Happy (?) Ides of March


"The Death of Caesar"

"The Death of Caesar" by Vincenzo Camucci

The Ides of March is coming up. But is it a happy thing?

Caesar was assassinated on that date in 44 BC, even though he’d been warned to protect himself (“Beware the Ides of March”). He was stabbed to death by a bunch of angry senators in skirts.

The Ides of March, until Caesar was killed, was mostly considered the day to settle debts and also a festival day for  Mars, god of cattle (later he was promoted to god of battle).

The Ides of March was originally thought to have been the day of the full moon, an auspicious day for the Romans (except, eventually, for Caesar).

And today, the Ides of March is celebrated every year by the Rome Hash House Harriers who run (in togas) through the place where Caesar was killed.

Guys willing to wear skirts on March 15th must mean that spring is near.

It occurs to me that my Shakespeare teacher, Dr. Nancy Tatum, probably scheduled our reading of the play Julius Caesar to coincide with the Ides of March. That would have been like her. Dry sense of humor. Completely dedicated to Shakespeare. She knew everything about Shakespeare. Absolutely everything. As far as I was concerned, she WAS Shakespeare.

One evening Nancy Tatum secured the school van and took us to a Kennedy Center production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. For me, it was an incredible experience. I’d never been to a professional play before. I was in love.

I learned a lot about writing from Nancy Tatum, whose austerity frightened me into my best work. Other students would consult with me about papers because they thought I had the secret to winning her favor. I had no secret. I read everything I could, and tried to give her something new.

One day, Dr. Tatum called me aside and asked whether I had plagiarized a paper about Shakespeare. The approach was so much like a critical book written about him, which I’d never read. I was shattered. I think she saw that I was completely crushed and shocked, and we never spoke of it again. I secretly took it as a compliment. I still got the A.

I had no idea until a moment ago that today I’d be thinking so much of this teacher. But I realized that it was she who taught me what I did know about Julius Caesar. It was she who may have had a covert love affair with Ted, the owner of a popular local bar. It was she who lived alone, perhaps drank a bit too much, and eventually, after my time, became the head of the English Department. It was she who told me how brilliant she thought my final compositions were – three days of solid writing (barbaric, really). She even told me why I hadn’t gotten the top honor I so coveted (I hadn’t taken a class with a professor on the review board). To curry Nancy Tatum’s favor was to receive crop rain from the gods.

I recently learned that my revered teacher is in a dementia center in Florida, probably still lecturing, waving her arms, and weaving her well-worn tales of Shakespeare. (Of the death of Edward II, who died by having a red-hot poker thrust up his rectum, she said, “If anyone can think of a worse way to die, please raise your hand.” I took her course twice just to hear her stories.) So, Nancy Tatum, this Ides is for you.

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