Through the pint glass: All’s Well That Ends Well

“Our rash faults make trivial price of serious things we have.”

Of course, I decided to pick a fight the last night he was in town.

My brother and I were at John Morrissey’s, a divey local not even a block from my house. It serves the cheapest Guinness I’ve yet found in Dublin. He’d been in town with my father over the past week, and had to leave for the airport at a head-throbbing 6:30 the next morning. We’d already been drinking the better part of the day – Guinness, whiskey, wine, more wine, dessert wine, Guinness, Guinness, whiskey – so, naturally, we were capping off the day, the visit, with a final drink.

With my first sip, I drained a few inches from my pint and then, out of that unquenchable compulsion for fraternal criticism, fired off my complaints. He was “disengaged” for much of the trip, I charged. Uncharacteristically quiet, sometimes bored-seeming, preoccupied with petty annoyances, grumpy, capturing moment without ever being in the them. “This time is so valuable. This time is precious. I don’t get to see you but twice a year. This time is special,” I preached. 

He fired back that many of my efforts were “forced” and “fake.” The small talk I made when the three of us fell silent during many moments in the trip. The random questions I asked about jobs, girlfriends, interests. “Why can’t we just not talk sometimes? We talk on the phone all the time. So what if there’s nothing new to say?” He disappeared several black ounces of his own, wiped away the foamy mustache, and added, “Why do you think you’re so much better than me?”

The barman came by. My brother signaled for another round.

I can be such a Bertram.

***

In Shakespeare’s comedy All’s Well That Ends Well, lowly, orphaned Helen is secretly in love with Bertram, the young Count of Roussillon who, having just lost his father, becomes a ward of the King of France. The King is deathly ill, and Helen is in possession of a powerful remedy left to her by her father. After she convinces him to administer the medicine, the King offers Helen a reward of her choosing. She chooses Bertram in marriage.

Everybody loves Helen – she is “all that is virtuous” (2.3.118) – except for her future husband. Here’s Bertram’s oh-so-gracious response when he learns that the King promised his hand to her:

…I know her well:
She had her breeding at my father’s charge.
A poor physician’s daughter, my wife? Disdain
Rather corrupt me forever. (2.3.109-112).

“Proud, scornful boy, unworthy this good gift,” the King rejoins. “Check thy contempt” (2.3.147-53).  Bertram gives agreement to the marriage only to run off to fight (and have his fun) in some Tuscan wars.

Over there, he tries to woo a woman, Diana, but Helen, ever the enterprising heroine, manages to track them all down and pull off the old “bed trick”: Bertram thinks he sleeps with Diana, but he can’t tell it’s actually Helen in the dark. Helen also executes some crafty ring exchanges, which become tell-tale signs of his dishonesty when Bertram returns to the French court. Bertram, caught and suddenly transformed, pledges to “love her dearly, ever ever dearly,” his now pregnant wife (5.3.313).

Though the modern woman may have long since ditched the somehow speedily redeemed Bertram, Helen does get the last word. She delivers an ultimatum: “If it appear not plain,” she says of Bertram’s vow, “and prove untrue, / Deadly divorce step between me and you” (5.3.314-15).

***

Gender, class, sex, love, marriage, character – All’s Well That Ends Well, as we are accustomed from the Bard, trades in big, complex themes. One leaves this play struggling to reconcile Helen’s steadfast commitment to a dirtbag. But one leaves it, too, admiring her, ever ambitious, clever, persuasive, and effective, judged by her inner virtue, not her social station. Except by that blasted ingrate, Bertram. And we should remember Helen was an un-titled, un-moneyed orphan who used her brains and tenacity to – forget love – land her a Count and a dowry from the King. Why, we might even Helen really leaned in.

Intermixed in All’s Well is some terrific comedy, too. Word nerd that I am, I have to share one subplot: Some French lords trick Paroles, Bertram’s all-talk buddy, to expose him for the coward and liar he is. Their plot involves a fake ransom, and the lords decide to speak in a gibberish to disorient a captured Paroles. Shakespeare’s made-up words here are simply delightful and give us a fascinating insight into his linguistic imagination: “Oscorbidulchos volvicoro” (4.1.74) and “Boblinbindo chicurmurcho” (4.3.122), as one lord utters. These are incredible, fanciful specimens from the man whose actual words are a bible and dictionary for the English language. What was his thought process when he created this verbiage?

