Shakespeare’s Ghost is Alive and Well

The assassination of Julius Caesar, painted by William Holmes Sullivan, 1888. (CC-by-sa/2.0)

Anyone who has lived long enough to accumulate memories going back several decades probably can relate to feeling “haunted” by scenarios they wish would disappear out of their heads. Obvious examples would be horrors endured by military personnel, natural disasters one has survived, or something as simple as the memory of a crabby, long- deceased aunt whose picture still hangs on one’s wall (and has to stay there because she left a nice inheritance).

Photo ©Deidre O'Neill (CC-by-sa/2.0)
Photo ©Deidre O’Neill (CC-by-sa/2.0)

My ghost, seemingly impervious to exorcism, is that of William Shakespeare. After many decades of exposure to The Bard, I have concluded that he just hasn’t been much fun.

It’s a shameful reality for a retired English teacher to face.

However, every seasoned teacher eventually faces the truth: Some teaching units are as exciting as watching dust settle and enthusiasm must be faked.

For example, at one time I considered majoring in biology because living things always fascinated me. A quick change of mind came when I realized that dissecting deceased frogs plucked from jars of stinky preservatives was not only lacking in excitement, it would also descend into total boredom when I had to study biochemistry – not an option for my non-scientific mindset.

Eventually, after I had taught English for a few months, I thought, “If I had majored in biology, I’d have to act hugely enthusiastic about the cellular structure of nematodes.”  Or, “If I were a history teacher, I’d have to cover the War of 1812.” Huh? I’ve looked up the War of 1812 many times but can never recall its cause. Because my young idealism had been far more profound than any sense of reality, I decided to become an English teacher, never guessing at how many frustrating hours there would be trying to deal with Shakespearean drama.

My plodding, circuitous route studying The Bard began at age 17 at Toledo University. At times it seemed I should have encountered him earlier, having had two stellar English teachers at Mentor High School, Jack Moore and C. Osborne Hutton. I don’t remember anything about Shakespeare in those classes except for his sonnets, and Mr. Moore and Mr. Hutton were such fine teachers I believe I’d have remembered had we read a play.

It was obvious that a major in English demanded studying Shakespearean drama, so in my sophomore year at TU, I signed up for Shakespeare 201 and made an offhand comment to my dear roommate Susan (Irey) Moore that it would be fun if we took the class together. (I just knew that was a highly- skewed suggestion since she was a sociology major, so I was ecstatic when she agreed to take the class as an elective).

The first day in Dr. James S’s class was puzzling because every desk had an occupant. (I’m using just a letter for his name in case some of his descendants are still around). How could Shakespeare be that popular at a university noted for its outstanding reputation in engineering and pharmacy?

King Lear Weeping over Cordelia's body - James Barry 1786 (CC-sa-by/2.0)
King Lear Weeping over Cordelia’s body – James Barry 1786 (CC-sa-by/2.0)

The answer to the above question was quickly apparent: Dr. S was somewhat of an urban legend in Toledo because of an event in his class one day every semester. His favorite play was King Lear, and he insisted on reading much of it aloud. One scene near the end depicts the pompous, cold-hearted king reconciling with his youngest daughter, who was sweet- natured and loving, in contrast to her two older sisters, who were grasping, greedy bitches. (My word, not Shakespeare’s).

While reading that scene, Dr. S would, without fail, break down in uncontrolled, gasping sobs that rivaled any good actor. The idea of witnessing that sort of quirky scene so appealed to the unsophisticated minds of college students that his classes were filled to capacity every semester. Imagine enduring 90 days of a difficult subject just to  experience an anomaly like Dr. S.

I had no realization then that in my future classroom I would feel the same emotional response, certainly not while reading any Shakespearean play, but rather about certain scenes in the movie To Kill a Mockingbird. I’d duck out of the classroom “for the water fountain” to avoid being a weepy basket case.

Anyway, back in 1962, Dr. S didn’t exactly impress me in a favorable way. He was the absolute stereotype of an OLD university prof, probably about 65 (therefore ten years younger than I am now). Every day he wore a tweed jacket, tailored in the Elizabethan Age so as to be relevant to his subject matter. He was short, rumpled and rather rotund. He always appeared with a stack of ancient notes, tissue- paper thin and ready to crumble in his hands.

