A Treadwell Scholar Looks Back

July 23, 1995—the night I boarded a British Airways flight to Heathrow intimated a turning point in my life, and I recognize now it led to one of my most authentic encounters with Shakespeare.  

But, before jotting down another word here, I must rewind even further back. . . to April of the same year.  For it was my great good luck to be chosen that month as the English-Speaking Union’s 1995 Treadwell Scholar.  I was to study Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon for three weeks at the Roehampton Institute International Summer School, in association with the Shakespeare Institute and Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, all expenses paid.  It was a dream come true.  

So how did this wonderful opportunity materialize?  No question that it was linked to my love of Shakespeare.  But I suppose that it really began when I was an English teacher at Clara Barton High School in Brooklyn, and rather naively stepped into the position of being school coordinator and coach for the ESU’s Annual Shakespeare Competition (at the New York City Branch).  Yes, it meant hours of extra work after school, not to mention whole weekends (or so it seemed!) of printing out Shakespearean monologues for my students to study and memorize by heart.  But it was a labor of love for me.  And, truth be told, it was thrilling to see my students become engrossed in Shakespeare’s works and breathe life into characters like the melancholy Hamlet, the wise and resourceful Rosalind, the courageous Juliet, the “honest” Iago, or the hell-hound Macbeth.  Each student, before my eyes, would reanimate a speech from the canon, if not with the polish of a Laurence Olivier or a Judi Dench, with their own earnest New York signature on it.  

What’s more, my students learned first-hand the stern realities of being in a competition, first at the school level, and for the student who won our school competition, at the ESU’s New York Branch Shakespeare Competition.  Although I might have pushed them too hard at times (think: phone calls home to remind them we had a practice session the next day), insisting that they mind the mechanics of the language, I came to admire my young students who undertook the challenge of interpreting difficult swaths of Shakespeare’s verse.  After all, have you ever tried to memorize both a Shakespearean monologue and sonnet and then perform it before an audience of your own peers and judges--sans script?  To say the least, it takes nerves of steel and tons of dramatic talent.

In short, I owe a lot to my students.  For it was through my work with these fledgling Shakespeareans, day in and day out, helping them to perfect their iambic pentameters and “speak the speech trippingly on the tongue” that I eventually heard about the ESU’s teacher scholarships to England.  In fact, it was Barbara O’Dwyer Lopez, the then-Executive Director of the ESU’s New York City Branch, who urged all the teachers at the competition to apply.  I did—and Shakespeare must have smiled upon me—because the Treadwell Scholarship was soon mine.  

Returning to my night owl flight to Heathrow on July 23, 1995-- 26 years ago--is it any wonder that I had my students in mind as I crossed over the Atlantic in pitch dark, heading east toward England?  Yes, I sincerely hoped that my study program at Stratford would deepen my understanding of Shakespeare, and that I would be able to pass on my newly-acquired knowledge to the next generation during the coming school year, and beyond.

The words of John Gaunt passed through my mind as my British Airways jet glided down the landing strip at Heathrow the next morning (London time):  “This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle, / This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars. . . .”  Yes, I was jet-lagged—but oh-so-happy to be in that blessed plot of land called England. Now I only needed to get my luggage and get the next train to Stratford!

Stratford, at first blush, was indescribably charming.  Although it seems like an act of hubris on my part to try to write down anything more on its Warwickshire character when gallons of ink have already been spilled by luminaries over the years--I still feel compelled to set down a few of my observations.  

For starters, my Stratford digs, a cozy cottage at 28 New Street bearing the bright theatrical moniker, “All’s Well that End’s Well,” was ideal.  My hosts were a middle-aged couple who were bursting with pride, not only to be living in the hometown of the world’s greatest writer but also to be a part of the local Shakespeare industry.  They loved being true insiders, and they regaled me with many anecdotes during my stay. The most delicious one?  Perhaps their memory of being invited to join in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s traditional parade through town to kick off their summer season.  It was an unexpected honor, my hostess told me, and she was just tickled to pieces to be treated like a V.I.P. that day and be part of all the Shakespearean hoopla.

Whereas my digs gave me a comfortable place to hang my hat at the beginning and end of each day, most of my time was spent shuttling between the King Edward VI School on Church Street (a.k.a. “Shakespeare’s School”) and the properties comprising the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.  The renowned professor, Stanley Wells (he would receive his knighthood in 2016), gave a welcoming lecture to our group at the King Edward VI School.  Indeed, I still can remember the hush in the classroom as Professor Wells spoke about Shakespeare like an “old friend” and then gave us an overview of our itinerary.  He shared that we would be exploring the theme of “Magic and the Supernatural in Shakespeare’s Plays,” under the aegis of the school’s distinguished faculty, as well as watching the RSC’s six current theater productions.  As Professor Wells continued his address, he drew our attention to the Elizabethan-styled classroom itself, including the graffiti carved into the wooden desktops.  Could some of the graffiti possibly have been done by the young William Shakespeare’s mischievous hand?  Indeed, Professor Wells’ conjecture brought more than a few chuckles from everybody in the room.  

It’s impossible to detail all the events that I engaged in during my Stratford stay.  But, suffice it to say, that the school’s professors peeled the onion on the theme of magic and the supernatural in Shakespeare.  There were also several guest artists from the RSC who spoke to us about their life as an artist and invited us to join in discussions about the production in which they currently were involved. 

Naturally, there were Shakespearean landmarks to visit.  I toured the revered Birthplace, trekked along the beaten path to Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, prowled around the grounds of New Place, and piously tread to Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare is buried, with the famous curse on his gravestone: “Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare, / To dig the dust enclosed here. / Blessed be the man that spares these stones, / And cursed be he that moves my bones.” 

There were lighter moments to be had at the famous Dirty Duck pub, located right next to the RSC’s theaters, where I often went for a scrumptious pre-theater meal or post-theater drink with my new-found friends at the school.  

My favorite moment during my Stratfordian sojourn?  Well, there was the incredible experience of sitting in the orchestra a few rows away from the Prince of Wales as I watched the RSC’s new production of The Tempest.  Prince Charles’ theater visit that evening was unannounced, which I later learned is de rigueur for all of his theater visits to the RSC.  Indeed, I still can feel goosebumps whenever I think that I was only a few feet away from a member of England’s royal family as I watched Shakespeare’s most magical drama unfold. Perhaps Miranda’s words in Act 5 of The Tempest best mirror my sentiment at discovering that the Prince of Wales was a Shakespeare-lover too: “O brave new world, that has such people in 't!”

I reluctantly departed from Heathrow on the morning of August 11th—and landed at New York’s J.F.K. Airport in the evening of that same day.  No, there was no measuring stick that I could take out to see if my brain had become more attuned to Shakespeare during my stay at the mecca.  And it would be a few weeks yet before I headed back to school and could put up on my classroom wall the new Macbeth poster that I had bought at the RSC’s theater shop.  

Indeed, the only thing that I really knew after I had unpacked my luggage, and indeed still know today, is that Stratford-upon-Avon became my Forest of Arden for three glorious weeks one summer when I was the English Speaking Union’s Treadwell Scholar.