The Bard and I: Reflections on Reading Shakespeare
The shadow of William Shakespeare hangs over English literature, and even the English language, to an extent that four centuries after he died, we are still using words and idioms initially created by him. If you live in an Anglophone country, as I do, Shakespeare really is impossible to escape – not that that’s a bad thing, as he fully deserves his reputation, and there is something to be said for having that sort of cultural touchstone to establish commonality of experience in wider society. Shakespeare, after all, shapes us all – gorgeous language, amazing characters, timeless themes, et cetera, that stand up to anything produced since. I am currently brushing up on some of the plays I haven’t previously read, so I thought I’d reflect on my own anecdotal interaction with Shakespeare’s work. It’s been a long and winding journey.
My first encounter with actually sitting down and trying to read Shakespeare was high school, which is inherently problematic in that there are few more effective ways of destroying someone’s love of literature than making them compulsorily study it. First there was Romeo and Juliet. Notwithstanding its fame, which I suspect is the real reason it winds up taught so much, it’s a strange choice to present to thirteen year old boys (as I was then), what with the deeply cynical attitude towards youth. Not that it mattered, since I, and I suspect the rest of my classmates, rather missed that, and thought of the play as lovey dovey nonsense with the main characters killed by poor communication and adult feuding. Yes, we realised that it was not the sweetness and light affair of popular imagination, but I think it’d have worked better if our teacher had pushed it as a parody of romance (Romeo and Juliet are irresponsible idiots!) than as a straight tragedy. As it was, I think I wound up with the notion that a Shakespeare play ought to have everyone dying at the end, as a matter of principle – that a tragedy was somehow more real than a comedy.
(As a side note, Romeo and Juliet was presented to us in graphic novel/comic format, rather than a standard play script. I do think that was a good idea, since, as has often been noted, Shakespeare is meant to be seen, not read, and it helped us understand what was going on).
The other Shakespeare play of my high school career was Hamlet (we did the Sonnets that year too, and I remember being so awed by the whole iambic pentameter thing, but Hamlet was what stuck). In this case we were lucky: my class had an English teacher who was truly passionate about his subject, and tried to instil in us the notion that Shakespeare wasn’t some artsy fartsy irrelevancy, but a writer whose themes explored the human condition. He was right, of course, and Dr O’Connor went a long way to rectifying my general cynicism about English classes. It helped that, well, it’s Hamlet. A long play, but it is the most famous work by the most famous writer in the English language, and it has this status for a reason. Being a thinker (rather than a do-er) myself made me more empathetic to the predicament the protagonist finds himself in, and I still remember understanding the guy’s dithering when he catches Claudius at prayer. That, and his propensity for snark, dirty jokes, and brooding (I was fifteen). Though, again, Hamlet only confirmed my mistaken notion about Shakespeare plays and body counts…
After that, my time of formally studying Shakespeare stopped. It was not the end, of course, not with the endless procession of movie adaptations (or at least references), and the authors I read were certainly influenced by him to some degree, but from then on, I was on my own. It’d be a few years before I tried undiluted Shakespeare again.
This time, it was The Tempest. This one was a bit curious. I had just finished a binge read of Tad Williams’ vast Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, and had followed it up with his feline version of Watership Down, entitled Tailchaser’s Song. One of Williams’ more minor works is Caliban’s Hour, a retelling of The Tempest from Caliban’s point of view, so I read that next. Now the thing about retellings… they rather require the original for the full effect. So I went and read The Tempest, my first attempt at reading Shakespeare outside a school environment. I remember being vaguely disappointed that Prospero’s revenge wasn’t more bloodthirsty – I had this image of Shakespeare, remember, and Williams had turned him into a much darker figure. Plus the drunkards mucking around with Caliban seemed vaguely pointless. So it wasn’t quite what I was expecting.
(On the other hand, this was also the time I was reading Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. One of the minor plot points – spoilers – is that Dream does a deal with Shakespeare, which requires Shakespeare to write two plays, just for him. The two in question are A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. I remember mentally patting myself on the back for understanding the references to the latter, while resolving to check out the former… something that didn’t happen. But we’ll get to that).
Soon after this, I was browsing the upper floor of Dunedin’s University Bookshop, which was running a constant sale at the time, and got my hands on a significantly discounted edition of Naughty Shakespeare, by Michael Macrone. As the title would suggest, it’s a humourous look at the filth in Shakespeare, the innuendos, the stuff that would have annoyed the censor (who incidentally would be far more concerned with religious oaths), and so on. I already knew that Shakespeare had his dodgier side – Hamlet’s country matters and all that – but since I’d only read three of the plays and a few of the sonnets, it was interesting to see a wider look at his work. Two plays mentioned by Macrone jumped out at me, namely Titus Andronicus and The Merchant of Venice. So I read those next.
