In James Bundy’s “Acting Shakespeare” class, I stand on the spacious hardwood floor, trying to channel a woman whose lover has been flakey and untrustworthy. I begin Sonnet 53.
“Describe Adonis, and the counterfeit
Is poorly imitated after you.
On Helen’s cheek all art of beauty set,
And you in Grecian tires are painted new.”
I try to show that his beauty has unraveled me, but my delivery is whiny and sentimental. Bundy stops me. Like last week, he chastises me for finishing the sonnet with a shrug and not meaning every word.
“She tells him he is beautiful in order to seduce him, not to convince herself that she is unworthy of him. Try again.”
As he critiques me, I can only wonder, why would this speaker think that she could convince an emotionally unavailable “Adonis” to love her? A sincere interpretation of these lines had not even occurred to me while I was rehearsing. I sprinkled my own self-doubt, insecurity, and embarrassment into my character’s world, even though the text suggests no such reading. In front of everyone, Bundy calls me out for not trusting the words on the page — and not believing in my ability to deliver them.
“There is no subtext in Shakespeare. The text contains all the meaning you need,” Bundy reminds me.
I take a deep breath and try seduction. I recline on a black felt couch, wrap my arm “provocatively” around the back, cock my head to the side, and puff out my chest. I feel like an idiot.
I am not alone. Week after week, many of the women in the class cannot comprehend that these characters mean exactly what they say. We stammer, recoil, and shrug when pressed to conjure sincerity. Demanding love where it has faltered is not a command that can be made insincerely, and yet, to be watched demanding it, with conviction, feels like an enormous violation of privacy. That violation of privacy, I learn, is what actors call vulnerability, and it is why we are struggling.
Bundy points out to us, one by one as we take our turns, that in Shakespeare, meaning is not hidden in subtext. He tells us that we have put an “ironic distance” between ourselves and the work of acting. This distance manifests in the cynicism, comedy, and nonchalance we use to brush off what we feel. He’s right: it’s unsettling to see how we’ve taught ourselves to live hopelessly far away from passion, anger, and grief.
A few days later, after hours of pathetic rehearsing, I throw myself onto my bed. Trying to shed my ironic distance is like trying to shed a reflex. With my face buried in my pillow, I resolve that to rid myself of the shame I feel upon showing emotion, I must start humiliating myself all the time. Public humiliation is pretty much handled: Bundy made me roar in front of the class last week when I acted measly. But for private humiliation, I need to make myself feel my feelings.
In my bedroom, I face away from the mirrors to ensure that I won’t get distracted by catching a glimpse of a lopsided ponytail or uneven mascara. I position myself opposite my short, narrow bookshelf. The pale greens and light pinks from linen-bound Pushkin Press novellas, the oranges from my dad’s Penguin collection, and the block blues and reds from my Vintage Press “Great Ideas” series are the only source of color in an otherwise pristine white room. I move a stack of colorful books to the top of the white shelf and stare them down. I start speaking to them but as I grow anxious about being overheard, my confident recital quickly falls to a whisper. I reach past my desk and flip the air conditioner dial to “max cool,” so that the hum of the machine will drown out my voice. Goosebumps spring up across my arms and legs, but finally, I can practice anonymously.
The Shakespearian language sounds stiff and distant, so I improvise in modern English. I scream “Fuck you, how could you do this to me?” over and over until I believe myself. When the books start to feel inauthentic, I let loose on my pillows — kneeling, crying, and yelling on the floor beside them. The sound of my wailing makes me want to crawl under a rock. I wish so desperately to turn to someone and sneer, “Who’s that crazy bitch?”
Asking for more commitment from “Adonis” makes me feel so mortifyingly needy. I cringe, even in total privacy, at the thought of eliciting love that isn’t real. But I think I’m hitting a wall. I don’t want my character to risk herself for such obviously unrequited love. As the person playing her, I refuse to give her demands sincerity, because I refuse to admit that I could know what it is like to love full of hope. I want to prove that I know too much — that I have lived too wisely — to be that naive. And it is becoming clear that I can’t make it through the semester if I lie to myself like that.
