MY MASTER, MY SHAKESPEARE
It has become increasingly evident to me that the quality of masochism I perceive as a vital component to my sexual relations has also functioned as equally vital to my sustained interest in academia.
The thread of masochism theoretically, if not yet ethically, became apparent as early as Master’s Shakespeare course, when I decided to recite one of Helena’s monologues from A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the required twenty-five line recitation. One of a handful of Shakespeare’s female masochists, Helena—especially the Helena played by Calista Flockhart—was my kindred spirit. We were masochists for and in love; we would prostrate ourselves, shed ourselves of all dignity and self-respect, just for a morsel of affection!
Helena’s words echoed in my head well past the week we read the play in class. My lines were set: the exchange, in Act 2 Scene 1, where Helena begs Demetrius to love her, even though he adamantly insists that he does not, nor cannot, love her:
And even for that do I love you the more.
I am your spaniel; and, Demetrius,
The more you beat me, I will fawn on you:
Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me,
Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave,
Unworthy as I am, to follow you.
What worser place can I beg in your love...
Than to be used as you use your dog?
This declaration was the mold of masochism I poured myself into throughout my undergraduate education, well before I read Freud, Deleuze, or any of the queer scholars who articulated the concept for me in delightfully abstract terms. Helena’s words helped me become the best possible spaniel to my Master, as well as to all the other women I encountered along my subsequent ten year path in graduate school. Ten years of “becoming masochist” fixed the identity as my academic profile, as what I believed to be my truth. Although not all my sadists were scholars, I actively sought intimate relations with cold, cruel women. The repetition provided comfort through familiarity; I knew my position, and I got off on it. Furthermore, my willful submission to these women—suggestively, always older women, by at least ten years—fostered the libidinal sphere of fantasy that clouded over the reality of all these relations.
My fantasy was green and ripe that summer after my graduation. The economy was Shakespeare. I consumed it; I exchanged and bartered in it. Master and I worked tirelessly on “the big Shakespeare book,” along with the critical assistance of her partner of twenty-five years, Ellen, who was no longer teaching due to her terminal illness. While I worked on-campus, conducting research in the library or copy-editing chapters of the manuscript in Master’s office at the Humanities Center, Master and Ellen worked from their second home on Nantucket, writing and revising chapters. While geographically disparate, we were always “connected.” Ours was a virtual daily living—constant emailing from 6 a.m. until 11 p.m. or midnight, primarily between Master and me, but also between Ellen and me, and even the occasional email a trois. From the ether of virtual reality emerged a fastidiously layered structure of desire, which proved the ultimate stimulation for an unparalleled work ethic. Both Master and Ellen were academic superstars — “academidykes” — in the humanities. I related to them in a variety of ways: I wanted to be them; I wanted to fuck them; I wanted to be their intellectual colleague and their culturally savvy mentee; and, most Oedipally, I wanted to be their child, the Athena of their combined intellects.
I wanted to accompany them to conferences, dressed in all black, and hear the whispers of envious colleagues, “She is theirs.”
As the summer progressed, Master and I refined our linguistic economy over email to an efficacious science of aphorisms and acronyms.
Date: July 21, 2002 11:24 a.m.
Subject: no no no
Ok, let me get this straight. You want to move AYLI before H5 and JC, just to have two comedies together? And yet you’re moving MND behind RJ, which separates MND from LLL (another comedy) and places it between two tragedies (ok, RII is classified as a history). No no no. Ok to the MND move, but not the others, and here’s why:
1. H5 is sometimes said to be composed between 1598-9
2. Thomas Platter records seeing JC on 21 Sept 1599
3. The SR records AYLI as 4 Aug 1600
Of course, date of composition and date of performance are different, but the above points do hold some relevance here. I mean, is there any particular reason why you want to make this move, other than to regroup the plays by genre and make things ‘look pretty’?
Date: July 21, 2002 11:30 a.m.
Subject: Re: no no no
Okay, this is why we pay you the big bucks. Ellen and I are persuaded. So we will move 1H6 and switch MND and Romeo.
Date: July 21, 2002 11:32 a.m.
Subject: Re: no no no
Hooray! Point Bianco!
One more thing to confirm: Are we moving 2H4 ahead of MWW? Or leaving it between the H4s?
Date: July 21, 2002 11:37 a.m.
Subject: Re: no no no
Ellen thinks/thought it was better to move the 2nd part so that MWW comes after them. Does this violate the Bianco rule of purity?
The alacrity with which we communicated, the speed of our correspondence, grounded and secured our trust in one another—more importantly, Master’s trust in me—which demonstrated how well we worked together. Naturally, it was only a matter of time before our working relationship became more familiar. Formality took a backseat to camaraderie—it was summer, after all.
