Saturday, 23 April 2011

Happy Birthday, Will Shakespeare!

Shakespeare’s birthday and Liz Woledge’s invitation prompted me to write this post to celebrate the Bard’s (assumed) birthday. Before narrating how Shakespeare shaped my life, I have to clarify two points. First, since I am Hungarian, Shakespeare is not a national hero, a cultural currency to me, but rather an author of works and also an opportunity leading to friendships throughout my life. Second, I am not only taking a glance at this story, as a Shakespeare scholar, but also as a hedonist who seeks and finds much joy in reading or watching his works and also in trying to help other, most of the time younger people find delight there. These two points are the cornerstones of a story, a story of happy and beneficial coincidences.

First, I met Shakespeare, and his oeuvre in the primary school, where I had the privilege to learn English rather early, actually earlier than Russian, the then compulsory language (this is late 1970’s early 1980’s, still the time of the socialist regime). I should have been happy about this privilege, but I was not so much enthusiastic about the English classes for a variety of reasons. At one point, however, I can’t recall which year, to make the classes more interactive, our English teacher gave us the opportunity to talk about what we found interesting about England. I was first rather frustrated about this task, as behind the iron curtain without sources of information about England I could not see anything interesting about England. As the deadline for the presentation was approaching, I felt more and more frustrated, and I could not even trust divine intervention.

Deus ex machina, as in every good story, however, did intervene dressed up in my mother’s passion for spending large sums of money on books. At this time of despair, when browsing the new pile of books, I came across with a three-volume Lexicon of Hungarian Theatre. Enjoying the colour, the odour of the pages, opening here and there I caught sight of the name of Shakespeare. I started reading the short descriptions of the plays, their Hungarian theatrical history, and after a while I realized that this may well be a presentable topic. I filled a complete sketchbook with notes, enjoyed “research” and became somewhat enthusiastic about what I was doing—for the first time during my English studies. As I did not have time to prepare sufficiently, the presentation turned out a very long one, actually it lasted for two forty-five-minute classes. My classmates and the teacher must have been bored to death, but seeing my interest in the topic, all of them were polite enough to listen to me for such a long time.

Then years passed in silence, and my next encounter with Shakespeare took place during my university years through the crooked ways of accidental events. First things first. This was the beginning of the 1990’s, and at that time candidates had to pass a rather difficult entrance exam before they could become students. Having passed this exam I thought I arrived at the peaceful haven of comfortable student-life at the English/ and parallel to this / the Philosophy Departments. This comforting belief was just shattered during the first days, when I realized that there was nobody to tell me which seminar taught by different professors I should take for example for the module “Introduction to English Literature.” I had to rely an rumours and hearsay, and there seemed to lie two paths in front of me: choose the easy way and register for any of the seminars where there was still room left, or try the difficult one and go to a class where there were crowds of students, and having no other way to limit their number, an informal but scary enough entrance exam took place during the first class.

With a friend of mine, we opted for the narrow and painful path, which in the long run proved beneficial. Having passed the entrance exam with the rest of the happy few we were introduced into English literature in a very literal sense, never to leave it again (most of us have become literary critics, academics here and there). The heart and soul of these classes was professor István Géher, one of the best, if not the best, Shakespeare scholars in Hungary, so the introduction was not only to EngLit generally but to Shakespeare as well.

This Géherian introduction to English Literature and to Shakespeare remained a lasting experience and a point of reference throughout my university years. During these years I met other outstanding Shakespeare scholars—Péter Dávidházi, Géza Kállay—who increased my attachment to Shakespeare studies. Fascination about Shakespeare and great professors then led me onto a next stage of my contact with Shakespeare, a PhD programme where I had the opportunity to dive deeper in the Shakespearean oeuvre, slowly opening the world to other Shakespeare scholars, with whom it was pure pleasure to speak about the Bard. Images whirl in my mind about a PhD student conference, where I met Paul Edmondson, another time Stanley Wells, and yet another time Peter Holland, who later on all welcomed me during my scholarly visits to the Shakespeare Institute at Stratford-upon-Avon.

The fact that Shakespeare has remained not only a passing hobby but a professional interest is due to my luck to have received a position at Péter Pázmány Catholic University. There I spend most of my teaching-hours with reading, explaining, discussing Shakespeare both at the English Department and at the Comparative Literature Department. These are sources of immense joy to me, and I hope students also find these classes and Shakespeare both beneficial and entertaining at the same time. With Pázmány new aspects of Shakespeare studies opened up through my colleagues: Tibor Fabiny introduced me to the relationship between Shakespeare and the Bible, Péter Tóta Benedek to Christian humanism, Veronika Schandl, Kinga Földváry and Gabriella Reuss to the theory and history of adaptation. And it was also because of my job that I became acquainted with Shakespeare scholars at other institutions in Hungary.

Shakespeare has been from rather early times in my life a source of intellectual joy and—not unrelated to this—scholarly friendships. And what is more enjoyable is that this story is not a complete story, the end is not foreseeable, this year testifying to this. In 2011 I had the honour to participate in the Shakespeare Day on Twitter (#askshakespeare), or this present occasion bringing bloggers together at to celebrate the Bard. What fascinates me about all this is the question concerning the future. The beginning of this story, as I look back, implies that more fun lies ahead. Knowing the piece of wisdom “As a (not completely—Zs.A.) stranger, give it welcome,” happy as I am, I can say with confidence that I’ll follow thee, Will, wherever you lead me. Happy birthday to you!