Monday, August 22, 2016

Fall, and cease

One of my college professors died yesterday. I found out the modern way, while taking a social media break in the middle of working on my syllabi, and it seemed right to put aside the work, and pause. This isn't the first time I've heard about the death of a former professor, but she was the first one who was clearly too young. In her photo on the department site, she doesn't look any older than she did in the fall of 1997, when I was her student in Shakespearean Tragedy.

I remembered the papers I wrote for her right away. I must have been going through a Weird Contrarian Theory phase, because in one of them, I argued that Gertrude pushed Ophelia, and in another, that the handkerchief in Othello was literally magical. The third one was about love and material wealth in Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra, and I don't think it had any weird theories, but it was twice as long as it was supposed to be, because I needed a writing sample for grad school. I remember that she agreed, very graciously, to let me write a paper that exceeded the bounds of the assignment, and to critique it carefully. I realize now that this was a big and somewhat presumptuous request to make at the end of the semester. If she was thinking oh no, not more grading!, she didn't let on.

I remembered, also, that she'd described Titus Andronicus as "sci-fi Rome," and when the Julie Taymor movie came out a few years later I realized just how apt that description was.

This afternoon I took my old Complete Works of Shakespeare down from the shelves. It had been my textbook for that course, but I'd also used it in freshman-year Intro to Shakespeare, and in a graduate seminar about the history plays, and another graduate seminar about revenge tragedy, and while writing my master's thesis and dissertation. So, out of the ten plays we'd read that semester -- Titus, Richard III, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Troilus and Cressida, and Antony and Cleopatra -- the only ones where I could be sure my notes and underlinings were from her class were Julius Caesar, Othello, and Lear. I leafed through them all, anyway, trying to remember what was hers, and what was some other professor's, and what was mine. She was interested in inwardness, I think, in the mind. A note beside a Macbeth soliloquy: mind more compelling than reality. At various points in the margins of Brutus and Cassius's first conversation: introspective dilemma; don't look at self to see self -- look at me!; like Caesar, B. makes the mistake of looking for himself in other people's images; Stoicism is not enough. (Also, more amusingly, some instructions on how to celebrate the Lupercal: sacrifice goats, smear yourself w/blood, & run around naked striking women. Sounds like fun!) Beside Antony's "Sometimes we see a cloud that's dragonish" speech, one quote that I know was from her, because I labeled it: "theater of the wind" - Prof. B..

The passage that brought back her most vividly as teacher, though, had no notes at all beside it, just underlinings: King Lear's three-part threnody: Is this the promised end? Or image of that horror? Fall, and cease! I remembered being asked to write about that. Remembered that she began nearly all her classes by asking us to write about a quotation or a question; and that I'd picked up the practice in my first few years of teaching Shakespeare, and then dropped it once I began to have too much to say about the plays and too little time in which to say it.

And then I realized there was something I'd learned from her that I still do; she was the first professor I ever had who did much with film versions of Shakespeare, and in particular, the first one who showed contrasting film versions of the same scene. (On VHS, played on a tiny, wall-mounted TV; I think it was the Laurence Olivier and Mel Gibson versions of Hamlet 3.4.) I am glad that she is still, in some way, part of my teaching, as I think most of my undergraduate English professors are. Perhaps we all live on a little in our students, and in the margins of our students' books.

Godspeed, Professor B. And thank you.