My cats are big Shakespeare fans; in the case of Rocco, who’s been letting himself go a bit, a huge devotee of the Bard–fifteen pounds at his last checkup. We have assembled on the patio for a reading from Julius Caesar. Titus Andronicus was checked out of our local library, and my wife, the family Shakespeare-hater, is out of town.
“This foul deed shall smell above the earth/with carrion chipmunks, groaning for burial.”
I’ve told them the best way to read Shakespeare is that taught to me by Merlin Bowen, my freshman humanities teacher; once through quickly without checking the footnotes, then the second time more slowly, and thoughtfully, looking up the buskins and petards as you go. Easy for him to say since he didn’t have chemistry and social studies and phys ed and French and drugs to take at the same time.
“I didn’t finish the reading assignment–okay?”
Rocco is a quick study, as I was when a youngster, while Okie is a stolid, phlegmatic type, like Jim Bob Mergen, the farm boy who was compared unfavorably–I think–to me in the second grade. The nun said I picked things up easily and valued them less as a result, while Jim Bob struggled to learn things, and consequently treasured the correct spelling of “cat” more highly than I for the rest of his life.
“Did you put the cats down in the basement? Because I’m going to bed.”
It may seem strange to you to read from Shakespeare with your pets, but this is an advantage I want my cats to have. I first read about such a thing in a short story by Cynthia Ozick when I was in my twenties, too late for me. Apparently, some high-toned families engage in such pursuits while clans like mine were watching “Leave it to Beaver” and “The Fugitive.” Children from families of the former type showed up on the first day of freshman English class to mention in a blase, off-hand way, that they had just finished their second novel while I–I had taken the road more traveled by and had a cool collection of record albums.
“Let me have cats about me that are fat; yond Okie has a lean and hungry look.”
We don’t use the folio version of the play, it would take too long. Instead, I picked up two copies of Iams Lite Shakespeare for Less-Active Cats at Pet World this morning. It contains all the essential quotes a growing cat needs, with 10% less fat and archaic English!
The problem with mixing cats and Shakespeare, as with most students, is their short attention span. We customarily hold our reading on the back patio, and in the conservation land to the west there is a constant flow of fauna; deer, chipmunks, wild turkeys, even coyotes. Okie caught a rabbit and a snake last week alone. It’s hard to keep the guys on the text, but I try. They’re prone to improvise.
“Your line,” I say to Rocco.
“Where were we?”
“‘Another general shout!’”
“Oh, right. Uh, ‘Why cat, he doth bestride the narrow world like that stupid Doberman down the street; and we petty cats walk under his huge legs, and peep about.’”
“Over to you,” I say to the Oakmeister.
“Uh, ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are cats.’”
It’s Roc’s turn, but when I give him his cue I see him gazing across the back yard, to the edge of the grass, where a rabbit has poked his head out from under a rhododendron, those ungainly plants that Virginia Woolf compared to suburban stockbrokers. The rabbit’s munching on clover; the stockbroker lives across the street.
“Roc–you paying attention?”
“Uh, sorry,” he says and looks back down at his script. We proceed in this halting fashion through Acts I and II; a field mouse sees the weighty atmosphere of high culture, and can hardly believe his good fortune. The cats are playing a tragedy, and it’s comedy to him.
“Nyah nyah, nyah NYAH nyah.”
Okie detects the mouse’s insolence, and makes a false start towards him, scaring the bejeezus out of the poor rodent. “Cowards die many times before their deaths,” he says in a voice that projects to the cheap seats over by the daisies. “The valiant never taste of death but once.”
“I’m gonna GIT you sucker!”
“Roc–over to you,” I say. He hasn’t been paying attention, but he picks up where Marc Anthony returns to view Caesar’s lifeless corpse. I’ve used that phrase before, and for the first time I’m forced to ask myself–what other kind of corpse is there?
“O pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,” he begins, but in a flat, lifeless tone.
“C’mon–put some feeling into it. You’re Marc Antony, and your best friend’s just been killed.”
He looks at me, then out at the lawn, where the joint is jumpin’, so to speak. Critters here, varmints there, unprotected species everywhere.
“That I am meek and gentle,” he continues, then pauses to watch a wild turkey hen with two chicks tiptoeing as if on eggshells over our acre and a half of fresh, native New England rocks. As former president of my high school National Forensic League, a triple threat in debate, extemporaneous speaking and dramatic interpretation, I can’t take it anymore.
“Here,” I say, ripping the script from his paws. “Let me show you how a real actor plays this scene.”
He shrugs his furry shoulders and turns his attention back to the yard as I begin: “Blood and destruction shall be so in use at our house, and dreadful objects so familiar on our front and back porches, that mothers shall but smile when they behold their infant chipmunks, squirrels and robins quarter’d with the hands of war.”
I see their backs turn and their butts wiggle. Now they’re concentrating.
“All pity chok’d with custom of fell deeds, And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge . . .”
A rabbit, stricken with a fatal flash of inspired confidence, makes a dash across the lawn.
“Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice/Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the cats of war!”
I’ve barely got the words out of mouth when I see them bolt from our bluestone stage and make for the rabbit, who suddenly the wiser, reverses course and heads for the woods.
“Hey, aren’t we gonna finish?” I yell after the cats.
“I’m taking an incomplete,” Rocco says, to which Okie echoes “I’m dropping this course.”
Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Cats Say the Darndest Things.”