Thursday, March 3, 2011

K is for Kenneth Branagh (Or, How I Learned to Love Shakespeare)

When my mom was a teenager, Franco Zeffirelli's version of Romeo and Juliet came out in the theatres. My mom tells me she loved it and saw it many times.

And in the next breath she would announce "But I don't like Shakespeare."

To be honest, my first real encounter with Shakespeare didn't go so well. I was in ninth grade, and the official ninth grade Shakespeare play was that same Romeo and Juliet. Not only did I not get what was so great about it, I kind of wanted to smack some sense into both of them, though I did kind of like Mercutio and Tybalt, if only because they seemed a bit less whiny than the title characters. But overall, I was ready to move on to something else when we were done with R & J, because I didn't think "Great love story" as much as "an entire town that needs group therapy".

When I was in 10th grade, the official Shakespeare play was Julius Caesar. I was interested in Caesar because I was taking Latin. Otherwise -- and this is just me talking here -- I'm pretty sure that the best way to get 10th graders to love Shakespeare might not be a history play (though, to be fair, they do understand cliques and backstabbing with the best of them). Once again, I felt as though my mom was right -- Shakespeare was something to be endured but not enjoyed.

We did MacBeth in 11th grade, and I started to kind of get it. I enjoyed it more. I caught myself REALLY reading it rather than forcing myself to read it. I started to pay attention to the language. We went to see it at a theatre in the round and I thought, well, this is kind of good. Maybe there's something to all of this Shakespeare stuff. MAYBE. I wasn't fully sold, but I was ready to admit that there was a possibility that there was something to all of the hype. Shakespeare, I thought, you're going to have to do something pretty major in order to win this chick over.

In 12th grade, the fabulous and wonderful Patricia Hawkes sat us down one day and showed us Kenneth Branagh's film version of Much Ado About Nothing.

I can only describe what happened next like this: my dad doesn't like to fly, so all of our family vacations were road trips. He had a thing about the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel and would go out of his way to take it -- he enjoyed driving in it. I have a phobia about both bridges AND tunnels, so it was an exercise in torment for me except for the moment when we would approach the exit to one of the tunnels. First there would be a little light, and then more, and then it would look as though the world was just opening up in front of me, all light and sound and fresh ocean air. I LOVED that.

That's what watching Much Ado About Nothing was like. That moment of coming out of the darkness and into the light. (Yes, that's melodramatic. No, I don't care ... it's what it was like for this language geek.)

The movie is visually amazing. I wanted to run away to Italy and live there. Now. Immediately. But it wasn't just that -- it was that I FINALLY got what the big deal was about that Shakespeare guy because the play was so FUN. Bawdy. Naughty. Silly. Nudge nudge wink wink you know what I mean? It didn't take itself too seriously but it WAS serious. And, at the same time, not serious at all. (If you haven't seen the movie, PLEASE. You must. Do whatever you have to in order to get your hands on it. Do it now, because otherwise you're breaking my former English teacher's Shakespeare loving heart.)

To say I loved it would be to grossly understate the case.

To say that moment cemented life-long love affair with the written word would not even come close to accurate.

To say that I then became a little bit obsessed with Shakespeare from them on -- well, that's true. It became my mission to reread the plays I didn't like -- hello, Romeo and Juliet -- and see if I'd missed something. Oh, had I ever. It became my secondary mission to read ALL of the plays. And then, all of the sonnets. Because if Much Ado -- which I had never even HEARD of before Ms Hawkes brought in the movie -- was THIS delicious, who knew what other noshes of gloriousness were lurking in the Shakespeare library?  My literary appetite had been awakened, and it demanded food.

So I fed it.

Would I have gotten there without Kenneth Branagh and Ms Hawkes? I don't know. I honestly don't think so -- she was a masterful teacher, who looked at a roomful of students who looked at Shakespeare and thought, "Meh. Whatever" and knew which key to turn in locked, indifferent hearts.

I don't think I ever thanked her, but I owe her a huge debt for the hours of joy that brought me. Since then, I have seen Much Ado MANY, many times.

And I LOVE Shakespeare.

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