“Your beauty is rose-lipped and golden-haired”

Your beauty is rose-lipped and golden-haired,
It’s Venus the fair-armed goddess herself,
Coasting gently upon the shore, just born
In the quiet hours of the red-streaked morning,
Just as Dawn reached above and touched the sky
With roses draped upon her fingertips.
Your beauty is the lark’s early music,
Drawing me mournfully into the world,
But assuring me that all will be well;
I can hear your hum in the dark reaches
Of my mind, echoing from those dim walls
And reaching deep into the fabric of my soul.
And so I kneel at your beauty’s altar,
Offering my bare praise for the joy in me.

(2020)

“I remember looking at myself in an unbroken mirror”

I remember looking at myself in an unbroken mirror:
A child, maybe 10, maybe younger, peering in, looking out
Innocently, absorbing everything his environment,
No filter to sort through the toxins and the nutrients.

A rock was flung at the mirror—by whom? It doesn’t matter—
It raced through space and time until it forced itself through the glass,
Pressing in on the child, splintering the peering reflection,
Entangling him in the spider’s web of shattered metal.

At first who I saw made me sick: disoriented, I swooned,
Dizzy, like looking at the world through spectacles for the first time;
But the image compelled my gaze, held it fast, sickened as I was,
Until my broken sight synched with the fractured face in the glass.

Whether due to these cracks in my vision or these cracks in my mind,
I see mirrors in everyone—each one as shattered as mine.

(2020)

“Sacral Covenant”

After Sappho, Fragment 2

Come down from the mountain, set off from your Mediterranean isle,
And fly to me here in our secret grove,

To our fragrant apple trees,
To our altars, set with precious stones and smoking incense,
To our cold brook, conversing ceaselessly with the apple-boughs,
To our roses, which usurp the color of our passion to bloody the ground,
Where sleep falls on us like light swerving down from glistening leaves.

Let us find our horses, grazing in our blooming meadows, and break them in,
And you can ride, the breeze blowing sweetly through your hair, until your heart is full;

Come down to me, goddess, and we will drink deeply the nectar from our cups,
Nectar crafted just for our reunion, and pour a libation to our sacral covenant.

(2019)

“I can write the saddest verses tonight”

By Pablo Neruda

I can write the saddest verses tonight —
Write, for example:
“The night is full of stars,
Twinkling blue, in the distance.”

The night wind circles the heavens and sings.

I can write the saddest verses tonight.
I longed for her, and sometimes she longed for me.

On nights like this one, I held her in my arms.
I kissed her so fully, so often, beneath the infinite heavens.

She loved me, and sometimes I loved her.
How could I not love her immense, wonderstruck eyes?

I can write the saddest verses tonight.
To think that she is not mine.
To feel I have lost her.
To hear the immense evening — yet more infinite without her —
And the verse falls to the soul like dew onto grass.

What does it matter that my love could not save her?
The night is star-mad, and she is not with me.

That is all. Distantly, someone sings.
Distantly.
My soul is distressed, having lost her.

As though to bring her closer, my wonderstruck eyes look for her —
My heart looks for her —
And she is not with me.

The same evening enhalos the same trees.
We — who we were — are no longer the same.

I do not love her anymore — it’s true — but how much did I love her!
My voice sought the wind that would reach her ear.

Another’s. She will be another’s. Like my kisses, before.
Her voice, her luminous body. Her infinite eyes.

I do not love her anymore — it’s true — but perhaps I love her.
Love is so short, oblivion so immense.

Because on nights like this one, I held her in my arms,
My soul is distressed, having lost her,

Though this may be the final suffering she causes me,
And these the final verses I write for her.

( Translated 2019)

“Mnemosyne”

After Sappho, Fragment 94

She cried, saying goodbye to me,
And I honestly wished for death.

“We have suffered so much,” she said,
I don’t want to abandon you.”

And I answered, as lovers must:
“Since we must part, go happily,

But hold me in your memory,
For you know how I’ve worshipped you;

And if memories fade away,
Let me freshen them in your mind:

Do you see in your memory
The wreaths that you wove at my side?

Can you smell their fragrant perfume?
Do you feel them against your skin?

Remember how it felt as I adorned you,
Wrapped you up in those verdant chains,

Tied them gently round your tender neck,
That curve I’ve traced infinitely in my mind;

Remember when you made yours the scent of a queen
By rubbing earthy myrrh about your smooth limbs;

Remember when we laid, however gently, on soft beds
And sated our desire for the delicate feminine touch;

Remember when there was no measured dance,
No sacred shine we two did not share,

No sound we did not utter in unison,
No grove we did not haunt as one.

But those days have passed like wind through my fingers,
Vanished as the goddess’ breath upon my neck.

Now she is gone, and I am restless with the shivering night;
Honestly, I wish I were dead.

(2019)

Juliet: A Study

Waterhouse - Juliet

Juliet by John William Waterhouse (1898)

Romeo and Juliet is perhaps the first play in which Shakespeare strikes a balance between lyricism, intense pathos, and wisdom. This is nowhere else more evident than in the character of Juliet, who joins her doomed lover in an untimely death, but who for much of the play demonstrates a cognitive power unseen in Shakespeare’s previous plays. Unlike Romeo, who only ever seems to be mastered by his unchecked emotions and unrelenting fear of physical loneliness, Juliet ponders the situations in which she finds herself and thus appears infinitely more mature than her age and hastily conceived love would imply.

