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Green World

Michelle Ephraim on Discovering Shakespeare and Reevaluating The Merchant of Venice

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 231

In her new memoir, Green World, Shakespeare scholar Michelle Ephraim tells the story of how she came to Shakespeare relatively late in her education. Although she didn’t grow up with Shakespeare, Ephraim became transfixed by The Merchant of Venice as a grad student. In particular, she found herself drawn to Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, and the mysteries of their relationship. That curiosity led Ephraim to discover a novel Biblical interpretation of some lines from the play as she researched her dissertation. In Ephraim’s memoir, Merchant refracts through the changing dynamics of her own family, as her Holocaust-survivor parents age and she becomes a mother herself. She shares her story with host Barbara Bogaev.

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Michelle Ephraim teaches Shakespeare at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. She’s the co-author of a cocktail recipe book called Shakespeare, Not Stirred, and the co-host of the Everyday Shakespeare podcast, both with Caroline Bicks. Her memoir, Green World: A Tragicomic Memoir of Love & Shakespeare, won the Juniper Award for Creative Nonfiction, and is out now from University of Massachusetts Press.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published March 12, 2024. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. Leonor Fernandez edits our transcripts. We had technical help from WICN in Worcester and Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.



MICHAEL WITMORE: On today’s episode, how one scholar excavated rich layers of meaning in the family relationships found in The Merchant of Venice.

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger Director.

Michelle Ephraim teaches Shakespeare at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. She’s the co-author of a cocktail recipe book called Shakespeare, Not Stirred, and the co-host of the Everyday Shakespeare podcast, both with Caroline Bicks.

In her new memoir, Green World, Ephraim tells the story of how she came to Shakespeare relatively late in her education. Although she didn’t grow up with Shakespeare, Ephraim became transfixed by The Merchant of Venice as a grad student. In particular, she found herself drawn to Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, and the mysteries of their relationship. That curiosity led Ephraim to discover a novel Biblical interpretation of some lines from the play as she researched her dissertation. In Ephraim’s memoir, Merchant refracts through the changing dynamics of her own family, as her Holocaust-survivor parents age and she becomes a mother herself.

Here’s Michelle Ephraim, in conversation with Barbara Bogaev.


BARBARA BOGAEV: You came to Shakespeare really late for such a literature and a poetry lover. How did that happen?

MICHAELLE EPHRAIM: Well, that was a secret I kept for a long time, and then I sort of came out with it. But the lateness happened because I avoided Shakespeare. Somehow, I just managed to slip through these cracks, or he slipped through these cracks. I’m not really sure.

But I went to this progressive high school, which I think, maybe omitted some of the basic dead white men from the curriculum, so I was all clear there. Then, I was assigned a Shakespeare play in college and I didn’t read it. It was actually pretty easy to avoid Shakespeare if you were me.

I discovered Shakespeare as a graduate student. I came to grad school to study the confessional poets. You know, I was really into Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell, and I had this epiphany where I really connected to Shakespeare. I became emboldened to start reading Shakespeare, and this all happened by listening to someone recite Shakespeare.

BOGAEV: Right, the Hamlet.


BOGAEV: And you didn’t know the plot?

EPHRAIM: No. I mean, it feels so freeing to say that. I was 23 years old, and I didn’t know the plot of Hamlet. I mean, I knew it was a sad play. I could have told you it was a tragedy. There was a skull involved. I don’t know.

BOGAEV: Right. Well, what got to you? Was it hearing it out loud for the first time? Because this was the first time. You hadn’t been to a Shakespeare play, either.

EPHRAIM: No, no, I hadn’t. I didn’t grow up in a family of readers. My parents didn’t like classic literature for a lot of reasons. I didn’t grow up exposed to any of that. I learned all I learned at school.

But why was it appealing? I guess, I wasn’t aware of how full of angst Shakespeare’s characters were and how accessible that angst was. And that really spoke to me a lot.

I think one of the things that I’ve learned over the years now that I am a reader of Shakespeare is that he’s so incredible at capturing difficult emotions: happy ones, and sad ones, and certainly grief, and torment within your own family home. And that really spoke to me a lot. I didn’t realize that Shakespeare was so personal.

BOGAEV: So, right there and then, you decided to become an early modernist and you switched your grad program focus. How did that go over? How did your advisor react?

EPHRAIM: Well, it didn’t go over smoothly at first. There was concern that I just didn’t know enough to embark on that route. I hadn’t read enough. This was all true. These were all legitimate concerns. They were correct in having those concerns.

