Incest, riddles, walls of human heads, pirates, sexual slavery, undead wives, visions of goddesses? Why, Pericles sounds a lot like freelance writing.
Pericles opens with Antiochus and his daughter, “with whom the father liking took, / And her to incest did provoke” (1.25-26). Ignorant of this, many suitors sought her, famed as she was for her beauty, but Antiochus tested them with a riddle, on pain of death, decorating his palace with their many, failed heads.
(Pitches are riddles. Should my email be a few, catchy lines? Should I develop my idea in a few grafs? Do I follow up in a few days, a week? Do I follow up at all? As for incest, well, it’s all about who you know. Once you’re in…And editors most certainly line their cubicles with all their felled rejects.)
Then our Pericles comes from Tyre to try his hand at the riddle:
I am no viper, yet I feed
On mother’s flesh which did breed me.
I sought a husband, in which labour
I found that kindness in a father.
He’s father, son, and husband mild;
I mother, wife, and yet his child.
How this may be and yet in two,
As you will live resolve it you. (1.107-14)
Pericles figures it out – the answer is: Oh my god, you’ve been having sex with your own daughter?! – but doesn’t want to divulge it for fear of backlash. “Great King, / Few love to hear the sins they love to act” he hedges (1.134-35).
Pericles wasn’t supposed to figure out. No one’s supposed to figure it out. So, Antiochus sends out a goon to kill Pericles. Pericles, meanwhile, senses the pending danger but can only manage to mope back at Tyre, unsure of what to do, unable to act.
(This part comes after you send out a pitch. You stare at your inbox, waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting for a response.)
You stare at your inbox, waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting for a response.
Finally, he opens up to his trusted advisor, Helicanus, who advises him to flee.
(“Hi Richard, My name is John Kelly. I am big fan of your writing and, as an aspiring writer myself, I was wondering if you had any tips…” “Dear John, Thanks for reaching out. Here’s the thing about freelancing: Run!”)
As he hops about the ancient Mediterranean (a pitch here, a pitch there), he gets shipwrecked in Pentapolis (“Thanks, John, so much for your email, but…”). But, but, but, after an elaborate courtship involving much fanfare and jousting, Pericles, who learns of it from some fisherman who rescue him, ends up marrying the king of Pentapolis’ daughter, Thaisa, in spite of his humble, rusty armor (“Dear John, I love this idea!” The slightest compliment from the editor “seems like diamond to glass,” as Thaisa remarks of her soon-to-be husband in Scene 7, line 35).
The two shack up, get pregnant. But Pericles is called back to Tyre. On their way, Pericles’ wife dies in labor (kind of like the ratio of how much time you put in researching and writing your piece to how much you actually get paid for it). Pericles leaves his daughter to grow up with the king and queen he befriended Tarsus – well, he saved them from famine, actually– and gives his wife her sea-burial. But her casket washes up in Ephesus, where a doctor discovers she isn’t dead and manages to revive her (you’ll get paid for your writing…eventually).
The king and queen of Tarsus vow to raise Pericles’ daughter with care and honor. Pericles vows, in return, not to cut his hair: “Till she be married… / By bright Diana, whom we honor all, / Unscissored shall this hair of mine remain, / Though I show ill in’t” (13.27-30).
(Grooming, and any sort of self-respecting presentability, is also one of the first things the freelancer sacrifices.)
Grooming is also one of the first things the freelancer sacrifices.
Marina grows up, besties with the princess there, but she gets all the attention, all the praise. The queen of Tarsus is not pleased: she “with envy rare / A present murder does prepare / For good Marina, that her daughter / Might stand peerless by this slaughter” (15.37-40). But just as Marina is about to be killed, some pirates kidnap her and sell her to a brothel.
(Do you sell out for the viral BuzzFeed listicle? Does Huffington Post’s massive traffic tempt you even they want it from you for free?)
But Mariana stays strong: “If fires be hot, knives sharp, or waters deep, / Untied I still my virgin knot will keep” (16.129-30). And she tells her pimp and his profession: “Empty / Old receptacles or common sew’rs of filth, / Serve by indenture to the public hangman – Any of these are better than this” (19.188-90).
(No! You are a Writer. You are serious. You traffic in big ideas. Avaunt, clickbait! But real quick, how much did you say that garbage gig pays?)
No! You are a Writer. But real quick, how much did you say that garbage gig pays?
For Pericles, deep melancholy sets in: “A man who for this three months hath not spoken / To anyone, nor taken sustenance / But to prorogue his grief,” as Helicanus reveals when they land at the island where Marina happens to be (21.18-20).
(The freelancer despairs. What am I doing? What is all this for? How does everyone else do it, seem to so easily get all those bylines and book deals? Who am I kidding? “Writer.” Pshaw. )
Pericles soon discovers this Marina is his daughter. Then, a vision (the inspired idea, the big break, the clutch retweet?) of the goddess Diana sends Pericles to the very temple where his wife has been serving as a vestal.We learn the baddies are punished: Antioch and his daughter have died, the people of Tarsus revolt against their nefarious rulers.
(I’m still waiting on this one. Editors, literary agents, publishers. This is your cue.)
As a play, Pericles is an absolute mess. Editors have had to patch it together from manuscripts. The plot jumps around, the verse jumps around. This narrator, John Gower, relates the action in an English that would have sounded a bit archaic even to Elizabethan ears. Due to this pell-mell, scholars think Shakespeare actually co-authored this lesser work with one George Wilkins – a playwright, a freelance playwright.
Sometimes it’s Shakespeare that’s the background noise.
A mother and her son tore off chunks of sandwich bread and tossed them to pigeons. “We’ll go for sweets after. As a treat for coming with me,” she whispered.
Two ladies giggled when their tinnies of Guinness sharply hissed despite efforts to crack them discretely.
Limbs adjusted on picnic blankets. Spectators came and went. Overhead, helicopters chopped every now and again. A man chatted on a mobile phone. A father chided an unruly child.
The actors circled the garden, projecting their voices like echoey diameters. Sometimes nearer, sometimes farther. The audience laughed in waves, and seagulls matched. A soft flute and jingly guitar marked the scenes.
I loosely followed along, catching up in my text every dozen or so lines, sometimes repositioning myself towards the ever-shifting stage, sometimes closing my eyes as I rested my chin on my hands while I lie on my stomach.
Seated in the grass near me was an older man with his wife. He, too, was following along in a copy of the play he brought with him. He was smiling, perched on his elbow. I noticed he had the same wristwatch I had. Did he see me and imagine some younger self?
It was an overcast Sunday afternoon. It was the last of a run of free performances in a round green enclosed by the old, gray walls of Dublin Castle. “Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure; / Like doth quit like, and measure still for measure,” the actor carefully articulated the Duke’s key lines near the close of the comedy (5.1.402-03).We all tuned in, nodding, half-understanding.
It was Measure for Measure.
Weeks before I had read this comedy, centering, uncomically, on a Viennese Duke who feels the laws of his city have gone lax, so he makes an example of one, Claudio, by sentencing him to death for premarital sex. It has its jokes. It makes its points about austerity and mercy, about unjust judges.
The performance was fun, too. They didn’t cover every line. They didn’t need to. When out of scene, a few actors strolled among the reclining bodies. They posed for a picture or accepted a proffered chip, in character. The actors didn’t try to compete with all the stirring and squawking and distractions. They didn’t need to.
It’s a good play. It was a pleasant performance. And I have absolutely nothingelse to say about it.
Sometimes it’s Shakespeare that’s the background noise.
We can boil much of Shakespeare down to this simple fact: men are pretty dumb.
“‘Make sure you lock up the bikes,’” my friend parroted his wife while we were stopped at a traffic light. “What does she think we were going to do with them? Park them in the Liffey?”
“And what was this about: ‘Don’t miss your stop, boys’?” I answered, quoting my own wife’s admonition. “Do they think we are 8-year-olds or something? I mean, how dumb do they think we are?”
We grumbled. We laughed. The light changed, and we pedaled our city bikes to the train station, where we met another friend. Our wives took a car, supplies, and our dogs down to the country for our holiday weekend. The husbands: the train, rucksacks, and beers, of course, for the journey.
The closest station was about about a half-hour drive from our Airbnb, tucked into the Wicklow Mountains. This gave us the chance to enjoy some more pints before our friend’s wife scooped us up.
“We locked up the bikes, right?” I joked as I missed my shot on the pool table and knocked back a few inches of my Guinness.
“Are you sure this is the right stop?” he matched me in jest, shot, and drink.
We had a healthy buzz by the time my friend’s wife arrived. Our wives aren’t dumb; I’m sure they expected nothing less.
“Bad news, lads,” she greeted us as we piled into the car. “The house doesn’t look anything like the pictures.”
“Oh, no!” we three husbands cried.
“What’s the matter with it?” I asked.
“There’re spiders everywhere. The rooms are dirty.”
“We’ll give it a good clean when we get there,” one husband offered.
“And the owner’s place is right next door. No barbecuing or music or heavy drinking after 8pm.”
“Yeah, she’s seem pretty nosy. Amanda’s really upset. She feels really bad that she booked this place that looks nothing like what we were promised.”
“That sounds like my wife. She’ll beat herself up about these things,” I explained.
“We’ll make do. We’ll make the best of it,” the other husband conciliated.
“Yeah, we’ve got food, drinks, good company,” I assured.
“Eh, just – you’ll see when you get there.”
We pulled off the road into a private drive. The gravel path curved around lush, green trees, opening up to a palatial manor. The other two wives came dashing out. They took a quick look at our cautious, serious faces and broke out in laughter.
“This place is amazing, you guys!” my wife shrieked. Our driver looked over at us with a victorious smirk.
Shakespeare knew it. In fact, I think you can boil much of his work down to this simple fact: men can be pretty dumb.
Take the Merry Wives of Windsor. It’s like the Bard meets I Love Lucy and Punk’d. In this comedy, Sir John Falstaff – of Henry IV fame – is certain he can sleep with the comedy’s titular wives. He sends them both identical letters expressing his cocky desires, but they, unbeknownst to their husbands, decide to have a little fun with him and lead him on. This sets off a hilarious series of pranks and pratfalls.
Fake-seducing him, one of the wives invites Falstaff over while her husband is away, only for her husband to arrive home unexpectedly. First she has him hide in a closet – yes, even Shakespeare did the closest gag. Then the wife has her servants sneak him out in a laundry basket and dump him into the river. Here’s a taste of Falstaff’s mind after the prank:
Well, If I be served another such trick, I’ll have my brains ta’en out and buttered, and give them to a dog for a New Year’s gift. ‘Sblood, the rogues slighted me into the river with as little remorse as they would have drowned a blind bitch’s puppies, fifteen i’th’ litter! And you may know by my size that I have a kind of alacrity in sinking. If the bottom were as deep as hell, I should down. I had been drowned, but that the shore was shelvy and shallow – a death that I abhor, for the water swells a man, and what a thing should I have been when I had been swelled? By the Lord, a mount of mummy! (3.5.5-15)
On another occasion, they disguise Falstaff as “the fat woman of Brentford” to smuggle him out of the house after the husband’s surprise return again stymies the prank (4.2.61). Here’s a little bit about this the woman of Brentford: Legend has that, in her will, she bequeathed to her friends…20 farts.