While standing on her balcony, thinking herself alone (though, in truth, Romeo is hiding in the bushes below and watching her), Juliet sublimely waxes philosophical as she contemplates names and their relationship to reality:

‘Tis but a name that is my enemy.
Thou [Romeo] art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet.
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And, for thy name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself. (2.2.41-52)

Recognizing that her family is embattled in a feud against Romeo’s family, Juliet seems desperate to prove that Romeo himself has nothing to do with the violence. Using the metaphor of a rose’s disparity from its given name, she concludes that Romeo’s family name has nothing to do with his actions: being a Montague does not by itself preclude Romeo’s involvement in the bitter Montague-Capulet feud. In fact, Juliet is absolutely correct in this thinking, though there is no way for her to know this information, for Romeo reveals his impatience with the feud in Act 1, Scene 1, when he comes late upon the scene of the street brawl that opens the play:

O me! What fray was here?
Yet tell me not, for I have heard it all. (1.1.178-179)

Romeo, Juliet thinks, would retain his perfection even if he were called by any name other than “Montague”–a name that to her, a Capulet, should seem imperfect.

Notably, this ability to think through such a dilemma is completely alien to Romeo. Indeed, after he learns that Juliet belongs to the enemy family, he does not ponder the predicament but instead hastily tries to return to Capulet’s house by way of the garden, finding himself incapable of being separated from Juliet:

Can I go forward when my heart is here?
Turn back, dull earth, and find thy center out. (2.1.1-2)

Romeo’s fear of being physically alone overrides any amount of powerful, original thought he might otherwise have had. The only solution he can find to this problem is to return, as it were, to the scene of the crime.

Later in the play, after Romeo has murdered Tybalt, the Nurse, wracked with agony at the news, tries and fails to clearly relate the turn of events to Juliet; frustrated with the Nurse’s unintelligibility, she exclaims,

What devil art thou that dost torment me thus?
This torture should be roared in dismal hell.
Hath Romeo slain himself? Say thou but “Ay,”
And that bare vowel “I” shall poison more
Than the death-darting eye of the cockatrice.
I am not I if there be such an “I,”
Or those eyes shut that makes thee answer “Ay.”
If he be slain, say “Ay,” or if not, “No.”
Brief sounds determine my weal or woe. (3.2.49-57)

Even in the midst of her frustration, Juliet has the cognitive power to pull off a triple pun! But, as Northrop Frye has noted, “she’s not ‘playing’ with the words: she’s shredding them to bits in an agony of frustration and despair” (26). The “ay” – “I” – “eye” figure, then, is an example of Juliet’s authentic strength of mind, for even in a moment of crisis, her thinking far surpasses that of any other character in the play.

In the same scene as Juliet learns that her “three-hours” husband has murdered her cousin Tybalt, she thinks through the chaos and calamity of the situation to discover that fate has graced her with a rather positive outcome:

But wherefore, villain, didst thou kill my cousin?
That villain cousin would have killed my husband.
Back, foolish tears, back to your native spring;
Your tributary drops belong to woe,
Which you, mistaking, offer up to joy.
My husband lives, that Tybalt would have slain,
And Tybalt’s dead, that would have slain my husband.
All this is comfort. Wherefore weep I then? (3.2.110-118)

Though she moves from this into the notion that Romeo’s banishment is worse for her than death — or the deaths of “ten thousand Tybalts,”  or even the deaths of her mother, father, Tybalt, Romeo, and herself — one can hardly blame her for this hasty conclusion: for though she is married, she is still a 13-year-old girl living in a society which dictates that she cannot leave her father’s house without her parents’ permission. Romeo’s banishment, therefore, means that she will never be able to venture forth to visit him outside Verona’s walls; and this loss of love, especially in the context of the ideologies of Courtly Love that so permeate the play, is understandably equatable to death.

Romeo, on the other hand, is incapable of reaching Juliet’s conclusion in 3.2.115-116 on his own, and in fact requires Friar Lawrence to spell it out for him plainly:

Tybalt would kill thee,
But thou slewest Tybalt: there art thou happy.
The law that threatened death becomes thy friend
And turns it to exile: there art thou happy. (3.3.147-150)

Indeed, despite the Friar’s flustered admonishments, Romeo does not so much as calm down until the “ghostly confessor” mentions that he should sneak into Juliet’s room to comfort her during this difficult time. Once again, it isn’t any amount of clear-headed reason that drives Romeo, but rather his overpowering fear of being physically alone, a fear that the Friar assures him still can be remedied by sneaking into Juliet’s room as previously planned.

The last half of the play finds Juliet the victim of circumstances from which no power of thought can save her: the stars have spoken, and the only power it seems she has it to commit suicide. (Not surprisingly, Juliet recognizes this fact at the very end of Act 3, Scene 5, when she declares, “If all else fail, myself have power to die” (3.5.255).) Her parents violently berate her because she refuses to marry Paris; the Nurse betrays her by advising her to forget Romeo and marry the count; Friar Lawrence victimizes her by way of his convoluted and unnecessary plot involving his “distilling liquor” — unnecessary, for what prevents him from merely secreting Juliet out of Verona to join her husband in Mantua? — and the friar mishandles her yet again when he abandons her in the Capulet crypt. All else does fail, and her only option at the end is suicide. Thus, Juliet’s death is the true tragedy in the play, for Romeo’s is the result of rash behavior: unlike Juliet, he does have options other than suicide. Had he, for instance, remained in Mantua but for a single day longer, he may have lived to see his young wife alive. But Juliet follows the only course left open to her, and in that course, Shakespeare’s first cognitively powerful character aspires immortality.

Works Cited

Frye, Northrop. Northrop Frye on Shakespeare. New Haven, Yale UP, 1986.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. Edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, Simon & Schuster, Updated ed., New York, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2011.

