A Hearty Hail To Britain's Bard
A STORY in yonder journal cheers me with the good news that Shakespeare is hearty and hale in this frustrating age - and retains recognition in modern education. I learn that the national Shakespearean competition is coming up and that high school students are embracing the opportunity with enthusiasm. One sophomore who may well be our next great Osric or Mercutio is quoted as saying that he prepared for this contest by practicing for a week before a mirror. Maybe this young man would like to hear abo ut my first class in "Hamlet."
Professor Chase was long, lean, lanky, learned, literary, and left-handed. Besides Shakespeare, he taught Chaucer and Milton, and had actually read all six books of the Faery Queen. It was on a bright September morn in 1929 that I appeared to begin a semester with Prof. Chase in the matter of "Hamlet, Prince of Denmark."
In 1929, the text of "Hamlet" edited by Joseph Quincy Adams was fresh off the Houghton Mifflin press, and each of the 28 English majors making up the class had a copy. First, Prof. Chase offered some introductory remarks, saying that corrected themes would be found in the library cloak room, and that on Tuesday afternoons he and Mrs. Chase would be at home with cookies if "any of you gentlemen" care to stop by. Then he said if we would open our texts to follow along, we would begin with "Hamlet."
I'm sure Prof. Chase never practiced before a mirror. His voice was by no means ready for the part of a soldier sentinel on the ramparts of Elsinore. "The play opens," he said, "with these words from Bernardo, `Who's there?' " He closed his book. That's as far as we went in that first class. But in his hour-long lecture that followed, Prof. Chase took us back to Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles, expounding on the talent and craftsmanship involved in producing an opening remark, and he pursued this thr ough the dark ages into Elizabethan England and way stations. Of all such first words, he felt, Shakespeare had achieved the best in Bernardo's "Who's there?"
Well, you see - Bernardo shouldn't have said that. Bernardo was coming onto the parapet to relieve Francisco, and Francisco should have said, "Who's there?" The audience would understand at once that something was wrong, something was awry, something was amiss. Why should the challenger be challenged? In short, now that two words had been spoken, everybody knew there was something rotten in the state of Denmark. The five acts to follow would enlarge upon this introductory warning.
"Hamlet" proceeded Tue., Wed., and Thur., until the semester ended for February break. On the second meeting, Prof. Chase read Francisco's reply to Bernardo, namely, "Nay, answer me." After that, we moved more rapidly, so during the second week Horatio got to speak to the ghost, and the morn in russet mantle clad walked o'er the dew of yon high eastern hill. Prof. Chase smiled as he read that line and interpolated, "Shakespeare was never at Elsinore - there is no high hill east of Hamlet's castle, but yo u can see a beet field in Sweden." Then he said, "Next meeting we can move along to scene two. Unless you have some questions about scene one?"
We thus did "move along" at merry pace, and every meeting with Prof. Chase, Shakespeare, and Hamlet was an exciting venture into the realms of gold. He timed his classes so that on the last day of the semester, his "Go, bid the soldiers shoot," was our dismissal. But we did meet again the next term on the heath, with three weird sisters and Macbeth, and I've always been glad. That's another story. But it might take two weeks by the mirror - I hope somebody tries it.
* * * * * *
A Note to Readers from Mr. Gould's "First Wife" (of 60 Years): John and I have just finished reading the 1,500 letters you sent to congratulate him on his 50th anniversary of writing for the Monitor. How great they all are! It has been fascinating to learn which essays stand out in your memories. I have always liked the "three-tined fork" piece in particular, but I'm fond of them all. We thank you for your good wishes and your love. And our love to you all, too. We'd enjoy having you pop in and see our B ack River at Friendship. Maine, that is. Sincerely, Dorothy Gould.