I hear my oldest coming down the steps. “I wonder if she needs help with calculus or physics?” I ask my wife.
She rounds the corner. “Ok, so, we’re playing trivia in virtual classroom and the category was Shakespeare.” Oh fun. “Which character has been in three plays?”
“I’m going to assume Falstaff.”
“Right. Yes, well, we got it wrong. We guessed Antony.”
“That’d be Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, only two.”
“Exactly, I knew that wasn’t it. But anyway, he’s, like, a big character, isn’t he?”
“He was never the title character, but it’s been argued by more than one person that he’s Shakespeare’s greatest creation. Books have been written on just him. I literally have a book upstairs right now that’s nothing but an actor’s diary of when he played Falstaff.”
“I thought so. Our teacher told us that he’s a huge Shakespeare fan, and how he’s read all of the Henry’s because, you know, he prefers the lesser known plays, and that he didn’t remember this character, he must not have been that important.”
I fire up my computer. “Hold on a second.” I google “Harold Bloom Falstaff”:
Then there’s Harold Bloom, who, in the opening pages of his short, charming new book Falstaff: Give Me Life, writes that he has “come to believe that if we are to represent Shakespeare by only one play, it ought to be the complete Henry IV, to which I would add Mistress Quickly’s description of the death of Falstaff in act 2, scene 3 of Henry V.”
For Bloom, what puts Henry IV on top is not the starring role, Prince Hal, but the supporting character Sir John Falstaff. “I think of this as the Falstaffiad,” writes Bloom, “rather than the Henriad, as scholars tend to call it.” For Bloom, who has been teaching at Yale since 1955 and who is considered by many to be the most distinguished living literary critic (he’s 87), Falstaff is not just “the glory of the Henry IV plays” but (his italics) “the grandest personality in all of Shakespeare.”
You can’t bluff your Shakespeare knowledge in front of my kids.
Last week my son surprised us all by dropping an out of the ordinary Hamlet quote into dinner conversation. Apparently he liked the reaction it got.
During quarantine he has, like I’m sure most boys his age, been avoiding his homework at all costs. Every day is a battle over when to get his homework done and how much effort to put into it. Today at lunch he comes up to me say, “Ok, Daddy, I’ve got a new strategy for doing my homework. Ready? Better three hours too soon, than a minute too late.”
I smile and acknowledge, “You’re studying your Shakespeare quotes now. I approve. I bet nobody else in the family would have recognized that, but yes, I got it.”
“Good,” he tells me, “Because that is so not my strategy.”
I feel awkward now telling these stories, knowing that my kids’ friends might be reading them, so I’ll do my best to keep personal info out of it.
My oldest is tutoring someone right now, and the assignment they worked on was a sonnet.
“I’m sorry,” I ask, “Did you say sonnet?”
“Very cool. Continue.”
She continues, “So I’m trying to help with his iambic pentameter, so I’m reading out a line, showing him the emphasis on the right syllables, you know, da DAH da DAH da DAH and why are you looking at me weird?”
“Because I’m listening to you talk about explaining iambic pentameter to other people like it’s the most natural thing in the world to you, and that makes me very, very happy.” That weird look you see, my darling child, is something every parent dreams of, that moment when you see this creature you’ve molded and shaped and guided since the day she was born, hoping each day that you’re doing it right and one day it’ll all fall into place, and realizing that someday is right now. That’s what that weird look was.
So my daughter has a friend over the other night, who happens to be involved in local theatre. Over dinner conversation, I ask, “Which play is next?”
“Musical?” she replies. I can’t tell if that’s the name of a play, or if she’s asking me to clarify which musical they’re doing next or just any play. “Oh but I guess we’re doing Shakespeare too.” This friend knows she’s in a Shakespeare house, for context.
“Which one?” I ask.
“I don’t know.”
“Give me the smallest clue,” I try.
“Something underground about Henry IV?”
“Well, there are two plays called Henry IV.”
“That’s probably it, then! I bet it’s one of those.”
Never one to miss a teaching opportunity I proceed to explain Henry IV in my no doubt highly inaccurate but hopefully compelling way: “So at the start of the play you’ve got the old king, Henry IV. And he’s got this son, Hal. And Hal’s being groomed to take over when his father dies, and become Henry V. Like William and Harry, from the Royal Family? Same idea. Oldest son has to live his life a certain way because he’s going to be king someday. Well, Hal has no interest in being king. Hal just wants to party with his friends.”
“They partied back in Shakespeare’s day?”
