From Under a Rock

Last night, I was texting one of my friends in Chicago pretty late, and I’ve determined that I’m just going to live under a rock. Real life is too exasperating to justify the amount of energy expended in trying to sort it all out.

I know that doesn’t sound very enterprising. And in reality I’m going on with all the usual things– today I’m finishing up a fellowship application (fingers crossed) and I have to turn my room into the semblance of a space that people might actually live in, because another friend is coming to stay with me next week, over her spring break. Currently, most of my things are still in boxes, and my room has no shelving. We’ll get there eventually.

So in practicalities, life is going as usual, but emotionally I’m going under my rock. It’s a safe place there.

Happily, this blog fits under the rock as well, particularly since I’ve been feeling guilty at having abandoned it for… oh dear, has it been three weeks?? I think it has. I have no idea where February went; it seemed to slip by at an extraordinarily fast pace. To make it up to any readers who noticed my absence, I’ve decided that I will commit to doing one full week where I post every day. I haven’t determined yet if I’ll do the marathon next week or the week after– like I mentioned, I have a friend staying next week, and it would hardly be fair to her if I glued myself to my laptop. It depends, then, on how much work I might be able to get done in advance. Stay tuned for an announcement later this week! I’d also like to invite suggestions for topics. I have a few ideas in mind, but I’d love to hear what you want to see. Let me know in the comments!

In other news, while I’m doing this life update, I am almost done with Middlemarch. I know, it’s been forever since I last did a book review. Middlemarch is an incredibly long novel, but I think I’m down to the last hundred pages. You’ll see it featured here soon, along with the long-promised review of A Room of One’s Own, and also The Drunken Botanist, which is a nonfiction book on plants and how they turn into alcohol. One of the bartenders from work lent it to me, and I’ve enjoyed it tremendously.

That’s all for now, but let me know what ideas you might have regarding material for the marathon! I can’t wait to plan the week!

Yours,

Madeleine

I Feel Famous

And I will continue to feel famous for at least the next couple hours, which is why I’m writing this now, before my giddiness wears off.

About a month ago, I mentioned that I had recently joined a new writing website called Inkitt (original post here). It’s a slow-moving community, and at this point my presence there is irregular. I’ll stop on, leave a couple reviews, check the forums to see if any friends are there, and then go about my life. Today I remembered that I had received a couple of emails from Inkitt’s notification system, so I logged in to check. I’m so glad I did.

I received the following review on my short story “Swimming in the Rhone”:

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Holy wow. I’ve received praise before, but nothing remotely close to this. This is a comprehensive breakdown of my writing, and shockingly, it doesn’t find the story wanting. Granted, there’s another review on the same story which gives a couple of stylistic pointers. I know that my writing doesn’t suit everyone, that something can always be tweaked and improved. A review like this, though, is a huge boost. It’s a good reason to keep on writing on the days when nothing seems to come out right.

But wait. It gets better.

I read this review and I smiled a lot and texted a few friends about it. Then, when I went to check the forums, I saw a new group had been published:

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Do you see what I see? Dr. Joshua Grasso. That’s the guy who left my review. Apparently, he’s a big shot on the website.

So, I started digging into him a little bit. He has an English Ph.D. He’s a professor at a university in Oklahoma. He also runs what appears to be a successful blog– it’s not in quite the same style as what I’m doing here, but I’m sure I could learn from his example.

The review means so much more once the reviewer is definitively credible. Any thorough and thoughtful review makes me happy, but now I know that I have the good opinion of someone whose opinion is more broadly recognised as valuable.

I’ve already thanked Dr. Grasso for his review. He also shared “Swimming in the Rhone” on his Twitter feed, and he added it to his “Favourite Stories” reading list, which has a total of only ten stories on it. As a rookie blogger with a tiny Internet presence, I greatly appreciate his promotion, and I’d like to reciprocate in the small way that I can. For anyone interested, Dr. Grasso’s blog can be found here.

I’ll also be posting “Swimming in the Rhone” in a post here on Ampersandras later this week, but if you’d like to check it out on Inkitt, you can find it here.

Okay, rant over. I’m famous.

