PERSONAL

READING ROMANCE IN THE MIDDLE EAST

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Eloisa James’ Desperate Duchesses series.

If there is one thing I love just as much as Shakespeare, it’s romance novels. The two are intertwined, I think, given Shakespeare’s penchant for romance. Every comedy has a  couple to root for, every ending showcases a big wedding. I love happy endings more than anything. I think they’re particularly hard to write, and I think authors who do strive for them are very brave. What is braver than insisting on a happy ending, despite it all?

I love historical romances most of all. They always promise tension, a game of cat and mouse, a slow burn, the forbidden glimpse of an ankle, a disheveled cravat. When I was a teenager growing up in the Middle East, I would buy fat historical romance anthologies from Book Corner. It was difficult to find anything else because the country was very careful not to put anything even slightly steamy for sale. What they didn’t know, however, was how terribly steamy those anthologies were. They were fooled by the covers, which always showed a demure lady in a modest, pastel dress.

I was hooked. Not because there was sex on the page – though that was very useful for someone who would never, ever be told how bodies worked – but because I could understand the heroines. The same shackles that held them down were also holding me down, even though years and years of history separated us. I saw myself in every suffocated bluestocking, in every duchess with a bitingly sharp tongue. It was comforting, mostly because I was – am – a bit odd.

Odd is a good thing in a historical romance. And I wanted to feel like I, too, could be a good thing.

I was privileged. I am privileged. Book Corner could very well have decided not to carry those novels. I could have grown up without romance. I could still be in Abu Dhabi.

You’d get lucky, sometimes. I had my romance novels, and my sister once managed to get her hands on a copy of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn. The bare breasts on the cover were covered in a thick layer of shiny black Sharpie. I still remember how she painstakingly removed it, annoyed that anyone would deface the cover of a novel.

Still, it was hard to want to read romance novels when you lived in the Middle East. Once, a family friend visited from California and brought along with her a Debbie Macomber novel. It was a contemporary set on a ranch, so nothing like the historicals I had read. I wasn’t a fan of the hero, but read it cover to cover anyway. Another time, my best friend managed to get hold of a particularly steamy novel. That book became contraband on the playground at school. It was passed surreptitiously from girl to girl until the whole lot of us had read it.

It taught my friend what she did want, and it taught me what I didn’t want. But, more importantly, it created a safe space between the two of us. You could trust a girl that read a novel like that without drawing attention to herself.

What I’m really trying to get at is that all of this was unfair. It’s unfair that I wasn’t able to just walk into a bookstore and grab Sarah MacLean’s first book, or that I couldn’t enjoy a dreamy cover showing a woman in a rumpled dress in the arms of a man with shirtsleeves hanging onto his biceps for dear life. Without romance novels, I would have never learned from the masters. With no learning, there would be no writing of my own.

And there are hundreds of pages of my writing now.

I’d still be looking for the answers to questions that nobody was allowed to ask back home. Maybe I would be innocent to the point of being a bit stupid, though I find that hard to believe.

With approximately five romance novels underneath my belt (three historical anthologies, the Debbie Macomber, and the contraband romance novel), I became the one stop shop for any and all forbidden questions.

“Can you get pregnant if you swallow?” girls whispered to me.

“No,” I would reply sagely. “Not at all.”

I know it all seems comical, but it was the reality of our existence. We skipped the chapters about reproductive biology in class, so how were we supposed to know anything? Like I said: innocent to the point of being a bit stupid, though not on purpose. It’s a lot easier to control a girl when she doesn’t know very much. The Internet was of no help. Even Wikipedia pages were blocked.

Romance novels get a bad rap, but they don’t deserve it. When I think of all the questions they answered, I can’t help but be grateful. They told me that I deserve nothing but complete and utter fulfillment. And historicals in particular made me feel a little less alone. They told a teenaged Shereen that she didn’t have to be sexy to be desirable or interesting. What a comfort to someone who didn’t feel very sexy, let alone pretty. What a comfort to an adult who knows that she’ll only ever been seen as tiny and cute. In my novels, demure and modest was fine.

All of it was fine. I learned very quickly that all of us deserve to be loved, that most of us have this yearning for it, and that, a lot of the times, our actions are dictated by that very same yearning. I became empathetic and sensitive. I want all women to be able to explore that. I don’t want it to have to be through playground contraband. I don’t want them to have to rely on a family friend visiting from another country.

If our questions were not going to be answered, then the least we deserved was a healthy stock of romance novels.

I sometimes wonder what Shereen would be without Shakespeare. Half a person, probably. Shereen without romance novels would be even less of a person, I think. It’s been a privilege to be able to explore both with abandon.

A privilege that I would willingly bestow on everyone with absolutely no hesitation. After all, there is nothing like curling under the covers with a juicy romance novel, and drifting off to sleep convinced that you, too, will be capable of such vulnerability and openness.

Convinced that you’re worth loving.

Which, as any romance novel will tell you, you are. More than anything, you are worth loving.

PERSONAL

RED SAND

A coffee shop in the center of Erbil, Iraq.

I carry the Middle East in my blood.

43.6% of me is Iraqi, Turkish, and Armenian. That comes from my parents and grandparents. 6.2% of me is South Asian: the remnants of my great grandfather, an Indian man who fought for the British and found his way to Iraq. I even carry tiny pieces of my earlier ancestors, who lived in an 11,000-year-old settlement on the southern coast of Cyprus.

But if you asked, I’d just say Iraqi. Baghdad, Nineveh, Al-Anbar, Kurdistan, Saladin – my ancestors came from all over what was once known as Mesopotamia, the Land Between Two Rivers. The cradle of civilization, with a capital that was later known as the Paris of the Middle East.

I did not grow up in Iraq. I grew up in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. All I ever saw of Iraq was the red sandstorm that rolled into Abu Dhabi one weekend. It filled the air with a fine terracotta dust. I watched it from inside our first floor apartment which sat prettily in front of the Persian Gulf.

“That red sand is from Iraq,” my grandmother observed, sitting in a chair by the ceiling-to-floor windows that dominated our home. She was snapping peas.

“How do you know?” I asked.

“I know everything,” she said mysteriously.

When I was in sixth grade, I remember someone announcing on the school bus that Saddam Hussein had been captured. Naively, I thought to myself that this meant the war would be over. It wasn’t, of course. All of it had been an elaborate ploy to get at the oil that bursts at Iraq’s permanently damaged seams.

I shared a cavernous room with my grandmother, and she would tell me stories at night if she was in the mood for it. She claimed to have stopped a murder, and once told me that she’d grabbed a poisonous snake by the head. But she’d also tell quieter stories, usually about Baghdad. The door was always kept unlocked and people would burst in demanding conversation and a fresh cup of Turkish coffee. My mother and her brothers would sleep on the roof under the big, luminous, Arabian moon with only a net to protect them from mosquitoes. At the time, Baghdad boasted a night sky that was blanketed in more stars than you can imagine. So they would lie there all night, under the great, wide, endless expanse with the sickly smell of night-blooming jasmine rising up to meet them from the garden below.

I was in college when I learned that a lot of people do not see Iraqis as human beings. But I look ethnically ambiguous. My mountain-dwelling ancestors gave me their wide, dark eyes and sloped nose, but they also gave me their pale skin. So I pass, and people treat me like a human being, but not my people. Never my people.

Iraq is now primed to become a battleground, what with the attack on the airport in Baghdad. I do not know my homeland or my people, but I somehow feel the emptiness of having nowhere to go. I will never have anywhere that is mine.

“You have more freedom of speech here than you would in Iraq,” someone told me once.

“I wouldn’t know,” I said acidly. “I’ve never been.”

 

 

HENRY IV · HENRY V

ALL HAIL THE KING – OR NOT

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King Henry V of England (Timothée Chalamet) in Netflix’s The King.

I love Henry V.

Not the play (although I do love the play), but the character. In the nine years since reading Henry IV, Part One, and in the seven years since reading Henry V, I have not once forgotten about Hal. I love when stories do that. I love when they are so impactful that they become a part of you, sinking into your bones and finding a permanent place in your already crowded heart.

I love Hal because he is human. He isn’t always good, but he tries. He has a good heart, I think. I am constantly thinking about what it is to be good, and I am constantly trying to be better, but it’s difficult. And I see the same struggle in Hal. I see the desperate desire to be loved and understood – is there anything more human than that?

