The Bard of the Upper Reaches

July 17, 2014 8:56 PM

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The Bard of the Upper Reaches

My favorite course in college was one of the obvious and simple ones: Shakespeare. We read maybe 20 of the plays and talked about them. Our professor was an eccentric old Greek, Pete Phialas, who had been dragged out of retirement by a student of his. This student became a dentist and paid the school to keep Phialas teaching what had been the student's own favorite course. Phialas had a thick accent and a childlike, giddy love of Shakespeare. He approached the plays more as dramatist than psychologist or philosopher: what were the subtleties of interaction between these characters? What did these turns of phrase mean?

It is a dazzling speech to consider on its own. But Phialas pointed out to us that in it, Shakespeare directed his actor in how to perform it. It is spoken by John of Gaunt on his deathbed.

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