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Last week, my book club met to discuss The Weird Sisters, Eleanor Brown’s lovely debut novel about three adult sisters who return to the small Ohio college town where they grew up. Their father is a Shakespeare professor, singularly focused on his topic, and as a result the entire family (and the book) are steeped in the Bard.

Eleanor generously offered to join us via Skype (though she was traveling and also fighting a cold – what a trooper!). We talked about siblings, birth order, family dynamics and writing in first-person-plural voice. She confessed that while she did a ton of research for the book, she’s not a Shakespeare buff – in fact, she didn’t “get” him until seeing several of his plays in England while she was in graduate school.

“When I taught English, I refused to teach Shakespeare,” Eleanor added, “because I didn’t want to be the one who ruined Shakespeare for these kids.” That remark prompted a slew of reminiscences (and eye-rolling) from all of us about being forced to read Romeo and Juliet in ninth or tenth grade. (My college Shakespeare professor, on the first day of class, proclaimed, “We are not reading Romeo and Juliet. I hate it, and besides all of you have read it already!”)

We also talked about odd Shakespeare productions, referencing a very funny scene in The Weird Sisters in which the family discusses crazy productions they’ve seen, including an all-nude version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (which, fortunately, Eleanor said she made up). Abi recalled seeing a 1970s-themed production of Midsummer as a high school student (which, given the content of the play, actually worked). I remembered a decidedly strange production of Macbeth, set in what I think was 1950s Deep South America, at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C. (Shotguns, suits and rotary phones. It was bizarre.)

But my first encounter with Shakespeare came long before I ever saw him on stage – before I had any idea how famous he was, before I even knew his plays were set in verse. I discovered Shakespeare during long Ohio summers, sprawled across one of two beds in the upstairs room that was once my mother’s, languid summer breezes stirring the thick, humid air outside, box fans whirring in the windows. I discovered him through pen-and-ink illustrations, tinted with orange and jade green, through mischievous fairies and rollicking amateur actors and a sprite who had more energy than sense.

midsummer night's dream fairies titania my book house

Titania sleeps in a flower bed

midsummer night's dream bottom donkey fairies my book house

Bottom and the fairies

I’ve written before about the My Book House series – a treasure trove of folktales, nursery rhymes, Bible stories and adaptations of classic stories from around the world. I especially loved the middle books in the series, stuffed full of fairy tales, and I came back to this simple prose version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream every year. (And then – a wonderful bonus – turned the page to read about Felix Mendelssohn and how he composed the musical score after reading the play as a teenager.)

felix mendelssohn music midsummer night's dream my book house

Felix and his sister Fanny

I came back to Shakespeare years later, in school, reading Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, Hamlet, Macbeth and some sonnets. I acted in a production of The Rude Mechanicals (a crude adaptation of Midsummer) in ninth grade; the acting was pretty terrible, I admit, but we had fun. I took the aforementioned Shakespeare course in college, and saw a half-dozen summer Shakespeare productions put on by my college’s fabulous theatre department.

I don’t consider myself a Shakespeare buff – the Bard’s plots are often confusing, his language ornate and sometimes outdated to my ears. But I admire him deeply, the beauty and power of his words and the way his work has endured over centuries. And I’ve had a soft spot for this particular story ever since I was that little girl reading about Titania and the fairies on those long-ago summer days.

fairies midsummer night's dream my book house

When and where did you first encounter Shakespeare? And what’s the weirdest Shakespeare production you’ve ever seen?

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