To the Sticking Place
If you follow me on Instagram, you'll know that I hold a High School Shakespeare class for students that wish for more in-depth knowledge of the Bard. I adhere to a specific curriculum. I start with The Merchant of Venice, which is my favorite play by Shakespeare. Then I do Macbeth and finish with the light-hearted comedy Much Ado About Nothing.
While I was teaching Macbeth, all the things I love so much about The Scottish Play came barreling to the forefront. This reminder of all my favorite lines coincided with a challenge my husband threw down like a gauntlet. While joking around during one of our daily phone calls (when he ships out, we only get a single phone call per diem to catch up with each other), he dared me to try my hand at a smutty romance story. Being punchy after hanging up with him (he's off the coast of the Canary Islands right now, so he calls me around 3AM in the morning), I scribbled down a handful of ideas. The next day, I set about trying.
Well, dear readers, I failed miserably at the smutty part, but I did craft a rather fun romp nonetheless. Today, as it marks the day that Billy Shakes departed this world way back in 1616, I thought it fitting to pay tribute to a man who dissected the human psyche with aplomb, balancing tragedy, drama, and humor sublimely. Not only that, he constructed some of the most memorable (and proverbial) lines in the English language. I quote quite a few in this original composition. In fact, the title, To the Sticking Place, is taken from Macbeth, when Lady Macbeth goads her husband to commit to murdering the king:
Fear not. This short story is all fun, no foul. And, as the title says:
Jensen didn’t know how much more Macbeth he could take. Already Arden had pressed him through the play countless times. Their last six meetings had been for the purpose of running lines. You have a way with the cadence and rhythm of the verse, Arden would say, and, of course, Jensen’s over starved ego let his little brother stroke it.
But tonight was suppose to be about a few pints at the pub. A little live music. A little Guinness. A little relaxing. No iambic pentameter, bloodied apparitions, or phantom daggers.
After all, acting was Arden’s obsession, not Jensen’s, but, as Arden had just landed the lead in the newest West End production of the Bard’s Scottish Play, he was intent on nailing the performance. Transitioning from silver screen blockbusters to the theater had Arden more than a little nervous. What would the critics say? Would they eviscerate him because he was a film star or would they be fair and openminded? It wasn’t as though Arden hadn’t played Shakespeare before; his filmography contained numerous renditions of Shakespeare’s plays, most recently Two Gentlemen of Verona, a modern adaptation which received copious critical acclaim and several BAFTA and Oscar nods.
Jensen had listened to all his brother’s concerns, and he knew that Arden’s staunch cynicism was the catalyst for the current dilemma he now found himself in; his little brother firmly believed that unless his live performance was above reproach, his foray into the theater would be ruined forever. For a man who displayed implacable nonchalance and confidence ordinarily, Arden’s nervousness about his upcoming theatrical debut betrayed a streak of apprehension Jensen hadn’t believed existed in his brother. Those sort of doubts were more his province. Arden had always been the one to shake him from the ab-dabs, but over the last several weeks, that role had fallen staunchly on Jensen’s shoulders and he worried he was doing a rather poor job of it. Never mind the countless examples he was given of movie stars who’d done it with aplomb, Arden was adamant that he had to be perfect. After three weeks of continuous practice- often showing up at Jensen’s third floor flat with a bottle of scotch (for atmosphere) and a spare copy of the play- Arden’s performance was bang on. He had hammered his lines down like an over-zealous carpenter. But, apparently, it still wasn’t enough.
Tonight, Arden walked into the pub, turning nearly every head- male and female- as he passed to the back to their usual corner booth, slid into the seat across from Jensen, pulled out a thick hardbound anthology of the complete works of William Shakespeare, and pushed it across the table to rest under Jensen’s nose.
Screwing his mouth up, Jensen regarded the imposing tome before looking at his brother. Arden’s handsome face was all eagerness and anticipation.
“Just once through,” he said, grinning broadly.
Jensen took a deep breath, placed a finger firmly in the center of the embossed cover, and slid it back across the table.
“Come on. Just once. We’ll be done in under an hour.”
Arden slid the book back across the table.
The book crossed the table again.
Across the table, the tome traversed yet again.
“I mean it. Just once. I’ll even buy the scotch.”
Jensen scowled. He hadn’t been the biggest fan of scotch to begin with, but Arden insisted on the froufrou single malts that tasted like hospital disinfectant in a bottle. Peaty his arse, Jensen thought with a small chuckle.
That chuckle seemed to encourage Arden, who grinned and signaled for the waiter. Jensen had lost. As seemed to be the plight of the everyday Englishman, dating all the way back to Good Ole King Henry, Once more unto the breach, he would go. Jensen grimaced; he’d been rehearsing with Arden so much of late that he was even quoting Shakespeare in his mind- though, thankfully, not Macbeth.
The imposing volume slid across the table one final time, coming to rest in front of Jensen.
“Page 284,” Arden stated.
Though Jensen flipped to the page, he said, “I don’t think I even need this. We’ve been over it so many times, I know the whole bloody thing by heart.” Arden smirked and shook his head. Then, when their drinks arrived, Jensen intoned the first lines- When shall we three meet again in thunder, lightning, or in rain…
True to Arden’s word, the reading took just seconds under an hour, and Jensen had to admit, the play wasn’t that horrible, even if it was his tenth time through, or was it his twelfth? Thirteenth? Truly, he’d lost count.
“Now, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” Arden asked, tilting his glass at him.
Jensen shook his head. No, it really wasn’t that bad, but he hadn’t wanted to do it. He’d wanted to relax, drink Guinness, and listen to the music. The Ranging Rovers were in town again, and they were playing all the classics- The Orange and the Green, Lily the Pink, and, of course, The Irish Rover. They were also playing some of their originals, compositions incorporating elements from the polyphonic music they’d encountered on their extensive travels. Their songs had diverse cultural range, and Jensen loved to listen to the melding of the Celtic, Indian, Asian, African elements. Tonight they even tipped their hat to the Aussies with a didgeridoo.
Jensen scanned the pub. For a Friday night, it was rather empty, which was a shame for the Ranging Rovers. They deserved a full house. But the night was young, and when the rugby match was over, no doubt the place would fill up.
The bar area was crowded, though, but that was mainly because of the match that was displayed overhead on two flatscreen tellies. Every so often, a unanimous cheer would ring out and more drinks would be ordered. Jensen never followed rugby, so he didn’t know if the preferred team was actually winning, or if the fans in the pub were just holding onto hope.
That’s when it happened. The thick wooden door swung outward and in walked a vision of loveliness. Alfreda Sylvia Norton, Literature Professor, specializing in Shakespeare, and the woman who haunted his idle thoughts with such frequency, she’d begun to invade his more serious cogitations.
Arden’s exclamation drew Jensen’s glued attention away from her, but he only ended up following his little brother’s appreciative gaze back to her again.
“She’s not your type,” Jensen stated. He realized too late that his response had the adverse effect on his brother. Where he had hoped to dissuade Arden’s curiosity, he’d thoroughly, inexorably piqued it.
“Isn’t she?” he remarked. Jensen felt his apprising eyes on him, sifting through his poorly erected subterfuge. “I wasn’t aware that I had a type. I’ve never been that picky. That’s more your sort of thing, Jen.”
Jensen’s lips twitched with irritation. As it had been years since he’d been out on a decent date with a woman- not to mention the plethora of women who had peppered his brother’s love life in that interim- Jensen did not like the inference, no matter how true it might be.
“Regardless. I don’t think you two would get on.”
Understanding dawned on Arden’s face, and the fullness of it was nearly blinding. When he grinned broadly, his teeth flashing in the light, Jensen couldn’t help himself, he laughed, grudgingly.
“That’s the woman.”
“That’s the woman.”
“The woman,” Arden repeated, adding emphasis to the article. “The one that you’ve been going on about for the last year.”
“I have not been going on about anything.”
“True, but it’s you, Jen. One or two specific mentions of a woman and I know you’re smitten. Have you spoken with her?”
“Of course. I’ve lectured for her class on numerous occasions.”
“That’s the Shakespeare professor?” Arden asked, his incredulity lifting the tail of the question to a somewhat hilarious pitch. Jensen laughed again and nodded his head.
“Good God, man. Where were the professors like her when I was going up to uni?”
“Apparently, still being swaddled,” Jensen remarked, though she wasn’t that young. A year or two younger than Arden perhaps, but no more. He took up his pint and finished his warm Guinness.
“Go ask her out.”
“Are you insane?” Jensen replied calmly, setting his glass down.
“Of course not. There’s nothing insane about wanting to ask a woman of that spectacular physique out. Good God. She’s sex on legs.”
Jensen glanced to the doorway where she still stood, her figure in profile as she spoke into her phone, her other hand cupped over her opposite ear. Truly, she was a sight to behold- a vision of loveliness swathed in a form fitting little black dress that showed her long legs off to full advantage. Yet, there was something in the way she held herself, perhaps the slight hunch of her shoulders, or was it the way she pulled at the bottom of her dress every couple of seconds, that betrayed a sort of self-consciousness.
She shook her head and then laughed at what someone on the other end of the line said. Though he couldn’t be completely certain, Jensen was sure she was nervous. He’d been around her when she laughed genuinely and freely. This laugh was neither. It was too tight. Too stiff.
“Jen, go ask her out.”
Jenson just stared at his brother for several long seconds before shifting his attention back to the Ranging Rovers.
“If you’d like, I could go over and ask her out for you,” Arden offered, mischief fully alive in his blue eyes.
“Why? Because that turned out so well when Don Pedro did it for Claudio,” Jensen quipped.
Grinning, Arden said, “You know, for all the complaining you did when you helped me run lines during filming, you just made a great Much Ado About Nothing allusion.”
Jensen sighed, irritation rife in his exhalation. It seemed he had Shakespeare on his heat-oppressed brain. Ordinarily it wouldn’t have bothered him, but in the face of his brother’s obvious gratification, it irked.
“Come on, Jen. Remember: For Brave Macbeth- well he deserves that name—”
“That’s not even one of your lines,” Jensen said.
Arden ignored him and placed a hand over his heart to add just that irritating element of pomposity to his declamation, “Disdaining Fortune, with his brandish’d steel, which smoked with bloody execution, like valour’s minions carved out his passage till he faced the slave.”
Jensen scowled at his brother through the whole recitation and then waited for several long, silent seconds.
“If I went over, I would be going over to ask her out, Arden, not kill her.”
“You never know,” Arden said. “You could slay her with your sexiness.”
“You forget. I am not the movie star. Women don’t throw themselves at my feet.”
Arden’s lips settled into a flat line.
“That was one time.”
“One very dramatic time,” Jensen corrected, with a grin. “Complete with toppling tables and projectile pasta.”
Arden’s brow arched and he exhaled loudly.
“She’s a professor. You’re a professor. You’ve been to how many lectures together? You’ve even given a talk to her students. You already have an in. She obviously likes you.”
“She respects my scholastic achievements and knowledge. That’s a very different thing. If I were to go over there and ask her out, she would turn me down flat.”
“Or she could say yes.”
“She won’t say yes.”
“Didn’t you say that she convinced you to come and talk to her students by saying she hadn’t been able to stop thinking about the conversation you two had about some fairy queen?”
“For a man who needs to run his script lines ad infinitum, your mind is like a steel trap when it comes to all the things I’ve said.”
Arden leaned back, beaming. “Baby brother’s prerogative. Regardless, she’s obviously been thinking about you.”
“So, go over and tell her that you can’t stop thinking about her.” His grin broadened. Intoning, he said, “Screw your courage to the sticking place, man.”
