No More Cakes and Ale

A couple years ago, I was asked to write an article for a straight edge zine that never came out. Rather than let an interesting piece languish unpublished, I recovered from the depths of my hard drive and present it here, a loosely organized meditation on being a straight edge bardolator.

No More Cakes and Ale?

Most people know only two facts about me. Firstly, they know that I am a corny, fanatical edgeman, so corny and fanatical in fact that I legally changed my middle name to Straightedge. Secondly, they know that I love Shakespeare, love him so much in fact that I spend nearly all my free time working on various Shakespeare projects: publishing a Shakespeare zine, working in theatre, teaching classes, and traveling internationally to do Shakespeare-related research. The two pillars of Shakespeare and straight edge are what prop up my life.

However, given the esoteric nature of this pair of interests, few understand the difficulty of being both devoted to Straight Edge and to Shakespeare. In order to elucidate the finer points of this difficulty, I should talk first about my own personal and subjective attitudes toward these two pillars, and then finish with some objective contradictions between the two.

I should note early that I do not at all mean to suggest that straight edge kids should not read Shakespeare, or that fans of Shakespeare shouldn’t consider the benefits of sobriety. Anyone with wide-ranging interests has to make compromises when it comes to conflicts between those interests. Rather than weakening their devotion, a constant questioning and reevaluation of those interests keeps a person sharp and engaged. As straight edge kids we should be comfortable with difficulty and adversity; we are after all, forged in the flames of chaos. Also, the last thing we need is straight edge kids who read less than they already do.

For seventeen years straight edge has been the defining idea around which my life has been centered. It would be impossible for me to convey in just a paragraph or two what I have yet to fully explain in pages of zines and blogs that I’ve written. Suffice it to say that I am a true believer. I claimed edge when I was fifteen and for over half of my life now I have been the kind of corny zealot that other straight edge kids make fun of. I’m covered in straight edge tattoos. I’m vegan. I legally changed my middle name to Straightedge. I publish a straight edge zine. I ran a hardcore venue for two years. I’ve traveled around the country and around the world to see straight edge bands. As I’ve gotten older, even as I’ve become somewhat divorced from the hardcore scene in general, I’ve become more and more sure of the fact that the decision I made at fifteen years old to eschew drugs and alcohol was the best decision I ever made. I am the child of two heroin addicts; I was born to lose. Straight edge is the only thing that kept me out of the gutter.

My journey with Shakespeare has been a longer, more winding one. Unlike my revelatory experience discovering straight edge, my love of Shakespeare grew slowly and gradually over time. My first time hearing Shakespeare was in elementary school watching Star Trek. There were tons of references to Shakespeare on Star Trek and that’s what initially piqued my interest. But it wasn’t until 2008 when I started reading Shakespeare more seriously that I became truly obsessed. I read every Shakespeare play back to back. I started going out to see every local production I could. I started a Shakespeare book club. I created a Shakespeare zine. I flew to England to spend two weeks doing Shakespeare research. I’m covered in Shakespeare tattoos. And now I am on staff as the dramaturgy coordinator for a Shakespeare theatre company. Shakespeare has come to embody for me all the greatest things about literature and the English language. I am not exaggerating when I say that Shakespeare is my religion.

So where does the difficulty arise? Well, I credit straight edge with saving my life. Coming from a long line of addicts and afflicted with more than my fair share of emotional problems, militant sobriety is the linchpin that keeps me from falling apart. But the Shakespeare that I encounter in the text constantly is fundamentally opposed to Puritanism in all its myriad forms. I try never to describe Shakespeare, but rather to describe “my Shakespeare,” to make it clear that I am describing the man as I see him, and not as a universal portrait agreed upon by all scholars. It is difficult to ever nail Shakespeare down to an unequivocal opinion on anything because in his plays the words are obviously spoken by characters and may or may not represent his actual thoughts, and it has been argued that even the sonnets are spoken from the point of view of a character and not necessarily from Shakespeare’s own personal view.  But there are themes that you can find over and over in Shakespeare that seem to suggest a philosophical tendency, if not a dogma per se. For example, in plays like Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, and the entire history cycle, my Shakespeare seems to have a distrust of populism and mob mentality. In many plays my Shakespeare mocks ideological self-restraint and is merciless in his treatment of puritanism.

Of course I enjoy plenty of art and music that glorifies alcohol and drug use. I am a huge fan of hip hop, and The Big Lebowski is one of my favourite films of all time. I don’t have a problem enjoying entertainment that glorifies intoxication; it has never been an affront to my belief system. But for me Shakespeare has always been more than entertainment; he is the fount of wisdom and it is harder for me to dismiss an idea from Shakespeare than from anyone else.

As an American atheist living in the 21st century, I have always bristled when people have referred to straight edge as puritanical. Americans live in a republic founded by puritans and so for us, puritans are the establishment. For centuries American politics has been dominated by reactionary Christians raised on bastardized Calvinism. For me, I couldn’t equate straight edge with puritan ideas because straight edge by its association with hardcore punk has always had a strong anti-establishment bent. “We aren’t puritans,” I would always contend, “because the majority of us are atheist, we’re punk revolutionaries who hate the establishment.” But in the course of studying Shakespeare and Elizabethan history, the more uncomfortable parallels I have found between straight edge and puritanism.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Puritans were anti-establishment rebels. They preached self-restraint and sobriety; they railed against the excesses of their day. They were persecuted and mocked even as they gained political power. They felt they were making the difficult choices for the best reasons. This isn’t to say that their ideas were necessarily in line with our own, but there are some strong similarities. The words of early modern Puritans sometimes sounds like the uncompromising fiery rhetoric of ’90s straight edge bands like Earth Crisis.

