Phillip Thompson

Crime Fiction writer

At the risk of ruining my carefully crafted knuckle-dragger image, I have a dark confession to make: I like me some Shakespeare. Can’t help it. Forsooth, there it is. And I’m a total geek about it. I have a very worn hardback copy of The Collected Works of William Shakespeare — every play he wrote — that I used to carry with me on long flights. And for the two years I spent flying back and forth across the Pacific, that thing came in handy. Anon.

This confession was sparked my discovery last weekend of an upcoming production of one of my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays, “The Tempest.” FathomEvents is unveiling, for one night only, a nationwide viewing of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s production, starring Christopher Plummer. The date is 14 June, and it just so happens that there’s a showing in Fredericksburg. I’m probably going to check it out. “The Tempest” is, to me, one of Shakespeare’s more digestible plays, like “The Taming of the Shrew” or “Julius Caesar.”

My appreciation for Shakespeare started, totally against my will, during my senior year at New Hope High School. Like all American high school students, I’d already suffered through the stifling courses on “Julius Caesar” and “Romeo and Juliet” as a freshman. I could at least follow the story of JC, but R&J … you could have it.

My senior year, though, was a test of wills between my Senior English teacher, Mrs. Coffey, and me. She was determined, for some odd reason, to make sure that I didn’t take one single step out of line in her class. So, I sat front and center. And still found a way to be bored, fall asleep or get distracted. Sitting close to Kim Rushing might have had a little to do with the latter.

Anyway, Mrs. Coffey Shakespeared us up pretty good throughout the year. We read “Macbeth” to death, though I will admit I enjoyed it (a little). It had witches, conniving, killing, wily dames, everything a 17-year-old male could get into. We even had to recite portions. You know, the part about life being but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Not that I remember it or anything.

Come the second semester, she handed out the assignment we’d all been dreading — the Senior English Term Paper. Alack. She had a list of topics that we could pick from, and I instantly devised my strategy: find and pick the easiest, most general, vaguest topic on the list (my reasoning being it would be far easier to ramble on for the required 10 pages on something like that rather than, say, “Metaphors and their meaning in Romeo and Juliet.”

But when I strode to her desk to make my selection, she stopped me short and told me
she’d already picked out my topic. What? I knew better than to argue with her directly, but I was taken aback — no, I was aghast — that her topic for me was “The character of Iago in ‘Othello.'”

OTHELLO? “Is that even a real name?” I protested. She smiled. I said — and, yes, I actually uttered the following words: “You give me some character nobody’s ever heard of an obscure Shakespeare play?” Yes, I called “Othello” obscure. Mrs. Coffey just smiled and went back to grading whatever it is English teachers grade. Gerunds or something.

I trooped off to the library (the county one, not the New Hope High School library). To my utter amazement, I found not only information about this Iago guy, but books about him. In fact, in the library of a nearby university which shall not be named in this blog, there was an entire shelf dedicated to books on Iago.

Ok, now I was in deep trouble, and I knew it.

Weeks later — books later — I knew everything there was to know about Iago, whether I wanted to know it or not. And talk about an evil dude. The more I read, the more fascinated I became. This “Othello” was a hell of a play. I read the whole thing twice. It was full of murder and mayhem and bawdy language and double entendres: “they are making the beast with two backs” and “I fear another man has leapt into your saddle,” for example (not that I remember any of it). Great stuff!

I ended up drafting 25 pages, and agonized over every edit to get it down to 10. But, in the end, I walked away with an “A” (take that, Mrs. Coffey), and a still-continuing appreciation for the works of Shakespeare. It’s not all forsooth and anon (well, it is, but still), it’s really the same conflicts and stories and intrigue you’ll find in any good piece of writing today. It’s also some of the best poetry our language has produced.

And that’s why I still read it today. For fun, of course. On really long flights. When a Bruce Willis movie isn’t showing.

Out, out brief candle!

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