Conversations: Spreading the Love of Shakespeare

Yesterday was a day of interesting conversations for me, though they all strangely centered in on the same general theme: spreading the love of Shakespeare.

I started my day by interviewing three of the touring troupe actors for the study guides I’m working on. One of the questions I’ve started asking everyone is: “When and why did you first fall in love with Shakespeare? Tell me about the experience.” All three of the actors I talked to yesterday fell in love, as I did, pretty young. Denice Burbach, currently rehearsing for Rosalind and Lady Macbeth, had the earliest start — she told me about learning to write her name in the audience while her mother was rehearsing as Kate, and she described the later revelation (while her mother was playing Gertrude) that Shakespeare wasn’t difficult or obscurely poetical — it’s just words, like people say on the street. Jonathan Holtzman, our Macbeth, described reading Julius Caesar “over and over and over again” when he was 12 or 13, after wanting to find out what that “‘Et tu, Brute?'” thing was all about. And Chad Bradford, this season’s Orlando, described the moment in high school when he realized you could laugh at Shakespeare, during a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, after having studied Othello and Caesar in his classes without experiencing any real emotional response.

For me, it’s an easy question. I picked up Romeo and Juliet when I was 11 — I couldn’t tell you why, except that I’ve always been a voracious reader. No book was long safe in my presence. There’s a gift shop at the beach where my family vacations that always has a few shelves of “summer reading” books, and R&J was there. I spent the rest of that vacation memorizing Juliet’s balcony speech and declaiming it from the back deck of our beach house. When we got back home, I dragged out my dad’s 1972 Riverside Shakespeare and just started devouring. (Side thought: Ever noticed how we use the language of consumption when we talk about reading? Voracious reader, devouring a good book, eating it up if we love something. Hmm — there’s something in there about literature sustaining life).

Talking to those three actors was a blast. I love that that’s part of my job — I enjoyed it when I interviewed some of the resident company earlier in the summer, and I enjoyed it yesterday, because it’s so great just to watch them light up when they’re talking about how cool a particular line is, or how they pushed through a difficult scene. Denice and I both said how much we love working in a place where this is what people really care about, this engagement with the text, experiencing it as something alive and vibrant and to be talked about.

Then I spent the afternoon with the rest of the education team in a think tank for Julius Caesar. We’re attacking this play in the hopes of giving teachers a better way to approach it, since we hear from so many teachers who hate it but “have to” teach it (it’s not required in the curriculum in Virginia, but it’s the play in the 10th grade textbook that almost everyone uses). Now, the idea that teachers are teaching Shakespeare when they hate it just horrifies me. They’ve got the ShakesFear, and they pass the ShakesFear on to their students, who become convinced that Shakespeare is everything we who love it know it isn’t — boring, out-of-touch, inaccessible.

Almost invariably, the actors I interviewed yesterday related their characters to modern life, in some way or another, without any prompting. Jonathan talked about finding the kindness inside a tough, masculine guy, and about the challenge everyone faces in life between doing what’s morally right and what’s expedient and gets you what you want. Chad related Orlando’s poetry writing to the existential angst of every teenager who’s ever been in love with someone who doesn’t know he or she exists. Denice summed it all up, so succinctly and so wonderfully, saying, “Shakespeare writes humans.”

How do I know, from my own experience, that Shakespeare isn’t inaccessible? I use one of my cousins as an example. When I was 14, I was playing Outlaw #5 in my high school’s production of Two Gentlemen of Verona, and my extended family came to see me. My youngest cousin, trooping along with her two older siblings and their mom, was only 5 at the time. She sat through the whole play and loved it. Did she understand every single word? No. But she followed the plot, could answer questions about it later, and laughed through the whole performance. So, really — if a five-year-old can pick this stuff up and enjoy it, there’s absolutely no reason (at least no good one) that a fifteen-year-old can’t do the same. The critical difference, I think, is that no-one had ever told my five-year-old cousin that Shakespeare is boring. No-one told her it was too hard, too unreachable. So she didn’t know. She had no mental walls against it. But I think a lot of high-schoolers have started building up those walls — aided and abetted, sometimes, by teachers with the same walls in their own heads.

This was all actually another part of the discussion I had with Chad and Denice. Chad talked about how he thinks schools tend to present things like literature as very black-and-white, giving the impression that what you see on the page is what you get and all that you get. But really, “It’s about using our imaginations. I think that’s a key thing,” he said. I agree — I think too many teachers don’t present students with options, like “You can read the speech this way, or this way”, “How is it different if he can overhear her?”, “How does that line change if you direct it to the audience?” These are the questions I ask teachers to think about in my study guides, because students should know that Shakespeare comes with options. He isn’t a monolith; there isn’t One Right Way to experience his works.

This idea led into talking about how we enjoy being allowed to find Shakespeare fallible, even though we still think he’s the best. I’ve been saying this since I read enough of his contemporaries’ works to form an educated opinion on the matter — some of Shakespeare’s work isn’t as good as Marlowe’s or Middleton’s or Jonson’s best. But there’s just plain no-one who can touch Shakespeare’s best. Still, though, it’s important not to deify him — Shakespeare was just a guy, and he wasn’t the only writer in town. You can argue with him, you can disagree with him, even across the space of 400 years. I think if we could get this message to more students, they might find him less intimidating and more approachable.

So here’s what I want to know, Internet friends — When did you fall in love with Shakespeare? What convinced you that it was worth the while? Was it in school, or in performance, or on your own? Tell me about your experience. And how do you think that sort of love and energy could be better brought into the classroom?