‘I talk but idly, and you laugh at me.’ —Shakespeare’s Richard II (III.iii.171)
In the morning, a scene as common as dreaming yourself naked in a public square, only less anxious-making and, like nudity for some, about liberation. If only I’d slept longer. I’m teaching my students the medieval politics of the The King’s Two Bodies. Richard the Second to serve as our model. One of his bodies is natural, which is to say ‘corporeal’ and ‘mortal.’ The other, the body politic, is pristine, mystical, positively eternal, when a phone rings an antiquated ring and, passing amid not a few ardent essayists and at least two furtive chess players waging war on their devices, I start for the back of the room to pick up. Only it’s sixty boys now, writing out my rote description of the body politic as the same body passing from king to king—an animating spirit making kingships Christic—thus rendering the body natural impervious to any defect of age or illness that could mess things up for him. The voice on the phone belongs to my old friend Tim Kane. “Ivo,” it says, “You gotta come down here and get your dad. He’s making everyone uncomfortable.” Of my late father I say for the first time ever, “I’m not going anywhere, Tim,” and I mean it. “Do you hear what I’m saying?” When he doesn’t answer, I say it again: “Tell him what I told you. I’m not coming for him until I’m done here, and maybe not then either.” Silence. “Tell me you understand,” I say. “Say it back to me, Tim. I need to hear you say it. Tim?”
Saturday noon finds eight friends gathered virtually for a read-around of Midsummer Night’s Dream. I am one of them. I’m always one. This circle is the one I’ve belonged to the longest. At sixty, our host Alan is ten years older than I am and taking our sheltering period to grow the long free beard he’d craved wearing as a child. He strokes it. He sits beside his wife Rachel in their loveseat flanked by antique lampshades. It’s good to see them. It’s good to see everybody—Stacy, Pauline, Ransom, Mel, Jay, Bernard, Erica, and Sandy— looking so healthy. We live in California, North Carolina, Chicago, Albuquerque, and London. Masks may hang from our necks but again we are healthy. Everyone’s hair is longer. Looking past their smiling faces on my computer screen, I’m drawn to incidentals:
..spines of books about anthropology, cooking, umbrella handle, tidiness, a painting of a squirrel in a tree of Chinese lettering, weariness, chaos, autumnal colors red and golden, minimalist, business as usual, shabby chic, framed certificates of achievement, framed elders, children, transitional look, mad scientist, a pot of ivy hanging in macrame, rustic, clay figurine silhouetted in bright window, industrial look, a cat walks across a keyboard, Frank sets his laptop on his piano, contemporary, Jay’s wife poking her head in to say hi, mid century modern; a stray toddler (Little Gregory) for cooing as he passes….
We curate our frames. Everyone wants us to see something. An object. A quality. My guitar hangs on the wall behind me. I have placed such worn titles as Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander and Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody in plain view for anyone who’s looking.
Drawing my name from a hat, Alan assigns me the roles of Theseus, the Duke Athens, and Oberon, King of the Fairies. They’re both men, though Shakespeare’s fairies are hermaphrodites in my memory of them. Both lead their minions, an earthly troop in chain mail and swordplay on one hand and, on the other, a band of spirits, Peasblossom, Moth, and Cobweb among them. I want to say that Theseus is doctrinaire, bound up with fear, and that Oberon is a noble and supportive guy who will nevertheless drug his wife with magic to steal the changeling. This is comedy.
Playing the parts of Helena and Hermia, our London friends Stacy and Pauline reintroduce us to their eleven-and-a-half-year-old daughter Caitlin. In her pajamas, she’s dragged her blanket into the frame on her way to beddy-bye. I met her once when she was an infant and again a year ago. She’d recently heard that old-fashioned phrase, ‘If such-and-such happens, I’ll eat my hat. It was like a song stuck in her head that she kept singing: ‘If Mom’s on time, I’ll eat my hat.’ ‘I’ll eat my hat if there aren’t a million people already waiting.’ ‘I’ll eat my hat if I need my dumb coat after all.’ I remember feeling charmed by this, and also a little jealous. To be in the newness of it all! I told a story called ‘The Hat Eaters’ in her honor. It was about all of us. It was roundly panned by everyone as satire that was less a piece of social commentary and more a laundry list of my own personal grievances. I’ve always felt this was an overreaction. But that’s not important either. What’s important is that we all have our parts to play. If I know this crowd, and I do, we will read loudly and softly and with gusto. We will modulate our voices.
My copy of A Midsummer’s Night Dream comes from an anthology published in Cleveland in 1925 by the World Syndicate Company. It belonged to my late grandmother on my father’s side and includes all the Bard’s comedies. Its faux leather cover hangs by a thread. The printers have included the phrase ‘A triumph was a public show’ in a distinct font in the bottom margin of the first page of the play. These words are not part of the script. Appearing nowhere else in the volume, they feel more poignant than practical. The more times I read them the more they sound like an incantation. And why the past tense? But this too is beside the point. We’re all online together, and it’s time to start. I clear my throat and say to my friends in a fairly flat voice, ‘Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour draws on apace….’ This is my Theseus. This is my Oberon.