“Don’t try to marshal me, Arden. I’m warning you. I’ve had just about as much Macbeth as I can take. And I’m not one of your adoring fans. I have no compunction at punching you in the face.”
Arden shook his head and laughed, garnering the attention of two women at the table nearest them. They whispered and giggled, and then took out their phones, presumably to take a selfie- one which would include his brother prominently in the background.
“Look, Jen, she’s going to leave and you’ll have missed your chance.” That mischievous smile crossed Arden’s lips again. “If it were done when ’tis done, then ‘twere well it were done quickly.”
Jensen shot out the booth so abruptly, Arden’s sangfroid slipped.
“Enough.” His command even got the attention of Arden’s two fans at that nearby table, who seemed to give him a second once over, perhaps looking beyond the horn-rim glasses to see that he didn’t look wholly different from his brother, just decidedly less dashing. Realizing the attention he drew, Jensen reseated himself. Thankfully, Arden remained silent, though Jensen could sense his little brother’s desire to push him to ask her out seething from across the table.
He had tried to ask her out before. Numerous times. Fear always stilled his hand. She might turn him down. On his own, he was pedantic and trite and no woman, especially a woman as sensual, not to mention scholarly as she, appreciated that. Jensen stared at her, hoping to catch her eye. His hope was not in vain, either, for when she slipped her mobile into her purse, she looked up and locked eyes with him. Amusement and something more, something he understood, something close to nervousness but not quite fear flashed in the depths of her brown eyes. He knew they were brown, even though the meager light in the pub provided no such illumination to confirm it. He remembered them, thoroughly alert and entirely keen the first time he’d met her at a talk on the vagaries of Queen Mab. She’d been there because Shakespeare had waxed iambicly poetic about her; he because he wanted to have a deeper understanding of the complexity of her influence on the dreams of man from her fairy throne. Regardless, that whole weekend still felt like a dream Queen Mab had writ for him specifically, what with Alfreda Sylvia Norton there invading every moment with her presence whether across the room or seated beside him in the lecture hall. And that spritely fairy queen had not left well enough alone. Nope. She’d galloped her wagon across his brain and conjured love into his mind; love, it seemed, looked a lot like Alfreda.
Jensen galvanized the moment she moved from the door. Arden had called her sex on legs, and as Jensen watched her saunter across the room- fixated by the subtle sway of her curvaceous hips- he swore; not only was she sex on legs, but there was something wholly sinful about the entire display of her tonight. Something almost out of character. And while the Bard had warned, with alarum, By the pricking of my thumbs something wicked this way comes, Jensen could only hear the words of Hamlet waffling in his mind: To be or not to be, that is the question.
Alfreda stopped at the corner of the bar, pivoted her weight onto her right leg, and cocked her hip. He read a challenge in those maneuvers, a throwing down of the gauntlet. Ready, aim, fire. He stood as a man at a mark, and she a whole army shooting at him. When her eyebrow arched, he had his answer. To Be. Noble mind be damned!
If he waited any longer, then his tomorrows would become yesterdays, and yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Maybe it was her dress, or perhaps it was Arden’s insistence, or possibly it was just that Jensen was tired of being staid and predictable, plodding away his life trudging from flat to office to lecture hall in that petty pace that only led to the last syllable of recorded time. Every wavering moment was just another step further from his hope. It was not life which was full or sound and fury, signifying nothing, but the doubts that riddled a man and talked him out of his dreams.
“Doubt thou the stars are fire; doubt that the sun doth move; doubt truth to be a liar, but never doubt I love.”
“What?” Arden asked.
Jensen did not answer him. Instead, he threw back his single malt, swallowed the fiery liquid courage, rose from his shadowed corner booth, and stepped resolutely toward the bar where she stood, her fitted dress hugging her voluptuous body like an over amorous lover who knew all her best kept secrets. It was obscene. It was erotic.
