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Hamlet's Dresser

A Memoir

The true story of a boy whose life was saved by literature, Hamlet's Dresser is a portrait of a person made whole by art. Bob Smith's childhood was a fragile and lonely one, spent largely caring for his handicapped sister, Carolyn. But at age ten, his local librarian gave him a copy of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, and it transformed him. In Bob's first look at Shakespeare's penetrating language -- "In sooth I know not why I am so sad" -- he had found a window through which to view the world. Years later, when the American Shakespeare Festival moved into Stratford and Smith was hired as Hamlet's dresser, his life's passion took shape.
Blending tragedy and comedy, Smith gracefully weaves together his childhood memories with his experiences backstage and teaching the plays. The result is a gorgeous, tender, infectious book about the restorative powers of literature and art.

Hamlet's Dresser
1. Countless people advised Carolyn's parents to "put her away." Were the Smiths' efforts to care for Carolyn at home noble or misguided? Should they have institutionalized her at a younger age? If they had, how might Bob Smith's life have been different? To what extent should parents care for a disabled child at the expense of other siblings?
2. Discuss the role of religion in Bob Smith's childhood. Why was Smith drawn to the priesthood as a boy? Why did Shakespeare eventually offer Smith more solace than God? If this memoir can be read as a vindication of art, can it also be read as a condemnation of religion?
3. How did Smith's childhood immersion in art and literature simultaneously alleviate and deepen his loneliness? Are children with anguished family lives more often drawn to the arts than those in less troubled circumstances? Why or why not?
4. "I was going to school those days and nights in the theater," Smith writes. "I never needed anything so much as what I needed then, and never has so much been given to me." What exactly was he given? Discuss how the "lessons" he learned at the American Shakespeare Festival Theater were different from those available in a conventional classroom.
5. Of his time at the theater, Smith writes: "I was being taught that poetry and beauty are not simply antidotes to horror, sometimes they are the horror. I was learning that art can be a brutal thing, not just some decoration placed over the truth, but...the truth itself." Discuss.
6. "I'm no scholar," the author tells us in the prologue. "I've got no formal education past high school." Smith's relationship to Shakespeare is more personal and heartfelt than academic, yet he has made a vocation of sharing his passion with actors, students, and seniors. Do you think he considers himself a teacher or simply an enthusiast? How do you think Smith would describe his approach to Shakespeare?
7. How does Smith's love of Shakespeare serve as a catalyst in his forming relationships? Recall, for example, the easy camaraderie Smith develops with the actors and directors at the theater and his later affection for his elderly "students." Does Shakespeare's work in particular facilitate friendship and intimacy? Or would such closeness result from the sharing of any enthusiasm or interest?
8. Recall and discuss Smith's relationships with elderly people, from his own grandparents to the seniors he teaches. Why does Smith cherish old people? What do they offer him that others can't or don't? Did this book alter your impressions of the elderly?
9. Throughout the book, Smith quotes passages from Shakespeare. What purpose do these excerpts serve? Did they prompt you to read Shakespeare yourself? If so, which of his works are you most inclined to revisit or explore for the first time and why?
10. Some may consider Shakespeare's writing formal or highbrow -- even daunting. What are your own feelings or biases toward Shakespeare? Did Smith's memoir change your perceptions? If so, how and why?
11. "When I talk about the plays I unfold myself to myself," Smith writes. For him, reading Shakespeare elicits myriad memories and emotions. Why does reading Shakespeare afford us unique access to our inner selves, our pasts, and our humanity? Does Smith's memoir imply that reading Shakespeare can make us better people? If so, "better" in what sense?
12. Why, in middle age, does Smith move back to Stratford, Connecticut? What is he trying to recapture or come to terms with? Why have you returned to a particular place from your past? What did you hope to gain? Did you? What does Smith's decision to return to New York signify?
13. Do you blame Smith for withdrawing from his sister, Carolyn, for so many decades, or do you sympathize with his inability to face her? Why does he stay away for so long? Why do you think he finally decides to visit Carolyn at Southbury? What gives him the strength?
14. Although Smith attests that Shakespeare "saved his life," he still retains much of the "invisibility" of his childhood and writes that he has "never completely emerged from that darkness." What does Smith's memoir reveal about the power and limits of art's redemptive qualities?
15. Compare and contrast this memoir with others you've read. What makes a memoir unique or extraordinary? What scene or passage are you most likely to remember from Smith's account several years from now?

Connie Ogle The Miami Herald Smith has wrought something precious: a reminder that the pure beauty of the English language can be a salvation.

Book-of-the-Month Club Hamlet's Dresser is touching, mesmerizing, intelligent, poetic, fascinating, and beautiful -- you will love it.

Chicago Tribune Smith depicts characters so vividly and orchestrates their interactions so poignantly that the memoir would work if Shakespeare were absent. His presence makes the book more moving still.

Frank McCourt Hamlet's Dresser is a masterpiece. That's all there is to it.

Toronto Globe and Mail That words have a healing power may be a cliché for some, but in this intimate, often wryly funny memoir, their ability to transform lives is demonstrable.