I was introduced to Shakespeare’s work when I was eight years old. The elementary school I attended puts on a Shakespeare production every spring. Students in the third, fourth, and fifth grade classes are given roles and spend the months leading up to the production immersing themselves in the text, the history, and (my personal favorite) the Shakespearean insults. The Tempest was the first production in which I was cast. I was given the roles of a mariner and a hound (which I was quite pleased with, as playing these roles meant I was permitted to grace the stage with a beard drawn on with eyeliner and a set of fluffy dog ears). Rehearsal time was sacred to me, and I vividly remember giving dirty looks to the two dirt-covered boys whining in the corner about wanting to play flag-football instead.
I became more enthralled with Shakespeare’s work in the following years when I was cast as Oliver in As You Like it and Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I poured myself into my roles. My teachers didn’t believe in giving us concrete instruction on how our roles were to be portrayed, so I was given the opportunity to discover my characters on my own. This unstructured and unguided freedom pushed me to research Shakespeare. During the evening hours I spent curled up with biographies, scripts, and illustrated pictures of the Globe, I fell in love with William Shakespeare.
Love doesn’t always last – especially in secondary schools. Shakespeare is taught in most every high school in the United States, with Macbeth and Romeo & Juliet falling somewhere between The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby. Placed between whimsical prose, Shakespeare’s verse is often met with groans. Verse is different: it’s weird, and it’s uncomfortable. People do not meet at the lockers and have a conversation in verse. Despite having wonderful and wise English teachers, I found myself irritated with Shakespeare. My class read the plays aloud from our desks, but the words sounded less harmonic than they did when I was eight. There was no stage to block a swordfight on and no character to embody. The play was more stagnant and less enjoyable. I underlined the metaphors and similes but found the task mundane by scene two. When it came time for my senior year English assessment, I prayed to be given any other work to analyze but Shakespeare.
I often tell recently dumped and heartbroken friends that if a relationship is meant to be then they’ll come back together one day. This fact is relevant because a year after graduating high school I applied for an internship at the American Shakespeare Center. I intern in workshop development, which means that I spend most of my days immersing myself in the Much Ado About Nothing script, searching for interesting tidbits to include in my workshop. In order to fully understand how to construct the workshop, I attend other workshops at the ASC. Most recently, I attended a series of workshops created for ASCTC, the ASC’s summer camp for high school students aged thirteen to eighteen (a.k.a the prime Shakespeare-detesting years). The workshops were lead by passionate and enthusiastic interns and employees who touched on topics ranging from rhetoric to dramaturgy. Although the campers spent a good majority of the workshop sitting in desks taking notes, I didn’t hear a single groan, snore, or fidget. Instead I heard thoughtful questions and comments as the class tackled some of the most difficult aspects of Shakespeare’s work. While impossible to believe, the instructor and the campers were having fun while covering terms that the majority of people are not exposed to until graduate school.
All my life I’ve been passionate about two things: the performing arts and education. I’ve been tirelessly searching for years for a way to help people understand just how critical the performing arts are in getting the most out of your education. The American Shakespeare Center understands that. More importantly, they live it. They recognize that Shakespeare speaks to everybody and that all they have to do is get people to listen. As I watched the campers get excited over cue scripts and iambic pentameter, I realized how much Shakespeare can teach us. His plays are mathematical, historical, and scientific. Performing in them gives a person confidence, poise, and an increased awareness of the world. Shakespeare’s plays appeal to everyone. People who enjoy math can search for inconsistencies in the iambic pentameter, people who enjoy history can cross reference how Shakespeare’s work mirrors historical events and time periods, people who are into science can dissect scenes in search of embedded stage directions, and people who love being the center of attention can have the times of their lives playing Hamlet or Macbeth. Due to time constraints and standardized testing, many high school students never get the opportunity to see this. Don’t misunderstand me, I’ve found Shakespeare to be hard and frustrating, and I’ve spent many hours sitting at my desk in the intern alcove wanting to bang my head against the wall as I re-read a monologue for the 17th time and discover a rhetorical device I have failed to notice the first sixteen times. But, reading and analyzing a Shakespeare play is like putting together a puzzle. Each new rhetorical device discovered adds a connection and the pieces come together to reveal an incredible masterpiece.
So here I am attempting to understand Shakespeare. Maybe it’s better to say that I am a detective searching for the clues that Shakespeare left behind. I am Sherlock Holmes searching for Waldo and Carmen Sandiego and I am having the time of my life. Every trochee noticed, elision discovered, and isocolon found excites me and reminds me of what an honor it is to be studying under such a brilliant mind. One day, I will take the information I’ve learned here and use it in my own classroom. Or, better yet, I will help encourage the performance and analysis of Shakespeare in classrooms across the country. In the meantime, I am learning to love Shakespeare again.