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Sonnet 126: How to Forget Your Lines and Still Survive
“O, my offense is rank, it smells to heaven…”
I fidgeted in my seat.
“It hath the primal eldest curse upon ‘t…”
My knee bounced up and down like the needle on a seismometer.
“To be forestalled ere we come to fall…”
Fingers bound up in knots, I tried to slow time in vain.
“My fault is past. But oh, what form of prayer…”
There were only a few souls in the theater, but it’s so big…
“Can serve my turn, ‘Forgive me my foul murder’?
It’s three weeks before the Shakespeare Festival, and I’ve neglected most other things to read up on Romeo and Juliet. The choppy verses, replete with obsolete words and creative sentence structure, dazed me. How was I supposed to become the weepy, wishy-washy Juliet of lore? How was I supposed to make 14 lines of Sonnet #121 exciting? The judges’ advice and student guidelines glared at me from the computer screen- “All actors are praised for being natural.” “Be familiar with the play and the characters.” “Try not to learn everything only three weeks beforehand.” Oh wait, that’s my common sense talking. I was in my own room, at my own desk, alone, and yet I felt as if I had been thrust on stage, in front of a teeming crowd, leering at me, waiting for me to fall.
Oh, please! I lecture myself. You’re SO dramatic. Your mind’s a wandering mess. No wonder you’re doing Juliet.
So I steeled myself again, and stared down at the page. But after a minute or so, I put down the book, having read less than a line, and moved on to my biology homework.
It’s the day before the Shakespeare Festival, and Shakespeare himself haunts my dreams, expounding my Sonnet #121- “Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed!”- over and over again. I paced the length of my room, repeating first the monologue, then the sonnet, then the monologue again, and back to the sonnet, like a broken record machine. But I was still unsure, wary, as if standing on shaky ground. At that moment in time, I existed merely for the sake of getting up at the school’s theater, spouting some Shakespearean poetry and getting off. This whole theater business had engulfed my entire life.
My mind grasped tightly to the words, like a climber to the rock face. I dressed in all black to ensure a depressing atmosphere.
“Hi there!” My friend greeted me at our adjoining lockers.
“Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed!”
“Um… what?” She raised one eyebrow at me.
“You just said something about being vile…”
“No I didn’t,” I retorted indignantly.
“Yes, you did. You were all like, ‘Tis better to be vile than’ something else.”
“What’s that all about? And why are you in black? Who died? You know, you should really eat brightly colored fruit, like Mr. LaMotte suggested.”
“I’m fine! I’m doing Shakespeare!”
“Yeah, that ‘to be or not to be’ guy.’”
“For the Shakespeare Festival.”
“You’re doing that?”
“Yeah. You should come.”
“Oh, totally… but I’ve got piano practice after school.”
“It’s not Wednesday.”
“Right. I meant I’ve got fencing.”
I didn’t want anybody there anyway. I wasn’t sure in my abilities- that great, creaky, frail confidence of mine, the bane of my acting career.
I’d printed my pieces and brought them with me everywhere. Ten hours later, as everyone was departing, I strode around the ninth grade common area, muttering to myself, clutching the papers, so that they were as dog-eared as perhaps Shakespeare’s original handwritten manuscripts. The four hours between three and seven P.M. seemed like an era. But the character of Juliet slowly seeped into my soul, influencing my actions and my facial expressions. I would recite my pieces to plain-faced lockers, barren white walls, the tables, and the occasional basketball player going home.
Before my “Romeo-obsessed heart” knew it, I was sitting in the front row of McAneny Theater, a dozen or so sophomores beside me. A few parents came in, some more English teachers, and the chemistry teacher Dr. Gadd. My heartbeats were a rapid staccato. A myriad of inspiring phrases zoomed through my head, unfortunately exiting through the ears.
It was a procession of literature’s finest- from the time-worn “to be or not to be” to a preponderance of Hamlet (sophomore year must be really depressing). I kept nervously checking the program.
“Lena, you’ll be fine.” My friend Sarah assured me.
“And what’s in prayer but this twofold force,
To be forestalled ere we come to fall
Or pardoned being down? Then I’ll look up.
