A User-Friendly Bard at the Library

by Bill Peak

I was a pretty normal teenager. I liked girls, sports, and any music my parents hated. I wanted more than anything to be the tallest, handsomest, most popular guy in school ... and I wasn't. But I wasn't a geek either. Somewhere in between, I suppose. Average. Which is, of course, for a teenager whose heart longs for glory, the greatest tragedy of all. And then there came that night when, having been given a totally unfair homework assignment (“Mom, we have to read all of 'Hamlet'!”), I lay on my bed and began to pull my way, word by laborious word, through my first Shakespeare. At some point over the course of that long evening I must have picked up the thread of the story, for I can still remember how startled I was when, suddenly, I realized I was standing in the middle of my room reading the “To be or not to be” speech aloud as if I were the one facing those immortal questions.

Needless to say, I was mortified. I did not tell a soul. But I hugged the guilty secret of what I'd found in Shakespeare to my heart and never let it go.

Or at least I did until I became “the library guy.” Now it is my job (and privilege) to share that secret, and the secret of all the treasures to be found in English literature, with the good people of Talbot County. Which is why, though it may sound contradictory, I often find myself telling a patron he might want to watch a movie.

Film is about motion: the director tells his story with moving pictures. Silent films were important to the development of modern cinema because they taught directors the tricks necessary to tell a story exclusively through images. Even today, you can often watch a good director's work with the sound turned off and still follow the story. Which makes movies perfect for patrons who—though they find Shakespeare's language daunting—would still like to know what the fuss is all about. For such as these, I recommend Kenneth Branagh's Henry V or his Much Ado About Nothing, Ian McKellen's Richard III, Franco Zeffirelli's Hamlet or his Romeo and Juliet, or Roman Polanski's Macbeth. (All of these but the Zeffirellis—we'd love a donation—are available for check-out at the library.)

For my money, Polanski's Macbeth is the greatest Shakespeare movie ever made. Beautiful, dark, bloody and unrelenting, it is a masterpiece of visual story-telling. It also happens to be the first film Polanski made after the murder of his wife (then eight and a half months pregnant with their first child) by Charles Manson's gang. When Macduff receives word his wife and children have been slain by the king's henchmen, you can almost hear the director weeping.

Still, I will always reserve a special place in my heart for the play that once turned an awkward, perpetually tongue-tied teenager into a dashing, eloquent ... Prince of Denmark! And now that I think about it, I believe I'm going to make that donation.