Over My Head: Falling in Love with Shakespeare as a Kid by Jacqueline West
When I was in middle school, my grandpa gave me an old family copy of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare. It had belonged to my Great-Great-Uncle Harold—more commonly known as Weird Uncle Harold. (Harold had unpleasant political ideas, a penchant for chewing cloves of raw garlic, and the habit of wandering away from family parties and getting lost in the woods instead). It was—and is—a big blue volume with gold embossing and woodcuts by Rockwell Kent at the start of each play. When Grandpa gave that book to his stage-struck, bookish thirteen-year-old granddaughter, he threw open a door that a few lucky coincidences had just unlocked. I stepped through it, and I don’t think I’ve been the same since.
I’d already been aware of Shakespeare. I grew up with an English teacher mother in a house full of books, and I’d tried to read both Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra by the time I reached fifth grade. Mom had also let me watch the Franco Zeffirelli Romeo and Juliet, in which I saw my first naked male backside. (Pretty classy, I suppose, to start with Romeo’s.) Plus, every summer, our local university hosted “College for Kids,” a program that let middle grade students enroll in week-long intensive courses. I’d taken everything theatre-related that I could find: Egyptian myths and drama, Greek myths and drama, and, finally, Shakespeare. I still remember the first Shakespearean scenes I ever performed: the ambush of Banquo in Macbeth, and Kate and Petruchio’s fight in The Taming of the Shrew. Of course, much of the material (and most of the dirty jokes) flew right over our heads—but the richness of the plots and characters and the beauty of the language flooded me completely.
And then there was the Reduced Shakespeare Company.
Midway through middle school, someone gave me the cassettes of the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s radio show. Like their live shows, the radio show was fast-paced, bare-bones, literary lunacy. My brothers and I listened to those tapes again and again on long drives in the family Pontiac. Even with our patchy background in Shakespeare, we grasped both the humor (most of it, anyway) and its significance. It’s funny: I remember the episode on Hamlet most clearly—not just because the RSC did Hamlet in 30 seconds, and then did it again backward, which made us laugh until we wheezed—but because the conclusion of the episode was simply a reading of the play’s final, searingly gorgeous lines, with the sounds of war rumbling in the distance.
By the end of high school, I’d plowed my way through the entire Complete Works. Yes, a lot of it still went over my head, but I’m not sure that even mattered. I missed some things. I found others. With every reading, I found more.
Years later, as a high school English teacher and drama coach, I tried to open the Shakespeare door for my students. We used the texts, of course. We used performance, watching film versions from Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet to Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet, as well as acting out our own scenes. And we used our own lives, updating Shakespeare’s language, imagining scenes in new contexts, discussing the ways that Shakespeare’s work related to our experiences and our world.
Four-hundred-year-old dramas about thanes and friars wouldn’t promise to have much in common with the lives of teenagers in a rural Wisconsin high school. But that’s the magic of Shakespeare. It’s timelessly human. The motivations, reactions, and inner workings of his characters are so rich, all readers can find themselves reflected there. And where coming-of-age stuff is concerned, it’s a treasure trove. (Loving someone others think is wrong for you. Wanting to please and to rebel against your family at the same time. Betrayal by friends. Depression and suicide. Weathering the death of a family member. Pretending to be something you’re not. Realizing that your parents aren’t only fallible but seriously flawed. And that’s just Hamlet.)
As I watched my students explore Shakespeare’s stories, another story started to take shape in my head. It involved a modern-day theatre kid who, after a serious head injury, started seeing Shakespeare and his characters in her day-to-day life. It had backstage drama, and complicated family relationships, and unwise but overwhelming romance. It had dark humor and eerie twists and layers of truth and lies. It took eight years for me to get that story out of my head and into its final form, but DREAMERS OFTEN LIE was released this month—just in time for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.
And if it unlocks the door for another young reader, I’ll be really happy.
A two-time Pushcart nominee for poetry, Jacqueline West is the author of the kid- and critic-beloved middle-grade series, The Books of Elsewhere. Jacqueline lives amid the bluffs of Red Wing, Minnesota, with her husband, son, and their dog, Brom Bones. This is her sixth novel, her first for teens. Visit her online at www.jacquelinewest.com.