Shakespeare Report: Love’s Labours Lost

Photo by Dim 7 on Unsplash

After weeks with the history plays, wading around in battlefield muck and trying to avoid bloody heads in burlap bags, it was a boon to come to the lighter fare of Love’s Labours Lost. Written in the mid-1590s, with no identifiable source material, this seems to be a piece whose plot came from Will himself – and some literary scholars suspect that the character Berowne was created as the closest thing we have to a literary self-portrait of Shakespeare. The play counts the greatest number of neologisms, plenty of riffing in Latin, Spanish, and French, and the longest word (honorificabilitudinitatibus). We can hear Shakespeare releasing all his schoolboy frustrations into this play.

I found a delicious 1975 BBC production to watch (much fife, much codpiece) as I followed along with the Folger Shakespeare text. It’s really nice to see productions without famous A-listers; the conceit becomes transparent. My sole complaint is that the Spanish “schoolboys” in this version all looked forty or older, but maybe they were non-traditional students. Personally, were I a casting director, I would make sure all these lords and ladies were firmly under thirty, and looking no more than twenty-five.

I have mentally categorized Love’s Labours Lost as another “Shakespeare study abroad play,” together with “Two Gentlemen of Verona.” The story centers on young adults with ample privilege find themselves abroad. In this case, the princess of France inexplicably finds herself across the Pyrenees in Navarre, which is basically the France of Spain, with her three comely ladies-in-waiting. Just touring around! They cross paths with the King of Navarre and HIS three extremely handsome and witty lords, who are at home and NOT on study abroad, have unfortunately JUST taken a group vow to swear off ladies. Reason: hit the books. They are going to study! Says the king in his opening monologue,

Navarre shall be the wonder of the world;
Our court shall be a little academe,
Still and contemplative in living art.
You three, Berowne, Dumaine, and Longaville,
Have sworn for three years’ term to live with me
.

(Side note: I love their names: Berowne, Dumaine, and Longaville. Like shadow Musketeers!) Due to the group vow, the king makes the French princess camp in a field. Too bad since they are sooo cute! Some letters between various characters are conveniently mixed up, wherein the audience learns some heartfelt secrets, and we get to meet the locals, who include a schoolmaster (whence the Latin jokes), a curate (source of more Latin jokes), and a constable, plus a wandering Spaniard named Don Armado (cue the Spanish jokes) seemingly in search of the Spanish Armada (England was still sore about 1588). There’s a townie couple, Costard and Jaquenetta, for added measure and parallelism. (The course of true love ne’er did run smooth, etc.)

Of course the four men from Navarre fall in love with the four women from France. Just to make sure they reallllly like them for their personalities, and not just their bejeweled bosoms and cute accents (isn’t that how it always happens), the Frenchwomen trade amongst themselves all the Spanish tokens of love, then disguise themselves as though in a masked ball. Of course the Spaniards all flirt with the wrong French women! Dommage!

Some sticklers who produce Shakespeare podcasts get all bent out of shape about historicity and feasibility. The characters can all understand one another, they sniff. Did they all suddenly become fluent in the language of the others? But please. Suspend disbelief, and enjoy the romp and the language. Or get out your Old Testament and say it’s a science textbook. It’s literature, people. If you can’t suspend, God forfend!

Well, everyone loves a play within a play, and the townspeople put on a rather high-flown piece, well beyond their grasp, for the lords and ladies. Unfortunately, the lords and ladies on their group date are less than gracious, and mercilessly mock the townspeople. Peccato! Halfway through the play, a messenger arrives to announce that the King of France is dead. (Somehow, the princess guessed it first. Maybe king had been unwell before she went on her program?) The group adjourns to mourn, the ladies to France, the king of Navarre and his lords back to their court, but not before receiving their marching orders from the beautiful women, who have seen them at their pitiless worst with the townspeople. The princess tells the king to take a vow of solitude. Rosaline insists that Berowne find himself a hospital to practice his wit on the sick and dying, and in the process learn a little empathy:

Oft have I heard of you, my Lord Berowne,
Before I saw you; and the world’s large tongue
Proclaims you for a man replete with mocks,
Full of comparisons and wounding flouts,
Which you on all estates will execute
That lie within the mercy of your wit.
To weed this wormwood from your fruitful brain.

