I know this may be hard to believe, but there was a time once, many moons ago, when English majors had to read Shakespeare. Pretty amazing, huh?
Yes, that’s right, unbelievable as it may seem, you had to do that because, well, he’s important for English literature. Did I say English literature? I meant all literature, as in the whole world over literature. Hamlet, at one time, was the most written about, critically speaking, piece of literature in the world. I mean scads of academic papers were published in every language.
The way it worked when I was an undergraduate at UH Mānoa, the bedrock requirement for the major was that you had to take two courses from these four: Shakespeare, earlier or later “half,” Chaucer, and Milton. One of those two had to be either the early or the later Shakespeare class. I put half in quotes because, well, it’s an arbitrary distinction, and you wouldn’t want to get into debates about where the breaking in half should be, let alone argue about the chronological composition of the plays, not to mention the plays he might have or might not have written, or those written with someone else, or overwritten by someone else, and on and on.
The first of the four courses I took was early Shakespeare. The very kind professor had actually taught my mom the second half of Shakespeare ten years earlier. My mom, a teacher at Āliamanu Intermediate School, could move up the D.O.E. pay scale by taking courses that broadened her knowledge in the area she taught. She had taken quite a few courses at UH over many summers, and of all the professors she experienced there, Dr. Springerman was her favorite.
When I saw that he was teaching the early Shakespeare course, I remembered my mom’s regard for him, and I decided to give him a try. It turned out to be a very good choice.
I remember the first paper assignment was to write about Shakespeare’s villains. I’ll never forget the day we turned that one in. Dr. Springerman walked in, sat down, asked for our papers and said, “By the way, if anyone has spelled villain v-i-l-l-i-a-n, villian, it’s an automatic F.”
Wow. You never saw so many people dive in to do high-speed crazy proofreadings in your life. All you could hear was the sound of paper being rifled through like a great white wave crashing through the classroom. I hadn’t misspelled the word, but there were a few quickly penned changes.
We had a mid-term and a final exam. The final was comprehensive; the questions would cover all the plays studied over the entire semester. I think we read maybe thirteen or so, and the night before the exam, I had little sleep for poring over all of them again. My brain was absolutely crammed.
When we walked out of the room, it being fall semester, I remember being able to see the sun setting. One of the students mentioned that he’d had so much trouble answering a question about Henry IV, Part 1, how he couldn’t quite figure out how to match the evidence he could cite to his answer.
We all stopped and stared at him in some horror and a whole lot of pity, because the question had been about Part 2 not Part 1. It was a lot of information, for sure, and I could see how someone might get discombobulated. I think there were four questions spread over the two hours, so he still had a fighting chance for a good grade.
Back in those days, we registered for school by standing in these incredibly long lines at the school’s Klum Gym, located on the lower campus. I’d fully intended to take the second Shakespeare course – it was actually the one I’d been looking forward to most – but when it came time for my group to register, Dr. Springerman was working the English Department’s table, and he asked me if I were going to take his Chaucer course. As I say, I’d not intended to do so, but he did such a wonderful job of selling the class to me that I went ahead and registered for it.
And I’m glad I did. He’d been a good Shakespeare teacher, but I absolutely loved his Chaucer course. Middle English is a beautiful language, and reading it aloud in class was a pleasurable experience. Having taken French helped with the pronunciation, and although of course we have no recordings of Chaucer himself reading, I could imagine Dr. Springerman as the venerable “Geoff.”
This final exam was comprehensive as well, so just as I had for the Shakespeare final, I stayed up all night cramming numerous Canterbury Tales and all the other poems we’d read into my head. Just to be sure.
Did I say stayed up? Ah, not quite. I managed somehow to fall asleep, and it was at first with much confusion, followed by much more terror, that I came awake to the bright morning sun shining through my window. The exam was at 7:30, and when I looked at my alarm clock, it was 10:00.
In a panic, I quickly called Dr. Springerman’s office, and luckily he was in. I apologized profusely, saying that I’d fallen asleep against unintentionally, so did not have an alarm set. He asked me how quickly I could get over to campus, and I was there, taking the exam in an empty office, in under an hour.
