Happy 450th, Shakespeare!

It’s (probably) William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday today, so I thought I’d take a moment to be grateful to him—for writing, you know, some of the most brilliant and messy and human and humane stuff to come out of the Western world, like, ever. And also to think about all of the ways in which his work has intersected with my personal world over the years—since what’s a blog for, if not blathering on narcissistically about the minuscule junctions between The World’s Big Deals and one’s own, puny life?

1) 5th grade production of Macbeth! I was MacDuff and, briefly, the replacement for Lady Macbeth, when she couldn’t get the lines. Best part: knickers and sword fight: Turn, hellhound, turn! Worst part: The lecture visited upon the girl who played Macbeth when she and Murderers #1 and #2 devolved into giggles during one performance. Come on, teachers. We’re 10.

2) 9th grade reading of Romeo and Juliet. I thought I knew what it was. I didn’t know what it was—except, you know, TRUE LOVE.

3) 10th grade reading of Twelfth Night. I fared a little better there, in terms of taking it in, although I won’t claim that I had much to say about it. In our small-group performance in class, I played Malvolio—a not-entirely-unfitting role, given my tight-assitude about things like grammar and, oh, morality. Plus: yellow stockings and cross garters!

4) And here’s where things really got rolling for me: 12th grade fellowship to the Shakespeare Folger Library in DC, where I toiled with 13 other budding intellectuals under the tutelage of actual Shakespeare scholars. Many, many highlights here, including seeing (and touching!) some of the first folios and getting my grubbies on a first edition of Machiavelli’s The Prince. That’s not happening every day, folks. Plus, we saw plenty o’ performances, at the Folger and elsewhere, and watched movies, and wrote papers. Not easy, but a fantastic education, and it’s where Shakespeare started to make sense to me. It’s also where I fell in love with two of the plays that are still my favorites: Antony and Cleopatra and Measure for Measure. Morality, you say? STRAIGHT. UP.

5) College. I took most of the Shakespeare classes that were to be taken, I think, including Harold Bloom’s Tragedies and Romances. Which I liked, although sometimes I thought he was making insane claims just to be original. Scariest moment: There was only a single paper for that class—just one assignment—which determined our entire grade. And I was a sophomore. Oh, the confidence/arrogance of youth! (Because I certainly wasn’t sophisticated enough not to care about the grade.)

6) Early adulthood. Almost immediately after finishing graduate school (merely an MFA in fiction, folks: I managed to wrench myself out of the current that was carrying me toward a PhD in literature and choose a more inspiring-to-me path), I got to review Bloom’s Shakespeare book for the San Francisco Chronicle. 764 pages. A week to read it and write the review. While working full-time. (FEEL my pain!)

7) Seeing the plays as an adult, in Berkeley and San Francisco, at Shotgun and Impact and elsewhere. The feeling of seeing an old friend.

8) And then, finally, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where ye olde husband and I go every couple of years to take in the marvelously lush work that’s happening up there. This year, we’ll be seeing Richard III for the first time on stage. (I’ve seen the movies.) And that’s pretty thrilling indeed.

I won’t lie: There are times when the work it takes to get inside Shakespeare’s language feels arduous to me, and when I wish I could kick back a little and let the play deliver itself, rather than having to pay such constant attention. But, and I imagine that this goes without saying, it always, always pays off.

One more thing: I love the notion that I have anything at all to say about Shakespeare—that, wondrously, a guy who wrote 425 years ago has managed to stay so vital and important in our culture, enough so that his work came into my life when I was 10 and still hasn’t left. I love the idea that I’m just one random woman in California, sitting at her computer, writing about her personal connection with plays that are so very old. And I wish Shakespeare could see us all now, keeping his work alive, seeing it, thinking about it, loving it. He’d be pretty chuffed, wouldn’t he?

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