Of course Berowne says that this task is impossible. He prefers to be funny while not in the company of people who are suffering. Rosaline insists:

A jest’s prosperity lies in the ear
Of him that hears it, never in the tongue
Of him that makes it.

The play ends with two songs – one, a cuckoo, who warns married men against straying wives; the other, owls, who remind us of the grudge of daily life, most decidedly NOT a frolic as these lords and ladies would have it. Why, the icicles hang, and the milk is frozen in the pail, and greasy Joan doth keel the pot. (Poor Joan!) Exeunt, and Don Armado has the last word:

The words of Mercury are harsh after the
songs of Apollo. You that way; we this way.

Ah tempus fugit! the Japanese mono no aware. I have heard this play is popular in Japan and I understand why. Shakespeare takes an enormous dramatic risk in ending it, in media res and with climbing action, just as things are getting good. No one gets together with anyone. The flirtation ends. Real life crowds in. The referee blows the whistle. PLAY IS OVER! EVERYONE ON THE BENCH!

Moral: Enjoy your gallivanting, as few people have such opportunities, and don’t expect the fascination to last for long – regular life beckons. Thus are the lords taken down a few pegs. Maybe they will return to their books after all to examine their collective conscience, in hermitages and hospitals.

Language I love from Love’s Labours Lost: Me? … me? … still me? (Costard), all pride is willing pride – and yours is, coppice, what plume of feathers, the collusion/pollution/allusion holds in this exchange, perge, abrogate surrility, glozes.

Fair as Text B in a copy book. – Katherine (I had to look this one up – it’s a dispute between Rosaline and Katherine about a mixed-up missive. Originally it seems to have been text R, as in Rosaline, possibly)

Shall I have an audience? – Holofernes

Shall I tell you a thing? – Armado

A soul feminine salutheth thus. – Holofernes

Sweet Cupid! Thou has pumped him with thy bird bolt under the left pap. – Berowne (this one might be my favorite!)

Footnote: I now know where The Gruffalo’s owl got his tu-whit to-who.

Subfootnote: Berowne and Rosaline are a warm-up act for Benedick and Katherine in Much Ado About Nothing!

Opinion from Italy: The Pandemic is Not Done

Gubbio, Italy
Photo by Annalisa Bellini on Unsplash

So glad the pandemic is winding down! When I dip back into American news and social media, this seems to be the main current of opinion. It’s done! hey guys! EVERYONE BACK TO NORMAL.

Regarding the pandemic and timelines and human psychology, in light of our recent experience as a family, we were all fully vaccinated, and our symptomatic breakthrough infection rate was a shocking 100%. This has been the case with many of the local families we know. Fully vaccinated. All infected. All symptomatic. Two weeks ago I could barely crawl out of bed and couldn’t eat. My head and throat and chest were throbbing, Victor’s mouth was full of open canker sores, Eleanor’s arms looked like she’d harvested a patch of poison ivy. No one wanted to eat. Energy levels were about 10-20% of normal. I could barely talk.

After I rejoined the world this past week, I was peppered with questions from people whom I routinely encounter in my daily circuit of school, work, espresso. Was it like the cold, or like the flu? the asked me. Like neither, I said, annoyed by this forced choice, the hopeful comparisons, the yearned-for minimization. It was like Covid. I experienced symptoms I have never in my life had before – not with sinus infections, not with bronchitis. I shudder when I think of that dark gremlin that squatted on my chest like Hans Christian Anderson’s watercolor Death for almost a week. When I was at rest. Or in bed. The ache, the pain. The worry. Where was this going? Was it going to get worse? Would the immune system hold? What about long Covid?

