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jennifer loviglio
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The Bard, But Not As Hard

When I learned recently that my son will start reading Shakespeare in 9th grade English next year, I was determined to save him from my fate. I can still feel the hot shame of sitting in English class reading Romeo and Juliet and being totally confused. All around me the other kids chuckled at the double entendres and nodded thoughtfully at the foreshadowing.

Yes, I know: bad memories of school are a dime a dozen. I should get over it. But Shakespeare is, for lack of a better term, a gateway drug to the bulk of English language literature. So if you don't read Shakespeare, you can't really say you love James Joyce - even though you do - because you have no idea how much he was influenced by The Bard. And if you don't understand Shakespeare, you must busy yourself preparing another mojito until the smart people have finished comparing Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres to King Lear. Shakespeare has probably influenced literature in other languages, too. But of course, even if I were fluent in those languages, I wouldn't know.

I decided to read Romeo and Juliet to my son and explain it so he'd continue to love reading and never have a moment of insecurity or confusion for the rest of his education. Maybe even for the rest of his life. Pinned to the couch under my colossal Yale Shakespeare tome, I started to read. He fidgeted. He sighed. I begged. I bribed. Finally, with some candy and the promise of Wii time, I was able to secure my son's attention for a few minutes.

After several pages and a dozen questions that I couldn't answer, it hit me. I still didn't know what was going on. I had forgotten, for example, that Romeo was in love with someone else before the party at the Capulets'. And the Yale collection was useless because it didn't have any glosses. It didn't even have the mingy footnotes that were no help in junior high, but would have been better than nothing.

Suddenly I wasn't just a clueless parent. I was back in junior high school. I felt stupid again. Stupid and taller than all the boys. Buck teeth and a unibrow. I shuddered. If I didn't pull myself together I was going to transmit my anxiety to my son.

"That's enough reading for now, honey," I said, shoving the damn thing under the couch.

Ideally, I would have taken him to see the play of Romeo and Juliet, but there's never a Shakespeare production around when you need it. My husband, displaying what I consider to be a flawed side of his personality, actually suggested I look at CliffsNotes online. I blasted him.

"Look, I may be literarily challenged, but I have do have a modicum of integrity," I said. "I want Romeo and Juliet to come alive for us, not to be prechewed pabulum." Secretly, however, I started to think it might be high time to get some help, however much like cheating it seemed.

Then last month a small miracle occurred in the children's section of the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, DC. I discovered a new series of books called Manga Shakespeare. Put out by SelfMadeHero in England, the books use Shakespeare's original text (somewhat condensed) and Japanese comic-book style drawings. Romeo and Juliet are super cute, with their big eyes and stylized hair. Their story takes place in modern day Tokyo complete with elevators, skyscrapers and, at the site of their tragic deaths, taut police tape sealing off the area. The drawings capture emotions and actions that were previously hidden in the words that I found so difficult to understand.

Because I'm a purist at heart, when I read a Manga Shakespeare book - currently only Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet are available - I switch back and forth between it and a paperback Folgers edition of the play. I get the gist of the story from the former and the glory of Shakespeare's full text from the latter. Though it's true I got into this with my son's future in mind, I don't feel like sharing yet. I'm having too much fun.