Me and Shakespeare

Adventures with the Bard
5 Books Donated 20 min



Somewhat past the middle of the journey, my life had taken an unexpected turn. On a golden day in October 1997, I found myself driving to Caldwell College, a small Catholic school in New Jersey operated by Dominican nuns, where I would be teaching an eight-week, two-hours-per-week course on Shakespeare to adults over fifty.


This would be my first experience as a teacher. I was not a Shakespeare scholar. At the age of sixty-seven, I was embarking on what might turn out to be a new career, a reinvention of myself.


The thrills and chills accompanying a journey into the unpredictable were escalating into the queasiness and near-panic of that primal terror, stage fright. I felt I had to bedazzle the audience that awaited me; I needed to prove myself as someone capable of bringing the work of Shakespeare dramatically alive for mature students, filling his plays with an immediacy that would make them resonate in the hearts and minds of the class as it had in mine during a recent period of obsessive self-instruction. Moreover, I wanted these people to adore me.


I’d been rehearsing the introductory lecture for two weeks, day and night, to the point where I knew much of it from memory, and I began reciting it aloud as I drove west on Bloomfield Avenue, through the town of Verona, no less, toward another beginning: “I’m Herman Gollob, and I’ll be your guide for the next two months on a magical mystery tour of what Ralph Waldo Emerson described as the Planet Shakespeare.”


The noted and notably idiosyncratic twentieth-century man of letters Ford Madox Ford once referred to himself as an old man made mad by a love of writing. I’d become an old man made mad by a love of Shakespeare.


How had it happened?


Early in the spring of 1995, I decided to retire in July, when I turned sixty-five. For more than thirty-five years I’d been editing books for a variety of publishers in various capacities, some of them managerial, and I’d ultimately maneuvered myself into the executive hierarchy as a senior vice-president.


A certain weariness had begun to overtake me. In fact, I’d begun to resemble my briefcase: outside, battered and worn; inside, musty and cluttered. In a short story by the singularly gifted and, alas, recently deceased American writer Andre Dubus, an editor is haunted by the idea that he carries around an author’s dreams in his briefcase. But in reality he also carries, all too often, evidence of an author’s unfulfilled promise, unrealized expectations, and irremediable incompetence. T. S. Eliot, in one of his Four Quartets, “East Coker,” described writing as “a raid on the inarticulate / With shabby equipment always deteriorating,” and I discovered that in my case Eliot could just as well have been describing the editorial process.


For some time the fun had gone out of publishing. My competitive fires were banked; the hunger to acquire new books, the thrill at discovering new authors and championing them inside the company and in the Darwinian world of commerce, had subsided. Worse, I’d begun to greet submissions from agents not with a sense of expectancy but with resentment: why was I being asked to consider yet another lame and halt manuscript that would have been better served had it been placed into the hands of a faith healer? My career was no longer an adventure in the exciting and political New York literary scene, crackling with suspense, but a recurring cycle of the predictable and familiar. Again, T. S. Eliot seemed to be speaking to me, in yet another of his quartets, “Little Gidding”:


Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age

To set a crown upon your lifetime’s effort.

First, the cold friction of expiring sense

Without enchantment, offering no promise

But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit. . . .

And last, the rending pain of re-enactment

Of all that you have done. . . .


In compensation, I’d entered what Erik Erikson terms “the stage of generativity,” the concern for guiding the next generation. I’d become the tribal elder, fifteen years older than the next oldest colleague and old enough to be the father of many of the rest. I’d evolved into something of a mentor, and this I did relish. But it wasn’t enough to fill the day, or the spirit, and I didn’t want to find myself changing from Jethro, Moses’ sage counselor and father-in-law, into Falstaff, an old reprobate roistering with young bloods and recalling the chimes at midnight.


Publishing was no longer a country for old men? Was it ever?


It was time to retire.


My decision coincided with Passover. At our Seder, my wife, Barbara, asked our guests to describe how they were released from some form of bondage during the past year. I said I’d been delivered from bondage to a career, and someone at the table quipped, “Yes, and now it’s time for those forty years in the desert.”


But I didn’t envision retirement as a sojourn, lonely and afraid, in a sterile and forbidden realm. It would be my very own Messianic Age, a time of peace and contentment and goodwill to all, my career not extinct but resurrected in a Higher Form. I would avoid the grind of indiscriminate freelancing and hire out as a samurai editor exclusively for manuscripts I thought worth the effort, some of which I’d acquired on the basis of prospectuses while still on the job and which had yet to be completed. I would spend more time as a hospice volunteer, a community service I’d undertaken three years previously, hoping to give the kind of comfort to those in the final stages of cancer that I’d been unable to devote to my proud and stubborn old father, who, when stricken with prostate cancer at the age of eighty-one, remained by his own choice in Houston, Texas, where he’d lived most of his life, too far for any regular hands-on care and comfort from me.


