Bill Watterson Answers 3 Questions About Shakespeare

Story posted September 28, 2011

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William Watterson gets animated in his Shakespeare's History Plays class. All photos by Bob Handelman.


In Bill Watterson’s Shakespeare classes, students learn to tease words for their nuance and meaning. Leaning into a lectern, a well-worn play in hand, Watterson brings villains, heroes and fools alive in his reading.

He has taught them all: the histories, the comedies, the tragedies, the sonnets. In his 36 years on the Bowdoin faculty, the Edward Little Professor of the English Language and Literature estimates he has introduced roughly 1,725 students to the delights of The Bard.

Here, he reveals his personal favorites and answers the one question that has dogged scholars for generations.

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Students in Shakespeare's History Plays class listen, delighted, as Watterson recites a speech from his favorite character, Falstaff.

Q: If you were trapped on a desert island, which is the one Shakespeare play you would take with you and why?

WW: I have a trick answer to that. I would take what I consider to be his best play, which is Henry IV, Part I, except I wouldn't need to take it because I know it almost entirely by heart.

[He launches instantly into Prince Hal's soliloquy in the tavern:]

I know you all, and will awhile uphold/The unyoked humor of your idleness./Yet herein will I imitate the sun …

Prince Hal knows that psychologically people are attracted to wild young men who get their act together. So he strategizes to make himself look bad:

So, when this loose behavior I throw off … My reformation, glitt’ring o’er my fault,/Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes.

I think it's beautifully organized around the theme of rebellion. Bollingbroke, who has rebelled against God by seizing Richard's crown and having him murdered. And the rebellion of a son, Hal, against his father. It’s a thematic unification that works from the cosmic down to the human.

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Q: So does that mean that Prince Hal is your favorite character?

WW: No, I don't like him as a character at all; he is cold and calculating, like his father. Falstaff is my favorite character; many think he is the greatest comic hero in English. He is Hal's language tutor, who teaches him eloquence and how to think on his feet as the future king.

Falstaff says, in essence, ‘We have to rehearse you. I will be your father and interrogate you and let me see you give a self defense that is compelling.’ Falstaff is doing this by spontaneously generating blank verse. It’s quite a dramatic accomplishment. Hal constantly taunts him with fat jokes, but he admires his wit and ability to speak.

I've always said the day I would retire would be the day students wouldn't appreciate Falstaff. Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world/ I do; I will.

Q: What is something most people don’t know about Shakespeare?

WW: He had a brother, Edmund, who was an actor. When he died in 1607, Shakespeare paid two shillings to have him buried and an extra shilling to have the church bell rung. He also had a brother, Gilbert, who was a haberdasher.

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This relates to the question that I’m always asked by people who should know better: Did Shakespeare really write his plays? The fact of the matter is, we know a tremendous amount of information about Shakespeare, in fact we know far more about him than we know about most magnate nobles of his time. His father was a ‘whittawer’ and a ‘wool brogger’ and an alderman. His teacher was Simon Hunt, who went to Oxford and was a Catholic.

I don’t really understand why people like Twain and Freud were so opposed to the idea that someone who didn’t have an education beyond age 13 could write those plays. I think the whole disintegration movement was a product of the Victorian age, a certain kind of school snobbery, that you couldn’t really be good at everything if you didn’t have a public school education. Shakespeare was an autodidact who used – and created -- the English language as we know it.

G.B. Shaw put it well: “The plays of William Shakespeare were either written by William Shakespeare or by a man calling himself William Shakespeare.”


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