If you read my Shakespeare Roundup, you already know that I was not impressed with Netflix’s synopsis of The King, a movie that was advertised as an adaptation of the Henriad. I watched it with my best friend of nine years, dressed in fleece pajamas and wrapped in a thick shawl as I tried not to freeze to death in her home in rural New Hampshire.

Pro-tips: do not visit New England in the winter if you can help it, and do not expect The King to be an actual adaptation of the Henriad.

We live in a world of gritty storytelling. I don’t like gritty, though. I like dreamy and hopeful and optimistic. The King is gritty. Not because it’s about war, but because Hal was made a brooding, grumbling prince instead of a fun-loving, rakish disaster of a human being.

This was my first time seeing Timothée Chalamet in a film and I have to say that I was not very impressed. His lines were all whispered, his expressions rarely reactionary, and his overall demeanor very grim. The thing about Hal is that he should be noisy and reactionary and hot blooded. He starts out as a rascal through and through, and then takes the tentative steps from rakish prince to respected king. It is a huge undertaking for an actor, and it’s difficult to get the journey across in two hours.

One of the great defining moments of Hal’s story occurs near the end of Henry IV, Part Two. Hal finally makes peace with his dying father, and I cannot stress how important and deliberate a decision this was on Shakespeare’s part. Hal’s behavior is a result of his tumultuous relationship with Henry IV. If he is not given the opportunity to make amends, then his growth in future plays makes no sense. Think about it: no matter how you slice it, we still see slivers of the rake in Henry V. But Hal is able to mature into a king his father would have approved of because he is no longer resistant to being the person Henry IV pushed for him to be.

The King ripped this reconciliation from my hands, and I whispered an emphatic “oh, no,” as I watched Hal tear the covers off his dying father and metaphorically spit in his face. Henry IV is made to be extra terrible in this movie, and it is done to allow Hal the opportunity to express that he wants to be a different, better king. But how am I, as a viewer, supposed to root for a Hal that is lacking in compassion? I’ve never considered Hal to be a hateful character, not at his core. His great failings are his temper and reactionary nature. Come Henry IV, Part Two, he presents with an undercurrent of melancholy as he begins to navigate the inevitable grief that will come with losing his father.

Because of course there’s grief. There’s a sense of loss, strained relationship or not. He asks Poins in Henry IV, Part Two what he would think of him if he were to grieve his dying father, and Poins tells him he’d think he was playacting. If we are not going to give Hal the opportunity to make amends, then the very least we could do is give him the opportunity to grieve. In The King, he gets neither.

Falstaff outlives his Henriad storyline in The King, becoming Hal’s military adviser. Yes, you read that right: Falstaff is given the all-important job of helping King Henry V of England make decisions. And they stripped him of all his jovial wit, turning him into the perfect match for Chalamet’s brooding Hal. And so, Falstaff is rendered pointless. He adds humor to the Henry IV plays, but also provides Hal with an accepting father figure. For all his failings, and he has many, Falstaff does love Hal. And along with the tension between Hal and Henry IV, Falstaff’s unwavering love and acceptance also play a big role in who the prince is.

Basically, you won’t be seeing this Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor any time soon.

There were two things I did like about The King, and that was Katherine and the Dauphin. Katherine featured for all of five minutes, but I did enjoy the strong front she presented when she finally came face to face with Hal. But, of course, I was robbed of his bumbling, ridiculous proposal scene because The King was made to spite me specifically. Robert Pattinson played a hilarious Dauphin, and I lived for his flowing golden locks. The Dauphin was played with such exaggerated flair that he instantly became my favorite character in the movie. Was Pattinson’s French accent any good? No. Was he threatening in any way? No. Did I immediately want for him to be in every gritty Shakespeare adaptation from this point onward? You bet.

The problem with The King is that it was advertised as an adaptation of the Henriad when it is really no such thing. If Netflix wanted to make a movie about Henry V and his success at Agincourt, they could have done so quite easily. The movie would have been much less of a disappointment if it had been separated from a set of already well-told plays. The material was right there, and they refused to take it.

I do think it is important for us to present Hal the way Shakespeare wrote him. He easily models a positive form of masculinity that other male characters are sometimes lacking. Because we follow him for a whopping three plays, we see him express everything from anger to melancholy to anxiety. The King did not allow Hal these emotions, molding him instead into a caricature of unfeeling, toxic masculinity.

The long and short of it is this: Netflix should have hired me as a character consultant, and all The King does is make me realize just how spectacular the Henriad is. Those plays are a feat of storytelling, and I’m happy to have been reminded of that.

Even if I did have to watch Timothée Chalamet whisper for two hours for the message to come across.

PERSONAL

THE TEMPLE OF WORDS

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Malibu, September 2019.

When I was a child, the only thing I did not have to work at was writing. I did, of course, struggle with letters like all the other children, writing every ‘e’ backwards until I trained my muscles to do it properly. But the one thing I knew, the thing I had somehow known since birth, was how to tell and love a story.

Books and writing are the ultimate companion to the lonely and melancholic child, and I was both. Every teacher I had was impressed by my writing ability, and those that had traveled to Abu Dhabi from the UK to teach English made sure to tell my parents just what they thought of me. They floated words like ‘exceptional,’ and ‘phenomenal,’ and ‘natural.’ Sometimes they said those words to my face, and I would take the compliments home to offer to my parents.

My father, every time without fail, would respond with a sage, “Do not believe everything people tell you.”

He did not mean for those words to be hurtful or dismissive. Arab parents try to raise humble, hardworking, overachieving children. Since I am humble, hardworking, and overachieving, I suppose they did their job.

But they also made me feel like an imposter in the circles that called to me. I became extraordinarily shy about sharing my writing with people. If I had had the choice, I don’t think I would have even submitted essays to my teachers. If I had had the choice, I would have kept every word secret. All the praise seemed embarrassing and pointless, and my mind warped my father’s advice until I was convinced that people were just being nice or polite.

Writing this blog sometimes gives me anxiety, because I worry about the kind of person my writing makes me out to be. Do you all think I am snobby? Stubborn, maybe? A little girl playing dress-up in the dusty corners of an abandoned theater? Or worse: does my straightforward and sure way of stating my opinion make me seem bratty or mean-spirited? I want my writing to be full of love and respect and excitement, but do I even know how to do that?

At the end of 2018, I went through a bit of a crisis. Because teenagers always go for the lowest hanging fruit, I was bullied quite a bit for my appearance in high school. I now have what I call ‘good face days,’ and ‘bad face days.’ Overall, I don’t know what I look like, and I mean that in the most literal sense possible. It’s a sort of dysmorphia, but the kind that only rarely impacts my day-to-day life and, luckily, has not lead to any sort of self-destructive behaviors. But I digress. I was going through a particularly long streak of bad face days, and I decided to tackle it with writing because I really don’t know how else to stop carrying things with me. I love historical romance, so I thought I would try to describe someone – not myself, but someone – who looks like me, but using the same sort of language I’d find in a historical romance. That someone, that character, eventually found a personality. A setting followed, then a family, a hero, and the skeleton of a plot.

And so The Temple of Persephone was born, a love letter to the bruised, lonely, and melancholic teenager inside of me. I wrote a book she would want to read. I don’t know that I’ll ever outgrow the melancholy, but it was a soothing exercise. Soothing, but also exciting. Whenever I wrote something particularly good, I’d get this wonderful burst of adrenaline. I wrote and wrote and wrote, pushing my way through writer’s block until one day I saw that Avon had opened submissions for unagented manuscripts. It seemed like fate, so I pushed until I was done and had written something that, for the first time in my life, I believed in. My imposter syndrome was at an all-time low, and I finally felt like the scales would begin to tip in my favor.

But, being ever anxious, I still sought out a freelance editor to help me with my query letter, synopsis, and author biography. I felt sick sending her those first drafts because, well, even after writing a 300 page novel, I couldn’t let go of the feeling that my story was stupid. Three people read it before I sent it in: my mother, my little sister, and my best friend from high school. I cannot describe the excitement I felt the night my best friend read it – and she read it in one night. She has never minced words with me, and although she is always kind, she says what she thinks.

And she loved it.

We talked all night, dissecting every character, every plot point. My heart was beating wildly in my chest the whole time. I was so happy. I’d switch out my day-to-day melancholy for that feeling any day.

