On Finding the Shakespeare I Never Knew
When I was in ninth grade, Mr. Pass, my English teacher, gave us an assignment: read Hamlet.
As you know, Hamlet is no light read—especially for a fifteen-year-old. But I gave it my level best. In one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, the Prince of Denmark mourned and lamented, vented and vacillated about the wrongful death of his father and the perfidious nature of his mother and the new king (his uncle and now—creepily—his stepfather). We met figures like noble Laertes and the dreamy Ophelia, the pragmatic Horatio and the buffoon Polonius. It is a brilliant play and a terrible tragedy.
And I didn’t understand it at all.
Whether I was chopping through the thicket of impossible old English or simply impervious to the conflicted nature of Hamlet’s soul, I simply couldn’t get my head around why this tights-wearing Dane talking to a skull was so mesmerizing to everyone but me. And even when I went to Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater to see a lauded performance in the flesh, I still found myself confused.
So, I left Shakespeare behind.
For the next twenty-five years, I picked at Romeo and Juliet once or twice, but I generally presumed that Shakespeare was overrated and unapproachable. But then, at the age of forty-two, I found my way back to the Bard. I started with King Lear and found myself utterly swept away. Dignity, betrayal, revenge, forgiveness. It was simply extraordinary. Before long I found myself devouring Hamlet, Richard II, Henry IV (part I and II), Henry V, Macbeth, Othello, Twelfth Night, A Merchant of Venice, and Coriolanus.
And I was stunned.
I was stunned at how brilliant Shakespeare truly is. I was amazed at his intricate grasp of the nuances of human nature. I discovered that Shakespeare’s artistry draws from a broad palette of the human soul comprised of shades of envy, hues of honor, tones of greed, and tints of loyalty. His narratives are mesmerizing. His wit is ingenious. His tragedy is crushing. And guess what? It had all been there in ninth grade...and I had missed it.
Now, once upon a time, I would feel bad about this. I would sense there was something wrong with me in my misunderstanding Shakespeare (and other difficult classics). Even more, I would envy those people who seemed to have gleefully delved into great classics at a young age. Though I had a fine education in my formative years, I wasn’t reading The Aeneid in Latin or chuckling at the Canterbury Tales or deciphering T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland.
But then I learned something from Plato that changed my mind. Perhaps my lack of understanding and my paucity of experiences with great works in my youth wasn’t such a bad thing. In Book VII of Plato's Republic, Socrates observed that there may be an age that is too young for the extraordinary works of philosophy, history, and literature.
There is a danger lest [children] should taste the dear delight too early; for youngsters, as you may have observed, when they first get the taste in their mouths, argue for amusement, and are always contradicting and refuting others in imitation of those who refute them; like puppy-dogs, they rejoice in pulling and tearing at all who come near them....And when they have made many conquests and received defeats at the hands of many, they violently and speedily get into a way of not believing anything which they believed before, and hence, not only they, but philosophy and all that relates to it is apt to have a bad name with the rest of the world...But when a man begins to get older, he will no longer be guilty of such insanity; he will imitate the dialectician who is seeking for truth, and not the eristic, who is contradicting for the sake of amusement; and the greater moderation of his character will increase instead of diminishing the honour of the pursuit.
In other words, the young flower striving to bloom too early may have shallow roots and wilts for lack of nourishment. Exposure to great works doesn’t mean comprehension. And if not deftly and delicately introduced by a capable mentor, the life-changing classic may, in fact, be cast aside never to be returned to again. As Winston Churchill once sardonically quipped, “My education was interrupted only by my schooling.” For years, I told myself that I had already read Hamlet when I was in ninth grade. Upon re-reading it as an adult, I discovered that I had never truly read it at all. As a teenager, my eyes took in the words, my pen wrote a passable essay, but I gained nothing but a twenty-five-year shallow disdain for Shakespeare.
My daughters love to read. And right now, my oldest is reading the Classics Illustrated abridged version of Moby Dick. She has already read Treasure Island, The Count of Monte Cristo, Robinson Crusoe, Tom Sawyer, and Huckleberry Finn. Her favorite is Around the World in Eighty Days. Near the end of a busy year of book reports and science projects, she furrowed her brow and said, “Dad, I can’t wait until summer when I can read a Classic!” Music to my ears. But that is because she is simply enjoying a good story in a somewhat modified language. There is no need to probe for symbolism, dissect characters, or argue about historical context. There is only the thrill of a good yarn. Give my daughters or me a good story and the morals and metaphors will follow thereafter.
In his brilliant book, The Life of the Mind, Fr. James Schall offered this quotation from Phyllis McGinley:
For of all my discoveries, nearly the most breathless was Dickens, himself. How many of the educated can ever suspect the delight of such a delayed encounter? I think we owned a Collected Works when I was a child. But I had tried David Copperfield too early and had believed all my life that he was not for me. One night last winter I was sleepless and somehow without a book. From our own shelves I took down Little Dorrit, which people tell me now is one of the least beguiling of the lot. But Keats first looking on Homer could have been no more dazzled than I first poring on my Boz. I felt as a treasure-hunter might feel had he tripped over the locked chest that belonged to Captain Kidd.
To read great works at a young age can help ingrain the rudiments of literature into a person’s marrow. But that is only if it is done softly and without being imperious. The first time you read a book, you find out what happened; every time you read it thereafter, you further understand what it means. If the first time you read a book you hate it, it is likely you will never return to it and gather the fruits of its wisdom. Yes, yes, in grammar school, Bob Dylan would read Moby Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Odyssey and find a way for the morally imaginative narrative to inform his brilliant lyrics later in life (and ultimately help him win a Nobel Prize for Literature). But most of us aren’t Bob Dylan. Instead, our job is to have wonder and to foster wonder in our children. And from that wonder comes curiosity, tenacity, and ultimately, apprehension of truth.
Perhaps Fr. Schall said it best: “Some things can only be known if we do not know them ahead of time. I suspect marriage is like this; children too. We need to leave space for gifts.”
Stories unfold just like our lives. In time, my initial consternation over Hamlet gracefully gave way to an openness to try again, to see what I missed, to sense that the flaw rested with me more than William Shakespeare. And when the beauty, wit, or wisdom alights upon us, we have experienced a grace. Unexpected and extraordinary. That’s how I found the Shakespeare I never knew. But that is only if we are open. That is only if we leave space for gifts.