Kneeling Before Shakespeare

I took a group of students from the college where I teach to England a few years ago for a study-abroad program. One of the highlights of the trip was a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon for the theater there and to see the sights.

Shakespeare is buried in the local church. He’s never been moved to Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner because he left a curse on his grave forbidding people to move him. The gravestone is at the front of the church just beyond the altar rail, and at a funny angle, so to see it clearly and well, you have to kneel at the altar rail, kneel to the great poet and playwright.

There’s something sacrilegious here, not that it stopped me from looking at the famous grave and then buying a rubbing of it. But kneeling before a man because he had talent seemed wrong, and that’s not all that was wrong with it either. For me, it symbolized the way that some people come to reading, it’s the way that a lot of my colleagues teach reading. Everything was very quiet, very somber, very boring, and we must kneel before these unquestioned gods of literature.

That’s not who Shakespeare was though, and it’s not the way that writing should be approached. I spend so much of my time as a college creative writing professor trying to convince students that they can and should be a part of the greater literary world. I spend so much time showing them that it’s not a distant thing for people who have some kind of mystical genius. That’s one of the effects of making them read long dead poets who don’t use the same kind of language as they do. They’re left intimidated and confused.

And then I and they knelt before Shakespeare.

How to undo that kind of lesson? It’s not easy, but it takes trips to poetry readings with people who are reading modern poetry. Not inaccessible black-turtled-necked poets smoking their cigarettes and speaking vaguely of Baudelaire, but people reading about love and loss and all kinds of things.

And then it took a trip to the Globe Theater, where the students were groundlings. Where real actors interacted with them and knocked into them and performed their parts.

That’s when my students started to love Shakespeare. After all, Shakespeare and poetry and books in general aren’t meant to be read in the silence of a church. They’re meant to be a vital part of life that makes all the rest of your life meaningful and even tolerable.