Shakespeare Report: King Henry IV, Part 1

How I imagine the scenes in Eastcheap.
Photo by John Arano on Unsplash

I got a little bogged down in this play (my fifth) in my Shakespeare lineup, partly due to the fact that we took a family jaunt, for the first time in ages, nay since prior to the pandemic, last weekend to Venice for Carnevale, to Fico Eataly to worship at the Italian food shrine, staying in a very satisfying hotel with a magnificent thermal pool in the foothills of the Veneto region. The travel posed challenges to watching a 3-hour production on YouTube, so I brought my Signet Classic with source material and footnotes, and listened to the BBC 3 Shakespeare Sessions audio production of the play (superb). It was harder to follow the action and characters without a visual, but the audio plus text was a decent way to go about it, and left ample room for imagination.

People today don’t love the Shakespeare histories. The works seem, at first blush, too serious, too fact-filled. We fear a pop quiz. In Shakespeare’s day, King Henry IV, Part 1 was a blockbuster, closely followed by Richard II, Richard III, King John, and the Henry VIs. But I am learning that the histories are, in fact, not about dates or battles (against which I certainly maintain no meaningful aversion), but about characters, and how character is destiny (Heraclitus) – and yet character can change, as we see in the form of youthful, partying Prince Hal who is transformed into a serious and worthy king, rising to the occasion when he must. Other characters are more set in their ways – see Falstaff, for a conflicted example of this, or the fantastically named Hotspur, for a chivalric exemplar. It is to watch these characters that the groundlings flocked to Elizabethan theater. How can a man rise or fall? Is he the master of his circumstance, or do his circumstances master him?

Falstaff, prior to this play, was a mystery to me. I confess it here. I had encountered him in opera and in allusion, names recycled in literature, perhaps the off-hand mention of him in King Henry V, for which I had no context without knowing the preceding action. But I did not truly understand the Lord of Misrule that he represented, even as I can recall now various Falstaffs that I have known in my life. The Falstaff, witty Falstaff, who whiles away his hours in quick ripostes and multiple rounds at the bar or at table; Falstaff, ever ready to party and make light of the world, even of himself, even as others mock him. (Everyone is so mean to Falstaff, I told Jason. Why ever does he put up with it?)

Shakespeare loves to mine a good coming-of-age story in the service of both character and plot, and the Prince Hal/Falstaff friendship, set against Prince Hal and his actual father, King Henry IV (for whom the play is named, but in reality the play is all about Hal, his successor and the future King Henry V), Hotspur and his father. We see how these dynamics play out, how resentments are bed, avoidance punished, achievement rewarded. In fact, the dramatic trope of the prodigal noble son come down to Shakespeare from Roman theater penned by Terence and Plautus, and through medieval morality plays, in which a handsome and youthful son passes through a period of unaccountability and dissolution, sin and vice, taverns and wenches. The party scenes are always crowd pleasers, as is the case also in this piece, where Hal and Falstaff and their merry band continuously drink, mock one another, devise amusements, and stage a play within the play, all for the sole purpose of whiling away the seemingly endless hours in a pleasing and sociable environment. Says Prince Hal of one deceit, “‘twould be argument for a week, laughter for a month, and a good jest forever.” Ah, witty youth.

And yet! The audience demands a character arc! And so the young nobleman comes to see the error in his ways, and when duty calls, casts off the mantle of vice to accept the heavy crown of responsibility and discharging the family estate. The crowd loves it! (Prince Hal hands his father a dagger and tells him, “either forgive me or stab me now – I cannot live with your disapproval.”)

As I read and listened to the play, the following questions returned to me: Have we all had Prince Hal years? How did our fathers react? Who were our Falstaffs? and why does Falstaff befriend Young Hal – what’s in it for him? A bar tab? a boon companion? a drinking buddy? One can find these qualities in a lesser friend than a prince. Why risk it, knowing that Hal’s inheritance includes the English throne, and so the betrayal of his friends, and his drinking buddies in particular, is not only imminent, but ensured?

Falstaff is not the slobbering drunk he first seems to be. He is a philosopher, a student of the human condition, who seems an astute observer of circumstance. Indeed, it is from the mouth of Falstaff that we receive such time-honored quotes as “brevity is the soul of it,” and the lesser known but equally valuable, “Is not the truth the truth?”

I so wish I’d seen this. But I didn’t even know who Falstaff was then! O Lord of Misrule!

As Hal’s drinking days draw to a close, he heads into battle, as princes must, and saves his father’s life, are heroes are predestined to do. He dumps Falstaff and Poins, Bardolph and Peto. His friendly affection is transformed into filial devotion, and his father King Henry need no longer wish that Henry Hotspur were his own son, rather than the swilling layabout of Hal’s deep pub years in Eastcheap. Hal trades Eastcheap fun for court intrigue, thus setting the stage for Henry V (I was not angry until I came to Fraaaance!).

Language that delighted me this reading: the slangy Basillus manus (besa las manos, in a lovely nod to how proximate were the cultures of Elizabethan England and her enemy Spain), filching, ‘Zounds! (rhymes with wounds), Gog’s wounds, Tush!, by dint of, Mass!, Marry!, at host (in accord), hest (command), ecce signum, beslubber, the crest of youth. And the bellicose refrain that speaks to endless back and forth on the battlefield among France, England, and Scotland, He that will Scotland win / must first with France begin. That auld alliance was ironclad!

