Making sense of Shakespeare

We all had to stumble through reading aloud one Shakespeare play or another during high school, and only if we had to memorize part of a soliloquy did we remember many of the playwright’s words. Rick Gray, former Village News columnist, is undoubtedly the local expert on the most famous wordsmith in history. When you study Shakespeare you find that people haven’t really changed all that much over the last several hundred years, and it takes just a little shove to pique your interest.

“I was in law school at UVA and my sister, Tucky, was an English major at William & Mary,” Gray said. “She sent me a three-record album of an audio recording of Henry IV, Part One.  The magic of the words, spoken by a professional cast, enchanted me. Shakespeare had never sounded like this at Thomas Dale, haltingly read by pimply-faced adolescents – me included!”

Most of us have a hard time understanding some or all of Shakespeare’s work, but many of the plots constructed by him have been done over and over in movies apart from the structure and style of language. But how can someone break through and make sense of his work?

“In my first Shepherd’s Center class, Frank Williams posed that very question, and I was lucky enough to come up with an answer,” Gray said thoughtfully. “I asked him if he ever went to a concert, of any type of music.  Of course, he said yes.  Then I asked him if he listened to the music, or to the individual notes.  Obviously, he said he listened to the music.  I suggested he do the same thing at a Shakespeare play:  Learn the basic story of the play and the names and motives of the main characters – which is what our class would provide. Then go to the play, sit back, and ‘listen to the music.’  When he came back from his first Shakespeare play, he reported that that was exactly the advice that he needed.  It must have worked, because he had become a regular playgoer – and especially to Shakespeare.”

“When I was in school I hated Shakespeare,” said Williams. “I told Rick I was going to give Shakespeare one more chance. After you hear an overall view of a play, you see what it’s all about, so when you attend a play, you really understand it.”

Williams is one of six people currently taking Gray’s class as part of Shepherd’s Center’s program “Adventures in Learning,” which provides a wide range of classes typically attended by those of retirement age. His passion put him in an obvious position to try and convert, though gently, those who didn’t understand Shakespeare’s poetry as a play.

“Most Americans are first exposed to his work in high school, where the wrong plays are introduced in the wrong way by teachers who think of Shakespeare as literature, not as plays.  Shakespeare didn’t set out to write ‘literature’ for people to study from texts.  He set out to create language for living actors to speak in front of live audiences,” Gray said.

Equating it to sports, Gray said it’s much like a football game. It’s more understandable when you watch it rather than reading about it on the sports page.  He said Shakespeare was meant to be appreciated “in action,” not as a disembodied intellectual exercise.

Thea Shoop has an English degree and has always enjoyed Shakespeare. “My husband John is involved a lot with the Shepherd Center, I work part-time and had time to attend this class. Rick is such an interesting person. He is very stimulating,” she said.

As an Enon native, who lived much of his life in the historic Bishop-Johnson house at Bermuda Hundred, which dates to well before the Civil War, Gray is a natural promoter of the historic art form. But he not only promotes the playwright, whose life straddled the 16th and 17th century, he lives Shakespeare through participating in regional theatre.
“I’ll be back with the Virginia Shakespeare Festival for my third season in the past four years,” said Gray.  “I’ll be playing two roles in “Hamlet:” the First Player and one of the gravediggers, as well as Balthazar in “Comedy of Errors.”

His current class is gathering at St. James Catholic Church in Hopewell from 10 a.m. until noon on Mondays. “I’ve taught this course for several sessions at the Shepherd’s Center, and I always choose plays being performed locally, or within a short day-trip of Chester.  The course is about seeing Shakespeare in live performance, not studying Shakespeare as an academic exercise.  Lear will be performed this month by Richmond Shakespeare at Agecroft Hall.  I’m hoping every student in my class will buy a ticket and attend.”

Gordon Sutton said Gray’s class is his first real experience with Shakespeare. “I always wanted to understand it. I started in college but couldn’t get a hold of it. Thought maybe through this class I could get a handle on [his work]. This is my last chance.”

Many students are intrigued by the language of Shakespeare and once you experience it, you may be too, according to Martha Nemetz, who’s taking the class. “It is amazing how many quotes we use in today’s society that originated from Shakespeare’s plays.”

Call the Shepherd’s Center for more information on Adventures in Learning and Gray’s Shakespeare classes: 706-6689

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Making sense of Shakespeare

After all, "...[T]he play's the thing."

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