All’s Well That Ends Well’s messages have really lingered with me. It’s probably because I see too much of myself in Bertram’s pride and scorn.

And then we have the moralizing. Usually, any shade of lesson-mongering leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, but some of All’s Well messages have, well, really lingered with me. It’s probably because I see too much of myself in Bertram’s pride and scorn. Here are a few examples:

Before Bertram’s widowed mother sends him off to the King, she offers up some really solid life advice:

…Love all, trust a few,
Do wrong to none. Be able for thine enemy
Rather in power than use, and keep thy friend
Under thy own life’s key. Be checked for silence
But never taxed for speech. (1.1.57-61)

Later, as he rebukes Bertram for his repugnant snubbing of Helen, the King waxes moral on the nature of honor: “…honours thrive / When rather from our acts we them derive / Than our foregoers” (2.3.131-33). 

The King again speaks some truth after Bertram returns from the war. This is before the King learns of Bertram’s lies. At this point, the King thinks Helen has died and, now a widower, Bertram has married Diana, which the King forgives. (Yeah, Bertram was real class.) Plot aside, the King’s remarks at this point are quite moving:

…Our rash faults
Make trivial price of serious things we have,
Not knowing them until we know their grave.
Oft our displeasures, to ourselves unjust,
Destroy our friends and after weep their dust.
Our own love waking cries to see what’s done,
While shameful hate sleeps out the afternoon. (5.3.61-67)

Words of wisdom sound so much wiser when they are dressed up by Shakespeare, don’t they? It certainly doesn’t hurt that they are not coming from own mothers and fathers. From our own older brothers.

***

We waited for the fresh pints to settle. My brother went to the bathroom, stepped outside, or, for all I can remember at that point, sat beside me on his barstool without talking. I didn’t check him for silence. I wasn’t taxed for speech.

I angled back to force the flat, sour sediment down, and, in the wan and sticky light of Morrissey’s late-night pub, it glowed nobly with a faint ruby red.

I swayed and swerved in a drunkenness, a tiredness, a sadness for endings and farewells that sits in the stomach, heavy, dark, and lukewarm like the dregs of a Guinness, the foamy residue of little, niggling regrets sticking to the walls of my head, layer after layer until it sinks down in its frothy bottom. Our rash faults make trivial price of serious things we have. Where do these expectations come from? Proud, scornful boy. This posturing, this sanctimony? “Why do you think you’re so much better than me?” Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none. This judgment, this passive-aggressive shaming? Oft our displeasures, to ourselves unjust, destroy our friends and after weep their dust. To be blind to, to choose to be blind to, all the good that’s before us while yet chiding them for the same, knowing well later it will only issue remorse, apology? “Why do you think you’re so much better than me?” To make such effort for a free-flowing, self-unclouded authenticity and being-present-ness that can never be compelled? Honours thrive when rather from our acts we derive them. To dream up better-selves and sneer at how they fail to perform their imaginary parts and deliver their unassigned lines? In pursuit of some elsewhere here, some else-time now, orphaning the very longed-for present? Why do you think you’re so much better than me, callow, haughty Bertram, “thou dislik’st / Of virtue for the name” (2.3.119-120). 

I looked at my old pint glass. An inch of spit-spumed, muddy-colored sludge curdled at its butt. I certainly don’t think I’m better than these last, stale drops. I angled back to force the flat, sour sediment down, and, in the wan and sticky light of Morrissey’s late-night pub, it glowed nobly with a faint ruby red.

We moved on – and to our last pints, cool to the touch and creamy on the tongue. “All yet seems well; and if it end so meet, / The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet” (5.3.329-30).

Sibling rivalries: As You Like It

Brothers will always wrestle – in one form or another.

My brother gripped my arms and twisted me to the ground. On my way down, I crashed into and through set of doors. That’s when our father came down. “What are you guys doing down here?”

We caught our breaths. We wiped sweat from our brows. Our faces were red from exertion. He had taken off his shirt. I rubbed my arms, chafing from rug burn and dinged up in my fall.

“Everything’s OK, Dad,” my brother answered. “We’re just, uh, doing some wrestling.”

