Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Blind Bow-Boy's Butt-Shaft

Olivia Hussey as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, 1968Image via WikipediaA memory... it's high school. Grade 9, I think. We're in English class struggling with Shakespeare. This time it's his grand albatross Romeo and Juliet, and we're all surprised to discover that it's actually not that bad, all told.

Okay, it wasn't a sudden love of great art. It was a sudden love of Olivia Hussey, who, let's face it, was incredibly hot if you were a grade-niner and your teacher was actually showing you fifteen-year-old titty in the classroom. Now that's how to pique a child's interest in literary greats.

So there we are in class, and the teacher has doled out certain roles to certain students. There's the lumbering, ponderous and ineloquent Scott, a friend of mine at the time, ploughing through Mercutio, in that empty, halting monotone with which kids read Shakespeare if they have no idea whatsoever what the words they're reading mean. He gets to this:
Alas poor Romeo! he is already dead; stabbed with a white wench's black eye; shot through the ear with a love-song; the very pin of his heart cleft with the blind bow-boy's butt-shaft: and is he a man to encounter Tybalt?
It's been tough going, trying to manage page after page of text we can barely understand, Shakespeare's greatness cloaked behind a heavy curtain of ourincomprehension. Scott attempts to carry on, but discovering the word 'butt-shaft' in Shakespeare is just too much. His voice breaks and he tries to avoid cracking up.

It's a dismal failure. Within five seconds, he's completely collapsed in hysterics, and the whole class has followed. It wasn't merely the phrase 'butt-shaft' but the clumsy, ridiculous alliteration in which it appears. And it wasn't just the awesomeness of the phrase but the teacher's complete lack of understanding. She was smiling at our mass hysteria, but she couldn't share in it. She didn't appear to get the joke.

But all those years later, my main memory of that day is of the sudden realisation that a group of teenagers were way cooler than Shakespeare and than the entire English-class industry devoted to Shakespeare-worship. That six-word phrase was an in-joke for years and would still remain so for me, were there anyone in my life today who would get the joke.

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