Shakespeare Report: Richard II

You see, Victor, the problem with being King is that everyone else wants to be King too,
and so usually a lot of people want to murder you.
Photo by Jeremy Bezanger on Unsplash

Written three to four years after Henry VI, Parts I, II, and III, Richard II marks the earliest chronological point in the history plays of Shakespeare. Covering the weakening and demise of Richard of Bordeaux, the Plantagenet king of England who died in 1399 after a court coup by Henry Bolingbroke (crowned Henry IV, father of Henry V [aka Prince Hal, erstwhile friend of Falstaff], whose name was made at the Battle of Agincourt). Richard II is one of a small handful of his plays written entirely in verse – a particular delight for this poet, who revels in a well-turned phrase, a surprising image, a carefully wrought psychology.

Triumph is become an alehouse guest.

I re-watched the 2012 BBC Henriad production of Richard II, starring the magnificent Ben Whishaw as King Richard (hitting perfect notes of creepy, conflicted, immature, and narcissistic). Ben’s been a favorite of mine for over a decade, from Perfume to Bright Star to The Hours and Cloud Atlas. He brings so much intellect, angst, and creative depth to his characters.

Down, down I come, like glist’ring Phaeton. – King Richard

I’d first watched this production back in spring 2020, at the start of the pandemic when we were in our two-month lock-down here in Italy. Perhaps, I reasoned, watching drama set in times centuries ago when plagues and other calamities were regular occurrences would help calibrate my response to our rapidly changing and difficult situation. I was partially right. It alleviated my anxiety somewhat. I appreciated the scenes where Bolingbroke looks like he is bounding through a Jo Malone commercial. I was, however, very much taken by the production, and the pleasant memories of this cinematic escape in part informed my motivations to take on the 2022 All Shakespeare Project.

Thus rise nimbly by a true king’s fall.

(Progress note: I am now on play 15 in a list of 43, but I created my spreadsheet without a full awareness of the Shakespearean apocrypha. The original list included such titles as Love’s Labours Won and Edward III, whose authorship have no doubt spurred a hundred PhDs. This puts me at almost the halfway mark of verified works!)

Poor boy, thou art amazed.

This play is downright morbid, depicting the power transfer between kings that the present king does not wish to happen, but the writing, so to speak, is on the wall, like the Old Testament feast of Balshazzar, when the words of Yahweh appeared in flames to the alarmed guests. (If you don’t know this tale, I urge you to investigate it and commit it to memory for handy reference, as it is very useful and applicable to a variety of life situations that involve illiteracy, rash judgment, and overweening pride.) Victor and Eleanor have now become interested in my Shakespeare project and watch with interest when I watch the films and read along using the Folger text. You see, Victor, the problem with being King is that everyone else wants to be King too, and so usually a lot of people want to murder you.

Within the hollow crown / that rounds the mortal temples of a King / Keeps Death his court.

Shakespeare, as is his custom, hangs his story on a few confirmed facts, and fictionalizes the rest. The story begins in Richard’s last year or so of his life. The dispute between Bolingbroke (the future Henry IV) and Mowbray is historic, as is their joust for honor, called off at the last moment by King Richard. Bolinbroke, Richard’s cousin, did challenge Richard and successfully take the crown. (Richard’s agony in forfeiting the crown and eventually relinquishing it furnish the meat of this drama.) Richard was locked up in the Tower of London (nothing ever ends well if they turn the key on you when you’re in the Tower). In actuality, however, Richard’s cause of death remains, strictly speaking, unknown, although it is supposed to have been starvation. Henry IV starved Richard to death so as to avoid any inconvenient marks of murder on the former king’s mortal body. There was a public outrage about the mysterious death (it just really seemed to threaten the whole Order of Things) and so his body was trotted out and displayed in 1400 for close inspection.

My sour cross

Shakespeare changes the narrative and styles this to an errand of honor in which the son of the Duke of York, one young and handsome Aumerle, is revealed to have gotten his hands dirty in a plot to murder Henry IV. All the co-conspirator heads roll save his. His life’s price? Head over to the Tower with some helpers and murder the the erstwhile king. He thinks! But as a twenty-one-year old is predictably wont to do, he acts too quickly and without consultation. When he trots back to Bolinbroke Castle with the coffin, Henry IV is outraged! Maybe hits a little close to home to see a former king in a bloody box.

Watching brings leanness!

Shakespeare also combines Richard’s two historic queens into one beautiful and powerless queen. In real life, his first queen, Anne of Bohemia, died three years before his own death in 1399. (Fun facts: Anne’s royal progress to England gives our language the word “coach” – from the Hungarian town Kocs (pronounced coach in Hungarian) where her carriage was built. Apparently this was an innovation in a world devoted to horseback riding. She also popularized the “horned” Bohemian headdress we now associate with medieval ladies, later simplified as a wimple.)

After Anne died, Richard married Isabelle of France, who was 7 years old. The child received got her own castle and staff. But then her much-older husband died. Sucks to be a ten-year-old widow in the 14th century. The play offers one sole queen with a few ladies in waiting, mostly wringing their hands and getting news secondhand about Richard’s forcible abdication. The historic Richard became king when his grandfather and father died a year apart. He was thrust onto the throne as a boy of ten. Never a warrior, and much given to luxury and prayer (the contemplative monkey is a nice touch in the film), he reigned until his death at thirty-three.

