My Birthday Tribute to Shakespeare

Today, bloggers from all over the world are celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday by sharing how Shakespeare has impacted their lives — Thanks to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust for putting this project together.

My love affair with Shakespeare began at the age of eleven, when I picked up Romeo and Juliet on a whim. I was vacationing with my family on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, strolling through a shop that had a table full of “required summer reading” — encouragement for vacationers to get a start on schoolwork. Never one who needed much encouragement to read, I decided Romeo and Juliet looked like something worth trying, and my mother, far from expressing bemusement at my choice, agreed, saying she thought I’d really like it. I started reading my first Shakespearean play on the sandy shores of Corolla Light, and by the end of the week, I was standing on the back deck of our rental house, declaiming Juliet’s balcony speech in my swimsuit for the benefit of my parents and a gathering of seagulls.

And that was pretty much it. From then on, I was hooked, and I couldn’t get enough. My mother started searching out Shakespeare productions every summer, and we toured all across Virginia in pursuit of new delights. I appropriated my father’s Riverside Shakespeare and spent hours poring over it, stretched out on the floor of my bedroom, reading King John, the Henry VIes, and Troilus and Cressida, just because I wanted to. I begged my 8th grade teacher to let us read A Midsummer Night’s Dream out loud, and I thoroughly frightened all the boys in AP Brit Lit 12 with my perhaps over-enthusiastic rendering of Lady Macbeth. In 2004, I made my first trip to the Blackfriars Playhouse for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It wasn’t my first exposure to the company — I’d seen them as Shenandoah Shakespeare Express years earlier, doing Much Ado about Nothing in Charlottesville — but I was giddy at the realization that I could sit on the stage in such a gorgeous theatre. In college, I took up with an extracurricular Shakespeare performance troupe, which not only gave me the opportunity to act in and to direct some great shows, but which also introduced me to some of the best friends I’ve had in my life — amazing people I might never have met if we hadn’t shared a love for Shakespeare’s words.

Fourteen years after that first encounter on the beach, I live in what was once a dizzy daydream for me: I got my BA in English and History at William & Mary, I hold a Master of Letters in Shakespeare and Performance from Mary Baldwin College, and now I get to work for the American Shakespeare Center, where what I do all day long isn’t just a job, it’s a passion. I get up excited to go to work in the morning, and I’m happy to go to bed tired at night. I’m far from alone in this — I don’t know how many places there are where so many people voluntarily work so hard for so many long hours, just out of sheer love for what they’re doing. I feel so privileged to be part of a truly wonderful and dedicated community — and here again, as at William & Mary, I’ve made incredible friends, who are part of my world wholly due to our mutual love for Shakespeare.

With all of that, the impact that Shakespeare has had on my life is clearly huge. Shakespeare gave me not just a source of entertainment or a focus of study, but a career. My eleven-year-old self had no idea what she started when she opened up that text for the first time, and there are still some days I can’t believe my good fortune.

That impact goes far beyond my scholastic path and my budding career, though. I’ve come, over the years, to appreciate so much about Shakespeare — the wordplay, the rhetoric, his clever use of the space — but what attracted me at the first, and what still sticks with me more than anything, are his characters. Shakespeare populated his plays with such vibrant people, who are so real and so very human. Their words, their thoughts, and their emotions have thoroughly permeated my life. As a teenager, I looked to Beatrice, Kate, and Silvia for strength, for assurance that wit and spirit were valuable traits in a woman. I’ve long borrowed Helena’s words about Hermia to describe myself: “She was a vixen when she went to school, and though she be but little, she is fierce,” and the quote accompanying my picture in the yearbook as a senior in high school came from Beatrice: “But then there was a star danc’d, and under that was I born.” Last year, suffering from a broken heart, I took comfort from Adriana and Julia. In higher spirits in more recent months, the great queen Cleopatra has been my inspiration. I think about the rhetorical cleverness and persuasive power of Mark Antony and Henry V when I speak and write. These magnificent characters always have something to say to me, and there’s always something new to discover within them.

So, happy birthday, Bill. Thanks for bringing so much delight into my life, for filling my world with the most amazing people, both fictional and real, and for providing me with a passion worth giving myself over to. Here’s to your next 447 years.

2 thoughts on “My Birthday Tribute to Shakespeare

  1. I have nothing insightful really, except to say that yes, I feel exactly the same. Without Shakespeare I would be such a different person than I am. And who knows? We may never have crossed paths! Bravo, Shakespeare!

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  2. I would also like to wish the great Bard for his inspiring, ground-breaking writing style and his manifold plays and sonnets! May he rest in peace and his bones duly untouched.

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