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JANUARY 21, 2013 11:13AM

I Married a Shakespeare Hater

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If you’re married or involved in a long-term relationship, you may have experienced one of those horrifying moments when your spouse or significant other says or does something that causes your mouth to drop open and the following words to come out:  “I–I thought I knew you.”

 
“Shakespeare?  You’ve got to be kidding me!”

 

It may be something trivial, like whether you pronounce “endive” as “N-dive” or “on-DEEV,” or something important, like politics:  ”I can’t believe you don’t support the cause of the neo-sans-culottes against the oppressive revanchist regime in Upper Volta!”

In my case, the issue is cultural.  Not American League vs. National League, Protestant vs. Catholic (that’s a story for another day), or Crest vs. Colgate.  I’m talking about high vs. low culture.

 

When we were dating, my wife and I explored each other’s interests.  I took her to the ballet, which she loves, and she accompanied me to jazz clubs.  We may not have shared each other’s enthusiasms completely, but we understood them.  Or we thought we did.

 
“Nyah, nyah, nyah NYAH nyah, I can’t hear Othello!”

The snake in our Garden of Eden bit me the night I suggested we go to a play.  “Sure,” my wife said.  “What do you want to see?” 

“Shakespeare,” I replied.

 

You would have thought I had proposed that we spend the night watching demolition derby, or pro wrestling.

“You have got to be kidding me!” she said, and it was clear she wasn’t kidding.

“But,” I stammered, “you like the symphony, and art galleries, and the ballet.  I thought . . .”

“Never mind what you thought,” she said, cutting me off like a police sergeant giving me the third degree.  “I’ll go to see Shakespeare over my own dead body.”  Hell hath no fury, to coin a phrase, like a former econ major asked to attend a play delivered in Elizabethan English.

“Your wife says you forced her to attend a performance of ‘Hamlet.’”

Don’t get me wrong.  I had a normal (well, relatively normal) boyhood.  I played baseball, rode a bike, owned a BB gun.  I didn’t spend my Saturdays under the covers reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses.  The first time I read any Shakespeare–Julius Caesar, sophomore year in high school–it didn’t take.  It was probably the “friends, Romans, countrymen” line, which I seemed to recall having heard first in a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

 
“Friends, rabbits, countrymen . . .”

It wasn’t until senior year in high school, when I read Macbeth, that the Bard clicked for me.  It wasn’t the bloody violence of the play–that was still available on the Gillette “Friday Night Fights.”  It was the way the three witches’ prophecy–that Macbeth would rule “until Great Birnham Wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come”–gives him false confidence that is dashed at the play’s conclusion when his enemies cloak themselves in tree branches as camouflage and advance upon his castle.  It struck me at the time (and still does) as more creative than In-a-Gadda-da-Vida, my previous adolescent standard for high art.

 
“Double, double, toil and trouble, the Butterfly of Iron shall be smashed like a bubble.”

During courtship, lovers understandably want to present themselves to each other as somewhat better than they really are, with more refined tastes and manners than they will exhibit after many years of marriage.  It is those moments when we let down our guards to reveal our inner lowbrow that the strongest ties of sympathy are formed.

 
“Don’t tell me, let me guess.  You’re supposed to be a capital ‘P’ or a church key.”

Mine came at a particularly opaque modern dance performance that I pretended to appreciate and even enjoy for the first three numbers.  My snoring after the intermission gave  me away–I do not like modern ballet.


“Hal-le-lu-jah!”

Prior to her Shakespeare moment, my wife had given me an intimation of her true nature on the night of the annual Christmas performance of Handel’s “Messiah,” a Boston tradition.  As we made our way towards Symphony Hall, she began to whistle, not the Hallelujah chorus, but Foreigner’s “Hot Blooded”–which is also a great song, don’t get me wrong, but if the elderly couple walking in front of us hadn’t lost their ability to hear high notes, they would have been appalled.

 

My wife’s out of town this weekend, and I could have spent yesterday watching the Patriots (which she has learned to live with) while smoking a cigar (which she bans).  But instead–since we always want what we can’t have–I watched, as I have several times before, Kenneth Branagh’s version of Shakespeare’s Henry V.

And smoked a cigar.

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shakespeare, satire, comedy, spoof, humor

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Comments

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I'm glad you didn't watch the Patriots since the Ravens proved they are the winning underdogs! I understand your plight--my husband only likes the literary works of Lee Childs and now even that is ruined for him as Tom Cruise was cast as the 6'5 Reacher. Perhaps she would like a sonnet...
She chooses Not to Be. Opposites bring color to the Black and White world--or Fushia to the Teal and Brick world.
Teal and brick would be good colors for an Arena Football League team sponsored by J. Crew.
Hmmm. Something tells me Henry V wasn't what my husband watched when I was out of town.

Probably more like Franco Zefirelli's version of Hamlet. I'm sure of it.
Branagh in his unabridged, all-star film production of "Hamlet": The. Best.
Haven't seen it, thanks for the tip
If they would just put up subtitles. I speak New English.
I agree on that. Eliminating archaic spelling and substituting modern synonyms would make for easier reading
I'm not sure I agree with using modern synonyms etc., Con. You see, over here in Berlin a buddy and I sometimes watch Shakespeare movies dubbed into German. The language is perfectly transparent (assuming you know German, that is!), so you know exactly what the characters are saying, and yet all the poetry is gone. It's the strangest thing, as if all the magic has been sucked out of the plays. So it's truly worth taking Shakespeare straight, difficult vocabulary and all.
Alan--I'm thinking of some of the archaic words that have modern cognates; you could reduce the number of words that require a trip down to the footnotes without losing sound or sense. In many cases they have the same number of syllables, so the lines still scan. I don't mean to let any lazy readers off easy, but I think there's a middle way between Shakespeare Lite and a page with so many footnotes it looks like someone dropped chocolate sprinkles on it.