My editor eventually got back to me, and it took me a good fifteen minutes to open up her message. “You’re a very strong writer,” she said, “and your story sounds fantastic!”

And all the things my teachers had said to me came flooding back, and I thought that there was the possibility that I should have believed them. Maybe people don’t have to be nice, and maybe they say what they mean. With a lot of terror in my chest, I submitted my packet to Avon. My editor kindly suggested two other publishers to me, so I submitted to them too.

That was eleven days ago now.

Yesterday was a disaster. I woke up at six AM and saw that my phone was riddled with texts, voice mails, and e-mails. Work had needed me to approve a document for the process I had authored, but I’d gone to bed by ten. I RAN out of my apartment, driving to Pasadena as the sun was just beginning to peek over the horizon. I was so early that I had to disable the alarm in our office. I approved the documents and spent a good ten minutes at my desk trying to wake myself up. I checked my e-mail, and saw that a publisher had gotten back to me.

I’ve never received such a thrashing in my life. Interesting premise, but we couldn’t connect with the narrative. Work on deepening the POV, because your characters aren’t dynamic in the slightest. I would quote the actual e-mail, but I deleted it last night for my own sake.

Do not believe everything people tell you.

Everything I had overcome in the eight months it took me to write this novel came rushing back in a millisecond. What is worse than telling a writer that they weren’t able to execute their own good idea? And characters – characters are what I’m supposed to be good at. I’ve always been told that, but you know what my father would say.

What might not be good for us, they said, might be perfect for another publisher! An odd thing to say, when you’ve just told me that I submitted unrelatable, flat prose. What publisher would want that?

I carried the criticism with me all day, eventually writing to my editor. She was baffled, and ultimately told me that I should let it roll off my back. After eating a pity pastry, I decided she was right. Because, well, what do I do with that? How do I return to my novel with such nonspecific criticism?

A lack of specificity, my editor said, pointed to this being nothing more than a form letter, copy pasted for the purpose of kicking me to the curb.

I wonder, though, was the harshness so necessary? I can sometimes be harsh at book club or here on my blog, but I would never be harsh to an author’s face. It isn’t constructive, and every time I have spoken to an author who has written something I’ve disliked (this has actually happened more times than you’d imagine) I’ve always been incredibly tactful about it.

Because writing is scary. A simple, ‘We are not interested at this time,’ would have sufficed.

I’m not really here for pity or sympathy. I just felt that I couldn’t carry this with me anymore and, like someone who will never learn her lesson, decided to write about it.

Believe me, the irony does not escape me.

I’ll grow thicker skin and move on.

HENRY IV · HENRY V · THE MERCHANT OF VENICE

SHAKESPEARE ROUNDUP

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A cloudy day in Stratford-upon-Avon, 2012.

I have not been reading any Shakespeare lately, but I have been listening, watching, and just absorbing him in all the ways I am able to, and my heart feels so big. I sometimes worry that I’ll forget, or that my feelings will lose their depth, but every time I am pulled back into Shakespeare’s orbit I enjoy the peculiar feeling of my heart inflating like a balloon.

And since I have been engaging in all this fun media, I thought I would do a roundup and talk about some of the things that have been on my mind! It might be the only way to get my heart to shrink down to its original size (a reverse-Grinch, if you will).

Shakespeare Unlimited
Shakespeare Unlimited is the Folger Shakespeare Library’s podcast, and I highly, highly recommend it if you’ve never listened! It isn’t perfect, but every so often you’ll find yourself listening to a total gem. Other times, well…

I had the misfortune of listening to an episode called Steven Berkoff: Shakespeare’s Heroes and Villains. I love character-centric episodes because I love to harp on about Shakespeare’s characters! This episode made me so incredibly uncomfortable though, and it has a lot to do with Berkoff’s interpretation of Shylock. They played a clip of his Shylock and I was totally floored by the accent he was putting on. It was, well, terrible.

BOGAEV: How did you decide on that voice for him? Where did that come from?

BERKOFF: Well, I thought part of the reason was that Shylock today has been, and I mention in the piece, homogenized, deodorized, cleaned up, because we don’t like to, you know, infer that we are supporting him, so even some directors cut one or two lines. He says, “I hate him for he is a Christian,” they’ll cut that, they’re so dumb. So I wanted to go the reverse way.

First, I’d like to say that I’ve never seen the line “I hate him for he is a Christian,” cut out of The Merchant of Venice, and the one production I’ve been to was incredibly abridged. Second, is Shylock homogenized, deodorized, and cleaned up? This seems a stretch. All that has changed about The Merchant of Venice is the audience. We now have more empathy toward Shylock because it is a different time and we are different people. Frankly, I found this comment to be a little disrespectful to all the different interpretations of Shylock that have been brought forth by other Jewish actors.

BERKOFF: I didn’t want to, although I could have done, played him as a heroic Jew, they’re the current fashion. The philosophical Jew, the noble Jew, the Fiddler on the Roof Jew, I thought, “I want to play him as the Bard, as Shakespeare, wrote him, as disgusting, rancid, angry, filthy, dangerous.”

Look, Steven Berkoff is Jewish, so I can’t really knock the way he chooses to play Shylock. But I would like to ask how he knows what Shakespeare intended. I promise I am not being facetious. Is the heroic Jewish character really the current fashion?

The Merchant of Venice is a tough nut to crack. Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta was a big box office hit, and Shakespeare was trying to emulate that. But here’s the thing: he could have written a character who was outright disgusting, rancid, filthy, and what have you. He could have written it very clearly. Shakespeare needs no help with words. He’d have known how to do it. He has, after all, given us characters like Iago and Richard III. He knows what evil is.

Instead, he had Shylock challenge the audience, ask the Christians in this play to explain the logic behind their racism. I do not know what Shakespeare’s view on Jewish people was. I have no idea if he ever met any Jewish people, as they’d been banned from England in the late 1200s. But in Shylock, he gave us a complicated, three dimensional man. And when I read Merchant, I do not see him as a villain. Because he does not have to be. He is a man wronged, and despite the acidity of his demeanor, you can’t help but think that Antonio, Bassanio, and even Portia sort-of-kind-of deserve it.

I was so upset by this depiction of Shylock that I went online to find out what other controversial opinions were held by Berkoff. And, lo and behold, I found out that he thinks Othello should be an option for white actors, and that we shouldn’t cast black men in the role for the sake of ‘political correctness.’

So I think it’s safe to say that his opinion on The Merchant of Venice is now null and void. The Folger, meanwhile, needs to be more careful about who they let onto their podcast.

Shakespeare Uncovered
So, after being deeply disappointed by Shakespeare Unlimited, you find yourself wondering where you might go to find more nuanced, sensible discussions of Shakespeare. Lucky for you, Shakespeare Uncovered exists.

Shakespeare Uncovered is a documentary series that airs on PBS here in the USA. I have absolutely loved every episode I’ve watched. Discussions of the plays are incredibly detailed, and the hosts are so obviously passionate. Since we’re on the topic of The Merchant of Venice, F. Murray Abraham’s episode on the play was top notch. I watched it early one morning while getting ready for work, and the closing lines wrecked me.

ABRAHAM: The Merchant of Venice is hardly what we see as a comedy today. It’s a play with dark shadows, and the character that casts the longest one is Shylock. Shylock will not go away because we haven’t answered his questions. We can’t explain why we persecute difference, why we reject the outsider, why we still refuse to see each other’s humanity.

What a thought-provoking and intelligent interpretation of The Merchant of Venice. The episode on Measure for Measure (which, by the way, still haunts me on the daily) was also carefully written and hosted. The subject matter is delicate, the time we are in even more so, but host Romola Garai and the guests she spoke to made it clear that Measure for Measure is a difficult play with no right answers.

Because, as we know, there is no clear hero or heroine. All we have to deal with is Isabella and Angelo, the Duke and Mariana. The episode was gorgeous and interesting, much like the rest of Shakespeare Uncovered. I highly, highly recommend it! I’ve used it in the past to prep my family for plays, and it’s always been a huge help. And for someone who is well-versed in Shakespeare, it is a relaxing, thoughtful dive into our favorite plays.

The King (2019)

What is a post from me if it does not contain even one mention of Henry V? The King is an upcoming Netflix movie based on Henry IV Parts One and Two and Henry V. Oh, the endless possibilities! And oh, the potential for absolute disaster.