Plus, on the first day of class each semester, he made his feelings about education majors perfectly clear: We were truly substandard and would forever be inferior to those in the College of Arts and Sciences because the latter were sincere devotees of great literature and had intellectual perception. He seemed to think that anyone who planned to teach unruly, messy, ignorant teenagers was one blade shy of a full propeller.

Nonetheless, Susan and I forged ahead and did fairly well until about mid-semester. We had slogged through Julius Caesar and Macbeth, very pleased with our sophomoric abilities in each earning a “B” by then, enough so that we largely quit our efforts until about two weeks before the final exam. Dr. S had made it clear that he taught those two plays in deference to us lowly education majors, since we would likely have to teach them someday. His real passion came in the character of King Lear, and reality hit when we noticed that the play is about three times longer than Macbeth or Julius Caesar. Lear was to be the focus for the final exam, along with TEN other plays.

We were in very serious straits and knew we needed a prodigious lifestyle change for the two weeks left. We made it clear to our other apartment mates (Pat, Diane and Nettsie) that we had to seclude ourselves from music and frivolity so we could study the (damn) Bard.  Isolation was not easy because the five of us had formed a strong bond in spite of coming from different backgrounds; the bond was largely based on rowdy, gutter-type humor, and it was difficult for the two Shakespearean scholars to miss out on something so enlightening in deference to a stuffy playwright.

Seclude ourselves we did, though, in two avocado green chairs that had an advanced case of the uglies and a poster on the wall above that said, “Home is where you can scratch what itches.” Not exactly Shakespearean caliber but clearly indicative of 19-year old minds. (I had no recollection of that poster until Susan mentioned it to me in a phone conversation last fall).

I remember we struggled over Richard III, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and … I can’t remember any of the rest but assume Romeo and Juliet was in the list somewhere. We sat in Ugly Chair I and Ugly Chair II and recited the plays aloud, made lists of characters and what they did, and quizzed each other ad nauseum until one of us weakened enough to ask, “Wanna go up to Franklin’s for a sundae?” Gone! We hadn’t moved that fast all year. Life is not without rewards for good behavior: I believe we each got a B (or a B-) on the final.

The next installment belies a logical explanation for one of the most short-sighted things I have ever done and falls into that category of “What could I have been thinking?” The next year, at the ripe age of 20, I signed up for Shakespeare 301, also taught by Dr. S. This time, still carrying a sense of guilt from the previous year about inviting my good-natured friend to join me, I didn’t ask Susan to sign up. Plus, unlike me, she had learned a lesson, a sideline one from Dr. S: College sophomores often have minds like black holes in the outer heavens.

Imagine my panic, when, stepping into the classroom for Shakespeare 301, I learned that the class was seminar style with only 13 students, ALL of whom were working on master’s degrees, except for me. How lowly can one feel?

Answer: not at the absolute bottom because on graduation day two years later, I would discover that my name was sandwiched right between two other graduates with “Summa Cum Laude” after their names. However, since I couldn’t do anything about the graduates’ list, I was just grateful that I didn’t know those two dorky nerds.

Meanwhile, I was back in Dr. S’s seminar, feeling very deserving of some good luck after my blundering decision; and the God of Bad Decisions took pity on me. Dr. S had organized his 301 class based totally on student participation and had NO tests or exams at all. He assigned the reading of two plays a week, and we were expected to discuss them in depth every Friday.

Recognizing that the volume of reading was beyond my willingness to master, I developed my own strategy by studying only two or three acts of each play and leaving Acts IV and V in limbo. Every Friday I would put in my two-cents worth (or less) with confident hand-raising, about the acts I’d read. Then I could relax and shrink into my seat for the remaining acts and learn, with no effort at all, how the plays ended.

Oddly, I did not consider my strategy cheating but put it in the category of “creative problem solving.”  I had learned a valuable lesson for teaching, however; I could immediately recognize when my students at Riverside High School were using the same “get the misery out of the way quickly” premise, but I admit I was too much of a softie to impose sanctions on them.

Shakespeare 301 really motivated me, in hindsight, to try to understand what had happened with Dr. S.  Since I had come out of his class with another “B,” I wondered if he’d taken pity on the only student not working toward a Master’s Degree. Or, had I really fooled him? (Not likely). Maybe he thought I’d loved Shakespeare 201 so much that I couldn’t stay away a minute longer.

