Hearing Shakespeare

Peter W. Schramm

August 1, 2000

July 15, 2000. This day is the 2,100th anniversary of the birth of Julius Caesar. It may seem odd to note the anniversary of the man whose death ends the Roman Republic, and whose name became a new form of political rule (all Roman rulers following were called Caesar, and later, in Russia, Czar, and in Germany, Kaiser—their respective translations from the Latin), but I am reminded of something.

I was a student at Hollywood High School when I first heard the name Caesar. It was in an English class. It is possible that in some history class or other the name was mentioned in some dry-as-dust textbook, but I didn’t note it. And there is the rub.

I did note it in the English class. I noted it because we read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (and Hamlet and Macbeth). The action of the play was grand and compelling. Caesar had established himself as the greatest politician in Rome. He had accomplished everything he wanted to do. He had triumphed over all his opponents. He had no equals. He was the noblest man that ever lived in the tide of times.

The conspirators feared that he would reestablish the monarchy. So they summoned the spirit of the tiger and killed him.

Brutus and the others thought that by doing so they would save the Republic and their ancient liberties. Just the opposite happened. Civil war came and Caesarism (and later Czars and Kaisers) won, and the old virtues disappeared. It would be a very long time before the idea of republican government would assert itself again, a very long time.

This story got my interest. I became interested in history and politics. Hearing Shakespeare led me to it.

But there is more. The teacher of the English class was a poor lone woman, a spinster, not exactly a dish for the gods. We scalawag students (the boys, I mean, for the girls were of a sweeter disposition), in whom the quality of mercy was strained, mocked this woman behind her back. But in class we were the mirror of all courtesy because we knew she was a serious teacher, a demanding lover of her subject. We were attentive and gave her her way. Her considerable presence demanded it.

So we would do what she assigned, no matter how difficult. As the class was nearing the end, after we read both Caesar and Hamlet, she told us we would have to memorize about forty lines from one of the plays, and recite them in class. I chose—unimaginatively perhaps—the lines by Hamlet that begin, “To be or not to be, that is the question:/Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer/The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,/Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,/And by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep—”

I worked hard for many days. The process of memorization was difficult, and I finally got around to reading it aloud, letting my ears really hear the words, the cadence, the rhythm. There was a moment when the monster ignorance left me. I understood what I was reading, what I was hearing. I don’t mean that I understood the deep metaphysical meaning, but I now knew that these were not wild and whirling words. The beautiful words had meaning and I understood them.

The words got my interest. I now knew—for the first time in my life—that I was fluent in the great English language. Hearing Shakespeare led me to it.

I noted that, unlike in my native Hungarian (or Spanish and German, for that matter), English rhythm shifts. This has to do, in part, with the varying lengths of English syllables. The Poet makes wonderful use of this unique ability in the language.

Note how Antony speaks over the corpse of Caesar: “Oh mighty Caesar, dost thou lie so low,/Are all thy conquests, glories, triumphs, spoils/Shrunk to this little measure?” You can hear how the hurried “conquests, glories, triumphs” hesitates on the longer “spoils” and then is slashed short by “shrunk,” as the mighty Caesar himself was cut short. He uses the English rhythms to help develop what he is saying, to make us understand it better.

It should not surprise us that Churchill and Lincoln learned their history and their language from Shakespeare. Churchill knew the tragedies by heart. In 1953, sitting in the front row watching Richard Burton play Hamlet, Churchill was a bother to the great actor because Winston would growl the lines along with him. Lincoln loved Shakespeare, always read him aloud, and used him well (Macbeth was his favorite). Their tastes and imaginations and minds were formed by Shakespeare. Perhaps it is no wonder both men are clear thinkers, famed politicians, great writers, and, in their own way, poets.

So it shouldn’t surprise students when I tell them that if you only read one human thing, make it the Poet, for he will both teach you and make you love the language, and raise all the deep human questions you will need to think about. As Lincoln said of Shakespeare: “It matters not to me whether Shakespeare be well or ill acted, with him the thought suffices.” And the thought is in the words. That is the beginning; the true beginning of our end.