Tea With Shakespeare?
by Glen Draeger
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I hesitate to tell you this story, once again (assuming you've read some of the other strange things that happen to me), not only because you probably will not believe me, but also because I hardly believe it myself. I am beginning to fear that you will view me like the boy who cried wolf. These occurrences may ruin my reputation, but I have no choice but to tell the truth. You can do with it what you want. Unlike my previous encounters this one had a dream-like quality about it—and yet it was, at the same time, nothing at all like a dream. It felt real to me at the time, but now as I reflect back on the unusual circumstances it is strange enough that it hardly seems possible to have happened at all. Yet, I'm sure that it did.
I was sitting in my study preparing this Literature Unit. I had just finished reading A Midsummer Night's Dream when I heard a knock at my door. Actually, I didn't hear it at first, at least not consciously. It was a faint knocking sound like a branch tapping against a window on a breezy summer day. When it suddenly occurred to me that someone was at the door I realized I'd been hearing the quiet knocking for a couple of minutes. I went to the door, opened it and there before me stood a short man in ragged clothes. His tattered, green coat was buttoned up tightly around his neck. He had hair that came down to his shoulders, but the top of his pale head was bald which accentuated his high, striking forehead. He stared at me for moment without saying a word. I thought he was going to ask for money.
"Can I help you?" I asked.
"No," he said with an English accent, "but I can help you. I am William Shakespeare."
Well, I burst out laughing. "How ironic," I said sarcastically. "I just finished reading A Midsummer Night's Dream."
"You mean," he said, "'coincidental.'"
"Huh?" I replied.
"It is not ironic that I should come to your door after you finished reading my play, it is coincidental. Most people should be using the word 'coincidental' when they use the word 'ironic.' More properly, in my view, it is fortunate."
Now I was peeved that some ragged looking fellow was telling me how to use words, me a teacher of the great books of literature, so I said even more sarcastically than before, "Well, I'd say it's more like a miracle since you've been dead for nearly 400 years."
Then he did something I did not expect . He turned around, almost sadly and started to walk away without saying a word. I'm not exactly sure why I did what I did next. I guess I felt sorry for him, so I said, "Wait! Don't go." He turned as if he knew I was going to ask him to stay, walked past me into my house and sat down at my table.
"May I trouble you for some tea?" he asked.
I prepared him some black tea while I decided that I would be nice to this man who probably had no money, no home, no family and some mental disabilities. So, I suspended my disbelief and decided to pretend that he was Shakespeare. It sounded fun to me, particularly since I was reading one of Shakespeare's plays and I thought, maybe, I could bring a little happiness to a man who clearly had very little of his own. I joined his delusion. Our conversation went like this:
"So Mr. Shakespeare," I said slowly, "I have learned recently that you were born on April 23, 1564 in Stratford, England."
"That's when you celebrate my birthday," he replied matter-of-factly. "The only records you have show that I was baptized on April 26 so no one's absolutely sure of the exact date or my birth."
I have to tell you this startled me. That information is not something you would know unless you were taking or had taken a class on Shakespeare. Perhaps he had at some time in his past studied the great playwright and now had fallen on hard times. He knows his stuff, I thought to myself. "You went to grammar school in Stratford?" I asked with more interest.
"Probably. But again this is an educated guess. No records show that I did, but I lived in Stratford where the schoolmaster received a salary from the borough. This provided for a free education so most people believe my parents must have taken advantage of this." He sipped his tea.
Now here, I must admit, I was startled and peeved. He was talking to me like I was ignorant and I guess I was somewhat ignorant since I didn't know what a "borough" was and this too peeved me.
"A borough," he said, "is what you would call here a mayor."
"I know," I said curtly. "What happened to you between the time you were born and your marriage to Anne Hathaway? We have no information on that."
"I married at 18 and before that I lived my life," he said sipping his tea again. "Would you happen to have some biscuits?" he asked.
Some relatives of mine had just gone to England so I happened to know that he meant cookies. I brought him some shortbread cookies. He took a few bites.
"Let's see," he said. "Where was I? Oh, yes. There is a lot of mystery about my personal life and I'd prefer to keep it that way. I think you know about my three children, my daughter Susanna and the twins, Hamnet and Judith. My son Hamnet, my only son, died when he was 11." Here the man stopped speaking for a moment as if to contemplate the memory of his son's image and I felt sorry for him. Good acting, I thought, but still, just for a moment, almost against my will I believed he was Shakespeare telling me about the death of his son.
"When did you start writing plays?" I asked passing him another cookie.
"The first reference to me is in 1592 when I was 28. A Mr. Robert Greene, who clearly didn't like me, called me an 'upstart crow' in a pamphlet published after his death."