But, you know, I worked really hard. I think that they were sort of moved and maybe pitied me slightly in my enthusiasm. They were very large-hearted about it, but they were always worried.

I mean, my advisor, the people in my dissertation committee, they were… they recognized that I had, you know, a real ability to write about literature and to come up with really interesting things that other people hadn’t written about. So, they were excited about that. But they were always worried about me, for sure.

BOGAEV: I was thinking, do you think it might have been good that you were introduced to Shakespeare later in your life? After you had life experience; you’d had a long-term romantic relationship and adult challenges.

EPHRAIM: You know, that’s such a great question. I love that. It makes me think about all the people I’ve spoken to who say, “Yeah, I was really turned off Shakespeare in the 8th grade.” You know, “I had this teacher who, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.”  Who read Shakespeare when they were younger, relatively speaking, and were turned off quickly and kind of didn’t go back—I guess that makes me think that maybe I am lucky that I had all these things going into the experience when I started to study Shakespeare, and saw his work through a lens that was more mature and emotionally open.

BOGAEV: Okay, good. Let’s get to Merchant of Venice then.

EPHRAIM: Oh yes.

BOGAEV: Which really struck a chord with you right in the beginning of your studies, given your family history. Particularly the phrase, “Our house is hell.”

EPHRAIM: That did speak to me. Yes. Wow. Well, yeah, Jessica, you know, really, really struck me. I mean, that was probably—that is the most personal of Shakespeare’s plays to me. Jessica is an only child, like many of Shakespeare’s young women, but she’s an only child who lives with her father.

They are Jewish. They live in the Jewish ghetto in Venice. They’re very isolated. She doesn’t like her father. She has complicated feelings towards him. And I think those complications often get overlooked in the play.

I was really struck when I first read literary criticism of the play that argued, “Oh yes, Jessica, she goes from Jewish to Christian and converts. And, she doesn’t like her family, but she likes the Christians,” and very sort of black-and-white reading of her.

For me, I read her as a very complicated character who’s deeply ambivalent about where she is, sort of, between worlds: a Jewish world and a Christian world. The world of her father, the world of the man that she maybe is in love with.

It spoke to me very much about my ambivalence about my own family and my own upbringing. It really evoked in me the feelings I had of being lonely, and that loneliness connected very much to a Jewish experience and to the Jewish identities of my parents.

BOGAEV: You also write that you could understand better Shylock’s position or his harshness to Jessica because of your own father’s fearfulness and overprotectiveness.

EPHRAIM: Yes, yes, absolutely.

BOGAEV: Tell us more about your parents. They’re Holocaust survivors

EPHRAIM: Yeah, they’re both Holocaust survivors. They were both born in Germany. They both had harrowing escapes from Berlin and Hamburg, respectively, both at age eight. They were both born on the same day, in the same year.

I grew up understanding that their lives were all about fate. They were fated to have these terrible experiences. They were fated to be together. They were both extremely traumatized people and each of them had their own narrative of trauma. My father left Berlin and went to Manila in the Philippines. There was a Jewish community there and that was great for a few years until the Japanese invasion. So, he was there for that. Many of his friends were killed. Many of his family friends, a lot of family back in Berlin were killed.

My mother escaped Hamburg with her family in the bottom of a boat. She went to London and experienced all sorts of pain. Not only for relatives that had been lost back in Germany, but in terms of the anti-Semitism that was in London.

You know, all these various narratives of trauma that were a big part of my childhood. But that you know… I mean, really, they were there every single day. They weighed very heavily on me every single day, even when they weren’t talked about explicitly.

I think seeing Shylock through that lens—and it’s not something I would say that I recognized the first time I read the play, but of the many, many times I’ve read the play. The many, many times I’ve visited and revisited with Shylock and Jessica, I always see something new. Eventually, I did see Shylock as someone who was a deeply traumatized man who kind of came by his trauma honestly.

It’s really hard to understand someone like that, and Jessica has a very difficult time understanding her father. In a way, he’s impossible to understand, just like my parents were for me because I didn’t have the experiences that they did. And you can’t understand your parents when that happens.

BOGAEV: Wow. So much. But you also had insight into a minor character, Solanio. And it seems like you got some points in your grad seminar for it. So what was that insight? What did you say?

EPHRAIM: You know, this sort of, this famous moment in Merchant of Venice where Shylock is being described as freaking out about his daughter. “My daughter, my ducats, my ducats, my daughter.”

