Thursday, June 25, 2020

This Is My Autism

Lots of people don't understand what autism IS. 

That's okay, I didn't either.

I just thought everything I went through was normal. I thought everybody was like this, that everybody experienced things the same way I did. Because when you hear "you're fine, don't be so dramatic" enough times, eventually you just figure those people are right, and you stop trusting your own perceptions of reality.

It's only been in the last year that I've started to discover that many of the ways in which I process the world are very different from the norm. 

As far as touch is concerned, I've always known that I'm very sensitive to textures and to irritation of the skin. I sunburn even with high SPF sunblock on. As I mentioned in my previous post, tags on clothing drive me bonkers, and autumn is my favorite time of year for clothing because everything is soft and I can snuggle into scarves and sweaters and soft, heavy socks. My first requirement for new clothes is texture; if they don't immediately feel soothing to the touch, I move on. I am soothed by touching soft fabrics or my cats' fur, and I often carry a worry stone in my pocket because it calms me. But bad textures or touches can set my teeth on edge; if I get the edges of my long sleeves wet when I wash my hands, those little damp spots on my wrists will drive me up a wall and distract me from whatever it is I'm supposed to be doing.

I don't have a ton of issues with smell or taste, though I do tend to prefer my food a bit blander than the average person, and if a food's texture is "off," I can't eat it. I actually like the taste of mushrooms, but can only eat them fried or this one way my mom stuffed them, because otherwise they feel slimy in my mouth and I gag. I do have a visceral reaction to that "fishy" flavor that anything but super-fresh fish tastes and smells like, though I like shrimp and scallops and stuff that comes in shells, because it doesn't get that flavor as much. But I can't typically make myself swallow food that once had fins. Sushi is right out, and the texture of eel nearly made me cough my brains out once upon a time, because I couldn't get the image and feel out of my head that I had chewed on a severed human tongue. 

I DO have major issues with sound and sight. ADHD and autism share similarities in sound processing, so some of you might recognize some of yourself in this, but with sound, everything around me just blends together in terms of importance and priority. You know how, when you're driving and trying to find a new place, or listening to directions, or looking for a parking spot, and you turn your radio down? Why do you do that? Theoretically you shouldn't need your ears to look for your destination, but the sound pulls at your attention and requires processing power in your brain. For me, it's like that all the time, except I can
never turn the world's noise down. The air conditioning kicking on is just as loud and important to my brain in terms of input as the important message you've just imparted to me; I don't WANT that to be the case, and I'm TRYING to mute everything else, but my brain doesn't have as much capability in that area as most people's.

This is why my phone is on silent all the time.  

I started a new job this week, and I wear a headset, and when I'm talking to a customer at the same time that someone requests something on the headset, they cancel each other out and I have no idea what either one said. It's like someone does a hard reset on my brain and I forget the last 10 seconds or so of what I was just doing. It's very distressing. A year ago I would have gotten cranky and upset without knowing why. Now I know why and am trying to be gentle with myself and figure out ways to accommodate this (Can I turn the volume way down and hope that others at the counter will catch a request, or that I'll hear if they ask for me by name? Are there positions in the store that allow me to work without the headset?) 

I bought my first set of noise-cancelling headphones this week, and it was an experience. Wearing them, suddenly I'm no longer aware of the dog barking three doors down, or the weed eater next door, or my next-door neighbor's A/C kicking on, or the bird chirping right near the window. I felt tension in my body ease. My shoulders came down. My breath slowed noticeably. My brow unfurrowed a little; I genuinely felt that happen. I wondered how much of the body tension I've spent so much money to tackle is due to my mechanisms for defending against all the input around me.

Sight is also weird for me. When I was young, up through my teenage years, I can remember that when I was tired, my eyes would "lock" onto something unmoving in the distance, and I really couldn't look away. When this happened, I couldn't hear anything, either. It was a weird sensation that was mildly distressing because I knew I needed to look somewhere else, do something else, but it was also relaxing, because I couldn't, and so I didn't have to process as much. Other times, especially when I was little and living at the farm, I would stare off into the distance, and when my eyes relaxed, whatever I was looking at would seem to "zoom" in close to me, like a close-in movie shot. I've since learned that this is a trait of something called "Alice in Wonderland Syndrome," which is a real thing and linked to autism and migraines, which I've suffered from my whole life! 

Besides the visual distortions, Alice in Wonderland Syndrome and autism can also manifest in terms of your body feeling or looking larger or smaller or yourself or objects being in strange spaces in space. I bump into things. A lot. When I was younger I was told that I just needed to slow down and pay more attention to where I was going, but that doesn't work when your brain tells you the chair is THERE, when it's actually two inches to the right. That's something that neurotypical people really don't understand. "Just look and see where the chair is!" Well, theoretically, yeah. But the chair is in a different spot in my brain than in real life, and now I'm bruised.

