West Virginia Book Festival

William French, 1932-2012

Readers of the blog will know that I am a Shakespeare fan. One of the people who helped me kindle and nurture that love died last weekend.

Bill French, my professor for two Shakespeare classes at WVU, died on Feb. 18 on a cruise off the Florida coast, according to his obituary in the Dominion Post. His visitation and funeral are Saturday. He’d been retired for more than a decade, but still taught a class on a different play each term at WVU’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, according to the obituary (which I encourage you to read; that is an obituary that anyone would be proud to have).

The class of his that I remember most was a look at Shakespeare’s plays through the lens of performance. Before that, I’d seen two or three Shakespeare performances, but most of my exposure to the Bard was on the printed page. Dr. French’s class involved a lot of reading, but also a lot of watching productions of various Shakespeare plays, classic and modern, traditional and experimental.

He showed us the Paul Scofield version of “King Lear,” which remains one of the most haunting things I’ve ever seen on film. At the end of the class, students were required to put on a performance themselves, which ended up with me, in the role of Malvolio in “Twelfth Night,” wearing a green leisure suit and an Afro wig. (Don’t ask. No, seriously.)

The other course that Dr. French taught me was a survey Shakespeare course, required of all undergraduate English majors at the time. As any college student knows, survey courses are a hit-or-miss affair. You’ve got people who would never set foot in the class if they didn’t have to, and there’s usually a lot of material crammed into a short time. If you end up with a teacher who doesn’t give a damn, the class can be close to worthless. Dr. French gave a damn. It wasn’t my favorite class at WVU, but I still looked forward to it every time.

Coincidentally, the last time I talked to Dr. French, it was about required Shakespeare courses. Not long after I started at the Gazette in the late 1990s, some colleges created an uproar by striking Shakespeare from their list of required courses. I called Dr. French (and a counterpart of his at Marshall) to get their views on the subject. We must have talked for about an hour. I enjoyed it immensely.

Dr. French pointed out that WVU had dropped the Shakespeare requirement once already, during the height of student unrest in the early 1970s. But he also talked about the re-emergence of Shakespeare into popular culture, and how he believed that even if the requirement were dropped, Shakespeare classes would still be full.

Let’s hope so. Unless I’m misreading these course requirements, as of the 2010 fall semester, WVU students can get a bachelor’s degree in English literature without taking a Shakespeare course of any kind. Instead, they have to take one course about a “major author,” which can be Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, or a “major author” course in which “authors will vary.”

The de-emphasis on Shakespeare seems like a shame. But I’m glad that when I was at WVU and learned about the man and his work, Bill French was there to teach me.