Eleanor’s class of 25 was down to 8 or 9 students, and the kids were really sick. The parents got it. The grandparents got it. Everyone who got it was symptomatic and stayed positive for a full ten days. The symptoms were awful, and ran the gamut. Fortunately in our family there was no high fever or vomiting, but many of the kids had those symptoms, and some of the parents too. Now, no one died (yet, that we know of), and one father was hospitalized, but the second grade class has been on Covid tilt now for three weeks with serious disruption due to symptomatic illness.

The vaccinations aren’t working, some parents told me.

This is not what we were led to believe would happen, said others.

The virus is moving more quickly than medicine and technology are, and certainly than public health. I have said this a few times in response to such comments. This comment has garnered side-eye more than once. I am glad we were all vaccinated. We probably would have been even more sick without the shots we’ve all received over the past 14 months.

Numbers in Europe are on a steep rise. China is struggling. Hong Kong is in full crisis, with as many Covid deaths in the past two weeks as they’ve seen in the past two years – an older population that refused to vaccinate, and now with Covid mortality around 12% with the older patients. The U.S. is still seeing over 1200 deaths per day due to Covid. The spate of high-profile Covid positives in the U.S. does not surprise. I witnessed it jumping, quick and invisible as a static shock, through a whole class and its associated family members in a matter of days.

Yet governments at every level are repealing safety measures in conflict with the reality on the ground. No more tests, no more masks. Large groups, fine. Back to business as normal.

St. Anselm is famous for observing that the reward of patience is patience. I understand patience is not infinite. Human nature is what it is. Modern culture has trained us to speed up, hurry up, reduce load times, next-day delivery. People are tired, exhausted. Russia is going nuts in Ukraine. Inflation is soaring. There will be energy and food insecurity this year due to all the other moving parts. The supply chain is still in disrepair. Things are happening, yes.

But the strange optimism coming out of some quarters about the pandemic is jarring. I know that locking down hard is not the answer. But the new Covid BA.2 variant is said to have a reproduction number (R) of 18 – one of the most contagious viruses documented to date. When the R number is that high, collective immunity (however acquired) must be around a whopping 95% to offer meaningful protection and to save lives. OG Covid was far less contagious. But now we are seeing greater infectiousness, in spite of vaccines, with symptoms. And the antibodies from one variant may mean little when confronted with an evolved variant. This is why we all get colds, and the flu, year after year. One human body just doesn’t have that catalog of antibodies when viruses are quick to mutate.

People want to say the virus is now endemic. That it’s already just like the flu. I don’t think we are there yet, and wishing it were so will not, à la Star Trek, make it so. I have just in the past few days been starting to see similar comments in places like The New York Times, following weeks of articles that urged people to not worry, that what was happening elsewhere in the world was not going to happen in America. That there was no reason to think it would once more cross the ocean. (It has indeed, in many places in the U.S.) I’ve been watching American spring breakers in Florence all week. I can’t help but see where this is going, back to the U.S. Of course people want to travel. I want to travel. We all want to travel. But our travel carries an impact that we need to understand.

The pandemic is a long, long game, on so many levels. Stay strong, stay alert, be patient.

Written at the urging of an American friend.

Shakespeare Report: Richard III

In a contemporary ditty, A cat, a rat, and a dog / All rule England under a Hog.
The animals refer to Ratcliffe, Catesby, and Lowell.
The hog, of course, is Richard, whose coat of arms featured a wild boar.
Photo by Jonathan Kemper on Unsplash

Now is the winter of our discontent ….

Everyone knows this opening line to Richard III, spoken by king himself, in monologue direct to the audience. The transparent fourth wall provides much of the genius of Richard III. The audience is invited into his thoughts and justifications while seeing the outward expression of his ambition and frustration.

I love this play. I really do. I know Richard III is a total creep in popular imagination, our opinions aided, whether we recognize it or not, in theater that is pinned on facts such as this one. But to be so invited into the mind and imaginary space with a person who becomes increasingly desperate and given to impulse is a treasure. (I would refrain from attempting this in real life – such is the boon of theater and literature).