Date: July 26, 2002 4:04 p.m.
Working on art patrons book, I came upon Desmond Morris’s website, and found that in his bibliography he not only shows the book covers of all his books, but also gives links to where they can be purchased! Any way we can accomplish this feat?
I fingered a response in less than two minutes: “If you go to your website you can click on the book images and each one will take you straight to Amazon. Oh, I already have it down, my Master!”
Her fingers were equally agile—a minute later, my inbox pinged: “You’re amazing. Thank you.”
Our banter increased, and I took pride in my uncanny ability to transgress almost every boundary of decorum. I delighted in calling her “Master,” and I took her willingness to respond to the appellation as tacit approval. I think, even, she took pleasure in it. My idolatry, to my mind and to others, was the witty exposure of the primal ground of our working relationship. In calling direct attention to this dynamic, I wasn’t so much as reifying it as I was satirizing it.
Because of Ellen’s terminal illness, which progressively crippled her body, the crux of the email communication was between Master and myself. The absence of Ellen in our dialogue affected a kind of triangulation that was sometimes sinister, sometimes awkward, and always overdetermined. Oftentimes I would wonder who was the third in this relation, me…or Ellen? My duty was invariably to my Master, but I knew to weigh Ellen’s words carefully and not to automatically side with Master in all editorial disagreements.
My intuition served me well, despite Master’s demands. “Ellen says she cut the section on ‘Aeneas’s Tale to Dido,’” she began one particular email with relish. “That’s not acceptable to me. I think readers need to know about the relevance of the Priam story. Do you agree with me — or with her?”
“With me” because I was hers. But I discovered a more enjoyable way of responding to this kind of triangulation, taking my strategy by employing Ellen’s rhetorical question “Yes, No, and What Else?” from her book on deconstruction: “I do think that PART of the graph on page 508 can be cut,” I replied, “beginning with ‘Hamlet chooses’ but agree we should keep the second half about Priam,” making sure to end with the question, “What do you think?”
Triangulation is all about compromise — it’s also about transposing responsibility onto an other person in the triad.
In another manifestation of this triangulation, Master would counterpoise an editorial suggestion of mine against one of Ellen’s and then remove herself from adjudication:
“Ellen thinks your suggestion is fine. I’m willing to allow you two to decide.”
But then she would bookend these emails with parenthetically suggestive thoughts that only she, as my Master, could spin: “I think emending the text results in a certain kind of reading of the play,” she noted, “that feels so normative that it’s not very interesting—and it also doesn’t seem to me to be convincing.” And, then, ending her aside with the sentence: “The play flirts—but it doesn’t commit.”
Such went the summer of 2002. Master was indefatigable; her work ethic unflappable. She was consumed by her work, perhaps out of habit, but also perhaps out of comfort and security, born out of a psychological need for avoidance of things in her life that were outside her control—such as Ellen’s deteriorating health. Work was, ironically, a kind of respite from her personal life. Once, that August, she sent an email lamenting her frustration at the loss of a proper holiday, to which I, in my slavish (and selfish) mentality, interpreted as inadequacy on my part. Her response to my apology provided a rare glimpse of the woman underneath the black suit:
“Don’t be silly,” she began, “I couldn’t do any of this without you. I’m enormously grateful. My lack of holiday has as much to do with increased domestic responsibilities in the wake of Ellen’s illness as it has to do with work. And work is what we like, right?”
Yes, we like work. Me and my Master.… My Master, Myself.
Through my unwavering loyalty, allegiance, and self-sacrifice, I earned my Master’s love. Electronic missives of “thanks” were met with presents in the post, from chocolates and dried fruit on my birthday (“Eat the cranberries,” she wrote in the card, “they’re good for you”), to a handcrafted mahogany jewelry box at the end of a particularly arduous manuscript proofing cycle. The day before I left for my graduate studies at Oxford, the staff at the Humanities Center threw me a going away party, and my Master presented me with a gorgeous red leather wallet —filled with British pound notes.
She then gave me a hug, and holding me by both arms, smiled,
“Back to work?”
“Yes, back to work!”
Even though I was scheduled to fly to London the next day, I had to finish the index of another book project and fax it to Master’s publisher before leaving the States.
As my co-workers packed up their things and we said our goodbyes, I took one more bite of the flourless chocolate cake they bought for my celebration and lingered in the hallway of the Humanities Center, the place that had become my home over the course of my senior year. I hadn’t felt like I had a home in years, and my stomach twinged — yes, in part from too much chocolate cake, but also from the recognition that I didn’t want to leave my new home, my colleagues, or my Master.