From the get-go, I was very skeptical of the casting. I think you need incredible range to play Hal, especially if you’re going to carry him through the Henriad. The shift from rebellious scoundrel to pressured king cannot be jarring. The transition needs to be smooth and natural, which is quite difficult. I thought Tom Hiddleston did a good job of it in The Hollow Crown. I saw Jamie Parker as Hal in Henry V at the Globe in 2012, and I could see glimmers of the prince I love and know so well even in what was being put on as a stand-alone play. What I’m saying is a ruffled bowl cut does not a Prince Hal of England make.

The AV Club’s synopsis more or less confirms that I am going to be hate watching this more than anything else. It goes, “Hal is a reluctant heir to the English throne who’s been living as a commoner these many years. He’s forced to take the crown, however, after his tyrannical father bites it. Now the young king must navigate the palace politics, chaos and war his father left behind, and the emotional strings of his past life – including his relationship with his closest friend and mentor, the aging alcoholic knight, John Falstaff.”

Reluctant heir is right. But living as a commoner? I’m not sure I’d call messing around at the Boar’s Head ‘living as a commoner.’

I take the most issue with him being forced to take the crown after his tyrannical father ‘bites it.’ 4.3 in Henry IV, Part Two is an incredibly important scene, and this part of the synopsis tells me that Henry IV isn’t the only thing that’ll be biting it. Hal and Henry IV’s tension reaches its limit in 4.3, and their reconciliation is incredibly important for Hal’s character development. While Hal does have to navigate palace politics as he tries to reconcile who he is with who England expects him to be, I would not say that he is dealing with chaos and war left behind by Henry IV. 4.3 very clearly shows Henry IV telling Hal to distract the court with French wars so that they don’t have the time or energy for another uprising a la Hotspur and Northumberland.

Speaking of Hotspur, where is he?

As for Falstaff, I guess he isn’t dying anymore! If we cut out 4.3, and if we reduce Henry IV down to a tyrant, then we are getting rid of what pulls Hal toward Falstaff – the deep-rooted desire for a father figure who does not mind his rakish ways. Mentor, no. A source of validation and support, yes.

It also looks like Katherine might have more of a role in this movie, which I can’t really complain about. I did laugh out loud at her asking Hal, “Do you feel a sense of achievement?” A little on the nose there, don’t you think? Also, definitely not a line from 5.2 of Henry V!

I think the Henriad is wonderfully accessible, but we need to listen to what the source material is trying to tell us. Shakespeare has it all laid out in black and white: Hal, the struggling prince, later the struggling king. How do you make peace with your past? How do you bridge two parts of yourself while ensuring the loyalty and love of your people? How do you cope knowing that all of England has put their souls on your shoulders? Who do you grow up to be when you’ve been desperate for your father’s approval all your life?

And Falstaff: the clown, but also the crude, makeshift father figure for the unruly prince. A source of oddly put wisdom, a warm, funny place to go when the palace is too cold and the walls begin to close in.

It’s all there, and I don’t think The King went into this knowing that. But we shall see! November 1st is fast approaching, and I doubt this movie will leave my radar any time soon.

And, before I leave, all hail the King? Really? That’s the tagline they came up with for the Henriad? Talk about dark times.

PERSONAL

GIRL, BUTTERFLY, AND BUG

Stained glass in Nasir al-Mulk mosque. Shiraz, Iran.

When I was a little girl, much smaller than I am now, I went to a school called Al-Rabeeh. The school was in an old villa in Abu Dhabi and I didn’t like it very much. I used to burst into tears every time my mother would drop me off, and I cried every day until a sweet girl with cornrows sat next to me and asked me why I was so sad all the time.

I can’t remember what I answered, but I do remember that we had a deep and unwavering friendship that lasted until the sixth grade. She was the Lavender to my Matilda, but this is not a story about us. It’s a story about the playground.

Al-Rabeeh eventually moved to a proper building with a real playground, but when I started there we were still in the crumbly old villa. Children shared folktales about the villa, like the rumor about the honeycomb patterned cement wall. If you put your hand through one of the hexagonal holes, children whispered to one another on the playground, a hand would grab yours and pull. It was terrifying. Plenty of the girls and boys stuck their hands through the holes in hopes of antagonizing the ghost. I was too scared, and caution was my middle name.

Aside from the haunted wall, there was a small area off the main playground that was filled with odd, jewel-colored plastic domes. Like most of the playground, this area was shaded to protect us from the sweltering Arabian sun. But, as it always did, the heat seeped through. Crawling into one of those plastic domes was like knowingly inserting yourself into an oven. And, as none of us aspired to leave the playground a rotisserie chicken, we avoided the plastic domes. I would peek in every so often, but only because I was taken with the colors the translucent plastic would throw onto the playground walls. Like stained glass, which I had only ever seen in books about churches and old, crumbling things.

Near the edge of the plastic dome farm sat a tree. It was an odd place for a tree, out of the sun and isolated. One day, I wandered into the dome area to look at the colors and to enjoy a little bit of quiet. I’ve always been attracted to quiet, which is why I spent most of my childhood and early adolescence hiding in school libraries. Because I was very small, and because there were no adults to watch me, I was not allowed to sit in the library alone. If I wanted peace and quiet, I had to go to the plastic domes. So I went, usually when the others felt like tempting the ghosts that haunted the cement wall.

On this particular day, I went to the tree. I was an odd child, always silent and watchful. I was so quiet that, when we lived in South Carolina for a bit, school officials came to my family home to make sure I wasn’t being mistreated. My mother was flabbergasted and offended, but apparently my habit of not interacting with the other children and hiding away with books was not normal. That was before Al-Rabeeh, before Abu Dhabi. Nobody in Abu Dhabi really cared. In fact, I was the ideal Arab student: quiet and obedient.

So I quietly examined the tree, taking a close look at the gnarled bark and tracing the bumps with my fingers. The plastic domes cast their rainbow light over the tree, and the heat seeped into my red-collared shirt. I contemplated joining the other kids at the haunted wall, but then I saw it: a pair of gossamer wings jutting out of a hole in the tree.

What a dilemma.

I reasoned I could do one of two things: I could pull at the wings, or I could leave the bug alone. I didn’t like bugs, I didn’t want to hurt this particular bug, it could be trapped, I could be leaving it to die – when I mentioned my middle name, I forgot to add that cautious was hyphenated with overthinker. I agonized over these tiny, glimmering wings, feeling slightly offended that my quiet time with Al-Rabeeh’s plastic jewels had been interrupted by a philosophical and moral debacle. I think it took me a good twenty minutes to decide what to do – but twenty minutes to an elementary school student may as well be a full twenty hours. Having retreated deeper into the dome valley, I returned to the tree, took a deep breath, and pulled as gently as I could at the wings.

The little butterfly had been stuck after all, trapped by the sap that filled the tiny hole. I was gentle enough not to hurt it, and it fluttered around me. It was a brown little thing, certainly not the most remarkable looking butterfly in the world, but I was not one to judge, having grown up feeling like the most unremarkable person in the world anyway. As a final parting gift, the butterfly decided to land right on the tip of my nose. I froze, very worried about a bug touching me with its spindly little legs, and also because I knew, deep in my very young soul that felt very old and tired already, that I was being thanked in the way that suited me best: silently.

A few months ago, I came home from work and I picked up a mug by my bedside table. It was filled with the quintessential Middle Eastern drink: laban. I lifted the mug to take a sip and caught sight of a black dot, stark against all the white.

It was a bug. Not a butterfly with soft little fairy wings, but an average, run-of-the-mill bug. I peered into my mug for a moment, wondering how disgusted I was supposed to feel, when I was suddenly gripped with an intense memory: the plastic domes, the gnarled tree, the unremarkable butterfly.

I went to my kitchen and used a spoon to fish the bug out of my laban, and I walked it out onto the balcony where I gently placed it on the concrete in a puddle of milk-but-not-really.

It didn’t take me twenty minutes this time. And, wouldn’t you know, the little thing dried in the cool breeze and took off, disappearing into the Los Angeles night like the butterfly, albeit on a different continent, had done all those years ago.

SHAKESPEARE

THE ENDURING ALLURE OF SHAKESPEARE

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Stratford-upon-Avon, 2012.