Things past redress are now past care.

The pro-England toe of the play means its lines get repeated often in the service of national pride, in particular the speech of John of Gaunt, whose phrases you may know from earnest Brexit reporting:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,

Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,

Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessèd plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Feared by their breed and famous by their birth,
Renownèd for their deeds as far from home
For Christian service and true chivalry
As is the sepulcher in stubborn Jewry
Of the world’s ransom, blessèd Mary’s son,
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out—I die pronouncing it—
Like to a tenement or pelting farm.
England, bound in with the triumphant sea,
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege

Of wat’ry Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds.

The language really shines in Shakespeare’s stylish verse.

Let’s talk of graves, worms, and epitaphs. – King Richard

Hast thou sounded him? / As near as I could sift him on that argument… – King Richard / John of Gaunt

Too good to be so bad and too bad to live! – Bolingbroke

Deep malice makes too deep incision. – King Richard

Lions make leopards tame. / Yea, but not change his spots. – Richard and Mowbray

It boots thee not to be compassionate. / After our sentence plaining comes too late. – Richard

The clogging burden of a guilty soul … – Bolinbroke

Off go his bonnet to an oysterwench! – King Richard on Bolinbroke

Enforce attention like deep harmony. – John of Gaunt

My death’s sad tale may yet undeaf his ear. – John of Gaunt

His tongue is now a stringless instrument. – Duke of Northumberland on John of Gaunt

By bad events may be understood / That their events can never fall out good. – Duke of York

We see the wind sit sore upon our sails. – Northumberland

Lean-looked prophets whisper fearful change. – Welsh captain

Eating the bitter bread of banishment. – Hereford

A king, woe’s slave, shall kingly woe obey. – Richard

Crimson tempest should bedrench – Hereford

Barren and bereft of friends. – Richard

My fortune runs against the bias. – The Queen

My heart was not confederate with my hand! – Aumerle

The minor character Bushy delivers a truly magnificent dissertation on grief:

Each substance of a grief hath twenty shadows
Which shows like grief itself but is not so;
For sorrow’s eyes, glazed with blinding tears,
Divides one thing entire to many objects,
Like perspectives, which rightly gazed upon
Show nothing but confusion, eyed awry
Distinguish form

King Richard offers feelings to most sentient beings (sorry king, thou art become baser yet in my estimation!):

O, that I were as great
As is my grief, or lesser than my name!
Or that I could forget what I have been,
Or not remember what I must be now.

Act III Sc. 3

And here:

Alack the heavy day,
That I have worn so many winters out
And know not now what name to call myself.

Act IV Sc. 1

Thanks to everyone who read to the end of this. I have to say, I love Richard II. It is on par with Macbeth and Hamlet for psychological dissection and analysis of human motives. Whishaw in this role is in his element.

Next week brings me to The Merchant of Venice, another work I have never seen, nor read, nor heard, but know well enough from abounding cultural allusions. I can’t wait to see Al Pacino extract a pound of flesh from Jeremy Irons while Joseph Fiennes looks on. I am increasingly grateful for excellent and faithful film adaptations!

Italy Update: The Circle of Life (Hamster Chapter), Part II

La Kayla lying in state in our common room, with her name plate from the corner office of Hamster Inc.

The kids ate their lunch and Jason tapped away on his keyboard while the hamster’s earthly remains reposed peacefully in her cage. I arrived home from church in a torrent of rain, having opted to lock up my bike next to the sanctuary to catch a ride from a generous friend. Jason texted me from his armchair. When should we tell them? he asked. Did she resuscitate? I responded. No.

I looked at Victor and Eleanor, happily chatting away at the kitchen table. I looked back at Jason, who was pointedly trying to not look at me. When he did he raised his eyebrows.

Kids, I announced. They looked up at the same time. It is in these moments that they most resemble a matched pair of golden retriever puppies from the same litter. I have some important news, I said. I took a breath. Kayla has taken her final hop across the rainbow bridge. Victor’s eyes widened. When? Sometime last night, I said. He looked down. Eleanor was silent. Her face crumpled. She pulled her knees up to her chin and began to bite them. I extracted her from the space between the dining bench and the table. She was crying fast and silent, the fat tears streaming down her cheeks. Hey eyebrows turned red; this always happens when her emotions arise in earnest. We sat on the other armchair while Jason made our postprandial espresso. After about ten minutes I handed off Eleanor for paternal comforting.

We looked around for an appropriate container in which to place Kayla. One was too big, another still had stuff in it. Jason finally found an old box of breath mints. We didn’t like that flavor anyway (licorice orange). We threw the candy away. I tore the cream-colored hamster shroud from L*U*S*H* in half. I think I’ll let you do this, Jason said. It looks like you have a plan.

I went back to the cage with a plastic sand shovel. Kayla was resting where I’d first seen her, six hours prior. I teased her gently from the white cotton fluff she had arranged around herself as a bed. Her thin legs and long nails caught in the fluff. I got a pencil to work her body from the other side, then picked her up carefully with the muslin cloth, and tucked her into the shroud with care and tact, folding it on all four sides. I placed her in the breath-mint box and closed the flap, and discreetly walked her back out to our common room in a one-person cortège. Victor did not notice. Eleanor was still seated on Jason’s lap, playing with his hair. The medical examiner has confirmed, I said quietly to Jason, that she is gone.

