Tuesday, November 18, 2014
"I Just Dislike Shakespeare"
In a recent Facebook comment, a former student from long ago confessed this: "I just dislike Shakespeare ... I just feel disdain and general ugh." She wrote the note apologetically: She knows I love the Bard. I'm continually posting things about him on Facebook, and I've written a YA biography of him--All the World's A Stage: The Worlds of William Shakespeare (Kindle Direct, 2012). (Link to the book on Amazon.) Last year I wrote a series of blog posts about my slow, growing affection for the Bard that resulted, after many years, in my seeing all of his plays onstage, a quest that took Joyce and me many, many places.
Yes, as I wrote in those pieces, I hated him, too. We read Julius Caesar and Macbeth in high school, and I could understand virtually none of it. I could not comprehend why he had such a global reputation, why everyone seemed to think he was a genius, the best writer in the English language--Hell, he doesn't even use English!
It was no better in college. I read Macbeth again in English 101 (hated it--the play, not the class), then majored in American literature, my subtle way to avoid any courses about Shakespeare, a way eased by the absence my senior year of the professor who taught those courses (sabbatical leave).
After I graduated, I began my career in a nearby middle school (where I met the young woman who wrote to me today) and proceeded to avoid Shakespeare for some years ... though I read some of the plays on my own (Hamlet was one of them), just to see. Reading him slowly--without tests or papers on him hanging over me like the sword of Damocles--was better. I slowly (slowly) started to "get it."
In the 1985-1986 school year I decided to use The Taming of the Shrew with my 8th graders. I figured they would like the war-between-the-sexes stuff (which can rage in middle school), the young lovers stuff (which can rage in middle school)--and I knew they would love the Zeffirelli film with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (they did).
In the early 1990s I switched to Much Ado About Nothing because of the wonderful Kenneth Branagh film just released--with Emma Thompson, Kate Beckinsale, Denzel Washington, Keanu Reeves, Michael Keaton, Robert Sean Leonard, and numerous other notables. (The kids liked that film, too!)
By then--by the mid-80s--I was a Shakespeare fanatic: I'd read all the plays (many multiple times); seen many productions, many films; read many books about the Elizabethans, about Shakespeare. I went to Stratford-Upon-Avon and other relevant places. I often took groups of kids to see plays and films in Cleveland and elsewhere.
And I learned something I probably should have known but didn't: The more I knew about him and his world, the more I enjoyed the plays. And they are plays--meant to be seen and heard, not read. Great actors bring life to the words--can help you understand even when you don't know what the words mean.
I've often said/written that if Shakespeare were somehow to materialize today in a middle school cafeteria somewhere and sit with a group of 8th graders, he would understand virtually nothing about what he experienced--the language, the clothing, the food, the smells, the sounds, the devices (electronic and otherwise), the lights, the clocks--none of it. If he hoped to communicate with those young folks, he would have a lot of learning to do first.
And we are in the same situation. If we want to understand him, we have some work to do, too, in learning about his world--and I can tell you that it's endless work. But--for me--well worth it. More than well worth it.
So ... Facebook friend from decades past ... I feel your pain. I once knew it intimately. But things can change ...
I don't like every celebrated writer whom I'm "supposed" to like. Maybe one day I'll do a post here about the most famous writers I can't stand!