I certainly have some nerve showing my face around here, don’t I? I have my excuses! I started working in September of 2018, and that was a big shift for someone who had only ever been in school. In January of 2019, my entire department (and 75% of the company, really) was axed, leaving me jobless once more. In April, we found out that my mother had stage zero cancer in her remaining biological breast. So I have been very tired, both physically and emotionally. Shakespeare’s birthday came and went, and I did not feel my customary enthusiasm and energy about it. I wanted to write, but I couldn’t.

But the coals in my chest never really stopped burning. The fire was just reduced to something of a smoulder. And things get better, don’t they? I found a better job, and my mother is on the path to recovery. Summer is here, full of promise, and my dreams of returning to England to sit in the quiet with Shakespeare’s ghost seem likelier by the day.

Speaking of Shakespeare (I say, while writing my Shakespeare-centric blog), I went to a talk about his ‘enduring allure,’ while at the Los Angeles Festival of Books. Lucky for us all, I took some notes in my tiny orange Moleskine. I only mention the Moleskine because my friend bought a pack of two, kept the black one for herself, and donated the orange one to her token color-loving friend: me. So thanks, Noor! We would have no notes without the combined powers of your generosity and my inability to clean out my purse.

The panel I went to was full of real life Shakespearean scholars, which was fun for me. They discussed the fact that Shakespeare was popularized only by virtue of adaptation. Also, without the first Shakespeare festival (c. 1769), there was a good chance for our favorite bard to have faded into obscurity.

There is also the belief that Shakespeare is alluring because of his extensive vocabulary (~40K words) and the fact that he made up so many new words. They did note, however, that some word are incorrectly credited to Shakespeare. ‘Addiction,’ for example, came from Puritan pamphlets distributed in the 1530s. But, and I say this as someone who adores Shakespeare, there is nothing that comes more naturally to people than giving credit to your local white man.

The panelists also discussed the fact that Shakespeare is quite literally invincible. He survives poking and prodding, and his plays still work even when we mess around with the setting. An incredible feat, to be sure.

When we read Shakespeare, because it is Shakespeare, we are primed to look for genius. We feel this urge to look deeper because the text deserves it. And so it forces us to slow down, it teaches us how to think in this visual age, and, inevitably, students who spend time with Shakespeare fall in love with him. But time must be spent.

You may be wondering why I am just rattling off the things I heard in this panel. I was pretty happy to be listening to people talk about Shakespeare, especially in a classroom setting. But the more they spoke, the more I wondered: is Shakespeare’s allure really all that enduring? Nothing they were saying was wrong, but I kept thinking, ‘Well, of course you think that. Shakespeare is your life.’

Look, Shakespeare has his allure. After all, I was pulled into his orbit very, very easily. And I always argue that the experience can be universal if people find the play that is right for them. But there is effort involved in that, isn’t there? The necessity of slowing down, of searching for genius, of looking deeper – is all of that alluring? Or is it just a promise of frustration and exhaustion?

And there is something else they do not understand, and that is the isolation of loving Shakespeare. I do not think Shakespeare is surviving the digital age. Reading his plays is a very gratifying experience, but the gratification is nowhere near instant. I’m not saying this in a ‘kids-these-days,’ way. I’m only 26, part of the millennial generation that gets dragged for seeking out instant gratification on the daily. But, really, if it’s available, why not go for it? Suffering for gratification is not alluring, and I certainly don’t think it’s smart.

Amateur Shakespeareans are isolated, especially if they are in my age group or younger. The community is not easily breached, and I personally do not find it very welcoming. The panel criticized modern translations. In Richard III, ‘wanton ambling nymph’ is translated to ‘pretty slut.’ But Richard is mad at this imaginary woman for her ability to move, they say.

And I say they are making it very hard for somebody to love Shakespeare. Who cares why Richard hates the non-existent woman he is grumbling about? If his hatred comes across, then the job is done. Of course Richard is jealous of able-bodied individuals. Of course he hates pretty women and handsome men. I don’t need that one specific line to pick up on his feelings. The idea that you can only enjoy Shakespeare via his raw words is just ridiculous.

If Shakespeare’s allure is weak at best, who is to blame? We can’t blame Shakespeare. After all, he was your everyday Englishman. He was a person’s person, able to think and feel like someone untouched by the privilege of aristocracy and a university education.

I blame the scholars and the gatekeepers. The very idea that we must work to love Shakespeare kills his allure instantly. Instead, we should be trying our absolute hardest to make it easy. And, yes, that does mean modern translations that crush ‘wanton ambling nymph,’ into ‘pretty slut.’ It also means modernized productions. I don’t like those very much, but they deserve their place in the community. Shakespeare means something different to everybody. Some of us are inexplicably touched by Hamlet asking, ‘To be, or not to be?’ And some of us are equally touched by the modernized version where he asks, ‘The question is: is it better to be alive or dead?’

Shakespeare is alluring because he promises feeling. He promises a glimpse into what it is to be human. He offers you a mirror for you to examine yourself in. You don’t need remarkable language to tell a good story, and remarkable language does not make an already existing story better. If the language of Shakespeare is not universally appealing, then that is a consequence of when it was written. But the stories? We can make those appealing ourselves.

The panelists said that Shakespeare has survived poking and prodding, and he is able to fluidly move from setting to setting. All of that is true, but we need more. We need to make Shakespeare commonplace, we need to make him a source of easy and instant gratification. His stories matter, and it is up to us to tell them. You know what is alluring? The promise of community. I have put my plays aside to dabble in the romance genre because the community is thriving. There is no judgement, no pre-requisites. It is so easy and it’s fun!

Most importantly, it isn’t lonely. I will always, always believe in Shakespeare’s allure. But to assume it comes naturally, to pretend that it will never die, is ignoring the very glaring issues we have with teaching and with the lack of community surrounding him.

And, if we think about Shakespeare, really think about him, it’s very easy to see that these issues would feel foreign to him. Because his plays were for us all, and they were meant to bring us all together. If that has died then, well, it’s time for us to fix it.

PERSONAL

SHEREEN (NOUN): BOOKWORM, BOOKISH, RELUCTANT BIBLIOPHILE

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Shereen, 25, 5’0, biomedical engineer, and bookworm extraordinaire. © Asia Croson Photography.

This post isn’t 100% about Shakespeare, and it probably doesn’t belong on this blog. I wanted to write about books and, in a way, write about myself. My paper journal has seen far too much of this nonsense, so I thought I’d write everything out here instead. I’ve never been very good at suffocating my urge to write. And, as you’ll find out, I’ve never been able to suffocate my love for reading, either.

ACT I. EARLY CHILDHOOD

One of my earliest memories features me sitting in a classroom filled with colorful plastic chairs. In the memory, I am sitting on one of these hard chairs. My teacher is by my side, and my classmates are sitting on the carpeted ground before me.

And I’m reading to them.

It’s a cardboard book about a white bunny who loves to garden. I remember feeling especially pleased about being able to read the word vegetable with no trouble. The book was short, the print was massive, but I was the only child in the classroom who could read properly. And, naturally, I wanted to tell everybody about this white bunny and his garden. It was so important that I share the story. My life depended on it.

At home, I had a book called The Story of the Tooth Fairy. It was a small, flimsy thing. A Little Golden Book, but not the sturdy kind. I was fascinated by it. The illustrations were done in watercolors, and the aesthetic was positively dreamy. Pastels blended into each other seamlessly, and everything glowed in shades of powder pink and daffodil yellow. Now, the book didn’t glow, obviously, but I could see the pages shine nonetheless. I daydreamed endlessly about lounging on fluffy blue clouds and dipping my small hands in sparkling lavender-colored brooks. I dreamed about being a fairy in a pink flower petal dress with big, pearly wings. When Shakespeare wrote about fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I pictured similar things. In my mind, the entire story played out in watercolors, and I felt immediately drawn to the simple idea of fairies. All because of The Story of the Tooth Fairy. In my every day life, I still see myself drawn to the aesthetic of that book. I pick out pastel dresses and try to surround myself with the same dreaminess that that book enveloped me in. How I present myself to the world, partially informed by a Little Golden Book.

