A One Act Play
JENNY DOES SHAKESPEARE
By G. L. Horton
copyright © 2003
A lecture hall. The audience represents the members of the
American Shakespeare Society (ASS).
VOICE FROM OFF STAGE
Ladies and gentlemen, please give a warm welcome to the Society's
first presenter from our newly established High School Student
Division, Miss Jenny Pines, a junior at Chicopee Regional.
JENNY, 17-year-old teenager and very nervous, walks to the
podium, sets her speech down on it, clears her throat and without
looking at her text, begins:
Ladies and gentlemen. Distinguished scholars. Let me start by
thanking you all for giving me the honor to-- to come here to
this--- this prestigious Society- here. To read my paper "Shakespeare
and the Youth of Today." I'm very honored. Nervous, too,
of course, but---
JENNY utters a strangled sound, and begins searching frantically
for the water she knows should be on the podium. She finds an
empty glass, stares at it in panic, looks around wildly. Some
one off stage beckons to JENNY, and she exits and returns in
a rush with a pitcher of water. She pours a glass, drinks, makes
another raspy sound, takes two pills from a bottle and washes
them down, and, after a series of pitiful throat clearings,
begins again to address the audience.
"Shakespeare and the Youth of Today." by Jenny C.
Jenny looks at her text and discovers that she can not
read it. She looks apologetically at the audience seated in
the enveloping dark.
I'm sorry. I uh- -I uh-- I'm going to speak to you about what
I-- uh about my--umm. Excuse me.
Jenny tries holding the papers at various angles: one position
works well enough that she can begin. But the stress of trying
to read with bright stage lights shining in her eyes and a dark
shadow on the printed page increases her nervousness, and her
shaking hands add to her difficulties. She is stumbling, making
"It has been said that "Shakespeare is not for an age,
but for all time." This is so true. Shakespeare speaks to
high school students in America today. Right now. If they would
just. Open their minds. And listen. Shakespeare knows how it feels
to be young, to wait-- sorry-- to want-- what-- all the authorities,
the so called older and wiser people say you shouldn't want. How
it feels to have everybody pushing and pulling at you when what
you need is peace and quiet and understanding Shakespeare is all
about feelings. Feelings at their -- their most intense. As they
are at this painful time. Between the safety of childhood and
whatever. -- Whatever your adult life is going to turn out to
-- To be. That is what is referred to. As Youth. The Youth of
today. Are overwhelmed. They are bombed --uh -- bombarded-- with
messages. Flooded with feelings. --feelings they can't handle,
and desperate. For sheltering walls and defenses to hide behind.
They are afraid. The thing they most fear is what Shakespeare
sometimes calls "disgrace". Which literally according
to the dictionary means "lack of grace. " Which for
a teen could be translated as "Not Cool." or "Looking
like a fool." But the youth of today must be brave and allow
themselves to feel these feelings, or else they may find themselves
doing something uh-- something utterly-- final and terrible to
themselves ... and hurting those who love them." Shakespeare's
women-- Sorry, Shakespeare's wisdom-- can really be a lifetime--
no, sorry, that's "a lifeline" for young people downing
in a quote "sea of troubles" if only they felt empt--uh
-- empowered-- to grasp him what Shakespeare has to tell them.
Between the author Shakespeare and the teen reader who might be--
uh who might benefit-- from him. Stands Author-- no, that's "Authority"
I'm sorry. I can't read my speech. I mean I can't see what I've
got written. The light is so-- it's so--. Is there anyone who
knows how to--?
VOICE FROM OFF STAGE
Just adjust it-- your light.
VOICE FROM OFF STAGE
Adjust the light on the podium. Use the swivel.
There's a--? Oh! Thanks! as I was saying uh-- reading---
(JENNY finds where she left off her in her paper and reads)
"Shakespeare's wisdom can really be a lifeline for young
people downing in a quote "sea of troubles" if only
they felt empowered to grasp him. Between the author Shakespeare
and the teen reader who might benefit from him stands Authority,
in the shape of boring teachers with boring examinations that
turn Shakespeare's deep questioning of the human heart into the
kind of questions that fit into multiple choice, and his poetry
into a list of words to be looked up in the glossary.
