The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 10.0565 Monday, 29 March 1999.
Date: Friday, 26 Mar 1999 15:42:08 -0500 (EST)
Subject: Heavy-Weight Shakespeare
I was interested to learn the following from the _Autobiography with
Letters_ (1939) of William Lyon Phelps (1865-1943), Lampson Professor at
Yale from 1901-1933. It is very old news, so I apologize to those who
know, but I thought it might interest those who don't.
"On Thursday 22 December 1927, I...had a long talk with the champion
heavy-weight boxer of the world, Joseph J. Tunney of New York,
universally known as Gene Tunney. I knew he was fond of reading
Shakespeare. I told him that I was teaching Shakespeare at Yale, and
that during the coming Spring term I should be very glad to have him
address my class. He immediately agreed....
"Tunney told us how he came to enjoy Shakespeare. It was when he was a
private soldier in the World War. There was a comrade who was always
talking about Shakespeare; and Tunney, becoming interested, made up his
mind he would read him. He had the bad luck to begin with _The Winter's
Tale_. He read it through from beginning to end and it made no
impression. I think most adventurers would have stopped there. Not so
Tunney. He read through Wnter's Tale ten times...
"On 23 April Tunney addressed my Shakespeare class. The large
auditorium was jammed, with crowds standing up. Tunney used no notes.
He spoke for three-quarters of an hour.... He said his favorite play of
Shakespeare was Troilus and Cressida. For it applied exactly in his own
case. 'Why have I been invted to speak at Yale? Surely not because I
have anything important to say about Shakespeare. I have been invited
becauseI am the champion boxer of the world. I am that now, and there
is greatinterest in everything I do and say. I am followed around by
crowds. But how long do you suppose that will last? It was last just as
long as I am heavy-weight champion. Ten years from now nobody will care
what I do or say. It is important to me therefore to make the most of
the present moment, for the present is all I have.'
"He said Shakespeare understood that situation perfectly. Hector was
the heavy-weight champion of the Trojans and the only man among the
Greeks who could stand up to him was Achilles. But Achilles would not
fight. He sulked in his tent. And yet he was angry when Ulysses and
the other Greeks put up Ajax to fight Hector; and all their cheers were
for Ajax. 'Now Ajax,' said Mr. Tunney, 'was a big powerful man without
much brains, just like Jack Sharkey.'
"The next day a reporter called up Sharkey at his training-camp and said
'Tunney says you are like Ajax.' It is possible that Mr. Sharkey
thought Ajax was some kind of disease, for he responded, 'You can tell
Tunney there is nothing the matter with me at all.'"
Phelps goes on to describe the intellectual friendships formed between
Tunney and G.B.Shaw and Richard Strauss on the island of Brioni in the
summer of 1928 and to pay tribute to his remarkable character.