In a final prank, the wives convince Falstaff to dress up as Herne the Hunter, a local, mythical spirt with antlers on his head, only to harass him with a horde of children disguised as fairies.
Their husbands, again, aren’t in on the joke at first. One, Master Ford, has zero trust in his wife’s honesty – to Shakespeare, chasteness – and gets pretty bent out of shape when he thinks his wife is cheating on him. “See the hell of having a false woman!” he wails (2.2.256-57):
I will rather trust a Fleming with my butter, Parson Hugh the Welshman with my cheese, an Irishman with my aqua-vitae bottle, or a thief to walk my ambling gelding, than my wife with herself (2.2.265-68).
Of course, like a selfish boor, he’s primarily concerned with his own good name:
My bed shall be abused, my coffers ransacked, my reputation gnawn at, and I shall not only receive this villainous wrong, but stand under the adoption of abominable terms…Terms! Names! ‘Amaimon’ sounds well, ‘Lucifer’ well, ‘Barbason’ well; yet they are devils’ additions, the names of fiends. But ‘cuckold’, ‘wittol’! ‘Cuckold–the devil himself hath not such a name. (2.2.257-64).
In the end, the mischief comes to light, and they all “laugh this sport o’er by a country fire” (5.5.219). And the husbands learn that “wives may be merry, and yet honest, too” (4.2.89). Just because they are having a bit of fun, free and out of sight of their husbands, doesn’t mean they are cheating on them.
We dropped our bags, cracked some drinks, and soaked in the afternoon sun in the garden around a patio table. The dogs bounded in the grass.
“You locked up the bikes, right?” my friend’s wife asked us.
“Oh yeah,” my friend and I responded in unison, promptly, earnestly. Wives may be merry – and husbands are none the wiser to it, but all the wiser for it.
To get into Shakespeare, apparently, don’t think too hard about Shakespeare.
It finally happened. I started dreaming about Shakespeare. It came in a very peculiar, decidedly non-bardic form, though: a tweet.
BREAKING: French slay English General John Talbot at battle in Bordeaux.
In my bizarre, cyber-medieval dreamscape, these 39 characters were the work of the Associated Press. Lots of retweets. Big news. The French took down Talbot. Talbot. Talbot!
I was surprised. No, not due to this strange merger of Shakespeare and Twitter. That pretty much sums up my life these days.
I was surprised because of the content of this oneiric tweet. I’m not a history buff. I’m not a military nut or monarchy maven. When it comes to Shakespeare, I like the language. I like the dark psychological anguish. And I like the sex jokes.
A Shakespeare dream about major casualty in a medieval European battle? I would have expected some pensive, artfully crafted, naughty pun.
So, a major casualty in a medieval European battle? I would have expected some pensive, artfully crafted, naughty pun.
I was also surprised by the particular play that first smuggled the Bard into my dreams. Not King Lear’s storm-struck heath. Not Othello’s storm-struck bedroom. Not the whimsical forest of As You LikeIt or the cave of Cymbeline. But, of all the nearly two dozen plays I’ve read so far, the battlefields of Henry VI, Part I.
I mean, other than completist maniacs like myself, who reads Henry VI? Does any theater ever stage it? Have you even heard of Henry VI?
Well, Henry VI has not one, not two, but three parts. They are long. Very long. They follow the War of the Roses, which entangles us in noble rivalries and competing claims to the English throne. They culminate in one very well-known history: Richard III, the very play I read before taking these three on. I clearly didn’t learn my lesson when I read the Henriad out of sequence.
When I first cracked open Henry VI, Part I, I took one look at the character list and went, “Holy shit.” The dramatis personae were broken down into a group of English characters and a group of French. So many sirs, so many earls. I actually moaned aloud, “I don’t think I can do this.” My wife heard me from the other room: “Are you OK?” She sounded legitimately concerned.
I had fallen behind in my reading (and writing) schedule and needed to make up some ground. So, I decided to bite off the three Henry VI plays: a big chunk. As a form of punishment, like some self-flagellating monk.
Or so I thought.
“Do you want to continue watching Henry VI?” my Elizabethan Netflix asked. “Oh hell, yes.” Part III.
Simply put, Henry VI was a lot of fun. And that meant I had another first, thanks to old King Henry VI: I read the plays back to back to back.
Normally, when I finish a play, I collapse as if at the finish line of a long run. Winded. Sweaty. Sore. Victorious. “I made it!” Just as when, starting a play, I flip to the end to see how far I must go, so when I complete a play, I flip back and pinch the thickness of the conquered pages: “I did this shit.” Then, I kick off my shoes, chug some water, and sink into a chair, relieved I don’t have to read Shakespeare for another a few days.
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy reading Shakespeare. Otherwise, I would have bailed on my year of reading Shakespeare by now. But let me be clear: It’s not quite the same as binge-watching Breaking Bad. Most of the times. But when I made it to the end of Part I of Henry VI, I immediately started Part II. Same for Part II. “Do you want to continue watching Henry VI?” my Elizabethan Netflix asked. “Oh hell, yes.” Part III.
