Shakespeare in My Heart

Post Date: April 21st, 2013

The Bard just shows up in my stories. I can’t stop him. He’s persistent like that.

All those teen years of re-reading the plays sealed the first set of words in my head: Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, and Hamlet. (Thank you, Ravenscroft High School, for giving me Angela Connor, teacher extraordinaire, and a play every year to capture my heart.) Getting the chills as I tried to speak Shakespearean, I couldn’t believe at age 14 anyone could pen words so beautiful, so lively, so incandescent.speare

Serving as an English teacher for over thirteen years was the second seal upon my heart: you can’t teach well if you don’t read along with your students. So the Bard’s pages got marked up yet again, highlighted with not only my impressions but tons of teaching ideas.

So whenever I’m writing short stories, the Bard’s words play along like a soundtrack in my head.

In my short story “The Flat and Weightless Tang-Filled Future,” Ronalda is an unhappy small-town woman trapped in a complicated suburban life she can’t comprehend. It’s 1976, and when chatting with her neighbor, Diane, who quotes Shakespeare, Ronalda remembers the time her husband dragged her to see the 1968 Zeffirelli film, Romeo and Juliet. Ronalda doesn’t comprehend Diane’s love of books and words.

“You got a case of think-too-much.”

Diane says, soft, “O teach me how I should forget to think.”

“What’s that?” Ronalda sits Bradford in the high chair and rifles through the cupboard.

“Something I read.” Diane gets pink, grabs cups from the shelf, then looks hopeful. “You ever read Shakespeare?”

Ronalda pulls out a jar of applesauce. “They made us back in school, but I never could keep my eyes on it. Mama always said, ‘Books collect the dust.’ Traded all of ours except the Bible one time at the swap meet.”

“I been picking it up again—Romeo and Juliet? Kind of sounds like the Bible.”

Ronalda wonders whether that’s blasphemous. Instead she says, “Darryl took me to that movie one time, that Zepparella one. All I remember was it had naked bodies in it. Darryl took it so serious. I was teasing him and I said, ‘Look at you, all tore up’—but he just kept saying, ‘It ain’t right. No way out. Fate’s got us all screwed.’ I couldn’t make heads or tails of it.”

“He must have meant the Prince,” Diane says. “He’s the one who said, ‘All are punnashed.” She looks dreamy, like she might take off with those long legs, shoot into the sky like a Hollywood starlet, an Esther Williams riding fountains.

“Funny how they talk,” Ronalda says. “How do you keep it straight? And who has the time?” She wrestles with the lid.

 By the time this story of Ronalda’s day ends, one might say that all are punished.

In my debut novel, How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought, Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice show up. Sixteen-year-old Wendy has just been yanked out of a California life where she had the lead in Twelfth Night alongside her best friend, and Wendy might never forgive her mother for this sudden move to North Carolina.  There’s a ray of hope when she makes the acquaintance of two students in her English class, Andrew and Tanay, finding that she and Andrew can connect over the Bard. He’s returning her Walkman to her, one that a Mean Girl just tried to steal, and sees the cassette inside it.

He laughs. “Thriller. That what you listen to?”

“Yessir.”

“But you’ve got an iPhone.”

I shrug. It is none of his business, my retro philosophy of purity, simplicity, and innocence that was the 1980s.

“Can you do that zombie dance?”

I roll my eyes. “There’s so much more to Michael than little monsters. Give his lyrics a listen and you’ll see the light.”

His grin—a toothpaste smile designed to electrify teen girls—says I amuse him. “Oh, I know the word according to MJ,” he says. “How it don’t matter if you’re black or white. But the Bard, now that’s my boy. ‘If you poison us, do we not die?’”

“‘If you wrong us,’” I say, “‘shall we not revenge?’”

I look over my shoulder. Tanay’s face says she’s not too fond of this exchange.

By the end of the novel, race and revenge have played out their strange and horrible consequences in what I hope are redemptive ways.

This week as the terrible events in Boston unfolded, I was struck by the both depravity and heroism of humanity on view in the same moment. As reporters wondered who could perpetrate such a crime, as police conducted a manhunt, we shook our heads; then as we saw footage of people running toward the blast and heard more evidence of people opening up their homes and restaurants to help, we felt hope. Hamlet said it best:

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in

reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving

how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel!

in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the

world! The paragon of animals! And yet to me, what is

this quintessence of dust?

Happy birthday, William. It’s been 397 years of beauteous words, illuminating wisdom, uproarious comedy and heart-rending tragedy, and transcendent rhythms. When you passed in 1616, you could have no idea how long you would live for us.

Writing Prompts:

  • Have you re-read a line from a favorite book or poem lately? Go find it, read it, and hear your voice saying it aloud. If you like Shakespeare, let his words fall trippingly off your tongue.
  • Have you ever said, “Fair play,” or “foul play”? How about “good riddance” or “fight fire with fire”? Thank Shakespeare for coining these and any other eloquent phrases that are everyday idioms now. Try one of these phrases to start a poem, story, or essay.
  • Pick up a play or movie that has something to do with Shakespeare. Check out PBS’ great series, Shakespeare Uncovered. Write something in response to what you read or see.
  • Copy ten lines of Shakespeare and home in on a few words or phrases. What are all the possibilities in those words when you think about performing them? What ambiguities does Shakespeare leave available for us and actors to fill in the gaps? What does he teach about human nature that inspires your own good thoughts and perhaps writing, too?
  • Head to HappyBirthdayShakespeare.com and enjoy the tributes.

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