What are you going to do with her, Jason texted me. I’ll figure something out, I answered. Jason shrugged. How long do you think she’ll take to decompose, I asked. Six months? Less, he surmised. Three, tops. Thus did I resolve my course of action. The kids do not need to be present, he said. I heartily agreed.

Jason and Victor prepared to leave for the farewell + birthday party of Victor’s best friend for the past five years. It started to rain harder. We’ll wait for this to calm down before we leave, Jason said. Then the two south-facing windows below the broken palazzo gutter began to flood, as they do two or three times a year. This offered a welcome and harried distraction as we moved all the things that Should Not Get Wet to higher ground. Eleanor took out the mop and bucket. Jason threw a bunch of old t-shirts on the increasing puddle, now gathering steam on its sloping way to the stairs. The rain relented after a while, and after about half an hour, cleanup was under control. Jason and Victor left for the party out in Rifredi. Eleanor and I popped some corn and settled in to watch the pilot of “The Gilded Age” on my laptop. It was distracting and useful to my purpose.

The rain ceased. I slipped from the room, put on my shoes, and picked up the candy box. I cased the area for some time before settling on a distant, dry spot, under a laurel hedge and far from any foot traffic. I prayed that no one would note my hurried activity. I hollowed out a deep enough hole and rolled the hamster into it, a featherweight, barely any flesh. I patted the wet dirt on top of the furry tuft. I lay a few laurel twigs to honor the brief life of a memorable and much-loved mammal that we hosted for just under two years.

Upstairs, Eleanor did not even noticed my absence. I put the candy box back on the china hutch. The sun came out and shone through our windows and skylights, bright yellow for just a bit before the clouds moved in again and gave way to evening.

Update from Italy: The Circle of Life (Hamster Chapter)

Our Kayla, as she appeared in health. (Actual Kayla not pictured.) Photo by Frenjamin Benklin on Unsplash

We acquired the small ball of fluff in July 2020, two months after the conclusion of Italy’s first and only (and most difficult) lockdown. The 52 days under house arrest for all the right reasons made our kids bored and anxious. We should have a cat, we murmured. A house rabbit, a hamster, a bird, anything to watch and take care of.

Italy being Italy, and my husband being himself, he knew just what to do: research the Italian Hamster Association to determine how to most efficiently and safely obtain a hamster for our home. After some back and forth with the local hamster experts, and a significant investment in hamster gear, he received the hamster at his office from a young woman with a handsome collection of piercings, ripped fishnets, Doc Maartens, and black eyeliner. He brought her home in a portable birdcage bedded with litter, and we released the mini-mammal into her new cage. She was a Roborovski dwarf hamster, and would easily fit inside the half peel of a clementine. Her eyes were shiny and clever. She was adorable.

A HAMSTER. Her welcome was joyful. The kids named her first Simone, then Brie, than Kayla. (Eleanor watches a lot of American YouTube.) So, you basically moved from a coastal name and progressed to interior territories, our friend Melanie quipped. Eleanor hand-lettered a nametag to go over her enormous cage as though she had the corner office in a Fortune 500 hamster company. And she was treated like a hamster executive. Fine German wood shavings for bedding, clean cotton fluff for her bed, new paper towels carefully pre-shredded for her by tiny loving hands. For her first birthday (Epiphany 2021) we selected a luxury hammock for her to play in. It clipped to the roof of her cage by means of four small carabiners.

But Kayla was wont to reward our kindness. Victor claimed that her temperament changed when the neighbor kids repeatedly came to play with her. They carried her around in a play dog bed as though she were a maharajah. They handled her and pet her head. One day, he confessed, one of the neighbor girls stuffed the hamster into a Barbie dress. Kayla grew resentful, then violent. She bit each one of our loving hands in turn on different days, drawing blood each time. When it was my turn, she ran out of her house like an offensive lineman, her jaws open, and clamped hard on my finger. Out of instinct I shook my hand in the cage with the appended hamster swinging. Her jaws were no joke. She eventually let go. I learned my lesson. My finger throbbed for days.

We tried to repair Kayla’s broken trust, but the damage had been done. No amount of internet research to re-tame a hamster could help. And so Kayla entered a sort of well-admired hermitage, looking very cute, waking up with tissue on her head like a medieval sleeping cap, running on her wheel, climbing the wire bars of her cage, doing wind sprints on her wheel, and shuffling through her food bowl to pick out the fat sunflowers seeds in the mix. She loved sunflower seeds. She would accept them from between the bars of the cage with a loud SQUEAK, hulling them expertly between her teeth. We were glad for the distraction. We felt affectionate toward Kayla, in spite of her biting. We remembered to never put our hand into her cage unless she was asleep and it was to replenish her food and water.

Sometimes last summer, Kayla took ill. We left town for a few weeks, placing her in the care of a capable Italian nonna who was delighted to have a hamster for a while. When we returned home Kayla was missing a lot of fur. Her skin was raw. She scratched a lot. After an awkward week of watching her worsen, we made an appointment for her to be seen by a local veterinarian. He was on the other side of town, so we loaded Kayla up into her tiny birdcage and motored on over to the vet’s office.

This vet seemed to specialize in every possible beast that creeps upon the earth except humans. He was very no-nonsense. Be careful! I said when he put his hand in the cage. He rolled his eyes at me. Kayla did try to bite him but he was faster than she was. This hamster’s an asshole, he said. Jason and I fidgeted. She’s missing a lot of fur. She’s got terrible dermatitis, he said. We know, we shook our heads. He gave us a thimbleful of antibiotic for her and charged us forty euros for both the visit and the prescription. We administered the medicine, which seemed to help a bit.

