Oliver's Observatory

The Blog & Observations of Oliver H. Evans

Learning to Read Shakepseare

I learned to read Shakespeare for the most basic of reasons: Shakespeare represented forbidden knowledge. I remember there was to be a presentation of Macbeth on TV and thanks to Wikipedia, I can identify specifically what and when that presentation would have been. In 1954, when I was ten and when TV was not only relatively new in and of itself, but brand new in our home, the Hallmark Hall of Fame presented Maurice Evans and Judith Anderson in Macbeth. For me, the Hallmark Hall of Fame was the highest of high culture, although I did not know of such a concept as high culture at the time, and the Hallmark Hall of Fame succeeded in making high culture synonymous for me with Hallmark cards—a lovely example of branding.

But my dream of experiencing high culture in the living room of a Methodist parsonage in a small upstate New York town crashed when my dream met my mother, who, never as interested in branding as I, was also not taken with my watching a play which, as she said, “has murder in it,” never mind that it is one of the monuments of western culture. That would be like thinking it is all right to look at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel because it is about the Bible.

Without going into the pros and cons of protecting a ten-year old from a play in which the central murder takes place off stage, I was not able to speak reason on this matter to my mother. But the situation was similar to my earlier experience with the comics in the newspaper—my parents would read certain comics, but not others. Figuring out that once I could read, the entire world of comics would open to me, I decided to apply the same principle to Shakespeare and to start reading these forbidden works myself.

We had an edition of Shakespeare in our house because at one time, my parents had belonged to a book club that for its bonus books  gave away copies of classic literature, thereby providing an avenue to culture. For reasons I do not now remember, I decided to start, not with Macbeth, but with Richard II. I quickly discovered two things: first, it takes forever to get to the murders in many of Shakespeare's plays (Titus Andronicus is another matter, but that play was on few people’s radar screens at that time, although it is more popular now. And to digress for a moment, one of the great things about the internet and the ability to search quickly is that I just found out there is now a band named Titus Andronicus).

The second thing I discovered was that the prose sense of Shakespeare did not automatically leap from the page. I now know and love Richard II--in some ways, I chose better than I knew at the time. But my memory of trying to read the first act boils down to some vague sense that there was going to be a duel almost immediately after the play opened and certainly someone would be killed. Alas, the happy expectation of that duel was dashed by King Richard who seemed to like to talk a great deal. And to make matters worse, it was not always clear what either he or the other characters were talking about.

I was fortunate in knowing a high-school English teacher who discovering I was trying to read Shakespeare, advised me on the importance of paying attention to the punctuation and not stopping at the end of each line. She also suggested  that one read Shakespeare aloud (I still subvocalize when reading Shakespeare, but more because of the pleasure of the language than from a need to figure out what in heaven’s name is being said). Nonetheless, I still did not get the hang of exactly what was going on.

Recently, and quite serendipitously, I met Dr. Ellen Hurwitz, who, having retired as a college president, remains active in academia as a leadership coach, writer, and lecturer. In addition to being a scholar of Russian history, Ellen has also served as president of Albright College, New England College, and the American University of Central Asia. Finding ourselves in the midst of discussing the nature of leadership and comparing notes on our experiences, we found that we also shared an interest in the opportunity to re-invent one’s self following retirement. But the most amazing and delightful discovery for me was that Ellen's family originated Classics Illustrated--indeed, working with her father, she was sometimes asked to comment on whether the illustrations successfully integrated with the text in Classics Illustrated Junior.

Through an informal survey of a couple of my friends, I find that whether people know Classics Illustrated is often a matter of when a person grew up, unless a person has an interest in the history of the comic book.  Started in 1941 by Albert Kanter, Ellen's great-uncle, Classics Illustrated was a series of comic books that sought to introduce great literature by integrating text and illustrations. Needless to say, some controversy attached to this worthy endeavor. For most literature--for example, The Iliad or Ivanhoe--the text might sometimes be taken directly from the work, but it was more often a condensation of the original. In other words, the Classics Illustrated version of A Tale of Two Cities did not include every word of Dickens' novel.

The interesting thing about Shakespeare within the format of Classics Illustrated was that in approaching the text, the creator of the comic had no text other than the lines of the play. Thus a Classics Illustrated version of Macbeth or Hamlet--both of which I remember reading--in large measure reproduced and illustrated Shakespeare's words themselves.

 "Macbeth" by William Shakespeare; Classics Illustrated No. 128 (1955)

"Macbeth" by William Shakespeare; Classics Illustrated No. 128 (1955)

Classics Illustrated was in and of itself a beautifully conceived and executed set of comics that, in the case of Shakespeare, integrated the text with gorgeous drawings—indeed, in terms of the beauty of its illustrations, Classics Illustrated belongs with Prince Valiant for someone like me, who grew up long ago. Once I discovered Classics Illustrated, I bought every issue I could find, including both Macbeth and Hamlet.

And more than that, I remember the night I was lying in bed reading Macbeth and suddenly Lady Macbeth’s line “Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be/What thou art promised” made sense. And once those lines made sense, her wonderful greeting of Macbeth as “Great Glamis! Worthy Cawdor! Greater than both by the all-hail hereafter!” seemed to become the pure joy of child’s play, as reading Shakespeare ought to be, murders and all.

Thanks, again, to Wikipedia, I see that Hallmark did a remake of Macbeth with Maurice Evans and Judith Anderson in 1960, a production I do remember vividly because—at least in my memory—of Judith Anderson's glorious sleep-walking scene and Maurice Evans’ way with the “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” speech.

And I remember that particular production for another reason. By 1960, two things had happened—first, I could then read Shakespeare and so reading Macbeth in tenth grade was not a walk in the swamp. And, second, I encountered in Flint Southwestern High School an English teacher—Elizabeth Calkins—who required that we memorize both that speech and Macbeth's  speech that begins "Is this a dagger which I see before me."  Mrs. Calkins was the best teacher of all the teachers I had in elementary, high school, undergraduate, and graduate school. Few teachers had, or have, the ability to engage, to challenge, and to communicate a a subject as she did. Because I am about to register for a MOOC, I may encounter a professor more influential on my life than she, but I doubt it. And when the Southwestern class of 1962 meets on September 29 to celebrate fifty years, toasts should be made to her memory.

Memory is a funny thing, as Marcel Proust showed in In Search of Lost Time--sometimes eating a cookie will open a flood of memories. (Yet another digression: I just linked Proust's work to an article on Oprah Winfrey's site on how to read Proust. Think of it! Making Proust accessible through a popular entertainer--an idea as preposterous as making Shakespeare accessible through comic books or painting scenes from the Bible on a ceiling.) Meeting Ellen Hurwitz brought back such a flood of memories. And, in case it is not clear, I think not only that comic books can be an excellent entry to high culture, they may be high culture themselves--assuming high culture still exists.