Friday, October 04, 2013

Why I Love My Shakespeare Life

This post brought to you by three or four glasses of cabernet sauvignon, so put it in its appropriate context.

We had company this evening, one of the dads came over to watch the baseball game while his daughter (and mine) were off at their first middle school dance, and the moms were off at some other mom's house.  So eventually the guests depart, the game is over, and we're left to clean up.

I realize that the television has stopped showing baseball and is now showing some old dude with a bushy beard talking to some other guys in poofy clothes.  "Falstaff!" I shriek, realizing what night it is.  As if on cue, Tom Hiddleston appears on screen.  "Henry!" I scream, "Henry IV Part 2! Oh my god Henry IV Part 2 is on television right now!'" I run to the kitchen and grab my wife by the face while she is mopping.  "Henry IV Part 2!" I squeal at her.  "Do you have any idea how happy Shakespeare makes me?!"

"Who is that?" asks my 7yr old son.

"That is Prince Hal who at the end of the movie is King Henry," I tell him.  "It is a very sad scene, one of the saddest scenes in all of Shakespeare, and it is awesome. It is one of my favorites."

"Why is it sad?" he asks.

"Well," I tell him, "Pretend that I am the king. That would make you the prince, right?  That means that one day you're going to be the king.  Well, until then, you are just out hanging around with your friends, partying, doing crazy stuff, you know, like friends do.  And then one day you find out that the king, that's me, has died, and that means that you're the king now. And your best friend is all, 'Oh, cool, you're the king, we are going to do awesome stuff together!' and you turn to him and you say, "We're not friends anymore."

"Why can't I be friends with my friend anymore?" he asks.

"Because you're the king now, and the king has very important responsibilities, and he's not allowed to hang out with regular people and do crazy wild things like he's been doing.  It's very sad, and his friend knows it's sad, and the king knows it's sad, but they both know that it has to be that way."

With that I race to the remote control and start bringing up my copy of Chimes at Midnight.

At this point my son begins to cry.  "I don't want to see it if it's sad!" he wails.  Despite my overwhelming desire to jump right to that scene, I resist and go help my wife clean the kitchen.  "I've shown you that scene, right?" I ask her.  I then begin reciting the scene.  "My jove, my king!  Speak to me, my heart!   I know thee not, old, so sad.  And so amazing.  Have I shown you that scene yet? You know I'm going to."

My son is apparently now on a Shakespeare kick.  "I want to see where somebody says To be or not to be," he tells me.  Being a Shakespeare Geek I happen to have Richard Burton's Hamlet ripped and ready to go, and move to start it.  But then I realize that he's already vetoed the sad stuff, and it's not like Hamlet is a laugh riot.  So I ask him whether he wants to see To be or not to be, or if he wants to see one of the funny ones. He tells me he wants to see one of the funny ones.

Can do!  I fire up Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Taming of the Shrew. Here's how I explain it to my boy.  "There's this girl, Katherine, and she hates boys. She's sworn that she's never going to marry a boy because all boys stink. Well along comes this boy Petruchio, and he says I'm going to marry Katherine! And then they get into a whole big fight and she chucks things at his head, and it's really funny."

So there we sit, my son and I, watching Taming of the Shrew.  I fast forward to the famous "wooing" scene, and I do play by play as it approaches.  "Ok, see in there? That's Katherine, and she hates to be called Kate. She's pitching a tantrum and breaking all of her stuff.  Petruchio is outside, and he knows he has to go in there and woo her, and he's building up his courage, telling himself that no matter how much she yells, he's just going to tell her that her voice sounds like an angel singing..."

And we go through the entire scene, my son asking questions and me doing my best to keep him interested.  "What is that pile of stuff she fell in?" That's feathers, in the old days you had to make your own pillows.  She thinks she got away from him, but he's not done chasing her yet. See? Here he comes again...

"She's holding an apple, is she going to throw an apple at him?" Probably, yes.  Sure enough Richard Burton pops his head up through the trap door and she hurls a macintosh at him.

At one point I realize that my wife has gone up to get into her pajamas and is now just hanging around waiting for our eldest to get home from the dance.  "I'm watching Taming of the Shrew with my son!" I tell her. "And he is paying attention! I am so very, very happy! And hey this isn't even like it's just Shakespare, this is Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, this is a classic love story we're talking about here!"