Speaking of seeing things differently, things move in my vision, particularly if I'm relaxed. Spots on a wall will shift slowly or double. Stripes wiggle. Ceiling fan blades move, even though they are still. Lights stick around after their source moves, like when you're in a dark room and someone suddenly turns on a light and then turns it off again, and the image of the room is imprinted on your eyes for a minute, except very faintly and all the time unless I work hard at ignoring it. Still light also moves even when it shouldn't, crawling towards and away from its source like a slow candle flame. Colors jump out at me, so it's important that things "go together." I can make it go away, make everything be still and quiet. But it takes effort and attention that I never knew I was using until a pandemic made it so I didn't have to.

This video is a pretty good metaphor. If you find it intense, well, 98.3% of you are neurotypical. The only thing about this video that feels abnormal or bothersome to me is the breathing, because my empathy for someone in that much distress goes haywire. And I don't meltdown or shutdown to the extent that my vision goes dark around the edges very often at all, because I remove myself from situations before it gets to that point. But otherwise, yeah, that's pretty close to what living is like for me, especially sound-wise, unless I work really, REALLY hard ALL the time to tune it all out. And that takes energy, lots and lots of energy, energy that I have burned and burned and burned until my reserves are completely gone. 

And like I said, I had no idea this wasn't normal. No idea at all. Because I was told so many times to stop making a big deal about things that wouldn't bother a neurotypical person. 

Image of little girl covering face with her hands. Text says "She will mask the impact of sensory and social demands until she can't.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Happy Autistic Pride Day!

So, uh…Happy Autistic Pride Day, y’all.

I’ve been holding on to this one for a while, because it just wasn’t the right time to share it, what with the spotlight needing to be on some other folks for a while. 

I’ve shared this with a small group of people, but it’s time for the larger world to know.

I am autistic. 

I had suspected it for a couple of years, and then this spring I finally found the wherewithal to start searching for answers, and my 39th birthday present was indeed a diagnosis of autism by my therapist. 

I get that I probably don’t look or seem like your impression of autism, especially if you don’t know any other autistic folks. So I’m going to try to tackle just the top FAQ’s or misconceptions/questions/protestations I can here:

1. “But you don’t seem autistic! Autistic people are (insert stereotype here)!”

Actually, autism is a spectrum condition, which means that it presents in a variety of methods which affect each autistic person in a different way. For decades, it was thought that autistic people also always had intellectual disabilities or problems with communication, but we have known for a couple of decades now that that is simply false - in fact, the majority of autistic folks have average or above-average intelligence, though communication styles may differ, as autism does affect some folks’ ability to speak, particularly in times of stress. That doesn’t mean they are not intelligent or capable of understanding, though. For more on what the autism diagnosis covers, check out this video

In fact, autistic people are all around you - current estimates are that 1 in every 59 people is autistic, or 1.6% of the population, and that number is probably low due to the difficult in women and girls securing a diagnosis. 

2. “But you just seem normal!”

This one has a two-part answer. 

First of all, you need to understand something called “masking.” This is when autistic folks, more often women and girls than those who are male, cover up and hide their autistic traits in order to fit in with society’s expectations. This is often subconscious, but can also be semi-conscious when an autistic person knows that they feel “different” and struggle to fit in, but don’t understand why. Often autistic people who mask hide or change their stimming, natural facial expressions, body language, and conversational tactics to appear socially acceptable. Some autistic people struggle more with this than others; I learned socialization very well because I was hyperlexic as a child and constantly read fiction, which is proven to improve empathy and recognition of others’ emotional states as well as reading facial expressions and body language. In short, I am very good at appearing “normal,” but I didn’t learn this the way neurotypical people do - I had to actively study it, though I didn’t understand I was doing it until much later in life.

Second, LOLOLOLOL, I am NOT normal. (I mean, if you’re here, you know that already, but still.) I absolutely have challenges that you can’t see, and that greatly affect my life. More on this under the section about functioning labels (next section, #3). 

3. “So are you Asperger’s or high functioning or something?”

Nope. Because there is no such thing.

Asperger’s Syndrome is an old diagnosis that was thrown out in 2013 and replaced with the generalized “autism spectrum disorder” in the DSM-V. Partly this is because Asperger was a Nazi, but this is largely because functioning labels are not only harmful, but false.

The idea of functioning labels is primarily based on how my autism affects those around me. Someone who is considered “low functioning” is considered someone who needs tangible help and support from those around them, while those who are considered “high functioning” are those who seem independent of those supports. But the problem is that I don’t LOOK like I need support, but I absolutely do. I’ll get to this in a minute (#6, Burnout.)  Just because someone’s condition isn’t affecting YOU doesn’t mean it’s not affecting THEM. And just because someone’s condition means they need visible support does not mean that they aren’t an intelligent adult who is capable of advocating for themselves. Many people infantilize those who are considered “low functioning,” assuming that they are child-like, which denies them agency and opportunity.

4. “So what makes you autistic, then? Aren’t we all just a little bit autistic?”