Walking into Master’s office, I sat in a leather chair—the same leather chair in which I sat when I first interviewed for the job the previous October. I exhaled my anxiety, only to feel its reconstitution upon the intake of the following breath. I jumped up and walked over to the bookshelves that housed every single edition of every single Shakespeare play, in addition to a sizable amount of criticism. I re-shelved a handful of errant Arden 3rd series Hamlets that had been thoughtlessly interspersed among the other Ardens that lined the northern wall of her office.
Running my fingers along the broken spines, I made a course around the perimeter of her office then moved with trepidation to her desk. I sat down in Master’s black leather swivel chair, and lowered my fingers onto the keyboard—where her fingers have laid so many times—with intention.
I checked my email. There were only two messages from Master about the index, and I replied with reassurance that I would accomplish the task before my departure. I opened the index document and went to work, combing through the entire 300-page manuscript and documenting every mention of every noun, from “Arnold, Matthew,” to “Yeats, W.B.”
For the rest of the night, I was grateful for the radio silence from Master so I that I could finish the index without interruption. She must have finally gone to bed, I thought, as I noted the computer clock read 1:03a.m.
A hazy moment later, the clock read 5:43am. By that time the exhaustion that had been creeping through my body for the past couple of hours had fully set in. My fingers were anchors, and, with one laborious click of the mouse, the final draft was officially off to Master for approval. Then I gathered up my things and ran out of the Center, down Quincy Street and onto Cambridge Street, where I kept running, in the middle of the street, until I reached my apartment. I had a few hours before Master woke up to pack, shower, and make it back to the office to complete the index.
After packing I set off one last time for the Humanities Center. It was a little after eight when I arrived, and Master still had not responded with any queries about the index. So, I unloaded my duffle bag and decided to make a coffee run. Next door to Starbucks was an overpriced market from which I grabbed a bag of dried apple slices and a cold burrito, whose expiration I duly noted after I bit into the slime that was previously chicken. Gulping, more than sipping, my café misto, I felt re-energized, and gingerly walked back to the Humanities Center. By the time I sat down at Master’s desk, I had one short missive from her in my inbox.
Magnificent. Such a heroic undertaking. Ready to send.
My heart blushed onto my face. Heroic! My Master thinks I’m heroic! — And, I knew, I was. The email, more than the coffee, reinvigorated my body, and, without losing a breath, I printed and faxed the two-dozen page index to the publisher.
When the fax beeped in confirmation, I let out a sigh, and in that moment my body deflated. The adrenaline rush was gone, and exhaustion returned once more. I slumped into one of the black leather chairs in Master’s office, but before my eyes shut, the phone rang.
“Good morning, the Humanities Center,” I said by rote.
“Miss Maaarrrcie! It’s Haaarrrrrriet!”
“Hi, Harriet dear!,” I echoed back in delight, touched to hear from one of my colleagues early on a Friday morning.
“Miss Marcie, when are you off?,” she said, in her chipper Nebraskan voice.
“Oh, around noon, I think. Why?”
“Well, I won’t be in today and I just wanted to say goodbye before you hopped on that big ol’ plane to Englaaaand!"
“Oh Harriet, thank you! I’m going to miss you.”
“I’m going to miss you too,” she paused. “And, you know, Master is already missing you.
“Yeah, I know,” I said, but had wanted to say, “I am going to miss her so, so much.”
Around noon, I checked my email one last time, and there, in my inbox, sat a new email from Master. Inside read one single line:
“Come back, little Sheba, anytime.”
Puzzled, but flushed with excitement by the suggestiveness, I opened a browser to search for a meaning of the reference. The first line of the Wiki entry offered me more than I could have hoped for:
The synopsis explains that the young woman reminds the husband of how his wife used to be in her younger days. “The title,” the Wiki entry continues, “refers to the wife’s little dog that disappeared months before the story begins and which she still openly misses.”
I was the young woman. I was the dog—I was the spaniel! I was Helena!
The many layers of meaning was the bone, and the boon, that I carried with me, along with my tears, out the door of the Humanities Center and into a cab to the airport.
To England. Oddly, to the home of Shakespeare.
Even though my home would always be with her.
Marcie Bianco, PhD, is a contributing editor at Curve Magazine and an adjunct professor at Hunter College. She has contributed to the Atlantic, A fterEllen, B uzzfeed, T he Daily Dot, Feministing, T he Feminist Wire, T he Huffington Post, L ambda Literary, M ic, Q uartz, Salon, Slate, Vanity Fair, W omen and Hollywood, The Women's Media Center, T he Women’s Review of Books, and X O Jane. She writes, lectures, and makes media appearances about ethics, from feminism to race relations. Her current writing projects include an autofiction about academic affairs and a collection of feminist essays.