Next week: more histories! Will really cranked out these crowd-pleasers! On a very amused side note, only now have I realized that I have been immersed in the wrong Henry all week, having erroneously swapped out Henry VI for Henry IV. Damn you, wrong Henry! Well, the bard hardly wrote the histories in order. Next week: the correct Henry in chronological order of Shakespearean output, Henry VI, Part 3!

Why Not These Cups?

Photo by Christian Bass on Unsplash

The mesticheria is a Florentine institution, a catch-all shop full of hardware and housewares, similar to the Mexican tlapalería. My favorite one is on Via dei Servi, just past the Tiger on the left side of the street as you walk toward the duomo, the inimitable Mesticheria Tucci. Yes, like Stanley Tucci, but the ancient and very local owner seems to have little in common with Stanley at first glance. He is strong, older, maybe in his mid-seventies, round of face and scant of hair. He wears multiple sweaters together. Most impressively, his hands, which seem equally well suited to farm work or any sort of outdoor endeavor, are huge and scarred, calloused and honest. But also kind of alarming, like he could dispatch you on a dark night in an alley without flinching.

The shop, which has probably been in the same place since Italian unification in 1861, is stacked floor to ceiling with everything anyone might need who lives in any stripe of domesticity: colanders and spoons, dishes and brooms, pot holders and oven mitts, dish drains and washtubs, cleaning chemicals for every possible hygiene scenario, minor electronics, cords and cables, plugs and adapters, bath mats and clothes hampers. It’s in there, carefully marked with handwritten tags in black Sharpie in the international font of shopkeepers. I’ve seen it in markets from Spain to Buenos Aires and everywhere in between. The catch is, the merch is not at all self-serve. One must enter the shop and explain to signore Tucci what one wants. Fortunately, signore Tucci is extremely friendly, obliging, pragmatic and, curiously enough for a businessman, thrifty on the buyer’s behalf.

I stepped into the shop last week with Victor. We planned to host that very evening our first dinner guests since B.C. (Before Covid). For different reasons, half of our last set of wineglasses, which I also bought from signore Tucci last year, have shattered. We are lazy and put them in the dishwasher. The galley kitchen is narrow, and woe to the one who attempts to squeeze behind the other doing dishes or loading the dishwasher, for verily I say until you, the diligent chore-doer shall be jostled and break some fragile dish or glass. So we found ourselves with not enough wineglasses, three stem for four adults, and no one felt it would make a very bella figura to drink wine out of tumblers or toothbrush cups or recycled Nutella jars on such a momentous occasion.

(The wagging finger of a German friend’s very German husband sticks in my memory as the mother of all chides, and in my own home. I’ll never get over it. They brought wine and we sipped it from tumblers. The husband was insulted. He was not kidding. Maybe next time we come over you can have wineglasses, he wiggled his brows at me, finger needling back and forth. I looked at my small children and our modest apartment and felt something close to shame, then a hot flush of indignation. Anyway, they went back to Germany and I never heard from the friend again.)

Signore Tucci sat behind the counter. I’m here for some glasses, I said confidently. Well, here you go then, he said. I have these right here. He held up a set of six shrink-wrapped tumblers on a miniature cardboard pallet.

Yes, but I need wine glasses, I said. Bicchieri per vino. I struggled with the metric volume. Trenta cinque … centimetri quadrrati?

Mom! Millilitri! Victor whispered urgently.

The normal glasses, I said. Sure, signore Tucci said. Let me check.

Victor and I watched the portly shopkeeper ascend a ladder into the shadowy heavens of his backstock. Oh my god mom, you shouldn’t have asked him to do that. Victor worries a lot about these sorts of things. Old soul. I didn’t ask him! I protested. It’s his job. This is his shop. I’m sure he knows his way around. The wooden ladder creaked and protested. Signore Tucci snuffled and softly swore. He came back down.

I’ll check in back, he said, and disappeared behind a red gingham curtain. More shuffling, rustling, and he emerged with a box of lovely crystal stems. These are fifteen euros, he said. He opened the box, as he does every time, to let me see that nothing is nicked or cracked. But my suspicious Italian grandma skills are of a low grade. I’m not a patient checker of housewares prior to purchase. No worries. Signore Tucci stands by his shop, mindful of the high quality of his retail commerce.

These look great, I said, thank you.

But they’re fifteen euros.

Yes, that’s fine. I was a little confused.

But these glasses – he once more held up the six tumblers, fetchingly etched with a diamond pattern – are made in Italy, and are only six euros.

But I need wine glasses, I said feebly, losing confidence. Victor shifted behind me.

Why? Why not these glasses? These glasses hold wine too. He looked genuinely baffled. I didn’t like the basic cups? These other glasses cost twice as much.

It’s fine, I’ll take both. I thought of all the glasses we break in our narrow kitchen during cleaning and dishwasher emptying.

Now he was really surprised. You don’t have to take both!

But I will, I said, now feeling impatient, and a little embarrassed, as an Italian family had come into the shop and was looking on our exchange with interested.

Signore Tucci shrugged, in the international ok, lady way, and took my cash. I have a bag, I said too quickly.

He raised his hands. Incomprehensible! Wanton buying of cups, and she carries her own shopping bags! Foreigners. Can’t understand ’em, love to sell to ’em.

Victor and I walked home with the glasses. They were heavy. Both bags didn’t fit into my string shopper, so the tumblers went into a paper bag with twine handles that dug into my palms. We were very happy though to have the stemware on the table for the dinner guests that night, and the diamond-etched tumblers sparkled in the flickering tealights. It was good to feel like things were getting back to normal after the last two years since the pandemic exploded.