This misconception often comes from the concept of autism as a spectrum, where people think of it like a color spectrum that travels from pale to dark, less to more. But that’s not it at all. It’s more like a color wheel, or like the image below. In it, you can see a variety of traits that an autistic person might struggle with (though this illustration definitely does not cover them all.) Being autistic means that you have several of these traits, to an extent that it affects your life in some large way. 

For me, I struggle with sensory issues. I am extremely sound sensitive and bothered by noise. I nearly went mad for the first month of quarantine, when every neighbor I had was outside every day, mowing and weed eating and leaf blowing and chainsawing. I actually wore earplugs around my own house, inside, for several hours a day sometimes. I wear earplugs every night when I sleep. I cannot sleep unless it is pitch black, semi-cold, with super heavy blankets (god bless the weighted blanket trend,) and there is no air blowing on my face. I can wake myself up just by breathing on my own arm. 

I have sensory processing issues as well. I can’t understand what someone is saying when there is background noise at all (yes, this is an ADHD thing as well.) Many of you have told me things in crowded spaces, and I have asked “what?” three times, until I am embarrassed and just nod along to make it seem like I wasn’t completely lost, and most of you probably never noticed. 

I can’t stand tags in my clothes and immediately cut them out, and when I was a little girl, I cried when my mother brushed my hair. 

I also have terrible proprioception, which is basically knowing where your body is located in the world. I can dance, because I practice those movements ahead of time. But I bump into walls and doorways and furniture every single day and am hopeless at sports. I can’t ride a bicycle. I have no idea at all what the appropriate amount of distance is supposed to be between me and another person when we are socializing.

I struggle with interoception - I never know when my body is hungry or thirsty or if I need to use the bathroom or if I’m tired until it’s so bad that it overwhelms me. I have to set reminders in my phone to do many of these things. 

The grocery store is a nightmare for me with all its fluorescent lights and noise and visual clutter and things that have to be remembered. I’m grateful every day for Kroger ClickList. 

I can’t lie. Can’t. I also can’t tell when someone else is lying unless it follows a pattern.

Oh, yeah - I’m a MASTER at pattern recognition. That’s the trait that’s gotten me as far as I have gotten. If it repeats, I’ll learn it. Especially history or human behavior. 

I don’t make eye contact nearly as often as you think I do - I look at the spot between your brows. And if you MAKE me make eye contact while we talk, I’ll be so focused on that intensity and making sure I’m appropriately responding that I will have no real idea what it is you are saying. I’m a great listener if you let me look at the floor or a wall and especially if you let me stim by picking at something.

I lined up my toys as a child and now I compulsively line up my books on their shelves, which soothes me. 

My executive function is crap, but I’m hopefully getting a handle on that thanks to some ADHD meds. It’s early yet, but cross your fingers. But for most tasks, the time I spend on transitioning between things takes more time than the task itself.

Oh, yeah - if you interrupt me in a task, or request that I switch gears before I’m finished with something, even though you’ll probably never know, I’ll be incredibly distressed and most likely rage-filled. But I’ll never show how close I am to bursting into tears, because that’s not “normal.”

5. “Don’t autistic people lack empathy?”

Last one for now - this is a hard NO. This is absolutely a myth, and probably somewhat created by the whole “lack of eye contact” thing combined with how autistic folks show compassion in different ways than neurotypical folks. But in truth, autistic folks are often shown to have much, much greater empathy than the average population - in fact, we can be so empathetic that it can be debilitating.

This is the case for me - I’ve never been able to let go of a stuffed animal because I knew that no other person would ever understand the life and personality that exists inside that cotton batting. I anthropomorphize inanimate objects and feel so hurt when anyone calls an object “stupid” - it’s not the object’s fault, it’s trying.

It’s also why so many autistic folks, myself included, have such a strong and unyielding sense of justice. We relate to and understand marginalized and oppressed folks, and our analytical powers allow us to penetrate to how injustice makes those people feel, and we fight with everything in us to end that injustice. We also hyperfocus on things, and for many of us, social justice becomes a special interest in which we devote much of our time and attention as we try to create a world that is better for all of us.

6. Autistic Burnout - “But you did X for so long - how were you able to do it if all these things bothered you so much?”

Well, I didn’t KNOW I was autistic, and the world kind of demanded it of me, so I just did it, anyway. And I thought it was this hard for everybody, because I heard a lot of people telling me I just needed “grit” or some other synonym for “just do the thing and stop asking questions.” And I actually chose an occupation for a long time that in many ways fit with my autism. In education, there is a strict daily routine, and I didn’t have to adjust to change very much, which is incredibly difficult for me. School and academia is where I had always thrived, so I stuck with it. And there is some benefit in being able to notice every conversation in a room with teenagers; I could hone in on the “hot spots” in a room pretty quickly. Unfortunately, it also completely drained me over time, and created something that is gaining increasing attention in psychology circles: autistic burnout.

Autistic burnout is when an autistic person has masked their autism or sought to function so long in an environment unsuitable for them that their brain just gets overloaded and kind of…fries. It’s often initiated by some sort of trauma, but not always (hey, 2018.) This is where I am now. I’m struggling to complete tasks that a year ago I tackled with…not ease, it was never easy, but at least without much delay. I nap a lot. I’m exhausted to the bone, and everything makes me cry. (Seriously, even TV commercials, it’s ridiculous.) There’s no known cure for burnout, but rest is supposed to help. Except we live in a society where I can only survive and pay my mortgage if I am productive, so there is no rest, only pivoting to something different. I am currently trying to build a life that will allow me to work from home next year. We’ll see.

So there it is. If you’re still here and still reading, thanks. It means more than you know. If you have questions, ask’em. I plan on writing a lot about this, and lots of stuff is in the works, so if you’re interested, keep an eye out.

Happy Autistic Pride Day!

Friday, May 8, 2020

"When most unseen, then most doth tyrannize" (On "The Rape of Lucrece")

Shakespeare's "The Rape of Lucrece" is based on a pre-Christian Roman legend from Livy, later romanticized in poetry form by Ovid in 8 AD. Shakespeare sticks to the basics of the story: Roman general Collatine brags about his wife's fidelity and beauty, leading the other Roman generals to check in on their own wives, of which Lucretia/Lucrece is the only wife worthy of such praise. Unfortunately, this exposure of her worth causes the son of the king, Tarquin, to fall madly in lust with her, and plot her rape.

Tarquin steals into her bedchamber at night, and wakes her, threatening her with a choice: she can submit to his sexual advances willingly, or he will kill her and place her body in an embrace with that of a dead slave, allowing him to claim that he caught them in the carnal act and slew them, thence destroying both her own and her husband's honor forever.

She begs him not to throw away a lifetime of honor and glory for a few moments of pleasure, but Tarquin is unmoved. He blames Collatine for showing him Lucrece and not protecting her well enough, and blames Lucrece for being just so darn pretty. In Shakespeare's version, he then stuffs some sheets in her mouth and goes to work.

Second-wave feminist Germaine Greer describes the act thusly: "Rape has no duration and no narrative content. It is a catastrophe, and as such can only function as the end of one story and the beginning of another. Of itself it can have no motivation and no psychology. That does not mean some playwright or other has not written a spectacle of prolonged sexual assault, in which characters are repeatedly raped and sodomised. But it could hardly be done in a way that would make such criminal behaviour explicable. To assist at such a spectacle would be at least as degrading as - and no more informative than - watching a dogfight. Evil is chaos. To render it in any other way, as if it had some kind of internal logic, would be to deny its essential character. Rape cannot make sense but narratives must." (The Guardian, 2001.) 

By now, with years of "Game of Thrones" behind us, surely we are immured to the thought of a woman's rape as being necessary for plot advancement, rather than the plot itself. But my heart still aches when Lucrece's response to Tarquin's ravishment is not despair for the hurt placed upon her, but for how Tarquin's act has despoiled her, as a possession and holder of her husband's honor. A few dozen stanzas explore her grief, compared to that of Hecuba of Troy, not in her own pain and fear and trauma, but in how the rape will ruin Collatine's position. She plans her own suicide in an effort to spare him the knowledge.

Yes. She (and the silent audience reading along with her) believe in some way that death is the only option for dealing with a body and soul soiled by the ravishment of another. She's compared, stanza after stanza, to a castle that has been invaded, and is therefore polluted. She cannot be saved; she must therefore be destroyed.

She finally decides on another course of action, and in Shakespeare, as in Livy and Ovid, she tells her husband and father of Tarquin's rape immediately before killing herself with a dagger. In Shakespeare, as proof of her now-polluted nature, the blood that spills out from her breast is both red and black, the black evidence of how Tarquin was able to spoil her at an inner, body and soul level.

The end is triumphant - Lucrece's death leads to the Roman men banding together to drive out the evil kings of Tarquin and founding the first Republic (but not before first, fighting over who has more right to own the grief over Lucrece's death.) Hurray for Roman Republicanism! Down with tyranny!

Not finished with Lucrece's poor body yet, though, the Romans first parade her through the streets as a bizarre anti-monarchic propaganda. Only in death could she escape her despoilment and be honored again.

The problem is, art is not only descriptive, it is prescriptive. Shakespeare has been one of our most prolific, most taught artists for hundreds of years now. Yes, there is a positive message about driving out tyrannical kings here, but what other messages are underneath? Of course, in the English Renaissance, there were ideas about a woman's honor, and who it belonged to, and "purity" and how a man isn't to blame for his own lust, it's the woman's fault for being so beautiful that he can't help himself. Those ideas existed then, for sure. But when a piece like this is read, and taught, uncritically, and the rape becomes just part of the narrative, a plot piece to drive forward another message and not examined for itself...what other messages are we reinforcing in our own worlds?