And what people often overlook is that we don’t actually see Shylock behaving in that way. We don’t see this firsthand, but we hear a minor character recounting, or supposedly recounting, this supposed event. This supposed reaction that Shylock has to his daughter. But we don’t actually see it I directly. So, maybe it didn’t happen. Maybe we don’t know how Shylock reacted.

BOGAEV: Maybe he was an unreliable witness, Salarino.

EPHRAIM: Absolutely. Unreliable—Well, I think he is unreliable because we know that he hates Shylock. So, there’s a lot of reason to suspect his version of what happened.

BOGAEV: Yes, which really puts a different spin on everything. You’re seeing every… you’re seeing Shylock through the oppressor. The eyes of the oppressor in every scene, practically.

EPHRAIM: I do think in Merchant of Venice there are many moments where things may not be what they seem. And I think that I was able to see into those ambiguous spaces, because of my own personal experience.

BOGAEV: Yeah. You started a more in-depth study of Merchant. What did you uncover about Jessica and her enigmatic comparison that she makes to her father Shylock, saying, “I’m not to his manners.”

EPHRAIM: Yes, yes, exactly. “I’m of his blood, not to his manners.” But yeah, so she understands that she’s of the same blood as him. That’s what she says. And this is something I’ve talked a lot about. That point that she makes, that, “We are of the same blood”—we’ll start with that—suggests that she’s racially connected to Shylock. This is something that other characters in the play constantly push back against. They say, “Shylock, your daughter has very different blood than you. She’s white, you’re red. Completely different blood,” suggesting that there’s nothing connecting them either by way of genetics—not that they really understood genetics back then—but genetics, blood, racial, nothing like that.

But Jessica herself says that she’s connected by blood to Shylock. But, what she does say is that she’s, “Not of his manners.” What does that mean exactly? It’s a really interesting choice of words on Shakespeare’s part, because “manner” could mean a whole bunch of different things. That she’s not of his personality, his behavior.

What does that really mean that Jessica’s saying there? It’s some way in which—I mean, I think whatever it is that she’s saying, she’s using that word to make a distinction between herself and her father. “I am different from you. I am different from you in some way.” And that’s so important for her to hold onto.

BOGAEV: And ultimately, you say it led to a bigger question for you, which was, do we really have the power to choose and to curate what we take from our families and our pasts and our nations? Which, given your family, that is such a huge question.

EPHRAIM: Absolutely. Yeah. I saw Jessica wrestling with that, actually, the way that sometimes I felt. Or, rather I think I felt this quite a bit growing up. That I’m kind of doomed as well. You know, my parents, they were fated to have this experience and then meet each other.

They weren’t happy, by the way. I mean, I should say that they… you know, it was not a laughing household. I mean, they didn’t seem that happy with one another, but there was no question that they had to stay together because this was their lot in life.

I think, for me, I wrestled with that sense of doom also. Not just in a, you know, abstract sense, but the fact that you do have this sense of intergenerational trauma. Something that’s in your blood. Not just your biological connection to your parents, but the way in which they’ve treated you. What they’ve passed on through their experiences. That’s real.

I wrestled with that a lot. You know, “How much can I be different from my parents? Can I be happier than them? Can I be of a different manner than they are? Can I have better friendships? Can I just have a more fulfilling life than them and make choices that lead me to greater happiness and joy?”

BOGAEV: Well, we should say the stakes were really high too, because in the midst of all of this exciting discovery for you, you had your preliminary exams. Those are the written and oral exams that determine if you get to go on with your graduate degree.

EPHRAIM: Yes, indeed they are. Yes. Yeah.

BOGAEV: And what happened?

EPHRAIM: Well, I did not pass them, actually.

BOGAEV: I am so sorry.

EPHRAIM: Oh, thank you.

BOGAEV: I was reading that chapter just… oh, I can’t even imagine.

EPHRAIM: I know, I can’t believe I’m saying this into a microphone. That was so embarrassing. It was really too much for me.

I mean, honestly, I worked so hard to study for those exams and I couldn’t have studied more than I did. I was very out-schooled by the other people in my disciplinary area, the other people who were studying 16th- and 17th-century literature.

BOGAEV: And had been for years and years.

EPHRAIM: And had been for years. They really had been for years.

And, you know, it’s legitimately challenging for everyone, for sure. I think part of it was that I had come to it too late to really master everything I was supposed to master.

