Blog

Shakespeare in My Heart

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.

That’s a First-World Problem for Ya

“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

— Matthew 20:16

Image found here

Tonight I couldn’t get more than $40 cash back from the super-healthy organic co-op store. Then I went to an ATM and my card wouldn’t read. As I exited the building where the ATM was, several children rushed through the door and the parents behind them let it happen. After everyone charged through, adults included, I stepped forward, thinking the guy in front of me who’d held the door would keep doing so. No. He let it shut just as I walked through with both hands carrying groceries, and so it slammed on me.

Then I sat in my car to await the end of a teen-ager’s piano lesson–the reason I needed the $60 in cash, because the teacher won’t take checks. I’m hacking and snorting the whole time because the older I get, the more gluten and lactose intolerant I get. Every meal presents a question mark of how my body might not like this or that for dinner. And like I have the time to craft a healthy, organic diet that ferrets out all the mystery allergens or keeps every meal pure.

I won’t even explore the fact that lately, I no longer have time to write.

I did lift out of my irritable fog to delight in this–community wireless. Thanks, Town of Carrboro. Without it and my laptop, I would have a way to tap these rants to life.

And I am not stuck in a hospital bed right now. A forced sitting in a carseat isn’t that terrible. In fact, a blog emerges from it.

And most importantly: everyone I know and love is safe at home, none of us facing chemical weapons, rocket launchers, or genocide in our neighborhoods.

As Friar Laurence once told Romeo: “There art thou happy.” That was in a scene where Romeo was whining, big time.

First-world Folks, take a note: just because we’ve chosen to lead lives that are jam-packed and so technologically rife with instant gratification doesn’t mean we have it bad. And writers who have the most time to write and reflect are probably in one of two situations–a sane location with enough food and safety–or prison.

Tonight I’m going to take this moment to stop whining and remember what matters most: I’ve got a lot of reasons to be thankful, and if my first-world life has become too much for me, I most likely have means to change it. Starting with my attitude.

Shakespeare’s words that thrilled my soul at 14 remind me that there are words to be written in every spare moment and only one crack at this life. If I also take a moment to remember who’s last in this life’s race, am I really going to moan about faulty machines and going second or third through a door?

As a Holocaust survivor told my stepson recently while interning on a documentary shoot: You make a decision to choose life everyday. You’ve got this chance; stay positive; make the most of it.

What pack of blessings lights upon my back? The first thing this first-world gal must do is ask that. The last thing she should do is live an entitled life of demands on the world around her where she wonders why she isn’t first in everydamnthing.

I’m going to mull on that and read the good Friar’s words to the self-pitying Romeo just one more time.

What, rouse thee, man! thy Juliet is alive,
For whose dear sake thou wast but lately dead;
There art thou happy: Tybalt would kill thee,
But thou slew’st Tybalt; there are thou happy too:
The law that threaten’d death becomes thy friend
And turns it to exile; there art thou happy:
A pack of blessings lights up upon thy back;
Happiness courts thee in her best array;
But, like a misbehaved and sullen wench,
Thou pout’st upon thy fortune and thy love…

Act III, scene iii

Happy Birthday, Shakespeare. What You Mean to Me.

Image found here

Today the Bard is 448 years old. This universal author touches so many: he’s global and he’s omnipresent because he’s also quite local and personal. So let’s set the GPS for me with the typical narcissism we love as bloggers. What does the Bard mean to me? It’s still a pretty nice birthday tribute to tell another how he’s changed your life, so I’m sure Will wouldn’t mind a fan 400 years hence bowing to his wisdom, his beauty, and his wit.

I have already written my thanks directly to Will and why I need him, and I have already defended his honor, nay, his very existence. Today, just some simple, quick thoughts of how Shakespeare is part of my daily bread and daily pages.

  1. Poetic language that transports the teen heart. I fell in love with Shakespeare in 11th grade when Macbeth taught me what “all is lost” meant. Is there any better speech than “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow…” (The entire text shimmers at the end of this post.) I knew then that Shakespeare got me. He got depression, he got ennui, he got hopelessness. 
  2. Words, words, words. I have so many great words thanks to the man who made them common parlance. Dauntless, besmirched, and lackluster are just a few. This delightful Youtube video, a must-see for high school students, dedicates Chapter 3 (found at 2:19) to the Bard’s impact. His words, read aloud many times in my own schooling and later in my classrooms, inform my writing today with diction, musicality, and emphasis. I think of his consonance, alliteration, euphony, cacophony, internal rhyme, and meter, and I hear me trying to imitate it in my own work while sounding 2012. 
  3. Kid inspiration. The other day, I’m standing in line for a burrito, and a young man in scrubs said, “Excuse me, did you ever teach at Stanford?” I told him yes once I figured out he meant the middle school, not the university. I could not place him. “I’m Adam,” he said. “I played Mercutio?” Then I remembered. One can only cast an adventurous, humorous soul for that role, and suddenly I saw the 13 year-old I hadn’t seen since 1998.  I told him I was happy he had survived that production of Romeo and Juliet, because I recall it involving a) seventh graders  b) no budget and c) not enough time to master the Bard’s work. But because of intrepid and enthusiastic kids, a persistent if naive director, and some awesome parent support, the thing came off. And Adam made his mark. Now he takes care of patients and plays music. And yet he still remembered being Mercutio. “My one claim to acting fame,” he joked. Thanks, Will, for helping me make an impact on some youth on a dusty stage with poor lighting yet burning still with your incandescence. 
Shakespeare, a book of your complete plays would suffice for a desert island exile. On my worst days there, I’d still find great speeches with more left to mine, and I’d call up great memories with your stories in my classroom. And I would find great words to help me write my story in the sand. 
Writing Prompts:
  • What has the Bard done for you lately? Or once upon a time?
  • Write about to-morrow, about life’s petty pace, and your fears of dusty death.
  • Find one of Shakespeare’s sonnets and let its lines inspire a new work from you.