“Excess of passion in opposing evil, though not to be justified yet showeth a better spirit than a calm temper.” —Sibbes

“Let no man think to kill sin with few, easy, or gentle strokes. He who hath once smitten a serpent, if he follow not on his blow until it be slain, may repent that ever he began the quarrel. And so he who undertakes to deal with sin, and pursues it not constantly to the death.” —John Owen

“Street by street, block by block, taking it all back. The youth immersed in poison, turn the tide, counterattack.” —Earth Crisis

My Shakespeare was, by all accounts, a country boy who was full of the pleasures of life. He was fond of seasonal festivals and the free license they afforded to otherwise immoral and excessive behaviors. Whenever he put a Puritan on stage he made sure to make him the loser in every situation, Malvolio in Twelfth Night being the best example. He created some of his most endearing and enduring characters avid proponents of wine and debauchery, Falstaff of the Henry IV plays being the best example.

Of course Shakespeare does occasionally have a character rail against drunkenness. My favourite anti-alcohol quote from Shakespeare is spoken by Cassio in Othello. Cassio, generally not a drinker, has been encouraged to get drunk by the scheming Iago. Iago then arranges for Cassio to be provoked into a fight while drunk so that he can be publicly disgraced for being a lush and a hothead. Later Cassio bemoans his terrible decision-making to Iago, unaware that it was his fault, saying “Oh, that men should put an enemy in their mouths to steal away their brains! That we should, with joy, pleasance revel and applause, transform ourselves into beasts!”

But those kinds of sentiments are few and far between. What we get much more often is things like Sir Toby Belch berating Malvolio in Twelfth Night: “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” This statement is perfectly Shakespearean, it is pithy, ironic, and devastatingly sharp.

Of course it’s not just in the text that a straight edge individual finds difficulties, but it’s also in the experience of working with other Shakespeareans. Actors and theatre types have earned their reputation for a love of drink, so at cast parties and theatre galas, I find myself in a situation with which every straight edge kid is familiar: standing around drinking water and feeling terribly out of place.

I don’t mean to say that any of these circumstances have led me to question my commitment to the straight edge. In seventeen years I’ve never for a moment questioned my edge. But it does make me worry that Shakespeare himself would never approve of me, my devotion to his works, or the sober, severe, monkish reverence with which I approach the study of them. I think that he might find me quite like Malvolio, a presumptuous killjoy and a puritan who lives by far too many rules and cannot enjoy the bounteous pleasures that life offers up gratis.

Like I’ve said many times, it is only through a challenge to our beliefs that we find out what our true convictions are. Although I find a lot of resistance to straight edge ideology within the works of Shakespeare, that doesn’t weaken my love of either. In looking at Shakespeare it is important to consider both the original context as well as the cultural baggage the works have picked up over the last 400+ years. Although I see strong parallels between the Puritans in Renaissance England and straight edge kids today, I also see the obvious differences. Straight edge kids now are more humanist than the Puritans who saw humanity as fundamentally flawed and practiced their strictures in order to be less of this world. The straight edge ideology is fundamentally concerned with being more human, and more concerned with this world. Straight edge kids want to be more in touch with their ideas and their actions, more aware of the world around them.

It might be an unproductive and losing argument, but I would push hard for Shakespeare to understand that not all sobriety is a rejection of life but that in the context of 21st century America, intoxication is so ubiquitous and banal that radical, puritanical sobriety is a means by which we embrace more of life, even if we lose some of the organic spontaneity of it. I would make the argument to my friend William that any elements of excitement, danger, “misrule,” play, and festivity that we lose with sobriety we regain and then some through the explosive, chaotic, playful nature of that theatre of the absurd that we call the hardcore scene.

In the end, I think that the greatest conflict between my two loves of Shakespeare and Straight Edge ends up being a source of enormous strength, and that is the conflict between what is on the one hand a very definite, absolutist ideology, and an art that is anything but definite and absolute. Straight edge is rigid, absolute, pure and powerful in its uncompromising boundaries. The works of William Shakespeare revel in ambiguity, ambivalence, and endless interpretation. Shakespeare embraces double entendre and mercurial language, and that nebulousness is multiplied when the works are staged in infinite ways with infinite casts throwing their own spin on the story. Straight edge is by its definition a set of boundaries, a list of excluded practices, and a very short list at that. These two concepts couldn’t be more opposed and that is wonderful in my life. If my life was entirely defined by the simple rigidity of straight edge dogma, I might stagnate, but if I was entirely devoted to the anarchic free license and excess of the ambiguity of Shakespeare’s words, I might lose all the structure of my life and end up like Falstaff did in the end, rejected by his best friend, dying of some combination of alcoholism and syphilis.