I always knew I’d be an English major

My oldest–affectionately known as “The Girl” in my social media–starts her senior year of high school next month. Accordingly, we have begun all the grand college tours as she searches for her next educational home. She’s interested in political science, so candidates are of course being evaluated on that criterion.

All of this, plus Kate’s post Monday brings back memories of my own quest for college. I always knew I’d be an English major. What I was going to do with that degree changed over the years (law school, education, etc.), but I made up my mind in eighth grade. I was going to read books for my college years.

Because of this, I looked mainly for liberal arts colleges. (I can hear all the business and engineering folks snickering now.) And yes, I went to college as a declared English major and never wavered, despite many people asking if I also knew how to flip burgers because if I didn’t teach what else was I going to do with an English degree? (I am not flipping burgers, trust me.)

And because of that, I do exceedingly well on those “How many of these 100 essential books have you read?” quizzes. I hit most of them in college. And I learned some things:

  • Medieval English is really hard to read and if you have to have the jokes in Chaucer explained, they aren’t very funny.
  • American literature was obsessed with sex and religion for a Very Long Time.
  • Most 19th century American writers were…ponderous. Except for Mark Twain. I still think he’s funny.
  • The English Romantics were often a bit over the top in their emotions.
  • Those “Victorian” values and the image of being sexually repressed? Yeah, that was for the middle and lower classes. Victorian writing is full of sex and sexual imagery.
  • American literature in the 20th century leaves me scrabbling for anti-depressants and the English were often completely indecipherable (James Joyce anyone? Samuel Beckett?)

But the period I really liked was the Elizabethans and especially Shakespeare. My absolute favorite course was called “Shakespeare in Stratford.” We read five Shakespearean plays and took two trips to Stratford, Ontario (Canada) to see them performed, so the choice of plays for the course depended on the season for the theater company. We also saw Gilbert & Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore.” I enjoyed it so much, The Hubby and I went back for a week on our honeymoon.

When I tell people about this, especially non-reader type people, they stare in horror. “I never understood Shakespeare, especially why he’s still so popular.”

If you are one of these people, I have some advice: see Shakespeare performed. Movies are fine, plays are better. The words on the page are okay, but it is a completely different thing when you get the body language, inflection, expression – and, of course, the correct reading of anything that may be in iambic pentameter. Shakespeare touches the human condition in a way that few other writers have ever done for me. I think this is why his plays are equally successful in multiple time periods. Franco Zeffirelli’s original “Romeo and Juliet” can be translated into 1996’s “Romeo + Juliet.” The “Taming of the Shrew” is just as good done as written, or as “Kiss Me Kate” or “Ten Things I Hate About You.”

I’m not much on time travel. I like modern times just fine, thank you very much. But if The Doctor showed up in his T.A.R.D.I.S. today and offered to take me anywhere, I think I’d want to meet old Will. Pick his brain a bit. Have a glass of wine or three (I’m positive there’d be drinking). Assure him that his plays are going to have a good long run.

Or maybe I’ll just torture The Girl with yet another viewing of “Hamlet.”

Readers, Shakespeare fans or no? Read or performed? Writers, what author would you like to sit down with over a nice glass of wine?

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Author: Liz Milliron

Liz Milliron has been making up stories, and creating her own endings for other people's stories, for as long as she can remember. She's worked for fifteen years in the corporate world, but finds making things up is far more satisfying than writing software manuals. A lifelong mystery fan, her short fiction has been published in online magazines Uppagus and Mysterical-e. She has also had stories included in Lucky Charms: 12 Crime Tales, Blood on the Bayou (the 2016 Bouchercon anthology), Fish Out of Water, and Mystery Most Historical. She is a past president of the Pittsburgh chapter of Sisters in Crime. Visit her online at http://lizmilliron.com, find her on Facebook at https://facebook.com/LizMilliron, or follow her on Twitter (@LizMilliron).

14 thoughts on “I always knew I’d be an English major”

  1. Never had much of an understanding of what Shakespeare was or did. Classical flaw in my upbringing I guess. Haha. I’ll be going abroad for a year, and I actually might look into who he was. I feel that somehow I should know more about him than I do. I might stick to reading tho – I prefer that unfortunately :o)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ExpandingAtlas – where are you going abroad? I personally don’t find Shakespeare hard to read (the Folger editions even have notes for the weird Elizabethan words/phrases I think). But if you can, try to see one play. It really is a different experience performed!

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  2. Great post! And loved your survey of English/American lit here—efficient and pointed and fun to read! And good luck to your daughter in the college search too. Looking forward to seeing where she chooses to go!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Art! It was good seeing you that day. GWU has her heart right now. Any other school is going to have to be completely amazing to knock that off the #1 spot.

      When I was in college, I had to do oral comprehensive exams as both an undergraduate (I missed the GRE cutoff by 2 questions) and a grad student (I was in an accelerated program that allowed me to get my master’s degree as well as a bachelor’s in four years). In my graduate comps, the professor asked, “So. Waiting for Godot. What’s it about?” All I could think was “Are you KIDDING ME???”

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  3. I too loved your survey of American/English lit. I was an English major for all the wrong reasons: I loved to read, and I just knew some man would marry me and take care of me. Earn a living? Not me. Wow, does that date me. And I kept going to school because it was more interesting than being a secretary. One day I woke up with a PhD in English and no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. But the degree served me well, and I’ve had a rich life as an author and publisher–with a small academic press. I cringed when one of my granddaughters told me how boring Shakespeare is and her older sister was bored by To Kill a Mockingbird. But my chosen field was literature of the American West–yes, there really is a rich body of literature set in the West.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Judy. Yeah as I mentioned above, I did an accelerated bachelor’s/master’s program. So of course I thought, “Hey, why not go for a PhD?” Someone, I think it was my husband, asked me, “What do you do with a PhD if you don’t teach?”

      That was the end of that idea. 🙂

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  4. Shakespeare is so much better when you see it performed on stage. The actor’s energy doesn’t come through on film but on stage, they seem to give to and feed off the audience and a whirlwind of energy is generated. It’s an amazing experience. Kind of like what I imagine seeing Alexander Hamilton would be.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Keenan, it really is – although there are some great films from Shakespeare out there. I think it’s the difference of many takes a “polish” versus being live and just having to go with it. For our 20th anniversary I so wanted to get tickets to see David Tennant and the Royal Shakespeare company through one of our local movie theaters (they film the stage production then show it at the theater), but I couldn’t figure out where to buy the tickets!

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  5. I was lucky to attend a high school near a small college with an outstanding theater department, and every year they practiced on us by performing Shakespeare in our school assemblies. I remember being amazed by how easy it was to see it performed instead of reading the old language. Now, I’m lucky to live in a town with an outdoor theater and a summer Shakespeare festival. What a treat!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sue yes. All the old language is really daunting on the page, but when it’s performed that really goes away. We don’t have outdoor theater here in Pittsburgh, but that’s where I met my husband. An outdoor performance of “MacBeth” in Buffalo’s Shakespeare in Delaware Park. People brought picnics, wine, cheese, snacks – it was a great event!

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  6. Great post, Liz!! I enjoy reading and seeing Shakespeare performed, and am especially partial to modern retellings like 10 Things I Hate About You. It’s amazing how relevant his stories still are. Oh goodness, I’d love to have a glass of wine with JK Rowling…I would pick her brain about what happens to all of her characters after Hogwarts! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I still find it amusing to listen to people say “Shakespeare isn’t relevant any more” then I start listing things like “10 Things I Hate About You” and all the other modern works that are adaptations. “No way!” is the general response. Yes, way. In fact, I just learned that “The Lion King” was influenced by Hamlet. Didn’t occur to me when I originally saw it, but I can see the influence now.

      Oh yes – I’d love to hob-knob with Rowling! Talk about a woman who really lived her story universe!

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  7. What a lovely post!

    Um… not much has changed, or maybe it’s the more we change the more we remain the same: American literature is still obsessed with sex and religion, and the obsession with sex and religion. Not sure I see that changing much.

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