Ralph Williams, Shakespeare, and Turtles (That Go All the Way Down)
My tenure at the University of Michigan as an English major wouldn’t have meant anything if I hadn’t taken a class by the brilliant Ralph Williams. Williams was the kind of professor that was able to touch you without any obvious effort; the kind of teacher who stays with you, even four years after you took his classes. The first time I met the man was at a small departmental reading of Paradise Lost. Compared to the students participating (including myself), Williams had this command of the text that hinted at oneness with it. Where I might trip on the cadence, Williams would read it masterfully. (This would also be the first time that I’d meet the other professor that shaped my experience, Eric S. Rabkin).
The easiest thing to remember about Williams was that he didn’t merely just recite the text in class and then orate on the themes or the tropes or the historical traditions; he would make the text come alive. It wasn’t just his voice, filled as it was with raw emotive power and a tremor that stressed the gravity of the text. It was his hands that enunciated and flew in every direction.
The things that are more difficult to remember, as if the memories must be guarded and accounted for every now and then like a buried treasure, are the ways that he was personal. The force of his personality was such that it overpowers the other things, and makes them, and by extension you, feel small. Every morning before class he would, of course, run up and down the aisles and shake people’s hands, count the people in the class, shout hellos and “caio!” as he stormed along. He was on a permanent caffeine high, or so it seemed, and his energy was infectious. I remember I had been sick for a few weeks with pneumonia during his English 401 “The Bible as Literature” class. When I finally returned to the class after the sickness had passed he stopped and looked me in the eyes with such intensity. I am a sinister person, as I joke, being left-hand dominant. The very nature of the academic auditorium compels me to sit at the left edge of a row to make use of the table fixture without contorting my body.
Says Williams, “I’ve missed you these past few weeks. The class was less without your presence.”
Says me, stunned, “Er, well, ah, thank you, professor. I’m happy to be back.”
Williams returned a smile that was genuine in every sense.
I’m sure he didn’t actually know who I was, but in a class that numbered no less than two hundred with several people in the community who were invited to attend, I was very touched. But that was Williams; it was his life to reach out to people and communicate the passion that literature stirred in him, and along the way make you feel like you fit into something great.
Before he’d begin the lecture, after his greetings and his traditional “Good morning [or afternoon], and a rich welcome to you. Are there any questions for me before we begin, for oh is the wind so ever up,” he’d announce what he called “rubrics” for each class. He’d list every major point he’d be discussing with us, and it wasn’t always obvious how they would connect to the literature (be it Beowulf or the Bible). The one that I remember, apart from the jokes about his essential Canadian character and how it made him bashful about discussing King David’s sex life, was the reference to Bertrand Russel’s recollection that entailed that the planet was supported on the back of a giant turtle, and that it was turtles “all the way down.” I’m rather ashamed to say that I can’t remember what this rubric connected to with regard to our reading of the book of Genesis, but what I do remember was the zeal with which he said it.
I never got the opportunity to take his Shakespeare class (instead taking Douglas Trevor’s class). The U of M Department of English has added a nine part series of lectures by Williams onto the U of M College of Literature Science and the Arts Youtube channel wherein he talks about Shakespeare.
In “Ralph Williams on Shakespeare, Part 1” Williams introduces the series and gives some background on the text of Shakespeare’s plays. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the video is how he covers Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy. He gives two distinct readings of the monologue with different intonations that hint at the possible motivations Hamlet might have. This language, lack of stage direction opening Hamlet to multiple interpretations, and what Williams calls the “appalling honesty” of Shakespeare’s “moral imagination” create, as Williams explains, “the greatest drama in history.”
I encourage anyone interesting in Shakespeare to watch all nine parts. Even if you disagree with Williams (which I admit happens every now and then), he gives you many rich ideas to ponder as you read and reread the plays.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t plug the 2011 movie “Answer This!” which stars Ralph Williams playing himself (with a different name). There’s a great scene where he introduces the new students to his Bible as literature class which I had heard directly from him when I took it. The movie itself is pretty good, and can be found on Netflix.