Tales from Shakespeare

by Melanie Heuis­er Hill

Red Reading Boots

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 247 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.

Tales from ShakespeareI 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.”

HamletOver 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.

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