Completions and communions

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

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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.

Hearing heirs: The Tempest

Should I get my ears checked?

My nephew waved his chubby fingers at the camera. He smiled and then stared, transfixed, as babies are, as we all are, at the moving images and intermittent sounds from the iPad. Over 3500 miles away, he was basking in the center of attention at a belated Thanksgiving celebration at my father’s house. My father, middle brother, stepmother, and stepsister each passed through the FaceTime picture, the commotion of cooking and dogs, chatter and moving bodies, the commotion of family and gathering, in the background.

“How are you, buddy?” I said. “Are you looking forward to dinner?” I never know what to say to babies. I try out a little baby-talk but inevitably shake it off for normal speech. I waved back, smiled, and then stared back, transfixed.

I was transfixed, of course, by his shaggy, sandy-colored bangs. By his plump, grinning cheeks, his eyes, nutty-brown and just as plump. But I was also transfixed by my nephew as such. That he was my brother’s child. That he was this emerging being who could walk, loved music, and called everything in his nascent lexicon “blue.” That he exists. That he is. “O wonder!” as Miranda says in The Tempest after she sees her first humans other than her father and his slave Caliban:

How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in’t! (5.1.184-87)

I took my nephew in. I looked for my brother in his face. I looked for my family, our eyes and noses, our jaws and brows. I looked for myself, too, and I tried to my imagine my own child. But I couldn’t.

***

In The Tempest, we learn Prospero, Duke of Milan, fled to an island in the Mediterranean with his three-year-old daughter, Miranda, after his brother, Antonio, usurped him and pledged tribute to the enemy state of Naples. As Prospero explains: “The government I cast upon my brother, / And to my state grew stranger, being transported / And rapt in secret studies” (1.2.75-77). From his books (“volumes I prize above my dukedom”), he learned magic, using them to control Ariel, a spirit, and Caliban, a grotesque native (1.2.169-70). Twelve years later, he wields his magic to conjure up a storm that shipwrecks Antonio, the Duke of Naples, his son Ferdinand, and other royal characters on the island. This sets in motion having Ferdinand and Miranda fall in love and marry, restoring his dukedom, and pardoning his brother. In the end, he abandons his magic to return to Milan: “Now my charms are all o’erthrown, / And what strength I have’s mine own,” Prospero says in an epilogue some consider to be Shakespeare’s farewell address to the theater (1-2).

In telling The Tempest, Shakespeare constructs – and I don’t think I’d ever have noticed this if my college Shakespeare professor hadn’t brilliantly pointed it out – an elaborate system of wordplay: hair, art, ear, air, hear, and Ariel. All of these, furthered by motifs of sounds and listening throughout the play, pun on the word heir. And The Tempest is indeed rapt with the issue of heirs. After the storm, Alonso, the Duke of Naples, believes he has lost Ferdinand, his “heir / Of Napes and of Milan” (2.1.111-12). One of the nobles, Gonzalo, imagines a utopian state free of “succession,” or the inheritance of property (2.1.151). Prospero was deposed from power by his brother but himself deposes Caliban, the rightful heir of the island. In a subplot, two of Alonso’s servants get Caliban drunk, and Caliban plots to help them overtake Prospero and serve them as his new masters. In another subplot, Antonio encourages Sebastian to overthrow his own brother, the Duke of Naples. Prospero marries Miranda and Ferdinand, his new heir, and in a celebratory masque, has a spirit “bless this twain, that they may prosperous be, / And honoured in their issue” (4.1.104-05).

***

Heirs are about political and financial power, of course, and The Tempest no doubt fully explores this. But heirs concern a more personal power, too, a kind of masculine power: In our children, there is a this-is-my-flesh-and-blood authority, an I-made-this pride and legacy. Even Prospero, wants what’s his, even if he more’s interested in magic than administration: his inherited dukedom and for his heirs to succeed him. Or so I imagine. Because I don’t have children – and I’m not sure I’ll ever want to.

But I’ve also just never felt that more ancient instinct: the this-is-my-flesh-and-blood, I-made-this paternity. To pass down my genes. To pass down my name. To bring a little me into the world.

This is not an issue with my wife. She feels the same way.  We both think we would be great parents, yes, and we both know our families would love it if we did. But currently we’re just not interested in it. Maybe this is because were early-30s millennials, the idea of children inconveniencing our career goals, our travels, our lifestyle, er, drinking. Maybe this is because were concerned about the future. Does our suffering planet need our kids? Do we want to bring a kid into a world, to be perfectly honest, where Donald Trump is president?

Is this selfish? Privileged? Naive? Insulting to couples who want to have children but can’t? Are we denying ourselves of some greater fulfillment, purpose, and actualization by not being parents, by never so wholly caring for someone other than yourself? Is it on some level hypocritical, as the decision not to have children is only possible because my parents decided to have us? Is it on some level anti-biological, denying my genes their evolutionarily hard-fought, hard-wired expression?

All of that may very well be. But I’ve also just never felt that more ancient instinct: the this-is-my-flesh-and-blood, I-made-this paternity. To pass down my genes. To pass down my name. To bring a little me into the world. Of course, there is so much more to parenthood than my crude characterization. There is the profound love and joy. The opportunity to mould the next Albert Einstein or Marie Curie, Billie Holiday or William Shakespeare. Historically at least, there is the economic support of extra labor on the farm, of care for aging parents. And there’s sociocultural reality, the biological reality, that reproduction is simply what we do – and that most of us never question we will do, because we know we will do it, because we’ve always known we will do it, because having children is what we do, as couples, as members of a culture or nation or religion, as descendants of a tribe, as men, as women, as humans, as penises and vaginas, as organisms, as self-replicating DNA. That deep urge to be parents is literally in our bones.

Even if I don’t want children, why have I never heard it in mine? It’s one thing to make a principled decision not to have children. But isn’t it another when you listen out for the primal impulse and come up deaf? Why don’t I hear heir? And does this silence make me abnormal, less-than, like some Caliban? Hell, even Caliban “peopled else / This isle with  Calibans” (1.2.353-54).

***

My nephew freed his gaze from the iPad’s mesmerism. He smiled, looked up at his dad, lifted his blue-striped shirt to show off his stomach, and then laughed. “Is that your bellybutton?” my brother laughed with him. “Is that your bellybutton?” I may not hear the parental calling myself, but I’m not blind to its magic.