Reading Shakespeare: Henry VI, Part II

Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

The Shakespearean histories represent the most glaring lacuna in my familiarity with the plays. Aside from having seen King Henry V starring Kenneth Branagh as Henry and Emma Thompson as the French queen (of course) approximately 30 times as a teenager (I was a little obsessed), I know none of them. I watched the BBC’s The Hollow Crown during the 2020 lockdown (always a nice escape to watch actors declaiming in brocade) but their adaptations, while lush, were so far afield that holding the text alongside offered little help by way of tackling this play. Even reading the Charles and Mary Lamb synopses of the plots didn’t paint much of a picture, and no Children’s Shakespeare The histories are sweeping and epic. It’s Will with a quill imagining his own version of Lawrence of Arabia. Apparently, this particular history was so complicated and difficult to mount (the long cast list of any play) that it wasn’t seen on stage for more than 270 years after its premier.

No one casts the histories much, save Branagh and the BBC. Being resolute in my determination to find a production to watch as I read the Shakespeare Folger text, and after many false starts, I happened upon superb this Zoom production by The Show Must Go Online. I can’t fathom how they pulled this off with Zoom and multiple actors and the vagaries of internet connection, plus they recorded it in early April 2008, when it was all I could do to control my whimpering and try to dance to YouTube videos in our apartment. Yet here was visual proof of actors who did not whimper in their kitchens or gaze moodily out the window to the soundtrack of ambulance sirens. They were acting! And it was really excellent. So good, in fact, that I found them on Patreon and subscribed – I am sure I will use them again for the more arcane offerings as I work through the canon this year.

I said early on in this project that I cannot offer any original scholarship on the Shakespearean oeuvre. My concept instead aims to reflect on what I take from each piece – in many cases, coming to them for the first time as an adult. I will keep it light and belabor no point.

I was tickled to hear the poetry and to recognize the many famous lines in King Henry VI Part II:

A staff is quickly found to beat a dog. – The Duke of Gloucester

I will make it felony to drink small beer. – Jack Cade

The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers. – Dick the Butcher

One routinely spies such dramaturgical excerpts on t-shirts, tote bags, and the like, but to perk up and recognize the words in context was a moment. I said to myself, I am not ignorant, I am simply contextualizing my cultural heritage. In fact I remember one summer (1996) when I actually bought an enormous cotton tee from the Ginger Man in uptown Dallas, emblazoned across the chest in faux calligraphy that I for one would be drinking no small beer. That was also back when I was fast to whip out my fake English accent for unsuspecting Texans. Sigh. The site was leveled last spring for new development anyway.

The cast of this Zoom production was gender-blind (in the best Elizabethan tradition, but in reverse), with female actors in leading roles of the Duke of Gloucester, the Duke of York, and the magnificent Jack Cade. I was very interested in the Marxist rebellion represented by Shakespeare in this subplot, and the heroic way in which its monarchic ringleader was portrayed. (Shakespeare didn’t spend too much time analyzing the conflict inherent in a Marxist with an inherited right to the throne, but Tudors gonna Tudor ….)

The ingenuity of the online production was a witty marvel to behold. I seriously cannot believe these actors acquitted themselves so admirably on Zoom with kitchen implements for swords, a butternut squash for a head, various other faux heads in bags bleeding raspberry jam, a hand-drawn alehouse sign in Magic Marker that would have been quite at home in the second grade here as Richard, Duke of York proclaimed over Somerset’s bloody corpse:

So lie thou there.
For underneath an alehouse’ paltry sign,
The Castle in Saint Albans, Somerset
Hath made the wizard famous in his death.

A layperson of a certain age can appreciate the histories for the treachery and shifting alliances. Anyone who has spent time the U.S. Congress, a state legislature, a large not-for-profit, in a corporate office or on a university campus, or for that matter, any school at any grade, can relate. I was surprised that Henry and Margaret made it to the end of the play alive as their colleagues seemed to be getting offed every few minutes. Critics and audiences love Shakespeare because his characters prove the adage, there is no plot, only character (since plot without character is simply genre), and his characters each paint a pictures of a flawed human being. King Henry is bookish and wise, but weak; Queen Margaret is intelligent and fiery, but stymied by her sex; Gloucester is loyal and murdered anyway as a conspirator; York is scheming and combative but fate hasn’t caught up with him (yet). Jack Cade wants to level the playing field and make society fair by doing away with all nobles except for himself, whom he imagines as an Ur-Noble after his successful revolution, and when he comes to his end, slain in a garden, he begs his murderer to say instead that he died of hunger for having missed ten meals in five days. (I am an especial fan of the dying moment arithmetic.)

Jack Cade: We will not leave one lord, one gentleman;
Spare none but such as go in clouted shoon.

There are witches and conjurers for spectators who also crave supernatural treachery. And the love story between Queen Margaret and Lord Suffolk, who married her as the king’s proxy and brought her back to England, but not before he fell in love with her himself, still rings true. For his missteps is Suffolk banished, and Margaret and Suffolk share a rending scene:

Margaret: Away! Though parting be a fretful corrosive,
It is applièd to a deathful wound.
To France, sweet Suffolk. Let me hear from thee,
For wheresoe’er thou art in this world’s globe,
I’ll have an Iris that shall find thee out.

Suffolk: A jewel, lock’d into the woefull’st cask
That ever did contain a thing of worth.
Even as a splitted bark, so sunder we:
This way fall I to death.