I think I was also really nervous. I was really intimidated. I got some things confused. I accidentally—I misread Henry VI as Henry IV, and then they thought, “Oh my gosh, is she trying to cover up for the fact that she doesn’t know the Henry VI plays?”

BOGAEV: But you had an amazing friend in the grad program who gave you a different perspective, right after—you hadn’t even told anyone yet. She said, “Don’t let them stop you. Just go back and plead your case to get a second chance.”

EPHRAIM: Yeah, “Just do it.” You know, “Anything that you have the power to do and you want to do, just do it.”

BOGAEV: So did that work?

EPHRAIM: I took that to heart. It did work. It did work.

BOGAEV: So, you get this… you get the second chance and you go. You meet with your dissertation advisor. You’re talking about Jessica and Shylock and Merchant and she asks you, “What’s your take on Jessica?”

EPHRAIM: “What’s your take?”

BOGAEV: Yeah, what was your answer?

EPHRAIM: Well, I wasn’t quite sure exactly what I was going to do yet, but I really felt like there was a story to tell about Jessica and about her feelings towards her parents.

Because notice, to be clear, her mother is not in the play. She’s not in Merchant of Venice, as anyone knows who’s read the play. But she is alluded to by Jessica’s father. Shylock alludes to his wife, presumably she’s passed away.

So, Jessica, you know, is about to risk losing both her parents. She’s already lost one, but there’s something about her. There’s something about her connection to Shylock that I felt hadn’t been explored. She was too easily dismissed as a girl who just disses her father, without thinking twice about it.

And I kept thinking, “What’s the real story?” I mean, what are the layers that Shakespeare’s creating here with Jessica and Shylock, that are not so simple, emotionally, intellectually, or otherwise?

BOGAEV: So, she—your advisor—listened to this and said, “Okay. Interesting. But you’re going—”

EPHRAIM: She said—yeah, she said, “Find a source. Can you do that?” And I lied and I said, “Yeah.”

BOGAEV: But wait, I mean, a new original source that Shakespeare—for Shakespeare’s story.

EPHRAIM: Right, right, right.

BOGAEV: And, also for your theory about their relationship. I mean, isn’t that saying like, go find the Holy Grail?

EPHRAIM: Sort of, yes. Exactly.

BOGAEV: I mean, to a grad student.

EPHRAIM: By the way, I have to say, I would do anything to please my advisor. I mean, really, I wanted to please her so much. And I think that anyone who… well, probably so many people can relate to this, certainly people who have been in PhD programs. You know, you really want your advisor to like you. You feel like you’re competing for the spot of favorite child.

So, I said, “Of course, of course. I will do that. I can do that. I can find some kind of original source, some explanation that no one’s talked about. Absolutely.” Now, I just have to do it.

BOGAEV: Wow. So you have to finish your dissertation and track down this Holy Grail, find this brand new original source for your Merchant theory. That’s all. While working and also raising a baby. And, so now you’re pregnant with your second child.

Tell us about your big day during your fellowship at Beinecke Library at Yale. What were you looking for and what did you find?

EPHRAIM: Well, Shakespeare alludes to the Bible a lot in his plays. He has a lot of biblical allusions in The Merchant of Venice. I thought, “Okay, there’s got to be something in the Hebrew Bible, in the Old Testament,” depending on how you’re referring to it. “There’s got to be something in there.” And, you know, I just was basically reading the Bible.

BOGAEV: And you’re pretty desperate, right?

EPHRAIM: Yes, I was pretty desperate.

It was—kind of felt like, you know, like the clock was ticking and I have to find something. And I barely slept. I was not the healthiest pregnant person. I was not totally taking care of myself in that I was getting very little sleep and really cram—I was cramming the Bible. I mean, who crams the Bible? Was just weird.

I get to the Book of Judges and I get to this particular narrative about Jephthah and his daughter. The daughter that he sacrifices, but he loves her.

BOGAEV: Okay. And Jephthah is what? A prophet? A king? Some guy?

EPHRAIM: He—so Jephthah is a judge. Yep. He’s basically… well, he is some guy. He’s a lot of things, including a judge. But he’s a complex guy.

So, he makes a vow to God, very hastily. A very, very hasty vow to God that if he can win—if he, leading the Israelites, can win in battle against the Ammonites—in exchange for that win, he will sacrifice, “whoever,” “whatever,”—depending on how you translate it, the original Hebrew—
“Whoever or whatever comes out of the door of his house first,” which is ridiculous because he lives with his daughter. I don’t know who—what he was thinking, you know? A chicken, a guest? I mean, really the only way this is going to end—

BOGAEV: Really, he’s saying his daughter. Yeah, he’s giving up his daughter.

