Saturday, December 21, 2013

Whither Shakespeare? Part VIII - Shakespeare By Heart?

If you know these lines:   
     "To be or not to be, that is the question." 
      "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players."
     "Beware the ides of March."

then you have memorized Shakespeare.  You probably know all kinds of Shakespeare:
"Is that a dagger I see before me?"

"Now is the winter of our discontent."

Aside from being handy in Jeopardy, there are many benefits to memorizing Shakespeare - or memorizing anything.  You probably know the words to dozens and dozens of songs.  I've been to concerts where the whole audience sings every word along with the performer.  In this day of individualized playlists, singing together gives you a profound shared experience of unity and, yes, love.

In my elementary school in Montreal, the piano was in an alcove above the auditorium.  In the December days before the Christmas break, the junior classes would squeeze into the space around the piano and sing carols over and over again until we knew every word.  Even a Jewish girl like me has found it useful to know the Christmas songbook by heart.

Whatever we memorize when we are young, we tend to remember:  piano sonatas, Christmas carols, and Shakespeare soliloquies.  In grade 7, I memorized Romeo's speech to Juliet on her balcony.  ("But soft, what light through yonder window breaks.")  Even today, I remember all 24 lines. 

When people feel doomed, I pull Macbeth's speech from the memory vault:
     "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
     Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
     To the last syllable of recorded time;
     . . . It is a tale
     Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury

     Signifying nothing."

Petrucchio's speech from The Taming of the Shrew comes in handy when a couple is arguing:
     "And where two raging fires meet together,
     They do consume the thing that feeds their fury."

As a child growing up, I noticed that when my Uncle George (ז״ל) visited my family, he might suddenly begin a Hamlet soliloquy:
     "Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I"  or
     "To be or not to be," or 
     "Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt,
      Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!" 

and recite it through to the end.  During one visit, he confessed that he had memorized all seven of Hamlet's soliloquies.  I was a university student at the time, and this achievement impressed me.  "What made you do that," I asked.
"One summer," he said, "after the war - when I was in medical school, I was invited to a cottage north of Toronto to play chess."
"You memorized these walking by the lake?" I asked.
"No," said Uncle George.  "I memorized these while playing chess."
"While playing chess?"
"My host was a very, very slow player."

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