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Wednesday, May 22nd, 2002


Hamlet's Dresser: A Memoir

by Bob Smith

A Life With Shakespeare

A review by Adrienne Miller

Shakespeare is "the language of my incredible loneliness," writes Bob Smith in this truly remarkable memoir. Smith became, as a young boy, the principal caretaker for his severely disabled younger sister, whose disabilities Smith's heartsick family seemed, in some vague, horrible way, to blame him for. (His grandmother, in fact, once said that he "spoiled" his mother "down there.")

When Smith discovered Shakespeare at the age of ten, his life was changed forever: "At the time, except for Shakespeare and the museum, I thought my life was...miserable." Shakespeare became his means to access the pain and joy of other lives. He took a job at sixteen as Hamlet's dresser backstage at the American Shakespeare Theater; when asked during his job interview why he thought he should be hired, he responded, "I have a sick sister. I change her clothes all the time. I do it fast, she gets nervous. I think I could be a dresser." As an adult, Smith teaches classes on Shakespeare to the elderly. It is literally impossible not to love someone who says "old ladies are very special in my life, they always have been."

Here's an example of what Shakespeare can do to a person: A sadistic math teacher did something shocking by reciting a passage from The Merchant of Venice. "Finished, she hooked her glasses back onto her big ears and the merciless math teacher was back to grind our pubescence into a graphite point doing fractions." But to young Bob, when she was reading Shakespeare's deathless words from memory, she became complex, human, even "beautiful."

Adrienne Miller is Esquire's literary editor.

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