Plot-wise, Henry VI is fairly straightforward. OK, there’s actually a lot of intrigue and twists. But here’re the log lines, if you will:
In Part I, the English fend off a French uprising as a feud over the claim to the throne simmers at home. In Part II, the homegrown infighting boils over as the king survives conspiracies and rebellions, only to be forced to flee after a battle between the vying nobles. Part III sees the king’s rival win the crown. The king is killed in a climactic fight in spite of efforts to retain his power, and his rivals assume rule.
A little more context may help to situate these three Henry VI’s in Shakespeare’s broader corpus. Remember how Henry Bolingbroke deposes Richard II? This, in a nutshell, is the origin of the conflict in the House of Plantagenet. Bolingbroke becomes Henry IV. His son, the Prince Hal of the two Henry IV’s, becomes the heroic Henry V. And his son? He’s the Henry VI who rises – well, sort of warms up to room temperature – and falls in this trilogy. Jumping ahead, it’s a future Richard III who is hatching his plots to seize the kingship in Part III.
OK, I actually just shared all of this to show off: I didn’t look at a damned reference to map out these lineages. Not my notes, not the Norton introductions, not a Wikipedia page, not a Sparknotes summary. Me, who has to sit down with charts and graphs to figure out what a second cousin is. Me, who likes all the word-y, feel-y Shakespeare stuff. Boom. Mic drop.
I genuinely just enjoyed Henry VI’s blockbuster action and star-studded cast.
Which brings me to a third Shakespearean first. I genuinely just enjoyed Henry VI’s blockbuster action and star-studded cast.
Here are some highlights from each of the plays:
In 1Henry VI, Joan la Pucelle – Joan of Arc – is an absolute badass. In an early test, Shakespeare has her boast: “And while I live, I’ll ne’er fly from a man” (1.3.82). And she proves this on the battlefield (and in the bed with the king). She even conjures up demons, who provide her with visions that aid the French in fighting. Granted, these demons fail her in the end, she is burned at the stake, and the French cede to the English – but Joan doesn’t take shit from anyone.
In 2Henry VI, Jack Cade, a tradesman, leads a rebellion in London. He rallies his fellow craftsmen against the rich, hoity-toity upperclass who’ve been screwing them over, using their learnin’ against the little guy. And their insults against the elite are hysterical. A butcher, famously, cries: “The first thing we do let’s kill all the lawyers” (4.2.68). A weaver says of a clerk, “He can write and read and cast count,” to which Cade replies: “O monstrous!” (4.2.75-77). Cade then urges to “hang him with his pen and inkhorn around his neck” (4.2.96-97).
But Cade tops even this in a later rebuke of another lord:
It will be proved to thy face that thou hast men about thee that usually talk of a noun and a verb and such abominable words as no Christian ear can endure to hear. (4.7.32-34)
Now this a battlecry for all schoolchildren in all grammar lessons for all time.
In 3 Henry VI, King Henry VI makes a deal with his rival, Richard Duke of York: He agrees to hand over his crown to Richard after he dies, thus dispossessing his own son of royal inheritance. Queen Margaret – a power-hungry French noble he married after the fighting in Part I – has had it with her over-conciliatory, pushover husband. So she leads a fight against Richard herself.
But during one of these battles, Henry takes to a molehill – yes, a molehill – and waxes bucolic:
O God! Methinks it were a happy life
To be no better than a homely swain… So many hours must I tend my flock, So many hours must I take my rest,
So many hours must I contemplate,
So many hours must I sport myself…(2.5.21-34)
His daydreaming is then interrupted by a son who realizes he has killed his father and a father who realizes he has killed his son. So much for his proto-four-hour-work-week reverie.
With Shakespeare Confidential, I’m not really in the business of trying to fill the seats, to continue my movie metaphor. Sometimes you just need a mindless, big-budget action flick. Henry VI delivers. Pass the popcorn, Bill.
And, in a project like this, sometimes you just need an escape from self-reflection, from literary analysis, from Shakespeare-with-a-capital-S-Shakespeare. Incredibly, ironically, this is when Shakespeare most got under my skin.
I’m 21 plays into my year of reading Shakespeare. But each time I crack into a new play, the process is the same:
I run through the Persons of the Play only to instantly forget who’s the daughter of which duke and which servant is attending on which lord’s uncle’s clown. I go to launch into 1.1, but first have to bat away a swarm of footnotes about historic London and the four humors. I hack off glosses of sith, troth-plight, and yarely as if taking a machete to a dense verbal jungle.
Before even making it to the bottom of the first page, I’ve already suffocated the text with a scrawling geometry of circles, stars, arrows, and underlinings. The margins shout huge, over-general, 11th-grade-English-class ideas that will mean nothing to me when I revisit them later: IDENTITY, VIOLENCE, APPEARANCE vs. REALITY, SEX PUN.
I flip to the end of the play to see how much further I have to go. I sigh. I check my phone for messages. Then email. Then Twitter. Regrouping, I confront a longer passage. “What the hell is this person even saying?!” I cry. (This can be embarrassing when I’m reading at a café.)
By the time I reach the end of the scene, my hair is ruffled. I’m winded. Somehow my quads feel sore. I reward myself by checking my phone. Then email. Then Twitter.
Then something happens.
I wouldn’t say it’s a rhythm. I still shuttle back and forth between the text and footnotes, between the play and my notebooks, between whatever scene I’m in and the list of those characters I can’t keep track of.
I wouldn’t say it’s comprehension. Plenty of similes and allusions fly right over my head. And, for as pesky as all those footnotes and glosses can feel, I lean heavily on them to understand Shakespeare’s language and references.
Nor would I say it’s appreciation. I mean, it’s not like I needed convincing of the Bard’s genius going into this project; my project is basically premised on it. And it’s not like I’ll be stumbling upon something terribly new and profound 400 years after Shakespeare died, upon something we utterly missed after bazillions of pages of scholarship written on him, after gazillions of performance: “Hey, world! You’ve got to check this out! You won’t believe what I’ve found!” I just won’t have cause to say that.
OK, I am getting better at reading Shakespeare. I better be getting better at reading him: I’ve read 21 goddamned plays so far. Am I faster? Yes. Understanding more? Sure. And I am getting more out of reading Shakespeare? Seeing deeper meanings, peeling back thicker layers? Making more connections in the text, between the texts, between Shakespeare and 2016? No doubt.
It’s that the change is something I feel in my brain. Because reading Shakespeare is like making my neurons and synapses go to a CrossFit class. They’re reluctant to start. The burn hurts. They want to quit right as the heart rate gets up and sweat starts pushing through the pores. They’re even wondering if CrossFit isn’t a little bit douchey. But after a few circuits, they start to enjoy it. After a few classes, they start to see results. And pretty soon, my brain is looking forward to Shakespeare.
I love Twitter. I love listicles. I love the Internet. But tabbed browsing, checking for breaking news and notifications and updates, scrolling and clicking and linking, starting and bailing on so many articles and so many videos – it’s addictive, it’s compulsive, it’s like mindless snacking, never quite sated because I don’t feel like taking the time to go to the store and prepare a proper meal. And this noisy, desultory info-binge builds up like toxins and fat cells, further straining the ability to concentrate, to sit still. To do one thing at a time, to think one thought a time, to be OK with slowness, to listen to someone else. To not know right away. To not have immediate answers. To not be productive.
Yes, reading Shakespeare brings new knowledge, new ideas, new images, new vocabulary. It brings a sense of accomplishment, personally, intellectually, culturally. It brings a sense of immersion into history, a sense of wonder at one man’s legacy, at one man’s literary talent and insight into humanity.
But decoding all of those anon’s and zounds’s, breaking down elaborate syntax just to figure out what the king is going to do next in the plot, contorting the brain to understand some seven-layered cuckoldry joke – this requires a sustained and focused effort. To get through a play, I can’t just scroll and jump from tab to tab. I have to slow things down. I have to turn things off, bracket things off. I have to be disciplined.
I have to put in the time.
This sustained and focused effort brings pleasure. It brings peace. It makes my brain feel lighter, quieter, calmer, more centered in a world of so much choice, information, and possibility.
Reading Shakespeare is hard. When I start a new play, my brain hurts. But by the time I finish, my brain feels so good.
Richard III was a horrible man, but he does have a thing or two to teach us about our struggles with body image.
They called Richard III “crookback.” But if I were an evil, Shakespearean villain, I think they’d call me “pointy nipples.” Case in, er, point:
The other day, I greeted my wife when she got home from work. She took one quick look at me and laughed.
“What?” I asked.
“Your shirt! Just – take a look in the mirror.”
I presented my plain, purple T-shirt to the bathroom mirror. It presented back three white spots about the size of silver dollars: one over each of my nipples, the third over my belly button.
“It’s the shirt!” I defended from the bathroom with all the whininess of a post-pool George Costanza. “The color’s fading!”
“No, I can actually see your right nipple. It’s sticking out through the shirt,” my wife fact-checked. “It’s so not the shirt. It’s this.” She imitated this, well, behavior of mine. One hand rubbed the ball of her thumb over her chest, the other a few her fingers over her stomach. ““Oh my God, I hope you’re not wearing it in public.”
“It’s one of those cheap Mossimo shirts I got from Target,” I insisted as I ran up the stairs to the bedroom. I closed the door, took off the shirt, and confronted it. Face-to-face. The three, white, threadbare circles stared back at me like some cruel, mocking emoji. Is this why the barista was giving me a funny look at the café the other day?
I had never ruined a shirt before with this nervous, self-conscious touching of my chest and stomach, but I can’t say I’m all that surprised. I’ve been waging war against my torso – my nipples being key targets – since I was a chubby preteen. See, I’ve always felt that – God, I can’t believe I’m sharing this – that I looked thinner when my nipples were hard. In my twisted thinking, harder means smaller, smaller means skinnier, and skinnier means better.
But I think we all have these tics in one shape or another. Hell, even old crookback Richard III – Shakespeare’s most villainous of villains – could relate to these neuroses of body image.
It’s not the jealousy that pushes you over. It’s the obsession.
Today I can laugh about it. She ended up dumping him and came out as a lesbian, I learned through the grapevine years later. And when asked to explain that semester out of school, I usually just leave it as a “personal matter,” as if it was an illness. I suppose it was, in a way.
I don’t talk to either of them now, though from time to time, late-night whiskey steers me towards Facebook. He’s helping launch a craft brewery. She’s married and has a child with her partner. I’m happy for them. Really. And I actually can’t say it took me a long time to get there. Once I was over it, of course.
In our third session, my therapist recommended Prozac. She didn’t think I was depressed: She thought I was obsessive. I can’t disagree. But at the time, I didn’t like how high the dosage was. Apparently obsessive behaviors warrant more milligrams than depression. At the time, like so many individuals at their breaking points, I didn’t want to rely on any medication. I wanted to restore equilibrium from within, by my own wherewithal. Fortunately, that session, that recommendation, triggered in me for the first time anger, then indifference. Then I moved on.