Book Review: Lolita

It’s been a week since I posted anything (update: I just posted “Dear Chicago”), and it’s been three or four days since I finished Lolita. I freely admit that I’ve been putting off writing this review.

I didn’t want to finish Lolita. It’s one of those books that are difficult to pick back up once put down, because you know that it can’t possibly end well. I took a break from Lolita hoping that the girl would die and that Humbert Humbert would end up castrated. That seemed like the best possible conclusion. It wasn’t until I had put down the novel and felt a huge rush of relief that I realised how nauseating I found Humbert’s narrative of his sexual experiences with an adolescent girl.

I’ve done little additional research on this novel and its reception, but it has quite the reputation. It’s controversial, obviously, because of the topics it considers. It was originally received, as I understand, with Lolita cast as a villain, a twelve-year-old seductress to whom Humbert Humbert could not help but succumb. It’s supposed to be erotic.

I’ve been pondering for days how I might write my reaction to Lolita without becoming overly moralising, raging against the academic community’s reflection of a victim-blaming mentality in this novel. It’s a story about pedophilia and we already know that. What I want to focus on instead is the power of perspective that Nabokov utilises masterfully, to the point where the reader is tempted to sympathise with Humbert Humbert despite the rational knowledge of the pain he inflicts on an adolescent. From Humbert Humbert’s perspective, Lolita is a love story. He falls in love with a nymphet, possesses her, loses her, finds her, and loves her still.

“Nymphet” is the crucial word. It’s such a small detail, the use of the term “nymphet” instead of “girl,” but it makes all the difference. Humbert Humbert describes nymphets as a virtually separate species that appear as adolescent girls, but he ascribes to them a sexuality and maturity far beyond any twelve-year-old. The nymphet can be as young as nine and as old as approximately fourteen, and she has an aura about her that a normal little girl could never hope to capture. Humbert’s description of Lolita as a nymphet means that, according to him, she can’t be harmed by his eroticisation like other girls her age. Essentially, she’s asking for it. She is the temptress and he falls under her spell. In case his reader has a difficult time imagining a little girl with such a powerful allure, Humbert Humbert assures us that this is no ordinary little girl, but a nymphet, who exists outside of social norms and expectations.

The power of the novel is the degree to which Nabokov digs his heels into Humbert Humbert and his personality, wrapping a web around the reader until we can’t help but sympathise. We want Humbert to find Lolita, to live in contentment with her. When Charlotte finds a diary of Humbert’s fantasies, we panic because he’s found out. We’re loyal to his secret, complicit in his crime without realising it. Nabokov puts into the hands of the reader as much power of interpretation as he possibly can– he never slips out of Humbert’s voice, never fumbles and reveals him overtly as a villain. Instead, we sink further and further into Humbert Humbert’s account, marking points of justification and conjuring up a tangible, realistic human voice that takes the place of a faceless and unnamed pedophile.

Through Lolita, Nabokov reveals himself as a master of erotic language. None of the scenes are explicit, all sexual activity hides under a thin veil of euphemism, but sensuality pervades every moment, transition, and moment of musing. Humbert Humbert is obsessed with the smallest of details, the glimmer of bared skin between a shirt and shorts, the shape of lips biting into an apple, the shower in the next room creaking on. Even with the companionship of Lolita, he remains aware of the presence of other “nymphets” and the sexual satisfaction their proximity provides. The attention to sensual detail turns the entire novel into an engagement and satisfaction of the senses, and Humbert Humbert’s underlying obsession with sexual stimulation bleeds through even when he takes the time to describe the most mundane of situations, be it breakfast or a car ride.

Finishing Lolita was a relief. Spending a week in Humbert Humbert’s mind made me want to take a mental bath and try to scrub myself clean of his perversion of every possible scene. My emotional reaction made it hard to analyse, hence the time I’ve taken to write this review. In terms of technical skill, Nabokov has me dazzled. I can’t imagine a more convincing insight into Humbert Humbert’s mind, although admittedly I’m not sure I would want one.

