All is Not Well

I have been writing much less frequently, for the simple reason that I find I have nothing much to say, perhaps because it’s been a busy summer filled with outdoor activities and a new puppy, or because I’ve been in reading rather than writing mode. I used to push myself to write here in order to present material, as a kind of gift, to my readers. That was before I realized that my readers are ephemeral, ghost-like entities who may or may not exist in the real world. Since that realization, I’ve not only given up on gift-giving of this sort, but also actively discouraged (if you can count de-linking this blog from Facebook as discouragement, which I do) readers from finding The Tabard Inn. I did this originally in a fit of pique, but now I believe that it was a healthy thing to do, and the sum total of this paragraph is this: if you have somehow found this blog and are reading it now, you are one of the few, the special–not to mention the exceedingly strange–people who actually read what I write. So thank you for that. I think.

Anyway, I have something to say this morning, which explains this post. Having seen an advertisement for Mona Awad’s new novel All’s Well (Simon and Schuster), I decided to read it, and even convinced a friend (thanks, Anne!) to read it as well. And now I’m moved to write about it, not because it’s good, but because I hate it.

Fair warning: the book may indeed be very good, so don’t look upon this as a bad review. After fifty-odd years of reading critically, after a career in teaching literature at the college level, after immersing myself in the world of books and reading for my entire life, I find I no longer have any confidence in my own judgments on literary works. I mean, I know that I personally think Tintern Abbey is one of the greatest pieces of writing ever written, just as I know that I personally love pretty much any book by Dickens or any Bronte (but not Anthony Trollope, who can sometimes be a huge arschloch)–but I don’t know if that constitutes great literature, or something that other people will enjoy or find value in. I seem to be entering a period of extreme intellectual solipsism, which is worrisome, yet not too worrisome considering all the crap that’s going down in the world at this point in time.

So, to continue, I hated All’s Well for several reasons. First, and most intensely, because Awad does what I have tried to do in the two novels I’ve written: identified a literary subtext and play a textual game of cat-and-mouse with it as I develop the characters, setting, and plot. For Effie Marten, it was of course Jane Eyre; for Betony Lodge, it was Far From the Madding Crowd, or perhaps The Woodlanders, or any of several Thomas Hardy novels (other than Tess of the D’Urbervilles or Jude the Obscure–I know enough to leave those two novels alone). Seeing someone else do what I’ve tried to do with uneven success sets my teeth on edge, which may not be charitable of me. To be honest, I don’t think Awad was any more successful than I was, and maybe that’s the problem.

It bothers me, too, that Awad chose a Shakespeare play (or really two, perhaps even more) as a subtext, not because Shakespeare is inviolable or holy, but because she spins her novel out of the most pedestrian, superficial reading of All’s Well That Ends Well possible. I have long held the opinion that most Shakespeare plays are monumentally misunderstood by modern audiences, a fact that is exacerbated and perhaps even caused by the fact that the plays are by and large mis-titled. The Merchant of Venice, for example, is not about the Merchant Antonio–it’s more about Shylock, or even Portia, than it is about Antonio. Is Othello about Othello or about Iago? Julius Caesar seems to focus much more on Brutus than it does on Caesar, who is killed fairly early in the play. As for the comedies, the titles are simply throwaway phrases designed to get attention.

When I used to teach Shakespeare, I would tell my students that the plays we studied could be boiled down to one word. This may or may not be true, but it is a good way to get students into reading and understanding a Shakespeare play. I’ll give a few examples below, but it’s important to realize that there is no one “right” word to describe a play. You can use this method like a tool–something like a slide rule or a kaleidoscope to lay over each play, dial up a word suggested by the play, and get to work interpreting it.

