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FROM “CASTING CALL”
(Othello)

 

The word “post-racial” gets thrown around a lot these days, but I’m not sure what it means, exactly. Whose world does it describe? Not mine, that’s for sure. Although I used to be married to an African, most of the people around me these days are “white,” the “non-whites” having been earnestly recruited for the sake of diversity. This process is insulting all around. As I was once sharply told, if white people really wanted what black people have, they’d just go where black people are. White people, meanwhile, are seething with resentment over selection procedures that get stranger and stranger. But I’m the chair of a department with exactly one black member; we have a position to fill; and I’m going to fill it with someone diverse or die trying.

The one black member is Othello, and he’s not much help. First of all, of course, relations between us have been strained since he strangled me to death with a pillow. Yes, it’s me, Desdemona, at the helm of this story, and I’m here with the other members of the cast. To put it as simply as possible, we used to be characters in a play by Shakespeare, but now we’re members of an English department in a small university in the Northeastern United States. Something similar happened to the dramatis personae of two other plays that I know of, although there may be more. Measure for Measure is a political science department in Ontario, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a philosophy department in New Delhi. But we are in a special position, because English, after all, is the discipline in which Shakespeare is studied and taught. Now, for the first time, one of us is leaving for another job; and it’s his position I’m determined to fill with a person of color or ethnicity or something.

As for Othello strangling me, that was very bad; but at the time I was quite the codependent myself. When they asked me who had done the deed, I said with my last breath, Nobody. I myself. Can you believe that? I was so in love with him then I couldn’t see straight. Nobody. I myself.

Well, I’m a different person now; at least I hope I am; and Othello definitely is. He’s still intense, but nothing makes him crazy any more. My problem with Othello these days is professional, not personal. He will not help with the affirmative action search, and since the rest of the department is either undermotivated or resentful, I really need him to lend a hand. Of course, nobody says, let’s not hire a person of color. They just put lots of energy into complaining about the procedures and very little into the recruitment process itself.

The process, as I’ve said, is awful. We scrutinize applications for signs of a candidate’s “diversity” with the color consciousness of the Ku Klux Klan. This one went to a mostly black college, that one belonged to a fraternity one member of the committee thinks is black but another one doesn’t. A third candidate is named Tam, which might mean she’s Amerasian, but it might be short for Tamara. Should we interview her or not? As chair I’m not allowed to ask candidates directly if they’re diverse; but I have to attest to the diversity of the candidate pool anyway, and God help me if I’m wrong.

 
 

FROM “PLAYING HENRY”
(Richard II, I Henry IV and II Henry IV)

 

“Oh, no!” says Clare, on learning her company’s spring schedule. “The women in those plays suck!” Her company will perform four related Shakespeare plays: the Second Henriad, as it’s called. At this point in her career Clare doesn’t want to stand on the sidelines, cheering or grieving over some man’s fortunes. She doesn’t want to be the left-behind wife in Richard II; or any of the unmemorable whores, wives, or girlfriends in Henry IV; or the silly war-prize bride in Henry V. What Clare does not know is that Terri, the guest director for the season, has decided to cast the play without respect to gender.

“You mean I could be Richard?” she says, when she learns.

“If you want,” says Iris. Clare is the acknowledged star of the company, and Iris assumes she’ll have her choice of roles. Iris does not resent Clare’s success. She herself spent years away from the theater and has only recently returned.

“But I don’t know about your Terri,” says Iris. “She has a reputation as a nut.”

“She’s not my Terri,” says Clare. “I’ve never worked with her before in my life.”

“I don’t like her,” declares Iris. “She’s didactic and flamboyant.” Once Terri came to work in a turban. Is the gender-bending thing a cheesy move or is there really something to it? In these days of all-male Swan Lakes and all-female King Lears nothing could be more routinely scandalous than gender-neutral casting; but given what’s at stake for her, Clare is disposed to approve.

Clare and Iris are having lunch with Geoff.

“Why do you want to be Richard?” says Geoff, pushing aside the remains of his kebab. “He’s a loser. And a drama queen.” After being deposed by his cousin Henry, Richard carries on and on about his plight. He is not exactly gay, but as one of Shakespeare’s early experiments in full-throated masculine emotion, he’s gender-ambiguous.

“Don’t be silly,” says Clare. She is dying to get her hands on Richard’s late, great, soaring speeches. Geoff has learned that he will play Isabella, Richard’s wife.