When we talk about "rape culture," this is what we are talking about. Not a world in which people rape each other as a matter of culture, but a world in which our culture excuses rape, and finds excuses for it - he couldn't help himself, he's just a man, she should have been more protected, she should have hidden her beauty, she is defiled now that another man who isn't her husband has protected her. And being aware and critical of these things doesn't mean censoring them - I'm still here, still reading Shakespeare, still loving his work (and eventually, when we get to "Measure for Measure," we'll see him start to question these assumptions more and more.) But it DOES mean looking with a critical eye and noticing how these monoliths of our culture contribute to the ideals of today.

Art installation by Suzanne Lacy, Three Weeks in May (1977)
Old Dominion University (ODU) in Virginia, 2015.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Words, words, words! (On "Hamlet")

What could I possibly say about "Hamlet" that hasn't been said before? It's likely the most discussed, most studied play in history. There are some really interesting theories out there, my favorite being that Gertrude actually killed Ophelia, or that Claudius isn't really a bad guy, and that old King Hamlet was a pretty crappy husband, as Patrick Stewart's version of Claudius seems to predict. 

After all, if old King Hamlet was such a paragon of virtue, why is his spirit in hell? The ghost claims that he is trapped there due to dying without last rites (murder will do that to a person,) but if he lived such a sinless life as everyone else in the play claims, why is his spirit shipped straight to damnation? And would a virtuous spirit encourage his son to commit murder, which would lead to the very same fate for that son?

This, of course, is part of Hamlet's procrastination in the pursuit of revenge for his father - how can he be sure that the ghost he has seen is truly that of his father, and not some devil come to tempt him to sin? The play-within-a-play, "The Mouse-Trap," is set to catch Claudius out in his reaction, and that serves as proof enough for Hamlet, but is it truly proof?

We, as the audience, learn via a monologue in prayer that Claudius did indeed murder his brother, but the monologue itself is curious. It's repentant - he writhes in fear and agony over his past actions, but like Marlowe's Faustus, denies himself God's grace because he refuses to deny himself the rewards of those actions. He does not believe he can be forgiven, because he refuses to give up the crown and queen he has gained from the murder. But he does feel remorse, a feeling that Hamlet does not possess after the killing of Polonius, and then of course after Polonius's murder, Claudius dispatches Hamlet to England, to be murdered as well, which in turn leads to the murders of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

In the end, everyone who dies in the play dies without last rites, and Ophelia is even refused proper burial due to her suicide. But last rites as a passage to heaven is a curiously Catholic idea for a Protestant nation under Queen Elizabeth I. Of course, the people of Elizabeth's England had undergone several iterations of Christianity within their own lifetimes by the time "Hamlet" was written, so it's entirely possible that this confusion - "how do we know what lies on the other side of death, or the proper road to get there?" was one well lodged within the hearts and minds of the English.

There is evidence to suggest that Shakespeare's father was a private, hidden Catholic, and that he might have been an alcoholic, and that he died right around the time "Hamlet" was written. Scholars suggest that Hamlet's description of how love of ale leads to a man's downfall in Act I.iv. may have been inspired by John Shakespeare:
"So, oft it chances in particular men,
That for some vicious mole of nature in them,
As, in their birth--wherein they are not guilty,
Since nature cannot choose his origin--
By the o'ergrowth of some complexion,
Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason,
Or by some habit that too much o'er-leavens
The form of plausive manners, that these men,
Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,
Being nature's livery, or fortune's star,--
Their virtues else--be they as pure as grace,
As infinite as man may undergo--
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault: the dram of ale
Doth all the noble substance of a doubt
To his own scandal."
Was "Hamlet" inspired by Shakespeare's musings on death, religion, the afterlife, and his father? Critics of course remark on the main character's name, and its similarity to Shakespeare's son, Hamnet, who died in 1596, at least four years before "Hamlet" was written and performed. But the death of Shakespeare's father would have been much more recent, and much closer to the themes of the play. Did Shakespeare worry about his own father's fate after death? Clearly, he was coming to grips with how death affected the body - the jesting with Yorick's skull is proof of that. But what of the soul?

Perhaps this brings us to the play's end, where Hamlet begs his friend Horatio to tell his story. Memento mori were popular items at the time, symbols of death to remind wearers of their mortality, often in the shape of rings or found in sculpture or paintings. One of the earliest textual memento mori is a 13th century Icelandic poem, the Hávamál, supposedly written by Odin, goes as follows:
Deyr fé,                                 Animals die,
deyja frændur,                      friends die,
deyr sjálfur ið sama;             and thyself, too, shall die;
ek veit einn at aldri deyr,      but one thing I know that never dies
dómr um dauðan hvern.       the tales of the one who died.

People die, and what happens after their death is unknown. But the stories of their lives live forever. Something worth remembering.

Edinburgh. St. Cuthbert's Churchyard. Grave of James Bailie (died 1746). 
Tomb of Pope Alexander VII, St. Peter's Basilica, Rome, Bernini, 1678.
St Nicholas' Church in the village of Ash, in the Dover District of Kent, England,
sometime between mid-17th century and mid-18th century.
Mourning ring dating to 1727, inscribed in the inside with "Mary Normandy ob 9 Jan 1727 cet 55."
The ring features a skeleton, crossed shovel and pick, and an hourglass.
It also includes a book with the words "MEMENTO MORI X" written on it.  
Sign for shop outside of Haunted Mansion attraction, Walt Disney World, FL.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

"Thus he that overruled I overswayed..." (On "Venus and Adonis")


Where do I start?