Much Ado About Nothing: Interpretation

The Merchant of Venice: Gambling

Romeo and Juliet: Obedience

Whether this method works or not isn’t the issue here. What matters to me with respect to Awad’s novel is that she picks the limpest, flimsiest interpretation of All’s Well That Ends Well possible. Granted, it is a problematic play (though I disagree with the tendency to call it a “Problem Play,” as if, like an unruly child, this label can explain everything and short-circuit any attempt to make sense of it). The whole plot, in which the heroine Helena falls in love with the idiotic but presumably handsome Bertram, who rejects her until the last line of the play, is pretty distasteful and downright stupid. But that, I would argue, is not the point of the play. Rather, I believe the play is about how Helena empowers herself in a patriarchal system, ending up in a far more powerful position by using the very tools of patriarchy to do so, while also helping other women “beat” patriarchy at its own game on the way. Granted, this limited victory is nowhere near as satisfying as it would have been had Helena smashed patriarchy to smithereens and performed a wild dance upon its writhing body parts, but that kind of action was simply not possible in the world depicted by Shakespeare. Helena, I’d argue, did the best she could in the world she found herself in.

So, to get back to Awad’s novel, my biggest problem with the novel is that it rests on a sophomoric interpretation of the play. And so, what I thought would be a witty and erudite use of All’s Well that Ends Well became a kind of albatross that made me wince while reading the book. In other words, I thought I might be getting Shakespeare ReTold (a really fine set of retellings of five plays produced by the BBC), but instead I got a mashup of Slings and Arrows plus “The Yellow Wallpaper.” It felt cobbled together, and, frankly, kind of pointless. In the end, Awad uses a kind of trick to grab her readers’ attention, then spins off into a tale that is full of sound and fury, but ultimately signifying nothing.

That, however, seems to be how I see a great deal of contemporary literature these days, full of sturm und drang but ultimately useless in my trek through life. As I said above, I don’t have the confidence or the desire to argue that my approach is the correct one–rather, I question my own judgment, wondering whether I’m the only one who feels this way. And so, rather than push my own view of this novel, I’m satsified to register my own objections to it here, acting like King Midas’s barber, who whispered that his employer had donkey ears into a hole in the ground just because he had to tell someone his grand secret.

Donkey ears? That would be A Midsummer’s Night Dream, wouldn’t it?

Six Rules for Reading (and Enjoying) Julius Caesar

I have always assumed that the best example of my argument that most people get Shakespeare plays all wrong would be Romeo and Juliet. But I have to admit I was mistaken. In fact, I think it is safe to posit that no other Shakespeare play is so maligned and misunderstood as Julius Caesar.

I think this is largely due to the way we teach the play in the United States. Of course, because we do teach the play in high school, Julius Caesar has always gotten tremendous exposure: almost everyone I’ve met has been forced to read the play during their high school career. In fact, I think it’s still on high school reading lists today. But that’s probably also exactly why it’s so misunderstood.

I’m not blaming high school teachers, because by and large they’re told to teach these plays without any adequate preparation. I suppose if anyone deserves blame, it’s the colleges that train teachers. But all blame aside, before I talk about what a great play it really is, and what a shame it is that most people summarily dismiss  Julius Caesar without ever really considering it, let’s look at why this has happened.

julius_caesarFirst of all, it goes without saying that making someone read a play is not a great way to get him or her to like it. Especially when that play is over 400 years old and written in (what seems to be) archaic language. But a still greater problem is that there is a tendency to use the play to teach Roman history, which is a serious mistake. (American high schools are not alone in this; Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for example, criticized the play for not being realistic in its portrayal of Roman politics back in the early 1800s.) In short, far too many people associate this play with a bunch of men showing a great deal of thigh or swathed in endless yards of material, flipping their togas around like an adolescent girl tosses her hair over her shoulder. It’s all too distracting, to say the least.

So, in order to set us back on the right track and get more people to read this fine play,  I’ve made a little list of rules to follow that will help my readers get the most enjoyment, emotional and intellectual, from the play.

Rule Number One: Forget about Roman history when you read this play. Forget about looking for anachronisms and mistakes on the part of Shakespeare’s use of history. Forget everything you know about tribunes, plebeians, Cicero, and the Festival of Lupercalia. The fact is, the history of the play hardly matters at all. Rather, the only thing that matters is that you know in the beginning moments that Caesar will die and that, whatever his motives and his character, Marcus Brutus will pay for his part in Caesar’s assassination with his own life and reputation.

