“Shakespeare knew everything” –Vincent, Beauty and the Beast
Shakespeare died 400 years ago today. So… Seems like I ought to write something. I am, after all, one of those people who would claim that Shakespeare is simply the best writer in the English language (and maybe all of the languages).
Claire at Part-Time Priest writes a lovely essay about how she first encountered Shakespeare and what his plays have meant to her. I have been thinking of my own story since I read her post this morning. In the end, I studied Shakespeare (as in “subject of my dissertation”), but I kind of came to it kind of late, accidentally, by way of an outstanding teacher of Shakespeare: Me.
It’s not that I didn’t like Shakespeare.
When I was in 5th(?) grade, the high school put on Much Ado About Nothing. In my mind, this was my mom’s favorite Shakespeare. My mom read us the Lambs’ Shakespeare version of the play–a couple times I think–and we went to see the high schoolers. The single thing I remember most were the costumes. I still have a vague picture of the dresses in my head, and I was fascinated by the fact that the “couples” wore matching costumes. I don’t remember if I understood any of the words, but thanks to my mom and Charles and Mary, I understood what was going on, and my memory of the experience remains strong and positive.
In high school we read Romeo and Juliet, Othello, and probably Macbeth (because I know it was in the curriculum. I have no actual memory of reading it). I was not caught by any of them, though I enjoyed reading West Side Story (which we did in conjunction with R&J) and being fascinated with the parallels (shades of future interest).
My freshman year in college, we read 1 Henry IV in the English Lit survey class and I took and thoroughly enjoyed the Tragedies, but in my undergrad, I was more taken with metaphysical poetry and Emily Dickinson and creative writing classes for which we received English credit. (side note: I had the same professor for both of those classes, and he may have been my favorite professor ever. He was old-fashioned, but always learning what was new. He called us Mr. Smith and Ms. Long. He had us read aloud in class. He was brilliant. He loved teaching at UCR and living in the community. He was fabulous, and he was still teaching–not emeritus; he never retired–at age 82 when he died earlier this year. I had the privilege of being able to make it to his memorial service.)
And then I became a high school English teacher. And I taught Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, and Macbeth. And I was good. Suddenly, as I taught the works, Shakespeare came alive to me. The artistry of Romeo and Juliet where the prologue is a sonnet, the rhetoric of Julius Caesar, the perfect form of Macbeth, these are the things I discovered as I read these plays with students, as I taught them. I taught them differently than I had been taught them. We read them together, as a class, discovering them as we went along. And it turned out that I had a knack for close reading, for helping students understand as we read, for pointing our words and images and themes as we heard them, for teaching plays and poetry. When I finally got to teach AP, we would read Macbeth for its perfect form and I would add another Shakespeare depending on the personality of the class, Lear or Midsummer. I’m not a fabulous teacher of novels. I get bored when something takes that long to read, and I don’t know what to do with it when they have to read it on their own. I did okay with short stories with the 9th and 10th graders because we could read them in class. But my forte was reading poetry and plays and talking and interpreting as we went, and that’s when I discovered how amazing Shakespeare really was. There’s nothing like reading something twice in a day, for 7 years in a row, and never growing bored of it, to figure out that there is something special about it (and I could say the same thing about The Importance of Being Earnest, but that another story).
There’s always more to say about the Bard, but, for Me and the Bard, I think that will do for now.