Shakespeare By Any Other Name . . .

by Bob Sparrow

S birthday

The Birthday Boy . . . or is he?

While I was busy either hiking or trying to track down my friends in Nepal and Suzanne was selecting the menu for her ‘Last Supper’, we missed an important date last month on April 23, the birthday of William Shakespeare – he turned 451.  Don’t worry if you didn’t get him anything or even send a card, he’s used to being ignored. To wit:

Only four of the nation’s 52 highest-ranked universities require that an English major take at least one, yes one, Shakespeare class – those schools: Harvard, Cal, Wellesley College (Massachusetts) and the U.S. Navel Academy. Go Navy!

Dr. Chapman

Dr. Viola Chapman

Fortunately, my curriculum at Westminster College in Utah did include the study of several Shakespeare plays and sonnets.  I remember my first day walking into class and sizing up the professor, Dr. Chapman.  She was a elderly, diminutive woman with a stern continence, of course elderly to a college student in those days was anyone over 40.  She wore her hair in a bun and I thought she could have played the part of Norman Bate’s mother in Psycho.  I was petrified.  I was afraid not to pay attention, but once she opened her mouth, she had me. She was brilliant and quirky – she’d sit on her desk, swinging her feet to and fro, reciting, by heart and with an Elizabethan accent, long passages from Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets.  By the end of the first week, I was all in.  She brought the literature to life, she made me want to know more.  There is no question in my mind that my interest in and ultimate love of Shakespeare was a result of one person, Dr. Viola Chapman.  By the time I had graduated, I’d taken every class she taught and ended up with a minor in English.  She not only instilled in me a love of Shakespeare, but influenced my decision to become a teacher and ultimately try to turn high school students on to the ‘The Bard’.   She taught at Westminster from 1948 until 1972 and was the first professor to be honored as ‘Faculty Emeriti’ by the college.  She is without question, my favorite teacher of all time.

C Marlowe

Christopher Marlowe

If you haven’t really thought much about Shakespeare since you flunked that Merchant of Venice test in high school (like I did), then you may not be aware of the fact that there has been a long-standing debate as to whether William Shakespeare actually wrote all or any of the plays and sonnets attributed to him. Such luminaries as Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud and even Helen Keller have opined that Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare.  So who was?  Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, the Earl of Oxford, the Earl of Derby and several others have been debated ‘to be or not to be’ the ‘real’ Shakespeare.  The debate will not be settled anytime soon, and it probably doesn’t matter because if Shakespeare didn’t write those plays and sonnets, the real author or authors are also about 450 years old and probably dead.

A line from Captain ‘Hawkeye’ Pierce, of the old TV series M.A.S.H., even references the debate when he complained about a bad tasting breakfast, saying,  “This bacon tastes as old as the Bacon that wrote Shakespeare’s plays.” 

Whoever he was, Shakespeare continues to influence our lives today.

West Side Story

West Side Story

Some plays/movies that you may be familiar with . . .

     West Side Story – based on Romeo & Juliet

     Kiss Me Kate – based on Taming of the Shrew

     The Lion King based on Hamlet

You’ve also probably quoted Shakespeare, maybe without even knowing it, as he coined too many phases to be listed here, but a few of the more familiar ones are:

     Love is blind

     Neither a borrower or lender be

     The world’s mine oyster

     He will give the devil his due

     This above all to thine own self be true

And a favorite of mine . . .

     The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers

So a belated happy birthday to whoever wrote all that wonderful literature and a tip of the cap to Dr. Viola Chapman for bringing it into my life.

There’s probably a Shakespeare play being performed somewhere close to you this summer – I say go see it; at 451 years old, he may not be around much longer and you just might enjoy it.

Class dismissed!

The Palm & The Pine – A California Story Part II

     So, what about the trees in the picture?  Glad you asked.  If you travel on Highway 99, which goes north-south through the heart of California, about 10 miles north of Fresno, if you look carefully, drive slowly, very slowly, you will see a palm tree and a pine tree together in the meridian.  Nothing else, no grassy park, no plaques, no mention of this being a landmark, no special entrance, in fact, no entrance at all, just rows and rows of oleanders along the meridian, then the trees, then more oleanders, all protected by the freeway guard rails.  Don’t look for a place to pull over to see the trees, there isn’t one. 

     The history of how the trees got there is fuzzy at best.  Most historians suspect they were put there by agricultural students from Fresno Normal School (now Fresno State University – they had to take the word ‘Normal’ out because . . .  it’s Fresno!), around 1915.   We know they were there before 1926 when Highway 99 was under construction.  It was then workers from the Department of Highways (later to become CalTrans) were ready to cut down the trees to make way for the highway, when a crew member (one of California’s first “tree-huggers”) suggested that the highway go on each side of the trees, which it did.

     I was challenged to take pictures of the trees as I drove by (in both directions . . . several times!) window rolled down, one hand on the wheel, one hand on my camera.  As I checked out the pictures that I’d taken I found that they were all a little blurry.  So to get a good look, or rather a good picture, like the one shown here, one would have to illegally pull off to the side of the highway and hope the CHPs are still back at the Dunkin’ Donut cleaning the contents of a jelly roll from their uniform.  Not to be denied a good picture, I got a bright idea.  On my next trip around I pulled off to the shoulder of the highway across from the trees, popped my hood and pretended to be looking under it (which is a fairly common occurrence on many of my road trips), but really I was taking pictures.  Three people slowed down to offer help, but I gave them a big ‘OK’ sign and they moved on; perhaps they didn’t want to get involved with someone who was seemingly taking a picture of his motor.

     The two trees have special meaning for me.  I was born and raised 28 miles north of ‘The City’ (San Francisco) in Novato, and then a teaching job brought me to what my northern friends call ‘the dark side’ and have now spent the past 40 years in ‘The O.C.’ (Orange County) in southern California; so I feel eminently qualified to ponder and pontificate on the state of the two halves of the state.    I have observed this: If you talk to Northern Californians they may refer disparagingly to a number of things in the south, nothing personal, just things like, “How do you stand . . . ‘all the smog?’, ‘all the traffic?’, ‘all the people?’, ‘all the fake boobs?’ And then add, ‘and stop stealing our water!’.  If you ask Southern Californians about the north and those remarks, they say, ‘Chill dude, whatever . . . wait a minute, what did you say about boobs?’  An objective observer might say the ‘North’ is a little up-tight and the ‘South’ a little too laid back.  As the self-proclaimed expert on these things, I have seen these traits exhibited as well as some other differences, but I actually see so many more similarities that it’s not conceivable to me that the state will ever be divided.  When I think of California I don’t think north and south, I think of things like our beautiful coast line, Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, Palm Springs, the wine country, the San Joaquin Valley, where nearly every crop known to man can be grown.  I think of the creativity in Silicon Valley as well as in Hollywood.  I think of the history of the Missions and of the Gold Rush.  I think of those great writers who lived in and wrote about California, John Steinbeck, Jack London, John Muir, Mark Twain and one of my favorites, Herb Caen, although he had no use for the southern part of the state.  I think of the fact that no matter where you live in California you’re just a few hours (and sometimes just a few minutes) from the mountains, the desert, and the ocean.

     So I think the palm and the pine tree are indeed special, not because they create a ‘border’, but because they’ve existed peacefully, side-by-side for so many years.

EPILOGUE

     The two trees were supposedly planted in the exact middle of the state, but actually they’re about 25 miles off, not sure which way.  Incidentally, the palm tree is a Canary Island Date Palm and the pine tree is not a pine at all, but a Deodar Cedar; neither is indigenous to California, but then most Californians aren’t.  Viva La Difference!