Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Shakespeare: Reading the Canon

About 18 months ago, I started on a quest to read/watch all of Shakespeare's plays, roughly in order.

I am nearing the end. I have only The Winters Tale, The Tempest, and Henry VIII left to go. Then, I have to do Titus Andronicus--it's one of the earliest plays, but I heard such dreadful things about it, I put it off until the end. I haven't decided whether to read Two Noble Kinsmen or not, as most agree that Shakespeare didn't really write much of it if any at all.

I have thoroughly enjoyed this project--I majored in English in college and came from a family in which my parents would listen to recordings of the plays and drag me off to the movies when they came to the art cinema when I was a kid, so I had read probably two-thirds of the plays before I started...but that was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Austen really got me started on this project. I had reread Mansfield Park and was wondering why on earth she would have Henry Crawford read from Henry VIII, since I had never read the play and it's never been all that popular. So, I decided I needed to relearn everything I had forgotten about Shakespeare, and then some.

I decided to watch/read the BBC productions because they don't cut much--so, I listen and read along. That really helps me with the plays I don't know well or haven't encountered--I like this method better than just reading because of the interpretation. Shakespeare has very few stage directions, so hearing the lines whilst reading them helps me understand more than just reading would. Then, I often watch (not read along) other movies and adaptations (modern and otherwise). The contrast in how various parts are played is fascinating.

After my initial viewing of the BBC production, I usually read from Goddard's two-volume set of essays on the plays, and listen to a lecture from the Teaching Company on the play I'm currently on. Peter Saccio's lectures are just wonderful. Early on I also read Asimov's historical context of the plays, but that got tedious after awhile. I am looking forward to Harold Bloom's book which I've promised myself after I finish reading the last of the plays. Then, I'm going to read Will in the World. I read Ackroyd's bio before I started, so that'll be a nice way to round it out.

1) How much I liked the War of the Roses cycle. I have always enjoyed English history, but the BBC did a superb job on these, using a troupe of actors that played consistent roles from RII though RIII. They weren't written chronologically, so that was a little weird...i.e., not to read them in historical order, but it was interesting to see how Shakespeare the playwright matured from HVI pt 2 until HV. I also enjoyed Merry Wives of Windsor much more than I thought I would.

2) How much I liked the early comedies - again, I had heard how Comedy of Errors and Love's Labours Lost were labored, but I enjoyed the productions I watched. Two Gentlemen of Verona was pretty bad though

3) The tragedies really are wonderful--I did not appreciate them at 21, or 17 for that matter! They are truly wonderful works and can be read repeatedly.

The Best so Far

Midsummer Night's Dream--It's like Pride and Prejudice in that it is timeless and wonderful and enchanting. Though I remember loving The Tempest in college, so maybe in a month or so I'll be singing a different tune.

The other cool thing about reading the canon from end to end is seeing how Shakespeare latched onto an idea and worked it in several different ways, from comedy to tragedy. Elements from Merchant of Venice reappear in Othello, for example. Finally, this project sparked an interest in the ancient world, because in reading Shakespeare I found that I didn't know near enough about Greek and Roman mythology and history to get a lot of the references, so I've been learning about that as well via lectures, novels, Archeology magazine, etc.

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