To those closest to me, it’s glaringly apparent that these last few terms have made up my lowest year at college so far — and not just because I recently set my beloved Dunder Mifflin coffee mug on fire in the second-floor microwave. Perhaps this is retribution for deftly evading the ol’ “sophomore slump” last year. The universe has to evenly distribute dysphoria among the Lawrence population, right?
Thankfully, I am heading into the summer looking up. I owe my partially-recaptured sanity to my friends, the psych faculty, Res Life and some of the dandy folks at Counseling Services. But there is another fellow to whom I am indebted.
Billy “The Bard” Shakes — William Shakespeare, to those less intimately acquainted — is not only a BAMF, but my hero. “Savior,” I would say, though I suspect my religiously-committed associates might protest.
Still, semantics should not detract from the staggering impact Shakespeare’s writing has had on my life.
My maternal grandmother, a retired English professor, kept scribbled-over Signet Classics editions of Shakespeare’s works on the lowest shelf of her dilapidated study. Having exhausted the available cable channels, sixth-grade Emily could think of nothing better to do than creep around the house at two in the morning, perusing dusty books. “Hamlet” caught my eye, because in a sea of Milton and essays on feminism it was the only title I recognized.
Upon exposing a page at random, I became immediately and utterly infatuated with the lines’ beauty. My “too too solid flesh” was melting for the resonating verse, and I decided that, as far as I was concerned, Prince Hamlet could lie in my lap for as long as he wanted.
From then on, I was Shakespeare’s confidant, and he was my companion. I gleaned worldly advice about coping with pain, counsel I carry with me today: “Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak/ Whispers the o’er fraught heart, and bids it break.” I’m surprised that no Tom Riddle manipulated me into releasing a basilisk on my unsuspecting classmates — I poured enough of my soul into the words to put Ginny to shame.
The summer before eighth grade provided me with my most fortunate, invaluable experience to date. I joined a nonprofit youth acting company, the Young Shakespeare Players, which performed the Bard’s plays as Shakespeare (and God) intended: full-length and uncut. I donned beards sticky with spirit gum and broiling fatsuits with lumpy, exaggerated paunches. I memorized extensive monologues, to be recalled on command. I played lecherous slimeballs, antisocial executioners mildly reminiscent of Scott Walker, dewy-eyed lovers and — my favorite, hands-down — indulgent drunkards. Atop roofs, I roared, “Give me life!” And he did.
I reflect on that time with inexpressible fondness and reverence. Yet, I would be remiss to exclude the darker reality of our tumultuous relationship, peaking during my angsty late-adolescent years. Everything I read turned to a steamy mound of excrement in my mouth. How dare Shakespeare write such transparent, formulaic trash?
If I fell in love with a teenager over the course of one sonnet, a mere 16 lines, I would not be aided and abetted — or should I say, “a-bedded”? — by a rambling nurse with psychosomatic backaches and a tedious, drug-foraging friar. I was consistently bored by Lear, a self-deprecating geezer “as full of grief as age,” who is indisputably “wretched in both.” If Othello had eaten LSD-laced strawberries, slept around with goats and monkeys, and lit himself on fire with “that Promethean heat” intended for Desi, the play’s ending would have gone up a notch in my estimation.
After clawing through that anguish-filled phase of loathing, perhaps the loneliest developmental stage unknowingly omitted by Piaget, I returned to Shakespeare. Billy and I, we now have a comfortable, measured rapport. Occasionally, my brain will overflow with the remnants of a love too strong, lines lying dormant under the shell of my consciousness; most people who see me reciting to myself just go with it. This is Lawrence, after all.
I’m not a spiritual person, but Shakespeare’s works wrench me back upright when I’m feeling down, and remind me that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” For me, his words are not sufficient, but still unequivocally necessary for appreciating a full life. I suggest we all take a page from Shakespeare’s book, and bask in the excellence.
[Exit, pursued by a bear].