I’m no Shakespeare, but lecturing on him at hundreds of school assemblies has given me a deeper appreciation of the audience problem he faced. As you know, he had to please Queen Elizabeth (and later King James), as well as the other noble “cultural elitists” who attended his plays. But he also had to entertain the woefully uneducated Groundlings who stood on the ground (hence their name) directly in front of the proscenium and who, occasionally in their excitement, would even slobber on the stage (hence our noun slob).
A sure sign of Shakespeare’s genius is the fact that both Elizabeth and The Droolers would go home equally entertained and edified. Well, Elizabeth, of course, never had to go home following a performance. When you are Queen Of England and live in Richmond Palace, Shakespeare and his entire acting troupe are delighted to make the ultimate house call.
When I lectured to an entire student body, I realized that I too must try to entertain and edify all intellectual levels, if not exactly from A to Z then, more ominously, from A to F. Occasionally a high school English chairperson would ask if I’d prefer to have only honors students at my assemblies. I declined. I figured that since I can never share Shakespeare’s genius I could at least share his challenge of an incredibly diverse audience. And, praised be, there were no rotten tomatoes sold to the audience on site, as they were in his day.
But I noticed that when these administrators asked me about honors-only assemblies, they almost always labeled these students “Gifted and Talented.” When I was first teaching in college in the 1970's I remember some education professors were abbreviating this group as "G&T"s. Coincidentally, that was also the abbreviation for my favorite mixed drink. And, sure enough, after at least two strong ones at a party, I fancied myself incredibly Gifted and Talented.
It seems to me that the term is an odd one to apply to exceptional students. Are they really gifted AND talented? Are the two adjectives dissimilar enough to warrant both? I suppose the narrow distinction is that gifted students possess special abilities bestowed at birth ("she's got the gift of gab") while "talented" implies entertaining skills acquired through effort and practice ("she's so talented on the violin"). After all, it's now the sixteenth season of "America's Got Talent" not "America's Got Gifted."
I’m sure nobody ever called Shakespeare himself gifted or talented. That would be akin to calling Einstein good with numbers. No, Shakespeare was brilliant. We have always used terms of light or illumination to describe intellectual prowess. Learning has always been symbolized by the lamp.
My job at those Shakespeare student assemblies was to try to convey to the students his luminosity. Yes, I’m no Shakespeare, but I was more than satisfied to be his acolyte. It was the great novelist Edith Wharton who said it best: “There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or to be the mirror that reflects it.” Shakespeare, Dickens, and so many other authors have been my constant candles; it’s been such joy for me to be their merry mirror.