Suffolk is sent on a boat to France, which is of course beset by rude pirates who behead him (this turned into the Sharpie-embellished butternut squash on the Zoom production, delicious).

I will finish with a brief list of poetic words and phrases that caught my fancy: yclad, stands on a tickle point, forsooth, base cullions, damsons, Sirrah!, meseemeth, belike (“belike” slays me), conventicles, do not stand on quillets, porpentine (for porcupine), Wild Morisco, Marry!, God forfend!, contumelious, pinnace, palfrey, go in clouted shoon (referring to workmen’s boots?), recreants and dastards, live at jar, sallet, we twain, dead as a doornail, burgonet, foul stigmatic, that winter lion (referring to Salisbury). And the famous line when Richard finds Somerset and chases off the girded Clifford, saying:

Seek thee out some other chase, for I myself must hunt this deer to death. Pretty sure I heard this once come out of a dean’s mouth on campus. That tragic figure got along with no one, and he liked it that way. Shakespeare would have had a ball with that character. Maybe I should.

Next week: Henry VI, Part I. Hotspur here I come! I’ll be sure to arrive in clouted shoon!

Shakespeare Report III: The Most Lamentable Romaine Tragedie of Titus Andronicus

Photo by Pawel Czerwinski on Unsplash

Titus Andronicus, written in 1591, is Shakespeare’s third play and the first of his Roman plays. It’s rarely performed now, probably because it is a huge downer with a very complicated plot, and tremendous violence, both general and gender-based. Shakespeare scholarship categorizes it as one of the eleven tragedies, and it consistently ranks at the bottom of his plays.

The first print copy of it dates to 1594, but it is easy to feel young Shakespeare maneuvering through some very heavy elements. Indeed, the plot synopsis was so ridiculous that I laughed out loud. What was I in for? I could just hear an editor getting back to him – Will, Will, Will …. Will! this is …. a bit much. Can we tone it down? There is no way this is going to make any sense on the printed page, I told myself. Sigh.

I started looking for a production to watch, hoping that a properly staged version would simplify things. I stumbled across Julie Taylor’s 1999 film, Titus, and wondered why I’d never heard of it before, much less seen it. (See Roger Ebert’s gushing 2000 review here; find and watch the film in its glorious entirety on YouTube.) Starring Anthony Hopkins in the title role, Jessica Lange as an older but plausible Tamara, queen of the Goths, and a star-studded cast in almost every other role. This film is apparently the only cinematic adaptation of the play. I loved Taymor’s 2002 Frida (and the score, also by Elliott Rosenthal). So I queued up Titus, thinking I might watch it over a period of days, but was immediately drawn in by the art direction and the adaptation that I watched the entire film in one sitting, following the text with as much pleasure as I remember first having done at home in 1990 or 1991 with King Henry V (starring Kenneth Branagh) and my parents’ Complete Works of Shakespeare, Vols. I & II.

Taymor envisioned the play as taking place across millennia, treating timeless themes of violence and revenge, and the film portrays a mix of aesthetics from Roman to modern, medieval and centuries in between. I love good production, creative and rich and risk-taking, and Titus did not disappoint. Further, many scenes were shot in and around Rome, using the Fascist architecture dating from Mussolini to emphasize ill-gotten despotic power.

In Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare depicts and dissects the cycle of violence and revenge, and the damage it inflicts on everyone it touches. And it is violent. I came to the piece knowing nothing about it, and when I read in the synopsis that Titus’s only daughter Lavinia is kidnapped, raped, left in a forest with her hands cut off and her tongue sliced out, I confess I felt a bit weak. How were they going to portray this? All in, as it turned out. No holds barred. The twigs stuffed into the stumps of her forearms in a mockery of hands was particularly jarring. The handless maiden is a familiar trope in mythology. Lavinia is given new hands. She sees her father with new eyes, and he her, as they learn to communicate in new ways since she can no longer speak.

Tamara and Lavinia are the only two female characters in a play thirsty for revenge: Titus against Tamara for the loss of his sons in the decade-long Roman war with the Goths. Tamara against Titus for the execution of her eldest son at the start of the play, triggering the cycle. (It owes much to the Oresteia, but these are old tropes indeed.) Titus against Tamara for the violence that Chiron (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, prior to his magnificent turn as Henry VIII in the HBO series The Tudors) and Demetrius did to Lavinia. This last crime sets in motion the tragic ending.

Titus offers a parallel commentary on the nature of political power, as Titus the war veteran, then Bassianus (a perfectly cast James Frain), the heir apparent, both refuse the title of emperor, leaving it to Saturnius (Alan Cummings, in an especially oily iteration) to grab rather profanely in an assembly of Roman citizens. Ironically, Saturnius is not at all saturnine. He engages in no self-reflection, but rather land grabs whenever possible, first trying to steal his brother Bassianus’s wife, Lavinia (back when she still had hands and a tongue), then taking the captive Tamara, queen of the defeated Goths, for his wife and partner in scheming. Rome, alas, is led not by a sober Titus or an intellectual, but Saturnius the showman, who hasn’t known a day of moderation in his life and who retaliates with the speed of a toddler.

We have front-row seats to the options that were available to Shakespeare’s portrayal of a woman in a patriarchal system deeply rooted in honor. Queen Tamara enforces the values, egging her sons on to rape and disfigure Lavinia in revenge for the execution of her son Alarbus. There’s a lot of Aunt Lydia (from The Handmaid’s Tale) in Tamara, who is a woman playing the patriarchal game following men’s rules. She ignores the pleas of Lavinia and refuses to show mercy. She manipulates Saturnius, and her lover Aaron, keeping all the plates twirling and believing herself one step ahead of everyone, until she’s not. She takes Titus for a fool when his wits are very much about him, thus opening the door for the final scene of carnage. And yet Tamara loses everything playing this game. If Titus is dead, at least his sober son Lucius will wear the laurel crown and rule Rome, and young Lucius survives. Tamara’s line is extinguished. It’s not clear if any other outcome would have been possible for her, though, in her hamstrung position as a captive queen abroad.

The one voice of reason comes from Marcus, Titus’s brother, who consistently counsels Titus to moderation from a place of wisdom and compassion. In commiserating with Marcus after Marcus returns with a blood-soaked Lavinia, Titus weeps:

If there were reason for these miseries / Then into limits I could bind my woes!

Reasons do not exist for violence. Titus’s moment of conscience is short-lived and he doubles down to seek further revenge in a nihilistic vendetta against Tamara and her sons. And while there is no cross-dressing, Tamara in the final act does don the garb of Revenge to appear in Titus’s garden, styling her sons Chiron and Demetrius as Rape and Murder, in a nod to the medieval morality play gone awry.

It’s incredible that Shakespeare set some of his pieces in a world that predated Christian ethics and staged them for Elizabethan audiences, in a departure from medieval morality plays. He showed the world as it was, and men and women as they are, suffering for their actions with no moral argument for a different path. The Romans, he says, were cruel and obsessed with bloodshed, and look (once more) look at how women are treated. In his portrayal of women – such as Julia and Sylvia, Katherine and Lavinia – I do not find approbation, but rather a Goya-esque portrayal along the lines of, This is how men are. Consider it well. Aaron the Moor seems to be portrayed as Muslim in a glaring anachronism. O Tudor England, so quick to cast a stage Moor as a villain.

Titus Andronicus offers a lens through which to view human desire and the emptiness of vengeance. I found myself drawing contemporaneous political parallels, metaphorically speaking. Also, Anthony Hopkins could read a recipe and I would find it compelling.

What a pleasure to come fresh in middle age to undiscovered (for me) Shakespearean literature and to find there a many-layered trove so rich in theme and language. A true treat, and well worth the time. If you don’t know it, put it on your list, and watch the film. My favorite so far, due in great part to the unexpected surprise.

Shakespeare Report II: The Taming of the Shrew

Photo by Altınay Dinç on Unsplash

The Taming of the Shrew: Shakespeare’s second play, so famous its reputation precedes it. I remember hearing about it, reading its title even, as a child, and being frightened. What is the world was a shrew, and why ever could it not be tamed? Yes, reader, I confess to you here and now: until this past week, never had I read this play, nor even seen it, with the exception of Ten Things I Hate About You, starring Keith Ledger, pbuh, as a version of Petruchio, and Julia Stiles as another haughty Katherine. (Marvellous still, by the way.) I watched the film when I lived in Seattle as a young woman, marveling at the scenes shot on Queen Anne a mere hop from my Green Lake rental manor.

Since last week I listened to the audio first of The Two Gentlemen of Verona and quickly got lost in text and cross-dressing characters, this week I vowed to read it through first, then watch or listen. But alack! This proved too difficult, for Shakespeare was written to be spectated, not merely paged. Halfway through the Induction I was once more searching for videos of the play. It’s tough to find a full-length Shrew. I contented myself with community theater videos from Clear Lake in Houston, replete with major costumery, an IB English class in Beaverton with absolutely no costumes and shot in the kitchen of someone’s mom, complete with plastic crates of bananas and yellow onions, another student production elsewhere. Plus a production in England with a Petruchio who was rather too advanced in years, I felt, and a Katherine who might as well have been a librarian. I quickly fell in love with the patchwork of earnest homegrown productions.

And then. AND THEN. O revelation, o overflowing fortune, I found myself alighting upon the 1974 New York Shakespeare in the Park production documentary in which the Shrew and Petruchio were played by none other than a very young, pre-MFA Meryl Streep and Raúl Juliá. I was captivated by the kitsch of it. Like a Rob Reiner film. The frizzy and shaggy audience was interviewed; the actors interrogated in their dressing rooms, both apart and together. O young Meryl with her long frizz and long sad nose! O virile and shaggy-mopped Raúl Sigmund Juliá! I had hit pay dirt. This was astounding. The sound was off – it had been uploaded to YouTube from VHS. But it transported me to a New York of the seventies, Raúl Juliá at the top of his Shakespeare game, declaiming those lines like he just thought them up on the spot, never mind the heavily belted blue sweatpants and lumberjack boots. I was embarrassed to admit I’d only known him from the Addams Family film franchise. Oh Raúl Juliá, you left us so soon, the funniest, most soulful Petruchio ever.

An aspect of this project I had not first considered – now very clear to me – is that a loose project during the week that offers both structure and a bone upon which one might gnaw in dedicated hours – giving myself a play a week to read and digest – really focuses my idle time in front of and away from my laptop. I am not watching trash or doom-scrolling. I am reading durable poetry and drama, I am communing with the historic worldwide community of Shakespeare lovers and dreamers, community actors in Houston and high school kids in Oregon, countless students in earnest productions in befeathered pudding caps and belted sweatpants and boots, getting through their lines as best they can. Never mind the fact that the play needs a good editor – the interpolated story opens, but never closes, poor Christopher Sly! Cross-dressing pages and women abound, men dressing as women, women as men, men as other men. Compellingly, Bianca and Katherine remain as they are: Bianca sweet and static, Katherine pyrotechnic and dynamic.