I have yet to find a satisfactory answer to the big “why” question: why would anyone want to write this, and why would anyone want to read it? My first semester at Loyola, I took an introductory poetry course. One of the poems we read and discussed in class was written from the perspective of a serial rapist, with indications of mental disability and some limited insight into the rapist’s childhood and the satisfaction he achieved through his actions. Several of my classmates couldn’t push past how disgusting the content of the poem was, and we moved into a discussion about when or whether art can go too far. I asserted, and I still maintain, that art has no limits, in subject or style. In writing, the artist has no responsibility beyond telling a story and revealing some species of truth. The artist doesn’t have to provide a moral solution or judgment; that’s for the reader to conjure, if they choose. I have no idea what drove Nabokov to write a novel from the perspective of a pedophile, but I respect that this is a story that has just much right to be told as any other. Perhaps Nabokov wanted to point out that it might be easy for us to condemn people like Humbert Humbert when they remain faceless and nameless, but they still equal everyone else in complexity. Perhaps he simply found the notion of writing from this niche perspective an attractive project. It’s the way that his work resonates in us, the emotions and thoughts that he stirs up and the clear water that he obscures with the muck of uncertainty that has the power to change both art and life.

On the back cover of my copy of Lolita, there’s a quote from Vanity Fair that calls this novel “the only convincing love story of our century.” That quote sums up both the emotional problems I have with the story and the intellectual interest it piques in me. A love story? Is that what this is? My disgust at Humbert Humbert overwhelmingly screams no. It depends, however, on what definition of love is at play. From Humbert Humbert’s perspective, he might very well tell a story of love. What if the novel were retold from Lomita’s perspective? Then it might be a story of corruption, or abuse, or destruction. And then there’s my perspective, as the reader. I don’t call this love, but I suppose someone else might. I do wonder what Nabokov might have intended. Did he know he was writing a love story– or did he have a very different tale in mind?

Cited: Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. New York: Random House Inc., 1955. Print.

Dear Chicago

Dear Chicago,

My dad doesn’t like you very much. He’s happy that Lakeshore Drive exists so that he can, for the most part, avoid you, and he says you’re a cesspool, which I find rather funny. I want you to know, though, that I’ve grown extraordinarily fond of you. I’m sorry that for now I can’t stay, but I’m sure I’ll be back soon. You have a lot of my friends.

Yesterday my dad and I made the drive for me to say goodbye, and the fog obscured the skyline, but I could feel it anyway. There’s a rush that I feel coming into the city, like I manage to connect to the millions of lives going on around me, busy busy busy, compact and glowing. Once I’m past 95th I can imagine the Red Line, and while Dad and I ease into traffic my mind is spiralling up the tracks to my campus, to my apartment and my two goofy roommates. I like knowing that we’re all in the same place, tied into the web of energy that stretches across the sky.

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Chicago, you should know that I’ve come to consider you home. I hope you don’t mind that you’ll have to share the title with Detroit; it came first, after all. But over the last year and a half, a year and a half of growth and exploration and imaginings, I’ve come to love my life in view of the skyline, with Lady Lake and her sass and the wind shoving its way between buildings. I’m comfortable and confident and happy on campus, with a constant awareness of the people I love close by and the almost tangible notion of opportunity peeking its head around the corner. I’ve even grown fond of the instant mac and cheese, late night soda runs, constantly refilling the toilet paper roll, and communicating primarily in grunts, groans, and hisses early in the morning. I like letting the days roll by in this bizarre space of pretended adulthood and admitted youth, where in the morning I’m drafting emails to professors at my most formal and in the afternoon my roommate and I are getting Happy Meals at McDonald’s for lunch, because Pokémon toys are the bomb.

Chicago, I think it would be fair to say that this epoch of my life belongs to you. Maybe as far as measured time goes we didn’t stay together for long, but it feels like an age, in the best way possible. This isn’t really goodbye– it’s just a rain check. Take care of my friends while I’m gone, please. They’re special.

Yours,

Madeleine

P.S. I’ve decided to forgive you for that time I fell in the lake. I know you were just messing around ~M

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The Virginia Woolf Story, and an Announcement

Today, I have an excuse to acknowledge one of my greatest obsessions: Virginia Woolf. If I could, I’d probably write up a post on her weekly, but that has the potential to become boring and repetitive to people who aren’t as enthusiastically single-minded as I tend to be.

Today is special because it’s her birthday. Virginia was born on this day in 1882, making her 134, assuming that my math is right (which is rarely a safe assumption). It’s wild to me to think that 100 years ago the Hogarth Press was still only an idea, and the majority of the novels that I love had yet to take shape. Virginia was living through WWI, and had only completed her first novel, The Voyage Out.

I thought about making this post something of a book review, the way I did for Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday, but at the moment I’m leaning more towards an explanation of how my VW obsession began and how it’s grown, because she’s sure to come up again in the future. I’ve been rereading A Room of One’s Own for the umpteenth time, just because I love it. I’ll probably review it later in the week.

The Virginia Woolf Story, as we’ll call it, is closely tied in with my determination to pursue English despite any obstacles. I discovered Virginia my junior year of high school. I had heard of her before, but when I attempted to read Mrs. Dalloway as a freshman I couldn’t push past the first twenty-some pages. I didn’t understand the point of a novel where nothing happens– I hadn’t yet fallen in love with the sheer beauty of words. When I was a junior, though, I hit a roadblock in my writing. I had a teacher who always said “To be a good writer, you must read good writers,” so I decided to find an author to emulate. A friend leant me the third volume of Virginia Woolf’s diaries when I told him that I needed a writer who was simultaneously colloquial and formal, casual and flowery.

That was the turning point. I devoured the diary. She was perfect. What I encountered then, which I have since recognised as one of my favourite aspects of Virginia, was the mix of Victorian and modernist. She was born in 1882, and the Victorian era ended in 1901. Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, and the academic elite to which he belonged, was decidedly Victorian. The new generation ushered in a new age in literature, though– Virginia and her peers heralded the beginning of modernism. Her writing combines the elegance and flowery language of the Victorians with the new horizons in thought and perspective of modernism. She introduced and perfected stream-of-consciousness writing, but she was undeniably a snob, comfortable in her world of books and papers and academia.

I loved the diary because it was writing– just writing. There was no plot, no characters beyond Virginia and Leonard, their hopeless maid Nellie, and the countless names that V drops in passing,. Virginia used her diary as a space for writing practice, and she conjures up scenes and sensations masterfully in the privacy of an unpublished space.

After the diary, I found Mrs. Dalloway again, and this time I fell headfirst into 1920s London and Clarissa’s poignant, painful inner life. My betta fish is named Septimus, after Septimus Warren Smith. At the end of my junior year, I begged my English teacher to let me write a Dalloway paper for the end of term, and she agreed that I could, in addition to the assigned work, so I did.

Volume 3 of the diary and Mrs. Dalloway sent me spiralling into a world of Virginia and Bloomsbury and interwar British literature. I fell irretrievably in love with her and her world. I’ve written two papers on her and last spring I gave a thirty minute presentation on her relationships with her nuclear family, her sister Nessa, and her husband, Leonard. I have nearly twenty books either by her or about her. I drive my mother crazy because she thinks I don’t read anything else (which was true, for a while).

This year, my work with Virginia has reached a peak. Last semester, I went to a professor’s office hours to ask about research opportunities in the English department. He  pointed out that the work he does involves reading some stuff, thinking some stuff about it, and then writing some stuff. It’s fairly solitary work. He pointed me to another professor in the department, though, who happened to be one of the key scholars in the Woolf Online project. Woolf Online is a digital archive of To the Lighthouse; I had heard of it, but never explored it further.

The next week, I met with Professor C, and after twenty minutes of pleasant chatter, I walked out of her office with a bemused but pleased expression and a research project. She hadn’t been looking for any additional labour for Woolf Online, which has been launched for a few years now and is more or less in stasis. I brought up the call for papers for the Virginia Woolf Conference, though, and she pulled it up directly. It happens to be on heritage this year, and it invites papers on Virginia’s effect on heritage; its effect on her; her experience of archives, museums, and libraries; literary heritage; family heritage.

What better prompt could there be for a paper on Woolf Online? We started brainstorming, I happened to say that the archive could be thought of like a family album, and that was it. I left with the direction to read an article on archives and pull up an abstract.

This all leads up to my announcement. I have officially submitted a paper proposal to the 2016 Virginia Woolf Conference. All proposals were due today; Professor C and I finalised ours over the weekend. I have my fingers crossed that I’m accepted, and then I might have the opportunity to go to England this summer and attend the conference.