Whatever, I felt far too lucky to ponder very much at that time and wanted to assume I’d achieved his esteem in spite of my questionable career plans. (Only much later did it occur to me that he must have begun his teaching career in similar circumstances).

Events brought me back to my home in Mentor, where I began muddling through my first two years of teaching (and a new marriage) while trying to navigate a monster-sized high school and getting hopelessly lost. By comparison, University Hall at TU is smaller than the then newly constructed Mentor High, and U-Hall accommodates about 10,000 souls per year.

Really complicating things for me, the Mentor English Department had adopted an experimental program in which the teachers changed classrooms while students stayed put. That arrangement came as a huge shock because I was a graduate of that district and had expected  the traditional classroom set-up. Much of the time as a rookie teacher I could only be certain of which floor I was on by looking out the windows. Since I’d always been a “misplacer” of nearly everything I’d ever owned, trudging around a cavernous school while carrying supplies for 30 students seven times a day did not work.

Brutus and the Ghost of Caesar - Edward Scriven, 1802 (CC-sa-by/2.0)
Brutus and the Ghost of Caesar – Edward Scriven, 1802 (CC-sa-by/2.0)

Two years of feeling as if I were in an institution instead of a school motivated me to seek employment at Riverside High School, with its tradition of one teacher being firmly planted in only one classroom.

I felt immediately comfortable with one exception: Teaching Julius Caesar was also firmly planted right there in the sophomore section of the English curriculum. I thought, “Good grief, will I never be free?” I had already learned I preferred 10th graders to the other levels, so nothing was to be done except to face Shakespeare and his ghost many more times.

Spring of ’68, well into my third year of teaching, I realized that teaching Shakespeare had entertaining, rewarding moments, but arduous, headachy hours were the norm. Hence developed my strong dislike for Ole’ J.C., his friends and enemies. The difficulties for me were many.

Sophomores are usually 15 or 16 years old and can remember back to when they were 4 or 5. Having a time concept of about a decade makes relating to the Shakespeare’s time in the mid-1500s a real leap of intellect. It becomes more complicated because Julius Caesar is historical tragedy set several decades B.C. A sophomore in high school should be excused for thinking Neanderthals may have been roaming Earth right beside the Romans. The numbers are there, but true perception about time isn’t.  As an adult, have you looked at an astronomy manual and tried to conceive of billions of years and trillions of miles? Again, the numbers are there, but the concept is murky.

For obvious reasons, the language of Shakespeare is convoluted and archaic compared to newer literature.   A young person attempting to read about Caesar and Brutus, the hero of the play, encounters such wording as “Forsooth, methinks Caesar shall forth,” or “Thy shall digest the venom of thy spleen.” (Is the spleen a real body part or just something made up to confuse anatomy students?)

Just for a little jest, I’d like to point at my right rib cage during my next physical and say, “Doc, I have a really sharp pain right here and think I have chronic venomous “spleenitis.” I think I should have some antibiotics to prevent it from spreading to the spleen on the other side.” I think Dr. Baum would get a real kick out of that, while he reaches for his copy of The Gerontologist’s Guide to the Severely Demented.

Another troublesome phrase for teenagers reading Caesar is “Et tu, Brute.” (I visualize Willie with a mischievous grin as he writes and decides, “I’ll just throw a little Latin into the play to confound future readers and actors.”) Imagine young people, who have been actively reading for only a few years, trying to read the play aloud, which must be done to conform to the “almighty high school curriculum.”

Frustration is the guaranteed outcome in a teacher who values accuracy in pronunciation and spelling. As we began reading, Marc Antony’s name almost always ended up as “Anthony,” followed by my interruption of “The name is AnTONY; there’s no “H” in it.” Then we’d come to the name “Portia,” which the reader would usually pronounce “Por-t-i-a,”; I’d follow by saying, “The name is pronounced “PorSHA” and is not spoken the same way as the “i” and “a” in “Sylvia.”

Not that I haven’t made errors in pronunciation myself, but what really gave me creepy-crawlies up my spine was the kids’ saying “swords” as “sWords,” as if the most important letter in the word were the “W.” So I not- so- patiently insisted that “swords” has a silent “W” and is spoken “sords.” (I would keep talking rapidly, forestalling some kid’s observation that the English language doesn’t much make sense – an absolute truism that I didn’t want to discuss). Whatever, one inevitable result was that many students, three weeks after we’d struggled with the play, would still be writing about “Anthony” and “Ceasar” with their sWords.