When I wasn’t daydreaming about being a fairy, I was reading other things. I remember A Kiss for Little Bear – I loved Little Bear to pieces. I remember laughing over the hen finding kisses disgusting. And, oh, those Little Critter books. Just Grandma and Me was a constant companion of mine. The bright colors from that book now mix in with the dreamy colors from The Story of the Tooth Fairy in my adult life. And I still remember the first sentence: “We went to the beach, just Grandma and me.”

ACT II. CHILDHOOD

In the third grade, I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. My teacher, Miss Hannah, wasn’t quite sure what to do with me. That book was the sixth grade reader. She told me as much, and I told her it was fine, because I wouldn’t mind reading it again. Roald Dahl took over my life at this point, with his dark and funny stories of triumphant children. I read The Witches, George’s Marvelous Medicine, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The BFG, Matilda, Boy, and so many others. My favorite was The Witches, despite being a little Matilda myself.

It was in third grade that I began to write stories of my own. We were asked to write stories during class one day, so I did. I wrote a story about a neglected little girl who made friends with (brace yourself) the ghosts that haunted her swimming pool. Looking back, I think I was a bit lonely, with all my daydreaming and reading. I had a best friend, but I think a part of me wanted to fit in better. But instead of actually being a social butterfly, I decided to write a story about befriending ghosts. Swimming pool ghosts.

My teacher, who I’m sure was baffled by me, took it around and read it to the other classes. I felt very shy about the whole thing, but happy with the scratch-and-sniff sticker I received for it.

You know what’s funny? That story was more than one page long. It was long, and it had paragraph breaks, and to this day I still don’t know how to be succinct.

I also unknowingly met one of my first loves in third grade. I was in a British primary school in Abu Dhabi, so we weren’t taught about the colors of the rainbow via Roy G. Biv. A big painted rhyme was pinned onto the board on the left side of the classroom. It read: Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain. I remember idly wondering two things: who Richard was, and what the word ‘vain,’ meant.

Richard, of course, was Richard III of the House of York. The dictionary told me what vain meant.

ACT III. EARLY ADOLESCENCE

Every year, at my British primary school, we were assigned ‘topics.’ We focused on each topic for half a year. They consisted of things like space, the rainforest, and Greek mythology.

Greek mythology was an absolute goldmine for me. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to be reading these stories. While my classmates played outside, I huddled up on a bench and read endlessly. My mother had bought a book for my sister and I on the very topic, probably because she wanted to supplement our schoolwork. I remember seeking it out – The Greek Gods by Evslin, Evslin, and Hoopes. I loved all the stories, but I loved the chapter on Demeter most of all. In the story, Demeter’s daughter Persephone pulls at a berry bush, which causes a great chasm to appear in the earth. “Out of the hole leaped six black horses, dragging behind them a golden chariot. In the chariot stood a tall figure in a flowing black cape. On his head was a black crown. She had no time to scream. He reached out his long arm, snatched her into the chariot, and lashed his horses. They curvetted in the air, and plunged into the hole again.”

I was obsessed. The story of Hades and Persephone has haunted me from that point onward. As it turned out, The Greek Gods was highly inaccurate, but it didn’t matter. It was the first time I met Persephone, and I related to her with a vengeance. She didn’t have very much freedom until she became Queen of the Underworld. I wondered when my time would come to ascend the throne.

And, you know what? Some things stay with you forever. Persephone has stayed with me, and I’ve hunted down every scrap of her story to the best of my ability. I have a nostalgic fondness for pomegranates, I was delighted when I found out that scholars compare Perdita to Persephone in The Winter’s Tale, the dress I’m wearing in the picture above was purchased just because it reminded me of her myth. Recently, I began to read a webcomic retelling of the myth of Hades and Persephone. The artist decided to make Persephone very small, and with a pixie cut.

“Just like me,” I thought, giddy.

I didn’t think seeing a Persephone that looked like me mattered anymore. Oh, it used to. Very much. Every depiction showed an absolutely lovely Persephone, with long, flowing hair dotted with flowers. I was (and still am, to a degree), a gawky little thing, all bones and sharp edges. There was something soothing about seeing a Persephone with short hair. Some things never stop mattering, I suppose.

Greek mythology is a great love of mine, but I’ve always been able to love a great many things at once. While I dealt with the onslaught of passion for it, I was introduced to yet another love: Kensuke’s Kingdom by Michael Morpurgo.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was no longer the sixth grade reader. Instead, we were supposed to read Kensuke’s Kingdom and Dakota of the White Flats by Philip Ridley. My class adored Dakota. Kensuke’s Kingdom was labeled boring – boring, and yet there I was, violently clinging to it. The writing was so hushed, so lyrical. I couldn’t believe that someone was writing for me – for a kid – in such a way. It influenced my writing in a way I can’t describe, and even if I do struggle to write lyrically, I still feel the desire to. I took the book home to my mother and begged her to read it too. She did, despite being in her 40s. She told me she loved it, and I felt validated.

ACT IV. ADOLESCENCE

I switched schools for the seventh grade, but only because my primary school stopped at sixth. I found myself torn away from a cozy library and from teachers who loved my attachment to books, and tossed into a concrete jungle where English classes were a big joke. I wasn’t outwardly devastated, but I’m sure a part of me felt a bit deflated. We read these awful books published by the school – to this day, I’m not sure why. Maybe because they wanted to give us the most bland material possible, devoid of any and all suggestions of the erotic or obscene.

There weren’t very many bookstores in Abu Dhabi, and I doubt there are very many now. Book Corner sat unnoticed in the mall, and I remember the dusty scent of it to this day. It was never crowded, never. While my friends spent money elsewhere, I would wander into Book Corner. If school wasn’t giving me good books, then I was going to find them myself.

What I found was the entire genre of historical romance. Book Corner sold these anthologies of historical romances – each book had four novels to them. They were huge, and I loved them. One thing that irked me was that the heroines were never like me. They were all very pretty and soft, and I wasn’t either of those things at that age. Softness, in particular, escaped me. I know I jokingly say that I have Beatrice’s sharp tongue, but it’s not exactly a joke. I’d find heroines like me later, but it drove me up the wall at the time.

As a teenager, I took a copy of The Color Purple by Alice Walker from my sister’s bookshelf. Yet another book that changed me. I developed a fondness for telling stories through letters, and an intense desire to seek out stories about women overcoming injustice. I wonder what injustices I was feeling that I needed these stories so much. I don’t re-read books very often, but I re-read The Color Purple. Nothing in the world gave me more peace than the very last line: “I think this is the youngest us ever felt. Amen.”

I also discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald around this time, and yet another passionate love affair began. This Side of Paradise ruined me, and nothing could fix it. The last line seeped into my bones. I know myself, but that is all. I felt the same as a teenager. I thought I knew myself, but that was all I knew. Everything else slipped through my fingertips.

For all my love affairs with writers, nothing could have prepared me for my love affair with William Shakespeare. My entire life turned upside down when I was handed Richard III. School was finally prepping me for external exams, which meant that their own books wouldn’t do. Baby’s first Shakespeare, except I wasn’t a baby at all. I was in the tenth grade, and I should have been reading Shakespeare for ages before Richard III. For once, I had a teacher who cared. I can’t tell you how much of a difference that made. Yes, I was reading at home, but I needed someone to tell me that it was normal to love Shakespeare. It was weird, dusty, incomprehensible, but it became my life.

Richard became my life. I was an expert on the Wars of the Roses. Everybody teased me endlessly, but I didn’t care. Shakespeare and I had finally met, and it was explosive. I’d always been a very thoughtful, reflective person. Really, I was an oddball. I didn’t fit in at all, despite being an Arab girl living in an Arab country. I was always thinking, always scribbling things down in my journal. Shakespeare showed up and asked the same questions that plagued me. Oh, validation.

After Richard III came Henry IV, Part One. I’m pretty sure my school thought they were being clever, avoiding ‘raunchy’ plays like Romeo and Juliet. I was unsure – what if Richard III was meant to be my only love?

I was, of course, wrong. Henry IV, Part One quickly became my other love. Hal was everything to me, and I defended him in class with every breath I took. Try harder to understand. He’s struggling. He doesn’t know who he is, he only knows what people want him to be. Maybe I related to him then – I certainly relate to him now. As I grew older, Amory Blaine’s last words about knowing himself became less relatable. As I became more lost, I thought about Hal. He was lost, too.

