Growing up with a high school English teacher for a mother meant that nothing was off-limits in our house when it came to reading. In addition to the usual bedtime stories of childhood, my mom often spun a kid-friendly version of whatever story she was teaching her students for me. As I was always a high-level reader, it was not long before I was cutting my teeth on the classics at my parents’ encouragement, and I vividly remember the day in April during third grade when Mom woke me with the announcement that “Today is William Shakespeare’s birthday, and he died on his birthday, too!” This fact tweaked something in my young mind—did everyone die on their birthday, or was Shakespeare unlucky? I never could figure it out.
The summer after fifth grade, we started taking family trips to Stratford, Ontario every year. I grew to love Stratford as a place of picnics, pretty scenery, and great theater; but more than that, I loved the challenge it posed. The first trip, we saw a musical, but the summer after sixth grade, it was The Taming of the Shrew, and a few weeks before we went, Mom pulled down her battered Shakespeare anthology from a shelf and presented it to me. I remember the feeling of awe and intimidation that washed through me when I held it—this was my mom’s book, it even had her name in the cover from her college days, and it felt precious, almost holy. Shakespeare was harder than any of the classics I had read before, but I had my mom to help me with the hard parts. Seeing the play after reading it was a magical experience. I knew what was going to happen, but the effect of seeing the words on the page brought to life in the dark hush of Stratford’s Festival Theatre was something else entirely. This was the beginning of a lifelong love affair between the Bard and me. Every summer we saw a play. Every year I would take out Mom’s Shakespeare anthology and read it before I saw it. By the time high school rolled around, I had several plays and most of the sonnets tucked away in my mind.
High school brought the chance to experience even more Shakespeare in the classroom: Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, The Tempest, Hamlet. Mom was still my guide when I needed one, though more often than not, I would refer to her Shakespeare anthology, which had long since been relocated from her bookshelf to mine, for her notes before asking questions. My senior year was also Mom’s first year teaching Senior English, so even though she was not my teacher then, we waded through much of the curriculum together, including many long discussions of Hamlet’s angst and in-depth analysis of Prospero’s final speech in The Tempest.
College came along, and Mom’s Shakespeare went with me. I did not decide to major in English until I was a sophomore, but the book was a little piece of home. After sophomore year, I got the chance of a lifetime—a one-month intensive seminar on Shakespeare and his contemporaries in London and Stratford-upon-Avon, England.
Seeing live Shakespearean plays after reading them never lost that magical quality, and nowhere has it ever been stronger than on that trip. By day, we studied, but not just textbook studying. We read the histories as a group over a shared spaghetti dinner before we saw all three parts of Henry VI and Richard III, four plays in rapid succession in just over twenty-four hours. We spent a day at Hampton Court Palace, another at the Tower of London, and learned a deeper context for Shakespeare’s writings as we saw production after production. We went to the Globe, ate lunches in pubs where Shakespeare had done his writing, stretched out on the lawn of the Houses of Parliament under the shadow of Big Ben to do homework. Not only was I seeing the best live Shakespeare plays the world has to offer, I was literally walking in the footsteps of my hero. Learning in this context made the stories even more accessible and made me appreciate them that much more. I was more than grateful for the experience, but I thought it would end up being a fun memory, not anything I would ever use in real life.
I was wrong about that. This appreciation has spread into my professional life. One of my jobs now is to manage the high school required reading collection for my library. I can commiserate with students’ intimidation, but I can also put the plays they are reading into the context of modern YA novels. Romeo and Juliet is the original star-crossed lovers story. Hamlet’s angst and indecision has deadly consequences, but today’s teens may feel the same angst over choosing a college. Modern YA literature, too, is full of the same tropes as Shakespeare used, and Shakespeare retellings abound, so the stories are more accessible now than ever. One of my favorite displays for my teen space is “Not Your Teacher’s Classics,” featuring classics displayed next to modern retellings—always loaded with the Bard.
As an adult and a professional, Shakespeare still has a profound effect on my life. Mom’s anthology has pride of place in my home, the trips to Stratford and England filed away in my memory. My cat is named Bianca after the sweet sister in The Taming of the Shrew, because you never forget your first Shakespeare. My love affair with the Bard has a long history and a bright future. I hope that the combination of my passion and the current accessibility of Shakespeare brings those stories to life for my teens, and ignites that same passion in future generations.
— Elizabeth Norton, currently reading Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston