Monday, January 4, 2010

Will's Father was a Glove Maker

(Hartenstein's 9th graders practicing their Macbeth script)

Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! It is an ever fixed mark
that looks on tempests, and is never shaken -Sonnet 116

At the onset of every Shakespeare Unit, I cover my basis: What is Blank Verse, and what it means to write in Iambs? What was the Renaissance, the Globe, and Elizabeth’s Golden Age? We touch briefly on Comedy and pause mournfully on Tragedy. I give them Aristotle for Poetics and Hollywood for adaptations: Ten Things I hate About You (Shrew) and She’s the Man (Twelfth Night). It’s more than a good start. It’s a life. My goal is to have students find, like Duke Senior from As You Like It, “Tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.”
Of course, it’s a tall order.
First comes Shakespeare’s Biography.
Students are amazed to find out William died on his birthday. Total bummer! Or that he was married to the American actress from the Princess Diaries and Get Smart. Score! They like that his hometown sounds like a perfume you buy on Mother’s Day and that people in London awoke and pissed in pots by their beds they most likely tossed out windows onto the street, “Look out below!” “Oh Drat! The Plague. Yuck!” I have facts just for boys: Will’s best pal Chris Marlowe was killed in a knife fight after being stabbed in the eye with a dagger in a tavern brawl. Cool! And facts just for girls: All the acting parts were played by dudes, so Romeo and Juliet were actually just two really cute boys kissing. Nice! There are numbers for math geeks: 37 plays, 154 sonnets, and sonnets of 14 lines. Fun and Games: The Insult Kit and caricature cartoons. Soliloquies. Bawdy jokes. Famous lines. And new words that the Bard created out of necessity. “Hang Thee, Young Baggage!”
And who doesn’t have just a little bit o’ baggage?
It is during these class mini-lectures that I lose myself a little, and it is always at the same spot. I dare say this thought has probably not crossed most people’s mind before, but who was Shakespeare’s father? Did Shakespeare even need one? If he is, as Harold Bloom has suggested, the creator of the Human Being, than wouldn’t Shakespeare have just made himself? Sprang from his own head like Zeus’s spawn?
This is what we know. Will’s father was a glove maker, which might have ordinarily led the eldest son to apprentice in his father’s shop where he would have learned to tan leather and the importance of a strong stitch, but John Shakespeare, a man of much honor and respect in Stratford, was a man of many talents. These included farmer, money lender, and borough ale-tester. He also rose to prominence as a court bailiff (Town Mayor) acting as Justice of the Peace, issuing warrants, and hearing cases. I wonder all that Will learned about the law and life and love sitting next to his father. Certainly he learned to look in the eye of tempests and not be shaken.
Eventually, before losing everything, John Shakespeare even became an Alderman in the church.
I like to think, sitting there next to his father in the front row of the parish, is where Will first learned the Old Testament stories. Those ancient tales full of treachery, debauchery, murder, betrayal, and bloodshed. Students are always surprised when they find out the Bible has more bad people than good, a perfect literary apprenticeship for a budding writer. Absalom. Lot. Cain. Samson. But they are also the mythic strands of dreaming boys, full of adventure and intrigue, loyalty, love, and faith. I like knowing that Will understood this, and that his plays are loaded with allusions and deep fantastical images associated with the narrative of God’s word, as well as the lively street language he was sure to encounter from his father’s constable days.
It is here I begin to think who my literary fathers were:
Milton in his blindness composing Paradise Lost. Wordsworth dreaming of clouds. Byron’s Starry Skies. Homer’s Heroes sleeping in lionskins in the dust, their spears stuck ready beside them in the sand. Longfellow’s legends. David’s lyrical cries to God. But I hold no greater debt that that to William Shakespeare . How his poetry has always moved and saved me. How he gave me Hamlet when my real father and I couldn’t be in the same room together. Prince Hal when I decided to turn from bad to good. Jacques during my backpack years when I did nothing but watch the world. Then Lear, as I stare into the temporary unconditional love found in my three daughter’s eyes. Mad lover Orsino. Prospero with his book. Iago for when I needed to decide who to trust and who was going to rat me out for their own good.
Who were your real fathers? What did they pass down to you?
I ask the kids and we journal and they read aloud. I am ever so fascinated by their responses.
We discuss this on the first day. It is a lot, I know. Mostly they only look back at me confused and scared to death that we have started Shakespeare and they have heard from their older brothers and sisters that it is impossibly hard and as boring as root canals or spinal surgery. They cast their eyes to the floor praying I won’t call on them to read aloud. So I back away and let it sit in their minds where they can muse like Romeo in the sycamores or Orlando in the forests of Arden. I’ll try again tomorrow. Another day, anon. It will make sense then. I’ll make them see. I‘ll make them love it or perish trying. My will is that strong.

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