The biggest stumbling block in going through the play with teenagers happens in the first part of Act IV because of the way perfectly respectable words have transformed into meanings “not acceptable in polite society.” An example of language’s quirkiness is the word “bitch,” which almost all teenagers could effectively describe in its popular usage.  Perhaps only those who had attended dog shows or owned puppies would know the original meaning.

We all can cite many words like that, so I’ll let further explanation rest, except for what is said in Act IV of Caesar while Antony and Caesar’s nephew Octavius are plotting an attack on the conspirators who had assassinated Caesar. In their tent the two generals have a list of their own soldiers, many of whom have been cowardly and are likely to desert the cause. The soldiers’ names are listed; the two men go down the list and pick out which ones they will kill for treason.

They are not using a writing instrument but rather a sharp, pin-like tool when Octavius says, “Lucius is not worthy; prick him down, Antony.” So, it goes on, with a form of the word “prick” used three times on one page. The poor kid who had blindly volunteered to read Antony’s or Octavius’ part is caught very much off-guard; meanwhile the most lethargic one in the class is suddenly wide awake and amazed that Shakespeare would be so crude and maybe wasn’t such a stodgy dude after all.

The first few years of instructing students through Act IV confounded me with a dilemma of how to maintain dignity while stifling my peals of laughter. My first attempt was to just let it go, pretending I’d not comprehended the word, but meanwhile 26 pairs of eyes were staring at me watching my response.

A few years of this charade ensued until I developed a new strategy: moving to the back of the room so I couldn’t be seen. This worked fairly well until I was assigned to a smaller room in which every inch of space had to be utilized, making the backs of the desks butt up to the wall. (Fire regulations about allowing adequate paths for escape were dutifully ignored).

My last few years of teaching, when I got more comfortable about sensitive issues, I just let the snickering laughter rip and after a few seconds said to the kids, “Okay, you’ve had your fun; let’s get on with Rome’s civil war.”

In hindsight, I often wondered why members of some bureaucratic committee in the Ohio Department of Education didn’t peruse literature in school curricula to look for certain words and phrases and edit them out. Nope, unabridged copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover could slither right across their desks and into American classrooms while departments of education would be none the wiser. If you think government oversight of content works, remember how thoroughly Congress members “read” the Obamacare tome.

Adding to my negative mood about Shakespeare was the sheer number of times I felt required to “cover” Julius Caesar. The math is this: I taught it for 28 years in about three sophomore classes each year. (28 x 3 = 84 times). But that is not a realistic number because the first reading through, the kids understood an average of maybe 1% – 10%, requiring arduous line- by- line explanations and making me endure the misery 84 additional times. Then, I would show an abbreviated version of the movie, which blessedly omitted the first few lines of Act IV. That adds another 84 times, bringing my exposure to about 252 times. The movie version was old, meaning some of the kids went into a semi-catatonic state lasting until Caesar was stabbed; after witnessing decidedly fake-looking blood, they went right back to having glazed-over eyes through the rest of the movie.

The Complete Works of William ShakespeareWhile feeling worthy of being canonized as a saint by that time, I also thought I needed to be wildly enthusiastic about a piece of writing that I wished had met its demise when its author had.  Acting enraptured/ fascinated/ obsessed by The Bard was obviously a tall order for me, but meanwhile I thought maybe my students were thinking, “I’ll bet Mrs. Reed can hardly wait for summer so she can read Shakespeare’s plays all the time.”

In truth, I left the school in ’95, headed for retirement with silent glee that I was done forever with Caesar and his ilk. A few years ago, I even got rid of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, which was weighing down both my bookshelf and my mind.

While at Riverside, I never said much about my Shakespeare issues. In the classroom next to me was a dear friend and wonderful teacher, Carol Gregg Benroth. When the English curriculum was rewritten at one point to include junior and senior classes of one- semester subject areas, she quickly declared a preference for the class in Shakespeare. I had always felt that Carol was more “academic” than I’d ever been, so I shouldn’t have been surprised. Nonetheless, her being willing to take on entire semesters of teaching The Bard’s plays elevated HER to sainthood, leaving me feeling grossly inadequate, a feeling that lasted until my first day of retirement.

