SOME of the most memorable advice in all of English literature comes in Hamlet, when Polonius tells his son Laertes: “This above all: to thine own self be true.” But anyone hearing that advice knows—and Shakespeare’s playgoers probably knew—that it takes time to figure out who you truly are, if ever you do. As Leonard Barkan reveals in his lyrical, literary autobiography, figuring out how to be true to himself happened by performing, reading, and teaching Shakespeare’s work.
In the first few pages, Barkan tells us that this book is about his “lifelong love affair” with Shakespeare. But another way to think about this book is that it conveys how Shakespeare taught Barkan how to love. King Lear and Macbeth, for example, helped him to understand his father’s displays of indignant anger and his mother’s exuberant teaching of Yiddish as performances intended to make an impression on him as a child. His own early experience of acting in the role of Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream helped him make sense of his own “loveless” twenties, when he was both an isolated gay man and a cast member moved by the lovers’ happy endings in the story. The Winter’s Tale helps him discover how he could form such an intimate friendship with a straight male friend, and how that prepared him for true love. The love triangles in the Sonnets bring him to fathom why he fell in love with both members of a couple in one of his first adult crushes. And, in the present, Barkan and his partner’s love of RuPaul’s Drag Race is explored through themes it shares with Richard II. Both dramas reveal how the “real” and the “royal” are based in performance.
John S. Garrison is professor of English at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa.