P, if the penis and vagina puns are any measure. They number high. The culmination of a run of puns, Petruccio punches: “What, with my tongue in your tail?” (2.1.214). Dayyum.
Theme-wise, The Taming of the Shrew is complex. By its end, historical identities and power dynamics, inverted throughout the characters’ various disguises, are restored. In her famous, closing monologue, Katherine waxes dutiful:
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign, one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe,
And craves no other tribute at thy hands,
But love, fair looks, and true obedience,
Too little payment for so great a debt. (5.2.150-158)
Once playing masters, servants resume servility. After falling asleep during the play-within-theplay, Sly, in some additional passages, wakes up and returns home, just a lowly drunk once again.
But I can’t help but think that all the role reversals and identity changes and social fluidity, along with moments of what seems to be matched wits and mutual respect between Katherine and Petruccio, calls into question the order of things in Elizabethan England. Is Shakespeare ultimately being ironic?
Still, those identities, while fluid, are restored…
We took a personality test, my wife and I, when I was just a few scenes into the play. It could not have been more apt. Amanda (that’s my wife) read an article in Real Simple which pointed her to a Big Five personality test online. This one’s pretty nifty, because you can rate another person, such as a spouse or sibling, as you rate yourself.
Here are our results:
You’ll note some disagreements. For instance, I rated myself as very Open to New Experiences; she rates me as much more Close-Minded. It looks like we agree to disagree, however: We both see ourselves and each other as Disagreeable (or froward, as the Bard might say).
Kate takes a personality test, too, so to speak. Or rather, the men of the play take it for her. In Elizabeth England, the Big Five was actually the Big Four: the four humors. Rooted in ancient philosophy, humoral theory believed that the four humors that made up the body – blood, black bile, phlegm, and yellow bile – influenced human behavior. Each was associated with what we might call personality traits today: blood (sanguine), black bile (melancholic), phlegm (phlegmatic), and yellow bile (choleric).
Kate is choleric, the play makes clear.
There’s a point in Taming of the Shrew when Petruccio is making Kate’s life a living hell. He denies her food, for instance, by pretending it’s horribly cooked and not good enough for her. He berates the servants in front of her, too, as (we are led to believe) she herself would once have done, to make an example of her nasty temper.
Here, Petruccio tosses aside his mutton, castigates his servants as “heedless jolt-heads” (4.1.147), and tells her the meat was:
….burnt and dried away,
And I expressly am forbid to touch it,
For it engenders choler, planteth anger,
And better ‘twere that both of us did fast,
Since of ourselves ourselves are choleric,
Than feed it with such overroasted flesh. (4.1.151-156)
In other words, “we’re already pretty stubborn and strong-willed people. We’ve got too much yellow bile, and eating this overcooked meat will only add to it.”
Imbalances in the humors causes illness and explains temperaments. So, balancing out excesses was a key to health. (I think I should fast from meat for a bit.)
Which got me thinking. How do we think about personality today, especially when it comes to relationships?
In 2016, it’s not the shrew that’s the problem. It’s the taming.
Identity is so fluid in 2016. We can self-invent, much as we see the characters in Taming of the Shrew do. Popularly speaking, we saw this last year with Caitlyn Jenner. More controversially, we saw this with Rebecca Dolezal.
But I wonder sometimes if personality has become unassailable. If I’m a neat freak and don’t like leaving my comfort zone, for example, it’s up to me to find someone who will mesh wish that. OK. That seems kind of obvious. But does this close off serious reflection – and possible self-improvement – about how those attitudes affect my relationships?
We don’t orbit the sun like a planet in some clean ellipse; instead, our lives are like an asteroid belt.
So, in relationships, it can feel like changing your personality means selling out your authentic self – to compromise who you are, to let someone else control you. In a heated argument, something as mild as “You can be nicer” becomes an assault on one’s integrity: “Who the fuck are you to tell me how I should be?”
There’s no point in trying to re-juice an iPhone 4 with an iPhone 6 charger. Incompatible. Got to upgrade, get a new phone.
But as Amanda cautioned when I was reflecting on this with her, “We all risk ending up being our authentic selves – alone.”
And all this can make it feel like, when there are problems in relationships – or even if you aren’t always experiencing fulfillment and happiness all the time – you just haven’t found your soulmate.
Do our one-person cults of personality choke off meaningful efforts to improve ourselves?
You know, Amanda and I both had grandparents who were married to each other for over 50 years. Fifty fucking years. That’s crazy. We, meanwhile, argue about tone. But it’s easy to romanticize the past. The past didn’t hold the same possibilities for self as we have now. My wife’s the breadwinner in our family. I do, and enjoy doing, the chores. None of this challenges my masculinity. I embrace it.
Personality is not an entitlement.
But as identity is so fluid, as the social order shifts, it can be hard to know what to be, what to do with one’s life. (This, of course, is a crisis of privilege.) Nevertheless, this is why I think we cling to personality. The modern world can be so fragmented, so fast-changing. We switch majors, careers, lovers, spouses, friends, cars, phones, apartments, houses, cities. We don’t orbit the sun like a planet in some clean ellipse; instead, our lives are like an asteroid belt.
We need to know which Star Wars character we are most like to confirm who we are – or at least who we think we are. We need gravity, an orbit, a trajectory, else we burn up like a meteor in the atmosphere.
We thus face a veritably Shakespearean contradiction. We treat our interior personalities as stable (science actually largely backs this up) but our exterior identities as fluid (indeed, social roles are constructed).
This makes life confusing, stressful……or maybe I’m just being a controlling prick sometimes. These situations are not mutually exclusive.
The whole “taming” and “shrew” business is bad news by today’s standards, but Shakespeare’s comedy definitely shakes up my thinking about those arguments I have with my wife. My personality may predispose me to think and act in particular ways, but it is not an entitlement. What’s the harm in unknitting a “threat’ning, unkind brow” (5.2.140)?
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.
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., theSonnets), 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 Shakespeare: Based 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.