Team Helena

In our asinine social media Internet troll phase of US American culture, 2016-20, the character Parolles would have been the hero of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well. Bertram would’ve been an influencer, hype beast, even though he’s almost as smart as a bag of muddy rocks. It was a bleak but necessary phase of growth, our terrible twos of a digitally connected world. We celebrated snitches, nerds, and creeps.

Not anymore. Not since Joe Rogan got his Spotify deal. 

Ultimately, Trump will have been less influential than Rogan, and that is just something you are going to have to consider if you want to be taken seriously as a thinker. Influence is influence. 

Shakespeare is the strongest brand in English Literature. He’s the Disney of the stage. Nobody even comes close. That’s one reason why studying Shakespeare makes so much sense right now. We are slowly globalizing as a culture and that means a cultural transformation that will change things in a way that feels threatening to some and promising to others. Superhero movies have dominated this period for this reason. We need a common language to speak, a mythical language.

We have evolved from a culture best defined by Disney, to one described in spirit by comic book characters. Can you see how young we are as a culture? The next logical step, as happens with any 9th grader in this country I believe, is to start reading Shakespeare. That’s the next level above comic books for us, for some reason. It’s not so much a hierarchy, however, as much as a process of maturation that entails the development of certain strengths or capabilities. 

When we are young, we require the entertaining quality of cartoons. When we get a little older, we can read books with pictures. Eventually, we can read sophisticated plays and derive value and meaning from the text. Does that mean that reading Shakespeare is better than watching Looney Tunes? Not exactly. It just indicates a more mature and sophisticated ability to consume culture. It’s still just consuming culture.

The most important part of consuming culture is the dialogue that it provokes. Reading Shakespeare can lead to more relevant and interesting conversations about things that matter to today’s context without directly discussing topical news. 

Bertram is a bro. He’s too young to be noble. He’s suffering from testosterone poisoning and that is no excuse for his rapist mentality, his narcissistic abandoning of family and country. It’s just an explanation for why he is such a kook. He probably would never become someone cool, but surely, he could not remain this stupid forever. Once he realizes that his own sexual appetite is less important than being good to the people in his life, then he might simmer down a little bit. Not in the play, though. He’s cool as a grease fire. He’s suffering from mental illness, a combination of grief for his father’s death, of a repulsion of being controlled, and of a manic desire to kill enemies in battle and to have sex with virgins as a reward. Bertram is a head case.

He’s also a loser. Despite all the actions he takes, he still ends up a victim of fate, made to do what other people tell him to do. Bertram is a submissive male. Bertram is beta. His aggression on the battlefield and in the bedroom derive from his knowledge that he has no control over his own life. Thankfully, Bertram is so stupid that he never really hurts anyone. The virgin he is trying to sleep with tricks him into having sex with his own wife. His best friend betrays him. Slowly, Bertram realizes how stupid he has been, what poor judgment he has shown.

This is a painful awakening during a comedy. 

Reading Shakespeare, listening to the characters, and thinking about how their plots relate to our lives today is a good way to engage in debate without devolving into fighting. At least, I hope it could. Who knows, though. It might end up as a shouting match between Team Helena and Team Bertram.

All’s Well that Sends Well

If you are looking for stories from Literature with strong women characters, Shakespeare’s Comedies are driven by them. The heroine of All’s Well That Ends Well is named Helena and she is the opposite of Helen of Troy, the face that sent a thousand ships sailing. Helena does not get kidnapped; she isn’t a passive character at all. To the contrary, she is the one who sends the plot into motion and drives it to the outcome.

In today’s context, Helena would be considered a #bossbitch, a common way to refer to alpha females. I would say she’s a strong woman, a strong character, generally. The comedian who immediately comes to mind is Kerryn Feehan. She could bring this role to life and there’s no question that Luis J. Gomez could destroy the part of Bertram. I’m trying not to force the casting of any of these plays. I know that when I study them all enough, the right people will click into place in my mind. People think that they know Shakespeare, but I’m not so sure they do. I keep learning wild new things every play I study. This one has some out-there ideas.

The thing about Shakespeare is that most people read a few plays at most. They are always selected from the same list of greatest hits. A lot of the more obscure plays, like All’s Well, are full of interesting details. For example, the heroine in this play uses sexual deceit to rape her husband to get pregnant by him. If that sounds weird, it is. Her hubby, Bertram, is an infamous fuck-boi who abandons his newly married wife to go to war in Italy so he can sleep around with other women. She infiltrates his plan, uses a woman to seduce him into a sexual encounter and then switches places with her to be impregnated. Now, this is an aggressive strategy, but it works.

She also trapped him into marriage in the first place, which is why he is so eager to leave. How? She cured the king of his hemorrhoids. He had an anal fissure and she pushed that prolapse back in place. She probably pegged the king if we’re being honest. The result? She gets to marry whomever she wants, and she chooses Bertram.

Luis J. Gomez would be so funny as Bertram because he embodies the “real ass dude” side of comedy. Gomez understands implicitly how this kind of comedy works. His instinct for absurd self-assertion would energize the role with the kind of tension necessary to empathize with the character. That’s Gomez’s great gift: getting you to like him despite his tendency to offend because he’s unafraid to be vulnerable. He’s a punk rock entrepreneur and comic, a free speech advocate, and someone who finds humor in the least acceptable places.

That’s the trick of playing Bertram. You must get the audience to like him despite the shady things he does. Why is Helena willing to go to such extreme lengths to have him for herself? There must be something magnetizing about the actor who plays Bertram and Luis’s attitude would translate well. I don’t know Luis J. Gomez, but I’m a fan of his comedy and I think that his matter-of-fact straightforward I-am-who-I-am energy would absolutely send this role into the ether.

Kerryn Feehan started an Only Fans account and named her podcast Only Feehans. Not only is that funny, but it’s also smart and that’s why she would make such a good Helena. Instead of worrying about what people might think, she chose a path to self-empowerment and that is exactly what Helena does in the play. She uses sex and manipulates men to get what she wants, and we love her for it. 

This play has been the hardest to listen to, by far, mainly because the plot is so confusing, and it is hard to keep track of the language. I know that by the end of the week after listening to it at least seven times I will know it well. Studying Shakespeare enriches how you see the world around you because the plays are such fun and artful illustrations of how social dynamics work. They remind you that you are part of this bigger picture, and if you can learn how the chess board works, then you can make moves to your advantage. They can teach you how to send well.