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Literary notes from the unsound and the furry

November 27, 2009

In 10th grade, I was introduced to Shakespeare with "Julius Caesar," and I wasn't impressed.

Some parts were pretty good, like the bit with the soothsayer predicting rough seas ahead by checking out a sheep's intestines. Its grotesqueness left a lasting impression on me. It also made me cross soothsayer off my list of future careers.

Also, I found Caesar's wife Calpurnia unforgettable. There's poor old Julius, duded up in pinstripe toga and wingtip sandals, about to go to the office - a real workadaddy wage slave - and what's the little lady doing? Bugging the bejammers out of him, to the tune of, "Listen, I don't want you going in today. Call in sick, whatever, I just got a bad feeling, ya know." (I'm paraphrasing here, by the way).

To me it was something out of a 50's sit-com, with the stereotypical housewife-as-nag. And just like in the sit-com, it turned out wifey was right.

The scene I remembered best was Caesar getting juked by his friends and coworkers. While I was a mere moppet of 14 at the time, from what I'd seen of relationships in the Petrova School, it made sense. And now, after almost 40 years in the workplace, it makes perfect sense.

Mark Anthony's oration seemed terribly heartfelt - even though I didn't understand it.

All in all, out of a five-star rating, I would've given JC a two, maybe a three at best. It just didn't have the jam and jive I wanted from a classic - especially one about the Romans.

At that point I knew a whole lot about Rome, having seen Ben Hur, Spartacus and Hercules at least twice apiece. The Romans were the swingers of the ancient world, what with blood sports, slave revolts, orgies, massive conquests and vomitoriums galore, but all Shakespeare gave us was a politician getting stabbed in the back - in other words, bizness as usual.

Ultimately, since everyone said how great Shakespeare was, I couldn't figure out why the first thing of his we read was "Julius Caesar." And oddly enough, it took me another thirty years to find out. More on that later


Wandering in Burnham Wood

Eleventh grade was American literature, so we got no Shakespeare. This was fine with me, since we got lots of Carl Sandburg, who I knew was a great writer, since I actually understood what he was saying.

Then in 12th grade we hooked up with Shakespeare again when we read "Macbeth." This time the Bard and I were on the same page, so to speak.

To the astute 16-year-old literatus I was, "Macbeth" fit another 50s husband-wife stereotype, though the opposite of Caesar and Calpurnia's.

Macbeth's wife (who had the improbably first name, Lady) was a social climber if ever there was one, and kept pushing Macbeth to rise to the top of the monarchial ladder. Of course, the only way for him to succeed was to kill the current king. He did it, after which everything went to hell in a handcart, including his and the little woman's sanity.

Lady's kind of nagging woman was less of the sit-com type than of Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer private-eye potboilers. Spillane didn't have nags, as much as temptresses, what with Mike Hammer being a freewheeling bachelor. Nonetheless, they always tried to lead him into harm's way, rather than out of it, a la Calpurnia. Luckily, Hammer always avoided the traps, since he was a whole lot smarter than Macbeth, which, from what I've learned of the royals, isn't at all surprising.

After high school, my exposure to Shakespeare was haphazard at best - a play here, a play there, but nothing consistent or concerted. Then in my 30s I had a graduate course with a Shakespearean scholar. He was also a taskmaster and one bitter and sardonic old poop to boot, so not only did I read play after play and have to defend my interpretations of them, but I had to dodge slings and arrows of his outrageous misfortune at the same time.

Due to the pace and pressure of the course, I discovered a fundamental truth about Shakespeare - his writing was eminently readable. All it took was reading enough of it to get used to the vocabulary (and consulting the footnotes and critical writings when in doubt).

After I was able to read the prose with a degree of ease, I could appreciate what made Shakespeare a great writer - his characterizations, his dialogue, his poetry, his wisdom and not the least of all, his wit - especially his bawdiness. The Elizabethans may have been centuries behind the Victorians chronologically, but in terms of earthiness and humor, they were light-years ahead


Number one on Will's hit parade

For what it's worth, my favorite Shakespeare work is "Hamlet." It's one of the few plays of his I've read on my own; it's also the one I've read the most.

So why do I like it so much?

Desperately trying not to sound like an English teacher, I'll say the conflicts are powerful, the plot is full of suspense and reversals, the characterizations are riveting, the language is magnificent and on and on, endlessly.

Plus the humor. If you like Abbot and Costello's "Who's on First?" you should love Hamlet's gravediggers' scene.

It's Shakespeare's longest play, and some literary critics have claimed it's chockfull of gratuitous stuff that distracts from the play's structure and plot. This may be true, but I love the gratuitous stuff as well as the rest. Besides, as far as I'm concerned, the last word on literary critics comes from the great Irish playwright Brendan Behan, who said, "Critics are like eunuchs in a harem. They know how it's done, they've seen it done every day, but they're unable to do it themselves."

And catch this: Shakespeare wrote "Hamlet" when he was 35. When I was 35, my idea of a literary accomplishment was reciting limericks about young men from Kent and hermits named Dave.

So, getting back to the note I started this shmeer with: If Shakespeare wrote so many fabulous plays, why was "Julius Caesar" chosen as our introduction to him?

There are two main reasons. The first is that for the first half of the 20th century, Latin was the most popular foreign language studied in high school. And in Latin classes, what the students read was excerpts from Caesar's "Gallic Wars," so many kids were already familiar with Caesar by the time they read the play.

Second, "Julius Caesar" - as opposed to so many of Shakespeare's works - makes no mention of sex. Someone had to protect our tender psyches from the ravages of the salacious, and who better for the job than the American educational system?

And I've been undyingly grateful for their choice.

I mean, if "Othello" had been my first Shakespearean play, Lord only knows the traumas I would've suffered - not to mention the damage done to my voting record.



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