“At two in the morning? It sounds like an orgy!” His tone was bemused. I like to imagine our fraternal roughhousing was as nostalgic for him as it was for my brother and me. Seldom are the times when we all sleep under the same roof. Long past are the days when any late-night horseplay roused the sleeping patriarch.

“You brought the whole bottle down here?” My father pointed to the Maker’s Mark on the coffee table, which we pushed aside to make extra room for our inebriated and impromptu wrestling match in the basement guest suite at my father’s house. We had already polished off a special – and expensive – bottle of scotch he bought for our Christmas celebrations this year. Naturally, we moved onto bourbon. This, too, was a brand-new bottle purchased for the occasion.

“We’ll knock it off,” I assured.

He went back upstairs. The two of us laughed, took swigs of whiskey, and assumed our crouched stances.

***

“All the world’s a stage,” the gloomy nobleman Jaques famously muses in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. “And all the men and women merely players” (2.7.138-39). While a thematic obsession throughout his corpus, this comedy particularly plays with the theater of social identity.

It’s a brilliant and rewarding romantic comedy, but I was particularly struck by its attention to one particular social role in its cast of characters: being a brother.

As You Like It isn’t a busy play. Set almost entirely in a French forest, it features the romance of Orlando and Rosalind. Duke Frederick sets the play in motion after he usurps and banishes his younger brother, Duke Senior. Meanwhile, Orlando, the abused younger brother of Oliver, takes on Frederick’s wrestler and wins. At the match, he falls in love with Rosalind, Senior’s daughter and sister-like friend to his own daughter, Celia. Feeling threatened by Rosalind, Frederick banishes her. She, with Celia, flees to the forest, where Orlando has also fled to escape threats from the duke – and on his life from his own brother. Duke Senior likewise has taken refuge in the same woods. To flee, Rosalind disguises herself as a man, calling herself Ganymede, and Celia as a lowly rustic, Aliena.  (Adding to the comedy, of course, is that both women were played by men on Shakespeare’s stage, making them men posing as women posing as men.)

In the forest, Ganymede encounters a lovesick Orlando, whom, ironically, she mentors in wooing Rosalind – herself. Duke Frederick then comes searching for his daughter in the woods. So, too, Oliver to finish off his brother, but he changes his minds after Orlando saves his life. Duke Frederick also changes heart and restores his brother to his rightful rule. True to the pastoral genre, all real identities are revealed in the end. All disorder is ordered. All separated are (re)united, including Rosalind and Orlando, who marry.

As You Like It also features a wonderful clown, Touchstone; folk songs of historical note; some curious early animal rights activism; the jaded and melancholy monologues of Jaques; and the only known epilogue delivered by a woman (though, again, played by a man) in Elizabethan theater. It’s a brilliant and rewarding romantic comedy, but I was particularly struck by its attention to one particular social role in its cast of characters: being a brother.

***

Let’s take Oliver and Orlando. Oliver, the older brother, inherits his father’s estate, but he detests his younger brother, depriving him a gentleman’s education – not to mention trying to kill him. He explains his irrational hatred:

I hope I shall see the end of him, for my soul – yet I know not why – hates nothing more than he. Yet he’s gentle; never schooled, and yet learned; full of noble device; of all sorts enchantingly beloved; and indeed, so much in the heart of the world, and especially of my own people, who best know him, that I am altogether misprized. But it shall not be so long. (1.1.139-45)

Duke Frederick, the younger brother, is similarly jealous and tyrannical, as one of his attendants explains:

The other is daughter to the banished Duke,
And here detained by her usurping uncle
To keep his daughter company, whose loves
Are dearer than the natural bond of sisters.
But I can tell you that of late this Duke
Hath ta’en displeasure ‘gainst his gentle niece,
Grounded upon no other argument
But that the people praise her for her virtues
And pity her for her good father’s sake. (1.2.240-48)

Now, Oliver and Frederick’s actions are extreme. This, in part, ignites the plot and adds fuel to the comedic fire. But I think all brothers and sisters can relate to their reasons: sibling rivalry. And while he doesn’t directly grapple with his brother, Orlando’s match with Duke Frederick’s wrestler, Charles, perfectly encapsulates fraternal competition.

