On July 12, 2013, Joyce and I saw a production of Richard II, at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts. It was the last of the Bard's plays we had not seen in live performance. I've been writing about earlier experiences with Shakespeare--and how all of them, more or less, propelled me to Lenox that night.
About all I knew about Shakespeare in my childhood was that he lived a long time ago, he said "to be or not to be," and he was impossible to understand. I did own a few Classics Illustrated comics of some of the plays--Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, and some others--but they were not among those I read repeatedly--like The Call of the Wild, The Last of the Mohicans, The Deerslayer, and even Moby-Dick. And if there was a new issue of Superman around (or Superboy), forget Classics Illustrated.
I recall no experiences at all with Shakespeare in elementary school. Our own son, in fifth grade, was in a production of Julius Caesar (much edited); he played Man in Haste and came running out (thus: in haste), said something hastily, then moved hastily along. But we read about Dick and Jane, not Richard II or III.
This is the very first speech:
Hence! home, you idle creatures get you home:Okay, we've got a weird name--Flavius (no one at Hiram High School had a name remotely like it). We've got hence, which meant nothing to me. Being mechanical? I pictured robots. What trade art thou? I knew about trades: The Cleveland Indians always made bad ones. (See the problem?) And all that thou stuff sounded a lot like the Bible, which always made me feel guilty, often for good reason.
Is this a holiday? what! know you not,
Being mechanical, you ought not walk
Upon a labouring day without the sign
Of your profession? Speak, what trade art thou?
Let's just say that I did not do well during our unit on Julius Caesar. Compounding the situation? A teacher impossible to fool. Mr. Brunelle had almost finished his Ph.D. in Classics--so not only did he know Shakespeare, he knew all that freaking Roman history junk, too. There are times, believe me, when you want a teacher as dumb and ignorant as you are.
Our junior year was American literature, so ... no Shakespeare. For some reason, it's traditional in American high schools to do American lit--and often American history, too--during the junior year. Not sure how all that got started. But later, when I taught at Western Reserve Academy, the American literature curriculum in English III included Hamlet anyway. "Hamlet," I used to tell my students, "that great American hero."
But our senior year, here came Macbeth, and, again, I found myself not up to the task. Mr. Brunelle had retired, and in his place was a veteran teacher who'd retired elsewhere and had returned to the classroom probably because she'd discovered, very quickly (as I did decades later), that a teacher's pension check isn't all that impressive. She was a nice enough woman--but not in his league as a scholar. She seemed to know as little about Macbeth as we did, an ignorance that was somewhat comforting, though it didn't help me on the quizzes, which (except from the answers I'd gleaned from Classics Illustrated), were all exemplars of the variety of Error. And, again, the language left me cold and confused. Take the Sergeant's speech from very early in the play ...
Doubtful it stood;I couldn't make anything out of that. Something about swimming and choking art (I picture someone throttling a statue?) and gallowglasses (what you wear when you're being hanged?) and whores (I knew what they were, courtesy of my nasty friends) and slaves and chaps (was this a Western?) and a head of some kind. Otherwise, I was clueless. And just hoped my less-than-stellar quiz grades would not too severely damage my grade for the entire marking period. (Vain, idle hope!)
As two spent swimmers, that do cling together
And choke their art. The merciless Macdonwald--
Worthy to be a rebel, for to that
The multiplying villanies of nature
Do swarm upon him--from the western isles
Of kerns and gallowglasses is supplied;
And fortune, on his damned quarrel smiling,
Show'd like a rebel's whore: but all's too weak:
For brave Macbeth--well he deserves that name--
Disdaining fortune, with his brandish'd steel,
Which smoked with bloody execution,
Like valour's minion carved out his passage
Till he faced the slave;
Which ne'er shook hands, nor bade farewell to him,
Till he unseam'd him from the nave to the chaps,
And fix'd his head upon our battlements.
But when Macbeth lost his head, Shakespeare in high school ended for me. And a few months later I was sitting in English 101 at Hiram College, taking the course with Prof. Charles F. McKinley in the summer before the beginning of the regular academic year. "Getting a head start," as my dad put it. (He had told me I could either go to school or get a job. I chose school--not nearly so much work.)
TO BE CONTINUED ...