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.

Twelfth Night, Or the Five Stages of Trying Not to Sound Like a Douchebag

Is the worst kind of impostor the one who deceives himself?

When I started reading the complete works of Shakespeare this year, I was more eager to write about the plays than read them. Now, almost a year later, a few mere plays and a handful of poems from the end, I am putting off writing to read.

The year is almost over and I am still behind schedule, so, yes, I have some work to do if I am to claim I’ve read all of Shakespeare in 2016. That the end is in sight? Like the final sprint of a race, this certainly picks up my speed.

And while in themselves I wouldn’t say the plays get easier to read, Shakespeare’s landscape has become much more familiar, the terrain easier to negotiate. (It better have, damnit.) I enjoy inhabiting Shakespeare’s world. I look forward to escaping into it, especially in these trying political times. But when I cross back into my own world, I’ve been finding it more and more difficult to write about my experiences in light of Shakespeare.

“I’m stuck. I’m not sure what to say,” I’ll complain to my wife as I make my eighth cup of tea in a robe at 3:30pm on a Sunday. This is a script she’s gotten quite used to. 

“Are you sure you want to be doing this? You always sound like you’re in agony,” she answers. 

When I stare into this question, when I’m brave enough to look hard into its self-exposing eyes, I know my fear is fraud.

Sometimes it takes work to tease out meaningful connections between the Bard and me, particularly without mapping yet another argument with my wife onto whatever play I last finished. Sometimes I have to suppress content, too. I trust, dear reader, you are not interested in my digestive system (very active) and sex life (not as active). And I still want my friends and family to, you know, actually like me after all this.

But I know lurking underneath my writer’s block is the gut-hollowing question I’d rather not confront: Why? I mean, who cares, really, about how Shakespeare relates to my boring life? (I know, I haven’t even gotten to Hamlet yet.) When I stare into this question, when I’m brave enough to look hard into its self-exposing eyes, I know my fear is fraud.

I feel like an impostor. And you know who knows a thing or two about impostors?

***

In Twelfth Night, Or What You Will, Shakespeare goes full meta: The comedy features a young man dressed up as a young woman who dresses up as a young man. Female roles, we’ll recall of Elizabethan theater, were played by adolescent boys, a tension which Shakespeare much milked in his body of work, both for comedic effect and in his obsessive exploration of identity. But in Twelfth Night, Shakespeare especially heightens the tension of imposture.

This is one those plays that’s not quick to sum up, thanks to the Bard’s many twists and turns:

In the play, Orsino, the Duke of Illyria, has fallen in love with a countess, Olivia, who has isolated herself to mourn the death of her brother. Then, a lady, Viola, shipwrecks off the coast of the city, believing her own brother – twin brother, at that – died in the accident. Thanks to Olivia’s withdrawal, the stranded Viola disguises herself as a young page, Cesario, to serve the duke. (She, in classic Shakespeare fashion, both immediately gets the job and falls in love with him). The duke puts Cesario straight to work to help him woo Olivia, but the plan backfires: Olivia falls in love with Cesario, who is really Viola, who is in love with Orsino.  (Oh boy.)

Next, we discover Viola’s twin brother, Sebastian, has actually survived. He ends up crossing paths with Olivia, who think he’s Cesario, and the two instantly agree to marry. (When it comes to love and marriage, Shakespeare’s characters don’t mess around. Badda bing, badda boom.) The ensuing confusion, ultimately, prompts the Big Reveal: The estranged twins reunite, Viola discloses her true identity, Olivia weds Sebastian, and Viola marries Orsino.

But Shakespeare isn’t done. (Of course there’s a parallel B-plot to thicken the theme.) While all the Viola-Olivia-Orsino shenanigans is going on, Sir Toby Belch, Olivia’s relative, his friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Olivia’s waiting-woman, Maria, have been playing pranks on Olivia’s butler, Malvolio. He’s a puritanical party-pooper who scolds Toby and Andrew’s drinking and merriment. The three trick Malvolio into believing Olivia is secretly in love with him, which compels him towards all sorts of comic self-humiliation – including dressing up in some ridiculously gaudy clothes completely uncharacteristic of the austere Malvolio. Yellow stockings and cross garters? For Shakespeare, those are knee-slappers.

***

“And what do you do?” she asked.

Over all the chatter, cheer, and Christmas music at the fancy hotel bar, I tried: “I, uh, I write.” 

“Oh. What do you write about?” She was the sister of the husband to my wife’s colleague. We were all out on the town for a Christmas celebration. 

In my mental script, my interlocutor would grab my tumbler out of my hand, polish it off in one, bold sip, slam the empty glass on the table, and then deliver a much-deserved slap across my smug face.

