Shakespeare, Whom No Teacher Can Quite Kill
By Garry Cooper
In my sophomore year, Mrs. Collins, my high school English teacher, taught me to hate Shakespeare, no small feat. Then in college, my Shakespeare professor, who shall remain nameless, gave Mrs. Collins’s oppressive teaching a good booster shot, so that between the two of them I continued to hate Shakespeare for years. If the purpose of education is to give you things that will stay with you for years, Mrs. Collins and my college professor were to my love of poetic language as the herpes simplex virus is to genitals.
Mrs. Collins, an elderly woman, had bright dyed red hair, which made her attractive to neither man nor beast, and a whiplash body; if she’d been anything less than mean and severe, you might have called her body reedy, but instead she seemed like a walking willow switch. Her body, along with her drawn-in cheeks and pursed lips, made you suspect that her only source of nutrition came from sucking on lemons. She taught Shakespeare by having each student read 20-25 lines from Julius Caesar aloud, starting with row 1, seat 1, and proceeding in order up and down each row, interrupting only to interpolate textual comments like, “It’s pronounced, ‘Tre-BON-i-us’ !” which was about the only laugh we had all semester.
The only drama in the class came not from the play, but from poor Jack Gordon, who sat somewhere in the middle of the room. Jack had an awful stammer, and as the readings relentlessly proceeded toward him, the tension in the room mounted. With typical high school egocentrism, I thought only of the tension rising within myself: already bored nearly to death, I’d daily wonder whether I could endure suffering through Jack’s reading. Years later, I finally understood that the rising tension I felt probably paled next to what Jack must have experienced. Somewhere around line 10 of Jack’s tortured reading, Mrs. Collins’s loud, exasperated sigh would inevitably suspire into the deadening silence, which made his stammer even worse.
We learned nothing about Shakespeare’s miraculous and musical language; his poetic images were merely mud holes in the middle of the road that slowed the procession of students reading aloud; his psychological insights, for all we knew, were no different than those in Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees.” If Mrs. Collins had had any ingenuity, creativity, or passion for teaching, she might have at least pointed out what Shakespeare knew of mob psychology. “Look how easily Brutus and Marc Antony incite the mob,” she could have said. “Do you notice how much all of you who hate Jack Gordon don’t realize that your hatred is really caused by me manipulating your oppression?”
In college, our professor treated Shakespeare’s language like a lepidopterist with a killing bottle treats butterflies. Shakespeare invented about 1,700 words, among them “housekeeping” and “audacious,” and he continuously interrupted the plays to point out every one of them. To make sure we didn’t slough off by merely listening to Shakespeare and catching an inexact meaning, he’d parse Shakespeare’s sentences. When he did delve into something other than language, he’d observe things like, “Say, this fellow Hamlet just can’t make up his mind, can he?” Then he’d purse his lips and say, “Hmmmm!” so the insight could take root in our minds. I learned more about poetry in my History of the English Language course than in my Shakespeare class.
A quarter century after that class, I was walking with my six year old daughter in the park near our house, and a troupe of actors, in the earliest stages of rehearsal, were reading Much Ado about Nothing aloud. Alex stopped, fascinated, and sat in the grass. She ended up sitting for the entire reading, watched them rehearse dozens of times, and when they started performing, she caught maybe ten performances. The actors adopted her as their good luck charm. We became regular subscribers to Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, and for several years, Alex was the youngest person in the audience. She’s in awe, as I am now, of Shakespeare’s language, passion, humor, poetry, words. My job is to make sure no teacher ever tries to kill Shakespeare for her.
Ultimately, Shakespeare’s probably more powerful than any dessicated didact. Somewhere during my college course, our professor had each of us choose a sonnet to memorize. For some reason—I’m sure it wasn’t a good one—I chose Sonnet 29:
When, in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and course my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee; and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen Earth sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love rememb’red such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
I’ve repeated that sonnet often, on solitary backpacking trips in the Rockies, in the shower, hitchhiking around the country, when I was in love, during deeply depressed times when I was trying to get over a lost love, whenever I felt discouraged or scared, and sometimes even when I felt peaceful. Thirty years later, I still know that sonnet by heart.