***

I am the youngest of three brothers. My oldest is six years my senior. My middle brother, my wrestling opponent, four. The three of us are very close, thanks in large part to my parent’s divorce, I think. We sought refuge in each other – like the forest sanctuary in As You Like It – during the shared trial. We still process it nearly 25 years later. In spite of it, good parenting, and perhaps our native personalities, helped to bond us especially tightly.

The forest is a place where true selves are liberated from their social constructions and meditations, where brothers can put aside their rivalries, meeting not in competition but in play.

But we’ve also wrestled over the years. I wrestled especially with my middle brother.  Growing up, he’d let me tag along with his friends after school. He’d watch after me on playgrounds. We’d share rooms, beds. Years later, cigarettes, drinks, dreams – and not a few insecurities that only affinity and intimacy can set off.

He made a snarky comment one Christmas Eve dinner when we were both in our twenties, or at least I very near it. I accidentally poured too much sauce onto some meat. “You want some steak with that sauce?” he teased me.

“Why do you have to comment on everything I do?” I snapped. He hit a nerve. I overreacted. From there, well, let’s just say we ruined dinner.

Now both in our thirties, I hit my own nerve just the other day. He was in a rough patch but I still preachily niggled him over some self-exaggerated affront. “Why do you always think you’re better than me?” he said. Er, shouted. I pushed his buttons. But that’s siblings: We go postal over the pettiest slights, feeling in their inconsequence the blood-thickest of import.

But just as we erupt like H-bombs, so do siblings forgive and forget. Shouts and curses hotter than Satan’s own fire and brimstone quickly cool off with apologies and affections.

Here’s how Oliver comes back to his senses. Slowly revealing his identity by referring to himself in the third-person, he relates, with shame and humility, how his brother saves his life when he’s asleep in the woods:

…About his neck
A green and gilded snake had wreathed itself,
Who with her head, nimble in threats, approached
The opening of his mouth. But suddenly
Seeing Orlando, it unlinked itself,
And with indented glides did slip away
Into a bush, under which bush’s shade
A lioness, with udders all drawn dry,
Lay crouching, head on ground, with catlike watch
When that the sleeping man should stir. For ’tis
The royal disposition of that beast
To prey on nothing that doth seem as dead.
This seen, Orlando did approach the man
And found it was his brother, his elder brother…
Twice did he turn his back, and purposed so.
But kindness, nobler ever than revenge,
And nature, stronger than his just occasion,
Made him give battle to the lioness,
Who quickly fell before him…(4.3.106-30)

Orlando rescues his brother, though he did think about leaving him to the lion. Twice. (Brothers.)

As for Duke Frederick, he apparently has a sudden religious awakening. As Jaques reports:

Duke Frederick, learning how that every day
Men of great worth resorted to this forest,
Addressed a mighty power, which were on foot,
In his own conduct purposely to take
His brother here, and put him to the sword.
And to the skirts of this wild wood he came
Where, meeting with an old religious man,
After some question with him was converted
Both from his enterprise and from the world,
His crown bequeathing to his banished brother,
And all their lands restored to them again
That were with him exiled. (5.4.143-54)

Oliver and Ferdinand’s seismic metanoia might seem like some incredulous plot device serving only to drive the play’s climactic unions. But for all its convenience, their changes thicken the symbolism of the forest in the play. The woods are a dangerous place where lions and snakes lurk. Mysterious, hermitic spiritualists find home there, too. It’s a place of hunger, as we see many characters complaining of appetites as ravenous as its skulking beasts’. It’s a place of disguise and magic. It’s a place of transformation, of wildness and authenticity, removed from the political artifices, vanities, crises, and considerations of the city and the court. A place where true selves are revealed, re-calibrated. Liberated, even, from their social constructions and meditations, where brothers can put aside their rivalries, meeting not in competition but in play.

***

The next morning, we slept late. Remarkably, neither of us rubbed our foreheads for as much as we boozed. But we did rub our arms and shoulders and thighs. We aren’t such young men anymore.

“I had you in a couple of pins last night,” my brother bragged.

“You didn’t pin me. I wriggled out of each one.”

“Dude, I threw you through a set of doors.”

“And you called it a night right as I had you pressed on the ground.”

We aren’t such young men anymore, but we are brothers – and brothers will always wrestle in one form or another.