By this time, I have thrice seen Richard III – twice in the 2016 production with Benedict Cumberbatch, and last weekend in the 1955 film starring Sir Laurence Olivier. Benedict is a sight to behold. If you are at all inclined, run, don’t walk, to watch him in this master performance. The historic Richard (30) was closer in age to Benedict than to Laurence (a generation older than that when he cast himself and his alarming prosthetic proboscis in the leading role, directed it and produced it). Laurence is all middle-aged and machinating, where Benedict brings the desperation, the OCD, the drumming fingers and all the angry spit to the role.

At this point, and I don’t know how this happened, but I am so steeped in the War of the Roses that I should probably write an exam on it. After all parts I, II, and III of Shakespeare’s King Henry VI, and Richard III, I am now close to a lay expert on the events in England of 1483-1485. The facts stand as they are. Richard’s brother Edward dies in murky circumstances (his “evil diet,” gluttony? leprosy? psoriasis?); his two sons are too young to reign (10 and 13). Edward changed his will at the last minute to make Edward the boys’ guardian until the elder is old enough to reign. Richard puts the two boys in the Tower of London for safekeeping before the coronation, then decides, you know, I’d rather actually just be king myself. He orders the murder of his other brother, the charming and well-spoken Clarence / George, warning his contract hit men, do not let him talk, he will talk you out of it! Richard quickly crowns himself. The boys disappear, likely murdered. He murders his wife. Richard’s short-lived reign limps, figuratively and literally, for just under two years, full of betrayal and intrigue, until he confronts the French-funded (and supported by grumpy English noblemen – there is no other kind) Richmond at Bosworth in a battle that was meant to be quick and easy. But it was not so. In spite of Richmond’s youth and much smaller number of troops, Richard was felled and slain on the battlefield, his remains disinterred almost 450 years later under a parking garage in Leicestershire. They showed the scars of battle, a sword thrust into the brain until it pocked the inside of his skull. Richmond was crowned Henry VII, father of Henry VIII, and put an end to the quarrel by marrying Elizabeth of York (lately wooed by a deluded Richard). They had seven children. O Tudors, and your combined roses! (For the record, I am myself given to the white rose, but that is a story for a different day.)

The genius of the bard’s Richard III is that we get what might be termed today a “360-degree view” into Richard’s psychology, like a monster manager. He’s hunchbacked, “rudely stamped” and ill-formed; his physical deformities presage and prove his twisted soul. His flirtations quickly turn abusive. His wife marries him when he tells her he will kill her, them himself, if she doesn’t. His brother’s sons mock him, saying he walks like an ape, daring him to give them piggyback rides. Women don’t like him. His own mother tells him he was a mistake, But he can make men fear him, and there’s his tack.

Laurence Olivier’s hatchet job on the script left glaring holes in the story. Jason and I liked the wimples but little else. The drama is meant to be balanced by the women in the play – Richard’s mother, wife, and sister-in-law – who urge him to good conscience, and when he will not, berate him with well-aimed insults. Olivier cut almost all their lines. And to Edward’s widow Richard begs, plead what I will be, not what I have been, trying to get himself married to his niece, Edward’s daughter Elizabeth. When her mother reminds him that her murdered the girl’s brothers, he reassures her they’ll make new babies who will look just like the ones he killed. Agh!

By degrees his behavior becomes increasingly harmful to others. (It is said that during Edward’s reign, Richard was a model brother; eleven years younger, and devoted to King and country. Maybe he was happy them to just have a warm corner at the English court?) He promises lands and treasures to his aristocratic base, then renegs, with the famous complaint, “I am not in the giving vein!” One by one he beheads his supporters, tossing bloody bags full of oozing noggins at one and all who dare to challenge him. Richard was sensitive to conspiracy, borne out by the historical record; Edward’s widow was indeed contriving with Buckingham. In his character we find a case of paranoia concretized: all his fears made manifest until he himself was executed on a rainy battlefield in muck and mire, screaming A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!

What a ride as a reader and an audience to take this ride with this character! I think that’s why I kept coming back to it. the first half of the play plays on our sensibility and sympathies, O poor Richard! We think. What a wretch, what an unfair life! And Richard is shrewd himself, judging and accurately assessing those around him (“his outward show never jumpeth with the heart”). Then, with his conscience in full view, he explodes into dramatic violence, and it’s shocking, having heard him minutes before cry and pour his heart out about the injustice done him. No amount of injustice or poor fortune can justify these actions, as Will lays out for all to see.

Language that sticks with me from Richard III: ’tis a point of wisdom, the fear of harm as harm apparent, ill news ’twill prove a giddy world, obdurate to mild entreaties, the grossness of this age. Short summers lightly have a forward spring. Ancient knot of dangerous adversaries. ‘Tis bootless to exclaim. Hoyday. ‘Tis a parlous boy, all the mother’s from top to toe. About it! Prove me! I will dispatch it straight!

The tiger now hath seized the gentle hind. – Queen Elizabeth

Insulting tyranny begins to jut / Upon the innocent and aweless throne. – Elizabeth, Edward’s widow

Wrong hath but wrong, and blame the due of blame. – Buckingham

All the ghosts in Richard’s last dream in the small hours before the Battle of Bosworth who hiss, Despair and die! And to whom (and to us) Richard cries, I myself find no pity in myself. Perhaps the very seed of this gross narcissistic wound – what happens when a person is a sociopath to themselves first – what chance have those who gather round him?

Next week; Love’s Labour’s Lost perhaps will prove lighter fare. But for this armchair psychologist and student of character, Richard III is tops.

Shakespeare Report: King Henry VI, Part III

Tower of London. Did they maintain a guestbook?
Next time I tour in London, I am checking in.
Photo by Nick Fewings on UnsplashTower of London.

It’s a sure testament to Shakespeare’s sleek language that I keep watching the three-hour histories. If facts are dull, the language sings them awake. Like the Star Wars franchise, he didn’t write them in order, and it is thought that King Henry, Part I was penned third, as a prequel. My grounding in the historic War of the Roses is firm enough, thanks to a general tendency to get interested in the drama, but it’s always a shock when Talbot, or Richard of York, or Henry VI or his son, get stabbed ….again.

The historic Henry VI was crowned a mewling babe at just ten months, with the Duke of Gloucester as Protector until the prince reached an age to govern. But what a weight! Who wants to wear the crown after a childhood haunted by duty and sacrifice? The three parts of Henry follow Henry and his queen, the Anjou Margaret, through their trials and a constantly shifting landscape of loyalties and prophecies fulfilled.

I like to think of a twenty-four-year old Shakespeare under contract to the theater to write these histories. No pressure, Will! I picture him, his nose deep in the non-fiction tomes that informed his the facts upon which his theater hangs. It seems to me, as a writer, as the sort of writing that one does when one wishes to be taken seriously – very, very seriously. It’s skillful, ambitious, erudite writing, on point, but often strangely bloodless for all the blood spilled on stage. A young writer in the writers’ room, desperately churning out lines of dialogue to meet with the producer’s approval, scarcely believing it himself when he pulled it off.

There’s ample drama to be mined in the facts. Henry IV, V, and VI all died young; respectively, of leprosy (gross), dysentery (jeez, battlefield), and a knife (thanks to the hunchback). After Richard the hunchback stabs Henry VI in the Tower of London, the drama will turn to the dispute among the three heirs to York, Edward (short-term king), Clarence (murdered; never a king), and Richard (coming in well with a reign under three years, slain on a the battlefield at Bosworth, and whose remains were in recent years positively identified with DNA and given a sovereign’s burial). Edward IV (York) and Henry VI (Lancaster) and Warwick argued about things for a number of years, snatching the crown back and forth, until Edward executed his brother Clarence, then died at 40 under mysterious circumstances. His brother Richard offed Edward’s two young sons (the “princes in the Tower” who continue to lurk in popular imagination) and grabbed the crown for himself, enjoying that uneasy limelight for just a handful of years. Months, really. Shakespeare doesn’t hold back: Edward a ruthless sea, Clarence a quicksand of deceit, Richard a ragged fatal rock!