Rule Number Two: Recognize that this is one of Shakespeare’s most suspenseful plays. Our foreknowledge of events in the play, far from making it predictable and boring, provides an element of suspense that should excite the audience. Here we can point to Alfred Hitchcock’s definition of suspense, in which he explains that it’s the fact that the audience knows there’s a bomb hidden under a table that makes the scene so fascinating to watch, that makes every sentence, every facial expression count with the audience. It’s the fact that we know Julius Caesar is going to die on the Ides of March that makes his refusal to follow the advice of the soothsayer, his wife Calpurnia, and Artemidorus so interesting. We become invested in all of his words and actions, just as our knowledge that Brutus is going to lose everything makes us become invested in him as a character as well. A good production of this play, then, would highlight the suspenseful nature within it, allowing the audience to react with an emotional response rather than mere intellectual curiosity.

Rule Number Three: Understand that this play is, like Coriolanus, highly critical of the Roman mob. Individuals from the mob may be quite witty, as in the opening scene, when a mere cobbler gets the better of one of the Roman Tribunes, but taken as a whole, the mob is easily swayed by rhetoric, highly materialistic, and downright vicious. (In one often-excluded scene–III.iii–a poet is on his way to Caesar’s funeral when he is accosted by the crowd, mistaken for one of the conspirators, and carried off to be torn to pieces.) It’s almost as if this representation of mob mentality–the Elizabethan equivalent of populism, if you will–is something that Shakespeare introduces in 1599 in Julius Caesar, only to return to it nine years later to explore in greater detail in Coriolanus.

Rule Number Four: Recognize that this play, like many of Shakespeare’s plays, is misnamed. It is not about Julius Caesar. It’s really all about Marcus Brutus, who is the tragic hero of the play. He is doomed from the outset, because (1) it is his patriotism and his love of the Roman Republic, not a desire for gain, that drives him to commit murder; (2) he becomes enamored of his own reputation and convinces himself that it is his duty to commit murder and to break the law; (3) he falls victim to this egotism and loses everything because of it. Audience members really shouldn’t give a hoot about Julius Caesar; he’s a jerk who gets pretty much what he deserves. But Brutus is a tragic hero with a tragic flaw, a character whose every step, much like Oedipus, takes him further and further into his own doom. The soliloquies Brutus speaks are similar to those in Macbeth, revealing a character that is not inherently bad but rather deficient in logic, self-awareness, and respect for others. In fact, in many ways, it’s interesting to look at Julius Caesar as a rough draft not only of Coriolanus but of Macbeth as well.

Rule Number Five: Appreciate the dark comedy in the play. Shakespeare plays with his audience from the outset, in the comic first scene between the workmen and the Roman Tribunes, but another great comedic scene is Act IV, scene iii, when Brutus and Cassius meet up before the big battle and end up in an argument that resembles nothing more than a couple of young boys squabbling, even descending into a “did not, did so” level. This scene would be hilarious if the stakes weren’t so high, and if we didn’t know that disaster was imminent.

Rule Number Six: Experience the play without preconceptions, without the baggage that undoubtedly is left over from your tenth-grade English class. Once you do this, you’ll realize that the play is timely. It explores some really pertinent questions, ones which societies have dealt with time and time again, and which we are dealing with at this very moment. For example, when is it permissible to commit a wrong in order for the greater good to benefit? (surely Immanuel Kant would have something to say about this, along with Jeremy Bentham). How secure is a republic when its citizens are poor thinkers who can be swayed by mere rhetoric and emotionalism instead of reason? What course of action should be taken when a megalomaniac takes over an entire nation, and no one has the guts to stop him through any legal or offical means?

In the end, Brutus’s tragedy is that he immolates his personal, individual self in his public and civic responsibilities. Unfortunately, it is the inability to understand this sacrifice and the conflict it creates, not the play’s historical setting in a distant and hazy past, that has made it inaccessible for generations of American high school students. Too many decades have gone by since civic responsibility has been considered an important element in our education, with the sad but inevitable result that several generations of students can no longer understand the real tragedy in this play, which is certainly not the assassination of Julius Caesar.

But perhaps this is about to change. In the last few months, we’ve been witnessing a new generation teaching themselves about civic involvement, since no one will teach it to them. And as I consider the brave civic movement begun by the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I am hopeful that from now on it’s just possible that reading Julius Caesar could become not a wasted module in an English class, but the single most important reading experience in a high-school student’s career.

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