Courtesy of Folger Shakespeare Library

April 23, 2018

JONES | Shakespeare and Graduation

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I’ll be seeing the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of King Lear in NYC this weekend, and with graduation approaching quickly, I feel in some small way the king’s anxiety. Lear lives past his time. He gives up a large part of his power to his daughters but fails to retain their loyalty. Cordelia, his most loyal and most mistreated daughter, then dies before him. In the final act of the play, he has lost his mind. His desire to bring back Cordelia is set against the emerging theme that he has outlived the meaning of his own life: as Kent says, “The wonder is, he hath endured so long: He but usurp’d his life.” This sense of simultaneously wanting to replay the past and feeling that you are living in a world that is moving on past you must be familiar to anyone being hit by waves of rose-tinted nostalgia at the same time that younger friends are enrolling in courses for the next semester.

Anyway, because of the prospect of seeing King Lear just after submitting my honors thesis, graduating and leaving campus, I’ve been thinking about how Shakespeare has been meaningful in my life. Shakespeare is nearly inescapable — at a bare minimum, it seems like everybody has to read some combination of Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, or A Midsummer Night’s Dream in high school.

My memories start earlier; during junior high, I went to a weeklong summer class for kids at a community college in which students practiced and performed a selection of scenes from Shakespeare’s plays for parents at the end of the week. The class was taught by Raymond Skipp, an English drama teacher who I’d gone to summer camps with since I was about five. Raymond’s camps always ran Monday–Friday, with the performance for parents on Friday. Raymond, like the Bard himself, balanced seriousness with levity. Usually on Thursday there would be some form of a tirade, generally inspired by one slacking student but usually addressed by Raymond to the class as a whole; but Raymond also told a lot of clear, well-used jokes and took frequent breaks for games of Mafia. I admired him a great deal.

On the first day of class Raymond always recited Marc Antony’s speech over Caesar’s bleeding body in Julius Caesar for the class. This moment stuck with me. He would pull out all the stops, getting up from his chair and pacing the room, gesturing, building up steam as he described all the atrocities coming in the wake of Caesar’s assassination and lowering his voice to a ponderous scorn as he spit out, “Cry Havoc! And let slip the dogs of war.” Raymond did this again and again, each year, for a new crop of junior-high aged kids who giggled and whispered through the performance. There was a nobility to his insistence on it, to his lengthy introduction of Shakespeare’s life — including an endorsement of his favorite authorship-conspiracy-theory — and of the context of the play for Antony’s speech.

I’ve taken several excellent Shakespeare classes here, and gained a much greater appreciation for the complexity and questioning qualities of his plays. But, the memory of Raymond’s monologue might remain the most evocative experience I’ve had with Shakespeare. I don’t know whether Raymond felt that coaching junior-high kids in noncommittal one-week sessions was beneath his talent and passion for Shakespeare’s work, but he infused that monologue with as much dramatic power as he could. Even if his audience wasn’t serious, he was.

Looking towards a future away from this campus and away from many of the friends, I can only hope that I will stay true to my course in the way that Raymond did.

 

Jack Jones is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at jackjones@cornellsun.com. His column Despite all the Amputations runs alternate Tuesdays this semester.