“Who Ever Loved That Loved Not at First Sight?” Um, Me. I Did.1 reply Replies / 5496 Views1 Recommendations
My eighth grade reading class was housed in a bright room on the top floor of the school, with a group of ten or twelve kids crowded around some pushed-together desks. We had done some difficult readings in that class- David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, Robinson Crusoe- but finally we were ready for the greatest challenge. Our teacher, a lovely woman with grown children and a bright Southern accent, played up what we were about to read as some sort of passage into truly advanced reading, the work of the greatest writer in the English language- certainly we were all about to join an elite league of smart people who could read and understand this great work.
She passed around three-hole-punched, Xeroxed copies of Romeo and Juliet. And together we put our copies in our binders and began to read, table-read style. I recall playing Paris, Mercutio, and (rather progressively) Juliet in a scene or two. And I didn’t get it. I read the text aloud, certainly, but my thirteen-year-old head could not wrap around what this long exchange between Juliet and her nurse regarding aching bones (now one of my favorite Shakespeare bits) even meant, let alone why it was funny.
That’s really all I remember of my first encounter with Shakespeare. We never watched any movie, saw no performances, just stumbled through it and were tested on the plot. I didn’t feel any smarter, not part of the exclusive club of Shakespeare scholars that I thought I would be. Among my friends in the class, we made something of a joke of Romeo and Juliet. Overrated, stuffy, and antiquated, we thought (though maybe not with those words), and we were quickly lost in whatever we had to read next. I learned later that the text had been chopped up as well, removing anything vaguely “inappropriate” in classic Catholic school fashion.
When the Bard and I crossed paths again, it was the very next year, in my freshman English class. This room I remember being dark, windowless, and with that chic 70’s painted cinderblock. I remember flipping through the anthology past “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Road Not Taken” to find Romeo and Juliet once again. I spent the rest of the year dreading wading back into that cesspool to watch two stupid kids die all over again. But something was different that time- this teacher refused to take a flat reading. In a class with everyone from sailing enthusiasts to cheerleaders, he would not move forward until the student he had reading each line understood the line they were reading. We had one student repeat Friar Laurence’s line “Holy Saint Francis, what a change is here!” over and over and over again, a couple dozen times, until he was finally enthusiastic enough to chide Romeo for being over Rosaline so quickly. Finally, the real beauty of the play began to take shape and I started to understand why Shakespeare had endured for so long.
Fortunately, this teacher taught only two classes at the high school- this English I class, and a film class. His enthusiasm for both was so great that they would frequently bleed over into each other, and we were treated not just to the Franco Zefferelli film, but the glorious Baz Luhrmann version also. Seeing professional actors bring this text to life in the same way that I had just done in this class was not only critical to my development as a Shakespeare fan, but as a lover of theatre. He pushed us further- that same year he had us read Julius Caesar, and as I watched Marlon Brando onscreen later I knew I wanted to do more.
Later that year all sections of English I were open to a Shakespeare monologue competition, and he encouraged me specifically to join in. I waffled back and forth- acting wasn’t my thing, I hadn’t done so since playing Joseph in the fifth grade Christmas play, I was fourteen and there was a stereotype about the kind of guys who did theatre- my reasons went on. But he took me aside and told me he really thought I, specifically, could do it. So I caved. If I was going to go through with this, I wanted to perform something no one else was going to do, so I chose a 20-line Lord Capulet monologue about just what Juliet can do to herself if she refuses to marry Paris. I don’t even have to look it up, six years later it’s still etched in my brain.
Learning it was one of the hardest things I have ever done. What on earth was “demesnes?” Or a “whining mammet?” Is he calling her a cow when he tells her to “graze where you will?” This is so hard to say out loud with the book in my hand, you’re telling me I have to do this from memory? It took days and days to even get the words down before I could figure out how he was saying these things. It was a trial by fire as I really learned lines for the first time. Then the competition came, I stood on the stage, was as angry and stubborn as possible- and didn’t win. It didn’t matter, though. I was hooked.
I’ve done and seen quite a bit of Shakespeare since- performing both sonnets and pieces from Othello, Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing, Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, and even very briefly Henry V. I’ve read and seen many others. I work for a professional theater company. I’m currently pursuing a degree in the theater field. Orlando and Touchstone are two of my dream roles. If you had told me when I was flatly reading from a pared-down, Xeroxed copy of Romeo and Juliet from my binder in middle school that this would be my life, I would have laughed at you. But I think what really changed how I felt- and changes how others react, too- was the actual performance of the text.
When I took an Introduction to Dramatic Literature class two semesters ago, I saw my fellow students struggling their way through Midsummer Night’s Dream, much in the same way I did on my first introduction. Truly, I believe the best way to learn to read Shakespeare is by performing and watching others perform. Shakespeare isn’t meant to sit on a shelf to be cracked open by academics in argyle sweater-vests, it needs to breathe. It needs to live vicariously through someone, whether it’s a sweaty-palmed fourteen year-old overweight boy in a polo in a high school auditorium or Laurence Olivier. The reason Shakespeare lives now, four-hundred-odd years after his death, is not because he’s known by the elite to be the very best, but because his words were meant to come to life onstage. They don’t have to be bound by time or age or race or sexuality or body type. Just open the book and start reading “Holy Saint Francis, what a change is here!” over and over again until you get it right.
RE: by Cass Morris on August 13, 2014
Hurrah for your freshman year teacher! There’s certainly nothing deadlier to Shakespeare than a flat table read by folk who’ve never seen the plays, on stage or on page, before — but enthusiasm and energy can work wonders. What a great story you’ve got! Thanks for sharing.
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