Thursday, January 7, 2010

Shakespeare at Large


Reprinted from The Boston Globe (January 4, 2010)

Excerpts from "Living with Shakespeare," a prologue to Adam Cohen's "Memoir of a Shakespeare Professor." Cohen died Saturday at age 38.

In early November 2008, after I had just received tenure from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and was finishing the final draft of my second book, titled "Technology and the Early Modern Self," something strange began to happen: I lost my ability to read. This was very frustrating. One evening I tried but was unable to read bedtime stories to my 2-year-old daughter Lauren, and my 4-year-old Hailey ask had to ask my wife Debbie to read. Prior to the Thanksgiving Break I saw my local eye doctor who told me to take it easy. He said I was working too many hours on the final revision of the book and that the headaches and vision loss were the results of working too hard.


When I went to my eye doctor the second time he recommended a study of my brain using Magnetic Resonance Imaging, an MRI. It was a Wednesday, and I requested an immediate MRI testing so that I would not have to cancel my Thursday classes.


For 40 minutes I laid inside an enormous all-encompassing machine that weirdly whined, bellowed, and hissed as I held my breath. ... After 40 minutes the radio which had been tuned to ESPN turned off, but the machine continued for more than another half hour. These exams were not supposed to go this long. After an hour and 15 minutes they took me out of the MRI machine and gave me a package containing copies of its images. Then they left me alone in another room. I opened the package containing the images and learned that I was suffering from a massive brain tumor and was likely about to die.

Miraculously the doctors managed to remove my tumor without destroying all the sensitive components of my brain. They saved my life and retained most of my sight. I would only be partially blind, and I might even live a while to see my children grow up a little bit. ... Unfortunately more darkness was to come. After a few days of recovery from my surgery I began steroid therapy and chemotherapy that flooded my body with biotechnological invaders. ...
At the same time I commenced daily radiation treatments in which I was laid prone on a hard flat slab within a grid of lasers and told not to move as a mammoth, rotating, loudly humming mechanical beast whirled above me. The Shakespeare scholar who had sat comfortably at his computer, ably directing it to do as he wished was now at a machine's mercy. Before I had controlled my world. Now my world controlled me. Never had I felt so powerless and scared and less like myself. Unfortunately even worse experiences were yet to come.

I want to emphasize the desperation, I felt when my doctors gave me radiation for my brain from December 31, 2008 until February 11, 2009. This treatment made me incapable of reading ... I was supposed to be a reader and a writer, a husband and a father, a doctor of philosophy and a Shakespeare professor! Who was I now? What had this invasive toxic cancer and the technologies thrust upon me to remove it done to me and my relationship to the world? I felt like King Lear in the wilderness, Hamlet after his father's death, Caesar as Brutus plunges in the dagger, and so many other Shakespearean characters. I felt like a man whose relationship to his world had suddenly become unmoored.


How can I be a teacher, I wondered, if I can not even explain that I want a sandwich for lunch? The technologies and techniques on which I usually relied were unusable, my standard place in the world lost. Like so many of Shakespeare's characters I had been yanked out of a life in which my place was certain and thrown into a maelstrom, an Arden Wood of the mind and spirit, a Prospero's island where I had no idea who I was or where I belonged.

A brain I had thought under my control was attacked by an internal enemy and temporarily overtaken by it. The tumor's cells were mine, but they were not part of my normally functioning self. My body was seized by a radical insider, a tumor that behaved like an outsider. The tumor took over my brain and my brain could not combat it. I had to defeat and remove the tumor, but the tumor was a part of me. Self-defense required an attack on the self. ...

As happens with so many of Shakespeare's characters, I found within this dizzying series of reversals, redefinitions, assaults, and losses powerful insights that propelled me to a fuller and more direct encounter with Shakespeare. My analysis brought me new insights and methodologies that actually strengthened and enriched my scholarship. Due to biotechnical invasions I was unable to read, speak, live, and define myself as I always had, but after an agonizing period of disorientation I was forced to find new ways of doing work until a new paradigm for myself and the world emerged. Having done so brought me closer to my subject than ever, and substantially improved my work, yielding to me a new perspective.

This is what happened when I lost my ability to read. My temporary illiteracy forced me and my students to engage only visually with the plays. My "disability" thus became an "ability" because I could experience the plays as Shakespeare probably intended. This literary critique differed from most scholarly approaches. We saw film clips, then talked about them, examined their strengths and weaknesses, and explored how they affected us. ...

I began to think about how many of the audience members for Shakespeare's plays were in fact illiterates, groundlings, similarly struggling to understand their place in an increasingly confusingly technological, mechanical, textual world. From the ashes of my studies emerged flesh and blood people on stage in Shakespeare's time with whom my disability allowed me to connect. My experience with illiteracy gave me unique insights into how the technology of the printing press changed Shakespeare's plays.


Fortunately my illiteracy has faded slightly in recent weeks. ... What a thrill it is today, June 5, 2009, to begin to feel that I may soon be able to read like I used to. Only when stripped of the ability to read does one learn the tremendous importance of experiencing a Shakespeare play in performance. Though my situation has been terribly frustrating and troubling at times it has also taught me fascinating information about some of the ways we experience Shakespeare.

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