“Are you okay with that?” asks Iris.

“Of course!” says Geoff. “She’s the heart of the play!”

“Oh, please,” says Clare unkindly. “She’s a weepy drip.”

Geoff opens his mouth and closes it again. Iris looks warningly at Clare.

“Shall I get these out of your way?” asks a waitress, clearing a few plates.

“Thanks,” says Iris to the waitress. To her old friend she says firmly, “Clare, shut up.”

“Yeah,” says Geoff, forking a tomato. “Shut up.” Geoff is half a generation younger than Clare and Iris, but he is a talented actor, and the three are on equal terms.

Clare considers for a moment. “Okay,” she says. “I will.” Geoff shakes his head but lets it go. He wants to talk about Terri, with whom he has worked in the past.

“She talks all the time,” he says. “Sometimes right over your lines.” It’s not that Terri wants the actors to stop; she’s just exhorting them in real time, as if they were athletes instead of actors.

“She’s manic,” says Geoff. He waves his arms in imitation of Terri. “La, la, la, la, la, here’s an idea and another and another.”

“Give her a chance,” says Clare irritably. “We all agreed to invite her.” Terri is well known in theater circles as a pain in the neck, but she is currently red-hot, and the whole company would get a boost if their season were one of her hits. Clare has to admit, however, that so far the guest director has been very sure of herself and none too tactful.

“Lose the shades,” she snapped at Clare once when Clare forgot to take off her sunglasses before going on stage. Clare finds the memory unpalatable.

“Let’s go now,” she says after a pause.

“In a minute,” says Geoff, chewing a last bite of meat.

“Now,” says Clare, raising her voice. “I’m done.” Terri does not seem aware of Clare’s position in the company. She could give Richard to someone else.

 
 

FROM “AN INCARCERATION OF HAMLETS”
(Hamlet)

 

Q. In your portrayal of Hamlet, do you emphasize his endless responsiveness?

A. Sometimes. It’s complicated, man.

Q. How so?

A. First off, Hamlet not always respondin’ to shit. Sometimes he stirrin’ shit up.

Q. True.

A. Plus, he don’t need nothin’ to respond to sometimes. Sometimes he just mad.

Q. Like when?

A. First time we see him, Hamlet watchin’ his uncle make out like he King. Hamlet sittin’ there thinkin’, what the fuck? Ain’t this guy King; my father King. That point he don’t know nothin’ about Claudius killin’ his daddy. He just mad.

Q. But his father’s dead.

A. Yeah. Hamlet confused.

Q. Claudius tells him to cheer up.

A. To persever in obstinate condolement, Claudius say, is unmanly grief. That don’t cut no ice with H.

Q. Wow.

A. What?

Q. You said that really well.

A. What I say well?

Q. That line.

A. That? That’s nothin’!

Q. Obstinate condolement is something, I’d say.

A. Dude: I play Hamlet in the play. I say the whole thing.

Q. Amazing.

A. Yeah. A dick wad like me.

Q. Please!

A. No, it’s true. But you know what? I got a book in my room called Shakespeare for Dummies. I got two dictionaries; three editions of Hamlet; recordings, tapes, cd’s . . . I even got a coffee mug with Shakespeare’s face on the side. So I a dick wad, but now I a dick wad and Hamlet; both.

Q. Well, good for you!

A. (modestly) Thanks!

(Q and A both smile. Then:)

Q. The Queen wants her son to cheer up, too. Everyone loses his father, she tells him. Why seems it so particular with thee?

A. Hamlet already good and pissed at his momma.

Q. (nods) For re-marrying so fast.

A. Gertrude one horny bitch.

Q. Please.

A. Sorry.

Q. (pause) What happens next?

A. Hamlet ask Gertrude, What you mean, seems? You think I’m actin’ sad? I ain’t actin’! I real, bitch. I real.

Q. Do you have to call her a bitch?

A. Yeah.

Q. (sighs) OK.

A. I have that within which passes show.

Q. What?

A. He tell the Queen, I have that within which passes show.

Q. Which he does!

A. Yeah; but then why he have to say so?

Q. Are you implying . . .

A. I ain’t implyin’ nothin’.

Q. Then what do you mean?

A. I mean, Hamlet worry, man. He worry, I havin’ the right feelin’s for what’s goin’ down? I havin’ enough feelin’s? So when the Queen says seems, it hits a sore spot. I ain’t sayin’ he ain’t real. I just sayin’ he got issues.