Jensen chuckled softly to himself.
“Fair is foul and foul is fair, ole chap,” he muttered. “Now, steady on.”
Her dark eyes watched him as he approached. When he stepped beside her, elbowing for a small space at the bar, she lifted her left eyebrow higher. He could not be certain, but he thought he saw her lips curve slightly as though his presence didn’t displease her. As though, she welcomed it. She even seemed to shimmer with relief, as though she had been wanting him to traverse the room to settle at her side. Or maybe he was simply hoping.
“May I buy you a drink, Alfie?”
Her lips flattened and he heard the sharp click of her teeth as her jaw tightened.
“You know I prefer Sylvia.” A whetted edge of annoyance sharpened her plummy voice.
“But how did Juliet say it? What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Her lush mouth gaped with surprise. He signaled for another drink, a smug smirk on his face. That summer break in Italy, running Romeo and Juliet with Arden for his upcoming movie had not been for nothing after all. At the time, it had been pure hell set to a backdrop of heaven; now the backdrop had invaded the foreground, and it was all divine decadence.
“Pleased with yourself, are you?” she asked. Jensen watched her run her middle finger over the rim of her martini glass, the red polished tip colliding with the toothpick impaled on two green olives. All the while, fleeting remnants of amusements held in the curve of her lips.
“Rather. Although, I suppose a name is important. In regards to your preferred one, I think Valentine said it best?” He paused, gauging her response. When he saw her pitch forward slightly, betraying her intrigue, he continued, reciting Two Gentlemen of Verona, “What light is light if Silvia be not seen? What joy is joy, if Silvia be not by? Unless it be to think that she is by and feed upon the shadow of perfection.”
“A shadow of perfection, good sir, is all you will feed upon where I am concerned,” she retorted before closing her mouth around an olive and sliding it off the toothpick.
Jensen might have taken umbrage were it not for the twinkle in her eye. He chuckled, lifting his Guinness to her in salute before saying, “Slings and arrows, love. Slings and arrows.”
Quoting Shakespeare, especially those portions where his wooing of women was nonpareil, felt a little like dirty pool, but he ignored that. He had to press his advantage anyway he could, and, for a Professor of Folklore who cloistered himself away during term with nothing but his books and his students’ papers for company, Shakespeare was the only advantage he could think of, particularly where she was concerned. Besides, from the flare of her nostrils and the catch in her breathing, Sylvia was impressed. Although, she quickly masked it, circling the delicate martini glass with her long fingers and lifting it to her mouth for a drink. When the glass returned to the counter, a perfect blush imprint of her lips lingered on the rim.
Remembering something Arden had said about never breaking intense eye contact, he kept his gaze on her as he sipped his beer. Whether the eye contact or the remark, Sylvia shook her head and gave him the smallest offering of hope thus far- a laugh.
“You have a very merry laugh,” he said, feeling tension shirk off his shoulders as he leaned on the bar. “The sort that could haunt a man’s dreams.”
Haunt a man’s dreams? He should just keep his mouth shut and say nothing until something Shakespearean came to mind. But, it was too late. So, he continued.
“Dreams are extremely important to the soul of a man.”.
“I will not argue with that.” She bit off the second olive, discarding the toothpick on her cocktail napkin. She leaned closer to him, so close he could smell salt on her breath. “Tell me, Professor, of what do you dream?”
He had an answer. One that even the bawdy Bard would approve of, but he did not utter it. Instead, he lifted his Guinness and took a drink, his mind questing for some sort of reply that made him look neither the fool nor the pervert. By the time he placed his glass on the counter, he had one.
“It doesn’t matter for a dream itself is but a shadow.”
Again, her lips pursed with amusement. He knew she knew her Hamlet backwards and forwards, and probably in French and Italian, too. And after that winter term break in Denmark with Arden, so did he for the most part.
“But is it a shadow of perfection, I wonder?”
“I believe someone very wise once said that a dream is a wish your heart makes when you’re fast asleep.”