Meanwhile I get random questions, like "So if I was king, would I still be able to be best friends with David?"  "Absolutely," I tell him, "The rules were different back then.  Hal's friend Falstaff was kind of a bad guy."

"Kind of?"

" can I explain it? Not like a bad bad guy, he was.....hmmm..."


"Yeah, medium.  He was hanging out with guys that were medium.  And when you're a  king you can't hang out with those kind of people anymore."

Eventually Petruchio catches Katherine, and I end that particular movie.  I ask if my son still wants to see to be or not to be, he tells me yes.  "Ok," I tell him, "This is going to be cool. Because the man that was just playing Katherine's boyfriend, who was chasing her all over the place?  Well, now he's Hamlet."

Just picture this, for a moment.  My 7yr old son is curled up under a blanket on the couch waiting for the To be or not to be scene.  I am standing in front of the television with a remote control in one hand and my phone in the other, where I have brought up the text of Hamlet and am now working back and forth to determine whether I've fast forwarded too far.  At last I hit the right moment, and pause it.  "Ok here we go!" I tell him.  "See that guy? That's Claudius, the bad guy king."

"Why is he a bad guy king?"

"Because he stole the throne from Hamlet.  And that guy there?  That's Polonius. He works for the king, so he's a bad guy too.  That girl? That's Hamlet's girlfriend.  Polonius has told her that she has to go to Hamlet and say that she doesn't love him."

"Why can't she just say no?"

"Because that guy is her father. And when you were a girl back in Shakespeare's time, when your father told you to do something, you had to do it, even if he was a bad guy and you didn't want to."

And with that, I was watching Richard Burton perform Hamlet while sitting on the couch with my son.  It was....bliss.

I explain to my son, "Now see you have to wait for the end, because this is a very important scene.  Ophelia, Hamlet's girlfriend, is going to come up to Hamlet and give him back his presents and tell him that she doesn't love him."


"Well because her father told her she has to. Also, because she thinks he's a little crazy, like everyone else does. Hamlet doesn't know that, though. Hamlet thinks that she's the only person left who understands that he's only pretending."

"Why is he pretending to be crazy?"

"So he can spy on the bad king. He thinks that the bad guy king cheated to win the throne, and Hamlet wants to win it back, so to do that he has to get close to the bad king to learn more about whether he is guilty, and he thinks that the way to do that is to pretend to be crazy so nobody will pay attention to him. Now,shhhh, here comes Ophelia..."

Funny thing? I don't like the way they do this scene.  I race to my iPad and begin googling.

At this point, by the way, my daughter has arrived home and she is now off to bed, along with my wife. They are both calling down that my son needs to go to bed. I call back that he'll be up in a minute.

I then bring up Kenneth Branagh's rendition of this scene.  "Watch this," I tell my son, "It is the same scene, only different people doing it.  When Ophelia gives the presents back I want you to watch Hamlet's face."  *play*  "Wait.....wait........see? SEE? Right here, SEE?  He's so happy to see her, he knows that she's the only one that believes him...and then he realizes that she thinks he's crazy too, and at first he is so sad, you can see how he's almost going to cry...and now look how mad he gets...."

I then go on to show him the Derek Jacobi and Kevin Kline versions of the same scene, before deciding that he only wanted to hear To be or not to be, and having now heard it, all he wants to do is go to bed.

I finally shut it all down, and tell him how very happy it makes me to be able to watch Shakespeare with him. He tells me that he only wanted to hear somebody say to be or not to be and, having heard that, he's fine with going to bed.

And that's precisely what he did. Me? I ran to my laptop to blog this whole evening, because it's been one to remember.


Anonymous said...

That was a wonderful evening! Your son is lucky! I wish you had been my high school english teacher.
I was an adult before I was able to like the Bard. Now I love him after seeing his plays performed live.

Nick said...

Not that anybody asked me, but here is my all-time favorite Falstaff quote:

"To die is to be a counterfeit, for he is but the counterfeit of
a man who hath not the life of a man; but to counterfeit dying,
when a man thereby liveth, is to be no counterfeit, but the true
and perfect image of life indeed. The better part of valor is
discretion, in the which better part I have sav'd my life."

Anne said...

This post made me laugh out loud. I so get that. Your son will remember that enthusiasm forever, even if he doesn't remember who was on the screen. All of my kids love to bring me Shakespeare tidbits they come across.