Gossip Girl and high school romance: Shakespeare’s relevance today

It could have been something out of a teenager’s nightmare: I was staying for five days in an off-the-grid cabin in the middle of nowhere without the Internet, summer work, or even hot water. My only glimmer of hope to escape endless boredom was the house’s library of dusty classic novels.

I picked Othello off the shelf less out of a genuine interest in Shakespeare but more to avoid the commitment of a thousand-page Russian behemoth. For sure, I knew that wading through an Elizabethan text would by no means be easy; I just hoped it would not bar me from enjoying any thrill the plot might bring.

While the first few pages were certainly a struggle, soon enough, my experience from reading years of Shakespeare in school began to kick in. I tentatively let go of the safety blanket of the footnotes as the fluidity of the lines took over. The key, to fearlessly immerse yourself in the Bard’s language, came surprisingly easy to me. His vocabulary is not a foreign language to ours—we have the same words, just used in a slightly different way. For example, consider when lago says, “Spoke such scurvy terms against your honor.” He is not using our common word scurvy literally as the disease but rather as disgusting and poisonous, words commonly associated with sickness. By letting go of understanding the nuances of each word and instead focusing on their collective meaning, I moved through the play with relative ease.

All this allowed me to revel in the rather delicious action unfolding in the play. I squirmed with anxiety for Othello as, through Iago’s false advice, he is slowly convinced that his innocent wife Desdemona is unfaithful. Shakespeare masterfully displays Othello’s psyche as he descends into seizures of murderous rage at the hands of Iago’s tricks. I watched this all with dread, knowing the end was near for the couple.

Such an engrossing story came unexpectedly, but it was enough for me to try my hand at two more plays while I was in the cabin; they too were thoroughly enjoyable. However, things changed when I returned. My infatuation with the Bard was fading as its place was taken by a different mistress: Netflix. Gossip Girl gripped me and was not letting go. I was mindlessly watching episode after episode until a specific plot point caught my attention: A plot twist that the show’s writers had ripped straight from Othello. In the show, a woman steals a man’s shirt and purposefully lets his girlfriend see it to make her suspect infidelity. This too closely mirrored Iago taking Desdemona’s handkerchief and placing it on another man so that Othello would see and believe it as a sign of her adultery. The realization rocked my world by forcing me to recognize the startling relevance of what I had read.

graphic by <span class="credit credit- "><a href="/credit/"Michelle/" title="View all of this person's work">"Michelle</a></span>

graphic by Michelle Wang

This specific instance of Shakespeare’s influence threw open floodgates of connection. Everything I saw brought to mind a scene, a quote, or a theme from one of the plays and visa versa. The “everything reminds me of him” breakup stereotype? Created by a distraught Romeo. Jessica’s condemnation of the judgment of lovers in The Merchant of Venice? My thoughts exactly on high school couples. His words even snuck their way into writing assignments as the school year started.

Soon I was reading a scene each night before bed. I was even taking notes of the connections I saw and the quotes I loved, a loathed practice on school-assigned books yet a natural compulsion with this text. But how could I help myself? The drama was speaking to my life and my problems in a way other stories simply didn’t.

My ongoing experience makes me deeply question the popular perception of this material’s irrelevance. Shakespeare grasps the dynamic range of the human experience in a way few other authors can match—not everyone can create lines that perfectly encapsulate despair, jubilation, ambition, love, and rage.

So when Shakespeare asks, as Anthony so famously does in Julius Caesar, “friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears,” I beg you to listen.

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