About twenty minutes into watching Henry V, Matthew pulled out a Wordsworth Classics edition of the play and tried to follow along.  I didn’t even know we had copy in the house.  He flipped the pages of the thin paperback; there was still residue on the cover where the price sticker had once been.

“Hey,” he said.  “They’ve taken stuff out.”

Yes, I told him.  And not only that, but they added stuff in as well.  During the death of Falstaff, we skimmed the pages to no avail.  Falstaff isn’t even in the cast of characters.  What?  Messing with The Bard?  Who in his right mind would do that?  Laurence Olivier, according to Bruce Eder, trimmed approximately 1500 lines from the source material.  Entire scenes have fallen away; in their place, a mounted knight duel, a flurry of arrows, a bravura tracking shot of horses going from a trot to a full gallop.

Honestly, though, Shakespeare’s histories and I — we don’t get along too well.  Comedies, yes; tragedies, yes; but I’ve never found the histories that compelling.  What? I hear people saying.  And you teach English literature? Indeed, but I never claimed to teach all of English literature.  The Archbishop of Canterbury’s sixty-plus lines recounting Henry’s lineage might be incredibly informative, but it’s also incredibly dull.

The genealogy craze has exploded in the past few years — two television shows in the last year alone — but I find it less than compelling.  Being a recent immigrant to the United States (1975), the wealth of information available to others who have been here longer — church records, immigration papers, employment lists — isn’t useful.  Friends of mine have made pilgrimages to small rural towns to check parish records, to thumb through yellowing, water-stained pages, to glance through stocks of microfiche to track down the various branches of their family tree.

And, in any case, listening to someone else recount his ancestry is like watching a vacation slide show:  they get to relive their history, I get to live my own boredom.  It’s not that I’m not curious about my roots, but that I’m willing to accept the version of history that my parents have passed down to me:  I’m descended from royalty.  It’s every eight year-old girl’s dream, and it’s something I accept as a matter of faith.

Despite my misgivings, I typed my name into an family tree website but got no further than my parents’ names.  I realized that I didn’t know my grandparents (except for my maternal grandmother), beyond seeing their pictures on the altar in our living room and sporadically burning incense for them.  I didn’t know their ‘real names’ — I only knew them by the functional Vietnamese words for grandmother and grandfather:  ông nội and bà nội (ông ngoại and bà ngoại for the maternal grandparents).  They were a continent away and decades removed.  I could piece together snapshots of them from family stories — my paternal grandmother’s fiery temper, for example — and that makes them real enough to me.

Would it be so terrible to discover, further and further back, that I’m descended from a stablehand or a rice farmer or a drunken French colonialist?  Not at all.  But it doesn’t help illuminate my own person, even if, as Henry V proposes, it entitles me to a nice piece of property across the sea.

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