And so fame and power are fleeting, and death comes for all mortals. Shakespeare’s best monologues return to this theme again and again. Another favorite saw is ambition that burns, and its brother, ambition thwarted. Margaret of Anjou, who owns all those Englishmen, is described as a tiger’s heart in a woman’s hide. And yet it is observed that her lines are cut more often from Shakespeare’s plays than those of any other other character.

Language I loved to read and hear: poltroons, Content thyself! (the medieval version of Get used to it!), to see how inly sorry gripes his soul, too much lenity. Things ill got had ever bad success. Crookback, foul misshapen stigmatic, dastard. I that never did weep now melt with woe. Silly sheep. Quondam for has-been. Cavil. Dauntless mind. With patience calm the storm. Jointure. Setter-up and puller-down of kings! (I really hear the young Will in this phrase.) Night’s black mantle and pitchy night are often invoked. Stir abroad for travel abroad (I love this). Cheerly seek. Currish riddles.

How can tyrants safely govern home / Unless abroad they purchase great allegiance? – Queen Margaret

What fates impose, that men must needs abide / It boots not to resist both wind and tide. – King Edward

What is pomp, rule, reign, but earth and dust / And live how we can, but die we must. – Warwick

Farewell, sour annoy. / For here I hope begins our lasting joy. – King Edward (I mean … the man say so. This is a great line to end on, and the perfect setup for Richard III.)

Shakespeare Report: Macbeth

Photo by DK Dykstra-Lathrop on Unsplash

Macbeth is well down in my lineup. As I am trying to read and watch the Shakespeare oeuvre in chronological order, and Macbeth in every way qualifies as a Later Play, it was original scheduled for my perusal in September. But this week had been planned for King Henry VI, Part 3.

I’m not going to lie, I am kind of over the histories right now. They’re a lot of blood and battlefield, with less of the psychological intrigue that comes to mark Shakespeare’s later writing. Of course there is character development, but I am coming to see now why the Henriad and Richard III are not often taught to teenagers, even to Advanced Placement students. It’s a slog. Yes, there is interesting content in each three-hour production, and characters like bookish kings and ambitious dukes and bellicose queens are compelling, but one must patiently follow the spinning webs of intrigue through each act and scene. Maybe the War of the Roses was very much still on people’s minds in London in the late 16th century. Who can say? I wasn’t there. But those basic facts and their framework feel much less accessible to me. Shakespeare truly shines, I feel, when he takes a turn for the Jungian, when sovereigns become Everyking and Everyqueen, when countries become Anywhere and human ambition is laid bare.

So when Jason suggested we watch the Joel Coen production (sans Ethan) of Macbeth, sure, why not, I said. Get me out of a tangle of battles and angry exchanges in the English court. Talk to me of human nature and human folly, of supernatural portents and overweening ambition, of a couple that spits their conflict behind closed doors. I thought I knew Macbeth, having read or seen it a number of times, but as with every classic for page and stage, the literary bones always lie in wait, waiting to be reclothed in flesh with new actors and new art.

Denzel Washington in a gold crown and Frances McDormand with dangling dagger earrings lead. The casting is superb. The entire production has a dreamlike, Jungian feel, like maybe the art direction was handled by Giorgio De Chirico. Shadows portend character flaws and downfalls. Light casts a glass but only half-illuminates. Sets and costumes are spare. Macbeth seems to be wearing a giant oven mitt. The focus is on the quality of language and the poetry in the lines. The relationships, pared down, are easier to track. (Although we both forgot who Macduff was and were searching for him halfway through the movie – oops.)

