“Some adaptations make sense. One time I saw a production of The Merchant of Venicethat was set on Wall Street. Now that’s relevant to a modern audience. But some are just shitty. Remember that god-awful excuse for a Shakespeare adaptation with Leonardo DiCaprio and whats-her-face? That shitty actress from My So Called Life. Wow, that was shitty. Who actually watches that kind of garbage?"
My Intro to Theater professor laughed and pressed his thumb and forefinger against his lips. I imagined that in an earlier generation he would have paced around the classroom chain-smoking. I wondered if he could tell if I was the kind of person that watched that kind of garbage. Not likely. My quiz and test grades were immaculate and I wrote performance critiques that were returned with “good work” and “nice observations” scrawled across the bottom. Not only had I watched “that piece of garbage,” but I had memorized the whole movie with my friend Judy in theeighthgrade. I still even had a Romeo + Juliet t-shirt. Leonardo DiCaprio was kneeling and sobbing in the rain with his arms raised to the sky in my dorm room drawer as my professor spoke. The lettering across the front cracked from too many washings.
I remember wearing it as Judy and I shouted lines at one another in affected British accents as we accelerated down one of the only hills in our rural West Texas town on our bikes. Lifting our fingers from the handle bars we would scream in unison,
“Romeo, O Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?”
On the way back up the hill, pedaling as fast we could through our convulsions of laughter, one of us would gasp, “Deny thy father and refuse thy name: or if thou wilt not and be sworn my love, and I shall no longer be a Capulet!”
The other would cough in reply, “Shall I hear more or should I speak at this?” Catapulting downward we joined voices again, “’Tis but thy name that is my enemy. Thou art thyself, though not a Montague….”
Later, bikes strewn across the grass she whispered that she liked a high school boy. “His name’s Remijio. That’s like Romeo but in Spanish.”
We squealed upon her revelation—like we did when we propelled one another around the stacks on the book cart during our library aide class. Shouting the call numbers out like nuclear submarine coordinates, we set out on a mission to check-in and shelve the books as fast as possible so we could hide away in the non-fiction stacks and peek through the art books. Squatting as we unfolded full color pullout pages, we marveled over the major works of Monet, Kandinsky, Kahlo and Picasso. I recognized one of these paintings from a screen printed tank top I bought in a thrift store. I added it to my collection of artsy shirts and folded it on top of Romeo crying in the rain.
“That’s Guernica,” I would say to no one in particular, finger pointing toward my tank top, “Picasso painted it after the Germans bombed the shit out of a town in Spain. The actual painting is huge—like twenty feet by thirty feet or something.”
Spain. No one I knew had gone there except my English teacher who entertained our homeroom with tales of with how he tricked a pick-pocket in Barcelona.
“He got my wallet, but what he didn’t know was that my passport and money was down the front of my pants. Now you tell me, what was he going to do with my expired Texas fishing license?”
I was dazzled. Not by the fact that my teacher had outsmarted a pick-pocket, but that he had a passport and had been to Madrid, Paris, Rome and London. He showed us pictures of himself in the Globe Theatre.
“They called them groundlings,” he smirked, “because they stood on the ground underneath the stage,” “Today people think that Shakespeare is fancy. What would they say about all those common people at the theater drinking, carrying on and causing a ruckus? Throwing food at characters they didn’t like?”
Later that year, I got a scholarship and left for college. Judy stayed in town to help take care of her sisters and embroidered logos on oilfield uniforms. I told myself I was going to learn everything and go everywhere. I was going to keep my mouth shut until I filled in my gaps and flattened my accent, but I still felt like I had been found out. What I thought was sophistication was nothing but “shitty.” I felt cultured, but it was a joke.
I exhaled as my professor drifted into the next topic. Romeo + Juliet may have been “shitty,” but I understood it. I knew the cost of turning against my own house—of refusing my own name. I didn’t care what he said. Judy and I paid our penny at the video store. Shakespeare belonged to us.
Abigail Carl-Klassen is a writer, researcher, poet, educator and translator. She grew up in rural west Texas and worked for many years in public education and community development on the U.S.-Mexico border. She earned an MFA from the University of Texas El Paso’s Bilingual Creative Writing Program and taught at El Paso Community College and the University of Texas El Paso. Her work has appeared in ZYZZYVA, Catapult, Cimarron Review, Willow Springs,Guernica, Aster(ix) and Kweli, among others. She is a staff writer for Poets Reading the News and her chapbook Shelter Management is available from dancing girl press.