About A Well-Placed Pinch

Playing with the Bard

by Jean Roberta

Cover for A Well Placed PinchWhen I was growing up, my mother told me that her grandmother (or maybe her great-grandmother) owned a First Folio edition of the complete works of Shakespeare, which could have fetched a good price even then. This was before my ancestors immigrated to America from England in the 1880s.

Throughout the nineteenth century, most working-class English families owned two books: the Bible and the works of Shakespeare. Before a free, compulsory public education system was set up in the 1830s, few girls of that class learned how to read or write. Apparently, my ancestor didn’t know the value of her book, and pawned it to buy food for her children. (If that’s true, I think she did the right thing. Shakespeare’s writing is food for the soul, but if my ancestors hadn’t had food for their bodies, I wouldn’t be here.)

So the rare book passed out of my family. Years later in New York, my grandmother gave my mother a cheap, mass-market edition of Shakespeare’s complete works for her seventeenth birthday. When I turned seventeen, my mother gave me my own copy, and when my only daughter turned seventeen, I gave her a copy of her own.

In university, I took a Shakespeare course from a prof who discussed various theories about who “really” wrote the poems and plays attributed to William Shakespeare. Most of these theories started in the nineteenth century, when Shakespeare’s work was too popular to be banned, but the raunch in his plays was offensive by contemporary standards. Censors took out as much sex as they could, so that families could read Shakespeare together. What a loss!

Over the years, plots and characters from Shakespeare’s plays have shown up in my dreams, like those from Greek myths. Lust between characters seems like an essential ingredient, as it is in real life. It helps explain so much of how people treat each other.

When I read ForbiddenFiction’s call-for-submissions for erotic stories that would “queer” the work of Shakespeare by adding same-sex relationships, I immediately thought of Twelfth Night. It’s a fun comedy, in which a shipwrecked girl must disguise herself as a boy for safety, and while serving the local Duke as his page, she falls in love with him and charms a Countess, who seems to believe the “page” is a boy (or does she?). It wasn’t hard for me to imagine parallel complications in a modern, all-female student production. (In Shakespeare’s time, all the parts were played by males.)

In Twelfth Night, Viola the stranded girl tells the Duke that her father had a daughter who “never told her love.” How many of us, even now, are willing to risk making fools of ourselves by revealing our true feelings? In my version, three young women learn the erotic truth about themselves and each other while learning their roles. As in the original play, everyone gets their heart’s desire by the last scene.

 

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