"Here in San Diego we have store in Seaport Village called the Upstart Crow."
"Yes, it's a nice bookstore and they sell great tea. Anyway, five years later I bought New Place, a large house in Stratford which I walked by very often as a boy. I needed a fair amount of money for that house and earned it from the performance of my plays which began about 1589 so I was writing them even earlier."
"You were a member of Lord Chamberlain's Company," I said, trying to impress this man with my knowledge of the bard, as Shakespeare is sometimes called.
"Yes, and later after the accession of James I, we became known as The King's Men. My plays were performed for King James and Queen Elizabeth. That was a great time for me. I wrote at least 36 plays. Our company had great actors to perform them and we were in the best theater, The Globe."
"Did you write anything else?"
"Oh yes, I wrote 156 sonnets and two longer poems: Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. I also wrote a shorter poem, "The Phoenix and Turtle."
"None of my letters made it to your age, but my long will did with its rather notorious line where I leave my 'second-best bed' to my wife, Anne."
"What did you mean by that?"
"That's a secret that Anne and I will never tell."
"When did you die."
"On April 23, 1616. I was 52. My first gravestone has these lines on it:
Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.
Later, my family, who could not be content with a simple grave for me, erected a monument and below the bust compare my attributes to those of the wisdom of Nestor, the genius of Socrates and the poetic art of Virgil. Not bad for an uneducated fool like myself, wouldn't you say?" He sipped his tea and looked at me with bright, almost mischievous eyes.
For moment all I could do is stare at him, then I said, "Not bad at all. I suppose you know that after your death some people said that you did not write the plays because no one with your lack of education and your humble origins could have done so. Your plays exhibit such a wide range of knowledge including languages, literature, law, history, politics and geography, not to mention your keen insight into the human condition with all its paradoxes and range of emotion. Only a man of great education, they say, could have written such things. Their pick is Francis Bacon, the great essay writer."
"Foppery," he said with a smile while leaning back in his chair. "Many of my friends wrote about me at the time including Ben Jonson a famous poet who wrote a poem called, 'To the Memory of My Beloved, the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare: And what he hath left us.' Jonson and I were friends."
"As I recall Jonson says . . . let's see, I think it goes, 'He was not of an age, but for all time!'"
"Yes. And in the same poem he mentions my lack of knowledge in Greek and Latin, but does not see it as any reason to think that I did not write my own plays."
This man's speech beguiled me. Now this may sound strange and as I write it, it sounds strange even to me, but if you had been at the table with me it might not seem so strange. I believed I was speaking to Shakespeare. Logically, I knew this would not be possible, but it did not keep me from thinking it. He had a quality that I might call 'unacted genuineness' or maybe 'sincerity.' There was a smoothness about him, a balance of emotion. If he was acting, he was not overacting. I might have expected an actor portraying Shakespeare to yell and scream about his integrity being questioned, but this man acted, upon reflection, in a way I would have suspected Shakespeare to act. Once I was convinced that he was Shakespeare it was as if that was all he had come to do and I perceived his intention to leave.
"Well, Glen," he said as familiar as if we were good friends. "I think it's time for me to go."
"No," I blurted out. "I mean, please, won't you stay a little longer? I'm teaching your plays to my students and I'd like to ask you about them or maybe you could write something for my web site?"
"You're teaching my plays?" he asked. "Please, don't teach them," he said with some resignation. "Let them speak for themselves. Remember, these are plays—dramas to be watched. I wrote them for audiences of rich and poor, young and old, for the educated and those not so educated. I wrote them for people to see and to experience. I also wrote them, believe it or not, to make money, to make a good living." He slid his chair back and now I felt myself almost panicking.
"You had such a grasp of life," I said. "What advice would you give to me for living in this world?"
He did not answer right away, but stood slowly, nodded a thanks for the tea and biscuits then walked to the door. I followed him like a puppy waiting for some morsel of food, some bit of wisdom that could change my life. "My advice," he said, "is in the plays. It has been there for the last 400 years."
"But there are so many," I stammered.
"And all the world's a stage, a very, very large stage," he replied. Then he was gone.
I don't know what to make of this encounter. The farther away it is the more dreamlike it becomes, the more I seem able to tell myself that he was only a man who coincidentally showed up at my door after I finished reading A Midsummer Night's Dream and who called himself William Shakespeare and yet . . . I can't help thinking about one of Shakespeare's own lines from Hamlet: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy." (Hamlet, Act 1, sc. 5, l. 166.)
©2005-2013 Glen Draeger (all rights reserved)
Millstone Education: World Literature / http://www.millstoneeducation.com/worldLit