Othello articulates a very particular psychological state. The state between ignorance and certainty, between the not-knowing and knowing: the not-not-knowing, where obsession oozes from the darker recesses of the mind and takes over the whole body, like food poisoning. Where obsession becomes possession.
Fortunately, I didn’t kill anybody. Unlike Othello. But I did pull out of college after thinking about jumping onto US 29 from K Street by the Washington Circle the very night I drove back from summer break to start my second year of college.
Jealousy, that “green-eyed monster,” is just the trigger (3.3.170). The rapid descent is thanks to obsession. To the over and over and over, thoughts always hissing in your ear like Iago, slithering, compulsive, ubiquitous, until the merest suggestion, “trifles light as air,” pushes the boulder of sanity over the precipice (3.3.326).
In The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice, Iago, through Janus-faced cunning, racial and religious resentment, and envy-mongering, drives Othello, the Venetian general, to kill his wife, Desdemona, and ultimately himself, by convincing Othello his lieutenant, Cassio, is having an affair with her. Why? The text says devilishly little on the motive for Iago’s all-consuming hatred: He begrudges Othello for promoting Cassio, not him, to his lieutenancy and believes rumors that Othello slept with his wife, Emilia. Here’s Iago’s insidious craft at work:
IAGO Will you think so?
OTHELLO Think so, Iago?
IAGO What, to kiss in private?
OTHELLO An unauthorized kiss.
IAGO Or to be naked with her friend in bed
An hour or more, not meaning any harm?
OTHELLO Naked in bed, Iago, and not mean harm?
It is hypocrisy against the devil.
They that mean virtuously and yet do so,
The devil their virtue tempts, and they tempt heaven.
IAGO If they do nothing, ’tis a venial slip.
But if I give my wife a handkerchief – (4.1.1-10)
The handkerchief Iago refers to is the love token Othello gave to Desdemona, and which Iago manages to manipulate as ‘evidence’ of her infidelity: “Trifles light as air,” as Iago famously observes, “Are to the jealous confirmations strong / As proofs of holy writ” (3.3.326-28).
I’ve mentioned before that I’ve memorized pathetically few lines of Shakespeare. This is one of them.
Iago is an evil genius who anticipated and mastered so much of psychology du jour: the powers of suggestion and visualization. He sprinkles questions and sows doubt. He paints a torturously vivid mental picture of Desdemona lying naked in bed with his lieutenant. Othello does the rest himself. At first it niggles. Then it rankles. Finally, it metastasizes.
He works himself into a trance as he plays over – and over and over and over – the thought, the possibility, the fleshy image of Desdemona having sex with Cassio.
As for me? I worked myself into panic attacks.
At some point, she’d started talking to her ex-boyfriend again. They had had a long, complicated relationship. We used to talk about that relationship after shifts at a Ruby Tuesday, where we both worked a few years before we ran into each other at a Barnes & Noble when I was back home from college during winter break. We’d chain-smoke in her silver Pontiac Grand Am. She’d always put Ani DiFranco or Pearl Jam on very low as I talked her through the turbulence. She’d always manage to keep that car smelling nice in spite of the smoke, too.
After that chance encounter at the bookstore, we fell into a long-term relationship between Cincinnati and D.C. At first it was intense and passionate, but just a half-year in, she started pulling away.
But in his pacing, breathing, sweating, head-clutching, gripped by the over and over and over by the slightest and lightest whisper of his wife’s adultery, I felt once again that loop, that broken record, that inexorable thought-cycle, that over and over and over overtake me.
Maybe there was nothing going on between them. She said there was nothing going on between them. But the evidence pointed otherwise. I saw the log on her cordless phone. Calls to Florida, where the ex lived. I learned from a friend that they met up when he was back in their hometown in Kentucky while she was herself visiting. This led me to check her mobile when she was in the shower. There were lots of calls. Long calls. Perhaps they were processing us as she and I once processed them. She insisted otherwise. I persisted anyways.
The ex dropped out of the picture, but maybe I drove her to spend more time with my best friend. We were writing music over that summer break when was I back home from school, even playing a few gigs here and there. I was semi-moved in to her place, which happened to be just down the road from my mother’s house at the time.
He was always around. They started smoking a lot of pot together.
One night, they encouraged me to grab my guitar down from my mother’s house. It felt like a strange request. They were sitting close and he was making her laugh. Reluctantly, I raced down and fetched my guitar. The dusk light illuminated their goofy half-smiles when I returned. They were seated just a bit more awkwardly.
I’d ring her after work. She’d already be hanging out with him at a mutual friend’s. I’s fell off from I love you’s. We were over in all but name. All but my acceptance, perhaps. But for some reason, I’d still tag along with them. One night, the three of us went out salsa dancing. She was a dance instructor studying to become a message therapist. I was terrible on the floor. So was my friend. But his clumsy maneuvers made her laugh. Desperately I’d insert myself, beats behind the sultry pulse. I’d get in a step or two and another partner had the dance.
“I had been happy if the general camp, / Pioneers and all, had tasted her sweet body, / So I had nothing known,” Othello remarks after he’s fallen for Iago’s plot. “O, now for ever / Farewell the tranquil mind, farewell content, Farewell the plumed troops and the big wars / That makes ambition virtue!” (3.3.350-55). He continues, curiously, bidding farewell to his military career, as if emasculated or, in the politics of the tragedy, stripped of the identity that gives him place as a black Moor in a white, Christian Venice. Grabbing Iago by the throat, he demands, “Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore” (3.3.364).
