by Melanie Heuiser Hill
One of my favorite classes in college was a Shakespeare class. It was well-known, well-loved, hard to get into, and mandatory for all English majors. It organized my life the semester I took it. The rhythm it dictated was this: Arrive at class on Monday having read the assigned play and accompanying critical literature. Inspiring lectures on Monday and Wednesday on the week’s play. Difficult test and various movie clips of the play on Friday. Repeat. We made it through Shakespeare’s major plays sticking to this schedule.
It was a lot of reading. That’s what I remember most—standing in line at the door to the library at noon on Sundays (waiting for it to open—college libraries are open 24⁄7 now!) with snacks, tea, and my hefty bright red Complete Works of Shakespeare. I spent blissful Sunday afternoons reading the week’s assigned play…and napping. I took a nap every Sunday afternoon in the library. I left post-nap when the play was read, my notes made, and I could put off supper no longer. It has been many, many years since I spent a Sunday afternoon in this way, but I think of it almost every Sunday. I think it might be my True Rhythm.
I have retained more information from that class than any other, I think. But I still sometimes get plots confused. If I don’t have a Sunday afternoon to devote to reading a whole play through, I simply pull the well-worn Tales From Shakespeare from my shelf and have a look there.
I don’t know when this book came to us—I think probably my mother-in-law got it for our son when he was quite young. She loves Shakespeare. He loves Shakespeare—and it started with this book, I know. He can tell you plots—seldom confuses them—and it’s all because of this book.
Because of Tales From Shakespeare and the accessibility it provided for an interested young child, we have seen many of Shakespeare’s plays on the stage, in the park, and on the screen over the years. Knowing the basics of the plot and the characters before you go can make all the difference, no matter your age. He sat rapt at Shakespeare In the Park productions before he went to school. We saw a stunning production of Macbeth when he was still wearing a clip-on tie and I was worried about the level of violence. Years ago, when he was a young teen, we saw Propeller, the all male Shakespeare troupe, in a performance of Taming of the Shrew that we still talk about regularly.
Tales From Shakespeare by Tina Packer, president and artistic director of Shakespeare & Company, has made these experiences possible. There is nothing all that fancy about this book—it’s beautiful, to be sure, but it isn’t particularly profound in its beauty or in what it does. After a brief synopsis, the story is told over a few pages. There is art here and there by a variety of artists. There is a list of the main characters and their relationship to each other. A Time & Place is listed, made all the more interesting when we see the play set in another time and place. That’s it. But our copy is well-worn—I used to read it to the kids. Then they read it on their own. Now we pretty much consult it as needed. And I should say that I use it as much as anyone—there’s nothing about it that makes it exclusively a “kid book.”
Over New Year’s we caught a National Theater Live production of Hamlet—Benedict Cumberbatch playing the title role, which was tremendously exciting for our Sherlock-loving household. We hadn’t seen Hamlet before and although we could piece together the basics between us, we still pulled out Tales From Shakespeare and did our homework before we went. It was a terrific production and young and older alike enjoyed it thoroughly.
There’s a particular kind of pride—I feel like there should be a long German word for it—that one feels when walking behind one’s thirteen and almost-nineteen year old offspring as they discuss their favorite parts of a Shakespearean production, comparing and contrasting with other Shakespeare plays they’ve seen. Does this English-Major Mama’s heart good.
I put Tales From Shakespeare back on the shelf this morning. It won’t be long before it’s out again, I’m sure.