Not quite two months after I turned 11, and not quite two weeks before Christmas, my mother died. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1991, when I was six. My childhood memories of my mother are almost entirely colored by her sickness. I remember only one family vacation when she was healthy. The rest of my memories are of long drives to her radiation treatments, of the summer she was so sick that we set up a hospital bed in the living room, of watching cartoons very quietly so she could sleep. On the day she died, I came home from school to find she'd been taken to the hospital. Her oxygen machine was off, and the house was quiet. I wasn't worried. Mom spent a lot of time in the hospital. I got dressed for my school's Christmas program, went off to the gym with my friend Amy and her mother, proudly sang a solo, and came home. I went to bed. Sometime after 10:00, my aunt and our priest woke us up to tell us she was dead.
My mother has been dead now for almost twenty years. I've gotten very comfortable with her loss, with my grief, and most days it is small enough to carry around quietly and unassumingly. But being a motherless daughter is an important part of my identity, and it seems fitting to start this story of what I love with a story of what I lost.
I can quite accurately pinpoint the moment I fell in love for the first time. I was thirteen and I was in Doug Knight's English class at Astoria Middle School. Mr. Knight, if you're out there, I want you to know how thankful I am for you. Mr. Knight was passionate about what he taught us, and I absorbed that passion like a sponge. Mr. Knight introduced me to the French language (which I'm still struggling to master), to The Outsiders, to Robert Frost, to Stephen Sondheim, and, most importantly, to Shakespeare.
In the spring, Mr. Knight started a drama club. Our first play was A Midsummer Night's Dream, and he cast me as Oberon. (Seventeen years later, I still think of Oberon as the star of the show, even though he is most assuredly not.) For six glorious weeks, I lived in a world of fairies and magic, and when I came out the other side, I was completely, totally, and irrevocably in love with a dead man.
I am now in the final year of a combo Master of Letters/Master of Fine Arts program in Shakespeare and Performance at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia. I stumbled into this program completely by chance. I wanted nothing to do with grad school after I finished my bachelor's degree, but in 2012, my husband almost lost his job. While he was looking for other work, I was at a loss to what I'd do with myself if we moved, so I began idly looking at grad programs in theatre and history. When a brochure arrived from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, I sent a text message to my friend Sara, who lives there, and told her I was looking at JMU. She asked if I was applying to Mary Baldwin. I said, "what's a Mary Baldwin?" The rest is, as they say, history.
The MLitt/MFA program is one of a kind. For the first two years, students focus on the scholarly aspects of early modern drama and Shakespeare studies. We learn about the canon, the language, the contemporaries, and the history of early modern England. We study rhetoric, learn to perform the language, take courses in dramaturgy and movement and research methods. We write theses on everything from magic books to the American Civil War, provided they relate to early modern theatre in some fashion. At the end of the second year, we earn the Master of Letters degree. Most students go on to the Master of Fine Arts degree in the third year. The MFA year, which I am now in the midst of, is a beast. Over the course of thirteen months, a cohort of students forms a working theatre company, chooses a season, mounts five MainStage shows, two staged readings, and a devised piece, tours to area schools, and writes a book about the process. We also have another thesis—though this one is shorter, thank goodness. Graduates of our program go on to PhDs, form theatre companies of their own, are actors and stage managers and working theatre professionals all over the country.
Now that the stage is set, let me tell you my story. This is the story of girl meets book.
I began working on my Master of Letters thesis in April of 2014. After three agonizing weeks in thesis symposium (and nine agonizing months in the program at large), I'd finally settled—at the very last second—on a thesis topic. I was going to write about performances of Shakespeare in the capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War. I'd amassed a huge collection of Civil War newspapers trumpeting performances of Shakespeare's plays. I'd built a database of journal articles and books on far-reaching aspects of my topic. I had five weeks between the end of symposium and the beginning of my summer intensive, and I planned to get all my research done then. I was going to be off the grid for three weeks in late June and early July, and I wanted to begin composition on August first so that I could turn in a full draft of my thesis on the first day of fall classes.
Sidenote: I had this ambitious research and writing schedule because I hoped to win the award for outstanding thesis. A girl in the year above me had turned in a draft of her thesis on the first day of fall term, and she won the award her year. I hoped to follow her example, win the award, and sail off into the sunset on a wave of admiration from my faculty and peers. Spoiler alert: I won that award. I won it real hard.
I am nothing if not an overachiever. Not only did I finish all my research ahead of schedule, I was able to continue hunting and reading and working new sources though the entire summer. I even managed to work on my thesis during my summer intensive—until I had a panic attack halfway through and had to put a hold on the research for a week and a half. Le sigh.
When I returned from my intensive, I made a handful of visits to the Library of Congress looking for extra materials. I was after playbills, broadsides, promptbooks, and general theatrical ephemera, all of which I did not find in DC. I suspect everything I wanted is in the bowels of the Folger Shakespeare Library, which won't let me in without a PhD. Jerks.
What I did find at the Library of Congress, though, was a single copy of the first folio. My holy book. The Folger, I hear, which owns nearly half of the world's surviving copies, won't let you look at a folio without three forms of identification, a letter of recommendation, your first born child, and a damn good reason for needing to see one. And even if they deign to allow you to see a copy, they make you wear gloves and touch it under a plexiglass case while a pair of goblins stand by menacingly with swords and salivate in your general direction.