But Kayla lost more and more fur, and then her motor control. She got strange sores on her head, her hind legs. She teetered around on those pink toothpicks. She went blind. She could barely reached the metal tube of her water bottle. The kids lost interest in her as she looked increasingly ragged. Victor made a sad face every time we mentioned her, but he was willing to assist with her basic care. Pretty soon, though, I became the designated hamster hospice nurse, checking on her and changing her water and food. I idly wondered if hamster euthanasia was a thing. A quick twist of the neck would do it. I felt bad for wondering this. I set aside a little piece of white muslin that once wrapped a bath bomb from LUSH to wrap her in when her inevitable end occurred.

She was still eating well, but last night, when she tried to run on her wheel, she toppled over onto her side and struggled to get up. It was a rough scene, new territory. As I read Eleanor to sleep in her nest of blankets on the sofa, I heard Kayla rummaging through her dish of seeds, looking for sunflower seeds.

This morning when I went to check on the hamster, she was still for the first time in months, lying peacefully on her side. She was not scratching or wiggling around. I bent closer. She was not breathing. Her blind eye was closed.

I went into our bedroom to notify Jason. The hamster died, I said. Are you sure? Yes, I said. She is not breathing anymore. Jason sighed. Let’s just keep an eye on her. Keep an eye on a dead hamster? For what? She will come back to life? Or dry out, like a Peruvian mummy on the Altiplano?

We have not told the kids yet. I don’t think they’ll be surprised. But Eleanor might cry, in spite of having reassured me months that, after Kayla’s demise, she would cross the rainbow bridge where she could “re-be’s alive.” In fact I am sure she will cry. Tempus fugit, kids! Kayla, we barely knew ye. You’ll be missed – and we are so glad for all the lessons you gave us. Your memory will be a blessing.

Shakespeare Report: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Photo by Dollar Gill on Unsplash

The course of true love never did run smooth. Oh Lysander, say it again!

A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Edmond North Mid-High, spring 1988. I am a high school freshman. I auditioned on a lark, because friends. I am cast as a very bit part – Moth the Fairy – in a very wordy play. I think I had one line, “And me!” My friends with meatier roles all had approximately ten thousand lines each more than I did but, at fourteen, I was content to be in their company, at the rehearsals and read-throughs, with the rest of the fairies, Titania and Oberon, Theseus and Bottom. They were good – they really were. It’s not an exaggeration to say I was in awe of my friends and their talents. And I think back to that drama teacher and the nerves of steel she must have had (not too mention a forgiving home life) to spend so many nights rehearsing with a cast of fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen year old actors, for weeks, into the dark hours. I’ll never forget the frisson that traveled up my spine on our first read-through, the tables pulled into a circle so we could all look at one another as we read the hard copies of our scripts together in the drama room. This is it! I remember saying to myself. Shakespeare! the stage! I didn’t even mind my fairly mute part and the purple tights and bodysuit and copious amounts of aerosol glitter that I donned by way of costume when the premier was upon us.

This falls out better than I could devise. – Oberon

Now, having watched the play in its entirety this week, I think I could have been a formidable Hermia, but alas in 1988 suffered a typical deficit of confidence. There’s no way I could have pulled the art off then. The girl who was Hermia was very good. Lysander was a homely boy who took another fairy for his girlfriend at some point during the production, but they broke up by mid-May.

Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind / And therefore is wingèd cupid painted blind. – Helena

The marvel of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is Shakespeare’s glib language, the way his action glides from reality to irreality, from benighted mortals (our confused couples, Theseus and Hippolyta, the workingman’s acting troupe) to enlightened fairies (Puck, Titania, Oberon, and various bit-part fairies) and back again. It was an enlightened choice for angsty teen actors – a world presented where words came as needed and beautifully so, a world of Elizabethan magical realism, a world where human folly is attributable to supernatural meddling (and making right again).

I am a spirit of no common rate. – Titania

If I didn’t know this play so well, I probably would have been as confused by the complicated action as I was with The Comedy of Errors. (Note to self – find live production of The Comedy of Errors to patronize.) I mean, who can keep track of which fairy put which magical eye-drops into the eyes of which mortal, who then falls in love with the right person? the wrong person? It’s helpful that Titania beds an ass – that keeps things very clear. But the Hermia/Lysander and Demetrius/Helena mix-ups are head-spinning.

So quick, bright things come to confusion. – Lysander

Perhaps the greatest charm of the play is how the fairy world reflects the human world. Fairies mess up, do a bad job, get confused, make mistakes, followed by attempts to rectify said mistakes. Humans try to understand, cannot understand, respond in frustration, and have many thoughts about their sad situation until things are put aright. But how much do mortals wish that we too might pack a bit of love-in-forgetfulness to spirit away our frustrations?

a little western flower / before, milk-white, now purple with love’s wound / And maidens call it love-in-idleness. – Oberon

I am struck by the return of the play within the play – reminiscent of the hick townies in Love’s Labours Lost. I have never liked the Midsummer Night subplot with Peter Quince et al. – it really grates on me. I don’t like the snooty responses of the academics and nobles in the audience and the mockery of the working class. I don’t like how idiotic the workingmen are. It’s like Jerry Lewis suddenly gatecrashed Shakespeare. I know the plays (the actual plays) were meant to be staged at a wedding or a fine event, and these little plays-within-the-plays must have been witty indeed in situ (hahaha, aren’t we amusing, etc.). But I will confess, I increased the playback speed to 1.25x, then 1.5x, then 1.75x to get through this whole silly story with Pyramus and Thisbe and the townie actors.