 

The Queen Mab Speech: Mercutio’s Unwitting Prophecy

Mercutio - Queen Mab Speech

“She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes / In shape no bigger than an agate stone” (I.iv.59-60)

Mercutio’s famous Queen Mab speech (I.iv.58-100) has elicited many interpretations, such as the belief that the monologue demonstrates Mercutio’s genius at improvisation as well as the notion that it pinpoints Mercutio’s overt homoeroticism and possible homosexuality. While one (or both) of these characterizational interpretations may be true, there is another reading of the speech that works on a different, structural level: though he most certainly does not realize he does so, Mercutio uses the Queen Mab speech to symbolize the narrative structure of the play–a happy-go-lucky “good dream” that quickly turns into a dark, oppressive nightmare.

The monologue is induced when Romeo and Mercutio argue over the ostensible veracity of 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.
Mercutio. O, then I see Queen Mab hath been with you. (I.iv.53-58)

Romeo is apparently arguing that dreamers dream reflections of reality–if not reality itself. Mercutio, ever the realist, happily jumps on this opportunity to mock his sensitive, overly-imaginative friend. Rather than continuing the argument in any straightforward manner, he instead launches into a flamboyant speech about how dreams–granted by the fantastical fairy, Queen Mab–only reflect the desires of individuals, not reality:

Mercutio. And in this state she gallops night by night
Through lover’s brains, and then they dream of love;
On courtier’s knees, that dream on cur’sies straight;
O’er lawyers’ fingers, who straight dream of fees;
O’er ladies’ lips, who straight on kisses dream,
Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues
Because their breaths with sweemeats tainted are. (I.iv.75-81)

Lovers, for example, desire love and so dream of love; lawyers, by Mercutio’s same logic, desire money (“fees”) and so dream of money; and so on. Thus, Mercutio ruthlessly proves Romeo wrong: dreams are not real, but are instead mere reflections of our desires. Believing that dreams are true, he insinuates, is as foolish as believing in fairies.

But starting with line 80, Mercutio’s descriptions of dreams as being reflections of desire takes a darker turn: in an outright explicit turn of phrase, he indicates that Queen Mab often gets angered and “plagues” the lips of ladies with “blisters” (i.e., herpes) “[b]ecause their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are” (i.e., Mab infects ladies’ lips with herpes after she sees that they have been “tainted” by the act of oral sex). Certainly, this is not the stuff dreams are made on.

Darker still are Mercutio’s following descriptions of dreams: while still demonstrating that dreams only reflect desires, he says,

Sometime she driveth o’er a soldier’s neck,
And then dreams he of cutting foreign throats,
Of breaches, ambuscadoes, Spanish blades,
Of healths five fathom deep, and then anon
Drums in his ear, at which he starts and wakes
And, being thus frighted, swears a prayer or two
And sleeps again. (I.iv.87-93)

Truly, not all people are peaceful civilians, so not all dreams are placid. Soldiers, Mercutio says, desire killing enemy soldiers in battle, and thus their dreams are full of violence and death. At last, before being cut off by Romeo, Mercutio mentions that Queen Mab also brings to young girls dreams of the pain associated with both sex and childbirth. Obviously, dreams of sickness, death, and pain are quite different than the aforementioned dreams of love, money and kisses. Thus, dreams can be happy and frivolous, but dreams can also be dark and frightening.

Symbolically, this speech on the nature of dreams parallels the narrative structure of the play: at first, we have a happy, frivolous love story. Romeo and Juliet, it seems, will get married and live happily ever after once they reconcile their families with their love. But then Act III arrives, and Mercutio is pronounced dead by line 120 of the first scene, soon followed by Tybalt less than 20 lines later. To make matters worse, the Prince exiles Romeo at the end of the scene, a decree that ultimately leads to the miscommunication that results in the deaths of Romeo and Juliet. Thus, much like Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech, the frivolity of the first half of the play quickly dissolves into nightmarish violence. Though he does not realize that he does so, Mercutio outlines the structure of the entire play with his speech, demonstrating that while he is speaking of dreams, he is most certainly not talking of “nothing”.

Editorial: The Ideology Obstacle

The Sun from Earth’s Orbit

Despite our many technological conveniences, from iPhones to hybrid cars, we humans are still an incredibly primitive and tribal culture. We love to identify ourselves based on differences: e.g., “I am American, and you are French”; “I am Christian, and you are Muslim”; “I am rich, and you are poor”; etc. So entrenched are we in our tribal identities, I feel, that we have reached a stopping point in our civilization’s progress: we will continue to create useful gadgets to enhance the cool of our everyday lives, to make us feel ever hipper and with it, but in our current tribal state, there is no hope of us realizing the end of war, disease, world hunger, and other such strife. Our tribal identities require us to battle out who should lead us to this idealization, and of course, when one tribe is in power, another tribe will inevitably suffer. Our understanding of science continues to grow and give us glimpses of future happiness, but science’s great enemy, ideology, has overridden our common sense and left our civilization standing still and growing stagnant. Once we can overcome the ideology obstacle, our tribal identities will dissipate, and we will finally see true progress as a people and as a race at our finger-tips.

Allow me to envision an ideal world, free of ideology and, subsequently, tribal identity.

It began with our various national governments phasing out their tribal identifications by allotting the UN greater political power, which culminated in the foundation of a consolidated world government, presided over by a democratically elected council. Without tribal identifications — e.g., “I am American, and thus I want my council candidate to defeat the French candidate” — we are forced to elect our leaders based solely on their qualifications and character. There are no political parties in this future; there are only people. This council elects a president, who functions as a facilitator of council meetings and who otherwise oversees the maintenance of laws based on the common good of all humanity, not merely a portion of it.