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
 Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
 To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. 
Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

excerpted from the MIT full text. Act V, scene v

Thank You, Will. Why We Need You.

— Because you were a middle-class working man with genius.
— Because you took nothing new under the sun and made it shine.
— Because you know we need to laugh when things are most tragic.
— Because you spoke the wisdom of both kings and cobblers.
— Because you remind us we are all a piece of work, noble, infinite, angelic.
— Because you remind us we are all a quintessence of dust.
— Because tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day and we need your light.

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?

Hamlet, Act 2, scene 2

Filed Under: genius, Hamlet, Shakespeare  

How Much Genius Do I Need?

“To deny that Shakespeare’s plays could have been written by a man of relatively humble background is, after all, to deny the very possibility of genius itself–a sentiment increasingly attractive in a democratic culture where few harsh realities are so unpalatable as that of human inequality.”

— Terry Teachout

Teachout’s article, “Denying Shakespeare” in The Wall Street Journal, has my full attention. I’ve nurtured my own private theory for a while: that the naysayers to Shakespeare’s authorship dismiss genius residing in low-income communities. I have done no research on this topic; my expertise comes from teaching, where I’ve seen, heard, and contemplated brilliant children from all walks of life. It would not surprise me at all if a lower-middle-class guy from Stratford penned all those timeless plays.

Teachout is absolutely convinced that Shakespeare dunnit, and he leads us to James Shapiro’s Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare. I’m going to get a copy. Shapiro’s premise is to research this question as objectively as possible, and I’m further intrigued. But what does this mean for us authors? Teachout thinks people question Shakespeare’s authorship much more readily than any other author because “the world is full of innocents who sincerely believe in their secret hearts that they could write a best-selling novel if only they tried hard enough.”

Uh-oh.

So I can’t go off on American Idol here, can I, with the argument that everyone today wants to be a karaoke hero or a reality show star? Because every day I wake up to write at the crack of dark and tell myself, “You’re talented, but what you don’t have in genius, you make up for in sweat. The best-seller will come!”

Call me an innocent. I do subscribe to the Edisonian claim about the one percent of inspiration and the ninety-nine percent of perspiration. I looked this statement up, and apparently his full claim is this: “None of my inventions came by accident. I see a worthwhile need to be met and I make trial after trial until it comes. What it boils down to is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.”

Looking at the context, I wonder if what Edison is really saying is that great accomplishment comes from constant practice and commitment by a person who, we have to assume, has some skill and insight, never mind paradigm-busting ability.

I’m very clear on one thing: I am not a paradigm-buster. Shakespeare was, Virginia Woolf was, ee cummings was.

And I think it’s okay to want a best-seller that isn’t genius, but just very, very good. Maybe even great. There’s a place for good commercial fiction. And the ultimate goal is to make a living touching lots of minds and hearts…not to make a million doing so. That’s a robust, shiny, healthy American dream.

I don’t purport to offer a yardstick measuring skill and sweat. I don’t have time to worry if other authors are rich or poor or impostors. I am happy to have some skill and the will to hone it, and I choose not to worry if I have enough. That’s perhaps why a genius from the lower middle class doesn’t disturb me; he may have been a slacker or a workhorse, but this one guy, whoever he was, wrote incredibly well.

What I do resent is when audiences cling to an artist because of looks, stature, money; when audiences don’t have any idea what good art is because they’d rather watch Keeping Up With the Kardashians than read a good book; when artists step on each others’ backs to get ahead; when artists work for free because they don’t have to earn an income. I don’t believe Shakespeare had the looks or stature, because even his one portrait is disputed, and his biography is so thin as to almost guarantee he wasn’t a big kahuna. I don’t know if Shakespeare was a backstabber or not, but he sure didn’t elevate characters such as Iago and Polonius to great heights of respect. I’m going to guess that Shakespeare was what the records tell us; a working actor and playwright who needed every shilling, farthing, or pence he could scrape, since there were no such things as royalties on published plays.

The Shakespeare we honestly know so little about (see Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare — fantastic read!) left us great work. That’s enough. And those of like me who continue to dream about a particular work we’re crafting someday touching millions…Shakespeare doesn’t offer us hope to be an equal as much as inspire. His words are more than one percent needed to persist, because literature enriches, uplifts, transcends…and ain’t it fun to try and write it?