When my high school English teacher assigned Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, I thought the play was boring, too difficult to understand, and wished we could have read something easier. Although my parents’ example taught me to be an avid reader and I usually read anything, I agonized over the difficult syntax – after all, I’d never read anything like this. I ranked this as one more example of reading texts that had absolutely no relevance to me.
Then as I labored through Shakespeare’s words, I came to Act 3, scene 1, where Antony makes peace with Caesar’s murderers. “What a sellout,” I thought to myself. Then Antony speaks to the corpse of Caesar, “O pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth, / That I am meek and gentle with these butchers!” – and then begins to prophesy the bloody vengeance he will undertake. Now that was some character development; after all, I expected further boredom, and what I got instead was a play-within-a-play – Antony pretending to befriend Caesar’s murderers. This reminded of the behaviors I had witnessed in the halls at school – kids treating others as friends, then repeating cruel rumors, for nothing else than sport. Granted, it was on a smaller scale than the death of Caesar, but in Antony’s actions I saw how hypocrisy can be justified.
Shakespeare was a constant presence, and during my sophomore year in college I was introduced to Hamlet, a play that every English major revisits with frequency. Queen Gertrude asks her son about his grief, “Why seems it so particular with thee?” Hamlet’s reply exemplified the difference between seeming and being – “But I have that within which passes show / These but the trappings and the suits of woe.” Who among us has not felt such grief? Hamlet comments on that great leveler – experience; no one is exempt from mortality. It was a memento mori that stayed with me long after.
I am now a Shakespeare professor, and enjoy teaching the plays every semester. Each fall I teach Hamlet, and I re-read the play, finding something new each time. But not until my own father – a kind, funny, congenial man of whom could truly be said, “we shall not look upon his like again” — died suddenly did Hamlet have the greatest impact. Whereas before I could sympathize with Hamlet’s sorrow, I now truly knew the utter desolation of grief. I crossed over from seeming into being.
In Shakespeare’s comedies I see the ludicrous nature of some human endeavor, but also the joy that people are capable of bringing to one another. The histories provide evidence that politics, no matter how idealistic, can be fraught with ambition, greatness, fragility, and corruption. The Merchant of Venice and Othello show the destructive nature of anti-Semitism, racism, and misogyny. The plays I initially viewed as punishment have become a primer, providing questions, but not always answers. As Benedick says in Much Ado About Nothing, “man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion.”
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