Free from tribal identification and its ideological implications, we were at last free to embrace science unconditionally. This, combined with the benefits of the consolidated world government, led to rapid developments in food production and medicine, which in turn brought an end to world hunger and [most] disease. Wealth became less of a priority, for what further purpose did currency serve in a world where food and health care were easily available to all? Without our tribal identifications, we no longer made decisions based on “what was best for our country”; we made decisions based on what was best for humanity. Thus, if there was a famine in eastern Africa, surplus food rations were diverted to that region. But in time, thanks to our scientific focus, we managed even to eliminate the threat of famine. With hunger and disease eliminated, we could then set our sights on finally uniting the globe.

Of course, not every world power joined the World Council at first. Most of Western Europe and America and parts of Asia complied almost immediately, but certain governments lingered. Negotiations between the Council president and the leaders of these stubbornly tribal nations took place, and while some negotiations descended into violence — particularly with those nations governed by despotic dictators — most ended peacefully, with the addition of these nations to the world government. Various radical groups also rose up against the World Council. These radicals consisted of ideologues who saw the departure from tribal identity as a war waged on their religions or political beliefs, or both. Though the council attempted to negotiate peaceful terms with these radicals, some inevitably resorted to terrorist acts in the attempt to bring down the world government. But the Council, seeing what was best for humanity in the long-run, dispatched counter-terrorism military units to combat these radicals, and in the end the council won due to a combination of greater numbers and common purpose: fighting for an idea will no doubt inspire passion, but fighting for one’s race will inspire passionate resilience.

Despite our united secular focus, religion still plays a substantial part in the affairs of humanity. The main difference between before and after the departure from tribal identity is that, with the World Council focused on what is best for humanity, religion is now strictly a private practice. This was a difficult transition for many religions, but we have decided that it is best for humanity to keep our faiths outside of our interactions with one another on a global scale — to still attend to our rituals, if we’d like, but to do so in a manner that does not diminish the basic human rights of others and that does not interfere with the world at large. Missionary work still continues, but only in a charitable fashion; forced conversion is outlawed, for it is deemed intrusive upon individual human rights.

Once the major conflicts across the globe had been settled, we were able to shift our vision outwards, from looking down at ourselves to looking up at the cosmos. Developments in what used to be crudely termed “green” technology led to the harnessing of clean and endlessly renewable fusion power and the advent of “atmospheric cleansing,” which allowed us to remove harmful pollutants and restore the crumbling ozone layer. With our Mother Earth cleansed and on the mend after more than two millennia of abuse, we began developing the technology to take us to other planets, and beyond. We had made enormous progress as a civilization — or, more to the point, as a race — but only after we had renounced our tribal identities and, as a result, our disastrously differing ideologies.

It is easy for me to write that we phased out our tribal identifications, but that is no simple task. Indeed, even in my ideal history of a prospective utopia, I make note of continuing conflicts. Ideology is perhaps the greatest hurdle humankind has ever had to clear on our track of progress, and it will not be cleared easily. Perhaps it will take a Third World War to overcome tribal identity and ideology; perhaps we will need to decimate ourselves before we can unite. I am an idealist, but I cannot ignore reality. Our tribal history is rife with violence, and certainly renouncing our tribal identities will not be a peaceful process. But once that hurdle is cleared, our unified progress will be within reach. There is no progress without fear: was primitive humanity not afraid of fire even while mastering it? Were doctors inspecting and treating plague victims not fearful of catching the disease themselves? Were our early astronauts not anxious at the prospects of all that could go wrong whilst jettisoning themselves into space? But to clutch to ideology is to hide from fear. Truly, fear is a necessary component of progress; but it is just as true that once we confront these fears in the face of progress, our anxieties will dissipate. Let us let loose our primitive tribal identities and corresponding ideologies and progress boldly in spite of our fear.

Postscript. I acknowledge that my argument that ideology is the enemy of science and progress is itself an ideology, but it is one that does not diminish the rights of others, and it is therefore one that I feel best suits the needs of humanity — of us as a global community. It is an ideology designed for the modern world: an ideology that celebrates our individual uniquenesses and eschews all prejudice and hatred based on primitive and out-of-date beliefs. We need not hurt ourselves; why cut of our nose to spite our face? Instead, why not work together and accomplish something?

In short, let us be nice to each other and work for humanity — not for our own ends.

Reading Update: ‘Nothing Like the Sun’: 1592-1599: Chapters III-Epilogue

WS’s immortal gaze will continue to haunt humanity, even as the last members of our race gasp their final breaths, reminding us that we are all poisoned at the root.

I read the second half of the book in close succession, having been entranced by Burgess’s language as one transfixed by a spell. The plot is not surprising, though it is magical observing the conception and execution of Love’s Labour’s LostRomeo and JulietMidsummer Night’s DreamThe Merchant of Venice, the Henry IV plays, Henry V, and the better part of the sonnets. Most poignant, however, is the scene in which WS, making a rare visit home, tells his son Hamnet a story:

“Tell me a story and let me be in the story.”

WS smiled. “Well, once there was a king and he had a son and the son’s name was Hamnet.’ He thought of Kyd’s crude play; strange, this matter of the name. And of dead Lord Strange with his north-country voice: “I’ll play Amloth with thee, lad!” Meaning that he would go into a rage (it was with a servant, not a player) like the hero they half-remembered in Yorkshire from the old days of Danish rule, only his rage had been a feigned madness to discover who had killed — “And the king’s father died but his ghost came back to tell the prince that he had not truly died but had been murdered. And the man that had murdered him was his own brother, the uncle of Hamnet.” (121)

Not fifty pages later, Hamnet has died and not further beyond that, WS returns home unannounced to find Anne incestuously in bed with his brother, Dickon. Art imitating life imitating art: there is, perhaps, more than the Danish historical truth of Prince Amloth’s sordid tale in Hamlet.

This is not to say that WS is a blameless cuckold; indeed, he voraciously consummates his affair with Harry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton (“Mr. WH,” putting his family name before his given name as he’s always told), “wrestling” playfully and otherwise maintaining a quasi-sado-masochistic relationship:

[H]e thrust his arms in a tight hug round the slim boy’s calves. Harry’s voice, high up there, screamed. Then WS brought him down, not hard on that deep pile showing embroidered green wantonness, his arms striving too late for balance, laughing, breathless. “Now,” went WS in mock gruffness, “I have thee.” They fought, and the craftsman’s arms were the stronger. (110)

And then, in the autumn of 1594, she arrives:

It was while he was walking off Bishopsgate — Houndsditch, Camomile Street, St Helen’s Place St Helen’s Church — that he saw her. She stepped from her own coach outside a house near St Helen’s, veiled, escorted by her unveiled maid. But, in the fresh fall wind, her veil lifted an instant; he saw. He saw a face the sun had blessed to gold. Another autumn, that autumn in Bristol, returned to him in a gust of shame. Beaten out of a black croshabell’s brothel for want of a little tinkling silver. It was different now. But this woman was, he thought, no tib, no purveyor of holy mutton. (137-138)

Asking around, WS eventually hears from Richard Burbage — who has a strangely intimate knowledge of the Dark Lady’s background — that she goes by the “Christian nickname” Lucy in England, though her real name is “some foreign or paynim name, a Mahometan one” (139) — Fatimah, we come to learn. WS rouses the gumption to follow her to her house, where he forgoes his former shame and strikes up a seemingly platonic relationship with her; but he soon steps outside the bounds of the Friend-Zone, as he himself narrates in a section of the novel that appears to be selections from his diary:

— Do you kiss in your country?

— We kiss not as you do. We have what is called de chium. It is done wid de nose.

— Show me.

— Nay, dat I may not.

— I beseech you.

She shyly places her delicate splay-nose on my left cheek and ploughs up once and down once, as she were new-making the furrow  already there.

— Ah, that is good, but an English kiss is better.

So saying, I seize her in mine arms and place my lips on hers. It is like no English kiss I have ever known: her lips are neither a rosebud nor a thin predatory line; they are full and fleshy, like some strange fruit or flower of her Indies. Her teeth are well forward, set like a palisade to forbid the melting of a close kiss. I bring my mouth away from hers and set it to kissing the cool-warm smoothness of her shoulder. But she will have none of this and yet she will; she pushes and pulls me toward-away from her. So now it is to me to say:

— I love thee, by God I do. My love my love I love thee.

— I love not dee.

And then she thrusts me away with more power and strength than I had thought possible to reside in such slenderness. But now I am whetted and will not desist. I clasp her and she batters me with little golden fists, crying at me in her own tongue. She cannot prevail and so she bites toward me, her tiny white teeth snapping at the air. So it is needful that I bear down upon her, drawing, as it were, the teeth of her biting in a great disabling kiss, the while I hold her to me as I would engraft her on to my body. And so soon she yields.

Soon? Very soon. I see soon that she knows all. She is no tyro in this game. I feel that disappointment that all men know when they discover they are not the first, and disappointment makes a kind of anger which makes a kind of savagery. But I possess her in a terrible joy, the appetite growing with the act of feeding, which astonishes me. And in the end I coldly see that I have a mistress. And a very rare one. (149-150)

After all this time, since his boyhood fantasies, WS has at last possessed his goddess. Or has he? There is still the trouble of their past, of her beating him out of the Bristol brothel when he was “want of a little tinkling silver;” and then, too, there is the strangeness of Burbage’s knowledge of her. WS sees his relationship to this Dark Lady as one in which he dominates, but like a clueless trick, he thoughtlessly gives her gold: “WS, prospering man of affairs, gives gold. Prices are so high, she says. It is on account of the crops failing last year” (151). And what is worse, she heatedly clambers for an introduction to WH, and when she at last receives one, Southampton, too, is intoxicated:

He then, as she were a Bart Fair show like a pig-headed child, praises her strangeness, her colour, her littleness. Oh bring her over, he says, we must exhibit her, my friends will be much taken. And all the time she quaffs him and, when he is gone, will not do what she is rightly come to do (or have done) but talks of his clothes and his deadgold swordhilt and his quicksilver words, Mercurio. He is gone now for his plump prostitute boy, I roughly tell her. Oh, dat believe I not, she answers, he is much a gentleman for de ladies; date see I bwery clear. (153)

[I marked the word WHORE in thick capital letters more than a few times throughout the margins of this section.]

WS at last comes to his senses about the Dark Lady/Lucy/Fatimah when WH indicates he has seen her in a carriage with none other than Richard Burbage. He does not in the end blame Burbage, though his temporary rage at his fellow actor causes him to forget his lines as Antonio in his own Two Gentlemen of Verona, to the amusement and mockery of the audience. Perhaps it is the Dark Lady’s hasty though inevitable dalliance with his own bed-companion WH that allows WS to forgive Burbage. Regardless, his fear of supposed cuckoldry by his dark mistress provides an uncomfortably ironic contrast to the genuine, though as-yet-unseen, cuckoldry by his wife.

Despite WS’s inability to see so, the Dark Lady remains still a prostitute, or at least continues to function as one, and WH remains his friend, more platonic than sexual at this point. One charming section of the novel finds WS and WH, having both lost the Dark Lady, rekindling their friendship as Southampton recovers from an as-yet-unidentified illness. They discuss the twenty new sonnets WS has written for his friend, but their amiable conversation inevitably turns to their mutual “dark little doxy,” or “heterodoxy,” as WH quips:

“Where is she now?”

