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I grew up with Shakespeare. Even the working class side of the family could quote his poetry and apply it to their lives. Reading Shakespeare created imaginative range and intellectual rigor. It enlarged us. It flavored how we spoke, and for us who steeped ourselves in his plays and poems, still does.
No movie or novel or play in English can yet touch King Lear for its sheer hugeness of imagination and heart. It is “avant garde:” it violates every rule of dramatic construction and succeeds. It is in many ways more “modern” than much of what is written now.
I read Julius Caesar and Hamlet in high school and all the plays in college. I took a two semester course where we read and were quizzed on one play per week and no one complained. It was an upper division course and everyone wanted to be there. As a budding actor, I memorized much of Macbeth, Prospero, King John, Bottom, Sir Tobey Belch, Glendower, Hotspur, Prince Hal.
Taking this language into my body through memorization directly influenced my poetry, my prose, my speaking, my teaching, my openness to life generally. I’m saddened to watch him slipping away in the curriculum. I’ve taught in colleges where students complained about having to read him because it involved a level of difficulty. High schools are now teaching “translated” versions of Shakespeare which destroy the poetry — one more dumb-down, one more accession to the slovenliness of the culture. I find this a tragedy. It galls me. It makes me furious.
I read Lear once a year to be reminded of just how much larger his mind was than my own, that there is always something to reach for beyond myself. Has our culture lost this? Is this what is wrong with us? That we no longer have the courage to reach beyond ourselves, to open ourselves to the immensity of what we don’t know? We need this humility.