Thursday, March 26, 2020

Beyond Bardolatry

The Bible of Bardolatry

Yale humanities professor and literary critic Harold Bloom died last October. That makes me the biggest bardolator alive. Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

We English Majors have been worshipping the Bard of Avon for a long time. In his succinct biography Shakespeare, Bill Bryson describes a student play performed at Cambridge University around the time of Hamlet’s London premiere:

The Return from Parnassus contained the words ‘O sweet Mr Shakespeare! I’ll have his picture in my study at the court,’ suggesting that Shakespeare was by then a kind of literary pinup.

It’s not just a crush on a cute writer. [Ed. Note: The cute writer.] It’s a lifelong crush on the works of William Shakespeare – the entertaining plays, the gorgeous poems, the supreme use of language, the inescapable influence on culture, the endless insights about psychology, art, literature, history, killing lawyers, humor…. The list goes on and on.

What sets my devout bardolatry apart from your garden variety fanboy is a shared timeline. Shakespeare and I were born exactly 400 years apart. That makes it easy to figure out how old Shakespeare was at each point in the chronology of his life and career.

According to the parish records in Stratford, William Shakespeare was baptized on April 26, 1564, with April 23, 1564, traditionally recognized as Shakespeare’s birthday. I was born four centuries and a week later, on May 2, 1964. 

In 1587/1987, we were twenty-three years old, and lost.

In 1596/1996, we were thirty-two years old, and making a name for ourselves in the world.

In 1603/2003, we were thirty-nine years old, busy with our big city careers and our country homes.

In 1620/2020, Shakespeare had been dead for four years, and I’m hiding indoors from the plague.

English Majors are notorious for seeing themselves reflected in their favorite characters from Shakespeare’s plays. Professor Bloom tended to identify with Falstaff, Hamlet, and Cleopatra. But the greatest bardolators also find parallels in the few factual fragments about the playwright’s own life that historians have uncovered.

In my case, it’s not just the Class of ’64 timeline thing. Or theatre, or literature, or hostility to lawyers and bad acting. What little we know about Shakespeare himself is eerily familiar.

For example, Will and I each had two daughters and a son, born a couple of years apart. Our fathers are both named John. They grew up on farms, but moved to town where they became successful businessmen. 

Bryson identifies a key developmental milestone I share with Shakespeare:  “something severely unfavourable seems to have happened in John’s business life, for in 1576, when William was twelve, he abruptly withdrew from public affairs and stopped attending meetings.” In 1976, when I was twelve, my father quit his job in Vancouver. My parents moved to Utah and ruined my life. Totally similar to whatever parental blunder traumatized moody tween Shakespeare. (As a Gay Sitcom Dad raising two teen-aged daughters, I happen to be an expert in adolescent drama.)

Fortunately, both William Shakespeare and I recovered from our youthful traumas. As we entered our fifties, we walked away from successful public careers in the big city, and moved eighty-seven miles north to be closer to our families.

Shakespeare family coat of arms

My Bellingham doctor diagnosed me with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in November 2015. Earlier this month, I wrote in “Better-ish” about some of the recent improvements in my mental health:

Now I feel like myself, even when I feel unwell. The good news is that most of my fuzzy memories have finally snapped into place. The bad news is that my brain concluded the simplest way to adjust my internal clock was to delete two years from the timeline. It’s sorta like switching to Daylight Savings Time. Or like when England converted from the Julian Calendar to the Gregorian Calendar, and eleven days were dropped from September 1752.

A few days later, after all the public libraries in Bellingham closed for coronavirus, I borrowed a stack of books from my mother. I’d recently finished her copy of Bryson’s The Body: A Guide for Occupants and passed it on to my pre-pre-med daughter, so I grabbed a few more volumes from Mom’s shelf of the complete works of Bill Bryson. (My mother and I tend to be completists.) 

Considering how many books about Shakespeare I’ve read over the decades, I can’t believe I hadn’t already noticed Bryson’s slim Shakespeare on the shelf. And I can’t believe I hadn’t already made this startling connection: 

Shakespeare was born under the old Julian calendar, not the Gregorian, which wasn’t created until 1582, when Shakespeare was already old enough to marry. In consequence, what was 23 April to Shakespeare would to us today be 3 May.

But wait, you point out, didn’t I just say my birthday is May 2, not May 3? However, I was born at 11 pm in Mountain Time Zone. Which in Stratford-on-Avon would be at 6 am on May 3.

So I really was born exactly four hundred years after William Shakespeare.

William Shakespeare died in Stratford on April 23, 1616, at age fifty-two. Four centuries later, I didn’t die at fifty-two. Instead, I lost my mind when my employers at the Washington Attorney General’s Office placed me in an abusive and illegal “home assignment” in retaliation for seeking a workplace free from discrimination. 

It’s been four very hard and plague-filled years since April 2016. Nevertheless, in spite of everything, these days I’m doing better-ish when it comes to the things that matter most to me, like my family, my writing, and my mental health.

I’ll always be slow about certain things. I didn’t start any of the most important stuff in life until I was a couple of decades older than the prodigious William Shakespeare was four hundred years ago. If nothing else, that means it’s too late to compete with Shakespeare in the youthful fatherhood or romance departments. Like my other favorite author, Jane Duncan, hopefully I’m a late bloomer as a writer, too.

Still, William Shakespeare and I already have numerous traits in common. Two daughters and a son. A lifetime in theatre/gay men’s chorus. Ex-farmer fathers named John. English Major stuff. Disasters. (Nostradamus would say the Globe Theatre burning down in 1613 corresponds to a landslide destroying my dream house on Whidbey Island.)

If you survey the histories of our respective eras, you’ll also see how Shakespeare and I each survived multiple waves of the plague. In fact, just like Will and Kit experienced during the bubonic closures of London’s theatres four hundred years ago, as I write this paragraph it’s a typical Wednesday – but I can’t drive north for Vancouver Men’s Chorus rehearsal or for Show Tune Night. The border, the theatres, the chorus, the schools, the bars, the churches, and everything else in Canada and the States are closed because of a pandemic.

Regardless of our many similarities, there will always be two key differences between William Shakespeare and me:

He’s an immortal genius. I’m not.

He died at age 52. I didn’t.

Which means historians can argue over yet another intriguing fact about Shakespeare that no one will ever know for sure. Could he have made it to age 55 after surviving the Mormons, the gays, midlife Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, single parenthood, and a plague of dishonest lawyers? Because I did.

Here are links to more of my “Doppeler Effect” essays, describing other individuals whose lives have paralleled and/or crossed particular threads of my own story: 

I am Rob Lowe” (9/20/17)

Chorus Minivan Dad” (3/6/18)

My Best Friend Paul” (6/7/18)

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