Mainly, though, I would loaf and invite my soul. I would read that library of books, watch that hoard of videotapes, listen to that cache of CDs I’d amassed for this paradisiacal era.


It would be a time of self-enlightenment, self-enlargement. “A lot of ‘selfs’ in there,” Barbara noted when I described this Grand Design to her. “Yes,” I replied, “I’m going to think only of myself.” Her answer: a raised eyebrow, implying, “So what’s new?” She had once observed that I was at once the most self-absorbed and least introspective person she’d ever known. In truth, I constantly thought about myself: what I was doing, where I was going, who was with me, who was against me, how did I look, how did I feel, etc., etc. But rarely did I give a thought to the who of me, the why of me. Years ago, in my forties, a friend of mine who’d been in analysis for decades asked me why I’d never been curious about taking a guided tour of my psyche. “A therapist named Karen Horney wrote a book titled The Neurotic Personality of Our Time. She could have had you in mind, Herm.” He suggested I make an appointment with his therapist, a woman whom he described as pragmatic and hard-nosed. Suspending my profound skepticism about psychoanalysis, which too often, it seemed to me, kept self-indulgent narcissists locked in perpetual and fruitless treatment, I decided at least to test the waters.


At my first session, the doctor, middle-aged, with short brown hair cut in bangs, and a faint Teutonic accent (perfect!), asked me to tell her about my mother and father. “That’s personal,” I said.


“I beg your pardon?” she replied, with a slight smile; surely I jested.


But I was deadly serious, irked that someone I’d just met, psychiatrist or no, expected me to open up with guns blazing at my parents. “I said that’s personal. Private. I don’t talk to strangers about my mama and daddy.”


“But psychiatry is all about the personal and private. It’s about reaching those areas you’ve kept personal and private all too long. If you resist doing this, we’re wasting our time, and your money. And I won’t be a stranger to you for long.”


That’s where you’re wrong, lady, I thought. You’ll always be a stranger to me. But I said, “Thanks, but I’m not ready for this.” So ended my brief interlude on the couch.


And here I was, sixty-five, self-absorbed and nonintrospective. Was it too late to reverse this trait? Appropriately enough, the process had begun when I encountered, a few weeks before retiring, that enduringly fascinating and enigmatic soul-searcher Prince Hamlet of Denmark, portrayed on the New York stage by Ralph Fiennes in a production that had become all the rage in London and now on Broadway. Swept up in the excitement generated by the press, I actually stood in line for over an hour to buy tickets at the box office a few days after the play opened. Waiting for my turn at the window, I realized with a certain shock that I’d never seen a stage performance of Hamlet, not even Richard Burton’s in the mid-sixties. Why had I missed that one? I couldn’t recall. Of course there were the film Hamlets: Laurence Olivier, Nicol Williamson, Mel Gibson. Gibson’s I’d avoided–perhaps out of snobbery (I mean, after all, he’s not a classic actor) or just plain indifference. Williamson’s mercurial prince I’d seen in the 1970s, in the gripping production directed by Tony Richardson, with Anthony Hopkins as an energetic, youthful, and not unlikable Claudius. And Olivier’s, the first of the movie Hamlets, was one of the monumental artistic and commercial triumphs of the 1940s, creating a sensation which exceeded that enjoyed by the recent Shakespeare in Love, and catapulted Olivier onto the cover of Time.


So pervasive had been the success of Olivier’s Hamlet, which he also directed, that it even managed to infiltrate the rural precincts of College Station, home of Texas A&M, in those days a military college, where I was a sophomore. It drew long lines at the campus theatre, called the Campus Theatre (no-nonsense nomenclature prevailing in a military environment).


