12 Aug

Shakespeare and the First Year of My Daughter’s Life

About a month ago, in early July, we went with a friend to see Hamlet at American Players Theater, an hour’s drive away. It wasn’t the first time we’d been away from Cora for her bedtime routine, but it was still new enough to us that we felt some trepidation in leaving her. One might say we felt a little like the watchmen at the beginning of Hamlet—a bit on edge.

APT’s production actually put their medieval Danish guards on stage prior to the play’s start; they looked nervously into the imagined darkness of the audience and provided all of us with a fun distraction. We talked about how hot they must have been in their leather armor, and I quipped something like, “Spoiler alert: they’re going to see a ghost.” Someone else answered back, “Uh-oh. I hope it all ends up okay.”

I imagine that most people who go to a Shakespeare play know the entire plot of the story they’re about to watch. They usually did in Shakespeare’s time; very few of his plots were original, but that didn’t stop the Elizabethan audience (just as it doesn’t stop modern-day audiences) from going to see the ever-compelling struggle between a character and his pre-determined fate. Indeed, the central tension of a tragedy lies in the fact that the characters—whether or not they know the course of events they will soon face—are not content to passively endure those events. That is to say, the central tension of tragedy is fate v. free will.

In Hamlet, this tension is spelled out with particular eloquence in the famous “To be or not to be” speech. Yes, it is eventually a speech about whether Hamlet should kill himself, but the driving question is “whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer/ the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,/ or to take arms against a sea of troubles,/ and by opposing end them.” Should we fight our lot in life or should we accept our position and all the accompanying suffering that comes with it?

This existential question is at the root of much literary art. “The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry.” “Do not go gentle into that good night.” “You can’t repeat the past.” And so on. Small person vs. large force outside of our control. Some call that large force fate; some call it destiny; some call it fortune; some call it God. At one point, in Act 5, I think, Hamlet says, “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends/ rough-hew them how we will.” We might have some small control over “hewing” the shape of our lives, but ultimately, God shapes them. Or fate does. Or whatever.

Go back another 600 years or so from Elizabethan England and you’ll find the Beowulf poet making similar observations about “the shape of things to come” (a phrase repeated throughout the poem). For the only partially-Christianized medieval Englanders, the force that determined one’s fate was a divinity called Wyrd, who embodied a pretty sophisticated concept of how the individual interacts with the universal. (Read more here.) Wyrd is the basis of Macbeth’s weird sisters, by the way, who prophesy Macbeth’s rise to kingship at the play’s beginning.

But let’s come back to the present. After the play, while we were driving back to Madison from Spring Green, we came upon what appeared to be a horrible accident. We saw multiple rescue vehicles blocking the highway—police cars, fire trucks, an ambulance—and we were detoured to a little oxbow of a road that brought us back to US-14 a quarter-mile later. As we were turning for the detour, my passenger seat friend said, “Oh, no! There’s a motorcycle. I don’t want to look.” We knew, of course, that motorcycle accidents on a rural highway at 11:00 at night seldom turn out well. We were dealing with a likely fatality. So for the next several minutes, we didn’t say much.

This sort of ruminative silence has hit me frequently of late. It’s not that I go around quietly contemplative all the time; it happens more like this: I’m carrying my baby on the sidewalk in front of my house and I get a flash of a what-if. What if I tripped right now? Or I prognosticate. What if, three years from now, while riding a balance bike, my daughter drifts into the road in the two-second period when I’m not watching her closely? Or what if after 13 years of staying physically safe and sound, she gets cyberbullied by a bunch of preadolescent shitheads?

Thoughts like these cycle through my head sometimes half a dozen times a day, sometimes just a couple times a week, and they break down into two major categories: fear of harm coming to my child (illustrated above) and astonishment at the unknowability of the future (What hobbies will she choose? Who will she become? What will she look like?). Occasionally, these two categories overlap, as in What will be the defining hardship of her life come age 15—a hardship I will not be able to prevent?

Ultimately, I know safety is an impossibility. Tragedy, like shit, happens. There’s nothing you can do about it. That’s why it’s tragedy.

But still.

That guy on the motorcycle, the cause of our detour the night we returned from Hamlet? Turns out he hit a deer, which is exactly what I’m talking about here. Tragedy: a beast emerging from the woods, an act of nature, utterly outside of anyone’s control. Fortunately, the guy hadn’t been killed; he was in the hospital. But it turned out he was charged with a DUI, his fourth.

Now, maybe I’m being to harsh here, but upon learning this fact, I immediately lost some (not all) sympathy for him. Because suddenly his will was implicated; or, more specifically, a failure of his will. His decision—impaired though his decision-making apparatus was—to drive while intoxicated at 11:00 pm on a rural highway made the tragedy a little less pure, made his efforts to thwart fate/destiny/God/deer just a bit half-assed. Or less-assed than they could have been.

I certainly realize that one can’t be forever vigilant. Lord knows parenting breaks you down, battering you with sleeplessness and overwhelming you with decisions (Sleep train? Breastfeed?). And an infant is an interesting mixture of an opposing will and a force of nature. Here’s what I mean by that: an opposing will is a person with his own desires that sometimes gets in the way of your desires. A force of nature results from natural laws and/or natural chaos (gravity, cancer). A baby is both. She has a will, but she’s also a chain of natural cause/effect. She needs sleep, food, and comfort. She needs these things more than she desires them, more than she understands what desire even is. When she doesn’t have one of those, she cries or “gets fussy,” as parents of babies say. It’s not always easy to discern what she needs, however. In fact, it can drive you absolutely batty trying to figure it out and/or to manipulate circumstances such that her needs are fulfilled. It’s thus all the more imperative that you be in control of your own will because part of you will want to shake that baby.

I’m pretty patient when it comes to dealing with opposing wills. (You kind of have to be as a teacher since you’re at the epicenter of administrators, parents, and students.) But I’m not so graceful when it comes to dealing with unyielding forces of nature. And so Cora’s infancy was, for me, full of frustration. You put in an hour and a half of effort and get a 30-minute nap out of it. Makes you want to punch a wall.

But a parent has to be willing to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous babies and their allergies to cow’s milk or their refusals to nap. In fact, as Shakespeare scholar B.S. Field says, “a person’s capacity to withstand Fortune, to accept its buffets and rewards with equal thanks, was taken as a measure of a person’s right attitude, of his personal grace, not only in Hamlet, but in the Renaissance generally.” That’s from an essay on Twelfth Night, a play Shakespeare wrote right around the same time he wrote Hamlet, and yet another one that exposes the right attitude (in Viola, whose name refers to a flower thought to symbolize loving thoughtfulness) and the wrong attitude (in Malvolio, whose name means ill will) in our approach toward fate and fortune.

It’s not that this admonition to be graceful is all that groundbreaking a moral (see also: To live in harmony with the Tao; or to “Be still and know that I am God”). It’s something that most people understand on an intellectual level. (Kind of like how most people know how Shakespeare’s plays will turn out.) But as MacDuff says upon learning of the deaths of his wife and children and consequently being admonished to take it like a man, “I must also feel it as a man.” And this is what parenting does to you; it ups the stakes of your powerlessness in the face of fate and fortune and then it forces you to feel that powerlessness on a daily basis. The best we can do is say, “Uh-oh. I hope it all ends up okay.”