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If We Were Villains or How Shakespeare Can Ruin Your Life

“You can justify anything if you do it poetically enough.”

There are books and there are books. Some books have perfect style, bring something new to literature or describe the current modern era. There are books that are fun, soothing or just a good choice for our mood at the moment. But there are also books that suit us completely, that are in sync with our literary and other tastes and loves, books that make us happy because we understand their world as a whole, books that seem written for us as readers. That is exactly what happened to me with If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio.

A world of university theatre students who spend their days reading, acting and living Shakespeare in a peculiar cult-like, castle-like school, connected to each other in strange ways, living an unusual interconnected life and there is an unsolved murder. Old libraries, dark woods, a lake, theatre, drinking, parties, Shakespeare, Shakespeare, Shakespeare!

I picked up this novel after seeing it mentioned as a perfect choice for those who liked Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. I was reluctant, but it turned out to have a similar dark academia feel, university life, murder, secret society in common, a very corresponding atmosphere and setting.

“What I as a student was willfully blind to: that Dellecher was less an academic institution than a cult. When we first walked through those doors, we did so without knowing that we were now part of some strange fanatic religion where anything could be excused so long as it was offered at the altar of the Muses. Ritual madness, ecstasy, human sacrifice. Were we bewitched? Brainwashed? Perhaps.”

It is not only a campus novel describing theatre life, it is a good mystery novel as well. It does not happen often that I cannot figure out the murderer until the very end of the novel. Highly atmospheric, exciting, filled with suspense, wonder, outrage. Hidden love, secrets, guilt. And – of course – there can never be enough Shakespeare! A revenge tragedy filled with ghosts within or without.

Shakespeare is their everyday life, their way of seeing the world, they talk through quotes, think through heroes and villains. They are actors, their life is not only their own, they live many lives and feel many feelings all at once.

“We spent four years – and most of us years before that – immersed in Shakespeare. Submerged. Here we could indulge our collective obsession. We spoke it as a second language, conversed in poetry, and lost touch with reality, a little.” I reconsider. “Well, that’s misleading. Shakespeare is real, but his characters live in a world of real extremes. They swing from ecstasy to anguish, love to hate, wonder to terror. It’s not melodrama, though, they’re not exaggerating. Every moment is crucial.” (…)

“A good Shakespearean actor – a good actor of any stripe, really – doesn’t just say words, he feels them. We felt all the passions of the characters we played as if they were our own. But a character’s emotions don’t cancel out the actor’s – instead you feel both at once. Imagine having all your own thoughts and feelings tangled up with all the thoughts and feelings of a whole other person. It can be hard, sometimes, to sort out which is which.”

Isn’t literature’s calling – to make readers read more and more? Because that is exactly what this novel made me do. It is not hard at all making me read more Shakespeare, but I think it is nevertheless a definition of a good book – making a reader want to read and explore more, see beyond. Simultaneously (very meta), as the characters in If We Were Villains acted in Julius Caesar, I read Julius Caesar, and had a magnificent time (at my house nobody got hurt). I know other plays mentioned and played very well, so I skipped reading them again (Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear), but would always recommend reading them again and again, without any reason at all…

“The thing about Shakespeare is, he’s so eloquent… He speaks the unspeakable. He turns grief and triumph and rapture and rage into words, into something we can understand. He renders the whole mystery of humanity comprehensible.”

I find it unbelievable that this novel went under the radar of most readers. I have only accidentally come across it and it really does deserve much more praise. For me, in troubling times we live in, Shakespeare and mysteries – help and when they come together in a novel, it’s a win-win, a comfort read. Sit comfortably, take a blanket and a cup of hot tea, If We Were Villains and thank me later!

Despite of my title, I could never believe Shakespeare could ruin your life (love and bad judgements obviously can), he can always only better your life. Every time, with every word. Read Shakespeare, he makes everything better as did this novel for me.

“Do you blame Shakespeare for any of it?”

“I blame him for all of it”

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