“She wished to be a fine lady. She had, would you believe it, ambitions to marry into the English nobility, that black creature. And she comes crying to me that she is with child.”

“With child? Your child?”

“Who knows whose child? Mine. Yours. Anybody’s. It might well be yours from the time of her having it, if my calculating is correct. Though there are untimely births. But let’s talk of other things, not drabs and their brats.”

“I must know this,” said WS. “What happened?”

Harry yawned. “That wind blowing in makes me sleepy.” WS did not get up from the chair where he was sitting to close the window. “Oh well, I see you are concerned. That I did not expect. I have heard all sorts of tales about her since, chiefly that her house and coach and servants were all paid for in Spanish gold and that her aim was to reach me through you –”

“I did all the wooing there.”

“Wait. And to reach Robin Devereux through myself and slay him. And even to slay other great ministers of state and then, when apprehended, plead her belly.” (181)

Pregnant? Involved in a Spanish conspiracy against English heads of state? Perhaps, but WS cares for only one of these rumors: another Shakespeare child? Another son, even? As it turns out, yes, another son; but this tidbit comes from the Dark Lady, so the veracity of the information remains in doubt; but as far as WS is concerned, it is true, and the boy’s mother has sent the child to live with relatives back East. “The male line died in the West,” WS tells us in the novel’s epilogue; “It was right it should continue in the East” (234).

***

Though any tale of Shakespeare’s life is intriguing — for indeed, the scarce facts leave us with scant but our imaginations — in the end, Burgess’s “WS” is another shade of Joyce’s Poldy Bloom. He might be a playwright — the playwright — instead of an advertising agent, but WS is inward, sensitive, and imaginative; he is man who cannot hold his liquor, a father grieving over a dead son, and, of course, he is a cuckold. Perhaps this was Burgess’s intention, however: Shakespeare could do worse than be represented by the personality of the most likable character in all of Western literature.

Burgess’s true original strengths in Nothing Like the Sun lie in the mesmerizing language and the vivid evocation of the Elizabethan time-period. Whether in a backwater village or in the metropolitan streets of London, there is no doubt that this is Shakespeare’s England. In addition to the illustrations of the plague-stricken English, of street brawls and court intrigue, there are enthralling depictions of the public’s enthusiasm for everyday sadism and gore. Take, for example, this passage, in which WS has been dragged unwillingly to the public execution of three men accused of conspiring against the Crown:

This is Noko. What is his name? Noko, no, Tinoco. A foreign and heathen name. He is to be first. And now this Tinoco, a dark and shivering man in a white shirt, had his shirt stripped from him as he was roughly untied from the hurdle. The hangman presented the knife, new-sharpened, new-polished, to the sun; the mob went aaaaaaaah. Called the hangman, it was yet not his office to fix the long thin neck into the halter; the first assistant must do that. Tinoco, stumbling, falling with fear, and all to the crowd’s laughter, was made to mount the ladder, rung by slow trembling rung. Behind him, behind the gallows itself, the hanger waited on a narrow crude podium, a platform mounted on a platform. He was a young man, muscular; his mouth opened in some ribald pleasantry to his victim as he secured the hempen noose about his neck. And then WS could see the lips of the victim moving, as in prayer; the trembling hands sought to join in prayer, but could not. Of a sudden the noose was tightened; over the momentary inbreathed silence of the crowd the choking desperation of the hanged could clearly be heard. The second assistant pulled the ladder away sharply. The legs dangled a second but the staring eyes still blinked. Here was art, far more exact than WS’s own: the hangman approached with his knife, fire in the sunlight, before the neck could crack, ripped downwards from heart to groin in one slash, swiftly changed knife from right to left, then plunged a mottled fist inside the swinging body. The first assistant took the bloody knife from his master and wiped it with care on a clean cloth, the while he eyes were on the artistry of the drawing. The right hand withdrew, dripping, holding up for all to see a heart in its fatty wrappings; then the left arm plunged to reappear all coiled and clotted with entrails. The crowd cheered; the girl in front of WS leaped and clapped; a child on his father’s shoulder thumb-sucked, indifferent, understanding nothing of all this, the adult world. Blood poured and spurted richly, the sumptuousness of heraldic bearings, glinting as the sun struck. And then (for the rope must be used again) the noose was loosened, the ruined body upheld while blood poured still, the tautness of the rope made slack again. The hangman threw the heart and guts into the steaming bowl, freeing his arms from the incrustations with quick fingers, drying them then, unwashed, on a towel. The crowd moaned its pleasure, its continued excitement, for were there not two more victims to come? The hangman was handed a hatchet, squat and dull compared with that quick artist’s instrument but sharp as it cracked through bone for the quartering — the head, the limbs. A gaping torso was upheld a moment, then all these pieces of man were thrown into a basket. (128-130)

Horrifying, but enthralling; and yet, the whole scene is accurate, right down to the heart and entrails tossed in a bowl. Burgess tricks us here, however, for while we think we should identify with WS, whose shock and numbness at the spectacle reveals a transcendence from the cultural norm, the language describing the violence draws us in and fascinates us to the point where we identify with the “aaaaaaaah”-ing audience and are thus complicit with the hangman and his goons. So absorbing is Burgess’s evocation of the period that he transforms us, the readers, into Elizabethans — sadism and all.

