Something rotten in . . . wasn't that Sherwood Forest?

ROGER SIMON .....

January 27, 1992|By ROGER SIMON

I am not a snob and for only one reason: I have nothing to be snobbish about.

I have no famous ancestors or relatives. I went to inner-city public schools and to a state university. I grew up in a working-class home.

And while this allows me an enormous amount of reverse snobbism, I have never been accused of the regular kind.

Until last week:

Dinner at a friend's house. Six of us, all in the media. We range in age from the early 30s to the early 40s.

We are not literally having brie and white wine (we are having some Moroccan concoction and drinking red wine because "60 Minutes" practically ordered us to do so a few weeks ago), but you get the picture.

The hostess, a network TV producer, very bright, very knowledgeable about all subjects foreign and domestic, is speaking: "I just rented 'The Terminator' and 'Hamlet,' and the person at the video store said it was a really strange combination."

Did you like "Hamlet"? I ask. This is the Mel Gibson/Glenn Close version, right?

"Right," she says, "but I had a hard time following it. I think it would have been a lot easier if I had known the plot in advance."

If I were the type of person who thinks before he speaks, I would now say: "Gee, this is a really good Moroccan concoction. When's dinner?"

But since I rarely think before I speak, especially after red wine, what I do say is: "You don't know the plot of 'Hamlet'? How could you not know the plot of 'Hamlet'? Didn't they make you read that in high school?"

The hostess, who is now my former friend, stares at me. And says: "They didn't make us read anything in high school."

Exactly the problem, I say.

Another guest jumps in to save the day. "Isn't 'Hamlet' the movie where you see Mel Gibson skinny-dipping?" she says.

It takes us a few moments to unravel this. As it turns out, she has not only confused Mel Gibson with Kevin Costner, but the movie "Hamlet" with the movie "Robin Hood."

And it is now that I take the irreversible plunge into snobbism. All I can say is that it must have been the wine.

I just read someplace, I say, that if Othello had been Hamlet and Hamlet had been Othello, both plays would have had happy endings. Isn't that neat?

It is as if someone had called for six minutes of silence in the room.

Othello? I say. Nobody has read "Othello" either?

I go around the room. Nobody under the age of 40 has read any Shakespeare.

And it is now left to me to prove I am not a snob because I have. It is required of me to indicate that I didn't want to read Shakespeare, but that once upon a time I was forced to read Shakespeare.

They made us do it, I say. In high school. They made us.

"Where did you go to high school?" a guest asks. "Oxford?"

I turn red. It was a public school on the South Side of Chicago, I say. I think every kid in public school had to read at least some Shakespeare.

"And they probably ended up hating it," he says. "That's the trouble with forcing kids to read things."

Right, I want to say. It is far better to let them read nothing, so that they grow up not knowing Hamlet from Robin Hood.

Instead I say: Actually, I think kids should be forced to read certain things in high school. Otherwise they will never be exposed to the choices that are out there. Later, they can ignore them. But they should have an opportunity to learn that literature didn't start with Tama Janowitz.

"I like Tama Janowitz," one guest says.

"Who's Tama Janowitz?" another guest says.

I think back to my grandfather, an immigrant who came to America with no formal schooling, who would hammer together boxcars for pennies an hour all day, and then go to see Shakespeare performed in his native language at night.

At one time in American history, the working classes would pay hard-earned money to expose themselves to the classics because they felt it was meaningful.

Such people were down-to-earth people, who struggled through the Depression and were very likely to place a practical value on things. And, for some reason, they placed a practical value on Shakespeare.

Lord knows what they thought they were accomplishing. Perhaps they found beauty or excitement or pleasure in it. Perhaps they thought the humanities made them more humane. Perhaps they were all snobs.

"It's not like we didn't read stuff in high school," a guest is now saying. "We read 'Silas Marner' and 'The Red Badge of Courage' and 'The Scarlet Letter' and books like that."

But no Shakespeare?

"It doesn't mean we're stupid!"

Of course it doesn't, I say. That's the point. Everybody here is very bright and successful without having read any Shakespeare, and so I guess the lesson is that there is no point in reading Shakespeare, and soon he will be as forgotten as a thousand other long-dead authors.

"And?"

And the rest is silence, I say.

I figure if you're going to be a snob, you might as well do it right.

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