When I first heard teachers talking about Shakespeare they made
it sound as if the plays were broccoli or brussels sprouts-- some
yukky thing that kids had to be forced to digest because it is
supposed to be good for you. They seemed to want to push it on
us because they had it pushed on them. I wasn't at all looking
forward to junior year, when that musty old stuff would be shoved
down my throat. But then I met Shakespeare outside the classroom--
which is the way I imagine most young people who love him first
Last Christmas my cousin Ellen introduced me to a friend of
hers, a college student back home over vacation. He was just a
freshman, but already he was cast as Mercutio in his school's
spring production of "Romeo and Juliet". Greg was passionate
and funny and brilliant, and when he acted some of his speeches
for us, it was thrilling He took his acting role very seriously.
He got videos of all the different "Romeo and Juliet"s--
Ziferelli's, and Lurman's-- the one with Leonard Di Caprio-- and
some funny old black and white ones too. He showed us the different
Mercutio scenes and explained how one was better than the other
because the actor knew exactly what he was trying to do. It's
all there, in the words, and the sounds may be even more important
than the sense. An insult loaded with Bs and Ds and Ks lands like
a slap in the face.
Greg explained how Mercutio could be as dangerous with his words
as with his sword if the actor gave the right emphasis so that
the words would "hit home". Greg showed me the sexual
meanings hidden behind Shakespeare's strange old fashioned words,
meanings that he pointed out high school glossaries gloss over
and high school teachers either don't know themselves or are embarrassed
to talk about . Then Greg read me the love scene in sonnet form
between Romeo and his Juliet, the one that begins
Should I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this--
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
to smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss."
And he told me that in Shakespeare's own time the poetry he
wrote was too hot to handle. It wasn't published at first, but
just written out and passed around among friends, like secret
messages in study hall. Will's poems were memorized by lovers
going a-wooing, and romantic young girls might sleep with one
of his "Sugar'd Sonnets" under their pillows to bring
them sweet dreams. When Greg went back to school he gave me his
beautiful little illustrated volume of the sonnets, with his favorites
bookmarked. That book changed my life.
Once I discovered Shakespeare on my own, so to speak, then I
was able to understand what a good teacher like my high school's
Mrs. Ferlinger was getting at, and I could think and write about
him for class work, too. It was my class essay on Shakespeare
that, along with Mrs. Ferlinger's recommendation, got me early
admission to a good college, one where I would never have applied
without my teacher's encouragement. If you can impress the educated
powers that be with your knowledge of Shakespeare, elite doors
will open to you. Or as the "Kiss me Kate" song puts
it: "Brush up your Shakespeare, and they'll all kowtow."
JENNY is carried away, and does an awkward version of the
singing and dancing mobsters, knocking over her podium's reading
light as she flings out her arms
Shit! Oh, my g--! Sorry--- I'm so sorry.
JENNY picks up the lamp, fusses with it and shakes it:
useless. It's broken. She looks at the pages of her speech:
useless. It's too dark to read, and her hands are shaking so
badly she can't hold her papers still. JENNY gets out her pills
and gulps down a handful, washing them down with a fresh-poured
glass of water. Composing herself, she apologizes:
I really apologize for this. If you'll. excuse me a minute.
(walks to wings) Can anybody fix this? (unheard reply)
But I can't see to read. At least try
(an unseen someone takes the lamp.)
Should I just give up? Maybe the next speaker can-- (unheard
reply) But I don't have it memorized! How could I, when I
had to start over and write on a whole different topic??!! ...
(unheard reply) All, right. All right. I'll try.
I hope you'll excuse me if I--. I'm sure to get all mixed up,
but the moderator says I should just try to tell you what I think
is important. Which what I was doing in my first paper, the one
I threw away. My mind's just--. I can't remember a word. These
pages? It's, like, my fifteenth draft. Can you believe that? I
practically killed myself writing it, and now I can't even--.
This whole thing has been-- . Some of you probably recognize my
name, or even my face--: because since I asked Dr. Baker for his
autograph after I saw the production of "Hamlet" where
he both directed and played a great King Claudius, I've been helping
the Doctor out with the mailings in the office. I send out form
letters, like for dues. Anyway, Dr. Baker's been really nice to
me, and when he asked if I would like to present a paper, I said
sure without even thinking. I was so thrilled with the idea of
just being here. In the same room with all of you professionals.
I wasn't too worried, because I did get an A plus on my Hamlet
essay for English class. I figured you people would cut me some
slack, since I'm what you call Youth. Although doesn't youth usually
mean a guy? Anyway, what I'm trying to say is sometimes a person
just doesn't think things through, you know? OK. So I'd said yes.
I was gonna be printed in the program, like Professor Heintz.
So I started with my Hamlet paper and made little changes. But
they sort of became bigger changes when I realized how much of
what I'd written was personal and I was going to have to get up
and read in front of strangers. It'd be like reading my diary!
To-- to you. So I took most of the personal stuff out. But when
I read what was left to my Dad it sounded really lame. And I could
sort of see his mind wandering, making a mental list of plumbing
supplies or something. But what does he know? I mean, Dad says
he did ok in Shakespeare; but like he says it was in one ear and
forget it as soon as he passed the exam. But still, he's my own
father and I'm boring even him. Am I going to look like the biggest
JENNY looks toward the wings to see if help is on the way.
It isn't. JENNY looks miserable, takes a deep breath, pours
herself a glass of water, takes a pill, and begins talking again.
So then I went to my English teacher Ms. Ferlinger for some
help. Ms. Ferlinger pointed out to me that you're scholars. Like
I didn't know! Her point was that you've heard hundreds of papers,
written by PhDs and famous poets and all. Plus all those student
things you've graded, from stupid to genius even. Any idea you
haven't heard, I should figure it's because it's wrong. Last thing
I should do is get up here and tell you like it's new some old
idea you've already heard, not to mention over and over again.
JENNY washes down another 2 pills.
Ms. Ferlinger said the reason she gave me the A plus was not
because I got in lot of facts about Hamlet-I guess I kind of blew
that part. It was because of what I said about Ophelia. Ms. Ferlinger
said it's like I kind of opened up my vein and bled all over the
page. And she said that was probably the only way I'd come up
with something you people hadn't heard before. If it was pure
me. Which left maybe half a page of the A plus Ophelia. What I
see of her in me and me in her. I added why I feel Shakespeare
understands what it's like to be a girl, even today when practically
everything has changed except that Girl thing. I mean, we don't
have princes in America, do we? So why do girls think we're not
good enough? Why do we do things, and say things- or more like,
not say things-- all the time, just to live up to somebody's idea
of how we ought to be? Instead of just being who we are? And how
Hamlet is like totally dis-gusted with Ophelia, just because she
can't automatically read his mind and be on his side But he's
the one who hasn't opened up to her! Not even given her a clue!
Ophelia's this thing to him, this Nymph-thing: I guess she's
supposed to know everything by women's intuition: ‘cause Hamlet
acts like she's too ignorant for him to even bother to explain.
Like, she's supposed to hate her own father! For what? Doing his
job!? That really gets to me. So then I'd go into some examples
of girls I know, where the guys they like demand this like total
loyalty, and the girl's supposed to give up her family and friends
and what she really might want to do in life and just be with
him. And it's not like it goes both ways, believe me: The guy's
I can't tell you how hard I worked on that speech, how much
of myself I put in it. I don't know if it was any good--. I couldn't
read it to my father, for cheese sake-- and Ms. Ferlinger's gone
on vacation. But I felt good about it. Terrified by what I'd discovered,
and scared out of my so-called mind at the idea of standing at
this podium and reading it to you. But I felt I'd got to the truth.
My truth, anyway. Worth saying, even if the roof falls in.
(JENNY washes down another couple of pills.)
But that's not the speech I brought here. When the Society program
came in the mail I saw that my paper was listed as talking about
"youth's perspective on Shakespeare.". Not Jenny's perspective:
Youth's. I don't know why nobody told me I mean-- Dr. Baker? Isn't
somebody supposed to let the speaker know? Anyway, I was left
with hardly any time to write a whole new speech. On the "Youth
of Today". Truth is, except for Greg Barstow I'm the only
youth I know of who loves Shakespeare. There may be others, hundreds
for all I know- somebody's checking out the videos. But if there
are, they're keeping very quiet about it at South Central High.
Just like me.
Only my cousin Ellen and a very very few of my closest friends
know that I'm passionate about Shakespeare, and even those guys
think that it's really really weird. I have this poster in my
room: it's Ophelia, by the painter Millais.: A deceased Ophelia,
laying in the water, floating all browny green and strewn with
flowers, her hands reaching out from her sides like she's embracing
her fate. You know the picture? Well, my so-called friends say
that I should take it down. They tell me it's depressing and morbid.