Years of plodding through Shakespearean drama with tenth graders led to some conclusions:

  • I consider him the greatest author the world has ever known.
  • His imagery and command of language are superior in every way.
  • His understanding of psychology and the human condition has not been equaled by any other author and likely never will be.
  • His “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech, enunciated by Marc Antony at Caesar’s funeral, is the single most masterful eulogy ever written and delivered, having had the power to incite mob mentality leading to civil war in the most powerful empire of its time.

But do I enjoy reading Shakespeare’s plays? No! But I do think the historical significance of  Julius Caesar should be covered in high schools (briefly).

So, on my last day of formal teaching, as I locked the door of the classroom no longer mine and headed for retirement, I also bid Shakespearean drama goodbye forever.

Gretchen Reed and her dog, Bru
Gretchen Reed and her dog, Bru.

Ha! Not quite. Two years ago, reminders came flooding back in a decidedly non-literary form: a 55-pound coon hound from our local humane society named …. Brutus – lanky, floppy-eared, and hugely undisciplined.

I had so wished to name my next canine adoptee “Atticus” in honor of the hero in To Kill a Mockingbird, but Brutus was used to his name and had the attention span of bi-polar toddler – no sense confusing him with a new name.  So, it became a case of “hate the name, love the dog,” and I call him “Bru.”

The Shakespearean motif was not finalized in my life even then. Last fall, Susan called and asked if I would be able to meet her and her husband Toby in Toledo so that we three could tour the TU campus. She and I had spoken frequently about wanting to see the university one more time, a bucket list thing.

We were both extremely excited at the prospect and were especially hopeful that our old dorm, MacKinnon Hall, would be open; it was, and we were fortunate to find a friendly young man occupying what had been our apartment. Glory be, he even offered to let us look at all the rooms and actually seemed interested in our memories of the place from 53 years earlier. (The green chairs were gone).

From there we wandered the east end of the campus and found the new memorial dedicated to TU military veterans. The experience was both awesome and heart-wrenching. Further wandering impressed us with the beauty of the campus, possibly even more impressive than when we had been students there; the stately University Hall Tower (always the first thing seen when coming down Bancroft Street) and the uniformity of the sandstone buildings made it hard to tell where the old had ended and the new had been added.  It seemed to shout out, “I am strong and will ENDURE.” Really capping off our day was the friendliness of everyone we talked to there.

Ghosts flying about the University of Toledo
Ghosts of Shakespeare and Dr. S flying about the University of Toledo.

I think the greatest overall impact of our tour was, though, rambling through University Hall, still the largest academic building there. Most of it has changed little – massive, scholarly, dignified,  quieter than we expected, and HAUNTED.

I am not a “spiritual” person, BUT I saw the ghost of Dr. S in U-Hall, followed closely by the ghost of Shakespeare. The good prof’s spirit shuffled around a corner in front of us and looked exactly the same as he had when we were 19, but the perception of a teenager is vastly different from that of a septuagenarian.

I had considered him an eccentric bore, needing only a light shove to earn residence in the Land of Weird.  As a ghost, he was instead a brilliant ascetic, awed by the world’s greatest master of language.

Dr. S had no doubt suffered in his corporeal form, being surrounded by many short-sighted, ignorant young people with little appreciation for what he really was – a lonely old man who had found solace in things of a bygone era. I believe he was purposely oblivious about the insanity of the Vietnam War raging half a world away.

The prof was completely comfortable and secure in his own skin, blissfully secluded in his armor of brown tweed. He had rejected the mundane and petty for a higher calling. I now feel profoundly fortunate to have known him in spite of my sense of guilt at not fully appreciating what had meant so much to him. I wish I could have taken his ghostly hand and sent him on his way to Stratford-Upon-Avon.

The campus trip was a nostalgic, rewarding and exhilarating finale’ for both Susan and me. Knowing that she is still as kind, sensitive and loyal as she was when we were first friends at age 17 was wonderful, and the glint of mischief is still in her eyes too. Being with her handsome, Southern gentleman-type husband for several hours was also a huge treat; he dutifully took pictures and demonstrated admirable patience with two blithering women.

Susan and I agree that we’ll not go back for another Toledo visit; sometimes things we once loved change too much to contemplate more than once.

I have locked the door on Shakespeare but will keep its key just in case a future brown-eyed “Caesar” is watching for me at the humane society.

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