Lord, what fools these mortals be! – Puck

My visual production companion this time was the 1968 English film starring Judi Dench and Helen Mirren. Would you believe it! They were both so young, fresh, beautiful, and talented. Judi Dench was mostly disrobed and painted a sickly green, as were all the other fairies in the film adaptation. The little fairies looked emaciated and hungry. The FX were hilariously low-fi. The editing horrendous – was editing really this roughly done in the sixties?! But it was magnificent, and a country house in Warwickshire stands in for Athens, the Athenians all recently come from Carnaby street in mod blouses and mini skirts, Hippolyta’s asp jewelry snaking around her slim upper arm. It really reminded me of movies we watched in middle school, when the teacher rolled in some massive TV and a VHS player so we could watch The Diary of Anne Frank or some such. For that alone I am grateful this production was available free on YouTube.

I never heard so musical a discord – such sweet thunder! – Hippolyta

As a creative writer, some years ago I decided that my greatest struggle was with plot. I am good with character and insight and language, but what should we make these little characters do? When I devised this mini-project for myself, I had plot in mind. I would read all the Shakespeare plays as a plot clinic! But a third of the way through his collected works, I am finding that Shakespeare plots are shallow to the point of fatuous. The plots are not the point: take shipwreck, and a pair or two of identical twins, thwart true love, throw in some glaring class differences. End with a wedding, or a double wedding, or a triple wedding, or a joyful family reunion. Or a funeral, a double funeral, or a triple funeral. The Bard is no great shakes in plot! He hangs every tale on the same basic conceits. Add a few sonnets (very good), sparkling language, and abundant bawd. Repeat ad nauseum. Takeaway: if the audience is well-entertained, they will forgive you. They’re not there for the plot. They’re there to be amused by language and character.

Fie, fie, you counterfeit, you puppet, you! – Helena

Next week, back to the Histories, with Richard II! Four of the next six plays on my list are histories. Battle and armaments, ere I come!

Shakespeare Report: Romeo and Juliet

The Capulet tomb, full of corpses by the end of this bloodbath.
Photo by Chris Boese on Unsplash

It’s easy to get bogged down in Shakespeare, to magnify the meaning 10x, 25x, 100x. The text is rich. Criticism is abundant. Part of the reason I set myself the goal of a play a week in this small project was to maintain a pace that inhibited such slow examination. It’s easy to succumb – but Shakespeare wrote for popular audiences, and never anticipated that his works might someday form their own mighty canon. His works were not even collected at the time of his death. (I am confident a lurking Shakespeare scholar or two will correct me if I am wrong on that point.)

But alas, Romeo and Juliet did in fact lay for me a trap of dramaturgical quicksand. It happens thus: easily drawn in, your are lulled into confidence, until it’s all gone too late, and you’re in too deep. How meta-tragic! Thus did I find myself on Easter eve watching an online production on YouTube at 1.25x, then 1.5x, reading the text on split screen and musing at the irony of watching people come back to life in a cold tomb on this night of all nights, each gaining a measure of immortality in their respective spheres.

It’s been more than a quarter century since I last watched or read this play. I came to it with a mixture of anticipation and dread: on the one hand, so cliché. On the other hand, ripe for renewal. A standby for decades now in freshman English class across America (its bawdy content notwithstanding), perhaps selected for the relatability of the two protagonists to the youthful readership, I mused that the old could be made new again simply by manufacturing a new audience. I mean, Hollywood and capitalism have been banking on this axiom, also for decades. Need to update a play about suicidal star-crossed underage lovers? Wait fifteen years. You’ll soon enough have new hearts and minds to win.

To be fair, R+J (1996) gave this play a full second wind for me, almost a decade after it was my required reading in early high school. I loved everything about the Luhrmann production, the moody scenes set in and around Mexico City, the brooding skies and dark clouds, Clare Danes looking blankly angelic, Leonardo DiCaprio blubbering his way through a good three-quarters of the movie, Paul Rudd as the spurned and then murdered Paris. Most of all, though, I loved the R+J soundtrack, that homage to nineties grunge. I listened to it incessantly. It spoke to my young adult heart like no other collection, with Garbage and Everclear and Radiohead, Stina Nordenstam and the Cardigans, snippets of Shakespearean dialogue strewn throughout the original compositions and as spoken word (“you little pretty piece of flesh,” “I hate the word [peace] as I hate Hell.”). Romeo and Juliet made more sense to me as a 23- and 24-year-old than it had when I was 14. When I was 14 I’d had no power or agency to make a mess of my sentimental life with half-baked impulses parading as decisions, but ten years on I was a professional at poorly articulated reasons for engaging in ill-advised liaisons. Baz Luhrmann and his soundtrack were like a mirror held up to my heart, and while I knew my decisions were poorly thought through at worst and isolating at best, I gritted my teeth and powered on to their natural conclusion which, thankfully, did not included a confused death by suicide.

