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Drifting with the Bard

IT was as a performer that I first encountered Shakespeare. At elementary school, the seventh- and eighth-graders presented his plays. The roles were assigned on the basis of academic standing, memorization skills, and ability to act. In each of these categories I stood near the bottom of the class. Thus, in ``Julius Caesar,'' I had one line. To this day I remember it. Soothsayer to Caesar: ``Beware the ides of March.'' (Caesar paid no heed, to his everlasting regret.) In ``Macbeth'' I played an obscure general whose impact on the plot seemed minimal.

My immersion in Shakespeare came at college. As an English major, I read most of his plays and much of his poetry, enjoying myself immensely. College, for me, was a great awakening. At school I had been a virtual illiterate, reading only required books. Since college, perhaps to make up for lost time, I have read much literature, but never Shakespeare. The combination of his plays being in condensed poetic form, and the frequent use of archaic words, both of which require a high degree of concentration by the reader, has proven an insuperable barrier.

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On a bicycle trip to England a few summers ago, I placed in my rucksack copies of ``Macbeth'' and ``King Lear,'' thinking that the English countryside might inspire me to dip into these plays.

Keats, when he left England for Rome, where he spent the final months of his life, took with him only these books: his seven miniature volumes of Shakespeare's dramatic works and a copy of Shakespeare's poetical works. Since I was traveling to Italy last spring, I decided to follow Keats's example and take Shakespeare with me. To my collection of guidebooks and works by Italian writers I added ``The Tempest.''

Rome and Urbino proved to be wonderful places to visit but did not stir me to read Shakespeare. Only Venice remained on my itinerary.

Glorious Venice is my favorite place on the face of the earth. Sitting by the Giudecca Canal, looking over the water at Palladio's Redentore Church illuminated at night, I felt an urge for the first time in a quarter century to return to Shakespeare. In this city of ``cloud-capped tow'rs ... gorgeous palaces ... [and] solemn temples,'' how appropriate that the play be ``The Tempest.'' I started to read. But would I stick with the play to the end?

A waiter, unbeknown to him, encouraged me to continue. Glancing at the play on the table, he told me of his fondness for Ariel and Prospero. At university, which he never completed, he read ``The Tempest'' in Italian, among other plays, and had grown to love Shakespeare. What an example for me to overcome laziness, buckle down, and read the foremost poet of my own language!

Beauty of language is, indeed, one of the many joys of ``The Tempest.'' Portions of the play cry out to be read aloud, as I did, sitting by the canals of Venice.

As a lawyer, I found of particular interest the theme in ``The Tempest'' of vengeance versus forgiveness. Prospero, who has been deposed as Duke of Milan, is in the enviable position of having his enemies in his power. The time for sweet revenge is at hand. It is Ariel, a mere spirit, who speaks to Prospero of the ``sorrow and dismay'' of his prisoners. Prospero replies: Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling Of their afflictions, and shall not myself, One of their kind, that relish all as sharply Passion as they, be kindlier mov'd than thou art? Though with their high wrongs I am struck to the quick, Yet with my nobler reason 'gainst my fury Do I take part. The rarer action is In virtue than in vengeance. They being penitent, The sole drift of my purpose doth extend Not a frown further. Go release them, Ariel.

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This is language as noble as Portia's more famous speech on mercy in ``The Merchant of Venice.''

Having shown mercy to his enemies, at the play's end, Prospero, who has voluntarily relinquished his ``Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,'' must ask mercy of the audience, for without ``the help of your good hands,'' he cannot leave the enchanted island to return to his dukedom. No audience has ever failed to grant Prospero's appeal.

May the spell of ``The Tempest'' not be broken when I leave Venice. May I, in the midst of professional and other obligations, continue to rediscover the richness of Shakespeare.

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