Legal disclaimer: that may be a slight exaggeration. Please don't sue me, Folger. I love what you do and all I want in my life is to get into your reading room.
My dear, dear friend Haylie, a brilliant medievalist working on her dissertation at George Washington University, lives just down the street from the Library of Congress and the Folger, and whenever I'm in town, I make a point to get together with her, usually after a day spent in the archives. After my first day at the LoC, I met Haylie and her husband Ross for lunch at Good Stuff Eatery. I talked excitedly about the Library's folio and how I wanted to touch it. I've wanted to touch a folio ever since I knew what one was—so for roughly half my life. Haylie, who has a reader's card for the Folger, told me how difficult it was to get access to the folios there. I despaired of ever getting to touch one.
But once a thought's in my mind, I have to chase it down.
I went back to the LoC the following week, at the end of July, just before I was scheduled to start composition on my thesis. I anxiously filled out a call slip for the Library's folio, and steeled myself for the inevitable cross-examination about why I wanted to see it. It never came. The librarian directed me to a table and told me to wait. I did. Anxiously.
Not ten minutes later, a large, white cardboard box appeared in front of me, along with a cradle, page weights, and a pair of white cotton gloves—which they told me I could use if I wanted to, but didn't have to. And then?
They left me alone.
Not alone alone. I mean, there were still three other librarians in the room. And I was on federal property, so, you know, there were cameras everywhere. But no one was hovering, no one was assigned to make sure I didn't write in the book, or steal a page from it, or, you know, lick it.
I really wanted to lick it.
I didn't. But I wanted to.
I laid my palms flat on the top of the box. This book represented everything I wanted my life to be. These 400-year-old pages were a symbol of everything I loved in my life, and everything I'd lost.
Oh. This might be a good place to tell you that my last name is Hamlet. Yes, really. I met my husband in a Shakespeare class—yes, really—when I was nineteen.
Back to the box, which held a hundred expectations and a thousand hopes and dreams. I'm a recovering Catholic, agnostic at best, but I believe in Shakespeare. The text is a lie and nothing is real, but the first folio is my holy book. The Folger is my temple. The Blackfriars Playhouse at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia, is my local house of worship, and I attend services there three, four, and fives times a week. I'm an Orthodox Shakespearean. I believe that William Shakespeare wrote the words of William Shakespeare, that authorial intent matters except when it doesn't, that dick jokes are always present and always hilarious, that textual instability is delicious and fascinating, and that, above all, Shakespeare understood everything that goes into being human. My textual orientation is voraciously bardonormative. To me, the folio stands for love and loss, beauty and pain, truth, life, and comfort. I'm building my life on the words contained therein. It looms large in my mind, sits at the front of my heart, and sets my soul on fire.
Not wanting to look like a crazy person feeling up a box, I lifted the lid. Slowly and reverently, but with great purpose.
I'm not sure what I expected—a chorus of angels and dancing beams of light, perhaps?—but what I found inside definitely wasn't it. Instead of a dusty, faded, fragile tome, what faced me was a brilliant red cloth cover with an oval, silver plate in the middle. On the silver plate were the engraved initials of my first love—WS.
The cover certainly wasn't original, and the title page was a forgery, but the rest of this dear, sweet book was the genuine article, littered throughout with marginalia from each of its many owners—including H.G. Wells. I spent the next few hours happily touching every single page, documenting and deciphering the margin notes, and taking pictures of the title pages of my favorite plays—Pericles, Twelfth Night, Midsummer, As You Like It, and, of course, Hamlet.
And not once did I lick the book. I smelled it, though. It smelled—thrillingly—like paper.
A year later, some three months ago now, I returned to the LoC to look at the folio again—this time with an actual, research-based reason. I greeted the book like an old friend. No less reverently, but ever so familiarly.
Midway through my last master's degree, I think about the folio often. Daily, even. My everyday work revolves around creating theatre out of Shakespeare's words, but my long term plans focus on scholarship and research, both Shakespearean and generally early modern. My first publication is due out next month; I'm writing another right now; and I just began research on a third today. My MFA thesis, due in April, has been more or less complete since July—because of course it has—and I spent the better part of today just thinking about my work. I have big dreams, big ambitions, and big ideas. All of them are based, in some measure, on that beautiful book with the silky red cover.
In January of this year, the director of my program told me he'd been asked to contribute a chapter to a forthcoming book on early modern stage directions and that he wanted to co-author the piece with me because I'd had an idea that he wanted to trouble. That single compliment, that this incredibly smart man wanted to work with me on an idea I'd had, for a freaking BOOK, gave me the confidence to go out and get more publication contracts. Three weeks ago, I got my first single-authored book contract.
I'll spend the winter writing a chapter for a forthcoming anthology on absent mothers in literature. In case you couldn't figure it out on your own, I'll be writing about Shakespeare's motherless daughters. I haven't yet found my argument, but as a motherless daughter myself, I feel sure that these girls will help me find what I need. This chapter, this first huge success of my career, is based on the two things I carry with me in my heart every day—my first love, and my grief over my very own absent mother. Love and loss, beauty and pain, truth, life, and comfort.
Girl meets book. Girl meets next book. Girl loves them both.