Just Shakespeare

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THE talk was over, and the last lingering student had faded into the warm April evening. Driving back to the motel, we chatted idly among ourselves -- four panelists, gathered from diverse backgrounds at this small West Virginia campus for a seminar on religion and journalism. By one of those quirks far commoner in Conrad novels than in life, we all had some connection with Kansas. So presently we found ourselves chuckling over a tale about waiting for a night train in Garden City, Kan., back in the 1950s.

``There we were, sitting in the car at the station,'' said the senior member of our group, ``when my wife saw that great big locomotive headlight in the distance and said, `Come on! Here it is!' Well, our hosts just laughed. `No hurry,' they said, `We've still got 15 minutes 'til it arrives!' That's how flat it is out there -- you could see that light for miles.''

I was still smiling when, back in my room, I laid my lecture notes on the television and pulled off my shoes and socks. Through the sliding glass door I could see the half-moon setting low over the treetops. Beneath it, in mist of pale radiance, lay the lawn, overlong in an early surge of growth that must have caught the mowers by surprise. It sloped gently down toward a fresh-plowed field and, beyond, to the dark woods. I slid open the door and stepped ankle-deep into the moist grass.

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It had not been unpleasant, those years I spent teaching in Kansas. Not that I missed the classroom: Journalism has always seemed to me a form of teaching, except that as a writer you don't get to watch the faces. But then, in some ways, you never do -- never really see the responses develop and the meaning grow. That happens, so often, long after the classroom has emptied and the words have gone off into the darkness.

For some reason I thought back to my own small-college education -- and, in particular, to my Shakespeare professor. A tall, lean Yankee, his voluble gruffness bordered on indifference -- until you noticed that in conversation he watched you with a shy, sidelong intensity and listened very carefully. Not that he always agreed with you. But if his irony was withering, his gentleness was profound. One moment he could make you feel a perfect fool for not having consulted your dictionary. The next, with

a twinkle, he would fire off an oblique compliment at you for at least having bothered to ask.

Mostly, though, I remembered his fascination with language. I remembered the hours he spent unpacking Hamlet's brooding lines -- Hamlet, ever prey to indecision and inaction, asserting that he did indeed ``Have cause, and will, and strength, and means'' to carry out his revenge. Was that, we were asked, an accurate self-appraisal? Hamlet did indeed seem to have cause enough for revenge -- perhaps even means and strength enough. But MDUL will? Was Shakespeare, by sneaking that word so deftly into the list, alerting us to Hamlet's vast capacity for self-delusion? Or was even that an ironic twist -- Hamlet the philosopher, watching himself play Hamlet the man of action, and delighting in the ambiguity that held him at such a distance from reality?

It was inevitable, I suppose, that on those snow-brightened mornings in his classroom we would at last begin to take the measure of our own language -- and of ourselves. That was the artistry of his teaching. Not, perhaps, a conscious artistry. He had no designs on our mentalities, no hungering to mold us in his image, no intention of tinkering with our lives. If asked what he taught, he probably would have replied, ``Just Shakespeare.''

Just Shakespeare! The call of a night bird from the woods brought me back in time to notice, high on a far hill, a light moving through the trees -- a lone car, piercing the darkness of the state highway. As it approached, I heard it brake. Then, as it turned to cross the bridge at the foot of the hill, its headlights swept the woods and the plowed field. For an instant, the light gleamed brilliantly on my white shirt. Then it was gone.

How like the classroom, I thought. Ask that driver what he had been doing, and he would probably have replied, ``Just driving.'' That his beam had lit up the world around me he never would have known. And should I seek him out, years from now, and remind him how on this very night his lights had swept across my life, he could only be puzzled.

By now the grass was chilling my feet. Drawn to the light of my room, I thought of all those students who had listened so politely to our panel that evening. Had it been worth their while? In our way, we too had probably twisted and turned through the dark wood of the intellect -- arguing, challenging, pleading, intent on getting somewhere we could not quite see. Had the beam shot forth, here and there, to glance sidelong into some shy face, to rest upon an open notebook?

No, I thought, you can't foresee those things. All we can do -- locomotive engineers, drivers, teachers, writers, each of us -- is keep moving and keep the light lit. Just Shakespeare. Just driving. The beam falls where it will.

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