Imagine a horror/revenge novel in which a character is talked into cutting off his own arm, and then, later, a character is forced to commit cannibalism when he is served human flesh cooked in his meal.
Or imagine a novel about a young woman who accuses a powerful head of state of having sexually harassed her, even raped her, and demands justice. It turns out, rape culture permeates her city.
Or imagine a novel in which two young people fall into rapturous love at first sight, but because a bitter, older man is jealous, he arranges it so the young man thinks he sees the woman he loves in bed with another man.
Can you see yourself reading any of these novels while kicked back on a lounge chair in the backyard, or while lying on a beach towel near the ocean? Want to know where to find these latest books?
Look back four hundred years.
The horror novel I’ve described is pulled from the pages of Titus Andronicus. The story that sounds like it could have been ripped from the headlines about rape culture is Measure for Measure. And the two lovers who are separated by the machinations of a bitter man is As You Like It – all three dreamt up by one William Shakespeare.
Many of us read Shakespeare plays as part of our high school curricula. For me, it was the four tragedies: Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello, and MacBeth starting in freshman year and finishing as a senior. (We read Romeo and Juliet in eighth grade.) While it’s understandable in terms of teaching students how to read Shakespeare, it may not be the best way to get students to enjoy Shakespeare. Why didn’t we get to read As You Like It, in which, unlike the teen lovers Romeo and Juliet where tragedy ensues from their decision to go against their parents’ rules and flout the feud between their families, Claudio learns that his decision not to trust his girlfriend results in his losing her? It’s a story wherein questions of whether putting your male friends before your female lovers will result in lifelong happiness arise.
I wonder if reading a story in which young lovers find happiness – not death – may not be a better message to give to teenagers. But then again, parents are invested in stories in which teenage lovers are punished for their transgressions.
In these days where we welcome the diversity that transgender people bring to the human family, the trans-infused plotlines of As You Like It could be interpreted in a whole new way. What may be even more shocking to twenty-first-century audiences, who are somehow convinced that sex in fiction was invented sometime early in the twentieth century, is that the “nothing” referenced in the title Much Ado About Nothing was in Shakespeare’s time the derogatory male term for women’s genitalia. Indeed, the title is a play on words about how crazy men can be when chasing the chance of sex. It sort of sounds like the plot of half the novels and films that come out for summer, don’t you think?
If none of these plots appeal to you, perhaps consider the political intrigue of Richard II, or, one of my favorites, the wordplay in the constant playing of the “dozens” played by Hal (later, Henry V) and Falstaff in Henry IV, Pt. I:
PRINCE (Hal): I’ll no longer be guilty of this sin; this sanguine coward, this bed-presser, this horseback-breaker, this huge hill of flesh–
FALSTAFF: ‘Sblood, you starveling, you eel-skin, you dried neat’s-tongue, you bull’s pizzle, you stockfish – O for breath to utter what is like thee! – you tailor’s yard, you sheath, you bowcase, you vile standing tuck!
In his time, Shakespeare was daring and dirty and dandy and dazzling and delish. No one thought him “boring.” And with the help of the notes provided by modern versions of Shakespeare, to shed light on unusual words, the laugh-out-loud pleasure provided by Shakespeare can now belong to anyone.
In Much Ado About Nothing, the sexual repartee and word play between Beatrice and Benedick is both sophisticated and hilarious at the same time, as evidenced by this clip from Kenneth Branagh’s film production. In this scene, Benedick and Beatrice are battling because neither of them has time for love, and expresses it in a series of jibes at the other.
Shakespeare has been in the headlines this summer because people who didn’t read Julius Caesar to its end don’t know what becomes of regicides. It’s a shame, really. If they had, they would have realized that they would not have had to storm the stage, complaining about gerbils. Instead, they could have sat back and watched Caesar’s murderers get their comeuppance.
So as you contemplate the books to pack in your suitcase this summer, consider a Shakespeare play or two. While others are engrossed in plots about assassinations, thwarted love, cheating cheaters, and political intrigue written in the empty-calorie style of a cookie cutter kind of paperback writer, you can read those same plots in the gorgeous words of Shakespeare.