“Oh my yes. So Hal’s got this best friend, Falstaff. Falstaff’s much older than Hal, and he ends up being more like a father figure. They do everything together, they party, they get drunk, they wake up late, they get into fights. But all the while Falstaff knows that one day, one day this kid is going to be king. And that’s going to be a big day, that’s going to be everything they ever wanted.
And then one day it happens. Falstaff’s sleeping late as usual when his friends wake him up and say, “It’s happened! The king is dead! Hal is the new king!” And Falstaff goes running through town to find him and celebrate that the day has finally come. And you get this big huge scene when Falstaff comes into the coronation and bursts through the crowd shouting “My boy! My king!”
I pause and see if I’ve still got her attention. I very much do.
“And Hal turns to him and says, “I know thee not, old man.” And banishes him.”
Her jaw dropped.
Who says Shakespeare is boring? I will teach you Shakespeare in my kitchen while I clear the table. Do I get some details wrong? Probably. Does my captive audience learn anything about themes and symbolism? Nope. But are they interested now? Definitely.
So here’s a funny thing that happened. My daughters’ school is having a school-wide, week-long Shakespeare celebration in April. This is unexpected and spontaneous and came up randomly in conversation at my house.
Oldest: “Did you see we’re having Shakespeare Week?”
Me: “Ummm, NO? Say more? Like, right now?”
Turns out this is a new idea they’re trying, hoping to make a tradition. I contact the head of the English department, introducing myself (though we’ve met during various parent/teacher nights) and volunteering my services. We set up a meeting.
Later that day I get a call from my youngest. “DID YOU EMAIL MY TEACHERS!? WHY IS EVERYONE TALKING ABOUT SHAKESPEARE?”
Apparently there’s an email group going on, my kids have been tapped to be some sort of “Shakespeare ambassadors”, and generally there’s a whole bunch of excitement over Shakespeare with my kids in the eye of the hurricane.
They found the blog as well as the merchandise. So now my kids’ teachers and friends are checking out the t-shirts and stickers, combing through all the old blog posts, and hopefully having fun.
Meanwhile, I’m face to face with the dream I’ve had for, oh, twenty years? More? Every day a part of me says, “How prepared am I to represent Shakespeare today?” I wonder what references will come up, what questions will need answers, what opportunities to bring more Shakespeare into the world will present themselves. What can I post on the blog, what can I tweet? How can I turn a phrase at the breakfast table to reinforce quotable material for my kids as they grow? It’s been a crazy ride. I’ve gotten better at it. What once would have been a fear that everybody who discovered my “secret identity” would already know more Shakespeare than I did? My impostor syndrome? Has dissolved over the years.
Now I think, “Yay, new Shakespeare friends!” I tried to find a GIF to represent what it feels like when suddenly there’s opportunities to talk about Shakespeare everywhere I look.
That doesn’t change the fact that in about a week I’m going to sit down with the head of the department and help map out an entire week’s worth of Shakespeare content for an entire school full of kids and it’s really time to put up or shut up. This could easily be the biggest opportunity I ever get.
As the saying goes, “This is what we train for!”
I know there are educators of all sorts that have followed the blog for years. I personally have been in the classroom a couple of times and generated some materials for those visits. There’s a bunch of games rattling around my head that I’d love to try out if I can sit down long enough and write them up.
But I’m putting out the call right now – give me everything you’ve got! I have no idea what they need, but I want to be able to fill that need whatever it is. Activities for the kids to get up and read? Sure. Paper games? Of course. Sonnets, iambic pentameter, memorization, foam rubber sword fights. I want to put it all on the table for them. I’ve been building up a small Shakespearean army over the years and I plan to come in guns blazing. Now we get the chance to show off everything we’ve got. A complete green field, as they say in my business. Willing participants who want the help. What more could we ask?
Shakespeare makes life better. I believe that, even when I can’t explain it. I know it when I see it. I feel it. We’re about to get the chance to put our money where my mouth is for somewhere around 800 kids, and I will accept only “knock it out of the park” as the final outcome. I want them saying, “We want to do this every year.” I want them to feel it, too.
Contact me through any means you like – comment here on the blog, or on Facebook, or Twitter. Go ahead and email me [email protected] if you prefer. I will collect everything and bring it to my meeting next week. I can’t make any promises about what they’ll be able to use or what final form the various ideas will take, but I think that if you’ve been following me this long then we’re all on the same page — we just want more people exposed to more Shakespeare and we’ll take it any way we can get it.