June 5, 2015

Essay By Kathryn Streeter: What Shakespeare Taught Me About Family

 Kathryn Streeter’s writing has appeared in publications including Mamalode, BLUNTmoms, elephant journal and CSMonitor. The Briar Cliff Review, Volume 26 includes Streeter’s essay, a finalist in their Creative Nonfiction Contest. Connect with Kathryn on her website or on Twitter @streeterkathryn.

 In January, our family left our charming Mass Ave condo in Indianapolis and now reside in Austin, Texas.

What Shakespeare Taught Me About Family

I suspect Shakespeare was hovering around my kitchen in Washington, D.C. Laughing. On the night of reading group with glasses of wine in hand, we women had formed a circle and were grousing about mothers. One friend who just resigned from a high-stress government position shared the dynamics of vacationing overseas for ten days with her mother. The trip celebrated her entrance into the private sector, though next time a celebration trip is in order, I wouldn’t be surprised if she chose a different traveling companion. Another friend is expecting her second child very soon and has her mother coming to help out with her precocious one-and-a-half year-old daughter. But with living quarters tight, she confessed her anxiety that having mom around for a week would simply be too-much-help. The other stories were similar in tone, evoking laughter and empathy.  
If present, Shakespeare would be chuckling, “I told you so.”
The Bard knew that family runs deep and brings along heightened emotion, an angle he used often and effectively. 
I continue more or less to fulfill an old New Year’s resolution of reading one Shakespeare drama per month. What this non-Shakespearian authority has noticed most pronouncedly is that often, Shakespeare’s characters remind me of myself—whether if left unchecked, some bitter feeling would fester and grow so acidic that I wouldn’t recognize the monster I’d morphed into until it was too late. 
Today’s cornucopia of self-help books, chat sites, blogs and Dr. Phil-types dispensing advice addresses the same sorry stuff Shakespeare’s characters wrestled against.
Perhaps everything we need to know about familial relationships can be learned from Shakespeare.
In Julius Caesar, the playwright throws the light on the marriage relationship. Portia is the devastated wife of the highly influential official Brutus who commits high treason in conspiring against Julius Caesar. She can’t endure the shock and humiliation and ends her life. The betrayed spouse, partner, parent, child or sibling in the public eye distressed over a family member’s moral failing is a scene straight out of 21st century politics.
It does indeed seem that Shakespeare is ever-present today and not just in my kitchen.
In a favorite college class, my seasoned professor confessed his preference for The Tragedy of King Lear. Father of an adult daughter, he considered the theme of daughters-turning-on-father Shakespeare’s most heart wrenching. Lecturing on the shame and mockery daughters Regan and Goneril leveled on their dear old dad, my gray-haired professor’s emotion has stayed with me as I’ve re-read King Lear. I’ve wondered if he’d felt betrayed by his daughter.
Today, with a sassy young daughter in the house, I’m beginning to understand the hurt kids can cause. But when a child’s impertinence matures into an adult rebellion that provokes lifelong pain? Destructive behaviors usually can’t be managed by appeals from family.
Shakespeare sings that last point repeatedly. Family is special, and it cuts both ways.
The phone is ringing. My dad calls when it’s least convenient and in my preoccupation, I’ve often got little to say. Though I answer, I’m not really there.
It’s Dad!” he booms. Too much enthusiasm and I cringe.
Oh-hi-Dad-how-are-you?” I’m sure he can hear my voice is flat. I hate myself for it even as I prepare to answer his predictable questions. But this time is different: he’s calling as a proud father. It turns out he can’t find the last story I’ve published. In real-time, he’s struggling to navigate the World-Wide-Web. He needs my help.
I feel humbled, remember Shakespeare and take a deep breath. Dear old dad.

~Kathryn Streeter

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