I never would have imagined this when I fell in love with Virginia Woolf three years ago. I didn’t realise what I was preparing for when I devoured A Room of One’s Own and Orlando. I’m excited to see what might come of this, though, and eager to do homage to the amazing woman who inspires me every day.

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Poe and Pleasure

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This post comes a day late, since the man it intends to honour was born yesterday in 1809, but I will simply have to beg his forgiveness. I spent the day with my anthology of Edgar Allan Poe. It’s his complete works of poetry and short stories, so I had plenty to work with, and I ended up choosing four short stories more or less arbitrarily. “The Fall of the House of Usher” I remembered vaguely from high school, and one of the characters is named Madeline. I wandered through the table of contents and found “The Black Cat,” “Byron and Miss Chaworth,” and “The Power of Words.” By pure coincidence, these four shorts proved to be fairly representative of the body of Poe’s work. The first two had the traditionally gothic and grotesque settings for which he is famous, and the latter two were more philosophical in nature. “Byron” is, in some respects, a literary criticism– although it theorises about a person instead of a work.

Perhaps it’s because I’m reading Lolita right now (more on that in the near future), but the theme that jumped at me was Poe’s understanding of pleasure in perversity. He addresses it, if only briefly, in “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Black Cat.”

The respective narrators of these two stories are drastically different, particularly in terms of their perspectives. In “House of Usher,” the narrator is more or less a witness to the disturbing goings-on, without ever participating directly. In “Black Cat,” the narrator is not only a participant, but the instigator. Intriguingly, the witness delivers his tale in a far more hysterical and superstitious fashion, while the instigator deliberately clarifies more than once that he offers only facts, implying a cause-and-effect chain of events without overtly voicing his suppositions.

In “The Black Cat,” the narrator tells a story of his fall from sensitivity and humanity into the habits of drunken violence. As a child he had loved animals, as a young newlywed he had his wife kept several pets, and as a drunk he hung his cat for the sheer sake of “committing a sin.” In explanation, the narrator speaks eloquently of a “spirit of perverseness” that compels man to perform vile actions simply “because he knows he should not.” When I initially read this passage, I thought of St. Augustine’s Confessions, when he relates a story of stealing fruit for no better reason than the pleasure of doing wrong.

The theme is less apparent in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” but there was one passage in the story that kept drawing me back to it:

I know not how it was–but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible.

I love this passage. I think Poe manages to capture an emotion that many would deny– that tendency we have to revel in righteous anger or justified sorrow. It’s the concupiscent allure of angst and indulgence in melodrama that most people grow out of, or at the very least learn to repress.

Poe’s theory of poetry was focused on Beauty, by which he meant “the excitement, or pleasurable elevation, of the soul.” When he says “poetic,” then, in the above quotation, he means beautiful. He speaks of the Beauty typically found in the “desolate or terrible,” a beauty that is notably absent in the House of Usher, and I think this pleasure we encounter in viewing something terrible but beautiful is the same perverse pleasure that the narrator generates with his misbehaviour in “The Black Cat.”

In writing of the allure of sin and the beauty of the desolate, Poe offers us a tangible theory for the pleasure we find in reading and rereading the most famous of his works. His stories have no happy endings, they rarely offer any catharsis, they shock us and scare us and yet we go back to them time and time again, as we have for 150 years and will for many centuries more. There’s a delicious indulgence in the shivers of madness we feel in classics like “The Tell-Tale Heart” or “The Raven.” We like dancing on that edge between sanity and insanity, we like to be startled and disturbed. There’s a world of darkness that many of us won’t dare to wander near, and through Poe, we can experience that dangerous exhilaration anyway.

Thank you, dear Edgar, for daring to tumble into an imagination’s hell so that the rest of us can taste it and shiver. Happy birthday.

The following are links to the works available online, along with the citation for the volume I used:

“The Fall of the House of Usher”

“The Black Cat”

“Byron and Miss Chaworth”

“The Power of Words”

Poe, Edgar Allan. Edgar Allan Poe: Complete Tales and Poems. New York: Fall River, 2012. Print.

