Monday, May 17, 2010

Lovers and Losers (Part Three)

Dum spiro, spero

(While I breathe, I hope.)


Tennis Match (Scenario 1):

It is match point for the server, but it is second serve. The receiver watches as the ball arches toward the far corner of the service box. He lunges for it, but to no avail. The ball, with the help of the wispiest of breezes, kicks up chalk; the serve is an ace and the receiver plunges into despair as the match is lost.

Tennis Match (Scenario 2):

It is match point for the receiver, and it is second serve. The receiver watches as the ball arches toward the far corner of the service box. He lunges for it, but to no avail. The ball, with the help of the wispiest of breezes, however, lands just outside the service box. It is a double fault. The receiver throws his racket into the air in joy at his triumph.

Now, what should be apparent from these scenarios is that in neither case did the receiver’s actions play any role in the outcome of the point. The laws of physics, the law of gravity, and the whim of Mother Nature determined where the ball would ultimately land. And yet, where the ball landed determined the receiver's emotional reaction. He let forces outside his command control him.*


In a recent article on** Daniel Engber wrote of his rooting for the underdog (or whoever was behind in the game) during the 2010 NCAA basketball tournament:
Soon I found myself cheering for a Spartans team that couldn't get it together in the second half. They made a late run—closing to within one point in the final minute—but, alas, my disappointment was guaranteed. (If Michigan State had come back, I would have been pulling for Butler.) When the game ended, I fell into a sour mood.
So, here is a man who didn’t dribble one ball, shoot one basket, or attempt one free throw falling into “a sour mood” because of events completely out of his control.


Surely, the absurdity of allowing, like the tennis receiver or Mr. Engber or the pale lover of Suckling’s poem, agents beyond one’s control to determine one’s emotional well-being should be strikingly evident. To allow oneself to be blown about by the whims of others or to concede to the forces of nature the power to subject one to joy or despair is to surrender one’s emotional autonomy; in reality, to concede that one is a loser. And a loser has only one fallback—hope.

Hope is the food of losers.


At the beginning of this essay I quoted words written in his copy of Shakespeare’s Second Folio by King Charles I of England while imprisoned after being dethroned by the forces of Parliament. Charles was the consummate loser; he lost his breath, his hope, and his head simultaneously.


*In The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance, W. Timothy Gallwey looks at this from the perspective of the tennis ball.

**Daniel Engber, “The Underdog Effect: Why do we love a loser?” Available at:

Monday, May 10, 2010

Lovers and Losers (Part Two)

One of the loveliest ballads in the Great American Songbook is “I’ll Be Around” (words and music by Alec Wilder). It goes (in part):
I'll be around,
No matter how
You treat me now
I'll be around from now on.

Your latest love
Can never last,
And when it’s past,
I'll be around when he's gone.
A beautiful song—but totally wrong-headed.

The persona, having been dumped (once again) by his* former flame, will put his life on hold until she changes her mind and returns to him (he thinks). He is in despair now, but will be in seventh heaven when she recognizes that he is the true and steadfast lover. Unfortunately, no one can make another person love him (or her). And, so, the persona is left to spend his days allowing the fickleness and whims of another to control his emotional destiny.

He would do well to consider the advice offered in the third (and final) stanza of Sir John Suckling’s “Why So Pale and Wan?”:

Quit, quit for shame, this will not move,
This cannot take her;
If of herself she will not love,
Nothing can make her;
The devil take her.

*The persona can, of course, be a woman.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Lovers and Losers (Part One)

A young actor, plucked from obscurity, is chosen to play Hamlet in a major new London production of Shakespeare’s tragedy. His director, knowing that the young actor will benefit from all the advice he can get, arranges an interview for him with Sir ____, the last of the great actor-managers, whose fame rests on his countless tours with his troupe, bringing the classics to regional theaters throughout Great Britain.
So, early one morning the young man boards a train to Leeds, where the grand old man of the theater is to play the title role in King Lear. Sir ____ is decidedly generous with his time, spending several hours describing his Hamlet experiences and answering the young actor’s questions. At last, Sir _____ gets up from his chair and begins to escort the other man to the door.
“You must excuse me,” the theatrical knight says, “but I must begin my preparations for this evening’s performance.”
“I want to thank you for your time and patience,” says the young man, “but, if you don’t mind, I do have one last, rather strange question. At any time during the course of the play, does Hamlet ever sleep with Ophelia?”
“Well,” answers Sir ____, “I can’t speak for London, but in the provinces, most definitely.”*


