Friday, June 21, 2013

Hamlet's Dresser

Several years ago, I read about Bob Smith's memoir, Hamlet's Dresser, on Maria Grazia's blog, Fly High.  My thought at the time was why have I never heard about this book before, and my thought on finally reading it earlier this month was what took me so long to get around to it.

It is a superb memoir--heartbreaking, inspiring, and realistic.  Bob Smith was born into a fairly ordinary family that was hurtled into extraordinary circumstances when his younger sister, Carolyn, was born with severe mental and physical disabilities.   

At only ten years old, Bob found solace from the heavy burden laid on him by his father's disapproval, his mother's dependencies, and his sister's incapacity to function in the plays and sonnets of William Shakespeare.  A librarian gave him a copy of The Merchant of Venice, whose opening line, "In sooth, I know not why I am so sad" resonated so profoundly with the lonely, heartsick, scared  little boy that he read the whole play, and never stopped.

He read the Shakespeare canon over and over throughout his teenage years, and found work at the Stratford, CT Shakespeare Festival when it opened when he was 16, in 1951.  His first job was as dresser to the actor who played Hamlet. 

One of my favorite anecdotes in the book is when Smith describes his response to director John Houseman's query into how he will get Hamlet through a particularly fast clothing change (involving wrapping him into a flowing cape) between scenes.  Smith, who has a lot of experience dressing his sister, says "Sew it into a figure eight and I'll stand on the stairs above him and drop it over his head.  As long as we get the front on the front we won't have to worry about anything except catching Claudius."

I really liked the structure of the memoir, which begins and is interspersed with anecdotes pertaining to his current work with seniors.  He teaches "The Shakespeare" at senior centers in Manhattan--reading and discussing the plays with elderly people who often don't have much to look forward to beyond his weekly discussions.  Like all great teachers, he never underestimates his students' ability to grasp the difficult language in order to get to the very real and often painful truths that Shakespeare illuminates in his works.  

What makes the memoir so interesting and well-structured is that the truths illuminated in the plays and sonnets are reflected directly in Smith's own life and in those of the seniors he teaches.

I also really enjoyed reading Smith's anecdotes about backstage at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival during the years he was involved in it.  Working with the likes of Katherine Hepburn, Jessica Tandy, John Houseman, Will Geer, and Bert Lahr made for very interesting reading.

Reading this memoir has rekindled my interest in rereading Shakespeare myself.  It's been awhile since I finished my read-through of the plays, and I didn't go to my local Shakespeare festival at all last year.  I'm happy to say that Macbeth, Midsummer's Night Dream, and Richard II are all on my agenda for this the very intriguing new movie of Much Ado About Nothing.

Hamlet's Dresser is on my TBR Pile Challenge for 2013--it is the 7th out of 12 books selected from the pile that I have now read.  I think Remains of the Day will be next!


  1. I've been reading my way through Shakespeare's plays. This summer I want to read Much Ado About Nothing. (And then go see that new movie!) It's my parents' fault; they took me to my first play when I was 8 and I've been hooked on Shakespeare ever since. Hamlet's Dresser sounds like a fascinating read. Can't wait to give it a try.

  2. This sounds so interesting & inspiring! I still haven't read through all of the plays - in fact I was just looking for a copy of The Comedy of Errors.

  3. This sounds really good. Books really helped me get through childhood too. Though I really was not up to really getting Shakespeare until I was older.

    I certainly do agree that we can gain many insights that pertain to our lives from Shakespeare.

  4. 'Hamlet's Dresser' sounds intriguing. I was never very good at understanding Shakespeare just from reading the plays, so I'm full of admiration for anyone who does. It's only when I've studied a play and seen it performed that it comes to life for me and I love going to the theatre.

    I read 'Remains of the Day' several years ago (before I began blogging, so haven't written about it). My memory of it is that I loved it and I also enjoyed the film with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson - marvellous! I hope you enjoy the book.