Monday, June 30, 2014

The Education of Ken Stephenson

Today marks the three-quarters line in my decade-long reading plan. On this last day of the sixth month of the eighth year, I’ve completed seven-and-a-half of the ten years of my self-assigned list of great works of literature. I’m still a little amazed that I’ve kept up with the pace for this long through changes of residence, illness, and family crises. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do it when I started. But ninety months later, here I am right on schedule.

I’m reading Shakespeare’s 1 Henry IV right now, so it provided the obvious content for today’s post. But as I contemplated sitting down to write, it occurred to me how appropriate this particular work is to a milestone moment in my program to educate myself in the classics. This play is the first of Shakespeare’s that I ever read and still one of my favorites. I learned a lot from that first encounter, and as I thought about describing the experience, the topic expanded in my mind to the history of my understanding of Shakespeare, then further to the place (or more precisely, lack of place) of the Bard in my formal educational experience, and quickly yet again to the informal education of my early years.

I was born at the tail end of the Baby Boom, so my informal education consisted mostly of television watching. And I’m not talking about anything supposedly good for young brains like Sesame Street. Since Shakespeare made only one infamous appearance in my public-school education, my first and most influential instructors on this greatest figure in the history of English drama included Flipper, Gilligan’s Island, Peabody’s Improbable History, and The Andy Griffith Show. And for the most part, to these teachers, Shakespeare only served as a source of fodder for jokes. Andy famously misquoted Romeo and Juliet in his down-home retelling of the story of the star-crossed lovers. Mr. Peabody tried to get a fellow with no ear for poetry to change his original name for that same play: Romeo and Zelda. And Gilligan staged a hilariously disastrous musical version of Hamlet. I loved all these parodies. But in the first nineteen years of my life, I never set about the task of reading the words, words, words of Shakespeare themselves, confident that I wouldn’t enjoy them. My reluctance – typical for kids at that time, I believe – was both summed up and encouraged by Flipper’s pal Bud in two words: “Shakespeare! Yuck!”

But by my senior year of college, I had changed my outlook. In Intro to Drama, I finally read, among other things, 1 Henry IV by William Shakespeare. I learned that Shakespeare wrote histories to demonstrate Elizabeth’s right to the English throne. I learned about Bolingbroke’s usurpation of Richard II’s crown. I learned what a dramatic foil is. I learned that even though my first page of Shakespeare took an hour to read, it gets faster. And I learned that I liked it.

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