Katherine and Petruchio each get a nice share of heartfelt monologues. Katherine puts her music teacher’s head through a lute. Petruchio shows Katherine the silliness in her spoiled tantrums by mirroring her behavior: he rails at the cook, at the tailor, at Kate, who squirms to see how poorly he comes off. She calms down when she believes she has met her match. No more cause for tirades.

Oh and gorgeous quotes!

Too much sadness hath congealed your blood / And melancholy is the nurse of frenzy.

Such wind as scatters young men throughout the world / To seek their fortunes further than at home / Where small experience grows.

This ’tis to feel a tale, not hear a tale.

Come, my sweet Kate. / Better once than never, for never too late.

I am struck – just two plays in – of the consistent way in which Shakespeare portrays very smart, very witty women as subjects of their very culture and circumstance. Katherine is from the same tribe as Julia and Sylvia in Two Gentlemen of Verona, all three so notable for the fire they burn on the stage and on the page that the male characters can barely be differentiated. I really don’t care if dudes dress up as other dudes to deceive people and do various things. Show me a woman struggling against her fate, and how she is crushed under the wheel while power remains firmly in place, and I feel I am seeing a scene most familiar indeed. I suspect there exist after-stories not yet written to both of these two plays, though: I’d like to know what happens to Julia, Sylvia, and Katherine after all their weddings. (I think Bianca will do just fine.)

I’m keeping a notebook like a student on my adventure here, to make sure I get a few pages of notes on each play, and every now and again, from the Folder *pdf, I print a page or two of text too lovely to lose.

Next week, Titus Andronicus, which I’ve always heard is horrid, so this might be a fast twirl, but Ralph Fiennes starred in a recent remix which I have unsuccessfully tried before. Maybe I am in a better mood now for Shakespearean shenanigans. I’m willing to wager so. Also, if Ralph Fiennes is on film all sweaty and conflicted, that might be worth sticking around for.

Update from Italy: The Unknown Pig

Photo by Jingming Pan on Unsplash

Jason’s birthday was a couple of months ago, before Thanksgiving. Mid-November birthdays, alas, rarely offer the type of weather that might occasion a festive gathering. His birthday was on a weekend this year, so we reserved a table for two at Nugolo, a new restaurant of some local renown around the corner from where we live, on Via Mattonaia.

The restaurant was chic and small, staffed by chic, slim people in hipster aprons of linen. We were shown to our table, in a corner in a further room, illuminated by a light bulb that appeared to have last been by Edison himself, and almost certainly now unlawful in the European Union. A recycled glass bottle held a purple spray of flowers.

The waitress came and asked us which language we needed. L’italiano va bene, we both nodded. Somewhat hesitantly, she handed us two menus. We ordered prosecco and opened the menu to peruse. It was uncomplicated and brief. The waitress returned with our flutes of cold bubbly. We toasted the day and cocked our heads. As the dining room around us began to fill, we noted curiously that all the other guests were speaking French. As in French people. How odd! we exclaimed. The waitress returned to take our orders. We ordered starters; I skipped the primo. We each ordered a secondo. What is the ingot? Jason asked, pointing. The ingot on the menu?

Oh, it’s maiale, the chic waitress answered nonchalantly. Just pig.

Sounds great, Jason assented.

I opted for the pheasant rolls.

Talking and laughing. Talking. Not keeping our phones down as much as we ought to have. The lights were pretty. The restaurant’s entire first seating was now complete. At seven-thirty and then nine, we guessed.

We ordered a bottle of Chianti Riserva. Bravi, the waitress smiled, uncorking the wine. Jason sniffed the cork. The wine was wonderful. French swirled around us. All the French people seemed really young. Who are these people, I wondered? La jeune France in this fancy réstaurant off the beaten path in Florence? They all seemed louder than regular French people, but the dining room was small and the lights were bright. The French people did not all seem to be together. The kitchen was running food out at a clip. I could see them from my chair, sweating and cooking and plating. The French people drank a lot of wine in a very short time.

The secondi (entrées) flew out. Jason’s looked like a geometric meatloaf with a glaze reduction. My four pheasant rolls were prettily arranged around a white plate, speared in place with toothpicks.

What is this? he asked.

The waitress said it was an ingotto, I repeated. It is the ingot of the pig.

What is the ingot of the pig?

I wondered aloud. A leg bone? A shank? Some part that has been hidden all this time, but which is an intrinsic part of the pig? I reached for the translation app on my phone. Ingotto. Ingot. It’s an ingot. I shrugged. Have some more wine before the French people drink it all. I topped off his glass. He gamely began to cut into the pig ingot. The reduction sauce gleamed in the warm light. He swept the cube of ingot in the reduction sauce and popped it in his mouth. A certain look crossed his face. He tilted the ingot to one side to inspect.

This is an entire block of bacon, he exclaimed.

Were my mouth not full of pheasant roll, I would have let out a low whistle. An ingot of bacon. The ingot was not some mysterious, miraculous part of the common pig, from whose introduction we had been cruelly deprived throughout decades of dinners, but rather an evocative description of the shape of the pressed block of bacon.

It was his birthday, and he dispatched the pig ingot like a champ, but not without some suffering. We ordered dolci and a mini-snifter each of amaro. It might have been a good night for a solid plug of fiery grappa. On the short, slower walk home, he said he felt a bit guilty for eating so much bacon in one sitting, but that it had been very, very rich. But very good. But very rich. Oh so rich. Who needs to eat that much bacon in one sitting?