Now, watching the play another full generation later (in the magnificent version by The Show Must Go Online, produced during the first lockdown of 2020), I am struck both by the caprice of Romeo and the willingness of Juliet to join him in his conceit. Romeo’s not even properly broken up with the invisible Rosaline when he runs into Juliet at her father’s fancy dress dinner party. They’re both dripping in privilege with nursemaids and pages and “Romeo’s man.” He’s only taken with her. He doesn’t know her, and she doesn’t know him. Their mutual projection is rampant. This came across very clearly this time – I find it hard to fathom how anyone can claim this play is based on true love. (Don’t forget that they are like 12 and 13 years old. I look at Victor, almost 11, and shudder.) I feel they could both use a good therapist, or perhaps parents more willing to hear out their adolescent children. Juliet is far too sheltered to weather the emotional tempest, and Romeo has no guiding hand to calm him. The Friar Lawrence tries, but it is too little, too late. Romeo takes no heed. Juliet’s parents tell her off harshly in turn. Exeunt. Her only way out is to return with a brave face and lie. Lying with Romeo leads to lying to parents leads to lying in a tomb ….

I hear Romeo’s joviality with his friends, out on the town, partying and joking, and feel sorry for Juliet, shut up in her grand palazzo with the prating Nurse. I catch and hear more than I ever have before in the Nurse’s monologues (particularly in her telling of Juliet’s age, and recollecting how hard it was to wean the baby Juliet eleven years ago – Lady Capulet and Juliet close by, rolling their eyes) and Mercutio’s abundant and irreverent advice (“If love be rough with you, be rough with Love!”). I particularly appreciated, this time around, Mercutio and Romeo parrying about dreams:

Romeo: I dreamt a dream tonight.
Mercutio: And so did I.
Romeo: Well, what was yours?
Mercutio: That dreamers often lie.
Romeo: In bed asleep while they do dream things true.

I love the subversive pun here. Lie? Or lie? The dialogue in this play shines and feels so normal, so natural. The Bard is really in his element here. My modest research into his late-sixteenth-century milieu has reminded me how much he borrowed from the contemporary Italian commedia (there’s a reason his characters so often have Italian names, and can seem cut from whole cloth). Everything is derivative, and Shakespeare himself, practically a union writer for a thriving theater, was churning out drama for public consumption as fast as he could manage – a bit here, a character there, a plot element (shipwrecks, strawberry-printed handkerchiefs), a list of cities in which to situate the action.

Juliet’s stubborn parents contrive to marry her off to stop her weeping after they figure out the source of her angst is the “banishèd Romeo.” Why not Paris? He is handsome, wealthy, and far above her station. O to escape the fate of simple marriageable chattel! Poor Paris has no idea of the Capulet shitshow he is about to step into. He just thinks Juliet is cute and is willing to put up with her parents.

Parallel to the so-called love story runs the chain of murders: Tybalt kills Mercutio. Romeo slays Tybalt, and later, in the tomb, stabs Paris to death. (Poor Paris again! Caught in the middle of this mess, paying for it with his life.) O had only the adults in the situation been a measure more patient, and twice again as forgiving. Perhaps the tragedy might have been averted, but then we wouldn’t have this eternal gift of a play, which Shakespeare did not really invent himself anyway.

Language that called:

You are a saucy boy. – Sir Capulet

My only love sprung from my only hate. – Juliet

Steal love’s sweet bait from fearful hooks. – Chorus

If thou thinkest I am too quickly won … – Juliet

You kiss by th’book. – Juliet

Benedicite. – Friar Lawrence (gratuitous nod to Latin)

It argues a distempered head / so soon to bid ‘good morrow’ to thy bed. – Friar Lawrence

Where unbruised youth with unstuffed brain. – Friar Lawrence

But old folks, many feign as they were dead, Unwieldy, slow, heavy, and pale as lead. – Juliet

Therefore love moderately. Long love doth so. Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow. – Friar Lawrence

These hot days … is the mad blood stirring. – Benvolio

I will be deaf to pleading and excuses / Nor tears nor prayers shall purchase out abuses. – Prince Escalus (sounding a lot like Sir Capulet – no mercy!)

Be patient for the world is wide. – Friar Lawrence

Graze where you will, you shall not house with me! – Sir Capulet

On a camp side note, I also visited the purported balcony in Verona (gimme a balcony, any balcony!) in 1996, with stationary audio headsets that featured a very posh English accent recounting the tale of Romeo and Juliet for something like 2.000,00 lire. It was mobbed. The courtyard was full of roses. I appreciated it for what it was.

Next up! A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the only Shakespeare play I’ve ever been in (Moth, spring 1988, Edmond North Mid-High). Although I was but a bit part, I was in the cast with some fine actors, many of whom I remain close with to this day. I’ll never forget the excitement and joy of those first read-throughs, with the drama teacher patiently explaining language on pretty much every line.

Update from Italy: Ukraine Close By

Photo by Tina Hartung on Unsplash

Since February 24, friends and family in the U.S. have been asking me, Monica, what does the situation in Ukraine look like from Italy? Is it really that bad? Does it feel close? I have been mulling a post about Ukraine for weeks. The Russian invasion started the Thursday before the weekend that our Covid adventure began here at our house. In my lethargic confusion, I watched the headlines wink in and out from my phone.

