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 The Sobran Method: 
A True Story

May 3, 2007 
learning ShakespeareWhen 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.

Today's column is "The Sobran Method: A True Story" -- Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.learning ShakespeareTo 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 of King Lear.

learning ShakespeareIt 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?

learning ShakespeareYears 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.

learning ShakespeareOn 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.

learning ShakespeareWhat 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.

[Breaker quote for The Sobran Method: A True Story: Reader discretion advised]learning ShakespeareWhen 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 indignation.”

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

learning ShakespeareJoe 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 youth.

learning ShakespeareFrom 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.

ShakespeareSomehow 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.

learning ShakespeareToday 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.

learning ShakespeareI 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.

learning ShakespeareBut back to Joe. He’s a mature young man now, so maybe he’s ready for the funniest line in King John.

learning ShakespeareAs 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.

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

learning ShakespeareFar 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 Plantagenet.

learning ShakespeareSo 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 his.

learning ShakespeareWhen 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 priceless:
learning ShakespeareZounds! I was never so bethumped with words
learning ShakespeareSince I first called my brother’s father dad.
learning ShakespeareIt takes some doing to teach kids that Shakespeare is no fun.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2007 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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