When I was done, I walked over to his office and apologized again, handing him my exam. He laughed and said something about it happening to the best of us, or something along those lines. No matter, I was absolutely embarrassed, and believe me, I was never late for an exam ever again in my life.
When I went up to the University of Wisconsin to work on my M.A., the very first thing I had to do was register for courses. I had two goals: to take an 18th-Century British literature course, and to take a second-half Shakespeare course.
I had fully intended to concentrate on 18th-Century literature, and had taken everything UH had to offer, including a courses on the novel and on drama. My favorite 18th-Century professor at UH had earned his Ph.D. at Madison, and he’d written his dissertation there under the direction of Ricardo Quintana, the world’s foremost authority on that period of British literature.
When I sat with the UW advisor, the first sign of a problem was that Professor Quintana had retired. Oh well, I was sure there’d be other equally exciting experts in that area.
Problem number two. At UH, I’d taken more English courses than you needed to graduate. When I sat down with my advisor at UW Madison, we looked through the what was being offered and what the readings were for those courses, and I’d read everything that would be covered in any of the 18th-Century classes.
So, what could be worse? First, they did not follow the same format for Shakespeare courses as did UH. There were not two courses split chronologically. Second, what they had were professors who taught the plays they wanted to teach. This meant that I’d studied half the plays for the one course being offered, and although I thought it would be fine to be reviewing half while encountering the other half for the first time, my advisor cautioned against that, saying that she was sure I’d be better off expanding my knowledge base to courses where I’d studied none of the authors I had to that point.
Which turned out to be yet a third problem. Of the courses being offered, we had great difficulty finding three – you needed to take three classes to be considered full-time for grad school – where I’d not studied at least some of the literature, having taken, as I said, so many courses at UH.
As it turned out, I ended up with a 20th-Century British novels course where I’d studied several of the works already, but by the time we decided on that as the third course, my advisor and I were plum tuckered out, and the line of students waiting to get their crack at registration with her was legion. I think I won the award for longest registration appointment that day.
There had been one huge reason why I’d always wanted to study Shakespeare’s later plays, and that was because of my fascination with Macbeth. If I’d followed my desire early on, I’d have actually registered for the Shakespeare Part Two class at UH first. But, placing way too much importance on the idea that I’d appreciate more the later plays if I laid the foundation of studying the earlier plays first, I did not take Part Two. And as fate would work out, that one decision meant that I would never study Macbeth in a formal classroom setting.
Which was a major drag in my history of the experience of English literature.
Way back in 9th-Grade at University High, I’d had a wonderful English class. The teacher, Alice Cartwright, was an interesting, very energetic woman. She made literature exciting. And she made no work of literature more exciting than Macbeth.
I believe my mom might have read us a little Shakespeare in our nightly read-alouds back in my small-kid time, but I’d never studied him in school. That changed with Miss Cartwright. I’ve heard of people having to read Shakespeare early, like maybe Romeo and Juliet in intermediate school, but I don’t know if earlier exposure to The Bard was or is even now widely practiced. At any rate, we were to study Macbeth in my freshman year.
I can’t remember what all we did in attacking the play, but I do remember this. We were assigned to pick any speech from the Scottish Play to memorize. I’d not had to memorize poetry in any English class before, and back then I had enough brain cells to do that sort of thing.
I of course chose my favorite lines, Macbeth’s brief but famous “out, out brief candle” monologue. If you do not recall it, here it is:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
These are possibly the only complete ten lines of poetry I remember anymore. A line here, a couplet there, yeah, sure, I still have that. But I used to have Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” down cold, reciting it whenever I felt like doing so. Alas, that time has passed onto some other valley glade.
This is an example of what is referred to in the computer science world as first in, last out. They mean the data you cram in first is the last data to get uncrammed. Which, when you think about memory difficulties associated with Alzheimer’s, is the way forgetting works. My father’s short-term memory went first. He’d repeat what he’d just said as though he were saying it for the first time. Over and over again. He held onto older memories much longer.
