I took so many courses in Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer et. al. that I was told I couldn't graduate from UNH. Overspecialization, they called it. The boy was obsessed. He needed more botany, they said, more gym, more trig. In a desperate letter, I petitioned the administration to have one Shakespeare course transferred to the drama department. Shakespeare was an actor too, I protested. Hadn't I really taken a Theater course? They fell for it.
And so I left for Oxford, England to take a course in -- you guessed -- Shakespeare, but grad school was not to be. I got lost somewhere between the Bodleian Library and Blackwell's Bookstore. Coming from New Hampshire, I had no idea how many books I'd missed. Miles of them, on cherry shelves with rolling ladders that stretched to the sky. Illuminated manuscripts, first editions, numbered texts, codexes, indexes, ballrooms of volumes that begged to be entered. So I did.
By exam time my head was so stuffed with extracurricular books that I couldn't tell "Twelfth Night" from "As You Like It." The don demanded a final research paper. "Your thesis must be 110 percent original!" he announced.
"But people have been writing about Shakespeare for 400 years," I moaned, growing bored of the Bard at last.
"No excuses," he droned, rocking in his Oxford rocker. "If you need assistance, I will be in the lime garden during sherry hour or in the beer cellar before dinner."
"What's this, Mr. Robinson?" he barked two weeks later, his mouth curled in as if he'd just sampled the fruit of the Trinity College lime garden. "Emily Dickinson secretly wrote all of Shakespeare's plays? Why that's preposterous!"
"But it's 110 percent original," I pointed out, and richly researched. There were, I remember, 142 detailed footnotes. The parallels between the two poets' writing were undeniable. The professor was having a seismic reaction.
"But Shakespeare's Elizabethan. Dickinson was Victorian! How do you account for the centuries between them?" he wheezed.
"Irony?" I suggested. The don was not amused.
Decades later, I still believe that paper was my best academic work. I was on fire when I wrote it. Sure I had it backwards; that was the whole point. Sometimes the best way east is to go west. I was writing about Emily's passion for Shakespeare, a passion that outstripped my own. This was my homage to her homage to him. It was also my last college class.
Yet those collegians were right after all. I was obsessed, not well-rounded, immature. A real scholar must strive to marry his passion with patience, to temper his talent with time. The academic rodeo was too strenuous for me. I just kept falling off my tortoise.
Time has aged, but not improved me. The fire won't fade. I can't go slow. I won't be careful. I ask the stupidest questions at the worst times -- like last week when I took my family to the John P. Hale Museum in Dover. After the tour guide had walked us through rooms of fascinating old-looking stuff, I just had to ask, like an idiot, "Who was John P. Hale?" We'd been driving past this 1813 brick mansion for almost 30 years now, and it seemed the right time to ask.
Well it turns out Hale was the first abolitionist US Senator. This guy was protesting slavery 20 years before Abraham Lincoln got himself elected President. I never knew that, so I got a book about abolitionists and there was Hale. Because of his stand against slavery, the book said, Hale was once the "most hated man in America." A colleague on the Senate floor in Washington once threatened to lynch him. But he stuck by his beliefs.
The museum, our tour guide said, acquired the building from his daughter Lucy Hale who died in 1915. Lucy married a prominent local lawyer. "She also dated John Wilkes Booth," the guide offered casually.
"Get real!" I said, but I could feel the temperature rising. Is it hot in here, or am I getting passionate again? Twenty phone calls and a half dozen trips to the library later, I had the basic facts in line. Actor John Wilkes Booth stayed in the same hotel as the Hales in Washington DC and, yes, Lucy and John were an item, practically engaged in the mid 1860s as the Civil War was drawing to a bloody conclusion.
Senator Hale was not nuts about his favorite daughter marrying an actor, even a famous one from the renowned Booth family. He had another guy picked out, young Todd Lincoln, son of his beloved friend President Abraham Lincoln. Some say Todd danced with Lucy and Booth was irate. Booth hated Lincoln who had toppled the South and the actor was conspiring to eliminate him, vice president Andrew Johnson and the Secretary of State.
Now I shouldn't be telling you all this without triple checking my facts, but it looks like Booth was using Lucy to get within shooting range of the President. Her father and Abe were buddies. So poor innocent Lucy got passes to take her boyfriend to Lincoln's second inauguration. Booth got within a few feet of the President. The thought is as chilling as imagining Mark Chapman asking John Lennon for his autograph just hours before the shooting outside the Dakota building.
Meanwhile, New Hampshire Senator John P. Hale finally lost an election and Lincoln offered him the ambassadorship to Spain. Hale figured the trip might help Lucy take her mind off that actor fellow. According to an eye witness, Lucy talked with Booth on the very morning of the assassination. Hours later Abraham Lincoln was dead and a 12-day manhunt begun for Booth who was pursued to a barn in Maryland. The barn was torched when Booth refused to surrender. He emerged and was shot in the neck by a soldier. In his pocket was a photograph of Miss Lucy Hale of Dover, NH.
Now I've been inhaling this data for three days. I can't eat. I can't sleep. I'm wondering if Lucy's departure for Spain kicked John Wilkes Booth over the edge. If Booth was "using" Lucy, then he was about to lose his inside track to Lincoln as she departed for Spain. If he really cared about her or madly jealous, then perhaps his passionate reaction was more than simply Confederate revenge.
Here a real scholar would pause. A patient person could get a book out of this -- maybe a professorship, a leave of absence, lighter load of students, better parking space. He or she would ride that tortoise like a pro, tracking down every last footnote. Did Shakespeare ever steal a better plot -- a country torn, a lover spurned. There's a secret plot, murder, tyranny, slavery, freedom. Booth even left a journal with 18 missing pages. What a play it would make, or for Emily Dickinson, what a poem.
Me, I get a headache and this crummy essay. I keep thinking about Lucy on her way back home to Dover. She's aching for her actor, fretting about Spain. She and her dad pull the carriage up to a hotel for dinner. I think about myself on a bus in grammar school a hundred years later. The bus stops. Something is wrong. Everyone looks so strange. Adults are crying.
"The president's been shot!" someone says in a horrible toneless voice. "He's dead."
Lucy's father sinks into the carriage. My mother falls into a chair. The facts are fuzzy. The assassin has fled. Lucy soothes her father. They still do not know the name of the murderer. Oh, if only her lover John were near to comfort her. But the hellish truth is coming. She is moments away from a lifetime of tortured dreams.
J. Dennis Robinson
For a graphic image of a Dover womans'
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