July 25, 2018

Holding Shakespeare’s Mirror to the Light in a Dark Time

By Stuart Mitchner

Shakespeare will go on explaining us, in part because he invented us. — Harold Bloom

For relief from the post-Helsinki reality of July 2018, a time of chronic stress leading to sleepless nights and a condition that for lack of a better word could be called trumpache, I recommend 600 mgs of Shakespeare at bedtime. Love’s Labor’s Lost has done wonders for me; no more ringing in the ears from the blowhard echo of the Montana Trump rally where the Philistine-in-Chief heaped scorn on “a thousand points of light,” his predecessor George H.W. Bush’s ghostwritten metaphor for public service, possibly the only piece of poetry ever associated with the 41st president.

To relieve the bad taste left by the purveyor of “sound and fury signifying nothing,” I took a dram of Shakespeare’s “Light seeking light doth light of light beguile:/So, ere you find where light in darkness lies,/Your light grows dark by losing of your eyes.” No need to decipher it, you’d be up all night. Anyway, who reads the fine print on prescriptions? The line goes down smoothly, just say it to yourself, savor it, swallow it, close your eyes, and you’re on your way from darkest Montana to a dream of Navarre. Who needs to count sheep as long as light beguiles light?

Shakespeare is always relevant to the nuances of life, positive or negative, crooked or straight, whether it’s 1968, 1868, or 2018 or 2228. When Hamlet tells the players to “hold, as t’were, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure,” the mirror is Shakespeare.

“Some Certain Treason”

Say you’re reading Love’s Labor’s Lost as Trump dissembles his way through the Helsinki blowback and chants his Johnny One Note mantra about witch-hunts, hoaxes, and fake news. Behold, here’s Shakespeare stressing words that resonate with the news of the day, words like Russia, Muscovite, treason, and perjury, as happens when the King of Navarre and his lords become traitors to a joint vow to study, fast, and swear off female company for three years. When a love note to Rosaline, one of the Princess of France’s ladies, is intercepted, the clown carrying the message calls it “Some certain treason.” Trying to trick the women, the four smitten males appear before them disguised in “Russian habits,” but the ladies have been forewarned and mock the besotted ones mercilessly when they’re caught out: “Help, hold his brows! he’ll swoon! Why look you pale?/Sea-sick, I think, coming from Muscovy.” To which the stricken suitor exclaims, “Thus pour the stars down plagues for perjury!” If you’ve been watching the Trump and Putin show or following the Mueller investigation, the association of subterfuge with Russian habits, Muscovites, and Muscovy definitely gets your attention.

The suitor in question is Biron, a lord attending on the King of Navarre and of all the play’s characters, the one who speaks for the Bard; in fact, his monologue near the end of Act IV is the longest in Shakespeare, a celebration of love and female beauty in which he decries the failed vow as “Flat treason ’gainst the kingly state of youth.”

Me? Me? Me!

Reading Love’s Labor’s Lost, I kept asking myself, “Where would Trump fit in?” The answer would seem to be “nowhere,” since Shakespeare’s clowns and fools are also wise, having been stamped with his genius. However, there’s a sufficiently trumpish passage in Act I in which a clown called Costard listens to the King of Navarre reading a long letter from Don Armado, “a fantastical Spaniard.” Anxiously waiting to hear some mention of himself (“Not a word of Costard yet”), he brightens up when the King comes to “that low-spirited swain, that base minnow of thy mirth, —“

Costard: “Me?”

“that unlettered small-knowing soul,” —

Costard: “Me?”

“that shallow vassal,” —

Costard: “Still Me?”

“which, as I remember, [is called] Costard —“

Costard: “O, Me!”

Though the scene seems made for Jerry Lewis, it has all the elements of a Saturday Night Live sketch with Alec Baldwin’s Trump as Costard.

All’s Not Well

Another Shakespearean cure-all is All’s Well That Ends Well, one of the “Problem Plays” and a fitting choice for the Problem Play world we’ve inhabited since November 8, 2016. This is not recommended for use at bedtime. Besides being difficult to access, it’s a relatively unpopular play, underperformed, and hard to classify, neither full-fledged comedy, tragedy, or romance. Shakespeare apparently began writing it early in his career, only to take the plot in a more problematic direction after 1600. The earlier version may have been titled Love’s Labor’s Won, meant perhaps as an ironic sequel to the gloriously inventive, free-spirited Love’s Labor’s Lost.