EPHRAIM: Really, he’s saying his daughter. What is he doing here? It’s such a weird narrative.

It just… you know, I remember where I was sitting in the Beinecke, because I would sort of read it. I was also reading biblical commentaries at the Beinecke at the same time. So, that is to say, what people in Shakespeare’s day were writing about the Old Testament.

And [Jephthah]’s talked about in all sorts of ways by commentators, Jewish and Christian commentators. Is he a hero, or is he basically a sinner who has made a hasty vow and then kills his daughter? What has he done?

There’s a huge discrepancy in how he’s discussed. There’s a, you know, real sort of question mark about how we are to evaluate him. But, certainly he’s someone who understands himself as doing something because he is faithful. He’s faithful to God.

I would—I just plunged into commentaries. And I also was very interested in dramatic adaptations of Jephthah

BOGAEV: Wow. Okay. So, you read this and apparently you thought, “Okay, this, it sounds to me, like there’s a connection between Jephthah and his daughter and Merchant, and Shylock and Jessica”

EPHRAIM: Absolutely. The first thing—yes. The first thing I had to establish was that I had to be able to say, “Shakespeare was aware of this narrative. It was on his radar.” I mean, you could say, “Yeah, sure, it’s on his radar. He knew the Bible, whatever.” But, you know, to really be persuasive about it.

So, I discover through a word search, that Jephthah appears in Hamlet. Now we’re going back to Hamlet. Yes. Jephthah appears in Hamlet. He appears at the moment where Hamlet is referencing him when he’s, sort of, playing with Polonius. Making fun of Polonius and how Polonius loves his daughter, “Passing well.” That’s what he says. And he compares him to Jephthah in that sense.

So, a lot has been said about that. But that—all I needed was just that at that moment, to know Shakespeare knows Jephthah. He mentions him in Hamlet.

BOGAEV: What does all of this illuminate about the father-daughter relationship in Merchant?

EPHRAIM: Well, I think that it illuminates a lot of things. It illuminates the way that we can see Shylock really three-dimensionally as a father who is in pain. Who wants, maybe, to be doing right by his daughter. But in wanting to be doing right by her to protect her, to have a connection to his homeland, to his nation, as Shylock says in the play, he also hurts her at the same time.

That he’s created a home where there is so much trauma and pain. But it’s not because he’s a bad person or wants to hurt his daughter. In fact, quite the opposite. Jephthah allows us to see Shylock as a more complex father, a more complex man.

BOGAEV: Well, how do you understand the end of Merchant, given all of the work you’ve done on it? In which Jessica, she’s on stage and she’s silent.

EPHRAIM: She’s silent. She’s silent. The last line she says is, “I am never merry when I hear sweet music.” Which Lorenzo, her husband, is feeling like that’s kind of a bummer because he’s trying to cheer her up and say, “What do you mean you feel that way? Only a beast would feel that way.”

BOGAEV: Lorenzo. So shallow.

EPHRAIM: You know, “there’s a party.” It’s so shallow. Lame, lame, and lame, is what I have to say.

Yeah, he’s basically—I picture him like holding a beer and just kind of swaying around and being like, “Dude, there’s a party going on, you know? What? Why are you being like this? Why are you bringing me down?” And they have a lot of tension, arguably, in that last act of the play.

But yeah, so she says that line. It’s in response to him telling her she should be happy that there’s music going on. She is not happy, according to that line, but then she’s silent for about, I don’t know, the last 250 lines of the play.

And, I’ve now seen this play many times. What’s really, really interesting is that you have to make a lot of decisions when you’re staging this play. Okay, Jessica’s on stage. There’s no stage direction that says she leaves. She’s standing there. A lot goes on. She has to watch the heroine of the play, Portia, have all of her marital conflicts resolved and the spotlight is on these other people. She’s standing there.

She has to hear them talk about how her father has been sentenced to this terrible existence. Found guilty in a trial, all of his money has taken away. He’s going to be forced to convert.

What is she doing? What is she doing there? And, she could, I think, just as easily be in a corner sobbing as she could be making out with Lorenzo. We just don’t know, but it’s this very intentional empty space. Or, rather it’s a blank slate for us to think about.

I think that that was a decision on Shakespeare’s part. There’s no resolution for Jessica because her situation is actually pretty complex in the play.