In May, four months before “Acting Shakespeare” began, I broke up with David. In autumn of the previous year, I’d fallen in love with him almost immediately. On our first date, after a period of awkward puttering, we snuck into a locked campus building with a bottle of red wine that we opened in the bathroom by jamming the cork deep into the bottle with a key. The wine splattered onto the blue and white floor tiles. We wiped it up and drank the remainder outside in the cold under a pergola.
Talking was so comfortable that I developed the eerie sense I was sitting across from a long-lost friend. We were similar — both outgoing, sarcastic, and accustomed to steering a conversation with a reliable cocktail of confidence and curiosity. And yet confrontation with such a familiar set of traits was disarming. I became soft and slow when he asked me a question, a startling departure from my usual quickness to push the spotlight off myself. He would lose his train of thought mid-sentence and excuse it with an observation about our mirroring. While he told me about high school, I studied his face in the dark — his wire glasses, brown eyes, scraggly beard — and wondered how well I’d be able to reconstruct it when we parted.
I knew by our second date that I loved him, but I kept it in for as long as I could. We paused the documentary we were watching to hug. I slipped my fingers around his jaw and beneath his ears; I could see his mind darting.
“Where are you?” I asked.
He hated that I could read him, but he let me. When he shut the computer, the street outside provided the only light guiding us past the kitchen into his bedroom. There, I found out that I hated it too: we alternated our babbling, blushing, and beaming. If I yielded conversational control, I had trouble looking at him. In the gray light of his bedroom at midnight, he took over by holding my face in his hands, and my eyes bounced away, hurrying off to the corners of the room — the pillows, the exposed brick wall, the fragmented mirror above the bed. I felt nervous when he had such a clear sightline to my face.
“You’re shy,” he diagnosed.
The accuracy of this novel assessment scared me. I tucked my face into his shoulder, nodded, and for the first time surrendered speech and body.
By Christmas, we confessed to the long-suppression of our feelings.
“I’ve been in love with you,” he said, looking up at me, soft and wide-eyed.
We were home in New York and spent days in his bed talking, joking, and learning about each other. His glass windows were covered in a layer of frost and his family’s apartment was always empty. We’d wake up with a few hours of daylight left and then talk through the dark until we fell back asleep.
David and I also quickly detected a similar strain of meanness in one other. His was more prominent than mine, but we could both be judgmental, harsh, and unfeeling. We excavated an unfamiliar tenderness in ourselves when we were alone, but seeing how easily David’s spite could rise up, I feared that I was in a race against time, falling in love with the softened version of a naturally misanthropic person.
When we got back to school, David recoiled from his moment of unguardedness. When I tried to connect to him by undressing in the mirror of our similarities, he put on another layer. He grabbed for anything he could keep to himself — his stories, his facts, his feelings: signs that there was still a self unshared with me. The meanness arrived, and the gentleness was accessible only on his schedule. He didn’t make time to see me, didn’t want to meet my friends, didn’t show me affection, and he criticized every couple he knew. All his pride stemmed from his draconian self-control, and love threatened to expose the ways he didn’t completely know himself. He couldn’t stand to see himself as a boyfriend — something that he, in theory, looked down upon — so he did all he could to keep his distance. He did all he could to keep love tamed. He broke me finally when he confessed to maintaining a readily accessible negative version of me in his imagination for safekeeping.
One night, I picked him up from the library, and as he waddled alongside me in his puffy coat, I looked up at him for the slightest sign that he was excited to see me. But as usual, no smile, only a fixed stare at the street ahead. To ensure that I wouldn’t provoke an eye-roll, I concealed all the enthusiasm I’d been waiting to share with him that day. I realized then that we’d stepped outside of the world of empathy, of mirroring, of disarming each other. Trying to approach his level callousness, so as to simply communicate with him, was sucking my personality from me.
In my room, with the air conditioner blaring, I recite Sonnet 53. I try talking to David. I imagine his face, and I travel to a moment of possibility — to try to unlearn anticipating pain. The challenge of finding emotions big enough to fit the grand Shakespearean language feels feasible. On my knees, beside my pillow, I can ask more of him than I dared to when we were together. I can demand a better version of his love without fear of being perceived as needy, girly, or crazy — without being perceived at all, in fact.