Book Review: Hamlet

I feel there’s a certain unavoidable amount of absurdity and presumption in sitting down to write a review, informed only by my own reading and interpretation, of a work as significant as Hamlet. Anything I could say has most likely been said before, in superior language and with clearer purpose. In an effort to tackle an aspect of this play that I might speak well on, I want to focus on the experience of reading Hamlet as a required text for a high school class in comparison with this experience of reading it on my own, entirely outside of an academic setting.

Hamlet is not actually my favourite Shakespeare play, although at present it is my favourite of his tragedies. My favourite has for a long time been The Tempest, rather ironically, given that it was the last of his works and is widely held to have not been completed by The Bard himself. It was the first Shakespeare that I ever saw performed, though, so it holds a special place in my heart. Regardless, a couple weeks ago I developed a craving for Hamlet, so I dug through my boxes of books and managed to find a copy that I bought my senior year, when the Barnes & Noble near my house was closing (I dropped nearly $300 in books over the space of two months when everything went on clearance, but I bought reading material that could last ten years). My roommate loves Hamlet, so she strongly endorsed my decision, which boosted my confidence when I was at the beginning of Act II and trying to figure out how this play could be so much longer than I remembered.

I’ve never particularly struggled with Shakespeare. Some people find it impossible to read, and while I admit it can be a challenge, I think “impossible” puts it a bit strongly. It just requires a little extra work. That little bit of extra work, though, is what puts so many people off these plays. High school students already have plenty of work to do. They have homework and sports and musicals and drama, and in my case a never-ending sense of personal mortification. High school is difficult enough without Shakespeare.

I didn’t hate Hamlet when we had to read it for class, although it’s a safe bet that I probably fell behind on the reading fairly quickly and had to catch up in a heroic effort to continue my facade as a good student. No, I didn’t hate Hamlet then, but I enjoyed it far more this time around. I read the essays included at the beginning of the book, I perused the timeline of Shakespeare’s life, and I skipped over the cast of characters because I already knew them. I took Act I slowly, because I knew that I needed to give myself time to adjust to the language and syntax. I used the Barnes & Noble Shakespeare edition, and it has footnotes on the left hand page and the text on the right. Of the formats I’ve seen, I think I prefer this one. The footnotes are easy to find because they run the length of the page, instead of finding themselves crammed at the bottom of the page. Particularly with a text that has as many additives as Hamlet might, the format helped me to keep organised. It had the added benefit of making me feel like I was reading twice as fast, because for every ten pages, only five of them had been the play, with the other five serving as explanatory notes. A false sense of accomplishment does wonders for my self esteem.

The trick, I found, was to figure out which notes I needed, and which I didn’t. Sometimes there would be a block of historical context, and I read that because it was interesting, and it adds another dimension to the reading. Other times, the note was essentially nothing more than reading comprehension, in which case it was irritating to break the flow of my reading to receive redundant information. My rule became that I would read until the end of the sentence in which the footnote was marked. If I didn’t understand it, I checked the note. If I did, I left it alone. It was refreshing, almost empowering, to at times give myself credit for understanding without the offered assistance, and to decide for myself how to read the play, how to interpret it, and most significantly, how to enjoy it.

As a society we have such a stubborn notion of Shakespeare and his antiquity, that when I encounter a moment when he really is just being outrageous and inappropriate, I usually have to reread it. I’m positive that there must be something I missed, because he can’t really mean that— and yet he does. I owe so much to footnotes for those times when I’m staring at a line, assuming I have my teenage hormones to blame for the fact that my only interpretation is a sex joke, and then the footnotes inform me that yes, Shakespeare is indeed making an innuendo out of “Fortune’s private parts.” So much for a highly sophisticated, masterful manipulation of the English language. Shakespeare used his genius to smirk like a fourteen-year-old boy.

To those high school students who hate Shakespeare, I have a few points of advice, having endured high school’s presentation of Shakespeare and moved on to create my own experience.

First, and I actually recommend this with any assigned reading, don’t read it like assigned reading. If you’re reading in three chapter chunks every night because that’s what Teacher assigned, when normally you only read if you have a good three hours to sit down, then do that instead. If you read for twenty minutes before bed, do that. Don’t read sitting at your desk with all your other homework out and in front of you, don’t read with a notebook ready because you’re trying to guess what theme class might cover tomorrow. Read in a way that enables you to focus solely on the book, which, remember, was originally written for the sake of entertainment.

