Reading Shakespeare with a 13-year-old
“Shakespeare is a bad writer.” My 13-year-old is speaking. While I sputter, he persists, “You can’t understand half of what he’s saying!”I majored in English, and studied enough Shakespeare to marvel at the beauty of his lines, delight in wordplay, argue interpretations, detect the origin of phrases; sight some part of his genius.Teddy had been excited beforehand: “We get to read a play by Shakespeare!” he had said, carefully explaining, “It’s called King Lear.”Now as I read aloud with him, helping interpret, he opens his mouth in great, rending yawns.”This makes me tired,” he says, encountering such words as prithee, forbear, fain and bandy. Neither of us knows what a clotpoll is, or a shelled peascod. He flips forward to see how many pages until the scene ends.But as he comprehends Lear’s cruel rejection by his daughters, he sits up.”This is sad,” he says, stricken.”Well, it’s The Tragedy of King Lear,” I say.He mutters furiously at the bad daughter Goneril: “Yeah, no one should trust you.”I read this speech by Goneril, claiming that her father’s faultsWould not ‘scape censure, nor the redresses sleep,Which, in the tender of a wholesome weal,Might in their working do you that offence,Which else were shame, that then necessityWill call discreet proceeding.”Did you understand that?” I ask.He shakes his head numbly.”Let’s go through line by line,” I suggest, equally stumped, buying time.”You just tell me what it means,” he pleads.One day he comes home laughing. “Shakespeare was so funny today!”He points to where one character has called another “a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, 15 hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a lily-livered, action-taking knave, a whoreson, glass-gazing, super-serviceable finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave.”I point out that Shakespeare was famous for his insults, while inwardly smiling to have just found out where “lily-livered” comes from.The bad, base brother Edmund frames the good brother Edgar, cutting his own arm with his sword.Teddy says, “Mom, if that happened today, a crime-scene guy would go in there, and check the blood and the fingerprints and – ffft! – he’d be in the lockup.”Eventually, Kent, Lear and the Fool are cast out in storm.Teddy plays Kent – “Because he doesn’t have too much to say, and I don’t understand it too well” – and reads, “Good my lord, enter here.”To which I read an 18-line speech, noting the famous line, “O, that way madness lies.”He picks at a purpled bruise on his fingernail, interrupts to show me its sponginess. In the middle of his own long speech, as Edgar pretends to be a scoundrel, he yawns, his whole head flinging back.I ask if he knows what Edgar is saying. “No,” he says, and asks slyly, “Do you?”His class travels to Denver to see King Lear on stage.Returning, he says, “It was pretty good. The actors were good. One guy had been on ‘NYPD Blue.’ It was kinda weird: At the end everyone on stage was dead.”He shows, growing animated, how one daughter drank poison (he gulps) and one stabbed herself (thumps chest).He tells his younger brother how the actors purportedly gouged out Gloucestor’s eyes.”They leaned him back and scooped out his eyes with a spoon and the eyes popped out and blood ran down his face.””Was it real blood?” asks Roy, rapt.”No, fake blood.””How do they do that?””They have little packets and they must have been right under the eyes.””Wow,” Roy breathes. “Actors are good.””You should have seen Edmund when he cut himself. He was really good,” Teddy says, warming further. He grimaces and draws an imaginary sword slowly across his arm. “And all the blood came out.”I ask if he is glad to have read King Lear. He hesitates, then says yes. “I just wish he’d write normally.”Alison Osius lives in Carbondale and can be reached at email@example.com.
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