In 2011 I accidentally became the head of an English Department. At my very first meeting in that role, a small retreat with the other incoming department heads in my faculty led by my dean and some of the senior or former department heads where we were given advice on our new positions, discussion turned towards curriculum oddities. I was asked: “Why does the Department of English have two courses named ‘Shakespeare’?” As I was an accidental department head, I had to say that I didn’t know and promised to get back to them on that.
When I asked around, it turned out that members of the department felt that it was very important that we teach a first-year course called Foundations: Shakespeare to all our incoming English majors. And we’d always had a second-year course for non-majors simply called Shakespeare, which no one wanted to delete and everyone thought should be changed to something else, but no one wanted to bother to change. Besides, I was told, Shakespeare is much too important for us to have only one course.
As for me, I struggled to see the logic. I think that I’ve only ever read two of Shakespeare’s plays. In the eighth grade we read Twelfth Night. Indeed, we had to memorize Orsino's opening speech (“If music be the food of love, play on…”) and I can still recite about half of that. I don’t recall anything else about that play at all. That probably says something about rote learning. In high school we had to read one Shakespeare play and my teacher chose, wait for it, Twelfth Night. Since I (and a few others who had gone to my middle school) had read that, we got to switch to MacBeth and work independently. I also feel like it’s possible that I may have read King Lear, and I know that we took a field trip to the Stratford Festival to see that, but I don’t actually recall reading it, so maybe we didn’t. I’m not sure.
All of this is to say: I haven’t read much Shakespeare. I’ve seen a fair bit (including Alan Cumming’s one-man MacBeth in New York, which I think is the best play I’ve ever seen), but I haven’t read any.
This month, however, I read some. Sort of. Since the beginning of the year I’ve been reading, on and off, Ryan North’s Romeo and/or Juliet, a choose-your-own-adventure book based on the play. This is a sequel of sorts to North's earlier To Be or Not To Be, a choose-your-own-adventure version of Hamlet that was the most funded Kickstarter book projects of all time. Basically, North went back to the well with the same idea. As with a lot of sequels, I liked the first one better, but this is still good.
This is a pretty immense book – almost five hundred pages – with more than one hundred endings. I am certain that I haven’t read the whole thing. There are so many paths (they claim 46,012,475,909,287,476 but that also might just be a joke) that it is sort of impossible to simply finish the book. So I haven’t finished it. I’ve simply stopped reading it. I might go back to it. Who knows?
The conceit here is simple: You can “play” as one of two idiot teenagers, Romeo or Juliet, and you make the plot choices. You can arrange so that they never meet. You can arrange so that they have robot suits. It’s not very faithful to the original.
Actually, it is a bit faithful. On first read-through I opted to follow Shakespeare’s choices (these are marked with helpful little hearts). Reading North’s paraphrases of the actual text of the play is quite hilarious because a great deal of the play is a) creepy as hell and b) completely nonsensical (Shakespeare isn’t one to care much for plot holes). If you faithfully follow the Shakespearean choices (which is probably the least interesting pathway through the book) you do get a special reward: the ability to play the book as Rosaline. A great touch.
The book is full of little gems. If you read it in the right way you get to have a mini-adventure version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (and, also, Pyramus and Thisbe!) and there is another path that takes you to a version of MacBeth (by Christina Marlowe) – happy ending spoiler: never talk to witches!).
As I’m on leave this year, I haven’t been attending meetings in my department, but I’m informed that right now we’re discussing how to get rid of one of our Shakespeare courses. Apparently it has become very important that first-year students not have that much Shakespeare. No word yet on whether the course will be replaced by one on choose-your-own-adventures novels.
One thing I learned about Canada from this book: I actually don't think Canada ever came up even once.