He ate fairly lightly for the next week.

Just a word to the wise to ask the waiter if the name of the plate if meant to be literal or evocative. We’re still laughing about this dinner. And I had little room to talk or mock, having for my part consumed a lunch composed almost entirely of black truffles for my own birthday six weeks before. I couldn’t eat breakfast for a month after that. I just stayed full for weeks. O adventures in Tuscan dining.

Update from Italy: A New Old Ring

Champagne diamond on the left, thunderstorm sapphire (repaired setting) on the right.

A few months ago – what feels like a lifetime ago – I wrote two parts of a three-part account of how the diamond popped from my engagement ring on a family trip in Liguria, and my efforts to get it replaced, in The Errant Solitaire and L’Intermezzo dell’Annello. It’s a good story that starts with tragedy, is fueled by hope, and ends successfully after twists and turns.

But my perspective shifted in the interim, what with close Covid contact and spending a week in quarantine at home, watching my children from afar through our own windows, binge eating holiday cookies and and binge watching The Great. Our holidays came and went – we were just grateful to be in family and at home. Things in Italy continue to be stressful with Omicron, public policies that lag behind reality, and a virus that seems to shape-shift each time public health gets a handle on it. A friend died unexpectedly last month. My silly ring story seemed to shrink in comparison to breaking news.

A writer friend continues to ask me where the final installment is, and I told her I’d been feeling dejected by recent events, deflated by stress, and humbled by reality. Write it anyway, she urged. Life is made of many dramas big and small, the monumental and the infinitesimal, she pointed out. I conceded her point.

Jason and I set an appointment with Zia Grazia to meet in her pied-à-terre smack in the center of Florence, off Piazza Santa Firenze. Her small apartment was a jewel box of treasures and mirrors, vintage dark furniture and marble statues and plaster figurines of all kinds. Come in, come in, she greeted us, having just made us espresso. We perched on the divan and chatted briefly about our children, her life in Florence and now Mugello, and the sad demise of her business, a casualty of the first lockdown. Zia Grazia was a well-built woman, energetic, with the bright lipstick that well-to-do women in Florence favor into their nineties, dressed for the occasion: a private sale. I wondered if she wore a ring on each finger because it was a special day, or if that was her normal number of jewels adorning her hands.

She ushered us into a tiny side room, hung with thin cabinets. She had thoughtfully selected a dozen rings she thought we might like, though Jason hastened to clarify that the choice was wholly mine. The rings were laid on a velvet board by century: settings from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, into the 1700s, 1800s, and 1900s. Every ring was stunning. The oldest settings were simply diamonds plugged into a base of gold, a a child might press a shell into a sand castle. They didn’t glitter back then, she said. Gem cutters didn’t have the technology to cut, and jewelers hadn’t yet figured out prong settings. The rings were lovely, but in comparison to later centuries looked amateur. I thought of Jan Van Eyck paintings and how the daughters of burgesses must have worn jewels like these. How simple and rare they were!

Zia Grazia walked us through each century as I tried on every ring in the well-lit room. As gemology and settings got smarter, the stones began to weigh a bit less and sparkle a lot more. Jewelers worked out prongs and light, and better and better saws let them take advanatge of every last slice of a rough diamond. Apparently I love a nice Liberty setting, because those were my favorites. She left Jason and me in the treasure closet to ooh and ahh. I couldn’t believe she was letting me handle these pieces. When she returned, I set aside my favorite. It was not small – in fact, it was almost twice the size of the one I lost. She nodded. Ah yes, a champagne diamond, and indeed the color was a faint warm yellow tone. If I squinted I could imagine bubbles rising. A rare one, she said, and a bargain for you. She sized it for me and said she’d have it back from her man the jeweler in a few weeks. Her gaze fell on my empty setting, its jagged prongs like broken teeth. What will you do with that, she asked me.

I don’t know, I said. I still like the setting. And I do. The perfect size, in white gold.

Let’s see if we can’t find a stone for it, she smiled, fetching down a box of loose gemstones. This now felt like One Thousand and One Nights or Outlander territory. She opened the lid and we began to select and place loose gems gently in the empty space to see how they would look. Opals, topazes, rubies, pearls, amethysts, sapphires glittered and rolled on the surface. The sapphires were my favorite. We found a sapphire dark as a storm cloud and about the size of the lost diamond. She tucked it into a bag and assured me that the repair and setting would be no trouble at all for her jeweler.

I asked if I could peek around her apartment; she said of course. Oh the treasures stowed therein! Would that I had such a pied-à-terre in Florence, but then I’d need the Italian banker husband to go with it.

She embraced Jason and me as though we were family. I paid her with a handsome stack of fifties, the sum total of the insurance payout, plus another few hundred. Would you like to look at any necklaces or earrings? she asked. I’ve got some lovely engraved Imperial jade set with diamonds, Art Deco. I sighed. Jason took my hand. We’ll think about it.

I tend to like older things. Books, clothes rings, cars, suitcases, music, more. I appreciate the history and the energy of a pre-loved item. Who knows on what hand glittered my ring, a hundred years ago, or out of what setting the loose sapphire itself had tumbled? The original engagement ring from 2004 was new, and in a way it represented my hopes for the future then: clear, unmarred. The new ring with its champagne diamond, alluring as a flute of prosecco, come down to me through who knows what chain of mysterious events, seems more appropriate to life as I now understand it. And this ring will always be the vintage ring that Jason and I bought in Florence together, rain into shine.