So I thought I remembered the plot of Macbeth, but in reality I maintained but a crisp recollection of the protagonist’s two star monologues (“Is this a dagger I see before me?” and “Out, out, brief candle”), together with the weird sisters, who are as dreamlike a trio as any nightmare can conjure, and Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking and OCD handwashing (Out, out, damn spot”). Macbeth’s murder of Duncan, the flight of Duncan’s sons to England, and the massacre of Macduff’s family were like new plot twists. I did not remember the weird sisters’ prophesy of Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane, and how the soldiers fulfilled it with cut-branch camoflauge. The revisit was well merited.

Macbeth is like a soup of famous lines and ultra-arcane English vocabulary. By the pricking of my thumbs / something wicked this way comes. Screw your courage to the sticking place. She should have died hereafter. Every fifth line rang familiar.

Macbeth wanted to be king, but he didn’t like that he’d have to get blood on his own hands for it. In the end, his wife’s goading makes her an active accessory to the murders – even the secondary murders that Macbeth, mafia-style, refuses to disclose to her, as his contract hit men are on the road to dispatch Banquo and his son Fleance (how did I ever forget this magnificent name). Ambition kills them both, and Macbeth, in the end, has spilled his own blood and his wife’s blood for naught. His sworn enemies sit on the throne. It is as though his brief, disturbed interregnum never happened.

Lady Macbeth, a thwarted leader perhaps and a woman of her era, showing us in the audience how ambition can be overfed and twisted, seeking its proxy where it must, a diabolical hand in a compliant glove. In my mind, I can hear Lady Macbeth say, Husband, I only want what is best for you, but I believe now that were he single Macbeth would have never stabbed Duncan to death.

The play made for an interesting juxtaposition against the events of the past week, with Covid burning in our home and the Russian aggression dropping bombs beyond our borders. I found myself picturing Putin cast as Macbeth. But Macbeth vacillates more than Putin, whose resolve more resembles the single-minded Lady Macbeth, who becomes irate whenever her husband sinks into self-doubt. Vladimir Putin, now starring on the global stage as Lady Macbeth, with Russia as the reluctant laird who remains only partially convinced that the ends justify the means, until self-doubt increases to such degree that it looks and sounds like a madman.

It has been erroneously claimed that Hamlet and Macbeth were never performed on stage in Will’s lifetime, coming late in his life, and “discovered” only after his death. These have to be two of his most often-produced works now. It gives me hope as a creative person and a writer – perhaps my masterpieces will be discovered too after I cast off this mortal coil.

Update from Italy: A Pox Upon Our House

Photo by conor rabbett on Unsplash

I know, everyone was just waiting for my little book report about King Henry VI, Part 1, the sixth Shakespearean play of the 42 I intend to . Not to worry! I’ve watched it while following along in the text. I made my notes. But this week had other, perhaps parallel, dramatic adventures in store for our family, as first Eleanor tested positive for Covid, then Victor and I developed symptoms, and finally Jason succumbed. I’ve been shocked at the severity of our symptoms, notwithstanding the fact that we are all as vaccinated as a family can be – each child twice, and each adult thrice.

“… this loathsome sequestration…” – Mortimer

We had unfortunately hosted a college of Jason’s last Saturday for dinner. Jason tested negative on a pharmacy test, then Victor and I trooped off to the pharmacy for official tests to reassure. All three negative. Eleanor refused to test, and we let it go rather than argue with her. We all felt fine that evening.

“Alarum!” – like approximately five times every Shakespeare history play

Sunday morning dawned though, with Eleanor crawling into bed around seven in the morning. Cough, cough. Cough. Cough. Good lord, Eleanor, I said, of all of us yesterday you should have been the one to test. Jason rolled his eyes. I biked off to St. James for mass, and halfway through the first reading a messaged popped up on my phone: Eleanor’s positive. I bailed out of the pew and biked home. The pharmacy test confirmed the home test. Eleanor would be home for the week. We expected her to have none to mild symptoms, but that wasn’t the case. She did feel it.

“My thoughts are whirlèd like a potter’s wheel.” – Talbot

Eleanor trooped through a week of remote learning, perched in front of her vanity in her bedroom. Her symptoms were milder than those of her parents and brother, but we didn’t know that then, as we three were all testing negative until yesterday. Social isolation is very hard for Eleanor. She hated being kept away from Victor. She cried in her play loft. She refused to bathe or shower, and would not remove her mask in the apartment, even as Victor and I began to sneeze and cough and have headaches. She wrote me little notes in poignant block letters in English.

“Plause my disey is getting bader. I se swourlse.” – Eleanor [trans: Please my dizziness is getting badder. I see swirlies.]

Jason and I kept working through the week, with both kids at home in remote learning, peering responsibly at their laptops. We decided to keep Victor at home too, since he and Eleanor are paper and glue, and the chance of his exposure to the virus was, like my blood oxygen, approximately 100%. A few parents helpfully advised me that I could send him to school. That we was fully vaccinated and did not need to be at home. I thanked them kindly for their input and followed my own intuition about where all this might be heading.

“Vexation almost stops my breath.” – Richard of York

Negative test after negative test. This can’t be, I said. A hypothesis was floated that maybe we had a parallel cold. This seemed less likely to me. By Wednesday night I felt like I had malaria. Chills, body ache, headache, sore throat, cough, runny nose, dizziness, and of greatest concern, it felt like my chest had been clamped in a vise. I checked on our oximeter and my blood oxygen saturation was 100%. Why did I feel like someone had dropped a barbell bar on my chest, in any position?

“Make my ill be th’advantage of my good.” Richard of York

Now, on Saturday afternoon, it seems that Victor and Jason and I have turned a corner, but it is also true that our symptoms have been cycling – lighter in the morning, stronger in the evening and at night. I’ve woken myself up coughing a few times every overnight. (Don’t worry, I am sleeping on my stomach.) I make the rounds a couple times each night to check on all the sleeping critters in my charge. Luckily we have a guest room, and everyone is sleeping in their own pod right now. I am grateful that no one in our family has had a fever or vomiting, but we check off almost every other symptom in Omicron-2. Victor, most alarmingly, now has a mouthful of canker sores. Eleanor had a rash on her forearms that resolved after a few days. It’s clearly a full-court press on the immune system.

“Malevolent to you in all respects.” – Westmoreland, King Henry IV, Part 1 from last week

Two years ago, Italy had not yet locked down against the virus. It was the strange plasma-state weekend of ill-advised freedom. I’d just had that extremely odd event with the heart and the emergency hospital visit – a morning on which, I remember very clearly, my oxygen saturation was close to 90%, as the doctors worked on me and Jason tried to keep our kids out of the living room.

We had planned a week in Portugal on a beach close to Lisbon. A weekend in the capital with the kids. Ceviche e vinho verde. Café e medialunas. The quiet waves rolling onto the sand. Sunny Sintra. All cancelled last Sunday. I’m wrangling my trip insurance now for refunds. Note to self: don’t ever buy tickets again on Ryanair. They won’t let you cancel a flight, and then they produce some document for the trip insurance provider that you were a no-show. I suppose to shift fault to the traveller. The trip insurance provider plays dumb: You mean Ryanair won’t refund you? They won’t, and they won’t save or timestamp my customer service chat either. These are not the sorts of details one wishes to be addressing with a headache and a monkey jumping on your chest.

“Care is no cure, but rather a corrosive / For things that are not to be remedied.” – Jean la Pucelle

Once more I feel my experience is out of step with the insistent tone of the media and various world leaders, who repeat that it is time to get back to normal, the pandemic is over, we must learn to live with it. I too would like to believe the pandemic is over. But my observed and lived experience tells me it is not so. Not yet.

“….what madness rules in brainsick men.” King Henry VI