Way out of date, way not cool. Sarah even said that I must be
stuck up. Like she thinks the reason I put up the picture is to
impress somebody. No way I could really like Shakespeare. To quote
this so-called best friend:
(JENNY finds the place in her paper, and reads)
"Shakespeare's for old people. He's difficult, he's boring,
he's history." That's what a girl's up against if she steps
Oh! You put on the lights.
VOICE FROM OFFSTAGE
Can you see to read now?
Yeah! that's great. But
(For the first time, JENNY can see the audience.)
Professor Heintz! Of all the insulting --! You've got some nerve.
Listen, people--the few of you who are left. Before I read my
speech, I have to say something-- even though I know it's not
my place. You're the educators. You have the credentials. But
I was really really offended by this morning's first speaker.
I know what Professor Heintz said wasn't directed at me personally,
but in a way I'm supposed to speak for all students, particularly
the students who aren't here because adults like Professor Heintz
make them feel out of place and stupid and get big laughs when
they make insulting jokes about laziness and Cliff Notes.
And now he's insulting me by doing that! (points) During
my speech! So I'm I'm just a teen ager. Rude and ignorant Like
one of those rowdy apprentices who crowded into the Globe at a
penny apiece to weep over Romeo and Juliet, and upset the elite.
That old elite thought the rabble should be working for their
masters, not goofing off enjoying poetry. Poetry is too good for
That us-them elitism is exactly why students today who might
happen to love this subject have to stay in the closet. Saying
"I love Shakespeare" is siding with the enemy, giving
aid and comfort to authorities who have nothing but contempt for
us. So if you are condescending to count me in, I have to say
"no thank you." I'm just a student. Like all those other
students. Yeah, I'm familiar with those "lazy" students, as you
so call them, and yeah, I agree that they could put in some effort
of their own before they ask for help. But although you may tell
me not to feel insulted---"Oh, we don't mean you, dear, we
know you aren't one of THOSE"- the truth is I am. If I don't
ask what you call stupid questions it's because I'm scared to.
I've heard plenty of kids' questions come back at them. Why risk
getting hit by something like "Don't they teach you kids
how to use the encyclopedia anymore?!" Sure. Young people
can be very stupid and helpless when they come to something that
is totally out of their experience. This doesn't mean we're stupid
all the time! So I do not appreciate your rude generalizations,
Dr. Heintz. Your university isn't being "overrun" with "ignorant"
students. Look around, for God's sake! What "Student Division"?There
wasn't anybody under 30 here to begin with, and it looks like
when I started to speak anybody who who isn't too old to move
got up and left. Nothing but gray hair and ugly shoes! Reading
your newspapers! Can't expect anybody with a degree would actually
listen. To a kid? Next time you're asking yourselves why young
people today don't appreciate Shakespeare, look in the mirror.
(JENNY takes another pill, without water.)
I apologize to anybody like Ms. Ferlinger, who respects students
and tries to encourage them. And I apologize to you, Dr. Baker.
For letting you down. But you've let my friends down, too. What
if some of them had come here to support me, and they heard Dr.
Heintz's insulting them? Heard you and all these other experts
applaud? What if Shakespeare himself were here? You think he'd
approve? Kids go "Unwillingly to school", he said, and
he knows how that feels. He's on our side.
Any young person who hasn't been brainwashed can relate to sonnet
#29. What is it I say
(finds the place in her paper, reads)
"It describes so well the feelings of depression, jealousy,
and envy, and what it means to be despised by your all powerful
When, in disgrace with Fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Looks and popularity! That's so today. Youth today, everybody
thinks that if you have the right look and you buy all the right
clothes and stuff, somehow everybody will love you or at least
accept you and you won't have to feel this terrible loneliness.
(Reads the next sentence from paper)
"Despair threatens to overwhelm people who feel that they
are truly despised."
That goes double when you're made a public fool of. A motley
to the view, the few and the proud. That's when a person's really
convinced that they're disgusting, and their friends can't help
but reject them, too. The outcasts, the geeks and burnouts, they're
eaten up by envy, like Shakespeare says:
"Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;"
And that's the most amazing part, when the poet says
"With what I most enjoy contented least;"
When your friends are outcasts, too, and so's the stuff you share,
music or video games or cribbage or Satanism or whatever. Because
you're stuck in with all these outcast second class citizens,
you don't really enjoy anything. You despise what you enjoy, be
it good or bad. You hate yourself and your dorky so-called friends.
But there is a way out, one only way out. If you are lucky enough.
"Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet wealth rememb'red such wealth brings,
That then I scorn to change my state with kings."
The only way out is true love. If Hamlet had felt that way about
Ophelia, he wouldn't have given a-- fig-- that Claudius was King!
He'd have saved Ophelia. Instead, the man she loves screws her
over. Humiliates her in front of the whole court. Kills her father,
who wasn't as smart as he thought he was, but still she loved
him. Can you blame her for going mad? For committing suicide?
Without the strength or the resources to change her situation,
she says "no thanks"- or maybe "screw you"-- to the
world. Something I've been tempted to do more than once, and I
know my friends have, too. Do you know? 15 percent of high school
students have tried to commit suicide! And most of them have never
told their parents or priest or doctor or teacher or anyone else.
Because who cares, really? They're just ignorant kids, compared
to Princes and Doctors of Philosophy.
Ophelia didn't just think about it, or try: she succeeded. I
respect her for her that. There's something beautiful about it.
Something that refuses to be dragged into every day mud, something
that lets go and floats free, --strewing flowers, embracing her
fate. Why should she be afraid any more? To me, what she did represents
(JENNY finishes the water, swallowing a whole handful of
When I look at Ophelia, I think I look at her the way the painter
Millais did in that picture. I see someone who wanted to go to
a happier place. Wanted to end her own suffering. I look up to
Ophelia, because I can relate to her sorrow, and because she represents
to me all the humiliating secret struggles we go through trying
to grow up. In today's society, or back then, or whatever-- I
guess I mean "whenever"? (shrugs) Whatever.
If life is unbearable, if what prestigious people want you to
do or say or be is just too hard, then who can blame the young
person who has to take pain killers or antidepressants or alcohol
or illegal drugs to deal with it? All the envelope stuffing and
the subject switching and taking sides and so called friends and
those fifteen fucking drafts? To be put under the spot lights
like police giving you the third degree? "What do you know
and when did you know it, you stupid lazy student?" "Are
you going to name your friends? Do you even have friends?"
And if a person does not have the strength or perseverance to
pursue the primrose path to the best end, then I think that person
should have the right to end that person's life, precip-precipi--
prematurely. I know, I know: Legally, no one in the United States,
or in most of the so called enlightened post Christian elite Western
holier than thou countries, no one no matter who high or low has
the "right" to suicide. But ultimately, ultimately, in the ultimate
extreme or the extreme ultimacy, doesn't everybody have the right?
To control her own life? To choose her future? Or to not? To not
want to have a future in this messed up sewer of a world? Hypocrites.
Keep your crummy hands off of our lives! You and your Police State!
If attempting suicide is a felony, why not go all the way and
make it a capital crime? That way the crime and the punishment
can be the same! Simultaneous!
The government is not God, and that goes for teachers and administrators
and doctors and distinguished scholars or so called experts and
all the rest of you damn-ed smiling villains. You damn-ed smiling
villains. You have no right to condemn me, or any other victim.
It's for God to decide. Who made it your job? Fie on't, Fah! Your
smiley face A Pluses and your freaking fearsome F's! If someone
is going to, I don't think she's going to pause and consider whether
you think it is "honorable" or "repulsive" or just how bad you'll
feel when she's lying down dead before your eyes and you just
sat there. Chances are, the person is thinking about her predicament,
not your opinion. So what if you interpret it that Ophelia goes
mad because she is in an insane situation? What makes you think
today's girl isn't? Compared with the Danes' insane? Are you that
condescending? This Society is just like the court of Elsinore:
it's all about seeming, seeming instead of being. Put on a happy
face. Look up to the elite. Instead of looking in the mirror.
I look up to Ophelia. And Cleopatra. And Juliet. I look at you,
and I see hope only-- only when someone --has the-- guts -- to
take herself-- serious--ly--out--out of-- "the rest is silence
(JENNY collapses onto the floor)
VOICE FROM OFFSTAGE
Miss Pines? Miss Pines? Quick--Call 911!