It’s on the most wintery of days that Miss Stacy introduces them to Shakespeare. The fire in the stove can’t do much against the cold – everyone is still in coats and hats and scarves and mittens. Josie Pye has valiantly forsaken her own hat; she keeps tossing her curls smugly, as if to make clear to everyone that her hair hasn’t been spoiled, and is in fact the best in the room. She keeps throwing glances at Gilbert Blythe from beneath her eyelashes. Anne hopes her ears freeze off. She can’t even bring herself to feel guilty for hoping it, either. Anyone who’s ninny enough to make eyes at Gilbert deserves what she gets. Plus a little extra.
“Class, let’s not be content to freeze ourselves sitting at our desks,” Miss Stacy says, her mouth curving up. “Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be seen, not just read. Up on your feet, and we’ll be warm in no time. We’ll begin with Romeo and Juliet, I think.”
The girls all titter excitedly; the boys groan. Moody Spurgeon goes so far as to stick out his tongue. Gil snickers at this. Anne is not surprised. Some people completely lack the poetry of soul required to appreciate Shakespeare, top of the class or not.
“Ooh, Anne!” Diana exclaims immediately, prodding her arm. “You just have to read Juliet!”
Anne’s heart leaps at the notion. It’s such a divine one – there is nothing in this moment that she would like to do as much as imagine herself right into Juliet’s bones. Young and in love, and raven-haired beyond a doubt. To know such great passion and to die for it, all by age thirteen! Anne is already well past thirteen and she hasn’t managed much at all besides falling from a roof and letting a mouse into the pudding. Anne Shirley has no Juliet Capuletlike knack for making her troubles beautiful, that’s for sure.
But to be her for a little while, here, in front of everyone! She doesn’t want to be conceited, but she’s quite sure she’s the girl best suited for it in the room, even if she is plain. Diana is the loveliest girl in the world – a true Juliet to look at – but Anne knows she wouldn’t like the part. She’d stumble all over the words and get flustered. Anne knows it’s not a betrayal to think it, because Diana herself has said as much before when Anne’s tried to coerce her into two-man readings of the Bard. “Oh, Anne can’t you just tell it to me?” she always sighs after only a few pages. “It’s so much more fun and romantic and shocking in your words.”
Maybe Diana isn’t the most impressive of authorities when it comes to literary appreciation, and Anne certainly knows that a teenage girl from Avonlea cannot compare to Shakespeare, but it’s nice to hear all the same.
“Might I have a voluntary Juliet?” Miss Stacy asks. Her warm eyes dart to Anne.
Making sure to seem unconcerned, Anne primly lifts her hand. So do a few of the other girls – including Josie.
Oh, if Josie Pye is picked to be Juliet, Anne will forever lose all faith in justice and goodness.
“Anne, I believe I saw your hand first,” Miss Stacy says, sounding very impartial. Oh, thank heavens.
There is a murmur of disappointment from the other girls.
“Fine then,” Josie says snootily. “I think it’s better for a girl not to make a fool of herself reading opposite some dreadful Romeo anyway. There aren’t very many schoolboys who could pull it off, that’s for certain.” She casts another full-eyelashed glance at Gilbert as she says it. Gil doesn’t notice, or at least pretends not to.
“Oh, now, Josie,” Miss Stacy says. “Just because Shakespeare’s language is unfamiliar to us doesn’t mean we ought to shy away from it. We must be bold, and soldier forward. Is there by any chance a valiant Romeo in our midst?”
“I’ll be Romeo,” Gilbert says straight away.
For all the cold, Anne suddenly feels like she’s on fire.
Of all the insufferable—
“Thank you, Gilbert,” Miss Stacy says pleasantly.
“Of course.” Gil casts a glance Anne’s way. She stares fixedly down at her slate until it draws up terribly tempting memories of the satisfying crack its predecessor had made splitting in two over his head. She shifts her eyes to the desktop. She can feel Diana’s worried gaze on her, and while she’d like nothing more than a moment of sisterly solidarity, she knows she won’t quite get it from Diana now. Diana refuses to understand why Anne finds Gil so terrible in the first place. It is the one area in which they’re doomed never to see eye to eye. Lonely as it is to be wrenched apart from Diana on the matter, Anne will not contemplate the alternative.
And playing Juliet to Gilbert Blythe’s Romeo! She’s positive a crueler fate has never been designed for anyone, not King Lear, not Job. To think Josie as Juliet had seemed the most horrible thing in the world just seconds ago!
The phrase ‘holy palmers’ kiss’ flits across her mind, and she can feel her cheeks burning so bright that she’s sure her hair looks absolutely dull in comparison.
She’ll relinquish the role. She’ll let Josie do it. Josie and her stupid eyelashes and her unspoiled curls can do whatever they want to with Gilbert Blythe, just as long as Anne is spared the humiliation.
But then she looks back at Josie to discover that she’s watching Anne expectantly, her eyes narrowed like a cat’s. She knows Anne hates Gil. She knows she’ll get just what she wants. The image of Josie flitting and hair-tossing her way through Juliet’s lines without bothering to understand them makes Anne dig her fingernails into her palms.
