My relationship with Shakespeare is a tumultuous one. On the one hand, I am a fan of puns and made up words. On the other, I’m constantly infuriated by the idiocy of certain characters. On another, I read two of his plays under the guidance of Mrs. O, which means I know a lot– almost too much– about Shakespeare’s life. That doesn’t really affect my feelings about his work, it just makes me feel closer to Billy Shakes as a person.
The other problem with me and Shakespeare is that I’ve only read tragedies. In high school, I was one of only a few people who ended up reading a Shakespeare play all four years– most students stopped after sophomore or junior year, depending on what English classes they took as upperclassmen. Freshman year was Romeo and Juliet, sophomore year was Julius Caesar, and then I read Macbeth in AP English literature. My senior year I took composition, which didn’t have Shakespeare anywhere in the curriculum unless you wanted to do your final paper about it (I didn’t), but after first semester I missed Mrs. O so much that I decided to join her Brit Lit class at semester, in which we read Hamlet.
Consequently, for most of high school I hated Shakespeare. His characters annoyed me and I felt like everyone dying at the end was kind of a lazy way to tie things up. My opinion has since become more positive, albeit slightly, but since no one wants me to try to freshen up jokes and parodies we’ve all already heard, I will instead chronicle my four-year emotional journey with Bill.
As I mentioned before, the freshman English curriculum included reading Romeo and Juliet. This was miserable for a number of reasons. First of all, I had already read it in seventh grade, although I didn’t really get a lot out of it because I was a seventh grader reading Shakespeare. Second, there is a demographic that hates Shakespeare even more than I did, and it’s called high school freshmen. As you can imagine, this made everything a thousand times more miserable. I won’t recount in detail the grueling, tiresome details of trudging through metaphor-packed monologues in a classroom full of people who would rather shave off their fingerprints with a straight razor because this is first and foremost a lighthearted comedy blog and I am not interested in penning my own Shakespearean tragedy. Instead, I will dwell on what kept me from being permanently bitter about Shakespeare: movie adaptations. No, not West Side Story. The only reason I don’t hate that movie is because, after seeing it three times by no doing of my own, it became easier to just go with it. I’m talking about Gnomeo and Juliet. I don’t care how cheesy it is for gnomes to sing Elton John, I don’t care how disturbingly similar Gnomeo looks to my sister’s ex boyfriend, and I don’t even care that they didn’t actually kill off Gnomeo and Juliet. It’s cute and fun and made it a whole lot easier to accept the blatant absurdity of a fourteen-year-old girl being more than willing to kill herself for a boy she met, like, twice.
The end of my sophomore year was probably the high point in my and Bill’s relationship. This is because I was taught Julius Caesar by a teacher who was no more interested in it than we were. In an attempt to keep us children engaged, she allowed for a lot of student input as to how we would read the play, so it ended up being podcasts that featured periodic summaries by a wise-sounding British woman and hilarious stabbing noises that made it very difficult to take Brutus’ honorable suicide seriously. The other great thing about Julius Caesar was the fact that my two best friends at the time were in my class. We got to sit next to each other, copy each other’s notes about Portia’s blatant insanity, write touching love stories about Brutus and Cassius, and basically get up to shenanigans that are typically amusing to tenth graders. It’s a little ridiculous looking back, but it did teach me that the best way to get through tragic historical plays: comedy.
Unfortunately, this lesson did not stick with me when I got to Macbeth as a junior. I had finally discovered No Fear Shakespeare (I was kind of a late bloomer when it came to taking the easy way out in English classes), so the only parts of the original text I actually read were the highlighted quotes that we had to memorize and the line “What, you egg!” (Yes, I understand that the “egg” in question did immediately die and it was a comment on his youth and blah blah blah but seriously how can you not laugh at that?) In the end, my disregard for the original text and Macbeth as a whole made it a generally terrible experience; junior year was an all time low point in my appreciation for literature, and not even writing a sonnet version of Never Gonna Give You Up could make me regard Shakespeare with anything but contempt and an internal noise remarkably similar to this deer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TAZYqXwW5lA
Luckily, all this changed during my senior year. Specifically, the second semester. I finally stopped depending on Sparknotes and rediscovered the joy of reading. Even though Hamlet is literally the worst thing Shakespeare has ever written and I hate it more than anything I’ve ever read except for Heart of Darkness, I had a damn good time reading it and learning it from Mrs. O, for a couple of reasons. First of all, I worked out a system that I would recommend to anyone who has to read Shakespeare and isn’t feeling it: Read the No Fear version first so you have an idea of what is going on, and then read the original text (on its own, not on No Fear) either in class or by yourself. By approaching the text this way, I got a solid understanding of what was going on without losing the nuances of the language, which I realized I really appreciated. The second big reason I began to value Shakespeare more is because I finally remembered the lesson I learned from Julius Caesar: The best way to approach a Shakespearean tragedy is with a sense of humor. And let me tell you, there is no shortage of opportunities to mock Hamlet. He’s the worst and it’s hilarious. Add all this to a classroom environment that was surprisingly positive toward the material, and I found myself not dreading Shakespeare for the first time in my life. An impulse decision to join another English class saved me from a lifetime of abhorrence toward someone it would be so much easier to just get along with.
Now, as a freshman in college, I no longer hate Shakespeare. In fact, I’m moderately interested in actually reading some comedies now– not on my own time, that would be insane, but I might take a class in the upcoming quarters. And I’m hoping that Billy Shakes will become a close friend of mine over the next few years as I go down a new, moderately unexpected path. Yes, this reflection on my experiences ended up being a clever way of informing you, the audience, that I will no longer be pursuing a double major in performing arts and writing, but rather a B.F.A. in dramatic writing with a minor in performing arts. I love comedy and I love writing about literature, and I think, just maybe, I can still learn to love Shakespeare.
This month, by Rachel Schollaert hosting a Go Fund Me for UNL STAC that you can access here: https://www.gofundme.com/aucvgytg
For more information on STAC, visit their Facebook page at UNL Students Together Against Cancer and/or read this blog post.