The two prototypes of Trump in All’s Well That Ends Well are Bertram, the hateful, caddish Count of Rousillon, and his boastful sidekick Parolles, who says of himself after being unmasked, exposed, and ruined, “simply the thing I am/Shall make me live. Who knows himself a braggart,/Let him fear this, for it will come to pass/That every braggart shall be found an ass.”

The true problem in this play is that Helena, the most admirable of women, loves the detestable Bertram. It’s a mystery why she’s so determined to marry a man with no redeeming qualities and no love for her. As Harold Bloom asks in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, how can someone as wise as Helena, “so formidable in her fixation upon the glittering emptiness of Bertram,” be so “massively wrong”?

There’s a kind of enigmatic nobility in the worthy Helena’s epic quest for the worthless Bertram’s love. Being the court pharmacist’s daughter, she finds a medicine strong enough to save the king’s life, who then grants her only wish by decreeing that Bertram marry her. The ill-natured scoundrel refuses to bed her, going off to war after leaving this drop-dead message: “When thou canst get the ring upon my finger which never shall come off, and show me a child begotten of thy body that I am father to, then call me husband: but in such a ‘then’ I write a ‘never.’“

The sexual subterfuge Helen has to resort to in order to bring this off has Shakespeare’s blessing by way of a speech from one of the lords of the court: “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together: our virtues would be proud, if our faults whipped them not; and our crimes would despair, if they were not cherished by our virtues.” Or, as she puts it herself, after reciting the title of the play, “Whate’er the course, the end is the renown.”

Like Biron in Love’s Labor’s Lost, Helena is Shakespeare’s alter ego. Her audacity is his audacity. Disguised as a barefoot pilgrim, she trades places with Diana, a virgin Bertram plans to deflower. After finding a way to get the ring from his finger, she leaves the bed carrying his child. Nothing can stop her and nothing does. Heaven help the Donald if he ever groped the likes of Helena, who lays it out in stark terms before she beds Bertram: “But, O strange men!/That can such sweet use make of what they hate,/When saucy trusting of the cozen’d thoughts/Defiles the pitchy night: so lust doth play/With what it loathes for that which is away.”

Murmurings in the Audience

According to the New York Times review of a recent production of Coriolanus, there were audible murmurings in the audience when a character observed that many great men “have flattered the people, who ne’er loved them,” reminding some theatergoers “of a certain elitist parading as a populist.”

In a May 2016 column marking Trump’s nomination, I made the Coriolanus connection after reference to Macbeth (“a tale told by an idiot”) and “over-proud” and “under-honest” Achilles in Troilus and Cressida, with “his pettish lunes, his ebbs, his flows.” This being back when the same Republican leaders who are enabling Trump were holding their noses, I mentioned the scene in Coriolanus where two senators discuss how to deal with a man whose pride is unequaled, who with his taunts will “bemock” the gods and the “modest moon.”

Speaking of congressional sycophants, don’t forget Hamlet’s old pals Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern, as in Ryan and McConnell, or, in the context of the Russia probe, Cohen and Manafort. My match of choice at the moment is Devin Nunes, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, who would need only a prosthetic hump to play Richard the Third, though he’s better fitted for the role of Osric, the murderous Claudius’s flunky, the “water-fly” of whom Hamlet says, “He did comply with his dug, before he sucked it. Thus has he, and many more of the same bevy that I know the dressy age dotes on, only got the tune of the time and outward habit of encounter; a kind of yesty collection which carries them through and through the most fond and winnowed opinions; and do but blow them to their trial ….”

His Great Heart

Writing about his boyhood love of Shakespeare, William Dean Howells recalls spending “so much of my leisure, with such a sense of his own intimate companionship there as I had nowhere else. I felt that he must somehow like my being in the joke of it all, and that in his great heart he had room for a boy willing absolutely to lose himself in him, and be as one of his creations.”