Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Me and Shakespeare

I love Shakespeare.

But I didn't always.

When I was in 9th grade english class we had to read Romeo & Juliet. We read the parts aloud. Our teacher listened as we botched the language, giggled any time a character said "ho" and stumbled over the poetic verses. On days I was feeling especially chipper and daring, I would volunteer to read a part. But on most days, I just listened and hoped my eyes would stay open and my mind would stay focused. While Juliet compared Romeo to the starry night sky, I daydreamed about what my Homecoming dress would look like and what hairstyle options might match it.

I had no idea what was going on.

All I knew was that Romeo was an 18 year old dude who wanted to get with a 13 year old chick. That was like a senior getting with an 8th grader. Gross.

Later in high school we read Julius Caeser, and even later, MacBeth, but as a lover of English class and the beauty of words and language, I could not embrace old man Willy. No. I despised it. Nothing Shakespeare wrote made sense to me. Nothing sparked that sense of wonder and awe that I felt when reading my other favorite authors.

I thought I'd be done with him when high school was over. I felt like I had "done my time." I knew the basic premise of a few Shakespearean plays, I could hold my own whenever the "Shakespeare" category came up in a trivia game, and I understood that a rose by any other name would, indeed, smell as sweet.

But then came college.

The guy just kept coming back into my life.

In my senior year, I enrolled, not by choice but by requirement, in a class called simply "Shakespeare." I was a little nervous, but at least I knew the professor. I had gotten a B+ in an introductory literature course I took with her as a sophomore (a rare occasion when I got a B in an english class--I was not a fan of "Faustus"). She was a young, vibrant redhead who, unlike most English professors, had a wardrobe that actually followed some fashion trends, but a scholarly air that made her respected by her students. According to the boys in class (I think there were 4) she could even be categorized as "hot." For some reason because she was young and fashionably sensible, I felt I could immediately connect with her. Here was a smart woman with the ability to pick out a cute outfit. Who knew that was possible?

But her fashion savvy was trumped by her absolute passion for Shakespeare. This woman gushed about him. It wasn't in a crazy way, it was more in way that told me she really knew her stuff and she was determined to make me leave the class with at least an ounce more of appreciation for the guy.

We read the Henriad (3 plays, mind you) and King Lear. I wrote a bunch of 2 page essays that were harder than any 10 page essay I ever had to write. She wanted me to dissect the tiniest portion of each play. She wanted me to be succinct and precise. She didn't care about some creative, attention-grabbing, cheesy introduction; it was all about getting to the point. That meant actually thinking about the words Shakespeare wrote rather than just regurgitating a few theme statements that sounded smart, but were actually just vacant cliches.

In other words, I was forced to examine Shakespeare with such a microscopic lens that I actually started understanding what made the guy so awesome. I started to get it.  I learned that he was a genius at manipulating words. That he created a bunch of popular phrases that we still use today. That he was a master at puns. That he dotted most of his plays with sexual innuendo and dirty jokes. That he created intentionally dynamic characters with complicated lives and even more complicated internal struggles. That he modeled his plots after major historical events but gave life to people who would have just been names in a textbook. And most importantly, that he set a standard for what literature, what words and writing, could truly be. His works display the limitless power of language.

I left the class a Shakespeare believer.

And now, I get to teach Shakespeare every single year. People always ask me "what is your favorite thing to teach?" and without hesitation, I always say Romeo & Juliet. I take the subject as seriously as my professor did when she taught my class. It is my craft. I am proud of it and I am dorkily eager to share it. I take it as a challenge, every spring, to turn my 9th graders in to believers.

 I walk them step-by-step through the play. I show them every translated movie version available. I put foam dollar store swords in their hands and tell them to reenact every dramatic Montague vs. Capulet brawl. I giggle immaturely and encourage them to giggle at the hidden dirty jokes--like every time the phrase "my naked sword is out" pops up in Act I. I challenge them to question Juliet. I allow them to be annoyed at Romeo. I ask them to question fate. I get them to think.

I'm not saying I work wonders on every freshman. Kids will still hate Shakespeare, because it's hard to read and difficult to relate to, but I do think every kid I teach at least understands that Romeo & Juliet is more than just a play about a creepy 18 year-old hitting on an 8th grader.

Every time I read the play I learn something new; I become more amazed at its construction and more awestruck by its depth. Maybe I am fooling myself into thinking I can actually make my students become Shakespeare "believers" but that's okay. I'm still grateful I get the opportunity every Spring to share my love and somewhat newly-found passion for him.

And that's my story about me and Shakespeare.


Lisa Baird said...

Very Inspiring....I wish I had a teacher like you...I might have appreciated him too!

Tim Baird said...

That was terrific....and I STILL don't get Shakespeare, either.

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