Shakespeare & Co., 2013
It's been a little while since I've contributed anything to this series, a series of posts I began when Joyce and I, on July 12, saw at Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, Mass., the final play by Shakespeare we had not yet seen onstage--Richard II, a wonderful production that left us both in tears--for a variety of reasons. As I started writing about that production, I began realizing that I was actually writing my own personal history with Shakespeare--oddly, an assignment I gave my juniors at Western Reserve Academy the final few years of my career (which ended in 2011).
In previous posts I've written about my very reluctant relationship with the Bard. Stated more simply: In school, I hated him. High school, college--I just could not read him. By the time I began my own teaching career in 1966 (seventh grade English, Aurora (Ohio) Middle School), I'd never read a complete Shakespeare play (yes, I'd been assigned a couple), had seen a couple of films (which puzzled me), had seen one live production, Romeo and Juliet, at Hiram College in the fall of 1962--only because a good friend, Jim Vincent, was playing Friar Laurence, and the Juliet was smoking hot (remember: I was a hormonal adolescent, still 17 at the time!).
In 1966, a new middle school teacher, I saw no need for Shakespeare. I was having a hard enough time just dealing with things I understood; why leap into something I didn't understand?!? Besides, no way middle school kids could handle Shakespeare ... right?
But then--for reasons that still puzzle me--I began reading a few of the plays, using a set of little blue books, each an individual play--the Yale Shakespeare--that my parents had given me my senior year in college. I began, boldly, with Hamlet and stunned myself by doing sort of okay with it. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad?
Years passed. Some desultory Shakespeare-reading and -playgoing.
Joyce and I spent the 1978-1979 academic year at Lake Forest College, where I worked with young people who wanted to be teachers. It bored the buttons off my blazer. So a year later, 1979-80, we were back in Ohio, at Western Reserve Academy, where we both joined the English faculty--where we both found ourselves having to teach Shakespeare. (Joyce, by the way, had no problem with it: She'd actually read the plays assigned to her in school, had taken courses at Wittenberg, her alma mater.)
That first year at WRA I had freshmen and juniors. The frosh read The Taming of the Shrew, which I would use many times later on; the juniors, Hamlet. And as the Gloomy Dane himself said, "Ay, there's the rub." As I wrote here last time (July 28), I was terrified that the students would discover--immediately--that I was a fake. (In other words, that they would discover the truth.) I realized that most (all?) of them had read Shakespeare before--that they had actually done their homework (unlike their new teacher)--that they were smarter than I (many were, it turned out)--that ... well, you know Terror? He/She takes many guises, performs in many scenarios enacted on the stages of our minds. The scenarios never end well.
Panic propelled me toward preparation. I realized I didn't know a thing about Shakespeare himself--other than that he lived and died back ... well, a long time ago. He wrote plays. And some sonnets. Many are famous. This was the extent of my knowledge. Time for remedy.
And then the school year began. And my new students filed into the room staring at their new teacher (Why is he so short? Why can't we ever get a hot teacher?), and we met one another, and they wrote essays, and we had discussions, and they read stories and poems and novels.
By Guess Who? (Some of you wiseacres may be thinking, Shouldn't that be "Guess whom?" No: It's elliptical. By Guess Who Wrote the Plays? See? It's not whom wrote the plays.)
NEXT TIME: My first, very "shaky," experiences teaching Shakespeare ...