"Venus and Adonis" is a VERY pretty poem. So pretty, in fact, that it was the most popular of all of Shakespeare's works during his actual lifetime.

I mean, it's about the goddess of love and the most beautiful boy in the world. How could it not be?

Well, it's sort of about them.

Maybe I'll start there. A history lesson. Okay.

First up, the poem was written while the theatres were shut down due to plague, coincidentally. Shakespeare had to turn to another way of making money.

So you know all of those theories out there about Shakespeare being gay? This poem is a central piece to them. "Venus and Adonis" is dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton, who would have been about 18 years old at the time. It is thought that Southampton is also the youth featured in Shakespeare's sonnets, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

See, Southampton was a young noble sort-of orphan (he had a mother, but was a ward of the state due to his father's death,) whose fortune was tied up in an interesting dilemma: in order to receive his fortune, he had to marry by age 21, or else be fined a HUGE sum of money, something like five thousand pounds, basically enough to significantly damage his prospects forever.

But he REFUSED. Said it wasn't the woman they put forward to him, it was the concept of marriage altogether. And the result could ruin some of his family, so they pressed the issue, and he refused even more sternly.

Enter Shakespeare.

Somewhere around Southampton's 18th year, it is thought that someone hired the playwright (who would have been 28 by this point,) to write a poem to Southampton in order to attempt to convince him to marry. And it might have worked, had not Shakespeare seemingly fallen in love with the object of his inspiration and possibly put forth his own suit instead.

Which brings us to the poem. Here's the dedication. Some say it's not out of character for works of this time in its flowery nature; others say that in its singular uncertainty about the reception of the poem, it stands out for its honesty.
Vilia miretur vulgus; mihi flavus Apollo
Pocula Castalia plena ministret aqua.* 
To the Right Honourable Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, and Baron of Titchfield. 
Right Honourable, 
I know not how I shall offend in dedicating my unpolished lines to your Lordship, nor how the world will censure me for choosing so strong a prop to support so weak a burden, only if your Honour seem but pleased, I account myself highly praised, and vow to take advantage of all idle hours, till I have honoured you with some graver labour. But if the first heir of my invention prove deformed, I shall be sorry it had so noble a godfather: and never after ear [plough] so barren a land, for fear it yield me still so bad a harvest. I leave it to your Honourable survey, and your Honour to your heart’s content, which I wish may always answer your own wish, and the world’s hopeful expectation. 
Your Honour’s in all duty,
William Shakespeare.
And now to the poem. "Venus and Adonis" is worthy of a read on its own; it's not long (199 6-line stanzas,) so I'll spare you a detailed explication. What you need to know is that Venus, the goddess of love, plays the role of pursuer of Adonis, most beautiful boy in the world, who staunchly refuses her embrace, because he has better things to do, like...go hunt. The first half of the poem is highly erotically charged as Venus attempts everything in her power to seduce him, while Adonis remains pouty and uninterested:
"[He] blushed and pouted in a dull disdain,
With leaden appetite, unapt to toy—
She red and hot as coals of glowing fire,
He red for shame but frosty in desire." (33-36)
What's of particular interest here is the reversal of gender roles - Venus the hot-blooded pursuer who plucks Adonis off his horse and carries him under his arm, while Adonis blushes and wilts under her ardor. She begs him for kisses and he refuses, turning away, until night finally descends, and he grants her one kiss, which she then turns into a passionate riot of kisses, until he complains that she has taken advantage of him. 

So what does this have to do with Shakespeare and Southampton? In parts, the poem is a plea for Adonis, in his beauty, to couple with Venus in order to breed more like him, to duplicate his beauty so that it may not disappear with his death:
"Things growing to themselves are growth’s abuse;
Seeds spring from seeds, and beauty breedeth beauty;
Thou wast begot; to get, it is thy duty. 
'Upon the earth’s increase why shouldst thou feed,
Unless the earth with thy increase be fed?
By law of nature thou art bound to breed,
That thine may live when thou thyself art dead;
And so in spite of death thou dost survive,
In that thy likeness still is left alive.'" (166-174)
Here, then, is what Shakespeare's patrons paid him to do: beg Southampton to marry, to breed, to have children, and pass his estate along after his death.

For die Adonis does, and brutally (and erotically.) Venus fears the boar, and with good measure: the next morning, Adonis is gored to death in the groin (*AHEM*) and Venus admits that if she had been the boar, she would have done the same in her attempts to kiss him there (*DOUBLE AHEM*)

Do we know for sure that Shakespeare and Southampton were lovers, or even shared a special relationship beyond the norm? No, we can't know that. Beyond the mists of time, Shakespeare himself was an intently private man, and left no private correspondence behind for us to peruse, unlike many of his contemporaries. But his first round of sonnets, written around this same time, also feature his passionate love for a golden young man.**

Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, age 21, 1594.
By the incomparable Nicholas Hilliard.
*“Let the common man admire trash or vile things; may golden Apollo serve me full cups of Castalian waters.