I think Othello begins to articulate to a very particular psychological state here. The state between ignorance and certainty, between the not-knowing and knowing: the not-not-knowing, where obsession oozes from the darker recesses of the mind and takes over the whole body, like food poisoning. Where obsession becomes possession.
One sleepless night, every 15 minutes or so I’d go outside and light a cigarette. Stepping into the middle of the empty street, into the jaundiced glow of the streetlights, I looked all the way down Ivanhoe Avenue. It was after two in the morning and her car still wasn’t parked in its usual spot. Eventually, I wore myself out. Or ran out of cigarettes. Whichever came first. First thing when I got up, the ritual punctuated by a few, thin hours of sleep, I went right outside. Still no sign of that goddamn Grand Am at the end of the street.
I wasn’t able to breath. Why were they there? Why was I there?
Another night, her car was there in the early evening and I obsessively checked to make sure it stayed there. During one round, I noticed his car, that old baby-blue Corolla hatchback, parked opposite. I learned my lesson: I bought a two-for-one Camel Lights special at the corner UDF. Then I drank the rest of my stepfather’s Heineken and my mother’s cheap chardonnay, listening to the Postal Service’s Give Up on repeat. My iPod’s white display pierced the humid and still late-summer dark. The buzz of the streetlights and cicadas droned. A police cruiser swept the blocks like an occasional, sticky breeze.
I had to walk down. I shouldn’t walk down. I needed to walk down. I knew it wasn’t going to make me feel any better if I walked down. But how could I not walk down? I won’t be able to stop thinking about until I walked down.
I walked down.
I stood under her window. Through the vinyl blinds the blue light of a TV flickered. They must have fallen asleep on her couch. She used to like to snuggle into my lap, her back nestling in between my legs, head on my chest, her two cocker spaniels at her feet. I imagined them sleeping there like that, as we had once.
His car was still there come morning.
On yet another, I chanced to look out the window when her car drove by around 11pm. We had spoken just a half-hour before. I was surprised she had answered. It was probably a tactical appeasement. It must be exhausting, I imagine, to silence call after call. It was exhausting, too, to hit redial on that old Nokia, hearing her Kentucky drawl in her voicemail each time: “Hi, you’ve reached…” She said she was staying in. As her car passed, her brake lights burned like taunting flares.
I had a hunch. I got into my car, chain-smoked my way over to another friend’s whose parents were away from the summer. They had a big house, a fancy house, with a hot tub. I pulled up, cautiously. Slicing through the dark, my headlights found the silver of her car parked behind the blue of his.
I lit a cigarette but I wasn’t able to breath. Why were they there? Why was I there?
“Where is this rash and most unfortunate man?” demands Lodovico, relative of Desdemona’s father, Brabanzio, after Othello has killed Desdemona.
“That’s he that was Othello. Here I am,” Othello, the Other now self-othered, answers, as if literally beside himself, as if possessed, physically taken over and kicked out by his jealous obsession (5.2.289-90).
Othello is a psychological play and a political play. The performance I saw – yes, I’ve managed to see a second play, folks – at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin played to these dimensions. The small stage and sparse production was close, intimate, as if squeezing us into Iago’s twisted mind, Othello’s tormented psyche. The theater also produced the play as part of the centenary commemoration of Ireland’s independence from Great Britain in 1916. While I found mapping Ireland’s revolution onto Othello problematic, this framing also focused the role race, religion, and national identity plays in Othello’s destruction – and helps explain his suggestibility, aware of his vulnerability as a cultural outsider.
But above all, the Abbey production powerfully emphasized the physicality of Othello, the physicality of jealousy and obsession. I was seated on the stage and could see Iago spit as he hissed, Desdemona’s face pale and wrinkle as her marriage inexplicably collapses, and Othello, drenched in sweat, convulse and twitch with obsession, eaten by his jealousy.
There are some serious differences, of course. My friend was no Iago and girlfriend no Desdemona. I, no Othello. (I did reprogram their names as “Brutus the Backstabber” and “Medea the Murderer” in my phone, though.) But in his pacing, breathing, sweating, head-clutching, gripped by the over and over and over by the slightest and lightest whisper of his wife’s adultery, I felt once again that loop, that broken record, that inexorable thought-cycle, that over and over and over overtake me when I called a friend back home after I made it to DC.
“What are you up to, man?”
“Just chillin’ with a few people.”
“Nice. Is, uh, who are you hanging out with? What’s going on?” I tried casually. He said our mutual friend – the Backstabber – was over.
“Cool. Yeah. Alright, is uh–”
“–Yeah, she’s over here, man. He invited over. I know. It’s complicated. But we’re just playing some Mario Kart.”
I thought about them rolling some joints, cracking some beers. I could hear the next album the friend, the one I called, put on. I could see the solid red and green Nintendo 64 controllers being passed around. Brutus would tease her for losing every race. Medea would laugh. Those goofy smiles would hang on their faces. Trifles, really.
I suppose my ache wasn’t over any betrayal. It was over feeling replaced, substituted, pass around, pass over. I think that’s went sent Othello over. I think that’s what sent me over that night, too.
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.
In which Shakespeare beats a Painter and Poet with a stick.