My fault is past. But oh, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn, ‘Forgive me my foul murder’?”
The sophomore rushed off the stage, and sat down. A smattering of applause followed. The whole theater went silent. A stray cough. Sarah shoots me a look, a mix of pity and encouragement. I sprang to my feet, and bounded over to center stage. My feet in the great emptiness. Anxiety, with a dash of excitement, coursed through my veins.
“Hi everyone. My name is Lena, and I will be performing Sonnet #121, followed by a speech from Act 2, Scene 5 of Romeo and Juliet.”
I stepped back from the audience, closed my eyes, and clasped my hands.
“Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed!”
My voice bounced off the walls. I focused my eyes on the tech booth at the back of the theater, pointing at the people inside.
“When not to be draws the reproach of being.”
I strained my face, frowning out the crowd. This was going rather swell!
“And the just pleasure lost which is so deemed,
Not by our feelings, but by others’ seeing.
For why should others false adulterate eyes?
Give salutation to my sportive blood?”
What’s next? The room yawned before me. It’s so big! I was swallowed up in the lights, becoming nothing more than a speck. Brain cells rushed frantically to the memory storage, knocking on the door, but it wouldn’t open. They burst in, but there was nothing there. The lines had fled, running off the stage, and out the theater door, leaving a physical shell of an actress scared witless. I tried to make it seem intentional, an indignant scorn on my face.
“Or on my frailties, why are frailer spies,
Which in their wills count bad, what I think good?
No! I am that I am…”
But what? Silence. Long silence. Every second, the seats grew closer, the peoples’ faces more puzzled. I saw whispers being passed. I am that I am, but what was I?
“But they that level…”
But it wasn’t my voice. It was Mr. LaMotte, prodding me on.
I retained my composure, all the while losing it inside. It finally clicked. I drew myself back up, and stared down at everyone gathered there. My voice picked up.
“…At my abuses reckon up their own:?
I may be straight, though they themselves be bevel;?
By their rank thoughts my deeds must not be shown;?
Unless this general evil they maintain,?
All men are bad, and in their badness reign.”
It was over. But not just yet. I resumed my position under the spotlights, sucking in deep breaths. There was the sudden urge to run, to retreat into the dark shadows just beyond the exit sign, into the woods, far, far, away, and perhaps come back in a few weeks. But I held my ground.
Common Sense- Uh-uh. You are not going anywhere.
Me- But I can’t do this! Who messes up their lines? I am such a loser!
Common Sense- Just get it over with. You’re an actor, for goodness’ sake. All actors flub.
Me- But I look like a fool!
Common Sense- You look like a fool just standing there.
And Common Sense promptly delivered a slap to the face.
I raised my eyes, meeting theirs, nervous, waiting.
Flooded with impatience, frustration, and bratty emotions, I cried out,
“The clock struck nine when I did send the nurse,
In half an hour she promised to return,
Perchance she cannot meet him; that’s not so!”
I frantically paced the small circle of light, occasionally throwing looks of utter desperation.
“O, she is lame! love’s heralds should be thoughts,?
Which ten times faster glide than the sun’s beams,
Driving back shadows over louring hills…”
The empty fear of forgetting briefly threatened to envelope me.
But I pushed on. The end finally came. I bounded off the stage. I wished I could put on a cloak of invisibility, and just… go away. The shame was overpowering. But a small voice spoke up within. And I knew what I had just done. Yes, I forgot my lines. Yes, I nearly dissolved into a puddle of mush. But I fought on. I would’ve, I could’ve, I should’ve run off. I might as well have “forgotten” about doing a monologue. Yes, I faltered, messed up, switched a few words, and probably mispronounced nearly everything. But isn’t that what I’m supposed to do? To hit rock bottom, to see what it means to be down there, and then go up, because that’s the only direction there is?
Common Sense- Not too shabby.
Me- I felt like evaporating.
Common Sense- Your facial expression certainly did.
Me- It was fun.
Common Sense- As it should have been. Next year, shall we have do it again?
Me- Yes, another play, extempore!