Friday, December 9, 2011

Lovin' the Bard

It was 1981 or 1982. I was in the 9th grade, in a public school in Henderson County, Kentucky. I was in an English class. It wasn't an advanced English class, nor an honors English class. Just the normal, regular 9th grade English class. And our ordinary, normal, not-advanced public school teacher had us read and study Romeo and Juliet.

There we were, reading aloud in our thick Kentucky accents, sometimes struggling over words, sometimes laughing over phrases (especially the sexual ones). We read the play aloud, we read the play on our own, and we watched a slide show, an abbreviated version of the Zeffirelli masterpiece, accompanied by portions of audio from the film (I guess our school couldn't afford the rights to show the movie). The teacher asked us what was meant by this or that paragraph, why a character did this or that, what another character was feeling, and how we felt about what was happening.

And we got it. We understood the play, every bit of it. We understood that these were young people every bit as thoughtless and passionate as us. We understood that these were adults every bit as stubborn and closed-minded as many adults we knew. We understood that it was a tragedy, not something to aspire to. We understood the intensity, we understood the sorrow. The play was completely accessible. The teacher fully expected us to get it, and we got it.

Around the same time, I saw Twelfth Night at the University of Evansville. I admit that I didn't understand everything: I didn't get all of what was going on among Viola, Olivia, the Duke and Sebastian, but I most certainly got the set up and fall of Malvolio - and, oh, how I laughed. And laughed. And walked around for weeks saying, "Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them." (emphasis from the actor from that production, complete with rolling "R"s).

In the 10th grade, my English class - still not an honors class, and also in public school - read and studied Julius Caesar. And, again, we go it. We understood what was going on. We understood the conniving and the politics and the egos. Same for in the 11th grade, when we read and studied Macbeth.

I went on to read Hamlet in college, and to see, and thoroughly enjoy, probably a dozen productions of various Shakespeare plays over the years. Most productions were great. Some were mediocre. But all were completely accessible to me and everyone else watching.

I bring this up because Ralph Fiennes is running around the talk show circuit (and he can feel free to run around here any time) talking about his latest movie, Coriolanus, and the interviewers keep saying things like, "Wow, it's so accessible. I didn't think I would understand Shakespeare. Most people don't get Shakespeare."

Most people do get Shakespeare. It's why his plays have lasted this long. It's why they keep getting performed on stage and keep getting filmed. The real issue: most people don't ever see a Shakespeare production. More and more schools have to teach kids to take tests, more and more English classes aren't talking about Shakespeare anymore, except in passing. Most people don't go see a Shakespeare production because they have heard, again and again, Shakespeare is so hard to understand - from people who have never seen Shakespeare.

And THAT is a tragedy, every bit as anything Shakespeare wrote.

I not only enjoyed those early readings and study of Shakespeare; reading and studying the Bard also taught me quite a lot. In addition to greatly enhancing my vocabulary, reading and listening to Shakespeare has taught me how to concentrate on phrasing, how to read subtext, how word choice can affect understanding, how complicated humans are (just like all humans now), and how so many human activities and feelings are universal. All of those lessons have helped me throughout my life, at home and at work. How many times have I had to quickly adapt to the language and phrasing of some new industry I'm finding myself working in? And I didn't see or experience anything in Afghanistan I couldn't also find in Shakespeare, and that's probably why I was able to find a way to process the tragedies all around me there - and everywhere else.

Last week, I read A Midsummer Night's Dream. Now, I'm reading Twelfth Night. I read every word, and often re-read sentences. Is it an easy read? What is an easy read? No, I don't get a passage at a glance - I have to actually read everything. But do I get it? Do I understand what's happening? Do the jokes make me laugh? Sure! This public-school-educated, public university-educated, non-English major gets it just fine.

What's next? I'm not sure. Maybe something I've never seen a production of but always wanted to, like King Lear. Maybe something I've seen many productions of, like Tempest.

But I'm lovin' the Bard. I wish more people would give him a chance.

1 comment:

  1. jayne - if ya want some real shakespeare fun, check out the world's best juggling (yes, i said juggling) troop as they take on the bard's "a comedy of errors"... you can actually watch the whole thing online here: