Life with a Shakespeare soundtrack
She says: "I'll go to Safeway on the way home and buy some milk."
I say: " 'Light thickens; and the crow makes wing to the rooky wood. Good things of day begin to droop and drowse; whiles night's black agents to their preys do rouse. Thou marvell'st at my words....' "
She says: "And dog munchies."
I say: "Well? So? Where's that from?"
She says: "Safeway."
I say (warningly): "Want me to say it again?"
She says (hastily, heaven forbiddingly): "Oh I don't know. Hamlet? Macbeth? Yes, Macbeth."
I say: "By?"
She says, mockingly: "Oh, let me see ... Robert Burns? William Wordsworth?" (Pause, for ironic effect.) "It couldn't be Shakespeare, surely?"
Married people get to know each other far too well, really. She can be fairly sure, when I launch into some heavy, and not necessarily relevant quotation, that it will be Shakespeare, and probably "Macbeth."
Perhaps it should have been written into the Premarital Warnings (Small Print): "This man reared on Shakespeare. Liable to sudden quotational surges." Ah, well, there must be some unknowns in a relationship.
I had a friend who used to play very brief snatches of classical music and then ask "Composer? Artist? Name of work?" Why he subjected me to such terrifying treatment I could never understand. I can hardly tell Mozart from Brahms,
My Shakespearean outbursts are really not tests. They are over exuberant enthusiasms. Shakespeare is part of me. In fact, he is part of almost everyone who speaks idiomatic English, as columnist Bernard Levin once pointed out. A vast number of common expressions are unwittingly Shakespeare. "It's Greek to me" for instance, or "to live in a fool's paradise" or "without rhyme or reason" - even "what the dickens!"
I am dismayed when I meet people who say they "hate Shakespeare" because it was "so boring" at school. I loved it. I loved the roll and resonance and rhythm of the words, the way in which the words made images, and these images built the texture and atmosphere of his plays.
How can anyone resist Viola's "Make me a willow cabin at your gate" in "Twelfth Night"? Or, in "Much Ado About Nothing," Benedick's comically wincing grumble about being the butt of Beatrice's quick wit: "She speaks poniards, and every word stabs." Or Beatrice's own words, when the Prince tells her she was "born in a merry hour." She says: "No, sure, my lord, my mother cried: but then there was a star danced, and under that was I born."
We were fed Shakespeare at school in marvelous ways, entertainingly, imaginatively, practically. We read him. Best of all, we performed, in an open-air theater set in a wood, one Shakespeare play every summer. I watched at first: "The Merchant of Venice," in which one of the Culver brothers presented Shylock, for a change, as a sympathetic character. I saw "The Taming of the Shrew." I think I had a small part in "The Famous History of the Life of King Henry VIII," not one of the Avon man's better-known efforts. Then, in "Macbeth," I had my first real part, as Malcolm. I helped lead the righteous armies, destined to defeat the tyrant usurper. We carried boughs cut not from Birnam Wood, but from the woodland at the back of the stage.
Since we were at a boarding school, endless hours were available for rehearsal. The plays came alive. We belted out the percussive, rounded words so as not to be defeated by that stage's al-fresco acoustics.
Then I was given the part of Benedick in "Much Ado," and had to endure the "poniards" of the teasing Beatrice and be tricked into falling in love with her (as she was with me) in spite of all our anti-marital, verbally gymnastic protestations.
I saw a production of this comedy just last summer, in another open-air theater, in London's Regents Park. I was astounded at how funny it is. I'm not sure we sufficiently exploited the humor in our production, but we had a great time nevertheless. The parents all sat through it dutifully.
I say: "Oh, and I think we need more cat litter." She says: "Right." I say: " 'thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees, in some melodious plot of beechen green, and shadows numberless, singest of summer in full-throated ease....' "
She says: " 'Macbeth.' "
" 'As You Like It'?"
Then, with a smug expression on my face: "It's Keats's 'Ode to a Nightingale.' Ha! Ha! Hee! Hee!"
She sighs long-sufferingly, and exits through the front door. She has serious work to go to.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor