So I’ve been a total Shakespeare nerd for the past twenty-plus years and I can prove it.
(And no, it’s not because I used that stupid portmanteau in the blog post title…but it made you groan a little, right? ;))
I won the English award in 9th and 10th grade; the award certificates are lost to time, but I’ve held on to these beautiful collectors’ editions of Shakespeare ever since.
It began with Romeo and Juliet in Ms. Tyler’s 9th grade English class, circa 1992. I remember not being able to understand a damn thing, but really feeling smart because I was reading Shakespeare. At that point in time, the words felt like a magical incantation, and it was a power I didn’t understand…but didn’t all young sorcerers begin with magic they didn’t understand? Understanding, at that time, was a secondary pursuit. Foggy meanings cleared up, however, when I presented my first Shakespeare scene: Romeo’s death. After praising the quickness of the apothecary’s poison, I delighted in giving the audience the most drawn out death scene I could possibly muster. It was fantastic.
Dedications on the inside (to confirm that I’m as old as I say I am and that I’m not making up “Hold out your cow bowstrings!”)
Things were easier in 10th grade when we took a stab at Julius Caesar, then later made asses of ourselves with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The latter in particular opened up the fun of the language. One of our classmates misremembered Bottom’s last line in Act I, scene ii, and in true Bottom fashion asked us to “Hold out your cow bowstrings!”; the actual line is “Hold, or cut bow-strings,” but the truth of the matter was irrelevant. We liked our version so much it became a mantra for our English class.
In 11th grade we went to the sinister side of things with Othello, Macbeth and the darkly comic Taming of the Shrew. I played the First Witch that year in our class scenes, and I can still remember Act I, scenes i and iii verbatim. We had so much fun with the project that we decided a photoshoot in the backyard was necessary — and this was at a time when you still needed to buy film, then take it Walgreens to have your photos developed: that’s how serious we were.
12th grade was the year of Hamlet, King Lear and The Tempest — and, because I felt ready, I read Twelfth Night on my own. I also competed in the Junior League of Cincinnati’s Shakespeare recitation contest, performing Benedick’s monologue from Much Ado About Nothing (the Branagh-Thompson film version had just come out and I saw it in the theater!) and “Sonnet 29” (which is also etched permanently in my memory).
The hurlyburly is clearly overdone; that “robe” is actually seven black t-shirts strategically arranged. (circa 1995, age 17)
In college, at Denison University, I took “Shakespeare” during my Freshman year and purchased the Pelican Complete Works which has graced my shelves ever since. In its table of contents I’ve kept track of every play that I’ve read and seen: check marks mean I’ve read it, pluses mean I’ve seen it performed, either live or on film. At this point in time I’ve read all but six, and I’ve seen a version of nearly every play that I’ve read — most of them live.
When I studied abroad in Bath, UK, during the summer of 1998, I was swamped with work and didn’t have the time to travel that I would have liked, but I did make sure to get to Stratford. A friend and I stayed the night in a bed & breakfast (first time I’d done that!), visited all the Bardolatry pilgrimage sites, and saw Measure for Measure and Romeo & Juliet at the RSC. It was perfect. I worked for the same study abroad program in Bath — Advanced Studies in England — the year after college, and as part of my job we visited Stratford several more times, and I even got to see King Lear at the Globe Theater in London…as a groundling…by choice. (I wanted the real, gritty Elizabethan experience…) I even brought my 12 year-old brother and my young cousin to the Globe when they visited.
Pelican Complete Works.
As a teacher I’ve taught Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Richard III, The Tempest — and taken my students to see live performances of each. In 2010 I traveled with students to London to tour the city; an entire afternoon was spent at The Globe. It was my first time getting to see the inner-workings of the place, and I was fascinated — and I was glad to see that my students were as well!
A motley fool, and a statue in Stratford-upon-Avon. (circa 1998, age 20)
Which is why I am ecstatic to announce that I’ll be getting to know Shakespeare’s theater much more intimately this summer. I am incredibly proud to tell you that I’ll be taking part in the Globe’s “Teaching Shakespeare Through Performance” program as one of the English-Speaking Union’s British Universities Summer School scholars. During the three weeks at the Globe we’ll learn the latest techniques for teaching Shakespeare so that his works reach 21st century youth in a way that is much more accessible than the Age of Enlightenment literary exegesis that I grew up with (even though I have very fond memories of those heady early encounters with the texts). I’m humbled and honored to have been given this opportunity by the English-Speaking Union of the United States’ New York branch, who awarded me a generous scholarship to make it possible.
With my students at the Globe, February 2010 (age 32, far right)
This is going to be such a monumental experience that it almost feels like a capstone to my lifelong pursuit of Shakespeare, but I’m only a third of the way through my career as a teacher, so this is really still the beginning. Hamlet asks what dreams may come during the sleep that is death, and I have no answer. But in the wakefulness of life, had you told me that I’d spend three weeks studying Shakespeare on his own stage (albeit a replica…), well, this is a dream I’d never even thought to dream — but I’m thrilled that it’s coming true.
Expect to see many, many updates on my Shakespeare experiences on this blog in the weeks and months to come.