People everywhere wanted to feel hopeful the incursion would not last too long, but that was when we all thought that Russian was a stronger military power than it is proving itself to be. I suppose the idea was that Ukraine would quickly surrender. Putin clearly thought the regime change exercise would last a weekend, maybe a week. A Russian-friendly puppet leader would be installed, maybe a symbolic election held soon after. But that’s not what happened. Ukraine is resisting, stronger than many people believed, and Russia seems irrational and decrepit (and cruel) by turns (sometimes all at once).

The population of Ukraine is roughly the same size as that of Spain – 44 million. The 35th most populous nation, according to World Meter. A vast fertile plain, it grows much of the wheat and sunflowers used for oil for the European continent and abroad. Some Middle Eastern countries depend on Ukraine for their food imports. The ripple effects of the war there will disrupt many other places for months, maybe years to come. Ukrainian farmers would normally be tending their spring planting now, but none of that can happen. As of last week, 10% of the Ukrainian population has fled the country – just under 4.5 million people. I suspect those numbers to skew low – officially counting the displaced presents obvious challenges. It’s not like they’re leaving through a turnstile with a ticker.

I heard a bit of news (unconfirmed) that two-thirds of Ukrainian children are now displaced as refugees. The Italian news reports that 100,000 newly-arrived Ukrainians are now here in Italy. Some have found their way to Florence, a city twinned with Kyiv, and where a stable population of Ukrainians lived before February 24. A friend contacted me last week to see if I had any donations for a mother who arrived with her three sons, aged 15, 8, and 5. The oldest boy is continuing his high school classes online. The two younger boys are bored. they have no toys. The mom is exhausted and scared. The father was unable to leave Ukraine due to the mandatory conscription. They have nothing, the friend said, and we didn’t have much in nice condition at the thrift shop to give them. Victor blows out the knees of his pants like no one’s business, but I promised to have a look around. Our upcycle offerings were skimpy, so I made a few targeted requests to four other moms in the area and took up a collection. The local moms were generous. We tried to remember the Ukrainian mom too, as I was told that people often donate to children and forget to remember the parents. We collected clothes for all four of them, plus a load of Lego sets in their boxes for the boys. Last Friday in the rain with two friends I walked all the bags up to the ring road for the pickup by the friend who was coordinating for this family.

This is just one Ukrainian family. There are scores of Ukrainian families in hotels around Florence, mothers and children without fathers, waiting and watching to see how long this lasts. Trying to devise some semblance of routine in the meantime. Searching for news about the fathers, thrust into battle.

There are also dissidents in Florence too, from Russia, seeking political asylum after posting their opposition publicly. It’s important to remember the internal dissent in Russia. They’re not all of one mind about this – far from it. But I have also encountered local Russians lamenting the anti-Russian propaganda, how Russia is the victim, claiming that the Ukrainians are bombing themselves and turning on one another, all the while blaming Russia. These harangues have left me speechless, locked in an airless room of Italian language between America and Russia. I cannot fathom Ukranians scribbling “For the Children” on the metal case of a shell on a train platform after an attack, the dead strewn haphazardly next to suitcases and bags, I ventured into one recent conversation trying to commiserate as an oft-dissenting American and was met with a hard line counterpoint that was not only incomprehensible but morally repugnant. I did not know what to further say to that parent. I gave it what a former manager used to call the slow roll.

Other local friends tell me their Russian friends believe none of the Russian news. We have a new legal intern in the law office, a young woman from Hungary whom I hope is running the EU in twenty years. I so appreciate her input and rational analysis of events and elections in what we used to call the Eastern Bloc, back when I was in high school in the eighties. Over espresso and case files we have covered Orban, Poland, Slovenia, and the Serbian elections. What the former Eastern Bloc thinks of Putin, and how Putin’s example emboldens other leaders in the region to take pages out of his playbook – Orban and Hungary in particular, now set to lose massive amounts of EU funding due to rule-of-law breaches. The rot runs deep. These leaders swagger hard. And their populist constituents lap it up. If no one can be for us, who will stand up for us? The great shadow of neo-liberalism – the gap in wealth and opportunity between urban and rural culture – falls long and dark the world over. The city and the country are no longer speaking the same language, and it’s doubtful that they ever were, but now the difference is seen in high relief, and it’s looking mighty ugly to the have-nots and the we’ll-never-haves.

Italy is very concerned about all of this. As a NATO member, as a country for whom the events of World War II are very much a living memory, I think it is very triggering for Italians. The blowhard Salvini (their much younger mini-Trump) has been pretty quiet on the news. Italy also has maintained a nice moral high ground, I think, in the years since 1948. The Pope lives in Rome, and Catholic humanism still very much forms a basis for cultural mores here. It is strange to be an American in Italy watching events unfold in Ukraine with the Russian aggression. I am so used to being in the US as the US embarks on some new harebrained foreign military intervention and being appalled at my perceived complicity in the culture of violence.

The older I get, the harder it is to come up with any plausible reason for a foreign war. Defense at home, ok. But that a wealthy national should sally forth with tanks and missiles to some other country thousands of miles away, to “liberate” them or save them from a “hostile dictator”? Please. I am ashamed to admit it, but I do assess myself as unjustifiably hawkish in the years 1992-1998 and 2004-2016. Why? I don’t know. I was a frog in the political pot of Oklahoma, in many ways. It is hard to see straight or hear clearly when the local news broadcast is a nonstop parrot of Pentagon talking points. So, in this respect, I understand the insistence of the Russian parent after school a couple of weeks ago.

