12 June 2015


My parents aren't Shakespeare readers, so I didn't get my love of his work from them. Instead, I borrowed it from my best friend's mother.

My best friend Tara lived next door. She was four and I was eight when we met. Her mom Lynn was (is) very creative. She sewed and did calligraphy and made rubber stamps out of carved erasers. She airbrushed t-shirts for us, made us dress-up clothes and matching quilts and pillows, stuff like that. (She's also the one who made my Sherlock dolls.)

Lynn is also a drama/theatre person. And one of the first things she ever made me—which still hangs in my office today—is a calligraphy sign with a artistically carved matte that reads:
"We know what we are, but know not what we may Be."
It's from Hamlet, of course, IV.v. I spent a lot of time as a kid trying to work out what it meant, and I finally went and read the damn play to garner a context for it. (For the record, I love the first part of the line: "They say the owl was a baker's daughter.")

I once saw a interview or documentary or something in which Sir Patrick Stewart mentioned that Shakespeare came easily and naturally to him, and it did to me, too. I never struggled with the language, at least not in comprehending it. Hamlet remains my favorite of the plays, probably because it was my first. I've performed and taught it more than any other and can't go a week without some line from it crossing my mind in random situations.

It's funny because I never owned one of those kids' Shakespeare storybooks that turned the stories into some prose form for children to read. But once I'd read Hamlet, I had to read others, and more than that, I was on fire to see one of Shakespeare's plays performed. Alas, I don't think I ever did until I was older. In fact, I'm pretty sure I was performing Shakespeare myself before I ever saw one of his plays on stage. Though I did see the Mel Gibson film . . . And possibly other adaptations on film, though none spring to mind now. (Did not see the Baz Luhrmann Romeo and Juliet, but had to watch that 60s version as a freshman in high school.)

Actually, my freshman English class rewrote Romeo and Juliet into a gangster/Mafia play, and this was a handful of years before Luhrmann's version. I helped do the rewrite and played Lord Capulet (with a Bronx accent and wearing a Hawaiian shirt and ponytail). My first role in a Shakespeare play! Our instructor filmed it and for every year at school afterward, freshman would come up to me and say, "You're Lord Capulet!" Having found an audience, I persisted in being Cassius in Julius Caesar, the third witch in MacBeth, and Viola in Twelfth Night. Then, finally, Hamlet because I was the only one willing to memorize the soliloquies.

Later, at university, I would be part of the Shakespeare at Winedale program and would do Hamlet again, this time as Corambis (aka Polonius, but we were doing the First Quarto). I would parlay all this into teaching at a summer camp where each year I would choose a play for the students to learn and perform. My first choice was, naturally, Hamlet. Later years would see Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, and MacBeth (which my students turned into a comedy). I was greatly rewarded in seeing the students' apprehension turn to enthusiasm, and was flattered to have parents tell me, "I wish we'd learned it like this when we were in school; maybe then I'd like Shakespeare!"