The execution scene makes us Elizabethans, but it ends by making us feel uncomfortable about it. Dr Roderigo Lopez, “Jew, Machiavel, small and black” (130) is the third and last here to be executed:

Let him not be granted the least dignity in his dying: strip all off. There is a fair-sized thursday for thee; mark, he is like all foreigners for the appurtenances for lust. Lopez prayed aloud in a high screaming voice, in an outlandish tongue, his own. No, it is to the Devil he prayeth, for is not Adonai the foreign name of the Devil? And then, in ridiculous foreigner’s English:

“I love de Kvin. Ass mosh ass I loff Zhessoss Krist — “

The crowd split their sides with laughter but were, at the same time, most indignant: this naked foreign monkey praying, saying the Holy Name in his nakedness, screaming with that smart filthy rod, of his love for the Queen. Despatch, but not too slowly. And then, in articulo mortis, his body spurted, but not with blood. Parents, shocked, covered the eyes of their children. Draw, draw, draw. The hangman’s hands reeked. Then he went with his hatchet for the body  as he would mince it fine. (130-131)

The crowd cheers the unnatural tearing of a man’s hearts from his chest, but they cannot abide the natural release of excrement upon his death. But we are the Elizabethan crowd as we read, and we marvel at this spectacle as we do at the previous two; and yet, there is the discomfort we feel at Lopez’s praying “aloud in a high screaming voice, in an outlandish tongue, his own,” and the pain at hearing his “foreigner’s English”: this is an ambiguous pain that plays out clearly at the end of Merchant of Venice, as Shylock numbly renounces his Jewish faith. Burgess was keen to place WS in an equitable state of numbness upon witnessing this scene: Lopez is Shylock, and WS is the quiet voice of the ambiguous discomfort. This voice was not heard as loudly as others in Elizabeth’s England, but it was as much of a reality as anything else that Burgess so vividly evokes.

***

And so, Burgess concludes: WS is the author of several popular plays, though his most important is yet to come, which will showcase an unprecedented personage who bears a name similar to his late son’s; Lucy Negro/Fatimah has bore a dark-skinned Shakespeare son and sent him off to the East, where the Shakespeare line shall continue; the spring of WS’s relationship with WH has resolved into its inevitable decay, as Southampton has insulted WS too close to the bone through mockery of his cuckoldry via his brother; and WS, now an honest gentleman with a coat-of-arms to prove it, is decaying bodily with syphilis.

In the oneiric epilogue, which seems to be WS speaking hazily at the close of his life many years after the narrative proper’s ending in 1599, he sees his body as analogous to London: “In my delirium the City was mine own body — fighting broke out in ulcers on left thigh, both armpits, in the spongy and corrupt groin” (228). Decaying WS is the decaying City, Eliot’s “unreal city.” And as he’s dying, his morally righteous son-in-law, the good doctor John Hall, gives his own critical view of WS’s body of work:

— His plays were first all flowers and love and sweet laughter or else the stirring true record of England’s progress towards order. Then he brooded on what he called evil, aye.

— Evil? Wrongs, that is?

— Nay, not wrongs, for wrongs, he said, were man-made and might be redressed. But he thought that the great white body of the world was set upon by an illness from beyond, gratuitous and incurable. And that even the name Love was, far from being the best invocation against it, often the very conjuration that summoned the mining and ulcerating hordes. We are, he seemed to say, poisoned at the source. (231)

And this seems to be what Burgess proves through his narrative time and again, through the loves and lusts, the desperation and the ecstasy, the madness and the violence: we are poisoned at the source.

But O! what sweet poison!

“What’s here? A cup closed in my true love’s hand?
Poison, I see, hath been his timeless end.
O churl, drunk all, and left no friendly drop
To help me after. I will kiss thy lips.
Haply some poison yet doth hang on them,
To make me die with a restorative. (Romeo and Juliet, 5.3.167-171)

“Poison, I see, hath been his timeless end.”

Reading Update: ‘Nothing Like the Sun’: 1592-1599: Chapters I-II

Henry Wriothesely, 3rd Earl of Southampton, luxuriates his way onto the stage in this section of the novel

Burgess decides to pass over the most historically ambiguous time in Shakespeare’s life (between his leaving Stratford and his early fame as a mediocre playwright for Philip Henslowe’s playhouse, the Rose; i.e., 1587-1592), and he instead commences the novel’s second section a full five years after WS’s decision to take his “pseudo-Plautus” (an early draft of The Comedy of Errors) to the Queen’s Players and try his skill in drama-craft.

Chapter I of this new section is rife with delightful depictions of various facets of life in Elizabethan England. Not only do we get splendid caricatures of Elizabethans famously connected to Shakespeare, such as Will Kemp, Ned Alleyn, and of course Henslowe, but we also get a clear vision of day-to-day life: a riot breaks out, a “riot for riot’s sake” (81), suspiciously reminiscent of the street brawl at the start of Romeo & Juliet, and it is viciously beaten down by the brutal Marshal’s Men and ended by the Lord Mayor, a fitting image of Verona’s Prince Escalus); Henslowe anticipates the closure of the playhouses due to a combination of the civil insanity of the Midsummer season and the infectiousness of the plague-season; and then there’s this gem:

The city baked in its corruption; flies crawled over the sleeping lips of a child; the rats twitched their whiskers at an old dead woman (shrunk to five stone) that lay among lice in a heap of rancid rags; the bells tolled all day for the plague-stricken; cold ale tasted as warm as a posset; the flesher shooed flies off with both hands before chopping his stinking beef; heaps of shit festered and heaved in the heat; tattered villains broke into houses where man, woman, child lay panting and calling feebly for water and, mocking their distress, stole what they had a mind to; the city grew a head, glowing over limbs of towers and houses in the rat-scurrying night, and its face was drawn, its eyes sunken, it vomited foul living matter down to ooze over the cobbles, in its delirium it cried Jesus Jesus. (85-86)

So impressive is this description of plague-stricken Elizabethan England that I have a mind to share this with my students from now on as we start our Shakespeare unit. How can one not dry-heave  at this rank illustration and yet dazzle at the breathtaking language?

