His name was David Bevington, and he died two weeks ago at the age of 88. David (I should probably call him Dr. Bevington) was a distinguished Shakespeare scholar and Professor in the Humanities and in English Language and Literature at the University of Chicago. He was a devoted husband and beloved father to four children.
He also taught me what it means to be fully human, which is pretty impressive given that we “met” only twice.
Our first meeting went rather poorly.
I was an undergraduate at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and I’d signed up for a course called Othello, in part because of the professor’s stellar reputation but also because it featured the shortest reading list of any course offered that semester: a single paperback copy of the play. (Hey, even English majors need to lighten their load every once in a while.)
Somehow, I missed one crucial detail when registering: the course culminated in a public performance of Othello, and every student was obliged to participate. That scared the living hell out of me. I was the girl who never raised her hand to speak in class. I was the girl whose heart pounded involuntarily whenever attendance was taken, dreading my turn to croak, “Here.”
When it came time to cast roles for this campus production, I silently resolved to help paint scenery or proofread the program. Unfortunately, the guest director had other plans. I hadn’t even opened my mouth yet when he pointed at me from across the room and said, “She’s our whore.”
To this day, I refuse to believe he was typecasting.
|The cast of Othello. Bared shoulders = Venetian courtesan.|
In any event, that’s how I landed the role of Bianca, the Shakespearean prostitute. It was a bit part, but I took it very, very seriously. By the end of the semester I had the entire play memorized. I skipped most of my other classes. We rehearsed until 2 am, some nights. I fell in love with my fellow cast members, obsessed over the interpretation of every line, and dreamt in iambic pentameter. When our professor casually mentioned that she’d invited the esteemed Dr. David Bevington to see our performance--the actual editor of the actual paperback edition I held in my sweaty hands--my heart skipped a beat. This was the man behind the name. This was the brain behind the footnotes. This was g-damn Shakespearean royalty.
We flew him in from Chicago and seated him front row center on opening night. After my “big” scene (twelve lines of “spurned prostitute” climaxing in my toss of a strawberry-spotted handkerchief on stage), I cast a furtive glance at Dr. Bevington to gauge his reaction. He tilted his head slightly to the side, as if thinking hard about what he’d just seen. Then his chin lowered slowly to his chest and I realized he had nodded off.
That was encounter number one.
Our second “meeting” was exactly 15 years later, over email. I’d rather implausibly earned a PhD in the interim and was teaching my own Shakespeare survey course. One evening, we were reading aloud from King Lear when a student stopped mid-line and said, “Hey, I think my book is wrong.” He was reading the part of Lear but was sure the line belonged to Kent. We stopped and examined his edition of the play (we were using Bevington’s original anthology, but he’d sprung for the newer 2nd edition), and sure enough, the line was misattributed.
“Well, Dr. Bevington must have nodded off while editing the text,” the still-bitter prostitute in me wanted to quip. But instead I suggested, “Let’s send him an email!” I remembered the nonchalant way my own professor had invited David to our performance, and I suppose I was trying to mimic that same cool confidence in front of my students. The difference was, she and David were actual friends, and more than that, they were fellow scholars. Even my student suggested I probably shouldn’t bother him. But as soon as class was over, and before I could come to my senses, I composed a respectful email and sent it off.
Three days later I received this reply, dated October 10, 2004, at 12:07 am:
Dear Kara Russell, thanks for your e-mail. You and your student are absolutely right, and I am both embarrassed and very grateful. It's a typo at 3.2.60: it should read KENT. Somehow the printers decided to change this, and I didn't catch it. thanks, thanks. it will be corrected in the next printing. warm best, David Bevington
I must have read it half a dozen times before I dared move. I was afraid the screen might clear if I accidentally breathed on it. I saved the message to my hard drive, then printed a hard copy, then checked to make sure it had saved (again). David Bevington had written to ME. At midnight. He had typed my name. He admitted a printing error. He offered his “warm best.”
And more than that…he was “both embarrassed and very grateful.”
Ok, so I was a fangirl, but I couldn’t get over (I still can’t get over) the humility in his response. He was Distinguished Shakespeare Scholar and Professor in the Humanities and in English Language and Literature at the University of Chicago, and I was a first-generation college student playing the role of confident adjunct lecturer. It was like running into Jesus in the checkout lane at Price Chopper, his arms full of loaves and fishes, and having him step aside and say, “No, no…after you. After you with your Cheetos and Diet Coke.”
Ok, it wasn’t exactly like that. But you get the idea.
So how will I remember David Bevington, occasional narcoleptic and gracious late-night emailer?
He was a man. Take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again.
The line is from Hamlet, and it’s Prince Hamlet’s description of his dead father, the King. Critics often interpret the line to mean, “He was a great man, and perfect in everything,” which I’ve always felt isn’t quite right. I think young Hamlet suspects others of falsely flattering his father in death, and isn’t that typical of human behavior? We do tend to make more of people than they were. We conveniently forget their imperfections; we make heroes of our dead.
But Prince Hamlet, never one for phoniness or hypocrisy, eulogizes his beloved father with the deceptively simple line: “He was a man.” Implicit in those words is the totality of human existence; all that is good and all that is flawed. Hamlet knows his father was made of that same “sullied flesh” of which he is made: of which we all are made. I’m sure those who actually KNEW David Bevington could attest to those imperfections. Hell, even this prostitute knows he occasionally nodded off at novice undergraduate performances.
But also implicit in Hamlet’s reply is all that was best about his father. And what is man, at his best? Intelligent and thoughtful and hardworking and above all, capable of humility and gratitude. All that David Bevington was.
All that I might be.
All that we all are.
I can’t say that I will “miss” David, having not known him. But I will remember him, and I will remember the lesson our two encounters taught me about being fully human. It’s the same lesson I learn over and over again from studying Shakespeare’s plays, and it’s what I’ll miss most about teaching them.
Rest in peace, Dr. David Bevington. We shall not look upon your like again.