Her eyebrows lifted. “Cinderella. Really? I didn’t expect that from a professor of folklore.”
“What? Did you think I just sat around all day and declaimed Yeats?”
From the expression on her face, that’s precisely what she thought he did. Then she grinned.
“Well, you do quote Shakespeare with panache, why not Walt Disney, too?”
“Shakespeare should always be quoted with panache.”
She rolled her eyes, but could not stop the smile that lit up her face.
“As to Disney, I can’t quote Shakespeare all the time, now, can I?”
“Next you’ll be quoting Aerosmith.”
“Is that some subtle way to encourage me to dream on, as it were, feasting on the shadow of perfection?”
Sylvia laughed and shook her head, blush filling her cheeks. It was nice to know he could have such an effect on her. Being the shy scholarly sort, he needed all the encouragement he could get, and nothing was more encouraging than a laugh from a beautiful woman while she blushed.
“When I was getting ready to see you tonight, I didn’t think it would turn out this way.”
Getting ready to see him? Had she come here, dressed like a siren, and sung him into her trap all with premeditated intent?
“How did you think it would turn out?”
Again she blushed.
“Not quite this fun, but then, Myrtle did warn me about you. I just assumed she was being overly dramatic.”
“She does tend toward the overly dramatic,” Jensen agreed, thinking of his handful of run-ins with the theatre director for the university. “But, what, precisely, did she warn you about?”
“That you were not what you appeared.”
“And, how precisely, do I appear?” For emphasis, he pushed his glasses further up his nose with his finger.
“Bookish and aloof.”
“It’s the glasses, isn’t it?” Sylvia nodded, smiling herself. “Glasses seem to hide a great many things, what for them being transparent and all. One mustn’t forget that Superman concealed himself behind horn-rims rather successfully, and I believe we can both agree, that whilst cloaked as Clarke, he most certainly was not what he appeared to be.”
“Are you saying you’re Superman?”
Jensen barked a laugh.
“Alas, good madam, I cannot fly.”
Sylvia shook her head rather solemnly.
“Ah, I’m rather disappointed, good sir. You have forgotten your Henry VI.”
He cocked his eyebrow and tilted his head, curious and prepared to wait for her answer. She stood straight and intoned, “Knowledge is the wing wherein we fly to heaven.”
“Well, then,” he said, standing up straighter himself, “by that stipulation, I suppose I am an aerial being after all.” Extending his hand, he said, “Come fly with me.”
Jensen tried to ignore his physical reaction when Sylvia bit her bottom lip between her teeth, unconcealed mirth dancing in the darkness of her eyes.
“And what knowledge will be the wings upon which you’ll fly.”
He supposed he’d set himself up for that question. His mind scrambled, but he could think of nothing in response. Stalling for time, he glanced over to where his brother sat. Arden watched them intently, his scotch held aloft. When he caught Jensen’s eye, he set the glass down then twisted his arm outward until it was fully extended. Screw your courage to the sticking place, he mouthed.
Faintly, like an echo from a far off mountaintop, he heard the words his brother had rehearsed with him five years ago for his role in Much Ado About Nothing: Peace! I’ll stop your mouth with a kiss.
Without caring that the pub was crowded or that anyone might see- including, potentially, one of his or her students- he pulled her into his arms and kissed her. Thoroughly. And though he couldn’t be sure, as his glasses were dislodged and askew, Jensen thought he detected Arden, from the corner of his eye, stand, whoop a shout, and applaud.
Well, dear readers, I hope you enjoyed that jaunt. Tell me, did I miss one of your favorite Shakespearean lines? If I did, please, please, please, share it with us. And, as the Duke of Bedford said to the Duke of Salisbury in Shakespeare's Henry V: Farewell, good readers, and good luck go with thee! (All right. I paraphrased that, but the sentiment is the same.)
Post Script: Who is the greatest chicken-killer in Shakespeare?
Macbeth, because he did murder most fowl!