Shakespeare Decoded and Deflowered

I just finished reading Peter Jensen’s Shakespeare’s Lovers: A Novel. Jensen is a poet and English instructor at Linn-Benton Community College, in Albany, Oregon. He also is a hard-core Shakespeare addict and the author of Secrets of the Sonnets and Shakespeare’s Name Code, two studies of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets that uncover code words and letters to reveal names of real people who are fictionalized in the writings, including Shakespeare’s lovers, his family members, contemporary royalty, fellow writers, and his patrons. You mean Romeo, Juliet, Venus, Adonis, and Lucrece were based on real people? Shakespeare’s Lovers brings those people to life in a way that Jensen imagines it might have been.

The book was difficult for me to understand but I loved it. It was difficult because, I have to admit, I never got Shakespeare. In my middle- and high-school years when my classmates and I were being introduced to the great writer’s plays, I couldn’t understand Olde English or embrace the need to learn it. Our teachers told us he was a great writer but didn’t exhibit gut-level enthusiasm or even provide us with an intellectual grounding in his times to awaken me from my Major League Baseball daydreams. I never was a fan of British history, laughed at the idea of monarchs (still do), and can’t keep the Henrys straight (except for Henry the Eighth, who got married to the widow next door after she had been  married seven times before).

By the time I got to an age where I wished I understood Shakespeare, I had already moved on to other stimulants and so I remained curious but ignorant. As an adult, the most I have embraced Shakespeare is while laughing uproariously as Mel Brooks recites “Highlights from Hamlet” in the World War II comedy To Be or Not to Be; or qvelling (Yiddish for “beaming with pride”) as my daughter sang “I Feel Pretty” as Maria in her fifth-grade production of West Side Story.

So that’s why Shakespeare’s Lovers was difficult. But I have to say, if it had been required reading back when, and if our teachers had provided the guidance that we needed, I’m sure I would have felt differently. Several times in the early chapters and then again later into the story, I turned to the Internet to look up a name or an event, just to see how close to the truth Jensen’s story was.

Shakespeare’s friend Henry Wriothesley? He was real, and maybe a gay lover. Feminist poet Aemelia Lanyer? Real also, as was the Jewish Bassano family from which she sprang. The failed coup d’etat led by the second Earl of Essex against Queen Elizabeth I the day after a revived Richard II played at the Globe Theatre? The Earl lost his head over that overambitious delusion of grandeur. Jensen nails it, including portraying Shakespeare’s decision to risk being seen as a conspirator not just so he could accept the extra-high actor’s payment—a side benefit—but also because he actually hoped it would help Henry and Essex since their followers requested it.

If you’re reluctant to confront Shakespeare, as I have always been, Shakespeare’s Lovers gives you a safe, fascinating way to enter his world. If you’re already an aficionado, you’ll be running back to your bookshelf before you’re halfway done.

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Love Means Second Chances: The Pro-Choice Novel

Susan Elizabeth Davis has written a self-consciously political novel complete with website and blog that she hopes will become a literary weapon in the pro-choice arsenal. At a time when women are having to defend themselves from humanist instincts straight out of the Dark Ages, her timing couldn’t be better. As a life-long activist for women’s rights, in particular to control their own bodies, she is the right person to write it.

Love Means Second Chances (New York: Bread and Roses Collaborative, 2011) takes place in 1992 with flashbacks to 1972. Christy gets pregnant with Ramon even though she’s on the pill because for a brief period she was on antibiotics for strep and the antibiotics rendered the pill ineffective. Impending motherhood puts a crimp on Christy’s ambition to be an opera singer, not a pipe dream by any means as she is currently a student at Juilliard. Christy tries to keep the news from Carole, her mother, a devout Catholic, because Christy’s game plan includes getting an abortion. To complicate matters, Christy herself is the result of an accidental pregnancy that Carole chose to not terminate over the objections of her impregnator-turned-reluctant-husband Jimmy, whose own dream of becoming a football player, along with Carole’s dream of becoming a nurse, was terminated by the pregnancy that wasn’t.

In addition to alienating her from Jimmy, Carole’s pregnancy led to a split between Carole and her father—her mother already was dead. So Carole became close to her mother-in-law, Mary Louise, a strong advocate of the woman’s right to choose, who supported Carole over her son Jimmy during Carole’s pregnancy and is now supporting Christy over Carole during Christy’s pregnancy even though the first case led to a non-abortion and the second is leaning toward an abortion.

The book revolves around the interactions among the three generations of women and their different responses to Christy’s pregnancy and decision to have an abortion. To Carole especially, it awakens long-suppressed anger that stemmed from her own pregnancy in 1972. Hence the flashbacks.

A side issue but one almost equally perplexing to the avid Catholic Carole is the announcement by her sister Liz, a divorced mother of three teenage boys, that she finally has found true love to Barbara—not, if you are confused, a man with a woman’s name.

The story begins during the Christmas season. In fact, it is Christy’s vomit attack in her parents’ bathroom Christmas morning that finally confirms Carole’s suspicion that Christy is pregnant.