This is my chance at redemption. I want to spend the next few months playing those Shakespearean women who live by loving — who demand passion and devotion and believe themselves worthy of it.
For our final project in “Acting Shakespeare,” I ask to play Rosaline from “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” who stands before Berowne, the man she loves, and refuses him. She does not know if she can trust him, so she challenges him to suffer on her behalf for a year. I thought I could be more honest, more forceful, more confident addressing Berowne than I could with David.
Berowne spits at love. He sees lovers as blind to their foolishness, with their sighs, groans, and desperation. When Berowne meets Rosaline and feels himself immediately falling madly in love with her, he boils over with self-hatred. He thrashes, yells, and curses. He declares himself a victim of Cupid: “I, forsooth, in love. I that have been love’s whip!” he cries, in hot disbelief. He detects sudden urges to write love letters, to cry, to want the best for her. But Berowne does not know how to be himself without belittling love: he calls Rosaline the ugliest woman in the king’s court, and he instructs the audience to swear to hang him if his feelings persist. Berowne’s problem is fascinating: what happens when someone who lives by ironic distance — by mocking others, by viewing sincerity as a weakness — finds himself feeling profoundly attached to someone?
I wanted to play Rosaline so I could demand that Berowne love me without seeing me as a trap. I wanted the chance to command respect as I made demands at an imaginary David.
Instead, I am assigned to play Berowne.
Rather than avenging myself, I have to spend a month inside David’s brain. I could never play Berowne well if I saw him as a villain — if I couldn’t find sympathy for his inner turmoil — and yet, generously inhabiting a mind so similar to one that had bitten me threatened to make the breakup unbearable. But the more I rehearsed, the more liberating it felt to proclaim myself a victim of love’s gluttony. Becoming David — speaking, learning, lamenting as he might — was teaching me something. Berowne fears nothing more than the loss of his autonomy and declares his superiority even above those closest to him. Love is a haunting confrontation with all that he can’t control. As I scramble to bolt the doors of my self-denial as Berowne, I wonder if this love for David is one love that can be justified, finished even, by an act of empathy. David, who refuses to speak to me, probably doesn’t deserve this, but I give it to him, even though he’s not listening.
As I study Berowne’s progression — woman-hater, to smitten buffoon, to trickster, to self-hater, to Rosaline-devotee — I see that Berowne, David, and I were not ready for the bravery that letting go into the unknown requires. We wanted to prove that we knew ourselves, that no feelings could render us fools. Berowne tries to love Rosaline while still scoffing at love. David prodded me to open up throughout our relationship so that we could push forward on intimacy without his participation. I focused my energy on sympathy so that I wouldn’t have to admit that his moods caused me pain. Berowne blamed Cupid for forcing him into the helpless victimhood of love. David and I blamed each other.
In class, I struggle in front of everyone to imagine my surroundings in the king’s court. While I try to metamorphose into loud, obnoxious, manly Berowne, as he feels embarrassed about his emotions, I think about David. Halfway through the summer, David wrote me a letter out of the blue:
“The ironic distance I’ve built up over the last twelve years between the world and
me, a distance you’ve so often taken issue with, isn’t a part of the person I am.
It’s what I use to keep me from the person I am.”
And I think that suddenly, we’re alike again. Two people for whom sarcasm, lack of courage, and ironic distance isn’t doing any good. For weeks, I spend my free time rereading his letter, making sense of his mind and mine. I see that we’ll learn sincerity apart.
Berowne chooses to love, but it destroys the exoskeleton that he always understood as his essence. Before he can proclaim his love for Rosaline, he must surrender his pride and let himself be seen as a fool. It isn’t too late for Berowne. He concedes that there are things he doesn’t know about himself and that his desires are conventional. To love her, he renounces himself: “My eyes are then no eyes, nor I Berowne.” He romantically, remarkably, gives up on the futile preservation of his dignity.