We read Jane Eyre along with Henry IV, Part One. I remember my teacher secretly telling me about the symbolism of Mr. Rochester’s bed being on fire. She knew I wouldn’t blab. She knew I needed to learn how to pick out symbols and motifs, even if they were a bit scandalous. I didn’t find a kindred spirit in Jane, though I should have. I felt her loneliness keenly, I understood why she felt so odd. The boys teased me when we read Jane Eyre, telling me repeatedly that if Jane looked like anybody, it would be me. I couldn’t help but think about how often Jane was called plain. I forgot about Mr. Rochester comparing her to fae-folk, a compliment that would delight me now. All I heard was: you’re a plain oddball, just like Jane.

I couldn’t let anybody have the satisfaction of calling me plain, so I simply told them that I’d be happy to trade spots with Jane. At least she didn’t have to suffer idiots like them.

ACT V. ADULTHOOD

What am I doing here? I thought, sitting in an engineering class. I was a freshman, newly moved to California from the depths of the Middle East. What the hell was MATLAB? I didn’t care about programming.

It took time, but I eventually found a small used bookstore in my town. I picked up Pride and Prejudice, probably encouraged by all of the historical romance novels I had read as a teenager. Remember how badly I wanted to see someone like me in a historical romance novel? I finally recognized myself in Elizabeth Bennet. I should have seen pieces of myself in Jane Eyre, but I had been too preoccupied with protecting myself from jabbing remarks about the plainness we allegedly shared. As for Elizabeth, well, I know she’s a very popular character to relate to. I was sure that my connection to her was different, though. Maybe it was wishful thinking. I knew the plot of Pride and Prejudice, but it didn’t lose its magic. I remember sitting in a biomaterials class with the book open flat on my lap. I wasn’t listening to the professor, of course. What I was doing, however, was biting down on my hand, trying very hard not to vocalize the excitement I felt when Mr. Darcy professed his love to Elizabeth. And when she rejected him? I was ecstatic. Definitely not something I could express in a hot, crowded classroom.

There was one quarter where I desperately needed a single unit. Seminars at UC Davis were one unit each, and I remember going through the list. There was one about dinosaurs, another about witches. Near the bottom of the list was one called Shakespeare and Religion. I hadn’t read a play in ages. I had tried after Henry IV, Part One, but my own feelings of fear and inadequacy stopped me dead in my tracks. I signed up, remembering that I had an affinity for Shakespeare. I stubbornly refused to acknowledge just how much he meant to me.

So I walk into Shakespeare and Religion, and find out that we’re reading Antony and Cleopatra. And I felt like I had been hit by a train, but in a good way. In my engineering classes, I was silent. In this class,  I spoke and spoke and spoke until I couldn’t speak anymore. Every week, we had to give a summary of a scene, and every week my group would beg me to do ours.

“It sounds so good when you talk about it,” I remember a girl saying. “Like it means something.”

Shakespeare meant everything. But the seminar came and went. I was still scared of reading outside of a classroom environment. Instead, I had my first taste of Hemingway. I read A Moveable Feast, and found myself deeply in love with simple writing. I went back to Roald Dahl, picking up his adult novel My Uncle Oswald. I loved that book to pieces. I used to read it during my electrical systems class, pushing it flat in my lap just like I had done with Pride and Prejudice. It was a huge challenge, trying to stifle my laughter. Once, on my way to school, I became so engrossed in it that I found myself on an idle, empty bus on campus. I had no idea how long I had been sitting there, just reading. I hadn’t noticed any activity around me, any movement. Nothing. Just Shereen and another one of her books.

I started taking summer classes, just so I could get everything done in time. With every engineering class, I would take something “fun.” I told everyone it was for balance, but I was desperate not to lose what little spark I had left. Oh, I was so miserable in my major classes. Literally anything else brought me to life – religious studies, Ancient Roman history, you name it. I took comparative literature one summer, despite being warned against it.

That was the first time I read Crime and Punishment. That novel took over my life, and I felt it become apart of me. Every book I’ve ever loved is somewhere inside of me. They make up my bones, my vessels. It’s never instantaneous – when I read Crime and Punishment, I felt it sink into my being when Raskolnikov asked his mother if she’d still love him even if he had done something bad. I was shaken when she told him she would, she always would. Tears pricked my eyes right in the middle of a coffee shop. I chastised myself quickly – I don’t get choked up in public (as a general rule), and they were just words.

We also read Faust in that class, and I was reminded of how much I loved plays. Mephistopheles reminded me of Richard, in a way. Scheming, manipulative, downright hilarious. One day, while leaving my comparative literature class, I saw a board of flyers advertising summer abroad programs. One of them was called Shakespeare – Live! I looked at it very doubtfully. Me? In London? Studying Shakespeare? Standing where he once stood, acting like I knew what I was talking about?

The fine print talked about a scholarship, so I decided I would try to go for that. I wrote a short, sharp piece about what Shakespeare meant to me. It was very dry, definitely not an emotional mess like this post is coming out to be. But I got the scholarship. I went to London. I read Henry V for the first time, and I saw Hal again. It felt like coming home, even if I was in the middle of a brand new place. Standing in the Globe, I felt like myself. I’m always such a mess of doubts, of worries and hangups. Everything was quiet that summer in 2012. I was just a girl who loved Shakespeare and, strangely, I felt loved right back.

After that, nothing. I felt like Persephone, leaving an open field of flowers and finding myself in the Underworld. But she took command of that situation, so I did the same. I got my Bachelor’s degree, I moved on to a Master’s program. Everything would be okay, I thought, as long as I had a bookshelf to come home to.

But, of course, I got frustrated. I sat down in an undergraduate Shakespeare class two years ago and refused to budge. The professor didn’t know what to do with me, at first. He had a class of sleepy kids, most of them jocks, and me, in the front, squirming in my seat over Henry V. We’d sit on the floor outside of the classroom and talk about Shakespeare’s women. I am immediately anxious when talking to fellow scientists, but I had no problem sharing all of my thoughts with this old man, even if he did have decades of Shakespeare under his belt. When that class ended, I felt as if I had been punched in the gut. I went home, and made a decision.

I was going to read all of Shakespeare’s plays, because I loved him and I knew I would do anything to understand his stories. My small studio apartment began to fill with plays. I drag my Henry V poster with me wherever I go, but it belonged in that studio more than anywhere else. I belonged there too, reading Shakespeare by the light of my pink salt lamp.

My whole life, reading has brought me peace. It has helped me answer questions about myself. And while I was doing all this reading, I was out making friends, surrounding myself with trustworthy people. And I loved being around my friends as much as I loved reading. A problem arose, though. I wanted to be a social butterfly, and I wanted to quit with the books altogether. And, it may shock you to read this, but this happened while I was trying to read all of Shakespeare’s plays. I was close to graduating, and I felt instability creep up on me. I was angry at myself for sitting in my bed and reading. What had books ever done for me other than make me sad and fill me with longing for a different life? When will you get your head out of your books and daydreams and finally live? I wrote in my journal.

My therapist tapped her pen across her notebook and regarded me thoughtfully. I was sitting across from her, wringing my hands together and trying not to cry. I felt stupid, having told her about my book-related dilemma, but it had been on my mind. She’d interrupted me with questions like, “Do you relate to characters in Shakespeare’s plays?”

“Oh, yes,” I said, without hesitation.

Now, she was looking at me as I tried not to dissolve in her office.

“If all of this made you an outcast as a child, why didn’t you just conform?”

I had no idea what to say, so I said, “It…was the books.”

That didn’t make any sense, obviously. But I tried to explain. I couldn’t leave the books behind. The stories, the characters, they were everything to me. They had made me feel alive in a way I couldn’t describe. How could I leave them? And my favorite characters had never conformed. Books taught me that it wasn’t right, betraying yourself like that.

And my dilemma wasn’t their fault, really. There were other things that were preventing me from feeling completely free. I just chose to blame books because a book had been in my hand when I’d reached my breaking point.

“You know,” my therapist said, “you really light up when you talk about Shakespeare. I think you need it in your life.”

“I know,” I said, feeling broken up about it. “Why couldn’t I have a normal hobby? Why does it have to be this?”

You’re rolling your eyes now, I’m sure. I know I’m not the only bookworm in the world. But I live and work among scientist and engineers. It’s so hard to find people like me, people who value emotion over logic and words over equations. There are people out there, I’ve found, who actually love engineering.