The Life of Timon of Athens isn’t a particularly celebrated play in Shakespeare’s oeuvre. Many critics think its language and plot don’t quite stack up to the Bard’s usual standards. Some argue it was never finished. Others conclude the play was a collaboration. Whatever its status in the canon, the tragedy stands out for its focus on money – and still has some warnings worth heeding.
Athenians love Timon because he lavishes them with gifts and parties: “Methinks I could deal kingdoms to my friends,/ And ne’er be weary” (1.2.215-16). His friendships are bought, but Timon is blind to this: “You shall perceive how you/ Mistake my fortunes. I am wealthy in my friends,” he responds when his servant relays that his creditors are demanding payment (2.2.178-79). His generosity is borrowed. And none of his friends bail him out.
The Senate threatens to execute Timon for defaulting on his debts. Fleeing the polis, a forsaken Timon himself forsakes the world. “I am sick of this false world!” (4.3.368) as he cries, cursing man and gold, “thou sweet king-killer,” alike (4.3.374).
Timon becomes his foil, Apemantus, a gadfly philosopher whose cynicism he well sums up in grace he says at one of Timon’s banquets early in the play:
Immortal gods, I crave no pelf.
I pray for no man but myself.
Grant I may never prove so fond
To trust man on his oath or bond,
Or a harlot for her weeping,
Or a dog that seems a-sleeping
Or a keeper with my freedom,
Or my friends if I should need ‘em.
Amen. So fall to’t.
Rich men sin, and I eat root. (1.2.61-70)
In his own root-eating misanthropy Timon fails to see his servant, Flavius, stays by his side. He fails to see to his comrade, Alcibiades, leads an uprising against the city to defend him. The Senate relents their too-cruel punishment, but too late, as Timon dies out in the wilderness.
Timon of Athens isn’t exactly the most artful social commentary, but it does develop a compelling theme of artifice. We see the artifice of men and money, yes. You can’t buy love. Who can you really trust? But we also see the artifice of law. “We are for laws; he dies” (3.6.85), as one senator summarily sentences Timon. It’s a stark reminder that even morality is man-made.
He is as self-absorbed in his exile as he is in buying his countrymen’s affections.
We also see the artifice of Timon’s own self-pity: “I never had/ Honest man about me; ay, all I kept were knaves,/ To serve in meat to villains” (4.3.469-71). No, faithful Flavius doesn’t count; he’s just his lowly servant, as if only the rich and powerful are capable of any depth, or at least any sentiment of value.
There is a touching scene when all of Timon’s servants gather together at Timon’s house to mourn their master’s fall. “Yet do our hearts wear Timon’s livery./ That I see by our faces. We are fellows still,/ Serving alike in sorrow” (4.2.17-19). The master-servant relationship itself is not a natural construction, but Timon’s servants transcend the artifice of social roles and achieve true fellow feeling. “There’s none/ Can truly say he gives if he receives,” Timon earlier comments on the cycle of debt that a gift ignites (1.2.9-10). Only his servants prove otherwise.
But Timon certainly learns no lessons about egocentrism in his hermitage. He is as self-absorbed in his exile as he is in buying his countrymen’s affections. Timon may reject gold, but he doesn’t have to reject man – or the golden mean.
We’re always looking for clues to Shakespeare’s creative process. What did he think? What was his process like? How did he come up with his ideas? Did he know he was great? Did ever imagine that, 400 years after he died, some American dude would be cooped up in a spare room qua office in Dublin, spending the Sunday of his bank holiday weekend trying to glean some deep wisdom from the words of one of his lesser plays? Well, Timon of Athens may gives us some small glimpse into the poet’s poetics, but it may not glitter like gold: Shakespeare exposes the artifice of, well, art itself.
Art, counterfeit and fiction, is a made thing, fashioned from human hands, not from some divine imagination we mortals are not permitted to.
Shakespeare (and his collaborator, presumably) stages a Painter and Poet. In the beginning, we see them flattering Timon with portraits and verses. For patronage, of course. For money. For all their highfalutin words of inspiration, not even the artists transcend base greed. We see the pair again at the end of the play. They feign loyalty to the indigent hermit, hearing report of gold Timon discovers in the forest. But Timon overhears their mercenary dissembling and calls them out on it. He cleverly undercuts the Painter: “Thou draw’st counterfeit/ Best in all Athens; thou’rt indeed the best;/ Thou counterfeit’s most lively” (5.1.77-79). And the poet he lambastes: “And for thy fiction,/ Why, thy verse swells with stuff so fine and smooth/ That thou art even natural in thine art” (5.1.80-82). Then he beats the two with his stick. And natural, we should also remember, could mean “foolish” in Elizabethan vernacular – which just takes a sledgehammer to the play’s natural-artificial axis. Thanks, Shakespeare: You knew the artifice of sign and signifier all too well, too.
For as much as we like to worship great art and artists, as if the creator and their works exist in some higher sphere unsullied by the affairs of lowly man, Shakespeare recognizes that art is manufactured. That art, too, is often motivated by practical needs, by self-interest, by profit. The Bard had to make a living, after all. It can be deflating, even cheapening, to peek behind the creative curtain, like a son recognizing his father’s fallibility for the first time. But it’s also comforting, too, especially for the aspiring artist: Art, counterfeit and fiction, is a made thing, fashioned from human hands, not from some divine imagination we mortals are not permitted to.
But not all counterfeits, shall we say, are equally convincing. Not all fictions are equally credible. Not all makers are equally skilled. Not all art is equally good. Timon of Athens is no Hamlet. Still, I could never write a Timon of Athens.