The Reactionary Utopian
                       May 3, 2007

by Joe Sobran

     When my kids were little, I inflicted Shakespeare on 
them, with the best intentions. I began by telling them 
that Shakespeare was a great genius. I made them watch 
the thrilling Laurence Olivier as Hamlet. I roared bits 
of Othello's raging speeches constantly. Our home rang 
with the immortal words of Shakespeare.

     To be my child was to be intimate with the Bard 
himself. The Sobran kids had a privileged upbringing. 
Like King Lear, I gave them my best, including fair bits 

     It took them years to recover. I'd wanted nothing 
more passionately than for them to share my great love. 
Where had I gone wrong and achieved the opposite result 
with four such beautiful, bright children?

     Years later, when my grandson Joe lived with me (he 
was virtually my fifth child, bright and beautiful like 
all the others), a new approach gave me better success. 
Or luck. Without much prodding, Joe watched films of 
HAMLET, MACBETH, and JULIUS CAESAR and loved them.

     On one occasion his school principal marveled when 
he interrupted our conversation to plead, "Can we see 
HAMLET tonight?" She was startled to hear a little boy, a 
fourth-grader, make such a request. A long career in 
education had taught her what to expect. An eagerness for 
Shakespearean tragedy? Not usually.

     What had I finally done right? I'm almost 
embarrassed to reveal my simple secret. Like the 
discovery of America, and penicillin, it was an accident.

     When Joe was learning to read, I made him read aloud 
a single sentence from THE TEMPEST: "Monster, I do smell 
all horse-piss; at which my nose is in great 

     (You won't find that one in books of great 
quotations. Never mind the context. Joe didn't need 

     Joe giggled madly. He couldn't even finish the 
sentence. That was all I wanted. A naughty laugh. You 
know grandfathers. Incurably silly. Eager to corrupt 

     From then on, I made it a game: I'd give Joe a 
dollar if he could recite that one sentence with a 
straight face. I never had to pay. He cracked up every 
time. The other night, nearly 20 years old, he flunked 
the straight-face test yet again. He hadn't forgotten.

     Somehow Joe never suffered from a paralyzing awe of 
Shakespeare's genius. A single vulgar joke had made that 
impossible at the start. And had also taught him the big 
word "indignation," by the way. And showed him that big 
words and small can be combined explosively. And that 
Shakespeare knew some little words you'd better not say 
when your principal might hear them.

     Today he's no scholar (baseball, girls, and other 
things intervened), but one of his first tastes of 
Shakespeare was fun -- terrific hilarity, in fact -- and 
it taught me something about teaching the classics. I'd 
had no idea I was making a great pedagogical discovery.

     I don't know if the schools will adopt my simple, 
revolutionary method, but I doubt it. They still seem to 
prefer instilling a fatal reverence for the Bard, the 
time-tested way of making kids loathe him. And by the 
time the kids get around to that sentence, it's far too 
late to save them. They respect him too much.

     But back to Joe. He's a mature young man now, so 
maybe he's ready for the funniest line in KING JOHN.

     As often happens in Shakespeare, the play is stolen 
by a seemingly secondary character -- in this case, the 
Bastard, Philip Faulconbridge. The play opens with a 
dispute over Philip's legitimacy. His younger 
(half-)brother Robert wants his title and inheritance 
(five hundred pounds a year) and asks John to settle it.

     It transpires that Philip is indeed a bastard, the 
natural son of John's brother and predecessor, King 
Richard the Lion-hearted (Coeur-de-lion).

     Far from being shamed or defeated, the blunt, witty 
Bastard is delighted. He exults in being the natural son 
of a heroic king, despises his lost inheritance, mocks 
his brother, and just doesn't give a damn. John loves him 
immediately and dubs him a knight: Sir Richard 

     So the Bastard is now a happy member of England's 
royal family! He accompanies John to France, where John 
makes war to claim certain lands he says are rightfully 

     When the English lay siege to the city of Angiers, a 
leading citizen, refusing to surrender, defies them in a 
long, violent speech. The Bastard's salty comment is 

        Zounds! I was never so bethumped with words
        Since I first called my brother's father dad.

     It takes some doing to teach kids that Shakespeare 
is no fun.


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