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  • Jennifer Gillen

Shakespeare and the Camellias


Detail of a white camellia that will become a painting. (Photo by Jennifer Gillen)

A few weeks ago, I was on a long drive home from visiting my daughter who is away at college. Listening to audio books and podcasts helps me to stave off the mind numbing boredom of highway driving. On this occasion, a winter storm warning was in effect. That meant an even slower drive. I took advantage of the time to brush up on Shakespeare.


As I wove through long lines of slow moving eighteen wheelers on I-45, a panel of professors discussed Romeo and Juliet. It was a BBC “In Our Time” podcast with Melvyn Bragg. My memories of Romeo and Juliet, unfortunately, date back to my 9th grade year in high school. It is highly possible that I only read pieces of this play and not its entirety. My strongest recollections of 9th grade English class have to do with helping my boyfriend pass the tests.

Reading drama is hard. In many ways, the story is decontextualized. It requires a lot of imagination and participation from the reader. Because of this, there are various interpretations of what the author actually means. From the podcast professors, I learned that the social and political context of this play figured heavily. I also learned that much of the facts of the story are left to speculation, such as Juliet’s age. Most importantly though, the professors helped me understand what a beautiful drama I missed in high school.

It was interesting to listen to the professors on the podcast quote their favorite lines. The quotes were filled with beautiful imagery. In my mind, the lines started to become visual. When Juliet says, “Swear not by the moon…” it brought to mind one of the camellia photos I am currently drawing. It’s a white camellia facing upward in backlit darkness. That single image, along with the hypnotically slow pace of the traffic and the professors quoting lines, set something turning within my mind.

I started to wonder, is it possible to illustrate Romeo and Juliet using only camellia paintings? It was a weird and wonderful convergence of ideas. It seemed like each quoted line was conjuring a specific image, a flower turned a certain way, moody colors, compositions of multiple camellias.

And so it has began. I will reread Romeo and Juliet. This time without any boyfriend distractions. Only time can tell, but my intention is to fuse the drama with the camellias. This is the surest thing about art. Ideas like this happen often. Sometimes they work and other times they provide a pathway to the next creations. Whatever the case, uninterrupted periods of solitude, such as a long drive, are fertile ground for ideas.

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