“I’d love engineering if…I wish I were bad at it,” I said desperately. “Bad at Shakespeare, bad at reading books.”

She looked at me pointedly.

“No, I don’t,” I admitted, crumpling under her knowing gaze.

I had to learn how to let myself love books again. I never stopped loving them, obviously. I just got angry at myself every time I spent an evening in with one in my hand. The only solution was to keep reading.

Now, as I apply frantically for jobs, I fill my spare hours with reading. The genre? Historical romance, of course.

Talk about coming full circle.

RANKING · SHAKESPEARE

SHAKESPEARE: RANKED

Well, this has been a long time coming. I really wanted to do something fun and new for my ranking post, and then life happened. I finally had some time to myself today, so here we are. Surprise! It’s an unscripted, podcast-esque 58 minute disaster for your ears (complete with super chill Elizabethan lute music)! Perfect to help you pass the time while you do your chores.

“But you don’t have a voice for radio at all, Shereen,” you think, immediately clicking pause 41 seconds in. I can acknowledge that, so here’s my list for those of you who just want to get down to the nitty gritty of it:

COMEDIES

  1. Measure for Measure
  2. Much Ado About Nothing
  3. Love’s Labor’s Lost
  4. The Tempest
  5. The Merry Wives of Windsor
  6. As You Like It
  7. Twelfth Night
  8. The Winter’s Tale
  9. A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  10. All’s Well That Ends Well
  11. The Taming of the Shrew
  12. The Merchant of Venice
  13. The Comedy of Errors
  14. The Two Gentlemen of Verona

TRAGEDIES

  1. Julius Caesar
  2. Romeo and Juliet
  3. Othello
  4. Hamlet
  5. Antony and Cleopatra
  6. King Lear
  7. Titus Andronicus
  8. Coriolanus
  9. Cymbeline
  10. Troilus and Cressida
  11. Timon of Athens
  12. Macbeth

HISTORIES

  1. Richard III
  2. Henry V
  3. Henry IV, Part One
  4. Henry IV, Part Two
  5. Henry VI, Part Three
  6. Henry VI, Part Two
  7. Henry VI, Part One
  8. Richard II
  9. King John
  10. Henry VIII

NOT IN THE FIRST FOLIO – and therefore gets to be #1 in its own category!

  1. Pericles

Now all that’s left for me is to make posts about the remaining plays, write about fiction based on Shakespeare’s plays, and – well, you’ll see.

Happy listening/reading!

JULIUS CAESAR · THEATRE

NATIONAL THEATRE LIVE: JULIUS CAESAR

Julius_Caesar_Fathom_National_Theatre_Production_Photo_2018_Ben Whishaw (Brutus) and Michelle Fairley (Cassius) in Julius Caesar. By Manuel Harlan_HR.jpg
Cassius (Michelle Fairley) tells Brutus (Ben Whishaw) of Caesar’s ambitious nature in the National Theatre’s 2018 production of Julius Caesar.

I promised you a ranking post, and a ranking post you shall receive, but first I want to talk about Julius Caesar. I got wind that the National Theatre’s “immersive,” 2018 production was making its rounds through the US two days ago, and I immediately found a cinema that was showing it near me. I love Julius Caesar – it is one of those great plays that I didn’t expect to fall in love with, but did. The suspense in Julius Caesar is unmatched, and I would go so far as it call it Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy.

The play opened with a concert on Caesar’s behalf – a rock concert. My first thought, inelegant as it was, was “ew.” As you know, I am not a fan of modern productions. I am not a Shakespeare purist by any means – I just like the feeling of being whisked away from 2018 and thrust into the past. So, yes. Usually, I am not a fan of modern productions. But, somehow, this production of Julius Caesar managed to change my mind. No easy task, given that I can be incredibly stubborn. And stubborn I shall remain: now, in my mind, Julius Caesar is the only play that can still work as a modern piece. All other plays can remain as they are.

Half an hour into the play, I found myself worried that they would be going down a very predictable path. I think painting Caesar as a villain makes this play incredibly boring. The play itself is intriguing because the reader isn’t supposed to be sure if the conspirators are actually doing the right thing. But when Caesar is painted as a pompous madman (which seems a strange interpretation to me, given that he rejects the crown three times), then the audience is being told that he had it coming. The characters go from grey to being black and white, which is boring, boring, boring. An example of this is the Shakespeare in the Park production that was put on a while ago, in which they had Caesar look exactly like our terrible 45th President. This sort of thing automatically puts the characters in boxes – suddenly you find yourself knowing who the big baddie is. And the play is ruined.

Fortunately, my worries were unfounded. I had Brutus (played absolutely brilliantly by Ben Whishaw) to thank for this. Whishaw played Brutus exactly as I think he should be played: bubbling over with nervous energy and so, so invested in doing the right thing, whatever that may be. At the beginning of the play, a plebeian handed him a book to sign, and that book was titled On Liberty, authored by Brutus himself. That told us what we needed to know. Brutus thinks Rome should be free – he believes in liberty above all else. And when Cassius (played so well by Michelle Fairley that I almost forgot about how little I care for the character in general) convinces Brutus to join her, he finds himself staying up all night, surrounded by books with titles like Stalin and Saddam Hussein. Almost as if he were trying to double and triple check that Caesar is, in fact, a dictator. Almost as if he were trying to read about the red flags that people in the past ignored. It is Brutus’ clear uncertainty that makes the audience feel uncertain too. Maybe Caesar didn’t deserve to be murdered. Maybe Brutus was reading between the lines a little too much. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

Caesar (David Calder) had a lot of gravity to him, and I still did not agree with the decision to kill him. Something interesting, though: when Caesar was warned about the Ides of March, something on his face told me that the prophecy actually scared him for a moment. But then, very quickly, he tossed it aside and laughed with the crowd. How much of the prophecy did he actually believe?

In my original post about Julius Caesar, I wrote that there is something very soft about Brutus, something that is very unbecoming of a warrior. That something in this production was his nervous energy, and also the way he behaved toward his wife. Portia was played as absolutely desperate in this production – desperate to know what plagues her beloved husband so. Brutus and Portia together were a flurry of embraces, soft kisses, and desperate pleas. He so clearly loves her, and when she shows him the wounds she’s inflicted on herself, his utterance of “Oh, Portia,” was so heavy and sad that it replayed itself in my head endlessly during the car ride home.

Mark Antony (David Morrissey) was wonderful, and had a stage presence befitting the powerful man he is. But I will say that he was played a touch too emotional for me. I think Mark Antony, as a character, would benefit from having a calm, eerie edge to him. He is nothing but a snake waiting for the perfect moment to strike, and there needs to be something about him that wrongly convinces Brutus otherwise. That aside, Mark Antony truly began to shine when the war broke out. He is a character who loves the thrill of battle, and this production made sure we took note of that.

It was difficult for me to see Brutus beg so many of his friends to kill him. Difficult only because he is my favorite character in this play, even though he is wound so tightly that it makes me nervous whether I’m reading or watching the story unfold. He moved to do it himself a couple of times, but was never able to commit. Little details like that really added to Brutus as a whole. Ben Whishaw might have ruined all other interpretations of Brutus from here on out for me.

Every time I write one of these theater review posts, I wonder what we can do to make Shakespeare more accessible. I actually think this production figured it out. Julius Caesar was described as “immersive.” What that means is that the audience was very much in the thick of things. There was no solid, stationary stage. Instead, platforms rose from the ground as necessary. And the war took place throughout the entire theater. Dust and pebbles cascaded from the sky, showering the audience. Lights flashed, and the sounds of gunshots filled the entire room. The audience cheered for Caesar, gasped at Brutus’ bloody hands, turned violent at Mark Antony’s whim. There was absolutely no way for someone to be in that room and not be enthralled by the tale before them. So maybe making Shakespeare’s plays immersive is the key to making them interesting for everyone. I very desperately wanted to be in that crowd, even though they were all coated in a fine layer of debris at the end. I’m not quite sure how I would make something like that work for other plays – say, Measure for Measure – but I’m sure there’s a director out there who knows just what to do.

There isn’t much more I can say about Julius Caesar that I haven’t already said here or in my original post on the play. I love the suspense, I love the political intrigue, and I love that Brutus is so grey. I highly suggest giving it a watch if you can! Click here to find a cinema near you.