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Shakespeare and Me

William Shakespear, we think


Sometimes you have to go all the way to England to find your way back to New Hampshire. The author, a Shakespeare fanatic, travels to Oxford College, London and Stratford-on-Avon to find the :authentic" Bard.




No Holds Bard

Among the accomplishments I’d like chiseled on my tombstone is this: "He read all 35 plays by Shakespeare". This is no place to debate whether William Shakespeare actually wrote those plays. Scholars are still battling over that question. My point is simply that the Bard and I are tight, and we go way back. It was Shakespeare who first showed me how cool history can be, something I didn’t learn in history class.

I’ve seen Shakespeare performed live in New York’s Central Park, in London, at Stratford-on-Avon. But the most memorable performance involved two teenagers on a bunk bed onstage at the high school auditorium here in Portsmouth. The girl playing Juliet wore bluejeans and lounged on the top bunk. The boy playing Romeo wooed her from the bottom bunk. Historically the real lovers were just 12 and 14 years old and this student performance captured all the sizzling sexuality and teenaged angst Shakespeare imbedded into that classic balcony scene.

It is likely thanks to Mr. Shakespeare that I currently make my living writing about history, both tragic and comic. I wrote my first history play in fifth grade. I know because I still have the newspaper clipping. It shows the cast of Mrs. Muskat’s class rehearsing an original production of "Mr. Cleopatra." In the photo, I am holding a copy of the script. It was really the story of Mark Anthony, but I thought it needed a funny title to make it more box office. In preparation, we read selections from Shakespeare’s "Julius Caesar" and talked about how writers get to play fast and loose with the facts. It’s called "poetic license" our teacher said. Awesome. Writers can lie all they want, and get paid for it. I was hooked.

"Did you know Shakespeare originally had a different title for his play about Julius Caesar?" the teacher told us. "It was originally called Julius Run Quick and Grab Her Before She Gets Away". It took a few minutes, but I finally laughed out loud. It was my first literary joke.

My eighth grade teacher was from England and her name was Mrs. English.

I found that to be extraordinary. Mrs. English did not believe in "grade-level" reading. Dumbing things down, she thought, created dumb kids. So we read Cervantes, TS Eliot, Machiavelli, Nietzsche, Coleridge and, of course, Shakespeare. We read "As You Like It" for comedy, then she took us to the Palace Theatre in Manchester to see the film version of Richard Burton in "Hamlet." It was 1964. That same year at the Palace Theatre I saw the Beatles in "Hard Days Night" and Elvis in "Viva Las Vegas." My mind, theatrically speaking, was blown.

By college I was a hardcore Shakespeare freak. I would sit up at night reading to myself from a massive black text called "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare." To this very day I read all my own writing aloud, every page. If a sentence does not have the right cadence – if it doesn’t please the ear and come trippingly off the tongue – I write it over until it sings to me. It doesn’t have to be iambic pentameter, it just has to read good. Shakespeare taught me that.

In the final weeks of my senior year I got a call from the dean of Liberal Arts. I would not be graduating from the University of New Hampshire, I was told, because I had "over specialized" in English Literature. It seems I had taken too many Shakespeare courses, and my education was, therefore, not well rounded. Life was as dark as the finale of "Titus Andronicus" until a kindly professor offered a solution. Why not simply petition the dean to change one of my Shakespeare classes from an English course to a Theatre Department course? The petition had to be signed by three important people. The prof offered a lifesaving tactic.

"Make sure all three signatures are in a different color ink," he said. "One green, one red, one blue. Bureaucrats cannot resist multi-colored ink."

It worked, and as a graduation gift, my parents sent me to Trinity College in Oxford, England for a six-week summer course in – that’s right – Shakespeare. Trinity, founded in 1555, had produced the likes of William Pitt, historian Kenneth Clark and actor Richard Burton, although he was "put down" before graduation. I was suddenly living in a three-room suite with my own manservant who woke me promptly at 7:45 a.m., served my meals and picked up my clothes. My room was across the street from Blackwell’s Bookstore and the White Horse pub, and I had a reader’s card at the Bodleian Library where I could order a chained original copy of a medieval manuscript, and it would be delivered to me with a pair of white gloves. I had died and gone to literary heaven.

Class was intense. My "don" was a well known Oxford scholar. We read four of Shakespeare’s history plays, and then took a bus to Stratford-on-Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace, where we watched each play performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company. There were only four students in my class, so fudging was out of the question. We met daily in the don’s private offices, then sat under the lime trees in the garden and drank sherry until it was time to go into the beer cellar and drink beer before wine with dinner. We formed a rowing team and crewed along the river to work off the booze, then we hit the pubs at night. Later I wandered Britain, visiting Shakespeare’s tourist-packed birthplace and trekking to the sites made famous in his plays. Were it not for the need to make a living, I’d be there still.

The Oxford course was the beginning, and the end, of my graduate school career. Like Daedalus, I had flown too close to the sun. I did not love Shakespeare any less, I was simply burned out with talking about him. Instead of enjoying the magic of his writing, we were debating the derivation of the etymology of the footnotes in the fourth folio of some unpublished manuscript. Scholars, I came to learn, are the most territorial of all mammals. They willingly eat their young. They live to debate the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. I was not learning from William Shakespeare anymore, just about him. And not even the great Shakespeare is half as interesting as the worlds he turned into words.

I could, I told myself, live on in this glorious ivory tower studying the great works of Shakespeare forever. Or I could do what Shakespeare did – write and starve. Two roads diverged on an impeccably manicured Oxford campus, and I – I went home to New Hampshire to write. It was Mr. Shakespeare who kindly showed me the way. And that, dear Reader, has made all the difference.


Copyright © 2007 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. 


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