REVIEWS DEPT., FEB 15 - In late 1999, having relocated to California and rebooted my life on the cusp of the millennium, I decided the time had come to start in on Shakespeare. I'd somehow made it through high school without cracking any of his plays, so I'd been unprepared for how brain-achingly punishing the whole thing was. I bought a copy of Hamlet at the local Borders, and my wife and I soon settled into a routine, she going to band practice up the street while I'd sit around this same Borders and struggle with the book over several cups of coffee. Sometimes it took an hour to cover five pages.
This might have made me oblivious about reading in public. Sometime that autumn I went to a punk show at Al's bar in downtown Los Angeles. The lag between bands is even more monotonous at shows in strange new cities, so I brought the book to kill time. From out of nowhere, some mohawked jerk straight out of central casting approached me.
"What're you reading dude?"
I kept Hamlet tilted forward, cover hidden.
"A book?" I said cautiously.
"Oh, yeah? Like what? Bukowski? Hemingway? You're so smart, guy. Reading a book at a show."
"I am pretty smart," I countered in confused sarcasm. It'd been years since I'd been belittled in public like this.
"You're such an intellectual," mohawk guy sneered
"I am known for being a very smart intellectual."
The weird sarcasm battle went on like this for a while. I was baffled. The stranger's words held a sour kernel of truth. I'd actually brought the one author more pretentious to read, at a concert, than the ones he'd mentioned. Who was I trying to impress? What was I doing, introducing my private struggle to a public show? Since then I've learned to be discreet; Shakespeare's hard enough without adding any external hurdles. Over the six subsequent plays I've trudged through in the aughties, I've never read a word outside my house.
Here's what else I've learned: trust only the Oxford's World's Classics editions. If you go to a friend's house and spy, on their bookshelf, a Shakespeare play published by Barrons, or Folger, or Penguin, or Signet, or Yale - anyone but Oxford - that means your friend is either a liar or a dangerous sociopath genius or has been forced to read Shakespeare by a teacher who does not like the English language. No sane modern reader can penetrate the text without serious help. The OWC editions offers this serious help with the toughest of tough love, forcing the reader to cross at least a hundred pages of superdense analysis before arriving at the play itself. Even then, the notes continue on, textual interpretations running like a CNN news crawl between the action above and the denser footnotes below.
The textual analysis is important in that Shakespeare's work itself is often dramatically fluid, dependent on interpretations of centuries of revisions and performances. Occasional compositorial errors can change the meanings of entire scenes. Long before the modern reader gets a crack at any of these plays, generations of editors and compositors and even performers have tweaked the text like a ball of putty.
Midsummer Night's Dream, one of Shakespeare's least fluid plays, is also, apparently one of his sexiest. Characters seek, and become, ass. Much of the performance involves free-love fairies or normals on a drug-induced sexual holiday. It seems strange that so many high school drama departments have tried to craft something presentable from a comedy based on compulsory marriage, and the brutality of unrequited love, and broad hints of bestiality. I didn't have the mental processing power to make it through any of this material until my 30's; how can adolescents - their own minds drugged by hormones - plausibly memorize and recite all the dialogue of all the varying weirdoes in the woods?
Finishing this play left an aftertaste - familiar by now - of attending a party with people much smarter than me. I'm still coming to terms with the idea that I am never going to comprehend 100% of Shakespeare's plays. Maybe it was this resignation that made me get sloppy last month. After ten years of private indulgence, I slipped up and brought the book to read while receiving an oil change at Claremont Toyota. A half hour in, a middle aged Chinese lady glanced at me and said, "Oh, are you a student?"
I looked up and told her politely that I was not. She looked away, irritated, or embarrassed. It was a polite replay of the rebuke from 1999, only now I felt stupid and pretentious. I tried to figure out some way to make a joke out of the exchange, but, again, I just wasn't sharp enough.