I first had to read Shakespeare in high school. I legitimately liked Romeo and Juliet. This was probably because even at the tender age of fourteen, I had heard about these most famous of star-crossed lovers in other contexts—I had already seen them repeatedly referenced in books, movies, songs—so the narrative wasn’t difficult to unravel.
However, my subsequent relationship with the Bard was all down hill from that promising start. For the next few years I felt I was forced to suffer through his company like I might have to suffer through an extended (and disastrous) dinner date simply because we’d started with one good movie, and I was obligated to sit and smile through the rest of the evening. It was as if Shakespeare and I had finished speaking before a conversation had really begun.
The truth is, after his one story about that sad suicide pact, I didn’t find him the least engaging: I hardly understood a word he was saying. The pretentious fart couldn’t get through my mind’s front door, much less into my heart where rumor has it his literary stature might really matter.
Still, for my first couple years of college when people asked me if I liked Shakespeare, I vigorously nodded my head up and down like any good English major should. I even hosted a sorority screening of Mel Gibson’s Hamlet, as I lied through my teeth about how brilliant and inspiring I found the Bard. “Oh, he’s a genius,” I crooned, as I reached for the popcorn and hoped no one would notice I spent most of the night focused on Mel Gibson’s bottom rather than whatever was wrong in Denmark.
In truth, I only had the opportunity to see the play that would actually change my opinion on that old son of Stratford-upon-Avon because The Acting Company performed Romeo and Juliet at Georgia Southern University when I was an upper-classman. I went dancing with the guy who played the monk, and he gave me a free pass to see Two Gents of Verona in Washington D.C. a few weeks later.
What can I say?
I was twenty-one; I had a credit card, and I liked road trips. Having to sit through another play by Shakespeare was simply the cost of a greater adventure, like eating peas with dinner to get dessert, or going to college for the keggers. Plus I couldn’t admit my secret disdain for the most famous writer in the English literary canon to a company of folk who worked professionally in “the THEA-tre.” I might have given them the wrong impression about the state of education in Georgia! I drove north for the honor of my state! We really can read in the South!
Looking back now almost twenty years to the consequently magical performance I was to attend—that modern rendition of a minor comedy in which Speed was portrayed as a rodeo clown (incidentally, by none other than Rainn Wilson, a young NYU trained actor who would one day transform into that bobble-headed Dwight Schrute we all know and love from The Office), the leading men wore ten-gallon hats, and Sylvia hopped on a wooden horse with country music playing in the background—I can identify the watershed moment at which I began to understand Shakespeare’s scripts really are genius. Really.
Why did my teachers never show me this multifaceted nature of creative interpretation? Why had I only gotten a stuffy version of the Bard during my formal education, as if the classroom is supposed to be as dead and dull as a great aunt’s parlor on a Sunday afternoon after a funeral? As if Shakespeare himself is a complete dullard we meet only out of some state mandated obligation?
The reality is that falling in love with my main man Will was simply a matter of finally seeing him in the proper light: stripping down his language through the art of action and feeling the passionate essence that radiates through his shifting themes and keeps him forever… modern.
So for Bard’s sake, as teachers continue to knuckle down and introduce new generations of groaning students to Shakespeare’s canon, it is my hope that they give the playwright half a chance to make a good impression. Use props that spark understanding! Get outrageously productive and stage productions! For gracious sake, tell them about the sex!
After all, it is the timelessness of Shakespeare’s work—his unraveling of those endless entanglements in which the human heart has been knotted for centuries—that allows for real appreciation.
In fact, if you, my dear reader, feel as if you missed out on having your heart flutter simply because you weren’t given a proper introduction to the glories of iambic pentameter—or maybe that’s ALL you remember???---go back to that first play you probably ever read by Shakespeare and rent the Baz Luhrmann version of Romeo and Juliet committed to the silver screen in 1996.
Not only is Leonardo Dicaprio as easy on the eyes as Mel Gibson once was, you might begin to understand what I mean when I say there’s more to Shakespeare than pursed lips, tights on men, or Elizabethan England.
You might just embark on a mature relationship with a literary giant that won’t make you want to kill yourself with dagger or poison like a know-nothing teenager. Rather, you might just find true love.