In actuality, from evidence in the play it is clear that Hamlet and Ophelia were never lovers. In Act II, Scene 1, Ophelia relates to her father, Polonius, the following appearance of Hamlet:

My lord, as I was sewing in my closet,
Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced;
No hat upon his head; his stockings foul'd,
Ungarter'd, and down-gyved to his ankle;
Pale as his shirt; his knees knocking each other;
And with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosed out of hell
To speak of horrors,--he comes before me.

And what is Polonius’ response to this?
Mad for thy love?
Why is that Polonius’ instantaneous response?

Consider this excerpt from As You Like It (Act III, Scene 2), which was written at about the same time as Hamlet:

ROSALIND (disguised as Ganymed)
There is a man haunts the forest, that
abuses our young plants with carving 'Rosalind' on
their barks; hangs odes upon hawthorns and elegies
on brambles, all, forsooth, deifying the name of
Rosalind: if I could meet that fancy-monger I would
give him some good counsel, for he seems to have the
quotidian of love upon him.

I am he that is so love-shaked: I pray you tell me
your remedy.

There is none of my uncle's marks upon you: he
taught me how to know a man in love; in which cage
of rushes I am sure you are not prisoner.

What were his marks?

A lean cheek, which you have not, a blue eye and
sunken, which you have not, an unquestionable
spirit, which you have not, a beard neglected,
which you have not; but I pardon you for that, for
simply your having in beard is a younger brother's
revenue: then your hose should be ungartered, your
bonnet unbanded, your sleeve unbuttoned, your shoe
untied and every thing about you demonstrating a
careless desolation; but you are no such man; you
are rather point-device in your accoutrements as
loving yourself than seeming the lover of any other.

Rosalind’s description of “her uncle” is that of the classic picture of the courtly lover who has been rejected by the woman he is enamored with. Disconsolate, he has no concerns about his appearance or most anything else in the world.
And, it is clear, Rosalind’s description of the rejected lover fits Hamlet down to his socks. (Earlier in Hamlet, Polonius had ordered Ophelia to have nothing further to do with Hamlet, and the dutiful daughter obviously obeyed.)

Most people, I would guess, do not realize that before Romeo set eyes on Juliet, he was mooning over Rosaline.

Act I, Scene 1
What sadness lengthens Romeo's hours?
Not having that, which, having, makes them short.
In love?
Of love?
Out of her favour, where I am in love.

And that exchange explains this description of his son’s behavior by Romeo’s father (also I,1):

Many a morning hath he there been seen,
With tears augmenting the fresh morning dew.
Adding to clouds more clouds with his deep sighs;
But all so soon as the all-cheering sun
Should in the furthest east begin to draw
The shady curtains from Aurora's bed,
Away from the light steals home my heavy son,
And private in his chamber pens himself,
Shuts up his windows, locks far daylight out
And makes himself an artificial night.

A few decades after Hamlet and AYLI, Sir John Suckling wrote the lines that best satirized the image of the disconsolate, disheveled rejected lover:

“Why so pale and wan fond lover?” (First two stanzas)

Why so pale and wan fond lover?
Prithee why so pale?
Will, when looking well can't move her,
Looking ill prevail?
Prithee why so pale?

Why so dull and mute young sinner?
Prithee why so mute?
Will, when speaking well can't win her,
Saying nothing do't?
Prithee why so mute?


*This joke I have retained in my memory for about half a century. As I recollect, I heard it on the Tonight Show when it was hosted by Jack Paar. I have always thought that it was told by the actor Laurence Harvey—but, then again, I have always associated the following joke with Harvey and the Tonight Show (so, after all this time, who knows who told what joke?):

A London bobby is given an unexpected half a day off.
He arrives home about mid-day to discover his wife in bed with three men.
“Allo! Allo! Allo! What’s all this then?”
The wife lifts herself up from the pillows and says, “What’s the matter? You not talking to me now?”