Shrews for Shakespeare

mousekiller ShakespeareI was an above average student, as long as I could avoid any science class involving frogs. Then in junior year English, we had to read a play by Shakespeare. I joined the chorus of moaning and whining. For crying out loud, what language was this anyway? But then a crazy thing happened; something that I couldn’t explain because in 1970 we hadn’t invented the word GEEK yet. At first the Bard’s language was intimidating… but it dawned on me that I understood most of the words. Even more bizarre, I liked the writing. Then in true teenage fashion, I really liked liking it. No one was more surprised than me. Well, except for my family.

My father ruled our home with a strong hand and no one was smarter than him. Not the stupid people on the news or the stupid politicians or the stupid rich people. And most certainly, not his daughter.

His rant began when he saw my school books. What a waste of time to read something that old! He said schools didn’t teach anything worthwhile and when I defended reading Shakespeare, he accused me of trying to get above my raising. Not actually good news in his world view. You would have thought I was pregnant with Shakespeare’s baby. My response was, well, shrew-ish.

Public school had been a godsend. While books might have been the passport to the world, we didn’t have them at home; without school I would have been lost. And reading Shakespeare was how my particular rebellion began.

After graduation, I took a trip with my boyfriend but that wasn’t the worst part. I did something that proved I was a smarty-pants. We went to a Shakespeare festival in the next state. The response from my father was predictable. Other kids wrecked cars or had drug problems but all that paled in comparison to my father’s problem: A daughter with the beginnings of an education and a desire for a bigger life.

“My tongue will tell the anger of my heart, or else my heart concealing it will break.”   

Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew.

Surely every parent feels this rub. My father was defensive and I almost understood. He was a product of the depression, holding onto a feeling of lack all his life. He believed in the class system that put him down; that had never given him what he felt he deserved. It wasn’t that my father wanted me to fail; he just didn’t want me to do better than he had. He didn’t want to be shown up by a girl.

I wasn’t the first and I won’t be the last. It’s still all the rage to try to intimidate girls and women into silence. In 2012, Malala Yousafzai reminded the world there is nothing as scary as a school girl with a book. She survived an assassination attempt and was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize; extremes on the continuum that all women walk.

I recently read that the most prevalent human rights issue in the world is the oppression of women. I can believe it; the impact of sexism crosses lines of race, age, education, and income–across cultures and down through time. Insidiously common because it starts at home, misogyny is just an inbred superiority complex, and as common as dirty laundry and dishes in the sink.

When college didn’t happen, I home-schooled myself. I spent my twenties with an endless line of Penguin Classics in my backpack, sometimes writing unsolicited papers on them. An artist by vocation and an English major by avocation.

I learned to own my words and to translate other words in my favor. Society called men ambitious, while the name for same traits in a woman was not nearly so flattering. I wish that B-word that rhymes with witch would be replaced with Shrew. It’s a nostalgic word that reminds me of the first time I consciously became aware of my own intelligence. Shrew. Just hearing it makes my shoulders straighten a bit.

Understatement: I’m no Shakespeare.

Sometimes at book-talks, people ask me who my favorite authors are and I rattle off a list–mostly women, I notice. I never mention the Bard. I sound like an elitist even calling him the Bard. As if I can still be shamed for exercising my brain. As if being a geek shouldn’t be something to brag about.

Well, I’ll raise my shrew-ish hand high and proclaim it: Shakespeare was my first.

Chime in; who got inside your brain and stirred it up? How did you first get above your raising?


  1. Every day I know how lucky I have been in my raising. An illegitimate Irish baby, adopted in the late ’30s by parents who loved, books, art, music, gardening, animals, people, and England. Both gone now, and my two brothers, but I am forever thankful.


  2. While I always read far beyond my grade level and the usual required reading suspects in high school, the book that jolted me into contemporary literature with a capital ‘L’ was Possession by A.S. Byatt, which I picked up in the university bookstore freshman year of college. The assignment from this uncharateristically new age head of the animal sciences program was to choose something we wouldn’t normally choose or something we were inexplicably drawn to. It truly changed me as a reader. I remember, as you describe falling into Shakespeare’s rhythm, being both astonished and proud that I could not only understand, but enjoy, something so seemingly lofty.

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  3. Besides what I had to read for school, I read Saul Bellow, Phillip Roth, (this parochial school kid was particularly fascinated with Jewish male angst – go figure) Ray Bradbury and Mark Twain. I subscribed to Psychology Today and Rolling Stone. I discovered the book “Our Bodies, Ourselves” which filled in the considerable gaps in my sexual education. I loved George McGovern and hated that I was too young to vote for him. My parents were older, extremely conservative and had no clue about what I was reading; I never saw my dad read a book, only US News and World Report. My mom occasionally read popular novels and ladies magazines. As long as I remained on the honor roll (I did) they were fine with whatever I did. I had few friends, always had my nose in a book and kept to myself. I was a geek before the word was invented – and I’m damn proud of it!


