- Books, Literature, and Writing
What It's Like Being A Shakespeare Enthusiast In High School
Shakespeare is without any doubt one of the well-known and commemorated poet and play writes’ of time. Although he lived and wrote from the late 16th and 17th centuries; his works are still studied by English students more than 400 years on. Unfortunately many find themselves unable to enjoy them due to them having been written in old Victorian English, the common speech of his day. This is especially true of high school students, who are quick to take an instant dislike of this ‘chore’, placed upon them by the school curriculum. I, however, from the day I first opened and read Romeo and Juliet; became an enthusiast. Being different from other students, however, I encountered some interesting experiences. I will share some of them.
My First Introduction To Shakespeare:
When I was in the 10th grade, my family moved to a new town. Unfortunately it was a move that occurred after the first term of the year had already passed. I knew I would have missed out of some work done in my new school. But I had yet to find out how dramatic that move would be. A few days before beginning the 2nd term, I was handed a list of all the reading books and textbooks that were required. On the list of the set reading books was ‘Romeo and Juliet’. I had never read any of Shakespeare’s works and was apprehensive to encounter it.
Walking into the new English class on the first day was, simply put, daunting. Approaching the new teacher, Mr Kruger, I introduced myself. He studied me in silence for a moment or two. I instantly knew he was not amused to have a new student entering the school after the first term had already passed. A very brusque conversation ensued:
Mr Kruger: “Did you get the books on the list?”
Me: “Yes Sir, I did, I have them with me here.”
Mr Kruger: “Good. Unfortunately for you, we’ve already read through Romeo and Juliet last term. We will start on essays and exam questions soon. You are going to have to read and study it by yourself; I’m not going to go through it again just for the sake of one student. I’ll try to find some notes I gave out for you. You are not going to be exempted from it.”
Me: “Yes Sir.”
Mr Kruger: “Good. We are starting the first essay in 2 weeks. I expect you to learn it by then. Now go find a seat; I want to start the lesson.”
I was uneasy for the rest of the lesson. I hadn’t expected him to be so blunt and aggressive. Mostly; I was worried about the fact that I had only 2 weeks to finish reading the play AND try to study it as they would have in class. I was on my own, I wouldn’t have the input a teacher gave; and I was certain I would never actually get the notes he mentioned. I was too scared and wary of him to ask again.
A Pleasant Surprise:
When I got home from school that day, I rushed though the homework I had faster than usual. I enjoyed reading, but reading a novel is completely different from Shakespeare! I had heard about how difficult it was to understand, that it was practically gibberish. I got the book and sat cross-legged on my bed. It was the type of book made specifically for school reading set work. I didn’t know how to use it, so I ended up reading the entire introduction pages; from ‘Shakespeare the Man’ to Shakespeare’s England. The theatre; the texts of his plays, the explanation of his tragedy genre plays finally to ‘Romeo and Juliet: an introduction. It was a total of 29 pages. And I hadn’t even started reading the actual play.
When I started out reading I was worried and unsure of how I would manage this on my own. However instead, I found that as I read the dialogue and cross referenced the short pieces of explanations of each significant line, I found myself actually enjoying. I thought I had gone mad; I was actually enjoying reading Shakespeare. How on earth was that even possible? It was the most fortunate thing my brain had done for me, I knew that now I could partially understand it as well as enjoy it, studying it on my own would be far less daunting than I had initially anticipated. By the end of that first week I had read through half of the play; and, as I had expected, my English teacher had not bothered to give me any notes. That weekend I found myself finishing reading through the play, I was simply enjoying it too much to stop. The second week I decided to focus on the explanatory notes at the end of the book. I found that I not only now understand the Victorian English used much better, but I also had managed to perceive the actual meaning of the play was not a romance, as is usually assumed, but a true tragedy, showing the foolishness of brashness.
Time For The Essay:
The Friday of the second week, Mr Kruger handed out a hand sheet about writing proper argumentative arguments, diagrams showing the stages in which the essay needed to follow. He also handed us the hand sheet on which the essay was to be set on. It was a statement that the actions of the Friar was acceptable and we were to choose if we agreed or disagreed; and base our essay upon that with quotes to substantiate our argument. We had the weekend to do it and were to hand them it in on the Monday. I was feeling strangely confident; essays were always my main strength and I understood the play which helped raise my confidence. The topic we were given was not difficult to decide for or against and I knew the play well enough to be able to easily find parts related to it that I could quote to validate my argument. That Saturday I finished my first draught, and spent Sunday correcting any errors and rewriting it neatly. Monday came and as we came into class we were to place our essays on his desk. I placed it down and quickly retreated to my desk, I was both nervous and proud. Now came the few days wait as he graded them.
On Thursday he announced he had graded the essays and he was disappointed that so many were of such poor quality. I became more anxious at his words. Once he had handed them back he gave us 10 minutes to check our marks and come to him if we had any disputes. He had placed them all face down and as he sat down I turned mine over slowly. When I saw my mark I had to stop myself exclaiming loudly. I had gotten 19/25; I calculated it to the percentage. I had to keep my head down because a grin had formed over my face; I could not help looking up at him still grinning at one point. I had done it. I had accomplished the one thing he had assumed I would fail at. I loved the feeling.