The night I saw Hamlet, I returned to my quarters to find my roommate at the time, Sam Tom Stackhouse, swilling a Coke (he consumed about a dozen a day) and poring over an encyclopedia published in 1879, a gift from his grandmother, a family heirloom, I imagined, which he used largely to the exclusion of his textbooks and which may have contributed to his failing several of his courses. Sam Tom hailed from a small town in central Texas. Sam Tom was six feet two inches tall and athletic. He’d rejected a basketball scholarship to Texas A&M because he no longer enjoyed the discipline and demand of organized sports. He wanted to play games just for the fun of it all, much to the displeasure of his daddy, who’d been a guard on the Aggie football team back in the twenties, and of the coaches, who constantly pressured him to change his mind. He was inherently smart but essentially uneducated: the academic standards at his high school were not taxing, however, and he’d graduated as class valedictorian. When I entered our room, he looked up from his book of wisdom and asked where I’d been. I replied that I’d just seen Hamlet. “What’s that?” he said, not a question you might anticipate from a class valedictorian in most schools. I explained that it was the story of a young guy whose uncle had murdered his father, prompting the guy to seek revenge. Also, the uncle had married the guy’s mother and had probably been fucking her before the murder. “Does the guy get killed in the end?” asked Sam Tom.


This was not an idle question. Sam Tom avoided any movie in which the hero was slain; he could not endure the deaths of good guys–it was not the way the world was supposed to be.


I thought for a moment before answering Sam Tom. Then I said no, Hamlet does not get killed. It was a white lie: I didn’t want to deprive him of a significant cultural experience. I only hoped he wouldn’t search for a reference to Hamlet in his trusty encyclopedia, but then again, the editors of that volume might have considered Hamlet too esoteric for their readership.


So off went Sam Tom to the Campus Theatre, returning in a few hours in a tearful rage. “Goddamn you, roommate, you told me the fucking guy didn’t get killed!” He had experienced pure catharsis. Unlike those of us who have read the play long before seeing it for the first time, Sam Tom had been the naive spectator, unaware of what was going to happen next, held in suspense until those final heartrending moments, expecting that any second a doctor would rush in with an antidote for the poison: “Here, son, take a swig of this and you’ll feel better in no time.” More to the point, he had a better reason to identify with Hamlet than most adolescents.


When I’d first met Sam Tom, he’d told me that his father was the mailman in town, and I concluded that despite his Aggie education, or perhaps because of it, Daddy was some dog-ass sharecropper who needed to earn the extra pennies by toting Sears catalogs to his equally dog-ass neighbors. Then I discovered that he was a prosperous farmer who simply dropped off the mail as a favor to his tenants, who constituted most of the town’s population. Sam Tom very likely saw in Hamlet an image of himself, a teenager enduring the rites of passage, pressured by his powerful father and the macho ethos of the state to do something against his nature–play college sports.


Standing in line at a New York theatre, recalling that episode at Aggieland almost fifty years in the past, I considered myself not that far removed from old Sam Tom in my innocence about things Shakespearean. An English major, I’d taken the obligatory Shakespeare course, but it was only a semester, and there was much we’d neglected, especially the so-called romances–Cymbeline, Pericles, and The Winter’s Tale, which I’d yet to read. Ditto Troilus and Cressida, All’s Well That Ends Well, and Coriolanus. I could count on the fingers of one hand the Shakespeare dramas I’d seen onstage: Antony and Cleopatra with Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in their acclaimed 1951 New York production; Much Ado About Nothing with John Gielgud and Margaret Leighton, in a tent theatre on the banks of the Charles River in Boston; Romeo and Juliet, starring John Barrymore, Jr., and of all people Margaret O’Brien (still pronouncing r as w: Womeo, Womeo) at the Pasadena Playhouse; Macbeth, directed by and starring Nicol Williamson at Circle in the Square, New York, a fiasco of almost farcical proportions; and Othello, starring James Earl Jones and Christopher Plummer at the American Festival Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut. Not once had I ventured to the New York Shakespeare Festival, indoors or in Central Park, which means I’d missed among other treats George C. Scott’s Richard III, an exuberant Much Ado set in late-nineteenth-century America and starring Sam Waterston, and a production of Hamlet also starring Mr. Waterston. I scored higher when it came to Shakespeare on film: the Olivier productions, Hamlet, Henry V, Othello, The Merchant of Venice, King Lear; Franco Zefferelli’s peerless Romeo and Juliet; Joseph Mankiewicz’s Julius Caesar, with matchless performances by John Gielgud as Cassius and a much-underrated Marlon Brando as Mark Antony; Trevor Nunn’s made-for-TV Antony and Cleopatra, surely the most perfect rendition attainable, with Richard Johnson, Janet Suzman, Patrick Stewart, and Corin Redgrave. And oh yes, years ago I’d seen the Hallmark Hall of Fame’s televised Macbeth, starring Maurice Evans and Judith Anderson.