***

But Burgess does not abandon the story for these impressive historical anecdotes. We also see WS beginning to write Richard III alongside his long poem, Venus and Adonis. Particularly splendid is the moment in which we see WS writing the dedication for the latter piece, a scene that juxtaposes the words in the writer’s head with the sights and sounds of the Elizabethan world around him:

“I know not how I shall offend…” Spring waking in London, crude crosses still on the doors, but the wind blowing in the smell of grass and the ram-bell’s tinkle. Piemen and flower-sellers cried. “…in dedicating my lines, no, my unpolished lines, to your lordship…” From a barber-shop came the tuning of a lute and then the aching sweetness of treble song. “…nor how the world will rebuke, no, censure me for choosing so strong a prop…” There were manacled corpses in the Thames, that three tides had washed. “…to support so weak a burden…” A kite overhead dropped a gobbet of human flesh. “…only, if your honour seem but pleased, I account myself highly praised…” In a smoky tavern a bawdy catch was flung at the foul air. “…and vow to take advantage of all idle hours…” Pickpurses strolled among the gawping country cousins. “…till I have honoured you with some grave labour…” A limping child with a pig’s head leered out from an alleyway. “…But if the first heir of my invention prove deformed…” A couple of Paul’s men swaggered by, going haw haw haw. “…I shall be sorry it had so noble a godfather…” Stale herrings smelled to heaven in a fishman’s basket. “…and never after ear so barren a land…” A cart lurched, rounding a corner; wood splintered against stone. “…for fear it yield me still so bad a harvest…”The sun, in sudden great glory, illumined white towers. “…I leave it to your honourable survey…” A thin girl in rags begged, whining. “…and your honour to your heart’s content…” An old soldier with one eye munched bread in a dark passage. “…which I wish may always answer your own wish…” Skulls on Temple Bar. “…and the world’s hopeful expectation.” A distant consort of brass — cornets and sackbuts. “Your honour’s in all duty…” A drayhorse farted. “…WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE.” (97-98)

This inside-outside view of WS’s thinking and perception registers as my favorite section of the text so far. It seems at first that the depictions of Elizabethan England will be more of the same from earlier — merchants sellings their wares, birds dropping bits of human flesh, corpses floating in the river, dirty and dangerous London in general — but then we have the brilliant close, where we hear a flourish of trumpets as WS concludes the dedication, edging towards his name; and when  at last he writes it, a horse farts. A magnificent marriage of complex literary technique and low-brow humor. WS would certainly approve.

Venus and Adonis is brought to the forefront because the playhouses have inevitably closed down due to the plague; as WS says to a temporarily jobless Ned Alleyn, “Richard can wait” (99). Enter Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. Introduced to WS by the rather libertine Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, “Master HW, or, putting his family first as he is told he must, Master WH” (91) immediately catches the eye of young poet with his “dark excitement”:

He was young, hardly older than the two bobbed pages who, unawed, played a game of treading on each other’s toes and giggling. Eighteen? Nineteen? He had a red pouting mouth and very white skin; his golden beard was sparse. There was something in his eyes that WS did not like — a slyness, an unwillingness to look boldly. But he was beautiful enough, there was no doubt of his beauty. (91)

Before this first meeting concludes, WS, “suddenly dilirious with an idea [as he looks]  down bashfully on this young nobleman who sprawled so carelessly, bored, pouting” (93), petitions WH to accept the dedication to him of Venus and Adonis. Florio, the young Earl’s Italian confidant and apparent bodyguard, does not object, and WH accepts. But WS’s mind has drifted from the poem into the regions of his long-suppressed, if occasionally troublesome, dark excitement:

[He] looked down bitterly on this Adonis, so languid, so satiated of all his world give. He saw himself taking him and stripping him of his silk and jewels and then beating him till he cried. I will raise great weals on thy tender delicate skin, puppy. (94)

This time, at least, the object that incites his dark excitement is of-age.

 ***

Chapter II finds WS completing Venus and Adonis, including the dedication, whose inception is described in the brilliant passage above, and discovering that WH is “altogether ravished by it” (103). Florio, young Southampton’s “gatekeeper,” as it were, is a bit more suspicious: he says to WS quite unabashedly, “I saw in your eyes that day of our first meeting what you might do” (102). So, rather than allow WS to become a short-lived toy for WH, Florio suggests something a bit more useful and socially acceptable: that the poet compose a series of verses — what will culminate in the “Fair Youth” sonnets — on the theme of marriage. “It can be made a commission,” Florio declares; “His mother would be glad to throw gold at you” (103). Marriage, the Italian feels, would protect HW from the “corruptive forces at court” who would “lay themselves on [HW’s] beauty.”

But this talk of marriage cannot exorcise homosexual thoughts from WS’s mind — for indeed, we must not forget that he, too, is married at this time. He enters the great Southampton home and finds something he did not expect: the real-life incarnation of his golden goddess’s bedchamber:

He remembered his boyhood’s vision, the gold goddess, the arms that implored. But here was no goddess; that premonition had been false. In a bed of gold that seemed to float like a ship on a carpet that was all tritons and nerids, Master WH lay on satin  cusions. (103-104).

Though this fertile period of Shakespeare’s love-life will undoubtedly yield the first of the sonnets, it will also be the period in which WS explores his sexuality and, without a doubt, designates Master WH as the end-point to this expedition.