**History lesson and the beauty of the poem aside, it is yet another example of a toxic trope, where the message is "just wear a woman down long enough, and she'll eventually cave in to your sexual advances." Remember that Shakespeare's works are both descriptive of their time and prescriptive for the times that come after them. In their popularity, they offer a model for how love "should" be. But we live in a time where we can question this, and the poem, as glittering as it is, left me a bit queasy with Venus's persistence in the light of rejection. No means no.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

"A woeful pageant have we here beheld." (On "Richard II")

I read "Richard II" in college, but to be honest, I didn't remember a thing about it, even once I re-read my notes in the margins. I'm glad that was the case, because it felt like coming into this play as a blank canvas for me, which was pretty perfect, because I darn well loved it.

There's a metaphor in the play that sums up the plot pretty succinctly: Richard describes how the kingship is like two buckets in a well; as one rises, the other falls, and the play mirrors that device. But it's not just Bolingbroke's kingship that rises: as he ascends, so does our respect for Richard.
"Give me the crown. Here, cousin, seize the crown;
Here cousin:
On this side my hand, and on that side yours.
Now is this golden crown like a deep well
That owes two buckets, filling one another,
The emptier ever dancing in the air,
The other down, unseen and full of water:
That bucket down and full of tears am I,
Drinking my griefs, whilst you mount up on high." (IV.i.)
Reading the plays in as close to a chronological order as we can figure, it's possible to watch as Shakespeare's playwriting skills develop. In "Richard II," there is a vast leap forward in the portrayal of what feels like real humanity in the plays. The intro in my Riverside Shakespeare describes how the previous plays' characters are not really developed people in their own right, but still somewhat allegorical, and I was prepared to argue that point until after I'd read "Richard II."

At the start of the play, Richard is the typical ineffectual king bent on personal pleasure and obeisances from his court. Out of jealousy and pettiness, however, he makes a fatal mistake: upon the death of his uncle, John of Gaunt, Richard seizes John's assets and thereby the inheritance of his first cousin, Henry Bolingbroke.

But here is the great paradox of the piece: Richard's kingship is based on divine right, and the belief that God has placed him and the nobility in their positions, that "Not all the water in the rough rude sea / Can wash the balm off from an anointed king" (III.ii.) But if the nobility and monarchy are granted their positions by God, then how can Richard remove the inheritance of Bolingbroke? How omnipotent is the king? Can he upend God's order? And if he can, then why can't another man?

In the end, much like Anne Boleyn seals her own fate by upending queenship and marriage laws just a little over 100 years later, Richard's downfall is caused by his own hand. In denying Bolingbroke's divine right, he denies his own sacred right to kingship, and Bolingbroke takes first his land and then his crown, and then his life.

Which brings me to Richard's humanity. As his kingship, and the royal rights and privileges afford to him by it, slip away from him, his human side comes more and more to the front. The scene in which he hands his crown - literally - to Bolingbroke brought me quite truthfully to tears, sitting at my dinner table, trying to keep the big, fat, wet drops from gumming up my precious Riverside.

The scene is, at its core, about the loss of identity. Richard was born to be king, and his kingship has taken up his entire self. Without it, who is he? When Northumberland addresses him as "My lord - ," Richard interrupts him:
"No lord of thine, thou haught insulting man,
Nor no man's lord; I have no name, no title,
No, not that name was given me at the font,
But 'tis usurp'd: alack the heavy day,
That I have worn so many winters out,
And know not now what name to call myself!" (IV.i.)
He has lost his very self, and next calls for a mirror to check to see if he is indeed still himself, and not completely altered on the outside, as he feels himself to be on the inside. When he sees his outward face to be the same as it ever was, he smashes the mirror. And when Bolingbroke disdains to minimize his grief, claiming it is only a shadow, Richard speaks with the kind of sarcasm and bite we all might wish for when someone gaslights us:
"The shadow of my sorrow! Ha! Let's see:
'Tis very true, my grief lies all within;
And these external manners of laments
Are merely shadows to the unseen grief
That swells with silence in the tortured soul;
There lies the substance: and I thank thee, king,
For thy great bounty, that not only givest
Me cause to wail but teachest me the way
How to lament the cause." (IV.i.)
Richard's lament in IV.i. is the cry of a man whose entire identity has been wiped away - is he the shadow himself now? Who are we, when all of the structures that have held us up are stripped away? Without his kingship, is Richard no one? Without the identities we have built for ourselves, are we still... someone? What if all of the things we have believed in - the divine right of kings, the honesty or power of our leadership, faith in an institution - is stripped away? How do we find meaning without it?