Oh, she can’t do it.
“I’m ready if you are,” Anne says regally in Gil’s direction, and holds her head up high.
“Sure,” he says, grinning. He’s dreadfully handsome when he smiles. Anne’s certain he knows it, too.
Miss Stacy delivers a beautifully somber reading of the prologue, then decides they might as well skip right ahead to the party where Romeo and Juliet meet. Everyone is made to stand up, for, as she tells them, the audiences in Shakespeare’s day were hardly content to sit politely and watch the action unfold. Then she ushers Anne and Gil out from behind their desks and up to the front of the classroom. Anne walks with slow, measured steps, channeling Marilla as best she can. Marilla Cuthbert has never been high on the list of ladies Anne has sought to imitate – in fact, she’s never even ranked before, not with competition like Guinevere and Cleopatra and Keats’ poor deliciously tormented Isabella – but right now, nothing seems as desirable as Marilla’s brisk unaffectedness. Anne doubts Marilla has ever blushed in her life, or let a single feeling out of place.
Gilbert saunters easily on up after her. At Charlie Sloane’s whistle, he only laughs.
Oh, she hates him.
(Gil. But Charlie is by no means in her good graces at the moment, either.)
“What page is it?” Gil asks, and leans over her shoulder to examine her book. For an instant, the front of his shoulder brushes the back of hers.
“Eighteen,” Anne says as Marillaishly as she can.
“Eighteen,” Gilbert repeats in a murmur. He flips to the right page and then, at Miss Stacy’s “Go ahead,” he begins to read.
For someone without any poetry of soul, he does it very well. He speaks with feeling, and doesn’t let Moody and Charlie’s snickering put him off any – a commendable feat for any Avonlea schoolboy. He trips over a few of the words, but somehow that only helps them to sound truer. “Did my heart love till now? Forswear it sight—” Anne tries to transfer some of the frostiness from her fingers and toes to her gaze. “For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.” He looks right at her as he says it, his eyes warm.
A sneaked glance reveals Diana to be bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet.
They skip ahead a little, and Anne means to stay quite cool, but it’s no use. Just saying “Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much” sets her alight with excitement. And so she ignores the pleasantly surprised quirk of Gilbert’s eyebrows, and she ignores the whoops and giggles of the class. She can’t help but let the classroom sounds transform themselves altogether – the crackle of the fire, the bored fidgets of the boys in back become distant music and the murmurs of mingling guests. Perhaps most people would find it hard to imagine a fine party like the Capulets’ going on in a little schoolhouse, but Anne is not most people. All the talk of palms sets hers positively tingling beneath her mittens.
For all the talk of kissing, there isn’t any, of course. Anne knows without a doubt that Juliet would keep her eyes demurely down, all a-flush with new-bloomed love, and so it’s easy to forget that it’s Gil she’s talking to and not some faceless Romeo made up of nothing but words and a voice. “Sin from my lips? O, trespass sweetly urged – give me my sin again—”
She looks upward without meaning to. Gil is watching her instead of the page. The corner of his mouth twitches.
For one horrifying and inexplicable second, Anne cannot remember Juliet’s reply.
“All right,” Miss Stacy says, and Anne looks over to see that she’s smiling a little. “That’s enough for now, I think. Very well done, Anne, Gilbert. Class, I think they deserve a round of applause.”
There is one, rather more enthusiastic than any classroom reading ought to merit. It’s followed by a distinct overall air of reluctance as everyone finds their way back to their seats. Anne feels frightfully shaken, a kind of fluttering, jittery feeling so strong she’s even forgotten how to feel the cold. It’s no doubt some elevated form of hatred. Oh, how she can’t stand Gilbert Blythe! She hopes Josie succeeds in her wiling and they do get married, and have dozens and dozens of babies, all of them attention-hungry, hair-tossing brats with detestable mouths prone to twitching like that. As Anne sinks down into her seat, she catches Josie’s eye without meaning to. Josie is glaring at her. Anne supposes she’s jealous. Jealous, because Gilbert Blythe is an insufferable—oh, she can’t even think of a word fitting enough! (And yes, he is handsome, and seems uncommonly adept when it comes to understanding Shakespeare, which is the sort of quality that Anne had given up imagining any boy in Avonlea might possess, but oh, that only gives her grounds to hate him all the more. He thinks that just because he’s charming she ought to let herself be charmed. She most certainly will not. Some offenses quite simply can’t be forgiven. As foolish as grudges seem when the Capulets and the Montagues are holding them, some are forever justified. Carrots.) It’s true – there is no hope at all for any of the Pyes. Anne can’t even bring herself to glare back, which is the truly worrying thing.
Meanwhile excitement positively radiates off Diana, who scribbles something onto her slate and slides it in Anne’s direction. Anne neglects to notice, instead following Miss Stacy’s order to get out her arithmetic book. Geometry sounds nothing short of welcome.