I Fell in Love Because She Hated Shakespeare
Like a misled suitor in one of his plays, I nearly missed out on love because of what I thought I knew
Novel Gazing is Electric Literature’s personal essay series about the way reading shapes our lives. This time, we asked: What’s a book that made you fall in love?
I was a freshman in college, at the time — fresh in every sense of the term, fresh-faced and fresh out of an intensive senior year of high school. In love with world, in love with myself after a long post-breakup year of learning who I was again, in love with the possibilities of a new start at college. I was also an intended theatre major, and, obviously, in love with William Shakespeare.
She was also a freshman, next door neighbors with my best friend. A leather jacket-wearing art student with an astounding collection of hats and a tough-chick attitude.
The second day of school, we walked to dinner together, along with two or three other people from her hall. My best friend and I lapsed into a fairly standard conversation, in which I — being a bit of a pretentious intellectual trying to make my best impression on the cute girl from down the hall — brought up my favored topic, the astounding genius of the Bard himself: Shakespeare.
And she said, “You know, I don’t really like Shakespeare.”
I don’t need to describe the way my heart sunk in my chest, found its way into my stomach, and then toppled out of me, unceremoniously, onto the ground at my feet as she said it. Everyone who has ever tried to impress a crush only to be shot down mercilessly knows how it feels, like your internal organs are suddenly made of quicksand. I felt small, for just a second, silly for my infatuation with the Bard. If this girl, cool and collected as she was, didn’t like Shakespeare, what did it say about me that I did? What argument could I ever make to persuade her that Shakespeare — or, more importantly, that I — was cool?
“What do you mean, you don’t like Shakespeare? He’s a master, he’s a genius, he’s the greatest poet of — ”
“He’s overrated,” she said, finally, and my little heart sank and floundered, heavy with some unpleasant fusion of disappointment and embarrassment, and the conversation moved on to something unrelated, although for the rest of dinner it was all I could think about.
I wrote it all off, later that night. After I admitted to my crush, my best friend told me, “oh, her? I think she likes guys,” and we left it at that. I stilled my heart, did whatever I could to swallow the nervous feeling in my throat when she talked to me, and despite the disappointment, I resolved myself to be okay with it. If there was no way for me to woo her, well, such was life. I had just gotten out of a relationship where my hobbies and interests had taken a backseat to everything else; I couldn’t date someone who didn’t share — or at least appreciate — my near-obsessive love of Shakespeare any more than I could date someone who wasn’t queer.
Instead, a steady friendship developed, without the messiness of attraction in the way, and she came to mean a lot to me, my crush all but smothered beneath my determination to make new friends.
For her, our disagreement over Shakespeare was probably forgotten too. We spent our conversations — dozens of conversations, over lunches and dinners with friends for the first semester of our freshman year — discussing the things we had in common instead. There were authors and poets we both liked — John Keats and Neil Gaiman and Mary Doria Russell — and movies, and comics, and music.
Occasionally, these conversations, warm and passionate, made something ache within me, a reminder of what I’d wanted at the start, but I did my best not to let that distract me from the friendship we had.
As time went on, though, our difference of opinion nagged at me — and contributed to my growing fascination with her. The closer we grew as friends, the more we had in common, the more similar our tastes were revealed to be, the more I became convinced that she must have been wrong: if I liked her, and I liked Shakespeare, she had to like Shakespeare. There must have been some mistake.
One night, on my way home from a party, still too buzzed from what was only the second time I’d ever had alcohol to feel comfortable settling into bed and getting some well deserved rest, I stopped by her room to say hey.
She was tired; her roommate was out partying — as was, it seemed, the entire rest of our small college campus — and she’d been watching Bright Star on her laptop, curled up in bed. But she invited me in and I joined her and at some point, during this strangely intimate evening, we got back onto the topic. “I might have just had really bad teachers,” she admitted, almost ashamed, when I told her I still couldn’t believe that there wasn’t even a single Shakespeare play she found appealing in the least.
It was as if she had looked me in the eye and said, “I want you to know, I’m also gay.” Something about the way she admitted to it made me realize, for just a moment, that all had not been lost that day. That there was still a chance. The crush I’d been crushing sprang back in full force as I fumbled for something to say.
“You have to read him out loud,” I answered, and I must have been blushing.
“Is that so?”
I dragged her back to my own dorm room — also empty, both of my roommates out at a sorority party or something — and pulled down from my overstocked bookshelf a blue leatherbound copy of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, one of two copies of the text on my shelf, not to mention the several individually bound plays lined up on either side.
It’s almost painful to recall, the performativity of this action, my fingers lightly tracing over the paper-thin pages of this ancient, useless Complete Works that I had purchased in a used bookstore just before leaving for college for this exact reason: to look impressive, someday, to a cute girl I had a crush on. The gilded edges of its pages had faded almost to brown, the ink so light some parts of the text were illegible, and I scanned through it, play by play, and looked for something to read.
What I love now, as an adult, about Shakespeare is that it’s impossible to read Shakespeare aloud without some sense of irony, and even more impossible to read Shakespeare aloud romantically without leaning into that. To read Shakespeare aloud as a serious romantic gesture cannot help but be embarrassing; it misunderstands Shakespeare at its core. The doubling of its context always lingers between the words. As I flipped through the pages, trying to maintain my mask of calm intellectualism, I wracked my brain for a passage that was romantic in even the least.
Hamlet to Ophelia? No way, he’s an asshole. Bassanio to Portia? He only wants her for her money. Romeo to Juliet? Kill me now, a worse cliché there never could be.
I settled for something remarkably unromantic — Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech from Romeo and Juliet, a role I’d understudied just a year before, a monologue I knew well enough I barely needed the page in front of me to make it through.
I read it, and she listened.
Coincidences, you know, are an incredible thing. Just a few nights later — a week or two before Valentine’s Day — two of our mutual friends, a couple at the time, sat with me at dinner and mentioned that she and I would make a cute couple.
“I know, too bad she’s straight,” I lamented.
“Who told you that?” they replied.
It was like the moment of a Shakespearean comedy in which one character removes a mask or a costume and reveals themselves to be someone else entirely, a perfectly timed conflagration of events which solves the unsolvable complication of the plot in one fell swoop. A case of mistaken identity, or mis-conveyed message, had fallen between us for months, the audience watching along in frustration as we danced around each other, neither understanding the entire situation. A perfect example of dramatic irony, in which I had misjudged her, and had suffered for it.
I don’t know how much of this was orchestrated — by her, or by fate, or by Cupid himself, gearing up for the big holiday — but what I do know is that I was emboldened. Valentine’s Day came around and I spent forty-five minutes agonizing in my best friends’ room just down the hall from her, trying to decide whether or not to say something, whether to knock on her door and leave a note or to knock on her door and kiss her or to not do anything at all, and not risk the gentle curve towards whatever was happening between us.
I left a note, eventually — six lines of John Keats’ “Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art — ” and a box of chocolate covered pretzels on the floor outside her room. It was the kind of sickeningly sweet gesture I’d always dreamed of having the courage to make, romantic and Romantic in equal parts. I knocked and ran, taking cover in my friend’s room until I knew she’d picked it up and closed the door again.
But it didn’t feel like enough.
I’d had a few drinks. I probably don’t have to say that; it’s fairly apparent from what comes next. I went outside, I counted out the windows on the first floor of the dorm until I came across the one I knew was hers, and I threw a pinecone at the window. It was cracked open, just a bit, an unseasonably warm night, and so I didn’t wait for an answer.
I probably also don’t have to tell you what lines I quoted next. But soft, what light through yonder window breaks. It was a different time, when my memory was better: I knew the whole bit by heart, all twenty four lines before Juliet cuts in. I recited it. I bowed. I went back to my room.
By the time I got back, she’d texted me.
She left campus to go home a few weeks after that. We hadn’t kissed, we hadn’t even seen much of each other since we confessed our feelings. But we talked on the phone a lot, for the remainder of the semester. I remember sitting on my bed on the phone with her, reading pieces of Hamlet aloud, teasing out the intricacies of the language, letting my voice lilt into the language of passages I knew the meaning of back to front.
“I’m going to read you every word of every Shakespeare play aloud until you find the one you love,” I told her, phone tucked between my shoulder and my cheek as I flipped through the familiar pages of that terrible old book.
I didn’t have to go very far. Pretty soon, she loved them all.
I don’t know what would have happened, if I had let the assumptions I made about her stand unchallenged. Likely, she would never have loved Shakespeare, and I would never have loved her. But as in any Shakespeare play, the miscommunication or misunderstanding has to be overcome or it will become the downfall of the hero.
I count myself lucky, still, that our story was written a comedy and not a tragedy.
We’ve been together for six years now; neither of us is much of the same person we were then, though remnants of those eighteen-year-olds still remain: my vaulting excitement and insecurity when someone disagrees with an opinion I value dearly, her leather jacket and ability to outpace me in really any argument. We’ve bonded over a hundred books since then, argued over maybe even more, but when people ask me how we met, I always return to the same story: she told me she hated Shakespeare, and so I couldn’t let her go.