I don't have answers. But Shakespeare's depiction of a man grieving his identity and previous life brought me to tears in a way none of his other plays had yet done, just with the power of the words on the page. I know what it's like to struggle to find your identity after much of it is swept away, so perhaps that explains my reaction. Regardless, if you haven't yet read "Richard II" or seen a production, do so, when you can. It's a gem.

Robert Sean Leonard in the title role, San Diego’s Old Globe, July 2017.

Friday, April 10, 2020

"Mad world! Mad kings! Mad composition!" (On "King John")

So, "King John!"

What an odd little play.

First up, we'll need to address how John was held in the imagination of the Elizabethan era, which is somewhat different from how we view him today. Thanks to Scott's Ivanhoe and Disney's thumb-sucking, scrawny lion whose stolen crown doesn't fit on his head, we picture John as a whiny and ineffectual regent for Richard the Lionheart, who was all things bold and courageous and who came home to support the hero Robin Hood.

Not so - there's no connection with John and Robin Hood until the literature of the 19th century, and Richard I was, frankly, a terrible king. He would have sold his own liver for a chance at a battle, any battle, and certainly would have auctioned off anyone else's. He butchered his own people in France (remember he was king of both England AND half of what we now know as France,) and he spent most of his reign leaving the administration of his affairs to others, among them his little brother John.

It's hard to say why Richard was viewed, even in Shakespeare's time, with such adoration. But John wasn't hated nearly as much, except by many of the nobility, who resented his taxation and his attempt at curtailing their powers (hence the Magna Carta, which is completely ignored in the play.) And yet John is certainly viewed with distaste, as a man who can't quite come out and say what he means. He can't bring himself to tell Hubert directly to murder young Arthur, his brother Geffrey's son and a threat to his crown, so he hints around it, later berating Hubert for taking his hints when Arthur's death is taken so ill by his nobles that they abandon him. And he promises much advancement to the Bastard Faulconbridge, though never in concrete terms, which prove illusory by the end of the play.

Corey Jones in the title role at the 2013 Utah Shakespeare Festival.
And yet the nobles love him, and grieve his wasting death at the end of the play. They acknowledge his nobility and right to kingship in view of the threat from France, but it turns out to be the church's intervention that saves John, not his own strength.

John was the youngest of four brothers to survive to adulthood, and was unlikely to ever become king, except he was born into the most warlike family known to man. His mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, was married to two kings, and makes an appearance as a sly, manipulative, yet powerful granddam in Shakespeare's play. His father was known for his temper tantrums and refusal to bow to the power of the church, ending in the murder of Thomas a Becket at the altar of Canterbury Cathedral.

A 1597 portrait of King John by an unknown artist.
While the portrait was completed many years after John's
death, it shows how an artist in Shakespeare's era would
have pictured him.

The truth is, the more that you read about medieval monarchies, the more you realize that the myth of primogeniture is just that - a myth. It was rare for more than two or three generations to remain stable on the throne based on inheritance of the eldest son. So what do you do? You marry your daughter to another prince of a nearby territory and hope their oldest son, your grandchild, will inherit both.

And this is where we end up early on in "King John" - England's king makes a deal with France's to combine their forces against Arthur's, using marriage between their youth to strike a deal. But the deal itself is not just against Arthur - both kings are thwarted in their attempts to enter the city of Angiers, which is barred against all comers and refuses to open to any but the true king.

But who is the true king? Both King John and King Philip of France claim it for themselves. When asked "Speak, citizens, for England; who's your king?" the citizens reply with "The king of England; when we know the king." When both kings try to claim the crown, the reply from the citizenry is:
"A greater power then we denies all this;
And till it be undoubted, we do lock
Our former scruple in our strong-barr'd gates;
King'd of our fears, until our fears, resolved,
Be by some certain king purged and deposed." (II.i.)
The citizens await the decision to be made before they will open their gates. They have the ability to add their power to one claim or another, and thereby strengthen that claim, but abstain instead. They want certainty, to only open their gates to whoever God (and brute force) claims as king. But by abdicating responsibility, they leave themselves open to the whims of fate. Who is to say that the winning king will be a good one? Could they not have assured the victory of a better king by getting involved? And yet they seem stymied by the choice, unable to decide, and so refuse to engage at all. 

Tim Sailer plays the title character in Texas Shakespeare Festival’s “King John," 2018.
Eventually, the citizenry are the ones who make the suggestion for the two kings to join their forces by marriage of the next generation (Blanche and Lewis.) They solve the problem through negotiation rather than force. And this seems to be the new paradigm - war by commerce and parley rather than sword and cannon. The Bastard in particular seems disgusted by the realpolitik of it all, but he is the illegitimate son of the Lionheart, after all, so battle is in his blood. 

From the balcony, the play seems to be about indecision and uncertainty, and what happens when no strong, legitimate hand emerges to rule. In that case, do we sit back and wait to see who is victorious, as do the citizens of Angiers? Or are we right to try to find new answers when the old ways no longer serve us?