S is for Shakespeare

S

It seems that I’m becoming more comfortable with embracing challenges these days. With that in mind, I’m embracing the A-to-Z Blogging challenge, by writing about the things that I most closely associate with being alive, when I show up and engage with life as fully as possible.

And with that, I give you:

SHAKESPEARE

You know, I don’t care if it is a cliché that a writer would love Shakespeare. The Bard was my gateway drug to the world of words and images and poetry that has been my obsession.

My father loved Shakespeare, quoting him endlessly. “Julius Caesar” was a particular favourite, as was “The Merchant of Venice”, but he was an equal opportunity fan of the Bard. Dad had a 15 volume set of Shakespeare’s works, a very old collection that he’d purchased second hand somewhere between Maine and England. They were kept on a bookshelf right next to all the nursery rhyme books my parents had bought for me when I was a child. One day, I took one of those burgundy-covered books off the shelf and started looking through it, my fingers tracing the frontispiece, marveling at the image, wondering what story it was trying to tell. My Dad came over and looked over my shoulder. “Whatcha reading?” he asked. I showed him. It was “Julius Caesar.”

“Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look,” he quoted, “He thinks too much; such men are dangerous.”

I looked at my Dad as if he had just spoken some kind of incantation, a spell to bind me to words forever. He grinned and continued:

“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I came to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones:
So let it be with Caesar. . . “

I was entranced.

My family never really had any dinner time traditions. Often times it would depend on what shift Dad was working whether he got to eat with us at all. But I remember one night, I was all of about seven or eight. We had just finished dinner and I was about to go to my room to play when he started with Shakespeare again.

“The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from the heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that give and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptered sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. . . . ”

I stopped, transfixed. There was power and something true in those words. Even at seven or eight, I recognized their might.

After that I started pouring over the words in my Dad’s collection, wrestling with them, forcing myself to try to understand the language, trying to get my head around the unfamiliar language, piecing together the phrases I understood until I had a general understanding of what the passages said.

There is still something about hearing Shakespeare spoken aloud that sets my heart to racing in delight and my soul to singing. My father is no longer here to quote “The Quality of Mercy” speech to me or to quote from “Hamlet”. I can still hear his voice, though, and the lightness with which those words sat on his tongue. Those words were friends to be enjoyed. And so I thought of them. And so I still do.

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