The strength of this novel is less on the action than on the dialogue. Davis becomes every one of the women when they are speaking. She gets inside their heads and their hearts and enables them all to be sympathetic, believable characters. As a life-long feminist activist in abortion rights, there is no doubt where Davis stands on the issue of a woman’s right to choose. Nevertheless, she attempts to be fair with all of the women.

But she doesn’t confuse “fairness” with leaving the reader thinking that all positions are equal. Davis wrote Love Means Second Chances in order to be a voice for choice in the abortion debate. With confidence and no modesty, she admits that she wants her book to join the long list of those that have changed social conditions and perceptions, including Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Jungle, Invisible Man, and The Women’s Room.

So, in a cathartic scene, Liz asks Carole, “Will you love [Christy] less if she has an abortion?” Carole admits she hadn’t even considered that line of thought but, no, of course, she would not love her less. “The pain in her heart felt like it was being ripped out of her chest. Giving in, Carole sobbed uncontrollably, gasping for air as her worst fears dive-bombed her like demons.”

Davis chooses this moment to place the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion into historical perspective when she speaks through Barbara, who tells Carole

Before 1869, the Church did not consider abortion a mortal sin. In fact, during the Middle Ages Thomas Aquinas wrote that abortions could be performed until the time of quickening—when the baby begins to move in the fourth month. So it’s only been since the Church felt its power and influence were waning in the 19th century that it took a stand against abortion.

Going beyond Catholicism, Barbara continues

Abortion is as old as civilization. Women have been giving themselves abortions in every culture on every continent since the beginning of time…. Abortion was the primary means of birth control in this country until it was outlawed in the 19th century. It was only after doctors began to specialize in gynecology and obstetrics and wanted to stop midwives from interfering with their business that it became illegal.

As a kicker she notes that Italy has the highest abortion rate of the European countries. “Those sisters are not afraid to take care of themselves if they don’t want to be pregnant.”

I can see the old men who head the Catholic Church hierarchy attacking the credibility of that entire scene. After all, who is it who is attacking Church doctrine? A lesbian! Whether intended or not, good for Davis for showing no fear here in mixing controversial issues.

But to her credit she never treats the abortion issue lightly. Davis agrees with anti-choicers who would argue that abortion can hurt women emotionally. A powerful scene takes place in Christy’s home when Carole comes over to talk after she has had time to cool off and reflect. As Christy prepares tea in the kitchen, Carole waits in the front room. They both pray to the same religious icon as they psych themselves up to represent different sides of the conversation:

Carole: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, help me … find the right words … to tell Christy that I love her, even though I don’t like what she’s doing.”

Christy: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, please don’t let Mom overpower me…. Help me stay strong.”

Later, in the clinic after the abortion, Christy waits with other women who have undergone the same experience. There is not a whole lot of laughing. As each woman is discharged, the attendant says, “I don’t want to see you here again” (as opposed to what an anti-choice novel might have the attendant saying: “Shall we make an appointment for your next visit?”).

Six months later, seemingly a long time after the abortion, Christy experiences an emotional breakdown when singing an aria from Madame Butterfly where Cio-Cio San gives up her love child and kills herself.

The message from these scenes is clear. Not every pro-choicer uses abortion as birth control. It is a painful process even for women who choose to undergo it. These women actually experience real feelings of grief, anger, and sadness. No one is evil and no one “wins.” Nevertheless, each woman has to make her own choice, for her own personal reasons, and deal with the resulting consequences, not have it mandated by the church or the state and deal with those resulting consequences, which, anti-choicers choose to ignore, also are painful.

I have to admit I’m happy that Davis confronts the Catholic Church directly. I don’t care what practicing Catholics do relative to their own abortions or non-abortions. I do care that Catholics and other religious anti-choicers think they can tell Jews what to do about ours.

In Arizona, for instance, Governor Jan Brewer recently put her signature on a “life begins at menstruation” bill. The joke by Yippie Abbie Hoffman was that “Jews don’t believe a fetus has life until it gets its graduate degree.” A funny joke perhaps but, in the abortion debate, when life begins is a non-issue for Jews. Menstruation, you say? Fine if that gives you some perverted thrill. But don’t deny women from my religious family the right to control their own bodies, as our religion permits, just because your religion claims that ownership of your women’s bodies should be in the hands of old men who supposedly don’t have sex.

Catholic law as argued by the hierarchy and their followers is absolute on the issue of abortion: “We don’t give a damn what it does to the woman; all power to the fetus.” The position on abortion in Jewish law is nuanced but it ultimately comes down to “The mother’s life comes first.” Catholics call what they want to practice religious freedom but when they force their mythology and their dogma onto us it becomes religious imperialism.

So which is better, fetus-first Catholicism or mother-first Judaism? There obviously is no correct answer to please everyone, which is why the First Amendment right to freedom of religion is so important. But that right doesn’t apply only to Catholics. If Catholic law has a valid place in the debate about health care, so must other religions, and no religion’s dogma should be enshrined in federal or state law to the detriment of any other.

I look forward to reading my first Jewish pro-choice novel. Love Means Second Chances is a model of how that can be done.