One down; one to go, that one being Shakespeare.
So I began reading all 41 plays believed to be written in whole or part by William Shakespeare. I read them in chronological order of composition; that way I got a variety of histories, comedies and tragedies.
I read about three hours a day, finishing on average one play a day. I often struggled to understand the character motivations and conversations. But I didn’t need footnotes nor supplements to follow the plot and was able enjoy the plays as entertaining literature.
It wasn’t pure like Jane Austen or Leo Tolstoy; more like reading Shelby Foot’s Civil War narratives filled with names and maneuvers.
I’m glad I finished. Maybe now I’ll be able to complete Joyce’s Ulysses or understand Elliot’s The Wasteland.
If you’re new to Shakespeare, I’d suggest starting with the last play: Two Noble Gentlemen. It’s short, straightforward, has honorable characters, and offers some plot surprises. I recommend this much more than something like Romeo and Juliet, and I can’t see why schools teach this Romeo as an introduction to Shakespeare. I’d think children deserve better adult role models than those presented in Romeo and Juliet.
The first play, Two Gentlemen of Verona, would also be a good place to begin. Young men seeking the hearts of their young lovers should read this play before attempting any heroics.
My favorites were The Merchant of Venice, the first half of Julius Caesar, The Comedy of Errors, As You Like It, Cymbeline and Pericles, the Prince of Tyre. Most of the romantic comedies like Twelfth Night and Measure for Measure were interesting. These plays have good ideas for anyone competing in the game of love.
I also liked the ancient historical Greek and Roman plays like Antony and Cleopatra, Troilus and Cressida and Titus Andronicus. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, but I found the most well-known plays the weakest, particularly Macbeth, King Lear, A Midsummer-Night’s Dream, and even Hamlet. Perhaps familiarity ruined them for me, since I’ve seen film versions of these.
I struggled most with histories of the English kings, like the three plays of Henry IV. So many dukes, earls, lords, cardinals and bishops. Henry VIII, for example, has 27 named characters. And these histories usually involve both the English and French. And a marriage between an English king and a French princess at the conclusion of one play sows the seeds of discontent for the next generation in the next play.
And since the plays involve many deaths and murders, second marriages were common, yielding extended families and further opportunities for strife and mayhem.
Shakespeare wrote nothing like our modern story of two kids, two cars, a dog and a house in the suburbs. He used or created dysfunctional families and dynasties to build his plays.
Overall, though I hardly remember any of the dialogue, I remember the plots, and it will only take a moment to go back and find favorite passages. And now I know something about each of the plays and characters the next time Shakespeare comes up over coffee or cocktails. And clearly if I were allowed only one book to take to the desert island, I would pick Shakespeare.
I can contemplate the philosophies of the Bible, God and religion in my mind; I need to see and read the words to remember Shakespeare.
The problem with both Shakespeare on stage and film is the dialogue passes too quickly. It would be nice to imagine a world where you could first read a play then get together with friends for an amateur performance. Arrange the chairs in a circle, choose roles, and begin. Shakespeare takes you back to a world of sealed letters, shipwrecks, disguises, deception, poisons, potions, cloaks and daggers. A world not sullied by e-mail, cell phones, metal detectors, no-fly lists, body and retina scanners, and electronic fingerprints.
Oh how our modern has technology taken the fun out of romance and crime.
Anniston resident Russell DeAnna has a PhD in mechanical engineering. The former NASA employee is retired.