I started Shakespeare, Just for Fun! Seniors Sharing Shakespeare in a small dining and meeting area adjoining a basement kitchen at Milwaukee Catholic Home in August 2008, sharing my insights from a one-man show with the same name that I had toured nationally for three years. A neighbor of a major hospital, the complex is only a twenty-minute walk from my home. Under the energetic guidance of a friendly Director of Leisure Services, Anne Catalane, I introduced the project to the community and assembled fifteen or so brave residents who wanted to discover whether they’d missed something all those years ago when, through accident, inclination, or the brutal force of high school or college teachers, they first encountered William Shakespeare’s plays.
During the past five years, I’ve heard it all: “I don’t like Shakespeare,” or “I can’t get interested in Shakespeare,” or “I can’t understand that King James Bible-language,” or “Why doesn’t he just out and say whatever it is he means?”I sympathize, since high school forced one comedy and three of the tragedies down my throat with the expected memorization, and none of it took. My application in college wasn’t much better. I didn’t begin to appreciate the power of the Bard’s language until I had to teach Shakespeare to twelfth-grade boys, finding ways to interrupt hormonal brushfires with blank verse. One of my students, a jock-turned-hippy-turned- US Army—it was the sixties in San Francisco—wrote from boot camp that he had a copy of Hamlet under his mattress. I was overjoyed, but I knew better than to take the credit. I’d been supplied by a damned fine writer.
But nothing prepared me for the insights I would gain from working with elderly retirees welcoming the opportunity to rub elbows with Shakespeare’s genius. Over our five years together at both Milwaukee Catholic Home and San Camillo Retirement Community, we’ve assembled, among many others, three Marys, a couple of Johns, a Tom and a Tim, a Rosa, two Rosemarys, a Rose Mary, a Mary Ann and a Rosemarie or two, two Bills, a Natalie, a Gen and a Jean, a Marj and a Marge, four Pats, a Barb, two Bruces, a Melba, an Ada, two Freds, a DJ, and a Risë. This book grows out of our struggles together as we open the books, divvy up the various roles, and start reading until someone’s hearing aid goes off, the house PA system interrupts about the Irish dance concert upstairs, or— and herein is gold—someone asks a question. The insights that my dear senior colleagues have nudged into my consciousness can help the reader encounter Shakespeare’s plays not as a scholar (though I will cover that a bit) but as an actor and audience member, both of whom can be swept along by verse that is not just easy to memorize but actually near impossible to forget (try forgetting “Jack and Jill”).
Since it is possible to forget details of fast moving seminar discussions, I have had to reconstruct some of our conversations. In every respect I’ve tried to honor the truth of the exchanges. I apologize if I’ve inadvertently attributed remarks to wrong speakers or in any way dishonored the energetic participants I so cherish.
The present book is written for a wider audience than either my original one-man show or the senior program developed from it. This is a book for scaredy-cats, for folks who don’t think they’re ready, for lazybones who didn’t pay attention in high school (who did?) or college and have been running ever since. This also is a book for dabblers or folks who’ve stayed with a few of the pieces and come to recognize just why those pieces remain the most visited treasures of the Western canon. Or for thespians who’ve actually realized a character or two on the stage. Or for samplers of the various Shakespearian offerings on PBS, the commercial cinema, or, most happily, in the theater.
The book might just be a dare. Go ahead, whatever your relationship with Shakespeare, dive in. Pick up a copy of Hamlet—you might as well start with the most famous. Just be sure it has ample notes so when Francisco says “the Dane,” you know it’s a reference to the king of Denmark. And when he says, “Not a mouse stirring,” don’t be afraid to wonder whether Clement C. Moore knew the play. (He did. C’mon. “Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse”?)
So let’s dive in.