Your First Encounter with Shakespeare

 

julietI was seventeen when when Franco Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet was released. I was a rural farm boy who knew a little — very little — about Shakespeare, had only read a few lines by him, nor had ever seen a complete play on TV, let alone a live performance.

I was blown away. My crush on Olivia Hussey is just beginning to ebb a bit, 47 years later. It was like an entire new world had been handed whole to me. For a seventeen-year-old, the drama of the last scene was overwhelming. “Come on, Juliet! Wake up, for heck’s sake!”

And the language. I didn’t understand a lot of it, but I knew what it meant. Gorgeous and rhythmic. In the scene where Romeo laments being banished from the city, he cries about being “banish-ed” (two syllables, not one). My reaction: “they sure said ‘banished’ different in late medieval Italy than they do here in southern Utah.”

It was only a lot later that I finally realized that the word needed two syllables in order to stay true to the poetic form. With exceptions, virtually all of Shakespeare is in ten-syllable lines (though lower-class characters don’t have to talk in poetic form). But like all great artists, Shakespeare used the form, but wasn’t a slave to it. If a line needed eleven syllables, he’d do it now and then; he’d violate the form if necessary, but the form still mattered.

Examples of the form:

“Double, double, toil and trouble;

Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.”

Or this from the balcony scene:

Romeo: “He jests at scars that never felt a wound.

. . .

But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?

It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!

Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,

Who is already sick and pale with grief

That thou her maid art far more fair than she.

Be not her maid, since she is envious.

Her vestal livery is but sick and green,

And none but fools do wear it.

Cast it off.

It is my lady; O, it is my love!”

. . .

Juliet: “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?

Deny they father and refuse thy name!”

. . .

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.”

If that doesn’t get a moonstruck seventeen-year-old going, I don’t know what will.

So, how did you first encounter Shakespeare? Did it go well?

In the years since watching Zefferelli, I’ve seen many of the plays in performance. I’ve read all of them. I get pretty much equal enjoyment out of reading or seeing. Reading allows a more thoughtful understanding of the test; watching makes the text come alive.

All of which raises a second, perhaps unanswerable, question: is it Shakespeare the poet, or Shakespeare the dramatist that you find most appealing? Why? I admit that question — as C. S. Lewis said about grace and works — is like asking which blade of a pair of scissors is most important. But share your thoughts.

In my own mind, the poet wins the race by a nose. I could see myself never seeing another of the plays performed. I can never conceive of not reading the plays.

[I realize I haven’t even mentioned the sonnets, which stand in a category all their own].

Published in Culture, Literature
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  1. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Only one comment:

    “As You Like It”, my favorite Shakespeare play.  I must thank The Great Courses for their lectures on Shakespeare . . .

    • #1
  2. tabula rasa Inactive
    tabula rasa
    @tabularasa

    Stad:Only one comment:

    “As You Like It”, my favorite Shakespeare play. I must thank The Great Courses for their lectures on Shakespeare . . .

    Ditto on the Great Courses.  Peter Saccio’s course is wonderful.

    I’ve become a big fan of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream–a play that grew on me year after year.  It’s now my favorite comedy.

    I know Lear and Hamlet are the best, but I still go back most often to Romeo and Juliet (stupid Friar Laurence) and MacBeth.  Of the tragedies, they’re the ones that demonstrate best (for me at least) the magic of Shakespeare’s poetry and language.

    It boggles my mind that he wrote the stuff in the first place, but the idea that he cranked it out in a businesslike manner is even more amazing.

    Shakespeare to self as he drinks a cup of coffee in the morning:  “Got a deadline, so I think I’ll crank out a couple hundred lines of deathless poetry today.”

    If the word genius still has meaning, it means Shakespeare.

    • #2
  3. Pencilvania Inactive
    Pencilvania
    @Pencilvania

    I feel like asking forgiveness for having read little of Shakespeare’ s sonnets.  I’ll have to rectify that soon!

    I love the plays – I think the first one I saw was on PBS – Much Ado – when I was in high school. Sam Waterston & Kathleen Widdoes as Benedick & Beatrice, and it was set in Edwardian times. Great acting made the lines perfectly understandable, it was a delight.

    In high school summers I started acting & set painting at the local community theater, and a director who became a great friend (and she still is) was adventurous enough to drive groups of us to NYC once in a while on a Wednesday.  We’d stand in line at TKTS and get half price tickets for two shows in a day.  So the very first matinee I saw on Broadway was Christopher Plummer as Iago and James Earl Jones as Othello, talk about luck. Captain Von Trapp had nothing on Iago for electricity!

    • #3
  4. tabula rasa Inactive
    tabula rasa
    @tabularasa

    Pencilvania:So the very first matinee I saw on Broadway was Christopher Plummer as Iago and James Earl Jones as Othello, talk about luck. Captain Von Trapp had nothing on Iago for electricity!

    You can color me envious.  Two great actors.  Is anything better than Othello with Darth Vader’s voice?

    For pure electricity, Michael York’s Tybalt in the Zefferelli Romeo is right up there.

    • #4
  5. La Tapada Member
    La Tapada
    @LaTapada

    We read Shakespeare in high school (a tiny missionary school in the Amazon jungle): Macbeth and Julius Caesar. It was interesting, but mostly in an academic way. Then I saw The Taming of the Shrew in a small outdoor summer production in Pennsylvania just before I started college. I remember being amazed at how ENTERTAINING it was. Since then I’ve realized that seeing an actual production makes all the difference.

    • #5
  6. EThompson Inactive
    EThompson
    @EThompson

    My crush on Olivia Hussey is just beginning to ebb a bit, 47 years later.

    As is mine on Leonard Whiting.

    I do harbor a special fondness for A Midsummer’s Night Dream as I played the role of Titania in a summer stock production between junior and senior year of high school. Life truly did imitate art that summer as I recall every single cast member suffering from unrequited crushes. :)

    • #6
  7. user_554634 Moderator
    user_554634
    @MikeRapkoch

    I was twice blessed with a mother who taught the plays in high school, and a father who was just hammy enough to quote them at length. MacBeth was first. I was hooked. I just wish we had a theater in town that would put them on. Like you, TR, for me the poet wins by a breath.

    • #7
  8. MLH Inactive
    MLH
    @MLH

    At the risk of being blasphemous: It was this series that finally got me much more appreciative of the Bard. And the “The Taming of the Shrew” episode of Moonlighting was fun-I’m not saying good but fun.

    Anyone for Baz Luhrmann’s R+J?

    I shall look into the Great Courses course and buy my copy of How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare. It’s never too late, is it?

    • #8
  9. Ricochet Member
    Ricochet
    @EustaceCScrubb

    In High School we read Julius Caesar and had a field trip to San Francisco to see the play at ACT. Great experience.

    My first exposure to Shakespeare was probably the Gilligan’s Island episode where they put on a musical version of Hamlet (with music from Carmen) to convince Harold Hecuba (Phil Silvers) to put Ginger in his productions.

    • #9
  10. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    My first exposure: Lived in England as a kid and went to a DoDSS school for 6-8 grade.

    Every class, every year performed one of the Bard’s plays.  My 6th grade class performed The Tempest (understand: middle school, 3 grades, 3 different plays).  So the course of instruction included multiple readings of the script, and what that English meant in our English.  It also included a trip to Stratford-on-Avon to listen to some scholar from Oxford (or something) who was giving a talk on The Tempest.  It included going to London to watch a professional performance of the play by no-kidding, for-real actors.

    Then we executed the production.  I had landed Antonio, the plum piece in my opinion, because he got to actually draw steel (took a while for the whole “drama” concept to sink in).

    Have loved Shakespeare ever since.  Seventh grade I played some schlub in MacBeth.  I landed Laertes in 8th grade, and thought he was pretty much the baddest badass a fella could play (…to cut his throat i’ the church!…) and the perfect foil to Hamlet’s dithering wussitude (I’ve warmed to Hamlet over the years.  A bit).

    Shakespeare was one of the few academic subjects forced upon me for which I am truly grateful.  I’m on the drama side.  His poetry?  Eh.  But I’ve never seen the human condition so laid bare as in his plays.  Well, except for maybe in a Mickey Spillane novel…

    • #10
  11. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    We studied Julius Caesar in high school in the mid 60s.  (It was a small town high school with lots of farmers’ kids attending.) I think Mr. Lund was the teacher of that class.  He was a good-enough teacher, but my mother complained that he had proclaimed publicly that he couldn’t see how any Christian minister could support Barry Goldwater.  (That Christian minister would have been my father; I was an outspoken Goldwater fanboy at the time.  Dad wouldn’t let me put a Goldwater bumper sticker on either of our cars, though. He kept his politics fairly low key as he was pastor to people who came down on all sides of issues.)

    We conservatives always had to put up with remarks like that, and there were no trigger warnings or safe places, either.

    We also studied Macbeth in high school.  And it seems to me that Mrs. Halvorson taught that, although she also taught some of the history classes.  It could also have been Mrs. Bredburg. Almost all of my high school teachers were good; some very good.

    In the winter of 98-99 my wife and I spent some evenings in our unheated living room watching various Shakespeare productions on video.  Neither of us had seen any Othello before. I remember my wife acting as though it was my responsibility to see to it that somebody would go and punch Iago in the face, if I wasn’t going to do it myself.

    • #11
  12. Casey Inactive
    Casey
    @Casey

    I first encountered Shakespeare in High School. Second encountered in my mid 30s.

    Hated it. Thought it was stupid. In fact, I thought reading itself was stupid.

    I’ve matured a bit since then.

    • #12
  13. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    Casey:I first encountered Shakespeare in High School.Second encountered in my mid 30s.

    Hated it. Thought it was stupid. In fact, I thought reading itself was stupid.

    I’ve matured a bit since then.

    So, what’re saying, Case?  You’re now willing to cut the guy a break?

    • #13
  14. Casey Inactive
    Casey
    @Casey

    Boss, it’s like I always say… the fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.

    • #14
  15. Quinn the Eskimo Member
    Quinn the Eskimo
    @

    I think the earliest I recall was a production of “Romeo and Juliet” in 8th grade.  We actually read the play in 9th grade. I came around to it eventually with interpretation I liked eventually.

    Did a quarter in 10th grade where we did Macbeth line by line.  Loved it.

    Did Hamlet in 12th grade.  Read the play in 1 mesmerized sitting.  As part of a class, we staged an abridged version of “Twelfth Night.”  That was a good year.

    Came back to Shakespeare in my 30s after discovering Bob Dylan and all of the Shakespeare allusions on “Highway 61 Revisited.”  Read the complete works of Shakespeare over 6 months.

    My only complaint is that Shakespeare is so raided for ideas that there are not a lot of plot surprises.  Well, except that I had heard little of The Winter’s Tale, and I thought it was great and underrated.

    • #15
  16. tabula rasa Inactive
    tabula rasa
    @tabularasa

    Eustace C. Scrubb:My first exposure to Shakespeare was probably the Gilligan’s Island episode where they put on a musical version of Hamlet (with music from Carmen) to convince Harold Hecuba (Phil Silvers) to put Ginger in his productions.

    Now that’s what I call High Culture.

    • #16
  17. tabula rasa Inactive
    tabula rasa
    @tabularasa

    Boss Mongo:My first exposure: Lived in England as a kid and went to a DoDSS school for 6-8 grade.

    Every class, every year performed one of the Bard’s plays. My 6th grade class performed The Tempest (understand: middle school, 3 grades, 3 different plays). So the course of instruction included multiple readings of the script, and what that English meant in our English. It also included a trip to Stratford-on-Avon to listen to some scholar from Oxford (or something) who was giving a talk on The Tempest. It included going to London to watch a professional performance of the play by no-kidding, for-real actors.

    Then we executed the production. I had landed Antonio, the plum piece in my opinion, because he got to actually draw steel (took a while for the whole “drama” concept to sink in).

    This is the education I wish I’d had.  I fear it grows more rare each year.

    • #17
  18. user_436320 Member
    user_436320
    @TaleenaS

    I wish I knew where I first encountered Shakespeare, but I have had an abiding love of the Swan of Avon since middle school. If I were to guess, I think I was introduced to him through PG Wodehouse about 4th grade, but no… make that the 3 Investigators in 3rd grade. Fleeting references to famous lines made me curious and I picked up Hamlet towards the end of grade school. Ghosts! Murder! Crazy people! I thought it was great, and by 6th grade I was hooked. By 8th grade I discovered the Histories which made me read real history and find out just who this Henry VIII fellow was. I memorized Henry V walking home from high school.

    The Dear Husband and I used Patrick Doyle’s wonderful score from Much Ado About Nothing as our recessional when we married, and attended many Shakespearian productions while we dated.  I love the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton version of Taming of the Shrew, but wonder that my parents let their impressionable teen girl watch something so bawdy. I remember laughing my butt off at a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with William Hurt as Oberon, but all I can recall is his incredibly dry delivery of “Farewell…nymph.” Finally, I can not express enough my approval of Ken Brannaugh’s Hamlet, if for no other reason that they finally include Fortinbras! (A volatile Rufus Sewell)

    • #18
  19. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    tabula rasa: In my own mind, Shakespeare the poet wins the race by a nose. I could see myself never seeing another of the plays performed–I can never conceive of not reading the plays.

    Is it OK to find the poetry of the plays better than the poetry of the sonnets?

    My first encounter with Shakespeare – sort of – was through Charles and Mary Lamb’s “Tales from Shakespeare” when I was very small. I liked the real stuff better.

    • #19
  20. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    My favorite Shakespearian passage – maybe:

        Was ever woman in this humour wooed?
    Was ever woman in this humour won?
    I’ll have her; but I will not keep her long.
    What! I that killed her husband and his father-
    To take her in her heart’s extremest hate,
    With curses in her mouth, tears in her eyes,
    The bleeding witness of my hatred by;
    Having God, her conscience, and these bars against me,
    And I no friends to back my suit at all
    But the plain devil and dissembling looks,
    And yet to win her, all the world to nothing!
    Ha!

    …And will she yet abase her eyes on me,
    That cropp’d the golden prime of this sweet prince
    And made her widow to a woeful bed?
    On me, whose all not equals Edward’s moiety?
    On me, that halts and am misshapen thus?
    My dukedom to a beggarly denier,
    I do mistake my person all this while.
    Upon my life, she finds, although I cannot,
    Myself to be a marvllous proper man.
    I’ll be at charges for a looking-glass,
    And entertain a score or two of tailors
    To study fashions to adorn my body.
    Since I am crept in favour with myself,
    I will maintain it with some little cost.
    But first I’ll turn yon fellow in his grave,
    And then return lamenting to my love.
    Shine out, fair sun, till I have bought a glass,
    That I may see my shadow as I pass.

    • #20
  21. Belt Inactive
    Belt
    @Belt

    Not counting various references in Loony Tunes/Merry Melodies and Gilligan’s Island, my first real encounter was Romeo and Juliet in 10th grade, I think it was.  I imagine we did that one because it featured teens and relationships and drama and feelz and stuff.  We also watched the Zepherelli version, only we didn’t have an actual film, it was a filmstrip with an audio accompaniment.  It was…  Awkward.

    The whole experience nearly turned me off Shakespeare.  I still don’t like Romeo.  In college I did take a course on Shakespeare, and that was much more satisfying.  I learned that you need to learn to read it, and watch a couple different versions if possible.

    I remember watching the movie Men of Respect on cable around that time, and soon after it started I realized, “Oh, this is Macbeth!  With east coast mobsters.  Cool.”

    I think now of how so much of the classics of Western civilization/literature are just ignored, and how much art is now inaccessible to students who are supposed to be learning.  I also wonder what we produce as art today will have the weight and depth to provide material for future artists.  I don’t think a Simpsons reference would cut it.

    • #21
  22. tabula rasa Inactive
    tabula rasa
    @tabularasa

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    tabula rasa: In my own mind, Shakespeare the poet wins the race by a nose. I could see myself never seeing another of the plays performed–I can never conceive of not reading the plays.

    Is it OK to find the poetry of the plays better than the poetry of the sonnets?

    Fine with me.  I like some of the sonnets, but the poetry inherent in the plays is, for me, much better.

    • #22
  23. tabula rasa Inactive
    tabula rasa
    @tabularasa

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:My favorite Shakespearian passage – maybe:

    Was ever woman in this humour wooed? Was ever woman in this humour won? I’ll have her; but I will not keep her long. What! I that killed her husband and his father- To take her in her heart’s extremest hate, With curses in her mouth, tears in her eyes, The bleeding witness of my hatred by; Having God, her conscience, and these bars against me, And I no friends to back my suit at all But the plain devil and dissembling looks, And yet to win her, all the world to nothing! Ha!

    That’s sort of, what?  Wonderful is the word I’m looking for.

    • #23
  24. She Member
    She
    @She

    My dad could (and often did) quote large gobs of Shakespeare at the drop of a hat and whenever the mood struck him, so the language has always been a part of my life.

    My first formal introduction, though, was at boarding school in Malvern Wells. We all took parts, and read A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Then we moved on to The Merchant of Venice and Henry V.

    Since Henry V was the featured play at the theatre just down the road (in Stratford on Avon), we were bundled into buses and hauled off to see a matinee performance.  I loved it, and I’ve never forgotten it.

    All this during a single school term when I was eleven years old.

    The Franco Zeffirelli Romeo & Juliet came out when I was a freshman in high school (in the US by this time).  Since that’s what we were studying at the time, the school organized a field trip to see the movie (parental permission had to be secured, and one group of Catholic students couldn’t go because the Church did not approve).

    Of course, this was the same (public) school that sponsored one of the travelling productions of Jesus Christ Superstar, allowing it to be shown in the auditorium, and allowing students who wanted to go see it time off from class to do so (the auditorium was packed. . . .).  Just try something like that today in your local public school.

    I think I was very lucky.  Most of my  childhood education was run by people who did not underestimate their students’ intelligence, their thirst for knowledge and their ability to learn.

    • #24
  25. user_517406 Inactive
    user_517406
    @MerinaSmith

    I first saw a play when my family happened onto the Cedar City Shakespeare Festival on a summer vacation when I was about 12. It was run by the husband of my Mom’s old college roomie and they got us tickets.  The play was Othello and I loved the play and the puppet shows, costumes, food and Renaissance music before the show.  I was hooked!  We’ve been back to that festival and taken in others around the world when we can, including at Stratford-on-Avon.  W got tickets as groundlings for the Old Globe in London for Hamlet when we were there a few years ago.  That gave me a new appreciation for the poor folk who went in Shakespeare’s day.  We got tired of standing all that time.  Great performance though!  They did it Elizabethan style there.  Sometimes I like the modern adaptations in different dress and sometimes I don’t.  Much Ado with the Keystone Cops was pretty funny.

    • #25
  26. tabula rasa Inactive
    tabula rasa
    @tabularasa

    Merina Smith:I first saw a play when my family happened onto the Cedar City Shakespeare Festival on a summer vacation when I was about 12. It was run by the husband of my Mom’s old college roomie and they got us tickets. The play was Othello and I loved the play and the puppet shows, costumes, food and Renaissance music before the show. I was hooked! We’ve been back to that festival and taken in others around the world when we can, including at Stratford-on-Avon. W got tickets as groundlings for the Old Globe in London for Hamlet when we were there a few years ago. That gave me a new appreciation for the poor folk who went in Shakespeare’s day. We got tired of standing all that time. Great performance though! They did it Elizabethan style there. Sometimes I like the modern adaptations in different dress and sometimes I don’t. Much Ado with the Keystone Cops was pretty funny.

    Although it’s a well-kept secret, the Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City (home of Southern Utah University) won an Emmy a few years back.  The productions are first rate.  And in that part of the west, one can sit in the outdoor Elizabethan theater with little fear of rain or cold.  The production of Twelfth Night I saw a decade or so ago is the best Shakespeare I’ve seen.  Hilarious.

    • #26
  27. user_436320 Member
    user_436320
    @TaleenaS

    She:Since Henry V was the featured play at the theatre just down the road (in Stratford on Avon), we were bundled into buses and hauled off to see a matinee performance. I loved it, and I’ve never forgotten it.

    All this during a single school term when I was eleven years old.

    Nothing quite like Henry V:

    Upon the King! Let us our souls, our lives

    Our debts, our careful wives

    our children and our sins

    lay on the king.

    O hard condition! Twin born with greatness

    subject to the breath of every fool whose sense no more

    can feel, but their own wringing! 

    Old Will S. knew quite a bit about people who expected someone else to shoulder the burden of accountability, couldn’t grasp the larger picture, yet yammered on.

    • #27
  28. Annefy Member
    Annefy
    @Annefy

    tabula rasa:

    Pencilvania:So the very first matinee I saw on Broadway was Christopher Plummer as Iago and James Earl Jones as Othello, talk about luck. Captain Von Trapp had nothing on Iago for electricity!

    You can color me envious. Two great actors. Is anything better than Othello with Darth Vader’s voice?

    For pure electricity, Michael York’s Tybalt in the Zefferelli Romeo is right up there.

    I am afraid when it comes to Shakespeare my education was sadly lacking.

    Funny story: about 15 years ago my family (20+ people) all went to see Michael York at the Hollywood Bowl. He was performing from Shakespeare with the LA Phil providing music accompaniment.

    We were sitting in the cheap seats and basically had the entire section to ourselves to freely pass around our bottles of wine.

    I was sitting next to son #3, then about 5 or 6. About halfway through the performance he nudged me and said “I didn’t quite get that last one”. Trust me, with my family there was no one that could provide assistance. He called a friend of mine the next day and I was treated to his side of the conversation.

    About 6 months later we all went whale watching and Michael York was on our boat. Son #3 nudged me and said, “Mom, look. There’s Richard V”.

    • #28
  29. Quinn the Eskimo Member
    Quinn the Eskimo
    @

    tabula rasa:

    Stad:

    Ditto on the Great Courses. Peter Saccio’s course is wonderful.

    Saccio has two courses on Shakespeare.  Or at least I own two.  Very little repetition.  Both worthwhile.

    • #29
  30. tabula rasa Inactive
    tabula rasa
    @tabularasa

    Annefy:About 6 months later we all went whale watching and Michael York was on our boat. Son #3 nudged me and said, “Mom, look. There’s Richard V”.

    Great story.

    I’m told that York, in addition to being a great actor, is a decent guy.  He was very helpful to the Utah Shakespeare Festival in its early years.

    • #30
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