by Bob Sparrow
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!
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.
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.
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.