I don’t know if any of this is useful to any reader out there. I hope so. Plenty more where this came from. I suppose my takeaway right now is, give to Ukraine relief, and resist autocracy and economic oligarchy in all their forms. And cultivate empathy for suffering. Maybe don’t sit in a hall of mirrors by yourself, muttering about imperial history and Peter the Great and the Rus tribe. You gotta talk to people and be willing to be challenged on your received ideas, maybe change your mind, admit you were wrong when necessary. I mean, that’s something we can all work on, every day.

Shakespeare Report: The Comedy of Errors

The visual component is a requirement when encountering Shakespeare.
Photo by David Underland on Unsplash

I feel I have met my Shakespearean Waterloo in The Comedy of Errors. Absent the availability of a quality video production online, I resorted to Bard Audio Play 2: Silicon Valley, whose sound engineering, if admirable, did little to aid my following of a comedic farce featuring mixed-up actors (two sets of identical twins with identical names – the noblemen Antipholus, and the slaves Dromio).

The next time I cover this play (and now I feel I must, so abysmal has been my comprehension), I will find a production to attend. Hard to believe that in the world of remakes and remixes, there exists no relatively recent version of this piece. The heavy hitters are always the usual suspects: R+J (next in my queue), Hamlet, MacBeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Taming of the Shrew. If anyone out there is looking for Shakespearean arcana for a reboot, may I suggest The Comedy of Errors or any of the history plays, all seemingly relegated to the corner of complications. Surely a fearless creative spirit working out there can give us a version for our times?

I resorted to critical essays over at the Folger Shakespeare Library. The play debuted on December 28, 1594, at Gray’s Inn in London where, history tells us, the night was also marked by such Throngs and Tumults, Crowds and Outrages that it soon became known as the Night of Errors. (The only time I was ever in a production, as a fairy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, two sticks of fake dynamite flew through the cafeteria and caught on a vent coil, and spun around til its red paper tubes swung like the pendulums of a ghostly cuckoo clock.)

The plot is taken from Plautus, whose Roman sensibilities favored stock characters – shrewish wives, feckless husbands, flirtatious courtesans, and slaves constantly quarreling with their masters. The kitchen wench, whose body offers a bawdy geography lesson, is never even seen, being always offstage. Plautus’s Menaechmi, a very popular play with Elizabethans, has so much in common with The Comedy of Errors that scholars Menaechmi regard it as a source for Shakespeare’s play (along with Apollonius of Tyre, by the relatively obscure and John Gower). Appearance is what counts in these plays ( Shakespeare and Plautus), and individual identification or personality is effaced until the final scenes. Characters are governed by a single trait; Plautine (and Shakespearean) farce draws upon the Greek notion of character, according to which superhuman forces stamp and direct human behavior in a singular and predictable way. For the Elizabethans, too, social and family relationships often dictated behavior rather than individual choice or talent.

The city of Ephesus provides the scene for the play, whose action takes place in a one-day period. Ephesus for centuries represented a sort of magical melting pot, a meeting point for wayfarers, who met there from all corners of the world to mix and trade. It was known as a city given to witchcraft and superstition, where the impossible seemed possible and then became possible – perhaps thereby supporting the improbably plot element of two sets of identical twins with the same names existing in the same space unawares. In this sense, the vibe in Ephesus calls to mind Baroque Venice, where the watery canals concealed all manner of chicanery and infidelity, smugglers gliding past police who tucked jingling payoffs into their heavy pockets. Again, the visual effect of being present in this scene with the characters must only aid in comprehension and the accurate following of this mad caper of a plot.

The Comedy of Errors is really an everything and the kitchen sink situation. More madness than either Hamlet or Twelfth Night, shipwrecks, mistaken identities, a perceived crime and a detain punishment on deadline to move the action along (the better to avoid the death penalty). The most geography of any of Shakespeare’s plays, giving us a mental image of the public’s known world – from Ireland to Spain, America, Scotland and France, Belgium and the Netherlands. The wealthy twins Antipholus hail from Syracuse in Magna Graecia.

An insightful commentary on the play remarked that the point of this complicated venture is to show us how frail our attitudes and assumptions are. People we take for one person are proven to be another. Our beliefs are easily assailed by a different perspective. And Shakespearean puns are effective because they mock control in the same manner. Words that mean one thing in one context can flip and signify something different in the next moment. We can’t control meaning, a pun whispers. We can try. And watch someone’s face when they realize the alternate meaning being conveyed. Employed skillfully, there’s no wordplay more fun than a pun.

Alright, that’s all I got for you on The Comedy of Errors. Next time, I am watching a theater production of this, because it was a tangle of words in audio only. Hard to believe that no video production of this exists online. I am once more convinced (even though I had no doubt) that Shakespeare, unlike a Victorian child, is meant to be both seen and heard.

Next week I will bring you Romeo and Juliet with fresh eyes. It should be easy enough to find since there are approximately one million remakes of this piece. I know the Zeffirelli version (watched it in ninth grade English, with the teenage boobs and unwholesome disrespect for authority edited out by the Edmond School Board), and I am partial to the Baz Luhrmann R+J (from 1996, and perhaps especially relevant now with Chris Rock’s perfect doppelganger Harold Perrineau as the quarreling Mercutio), but could be convinced to find other versions. Watch this space …