I laugh to remember Jason’s quip in the car when I was panicking about the vanished stone. Well, honey, looks like it’s time to get you a new ring in Florence. I resented his flip response in that moment. There in the car with our kids tearing up the backseat and raining finely ground cracker crumbs onto every exposed upholstered surface, I wanted to strangle him, for just a second. But, in the end, as he always is, he was right. New love is old love is new love. We find the rings that fit.

Farewell, perfect little diamond, with your perfect cut and flawless face, emblematic of another time.
Photo from a layover in Paris in 2017 or 2018 that I remember expressly for this indulgent manicure.

Update from Italy: Farewell to a Friend

Preparing to lay Liz to rest in the English Cemetery, Florence. Pictured, L to R: Haswell Beni, Fr. Richard Easterling, Sister Julia Holloway, Jean Matranga (holding urn), Jean’s son, Priscilla Fontanelli.

The funeral for our friend Liz Cole almost two weeks ago, on January 20. Her burial was on Saturday at noon. I was grateful that The Florentine updated the piece they ran about her with the service time – I adapted it from my original post on my website about Liz’s sudden and unexpected passing two weeks ago. In these days of whack-a-mole Covid positive results and the attendant restrictions on activity, who knows if anyone will be able to go a certain place on a certain day. Liz had many close friends, that much was clear, whether she’d known them a lifetime or just the last few years of her life, as she did me. The group slowly gathered in the median in front of the English Cemetery, at the gate, under the arch, among the graves.

The English Cemetery holds a special place in my heart and imagination. I pass it two, three, four times a day. It’s a block from where we live in Piazza D’Azeglio. I love the stones and bones, the exuberant purple irises that tuft up each spring by the thousands, the way it always catches the sunshine, the famous expatriate forebears buried there. I first saw it years ago, tagging along with a friend who was visiting with her language class, and there I met the incomparable Julia Holloway (as introduced in the article linked above at the start of this paragraph), Elizabeth Barrett Browning scholar, recently named Mother Superior of the Order of the Holy Family, and freelance saint. I often see Julia in town on her bike, veil flying in the wind, pedaling in her long chambray skirts. I am grateful for all the work she has done in Florence with the least among us, the most invisible, the most needy, while simultaneously admiring her academic accomplishments and scholarship in English poetry. It’s not easy to secure a burial in the English Cemetery. Most people buried there now reserved their spaces decades ago. Liz always planned ahead like that. Fr. Richard told me once laughing that she gave him her cremation card when they first met last year.

My son Victor willingly accompanied me. I’ve never been to a funeral before! he exclaimed. Well, this will be an easy one, then, I said. Outdoor in a garden with an urn. What’s an urn? Holds the cremains, I said. Here, hold the primroses. Vic took the small pot of primroses from me. I adjusted the satin bow. A small gesture, well fit to the day. Did you know the Etruscans cremated their dead too? he asked me. Full of fun facts, this fifth grader. I didn’t actually know that, I said. Then I remembered their penchant for alabaster urns. Makes sense.

We couldn’t have ordered better weather. The day was clean, blue and bright, and calm. We gathered around the grave for the brief liturgy. Jean gave the ashes to the staff, who carefully placed them in a cement vault, placed the lid on the vault, caulked it, and laid a felt on top of it, then shoveled the wet dirt atop it. They motioned that people who brought flowers should pass them up, so we did, and in went the little pot of primroses. The gardeners stuck the cut flowers in the dirt vertically. The satin ribbon that had festooned the plastic pot was cast to one side.

I stood with my friend Roseanne under the spire of a Tuscan cedar. We shared memories of Liz, our regrets, how we were feeling. Victor and her three daughters stood behind us. The cedar branches clawed at our hair. It’s amazing, I said, a life so large and so well-lived, and it all comes to this, as will we all, gesturing to the fresh hillock of dirt. If we’re lucky. I looked around at the sunlit garden, the hill of handsome stones and turf, the cedar trees lining the path and ringing the parameter. If we’re lucky. The non-stop traffic on the viale swarmed around all side of the island, people in a hurry to come and go, arrive here or there.

Victor was hungry. And thirsty. And tired. Also, his feet hurt, and his legs. I made our farewells more quickly than I would have liked but understood the trade-off – if a ten-year-old boy volunteers for funeral duty, then the visit ends when the boy says. I thanks Julia for all her work, and gave her Jason’s best – they have some professional activities in common.

I had been wishing that I had something of Liz’s to remember her by. Then I remembered the Doufou Le Creuset Dutch oven she gave me last spring, orange as a pumpkin and enormous, which I’d brought home in the basket, still in its original box. It had been a wedding gift, she told me. She was never ever going to use it! She looked for it for months before she and her aide found it, triumphant. The cast iron weighs a ton and the bike wobbled on the uneven flagstones. I took it home and looked it up, not sure what to do with it. But then last month we remembered we should be using it for our weekly roasts. They turn out beautifully in it, juicy and perfect. The orange is so cheery, and the piece so durable. I’ll have it for the rest of my life, from one foodie to another, and remember her every time I tuck in a roast with chopped vegetables on a weekend night for a reliably fantastic meal.

Says Eleanor, it is nice she is so close, you can see her every time you ride on the bike path. And she’s right. Thank you, Liz, for everything, and again for making space in your life for a new younger friend to whom you gave so much. You will be missed immeasurably.

The exchange of sympathy for gratitude is the most princely thing! – EBB