Q. I see.

A. Yeah. Whole play, until the end, Hamlet worried.

Q. That’s true.

A. Gertrude don’t mean nothin’ by seems. She just want him to cheer up.

Q. Fat chance.

A. Yeah.

Q. Gertrude, now.

A. She want life to go on.

Q. “Can’t we just have Christmas?”

A. What?

Q. That’s what my friend Katie says about her.

A. Who Katie?

Q. That’s not the point. “Can’t we just have Christmas?” is how Katie characterizes Gertrude’s attitude throughout the play.

A. Yeah, man. Katie right.

Q. That’s wittier than calling her a bitch, don’t you think?

A. Gertrude one horny bitch.

 
 

FROM “ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA”
(Antony and Cleopatra)

 

IN THE BEGINNING

In the beginning Cleopatra and Antony are quarreling.

Listen to the news from Rome, urges Cleopatra, but Antony says no. The messengers from Rome shift from foot to foot.

Hear them, Antony, Cleopatra insists. This is odd, since what she really wants is for Antony to stay in Egypt, and the news from Rome may require him to leave.

Who knows, she says ironically, maybe Fulvia is angry with you.

How, my love? says Antony, frowning.

Fulvia, says Cleopatra; not kindly. You know, your wife. Or perhaps that child, Octavian has some errand he’d like you to run. Octavian Caesar is Antony’s much younger partner. Together they avenged the death of Julius Caesar and took over the world some years ago. It’s galling for Antony to share power with someone so young, but Octavian is the old Caesar’s heir, so there’s nothing to be done about it. The scarce-bearded Caesar, Cleopatra sneeringly calls him. Antony is rattled without knowing why.

Let Rome in Tiber melt! he cries to cut things off. I could care less about the news from Rome!

Really? says Cleopatra.

Really! says Antony. He sweeps an arm at the messengers. Scram! he tells them. Speak not to us!

Yes! thinks Cleopatra, mentally punching the air with her fist. The messengers bow and leave, their faces frozen into expressions of a deference they do not feel. They do not approve of Antony’s romantic sojourn in Egypt, and neither do their superiors.

Now what, sweetheart? inquires Antony, feeling lighthearted. I’m at your disposal. One thing the lovers like to do is to dress down and wander in the streets, observing the qualities of people.

Last night you did desire it, he reminds Cleopatra. I did? thinks Cleopatra. But strolling the streets will be fine. Anything’s fine that doesn’t involve the messengers from Rome.

Sounds good, she agrees.

Okay, then, says cheerful Antony. Let’s go!

So they do.

EVENING WALK

The streets of Alexandria were well worth wandering in the first century B.C.E., being crowded, colorful and varied. There were Jewish merchants, Phoenician traders, Egyptian priests and Greek courtiers. The whole town bordered the sea. Later in the play there are hints that the pleasures of Egypt may be excessive or even disgusting, involving too much eating, drinking and getting laid; but at this point they are innocence itself. I myself love an unplanned walk, preferably with someone I’m close to. Faces and gestures flick by as in a movie; I love to share impressions or keep them to myself.

“Oh, a wedding,” I said to my companion once. The city we were strolling was a mishmash of cultures, like Alexandria; the couple could have been Cuban, Puerto Rican, Guatemalan, Chilean, or some combination of which we had no idea. Palm fronds waved above the guests as they poured out of the church, blocking our route. We didn’t say out loud that this was the point of our walk, but each knew the other knew it, too.

Good luck, good luck, we mutely wished the stocky, strapless bride and her groom. Antony and Cleopatra, as everyone knows, run out of luck in the end. But this is the beginning of the story, not the end; and so far the famous couple is troubled by nothing more than a minor disagreement.

Come, my queen, says Antony, sweeping her off the stage. For the rest of the night they will be both actors and spectators in a world that is less dramatic but no less satisfying than Shakespeare’s. While his relies on marriages, murder and mayhem, theirs needs nothing more than the qualities of people to hold their attention. Exeunt, followed by their train.

Good for Antony and Cleopatra! And phooey on the news from Rome!