In the long term, then, my memory bank is holding on, by its bloody fingernails, to the first lines of poetry I ever memorized. When I forget those lines, I’ll know the end is nigh.
Back in 2004 I decided I’d read all of Shakespeare. I started with the non-dramatic poetry, his 154 sonnets last. Then I went on to the plays, reading them in the scholarly community’s best guesses at compositionally chronological order. After doing all of that, I decided what I thought I might already have known: Macbeth is my favorite of all Shakespeare’s works.
I think I may own nearly every commercially available version of Macbeth on video. There is no version that I love by far and away more than all the rest, but I have to say I was disappointed with the BBC version more than I’d have guessed beforehand.
I loved the BBC’s idea of doing all the plays. They aired on PBS back in the ’70s. That, overall, is a fabulous and most worthy project. Their version of the play, however, left me flat. Not what I would have expected from the BBC.
A few years ago I was in NYC with some friends from Connecticut. We would go into the city every year when I was there so we could catch a few plays. One of the things that intrigued me was something called Drunk Shakespeare. This is not Broadway; it’s a tiny theater upstairs in this dilapidated building. I believe it would qualify as off-off-Broadway. Maybe even one more “off.”
We were the first to arrive. The address was upstairs at the end of a hallway, and the entrance looked like an apartment door. One friend said, “This can’t be right. I think we must be in the wrong place.” Then, as we pondered this possibility, other puzzled would-be playgoers began to arrive. Surely all of us could not have the incorrect location. Finally the door did open, and we were right where we should be.
I figured Drunk meant that either the cast or the audience or both would do some serious imbibing, and then we’d all try to figure out what was going on for the next few hours. The place was quite intimate. Prior to the play, we sat at tables – drinking – and the cast members would come around – drinking – talking to all of us as they roamed the room.
One of the guys, the definition of a starving actor – they were all in that category – had graduated from Columbia, and was biding his time waiting for a break – as were they all. That we were from Hawai‘i came up in the conversation – it often does when I travel because folks comment about my aloha shirts. It so happened that he was an ‘ukulele fanatic, owned many of them, and loved a musician from Hawai‘i, Jake Shimabukuro, had we heard of him?
I told him that I knew Jake, had worked in the same office with his first ‘ukulele teacher. The guy was ecstatic. He had all of Jake’s CDs, watched him on YouTube, was a super fanatic.
He and a few of the others had mentioned that each night the group decided on what play they’d perform based on suggestions from the audience. I don’t know if this meant they could perform every one of Shakespeare’s plays, or if they just waited for someone to name a play they did know and did want to go for that night.
I had mentioned to Jake’s fan that my all-time favorite play was Macbeth, and lo and behold, when it came time for curtains up, they announced they would be doing The Scottish play that night. Wow! I wondered if that were a coincidence. They hadn’t even called for suggestions from the audience.
The last step before the performance was having one of the actors take five shots of scotch. The others, although they’d had a few drinks while strolling around talking to all of us, did not, but they all had to wheel their performance around this one quite inebriated actor.
The audience got to vote on whom. We chose Lady Macbeth. Needless to say, she was the loosest actor on stage that night, and during the performance, we’d further vote to see if she should take other shots along the way. By the end, she was very, very drunk.
Of course the play was hilarious, done tongue-in-cheek a lot of the way, but when that cast became serious at points, their performances were chilling. Intoxicated as she was, when that woman did the Out Damn Spot scene, she was mesmerizing.
If you’ve not seen the movie Scotland, Pa., I highly recommend it. It’s one of those based-on type scripts that’s really very good. Maura Tierney is great as the Lady Macbeth character, that handwashing scene amazing.
Yes, that foundational 9th-Grade experience with Macbeth has played a big part in my life, for sure. I really need to thank Miss Cartwright for having us read the play and assigning us to memorize those lines.
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Happy #WriterTuesday. Today’s #WritingPrompt is
Use it to inspire a piece of writing, and then post that piece somewhere I can read it. I would love to see what you come up with : )