BOGAEV: So I guess the big question is, how did your work on Merchant then affect your relationship with your mother and father, and affect how you thought about the legacy of your past?

EPHRAIM: Yeah, you know, I think that it helps me to learn about the past with my parents. And I think when I first heard the testimonies that they gave for the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, and I listened to them, as anyone can. You just—it’s a great website. You look up people, you can listen to them talk.

When I first heard learned about their lives—I mean, I thought I knew about their lives and I did because they talked about them a lot with me. But when I took a deeper dive into their pasts and learned all these things, to me, it was very similar to reading Merchant of Venice, and then reading Merchant of Venice again, and then reading about what people had to say about Jephthah and his daughter.

I felt like it was all a part of the Jewish history that I was understanding. The history of anti-Semitism in Shakespeare’s day. Stories about Jews poisoning wells, stories about Jews kidnapping Christian children and sacrificing them. I felt like all of these narratives started to intertwine or layer themselves on top of each other.

I think all these narratives make me feel less alone with my parents. These narratives sort of weave us into a larger fabric of narratives about Jews and Jewishness told from many different perspectives, including Shakespeare’s. I find a lot of comfort in that.

I think, in terms of my relationship with my parents, even though it wouldn’t necessarily be outward to them, there’s a comfort for me in being around them, because I felt less alone.

BOGAEV: And it sounds like it engendered compassion. I mean, in the way that feeling less alone usually does.

EPHRAIM: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. So, instead of just seeing, you know, me and my parents alone in our dark little house, I could imagine Jessica and Shylock, and, you know, people who didn’t have names. But, you know, all these, sort of, voices and commentators, people writing about this in not just negative ways, but in curious ways as well.

I felt that we were woven into a larger fabric of history. It wasn’t so isolating anymore.

BOGAEV: Your title, Green World, which of course it’s a literary term for when a character in Shakespeare flees a problem at home and takes refuge in the natural world, in the forest. It’s a place where all things are resolved, where you find peace. So, your green world was all of this: was Shakespeare, was this community of early modern scholars, was Merchant?

EPHRAIM: I mean, I would say yes, but yeah. Green World is absolutely, you know, a reference to the literary term. But, I would add also to your excellent definition of it that you can’t really stay in the green world. You have to come back. No one stays in the green world.

You know, you achieve something there. But the green world starts to look suspiciously like the world you’re trying to escape. That there is some peace and resolution, but you can’t stay there. You have to return. You can’t really escape your family.

The other reference to green world is, of course, the state of Wisconsin where I did my PhD. And all of that represented for me very much—So, it’s a place of escape, but a place that doesn’t actually let you escape. That becomes very important in my book as I have to return to my family and, you know, reckon with all of that.

BOGAEV: What’s the response been to your book? As a professor, it’s so refreshing, you’re so candid. You, in this book, you admit all of this. Your dirty little secret. It’s, you know, the failing of your prelims. I was thinking, “Wow, you really put yourself out there.”

EPHRAIM: Yeah, yeah, I did. You know, there’s… it’s too late to take it back now. I did have a moment where I’m like, “Wait, should I have done this?” This was like a week ago. So, it is really too late now.

I think that what I find is that people are always comforted by honesty and calling something out and however specific. You think your experience of shame is—it’s not specific to you that other people can’t relate to it.

So, it is incredible to me how much other people say they relate to a lot of the things I’m talking about. Whether it’s the experience of being Jewish or the experience of struggling in graduate school. Or whether it’s the experience of trying to be a, you know, being a striver and getting into bad relationships because you want to fit in somewhere and you want a family life and you feel deeply insecure.

So, there’re actually a lot of connection points that people have reached out to talk to me about. It’s really heartwarming, actually. It’s very comforting and really nice to think about.

BOGAEV: Thank you for coming on our podcast.

EPHRAIM: And thank you for having me. This has been great.


WITMORE: That was Michelle Ephraim, talking to Barbara Bogaev. Her memoir Green World: A Tragicomic Memoir of Love & Shakespeare won the Juniper Award for Creative Nonfiction, and is out now from University of Massachusetts Press. You can listen to Ephraim’s show with Caroline Bicks, Everyday Shakespeare, wherever you get your podcasts.

This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez. We had technical help from WICN in Worcester and Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.

If you’re a fan of Shakespeare Unlimited, please leave us a review on your podcast platform of choice, to help others find the show.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. Our building in Washington, DC, has been under construction for the past four years. But we’re looking forward to fully reopening on June 21, 2024. You can find more about the Folger at our website,

Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.