LEAVING EGYPT

Antony must have changed his mind, because now he is deep in conversation with the very messengers he formerly dismissed. Of course the news is bad. It seems that Fulvia, presumably enraged at Antony, has started a couple of wars, one with her husband’s brother Lucas and one with his partner. While Antony has been relaxing in Egypt, moreover, the Parthians have successfully invaded Syria and parts of Turkey, territories that should be Rome’s. It is Antony’s job to keep the Parthians in line, and he feels deeply ashamed.

These strong Egyptian fetters I must break, he mutters to himself, or lose myself in dotage.

And p.s., your wife is dead, says another messenger, arriving just behind the others.

Whaat??

It’s all here in a letter, says the messenger. She died in Sicyon. Anotny is shaken, not just by Fulvia’s death but by the sudden grief he feels on learning she is gone. His friend Enobarbus can’t grasp the news.

Sir? he says when Antony tells him.

Fulvia is dead, repeats Antony.

Fulvia? says Enobarbus incredulously.

Dead, repeats Antony. He is baffled, as he often is, by his own instability of purpose and emotion. The hand could pluck her back that shoved her on, he wonderingly says. As a Roman he should be steady under all conditions; as a man he wants a core he can call himself. Who is he if he loves and hates by turns? That question underlies the play as a whole.

Now Antony must go; but first he must tell Cleopatra. He finds her in the palace and bravely begins.

Most sweet queen, he says, but she interrupts.

Sweet queen, my ass, she says. The time for the sweet queen stuff was when you wanted to stay, not now that you want to go. Eternity was in our lips and eyes! Did you mean all that or were you just full of shit? If you’re leaving, you jerk, just bid farewell and go!

No, no, pleads Antony. Listen up. Fulvia is dead.

Cleopatra stops in her tracks.

What? she says. I don’t understand. Can Fulvia die? This is partly a genuine expression of wonder and partly a (really funny) joke on herself. Cleopatra is nothing if not entertaining; and now she rallies to entertain both Antony and us with more taunts and threats. Can she undermine his resolve, as she did earlier?

No, she can’t.

Stop now, he says strongly when he’s had enough. I’m going, and that’s it.

I see, says Cleopatra. But who can say if he’ll come back? Fulvia may be dead, but there are more women in Rome than Fulvia, and they tend to fall for handsome Antony, married or not.

Not that Rome is the only place with willing women! thinks Cleopatra. Does anybody seriously think that Antony refrains on campaigns? Not to mention the fact that he himself could die in godforsaken Parthia; or wherever he goes for the glory of Rome. Or drown on the passage home, or back; or anything. It’s scary.

Courteous lord, she pleads, suddenly sincere, one word.

What? says Antony, impatient.

Sir, you and I must part, she tries, but that’s not it. Cleopatra, the great ventriloquist of her own personality, is for once at a loss. Sir, you and I have loved . . . but that’s not it. What is it that lovers want from one another at the moment of parting? Blessings? Reassurance? Some wafer on the tongue to carry back to their uncertain lives apart?

“Take care, be good, I love you,” a famous parrot is said to have told his trainer the night before dying. “See you in the morning.” Perhaps that’s all there is to say.

Something it is I would—she tries; but then she gives up. Oh, my oblivion is a very Antony, she laments, and I am all forgotten! Here, for once, Cleopatra means what she cannot say. With an effort, she lets go.

Upon your sword sit laurel victory, and smooth success be strewed before your feet! she concludes. That is . . . since you’re going, good luck! A parrot could say that, but Antony has no taste right now for what only Cleopatra can say.

Fine, he says; I’m outta here. Away! Goodbye Egypt, goodbye Cleopatra. Antony’s mind is already in Rome.

 
 

FROM “THAT WAS THEN”
(As You Like It and I Henry IV)

 

Of course I had predicted that Orlando and I would split, but I didn’t really mean it at the time. Men are April when they woo, December when they wed, I told him during our courtship. This had the desired effect of stimulating Orlando to further protestations. Not me, he swore, believe me, I’ll love you forever. Reader, he didn’t. And now he’s gone off with Little Bo Peep.

After Orlando left I didn’t have the heart any more for the tra-la-la of comedy, but I didn’t want to, like, die, like Desdemona and Cleopatra, and so forth, so I didn’t want to be in a tragedy, either. I thought a history play might be a nice middle ground. So one day I whispered fervently, “I don’t like it anymore,” and the whole world around me, shepherds, meadows, forest and all, began to sag. I repeated, “I don’t like it anymore,” and the forest crumpled into broken lines of print, like computer-generated art. By the third time I said, “I don’t like it anymore,” I was somewhere else.

“What’s this?” I wondered, slightly dazed. I was in Henry IV, Part One, as I soon understood. Goodbye contented and discontented shepherds; hello kings and counselors, treaties and plots. People were beside themselves with anger and ambition. Once I spoke up, however, I got lots of attention, dating all three of the principal men: King Henry himself; his oldest son Hal; and the fiery would-be usurper Hotspur, scourge of the North. Henry was a nicer guy than you’d think, but he was a good twenty years older than I, and soon I left him for Hal. The King felt it keenly for a while, but then it got to be summer, and the Scottish marches were in revolt. He felt better when he’d put them down.

 
 

FROM “TIME TO TEACH JANE EYRE AGAIN
(Jane Eyre)

 

Not Jane Eyre again. Other people are moving on in life or going around in circles or failing utterly, but I’m still doing business at the same old stand. Every year a new load of students is dumped like laundry in front of me, needing to know Jane Eyre. Sometimes I take comfort in the thought that it’s not just me. All over the country, in Cleveland and Galveston and Tacoma as well as better-known places like Miami, in major universities and state teachers’ colleges, everyone does his or her share. The new cohort group is divided into thousands of groups like the one I have to face at 11:30 and everyone takes a whack. It’s a community effort, like doing the wash in an Indian village. Everyone down to the river! Sometimes I can almost hear a cheerful hum, all of us preparing together. There should be Preparing-Jane-Eyre songs, they should be played in supermarkets like Christmas music at the season of the year when Jane Eyre is normally taught. It would lessen the sense of shame. Now it is November again, the season in which I normally teach Jane Eyre. The oak tree outside my study window is full of dead leaves. That’s the way oak trees are, they hang on and hang on, sometimes right through the winter. Some years we don’t get rid of the old oak leaves until the new ones come out in May.

But if you want a description of November, don’t turn to me. Open your books to page one of Jane Eyre. Ready? Heeeeeeeeere’s-Charlotte!

Folds of scarlet drapery shut in my view to the right hand; to the left were clear panes of glass, protecting, but not separating me from the drear November day. Afar off was a pale blank of mist and cloud; near, a scene of wet lawn and storm-beat shrub, with ceaseless rain sweeping away wildly before a long and lamentable blast.

That’s great, isn’t it? I think that’s great. The problem is, what can you say about it? Mark always says, “Just say what you said last year. It’s all in your notes, isn’t it?” It is in my notes, but sometimes my notes look like this:

328 St John at Rosamund’s feet
261 Jane flooded by love
Class feeling
Feminism—longing for action
279 “I care for myself”

I suppose that meant something once, but what? And even when my notes are good it doesn’t help. Sometimes I come across whole eloquent paragraphs that work themselves up to a point, and I think, Lady, what are you hollering? It’s like watching someone on TV with the sound turned off. There’s someone at the podium waving her arms and rolling her eyes, but that’s all you know.

Mark, listen. You have to bring it up in the system. All the way up. It has to come out of core memory all the way to the skin, where it becomes hot and damp and raises the temperature of the surrounding air. This computer metaphor isn’t working out, so I’ll get to the point. Teaching is an act of assertion. You can’t just spread your legs.

And now for a little self-stimulation. I have to leave the house at eleven, I’m still in my bathrobe, it’s 10:15, and I have to feed the dog. That leaves about 50 minutes to prepare if I get started this minute, but really I’d rather be dead. Everything I know about the book swims in a stew, nothing is worth separating off from everything else and actually saying. The passages I marked in previous years are all equally important; there are too many of them and they all illustrate the same large, obvious point. I sit here feeding myself Jane Eyre like a mother whose child won’t eat. For every teaspoonful that goes in the mouth, three land on the cheek, are dropped on the tray, get caught in the hair or go into the bib. Some that go in come out again. Is anything worse than this? “Structure of the book is episodic rather than architectural,” I read in my notes. Later I read exactly the same sentence. Still later I read, The plot bumps along. Not patterned, as in Pride and Prejudice.” Okay, okay, I’ll definitely make the point about the plot. That’ll take 40 seconds. What next?

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