    • Ah, my Geek sister! Flying under the radar until it was safe to come out. Love your reading list. Back in the day, I subscribed to Rolling Stone, what great reading there. It gives me pride to say I voted to McGovern in my first election. I’ll think of us as wolves in sheep’s clothing then, and out howling at the moon now. Thanks, Liz.


  4. Lovely article. I’m a science fiction fan. Women can do ANYTHING in science fiction. As a young person it was Anne McCaffery. Yes, give me dragons. Then Frank Herbert, but only his book Dune. I think he started dipping in the spice after that one. He got downright WEIRD.
    But I wanted to touch on your B word that rhymes with witch comment My dad’s folks raised show cocker spaniels. My dad had his own pup, a black female that he showed as a young boy.
    At school, he was assigned to write an essay, the topic to be picked by him. He picked his favorite topic, titling his paper, “My Little Black Bitch.” After turning in his assignment, he was called into the principal’s office, chastised, written up, got an F for bad language, etc. He was totally innocent. “Bitch” MEANS female dog. He showed his black female dog in the “bitch” classes. What was he supposed to call her? I often wonder if the teacher even read the essay before she assumed the worst.
    My dad’s mom was a firebrand. A “shrew.” I was scared to death of her as a kid. I hear she marched into that school and made a huge scene. Good for her. I admire that kind of bit** ah… SHREW.


    • One person’s Shakespeare is another person’s science fiction…I got there eventually. But more interested in your story. It’s funny knowing so many dog people, like you do, that is the first thing I think of with the word for a female dog. Bitch. Of course. His mom probably checked his homework and didn’t think twice. And a great story and wonderful to be the progeny of a shrew! I admire it too. Thanks for sharing this.


  5. Excellent post, and comments too. I also was a voracious reader “above my level” all through school. These days, most of my reading is online; blogs (like this one) and social media. I take some flak for allowing this form of reading to influence my beliefs and viewpoints.


  6. I was fortunately encouraged by my parents to read just about anything I wanted. They read National Geographic to me every month from the time I was only a tiny child. Along the way I learned to read myself long before I went to school. I got to kindergarten, read the instuctions in the workbook and finished the whole thing the first week of school. My mother was summoned to appear and the teacher started berating her for having the gall to teach me to read as “only a teacher can teach a child to read”. My mother, bless her, told said teacher that she had not taught me to read, I had taught myself and she was delighted I was reading before going to school. She would take books out of the adult section of the library for me as they wouldn’t allow a child to borrow them and I had read just about everything in the children’s section. I ended up being an auto-dydact, school grades were always years behind where my brain was except in arithmatic/mathematics (which I never was very good at and still am not). I lived with three intelligent adults and never thought twice about asking tough questions of my teachers – they dispised it, called me “bold” and “forward”. I didn’t care, I wanted the answers, wanted the knowledge and figured out quickly that they couldn’t answer beyond what was in the textbook (also discovered that the textbooks weren’t always right either). So in a sense I didn’t have to rise above my raising. I did have a horrible school career. It’s hard when you hit the point where you realize that a person who supposedly has a doctorate in biology hasn’t a clue about how to disect a frog, or what the Krebs cycle is and is up there as a college professor. That was the last straw with formal education. Then there’s the Bard, of the marvelous cadences, language that makes you think. “To thine OWN self be true.”


    • I just love to hear the story of how we come to be who we are…if that makes sense. There are so many varied paths, and your story is, in so many ways, the opposite of mine. But we both found Shakespeare and ourselves. Really great comment, really well written. Thank you for sharing this.

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  7. I was not a good reader. I’d been going to the library for as far back as I can remember and I started out OK, but then I missed a lot of school after kindergarten (medical issues) and by the time I reached third grade I had fallen way behind in reading, math, spelling and I couldn’t tell time. Ugh. At that point my grandmother was a librarian and in the process of a messy divorce (almost unheard of at her age, back in those days). She moved in with us for the winter and I can still remember her drilling me with flash cards: There, there, their, who, what, where, when, etc., addition and subtraction, and a big cardboard clock with movable metal hands. What time is this? (Um ….) Set the hands for 4:45. Yikes! I burst into tears of frustration and shame often, but she stuck with it and gently encouraged me over and over again. By 6th grade I was in the advanced reading class where we read things like Cyrano de Bergerac and Jason and the Golden Fleece. Years later I moved away from home and when I would write letters home my mother would circle the words I misspelled (in red pencil) and return them to me. Fifty (plus) years later I still count on my fingers (sorry grandma), but I learned to spell and I’m a voracious reader. I can’t imagine it any other way.


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