“Popular language topics. Shakespeare.” I took a big sip of my Negroni, which cost about one-tenth of my last freelance paycheck. I wondered how many words each sip was worth. Forty, forty-five? Then I remembered I didn’t pick up this round. The Campari lingered bitterly on the back of my tongue.

It took me some time to get comfortable saying those words. I had to go through the Five Stages of Telling Someone You’re Trying to Be A Writer (Without Feeling Too Much Like an Epic Douchebag).

First there was denial. I avoided talking about it because I thought it sounded supremely pretentious. I write about Shakespeare, he says as he tips back his hipster-appropriated cocktail in blithe disregard of all the nine-to-fivers, nay, eight-to-sixers, who drag themselves in and out office each day. In my mental script, my interlocutor would grab my tumbler out of my hand, polish it off in one, bold sip, slam the empty glass on the table, and then deliver a much-deserved slap across my smug face.

“O, you are sick of self-love,” Olivia chides Malvolio after he reproves her fool, Feste (1.5.77. Here, of means “with.”)

Then there was anger. I would feel small, like my bank ledger. I would feel illegitimate, not brining in much money. I would feel pathetic, my bylines so limited. I’m writing now, but you know, my last job in the states was as Academic Coordinator for adults with autism. Yeah, I once actually did something that meaningfully contributed to society and helped pay the bills.  I’d work in my master’s degree and teaching credential and allude to my time working in inner-city schools, as if in apology or self-defense.

“I am not that I play,” Viola, as Cesario, cleverly and obliquely remarks during her opening exchanges with Olivia. (1.5.164. For that, read “what.”)

Bargaining came along soon enough. Maybe if I mention that I wrote weekly for a blog on Slate, people will take me seriously. Most people, apparently, haven’t heard of Slate

“How have you made division of yourself? / An apple cleft in two in is not more twin / Than these two creatures,” remarks Antonio, a sailor who befriends Sebastian, when he sees Viola, still disguised as Cesario, next to her brother (5.1.215-217).

Then, I feared whoever I was talking to could see straight through me. Depression. I write, and with those words they can see me: Hunched over my laptop with a yet another cup of instant coffee, wearing a robe over my pajamas because I’m too cheap to turn the heat on while I’m at home by myself during the day, wearing a knit hat because I don’t feel like messing with my hair, getting distracted by Twitter as I make my way from a plot point I didn’t understand to Wikipedia, listening to William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops for the millionth time, picking my nose and passing occasional gas, as my wife rushes out of the house in the rain to catch a train to make a big, fiscal year-end meeting, the front door slamming before I can even answer her “Does this outfit look OK?”, all so that we actually have a roof to sleep under.

“Well, I will be so much a sinner to be a double-dealer,” Orsino says to Feste (5.1.31). 

***

Now, I’ve come to terms with it.

We chatted briefly about Shakespeare himself. And then: “How do you like working from home all day?” my fellow yuletide drinker asked. Working, I noticed. This is a keyword for me. It’s validating. “Do you ever change out of your pajamas? Do you get tempted by the TV? How about naps?” 

There is a normalizing comfort in the mundanity of my workday. There is a self-importance in dwelling on one’s feelings of unimportance.

I finished off my Negroni and went for it:  “I never write in bed and I never turn on the TV. And I always make sure I put on some kind of trousers or joggers. I’m up at 7, I take the dog out for 20 minutes, write for 4 hours. Then I go for a run and walk the dogs – the other is our friend’s I watch while they’re at work. There’s usually an over-long, afternoon shower. I work for three more hours. Go the grocery shop, make dinner, clean up, write for a few more hours, and then go to bed. There’s lots of online dithering, nail-biting, coffee, incessantly checking my email for a response from an editor or a pitch, and tremendous feelings of angst and privilege. But I never write in bed or turn on the TV.”

“I have taken a few midday naps, though,” I added, sucking the remaining gin off the ice. 

Poor lady. She was generous with her ear. But there it was: acceptance.

There is a normalizing comfort in the mundanity of my workday. There is a self-importance in dwelling on one’s feelings of unimportance. I write. I’m self-motivated. I’m disciplined. I actually get paid for some of my work. And damnit, a few people have even said they like the personal connections I make to Shakespeare.

Both Malvolio and Viola pretend to be someone they’re not. But it’s only Malvolio, in his hypocritical and narcissistic sanctimony, who ultimately only deceives himself.

“This fellow is wise enough to play the fool, / And to do that well craves a kind of wit,” Viola observes of the fool, Feste (3.1.53-54).