Shakespeare did not write to torture the poor high school students of the 21st century. He doesn’t mean to use archaic syntax and words that have long since vanished from our vernacular. He wrote for his peers, for the English stage, in a time period when theatre was a significant cultural phenomenon, drawing the social classes together. In the edition of Hamlet that I’m reading, there’s an essay included after the play that explains some of the editing decisions. This edition is based off the Quarto 2, and the majority of the changes function solely to modernise the text. Reading “You come moft carefully vpon your houre” and then “Tis now ftrooke twelfe, get thee to bed Francifco” and going on like that for another 200 pages would have been miserable (I’ve never understood why “s” is “f” in Middle English. I should probably investigate that at some point). This editor’s focus was to minimise the peculiarities of the English language that Shakespeare and his generation wouldn’t have remarked upon. It doesn’t change any meaning in the play to read “most” instead of “moft”– it just makes our lives easier. Shakespeare didn’t write to be inaccessible, and it is the job of the editor to maintain the play’s relevance when the evolution of language might have rendered it obsolete.

Many high school teachers have students act out scenes when they’re teaching a play. I have a friend earning degrees in Education and English, and she’s already excited to transform her classroom into a stage. Sometimes these amateur performances are successful and sometimes they’re just awkward, but either way they’re a crucial reminder that plays are meant to be performed. Seeing Shakespeare on the stage is a completely different experience from reading him in print, but there are ways to minimise the gap. Visualisation is an important aspect for me– I like to pay attention to stage directions and imagine a set in my head. The B&N edition has a diagram of what the stage at the Globe would have looked like, and that helps as well. It can also be useful to read difficult lines out loud, just to play with inflection. In cases where sentences are lengthy or awkward, speaking them can help to break up the clauses, depending on where the breath falls.

Dear High School Student, my best piece of advice might be to simply embrace the ridiculousness of so many of Shakespeare’s scenes. Even in his tragedies, there are wonderful moments of absurdity. Hamlet teasing Polonius, for example, always makes me grin. We all know some pompous person who likes to assault our ears with pontification. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to call them a fishmonger?

Or Hamlet with his school friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern…even if he does have them executed. Up until intrigue and backstabbing play a part, the three of them are just like us. They’re students. They make rude jokes and they get excited about the players coming to perform.

I think the gravedigger in Act V falls into a similar category. He’s what one of my professors referred to as a “low-life,” meaning all those Shakespearean characters that fall into the lower classes and generally wander on stage for the sake of some comic relief. They speak in dialect, often crudely, and they confuse words’ definitions. In a beautifully cynical light, these are the people who often represent the majority. These are the normal people, going about their lives, untouched by the crises of the monarchy. The gravedigger doesn’t care whose grave it is that he’s digging. Hamlet remarks that he “has no feeling of his business,” because he can carve out the walls of a body’s final home and sing a merry tune all at the same time. The truth, though, is that this fellow is just doing his job, has been doing his job for the last thirty years, and will continue doing his job after Hamlet is dead. He doesn’t care whose ass is sitting in the throne. He tosses up skulls and plays the jester and gives us a breath before Shakespeare storms in and slaughters all the main characters with the stroke of a pen.

I never hated Shakespeare, so perhaps I have an advantage, but I truly enjoy reading him now, just for myself, without any pressures or deadlines to worry about. So, to the high school student who has Act III due Monday, try taking a moment to remember that these plays have survived the last four hundred because they really are stupendous, because thousands of people before us have read them just for entertainment. Look for the hilarity, for the questions that reverberate in all of us. Take “to be or not to be” and ask it of yourself. Sure, there a thousand adaptations of that famous line already, but that doesn’t mean it can’t apply to us, too. We make the choice “to be” in every moment. We choose to live, to work, to sing or dance or laugh. Hamlet’s crisis of identity is a crisis that we all endure. Once we realise that in holding “the mirror up to nature” we see our own reflection, how can we help but read and tease out Hamlet’s answer, in the hope that it might guide our own?

A link to the play: Hamlet