Dear William Shakespeare,
Thank you for all your plays. There is a special place on the bookshelf in my heart for some writings I’ve shared with students. Prominent in this space is a volume of your complete works, pages dog-eared, passages underscored, and margins crowded with comments and questions. It’s the same copy of the Cambridge Edition published in 1942 that I used in 1960 as a sophomore in the Shakespeare class of Vassar’s incomparable Professor William Gifford. He re-introduced me to your plays, several of which I’d slogged through in high school during the 1950’s. Back then I didn’t know what an Elizabethan was nor did I understand Elizabethan English. The foibles of long dead Roman politicos, suicidal teens, and British monarchs did not interest me. Neither did poetry. Scarlett O’Hara interested me. Marjorie Morningstar interested me. The denizens of Peyton Place got my attention too. So although I’d always read a lot, I wasn’t a versatile or particularly adventuresome reader.
But by my sophomore year in college, I was learning to read in a different way. Perhaps that was not only because I had a marvelous English teacher freshman year, but also because, as I understand now, I finally had a brain more mature and so more hospitable to abstraction and subtleties. And I really wanted to emerge from college as a “cultured” young woman. So I was ready to try to connect with you again. Without judging us, Professor Gifford helped me and my classmates to understand the context in which you wrote, the language you used, and the theatrical conventions of your time. And most important, he also taught us to see your characters as people not unlike ourselves, our parents, and our own political leaders.
I have always been timid and was once diagnosed by a credible psychologist as a “catastrophizer,” so I recognized the fear-filled souls Caesar describes when he tells Calpurnia that “Cowards die many times before their death.” To a girl of nineteen who had always feared everything from snakes to the possibility of her parents divorcing or dying, Caesar’s observation was a stomach punch, swift, sharp, and unforgettable.
One of the many things I feared was doing wrong, but my fear did not always stop me, so I was also no stranger to guilt. Had Macbeth’s crimes not been so terribly heinous, I might have empathized with him and with his enabler, Lady Macbeth. When he seems to waver in his resolve to kill the king, she questions his manhood and paints a powerful word picture of her own willingness to murder. “I have given suck, and know how tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me; I would, while it was smiling in my face, have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums and dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you have done to this.” Later when he has done the deed and she has rearranged the crime scene, they both suffer terrible guilt. His makes him see Banquo’s ghost and keeps him awake, forcing him to offer a perfect description of sleep as that which “knits up the raveled sleeve of care, the death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath, balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course, chief nourisher in life’s feast.” Her sleep is troubled too. Thanks to her nocturnal rambling and lamenting, we revisit the crime scene with her when she asks, “Who would have thought the old man to have so much blood in him?” She tries to wash this blood from her hands. “Here’s the smell of the blood still; all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.”
When he learns of her death, Macbeth voices his own despair. With his queen dead and his own defeat and death imminent, he compares life to a “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” In college as I read your powerful and poetic lines to myself, I understood them. A few years later, as I read them aloud to my own students, I came to appreciate poetry for the first time.
And you, William Shakespeare, fed my newly acquired habit of rereading. After I figured out who was doing what to whom in one of your plays, I wanted to dwell with your characters, to savor and analyze their words, thoughts, and deeds. So I read every play we covered in that two-semester class twice. At one point during that same sophomore year, I was grounded for a weekend. Awash in self-pity, I whined about how bored I would be as practically the only person in our dorm for two whole days. On that Saturday morning with my roommate away, I was, indeed, isolated in our room rereading Antony and Cleopatra.
When I got to the passage in which Enobarbus insists that even married to Caesar’s sister, Anthony will never give up Cleopatra because “Age cannot wither her nor custom stale her infinite variety. Other women cloy the appetites they feed, but she makes hungry where she most satisfies . . . .” I was dumbstruck by how you made this smart and powerful but long dead siren live on the page. It came to me that I was a lucky girl to be free to read about this intriguing monarch (about whom Rhett Butler would surely have given a damn) at my leisure and in comfort. It was the first time that, without parental prompting, I truly appreciated my own privileged lot. Since that year, the only thing I enjoy more than reading your work is rereading it and discovering fresh insights.
This affinity for rereading your dramas worked out well because I reread each play I taught before I introduced it to a class and then again as we discussed it. I knew that my students would appreciate a little contextualizing, as had I. But I also thought they might “get” your meaning better if they heard some of your more memorable lines read aloud. And how I enjoyed persuading my spouse to kill, mourning my dead sweetheart, and laying a guilt trip, in Latin yet, on my false friend while his knife still twisted in my gut. I encouraged my students to read their favorite passages aloud at home. I felt doing this would help them appreciate how while your rulers, rogues, and, of course, lovers are, in fact, like us and like people we all know the words you gave them to say are like no one else’s.
Even though I love theater, I’d rather read your plays than see them on film or on the stage. I want to interpret your words and imagine your people myself rather than get an impression filtered through the sensibilities of a director and an actor. I’m sure that the close attention I learned to pay to how aptly you word the conversations and asides of complex characters has made me a better writer.
But, Mr. Shakespeare, I worry about your legacy. Let’s face it, you are a dead white man, and there is much to be said for adding more works by women and writers of other colors and ethnicities to our literature curriculums. I do hope your plays remain on stages, on film, and, most importantly, on syllabi. Here in Washington State where some college curriculums have been especially slow to embrace inclusiveness, students are demanding more works by women and writers of color and of diverse backgrounds. I hope the students prevail, but I also hope an expanded canon continues to include your plays. Although you were white and male, and are, sadly, dead, your dramas are alive and, especially in this post-Brexit era, still have much to teach us all.