After a few minutes he said he wanted us to call out our marks when he called out our name, he wanted the marks with the numbers; so for 13 instead of saying thirteen we were to say one-three. He went by alphabetical order and I was the 5th name called. He was looking down at his paper and hadn’t looked up while calling the names.
Mr Kruger: “Dana?”
Me: “One – Nine”
Mr Kruger: (Pauses midway into writing the mark and looks up at me). “Come again?”
Me: “One-nine sir.”
During all this time I was concentrating on hiding my grin. He had a look of shocked mixed with confusion. He proceeded to turn his head to the rest of the class and begins emphasising the fact that I had learnt the play on my own, yet I had still gotten a higher mark than some of them. The embarrassment from him making that speech to the class overshadowed the pride I felt. For the rest of the year though; Mr Kruger treated me with more respect and courtesy than he had when first meeting me. He was not used to his judgement being proved that wrong.
The second encounter with Shakespeare’s plays:
The next year, we were to be studying another of Shakespeare’s plays: ‘Macbeth’. We were given the book list at the end of the previous year. I was delighted, I had come to thoroughly enjoy Shakespeare, and by the first day of the new term, I had already finished reading the play at my own leisure. Our English teacher that year was not the same, and I was rather glad. It was a female teacher, Mrs Strydom, and I felt more comfortable with her from the start than I had with Mr Kruger.
Two or three weeks before the first term ended, Mrs Strydom announced we would be starting Macbeth in the second term, so if any of us hadn’t bought it yet we had better have by then. During the two week break I read Macbeth again for the second time, I had always read our set books before we discussed them in class; it gave me a head start, so to speak.
We began reading Macbeth the 2nd day of the new term. As with all reading set works, Mrs Strydom would delegate different students to different characters to read aloud and after a few lines of dialogue she would stop them every now and then in order to explain the meaning of the sentence or explain any phrases that were unclear to modern day English. I enjoyed this way of studying; however, when students were changed around and randomly selected to read; the result was, in my opinion, cringe-worthy. The students, although intelligent, obviously had not bothered to read through the text beforehand and would make the same errors in pronouncing phrases that Mrs Strydom would have to correct repeatedly. When she would introduce a class discussion after finishing each act of the play, the students were not able to go into the text and make further opinions on it.
Mrs Strydom soon came to realise however that I was a bit more interested in Macbeth and Shakespeare in general. Once or twice after the class showed that they weren’t going to put much effort into a discussion, Mrs Strydom would begin a discussion between just her and I. Each time this happened, my classmates would be more and more puzzled and intrigued at my enthusiasm. To some, I was still the ‘new girl’ and they were obviously wondering which planet I had fallen off of.
One interaction with a student that year however, sealed my fate as the ‘strange Shakespeare chick’. One afternoon I was texting a classmate, and the conversation led to homework we had been given on Macbeth. It went something as follows:
Simphiwe: “I really don’t know why this school keeps having Shakespeare in the syllabus.”
Me: “It’s just because Shakespeare is so famous and his writings are good, they actually have some meaning.”
Simphiwe: “I know that, everyone knows he seems to be a great writer, but still. The way he writes, no one speaks like that, he just makes long rambles when he could have put it in one sentence. It’s pointless to learn that if we never going to use it.”
Me: “It’s not exactly pointless, and if he just said things in one sentence, we wouldn’t be reading his writings 400 years later. Besides, if you put things you want to say in the l language style he wrote it, it would be bloody awesome.”
Simphiwe: “Uh right, not really. I mean no one even understands what he’s saying most of the Time. I mean you like him; but not a lot of others do. How could we even try and make up stuff like that?”
Me: “It’s not that hard; just remember phrases from his plays. And I mean, it would be really cool, because you can make things that are dull into something awesome. Like if you’re late for class, instead of the usual ‘sorry I’m late ma’am.’; you could twist it and end up not getting into trouble because she would just be trying to figure out what the hell you just said.”
Simphiwe: “Dana, really? That would just be impossible. It’s too old style English.”
Me: No it’s not. It’s easy, you could say something like; ‘Pray be your pardon, most worthy of thy instructors. I mourn in regret at this imputed and unchaste arrival to thee. For the reason of thy foolish subject’s was one of which I could not be put to blame, for it was unwilling fortune that obstructed my timely arrival. For I swear I bear no mischief towards thee. Pray be your peace and not wrath towards my lowly self. For to thou I do give my word, that this offence shall no longer be a burden to thee.”
Simphiwe: (After a long wait) “Dana, how the hell did you do that? That’s just… insane… Did you copy it from somewhere?”
Me: “No, I made it up by myself.”
Simphiwe: “What. The. Hell.”
In hindsight, I did not help myself by proving myself to be even more odd and strange than what was already thought. But it did make the rest of my school year interesting and enjoyable.
The Lasting Effect:
After finishing High School, my love for Shakespeare did not at all wane. A few months after leaving school, I came across another of Shakespeare’s plays in a box of old ‘junk’ books; ‘King Lear’. I have to say it would be my favourite so far of his plays. And I still search out more of his plays or collection of sonnets to add to my collection of ‘leisure reading’ books. Articles that I find to do with analysis of Shakespeare’s works are by far still my favourite read. I still get the puzzled looks whenever I say that I enjoy reading Shakespeare, but I’ve stopped being phased by it. I rather make it into a joke. Shakespeare is and will also be one of the writers I will always appreciate.