This Is Me (Part XVII: The Shakespeare Thing)
I borrowed my love of Shakespeare from Lynn, my best friend’s mother. She was (is) like a second mother to me, always encouraging my creativity. And when I was still really young—eight or nine—she made me a calligraphy sign with a matte she had hand cut flowers into: “We know what we are, but know not what we may be.”
It’s from Hamlet, crazy Ophelia carrying on, but the words inspired me, and the fact that Lynn had thought to give them to me made me feel loved.
Much later I would perform Hamlet a few different times, then teach it to 9–12 year olds. Who loved it. So many people get tripped up by the language, but get the kids (and adults) past all that and the stories are fantastic. Stuff of soap operas.
In high school we were required to read the four major tragedies, one per year: Romeo and Juliet our freshman year, Julius Caesar our sophomore year, Macbeth our junior year, and finally Hamlet our senior year. Somewhere in there we also read Twelfth Night.
Because I was in honors English Lit, we did a bit more than the other classes. Our freshman year we rewrote Romeo and Juliet—I and one other writerly student were the writing team—into a New York mob/gangster story. (Yes, before Baz did it!) I then played Lord Capulet with a ponytail, sunglasses, a Hawaiian shirt, and a thick Brooklyn accent. Our teacher videotaped it. For the next three years, freshman would come to me and say, “You’re Lord Capulet!”
For Julius Caesar I was Cassius. For Macbeth, the Third Witch. And for Hamlet I was at one point Ophelia, then asked to switch to Hamlet. For Twelfth Night, I was Viola. (I was also Thoreau in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail.)
When I went off to uni, I took some drama/acting classes to fulfill a requirement and had my teacher suggest I make theatre my major; only majors could take the higher-level courses, you see. But even as a non-major, I was able to participate in showcases. I did stuff from Sexual Perversity in Chicago (something about a naked la-la is all I recall), Holiday, Picnic . . . And when I did a scene from Crimes of the Heart with a thick Southern accent then came off stage and spoke in my normal voice, I got yelps of surprise—it seems everyone had assumed the accent was my normal voice. (I’m a natural mimic, which is why my kids love me to read to them; I do all the voices.)
Oh, but Shakespeare. Still and always my favorite. I once saw William Shatner interview Patrick Stewart, and Stewart said something about how Shakespeare came naturally to him, he never had any trouble with the language. It made sense to him. And that’s how it was for me, too. I read and understood. The language barrier simply didn’t exist for me. But then, that was true for poetry as well. I am programmed for these things.
So then I found out about Winedale. And signed right up. And we did Hamlet! But the First Quarto, which is somewhat different from the known text.
The class was actually titled “Shakespeare Through Performance,” and a lot of kids had signed up thinking they would be watching a bunch of Lawrence Olivier movies or something. But a few of us had friends who’d done the course, so we knew the truth. And we were stoked. Once a big group had dropped the class, a core group of us were left. For months we would live together on weekends, practice almost every night . . . It was such a camaraderie.
The auditions were a bit strange. Everyone would participate in the show, and everyone would have two parts: one for the first night, a different one for the second. We were given Kenneth Patchen poems to memorize for the auditions so that Doc Ayers and Madge could decide what our roles would be. My poem began: “Because to really ponder/one needs wonder” . . . I was cast as Corambis, which was the name of the character most people now know as Polonius. (For the second night I was the Murderer in the play and a mere herald, the idea being I shouldn’t be given too many more things to memorize.)
When I perform, I can’t ever remember it afterward. But I suppose I did well since I had people coming up after the show to thank me. I knew that, because the audience was laughing when they were supposed to, it must have been all right. And I was able to cover when Hamlet almost forgot to join me on stage for our discussion of cloud shapes.
Later, having moved to Massachusetts, I was asked to teach Shakespeare at a summer camp. It was surprisingly a very big hit. “My kid won’t stop talking about Shakespeare!” parents kept telling the camp director. And, “I wish we’d learned it that way. I might have liked it more.” I taught Hamlet the first summer, Romeo and Juliet the second, Taming of the Shrew the third, and Macbeth the fourth. Then we moved.
My Hamlet and Macbeth students opted to rewrite and play with the stories. My R&J and TotS students wanted to do the pieces as written. I always gave the class the choice. First rule: Don’t shove it down their throats. If you do, they’ll only gag on it and spit it all up.
I found that discussing the plays opened the door to discussing much bigger issues: suicide, abuse (cuz Petruchio isn’t really very nice to Kate). In every instance it was the kids who broached the topic. But my natural counselor instincts kicked in, and it made for interesting conversation. Later, the girls would ask me for advice about this or that boy, and one of my male students wanted to talk in private about a friend who cut herself, while another wanted to relieve himself of the story of a friend’s brother’s suicide. I like when my students trust me and are comfortable with me.
I don’t have students any more, and I haven’t done any Shakespeare in a long while, but I still enjoy him whenever I get the opportunity. Joss Whedon’s Much Ado was a real treat. And I do believe it’s better to either watch or perform Shakespeare than to read his plays. (Sonnets, you ask . . . Well, I’ve read them . . . But it’s the plays I really like.) Not sure what the educational system hopes to accomplish by having kids read a play, any play, really. Maybe to introduce them to the form? What it looks like on a page? But then, too, plays published for reading versus those published for performance often look different.
I always reminded my students that Shakespeare wasn’t writing to be lofty. He was trying to crank out the next blockbuster play (since there was no film in his day). We treat the work with such reverence, but that’s a bit silly. Better to come at it with a sense of fun. We wouldn’t treat a copy of a Michael Bay script as something to be venerated. No more should we Shakespeare’s plays. To put things on a pedestal automatically makes them distant and untouchable. Shakespeare should be something you get into, like a pit of mud. Wallow in it, splash around. You’ll enjoy it a lot more that way.