I’ve been taking the train down to DC for work for three months now, and one of the pleasantly surprising side effects of this arrangement is the guaranteed block of reading time every morning. There’s something lovely about a good train ride-read. For one thing, I’ve found that mornings are more conducive to concentration than when, say, you’re nodding off under the covers before bed. In the mornings, my head is clear, and the gentle rumbling and shaking of the locomotive, for some reason, opens my mind to the wonder and beauty of language, especially fiction. Thus far, I’ve ambled through Charles Portis’ True Grit, some Peter De Vries novels, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Home (I can’t wait to read her newest, Lila, which completes the trilogy), and a few others.
It was Carolyn’s idea to start reading Shakespeare on the train. She owns several small paperback copies of his plays—so small they could fit in your pocket—and one morning she grabbed Romeo and Juliet off the shelf and grudgingly stuffed it into her bookbag (Shakespeare was never her favorite, but for some reason that morning, she decided to give him a shot). I don’t think she enjoyed it, but she powered through R & J and MacBeth, and was halfway through Twelfth Night when, one rainy morning, I pulled the beat-up copy from her sleeping hands and, out of curiosity, started reading. “If music be the food of love, play on,” says the noble Duke Orsino in the play’s first lines. ‘Hey, that’s beautiful,’ I thought, stupidly. I kept reading. By the time Viola was serenading Olivia with Orsino’s love (“Halloo your name to the reverberate hills / and make the babbling gossip of the air / cry out ‘Olivia!’”), I was hooked. The lines were both new and familiar at the same time, infused with depth and longing, charged with humor and the complexity of humanity. I was stupidly amazed–this was Shakespeare; what exactly was I expecting?
Since finishing Twelfth Night, I’ve read Romeo and Juliet and MacBeth, and am currently reading King Lear (this is in the span of only a couple of weeks; I’m a slow reader, but these plays—like a certain apothecary’s drugs—are quick). I mentioned that reading is the ideal morning-train-ride activity. This is especially true for reading plays, which are naturally organized into tightly knit scenes, and are therefore full of natural stopping points that ease the momentum and facilitate the stop-and-go of commuting. Spend an hour with a play and you can get through two acts, with enough time left over to go back and reread multiple scenes. And the extra focus I get in the mornings gives me the added energy I need to digest Shakespeare’s sometimes complicated language.
Speaking personally, one of the wonderful things about reading Shakespeare is that I can simultaneously act out the staged drama in my mind, even as I take my time getting through the exquisite language. As much as I love watching live theater, the action moves so quickly that I inevitably miss something. In the theater, it’s hard to stop and savor, for example, the moment when Juliet describes her love for Romeo: “My bounty is as boundless as the sea, / my love as deep. The more I give to thee, / the more I have, for both are infinite.” It takes a minute to digest something that sweet, and indeed, when I encountered that line on the train, I recited it over and over to Carolyn until she told me to get a life. Reading the plays allows me to simply sit and reread the beautiful lines as many times as I want.
I like saying the lines in my head, too, because it takes me back to high school, when during my junior and senior years I spent the winter rehearsing and performing two wonderful abbreviated Shakespeare skits. In my junior year we boiled down Much Ado About Nothing (one of Shakespeare’s earliest, and perhaps silliest, plays) into 15 minutes of pure hilarity. Or at least, I remember it being that way. I played Claudio, a lovestruck buffoon, and spent most of the skit pining for the angelic and innocent Hero. (“In mine eye she is the sweetest lady that every I looked on.” Oh, did I nail that line.) I performed the show with two of my best friends, and we lit up during each 15-minute performance. I loved the sheer joy of the stage, loved the energy that coursed through me as we progressed through each scene. I loved the language, too, although that was probably secondary, at that point in my life, to the thrill of performance.
The next year the same group of us did an extremely abridged parody of Hamlet. It was a ridiculous spectacle in which three of us played multiple roles, speeding through the plot with puns and comedic lines aplenty (“It is I, Hamlet, the Great Dane!”), and then, at the end, going through it all backwards. I still remember the electrical charge that coursed through me as we waited to go on stage for the last time. Learning how to articulate the meaning of those immortal lines—even in the context of a show as silly as ours was—made us feel as though we were a part of something truly grand.
I don’t mean to bore you with my nostalgia. All I mean to say is that it’s always worthwhile to encounter something beautiful and substantial with fresh eyes—like finding Shakespeare on the train.