Titus Andronicus, of course, needs no introduction. The goriest Shakespearian play – and that’s saying something – with revenge, rapes, pies, and the original Yo Mama joke. It’s not actually a great play – the plot’s just an excuse for the violence – and, to be honest, I rather lost track of character motivations after a while. Think of it as William Shakespeare writes an episode of late season Game of Thrones, and you wouldn’t be far wrong. The Merchant of Venice, by contrast, actually has meaningful characters, though a modern reader like myself will invariably be disturbed by the subject matter. Doubly so, since the thing is technically a comedy, not a tragedy (Shylock’s forcible conversion to Christianity is what passed for a happy ending in late sixteenth century England). My immediate thought on reading it was puzzlement about the famous pound of flesh scene. OK, Shylock is entitled to a pound of flesh – but no blood – but Antonio still owes him, surely? A debt is still a debt, even if there are issues about payment.
(I actually ended up using a line from The Merchant of Venice, specifically part of Shylock’s famous speech, as the title of my first ever Harry Potter fanfic. Appropriately enough, it was a fanfic from a non-evil Slytherin point of view, because I was damn angry about J.K. Rowling’s Gryffindor bias).
Next up, it’s back to the 24-carat greats.
In 2006, I joined the newly-established Dunedin branch of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), a medieval-themed “re-enactment” group. Our first event, in June 2006, was a mid-winter feast, where some prominent group figures from the Christchurch organisation came down to support us. The plan was to accompany the feast with the locals performing a short parody of Macbeth for the entertainment of the visitors (Dunedin was a Scottish settlement, and it retains a reputation as the Edinburgh of the South)… with Yours Truly tasked with writing the thing.
Now Macbeth, along with Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and Richard III, is one of those Shakespeare plays where knowing the plot is a matter of cultural osmosis. It’s referenced in the first and third Blackadder series, it’s referenced in the title of a William Faulkner novel, it’s referenced in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (the prophecy about the Witch-King’s death, and the Ent attack on Isengard), and so on. Theon Greyjoy from A Song of Ice and Fire has elements in common with the titular protagonist during his short reign as Prince of Winterfell, while I think everyone knows “double, double, toil, and trouble”. Somewhat curiously, I had also read Macbeth: Scotland’s Warrior King, by R.J. Stewart, as a child, so I was actually pretty familiar with Macbeth the historical figure, whom Stewart paints in a broadly positive light, with the implication that Shakespeare (understandably) did not quite grasp that non-hereditary monarchies can be legitimate.
Anyway, I sat down and read Macbeth (the play), and thoroughly enjoyed it – I personally consider it my favourite Shakespeare play. I remember sniggering at the drunken porter interrupting the deadly-serious action to complain about his alcohol-induced erectile-dysfunction, and I have picked up the annoying habit of correcting people about a certain line at the end (“lay on, Macduff,” not “lead on, Macduff”), but as a character-study in a fantasy-horror setting, I think it’s brilliant.
(My 2006 parody piece, entitled Macbrief, can be found here. It takes some pretty major liberties with the plot, and is pretty dated in some references, but it is what it is. I personally played Malcolm).
So that made six. Soon after the Macbrief thing, so it’d have been late 2006 or so, I decided to revisit Shakespeare further. I read the Introduction to my mother’s extremely meaty hardback edition of the Complete Works, and noticed that Hamlet and Macbeth were listed as part of the Four Great Tragedies. I figured, of course, that I was half-way there, so tackled King Lear and Othello to round out the quartet. I was mildly surprised at how mindbogglingly bleak Lear actually is – for which reason it apparently briefly surpassed Hamlet itself in critical acclaim during the darker parts of last century. It did, however, enable me to subsequently identify which Shakespearean play a certain acquaintance owed her name to (the acquaintance in question being a Cordelia, who was actually genuinely surprised when I got it right. Apparently she’d rarely met King Lear readers). Othello struck me as a bit weaker – I had previously known about it from a certain episode of Cheers, which again shows how Shakespeare pops up in the weirdest of places – but I agree with those who think that Iago’s bastardry comes out of nowhere. Scheming villains ought to have at least some motivations…
Next up was Richard III. I had already seen (and thoroughly enjoyed) the Ian MacKellan film adaptation, where the setting is moved to a fascist 1930s Britain – an acquaintance has pointed out the bonus hilarity that the MacKellan version gives the Woodvilles American accents. I also had a reasonable understanding of the actual historical period, having read representatives of both the pro-Richard and anti-Richard positions. As such, I knew in advance that Shakespeare (writing for Henry Tudor’s granddaughter) was going to serve up Richard the Monster, and, well, that’s what happened. To be honest, I find it easiest to turn off the temptation to critique the thing as propaganda – though it is propaganda – and treat it as a fictional narrative, where Shakespeare presents us a bona fide Satan figure, who spends his time revelling in his villainy. Shakespeare’s Richard might not have much connection to the historical figure, but neither does his Macbeth, and that does not diminish that play as a work of art.
All well and good… but what then? I was not a thespian, and did not know any at that time. I didn’t know which were the good plays, and which were not – yes, even William Shakespeare had off days, as I was soon to find out. In hindsight, I should have dived straight into A Midsummer Night’s Dream (hell, having read it last month, I’d have it replace Romeo and Juliet as the intro play for high schoolers), but it had been a few years since Sandman, and I’d forgotten to follow it up. I still had this innate idea that the comedies were lesser plays (more fool me). So I acted like the historian I was trained as, and decided to read Shakespeare’s English historicals from Richard II to Richard III – after all, I’d already read Richard III, and enjoyed that. What could possibly go wrong with a bit of classic historical fiction?
Henry VI went wrong, that’s what. I actually made a decent fist of the historicals. Richard II. The two Henry IV plays (which really aren’t about Henry IV, but who cares… Falstaff is fun). Henry V, which I had already seen in film version, so I knew about the tennis balls and impassioned war-time speeches. Then I suffered through Henry VI, Part I, then got half-way through Part II before calling it quits. Henry VI – which I suppose I should get back to for completeness purposes – is just dull. Shakespeare does have off days. And because I was on my own, I had no warning that would enable me to adjust my expectations, and no idea what I was missing out on with the rest of the plays.
Bad experiences actually happened again, a few years later. I stumbled across the now-defunct e-zine Ferretbrain, primarily notable for snarky reviews of fantasy literature, and found they were doing podcast reviews of adapted Shakespeare plays… in “reverse order of famousness” (so starting with the ones no-one reads, and working up to Hamlet). They never did finish the series – from memory, they stopped after The Merry Wives of Windsor, aka A Fat Man is Beaten with a Stick – but I thought it interesting to hear about the obscure plays, and was genuinely puzzled that they’d put Richard II in that sort of company (after all, I’d read Richard II, and I wasn’t even a thespian or Shakespeare buff…). I decided to read the originals along with the podcasts.
Oh dear. There is a reason no-one ever bothers with Pericles, Prince of Tyre, and that reason is that it’s not very good. I couldn’t finish it myself – though to be fair, it seems to have been a collaborative work anyway. I didn’t finish Cymbeline either. I did manage to finish the delightfully misanthropic Timon of Athens, though no-one could mistake that for classic Shakespeare. If I wanted Shakespearean illustrations of how horrible the world can be, I’d go back and re-read King Lear, damn it.
That was me done with Shakespeare (again), for a few years. Then I actually did become friends with a thespian, and, well, the following (paraphrased) conversation happened:
THEM: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”
THEM: “Which Shakespeare play is it from?”
ME: “Twelfth Night?”
THEM: “The Winter’s Tale. How the hell did you guess Twelfth Night?”
ME: “It’s one of the plays I haven’t read.”
THEM: “Ah. So you haven’t read much Shakespeare then?”
ME: “I’ve read about half the plays.” [Note – it was actually a bit less than half, but never mind]
THEM: “Which ones?”
ME (counting off fingers): “Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Othello, Richard III, Richard II, Henry IV 1 and 2, Henry V, Henry VI 1, The Tempest, Titus Andronicus, and The Merchant of Venice.”
THEM: “Romeo and Juliet?”
ME: “That too.” [I had also forgotten Timon of Athens. It happens]
THEM: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream?”
THEM: “Much Ado About Nothing?”
THEM: “So you’ve read Richard II, but not A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, or Twelfth Night?”
THEM: “But no-one reads Richard II!”
After confirming that I did actually know the plot (spoilers: Richard gets overthrown and complains about it), the assessment was that I was probably the only person in the world who had read that peculiar combination of Shakespeare plays. As my friend noted, I’d binged on the tragedies and histories, but had completely neglected the comedies. Which was completely true, of course – again, I had something of a phobia about them. In fact, the only Shakespeare comedies I’d read at that point were The Merchant of Venice (which no-one treats as a comedy today, for obvious reasons), and The Tempest (which isn’t exactly light hearted fare either). Though I did subsequently see Joss Whedon’s 2012 black-and-white “mafia” adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing when it screened at the Regent Theatre, and quite enjoyed it.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, this year I have been making a concerted effort to broaden my knowledge of significant and philosophical literature – and I also decided that now was good a time as any to tackle some the holes in my Shakespeare knowledge. At the time of writing, I have read the following in the last month:
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Finally fulfilling an intent from all those years ago. It’s a much lighter and fluffier piece than I expected – I have probably read too much of the modern ‘dark’ Fae stuff one finds in modern fantasy treatments. As mentioned earlier, it really does strike me as the sort of play that should be used to introduce Shakespeare to teenagers.
- Twelfth Night: Yay for crossdressing and gender confusion. I did spend a fair amount of the play wondering about the relevancy of the title though.
- The Winter’s Tale: I was confused about the title of this one too, and had to look it up on wikipedia. This one did surprise me, what with the sharp u-turn from tragedy to comedy, and I had (wrongly) thought that Exit, Pursued by a Bear was something that happens to a villain at the end. Not only was I wrong about that, but the sodding bear comes out of nowhere.
- Much Ado About Nothing: Benedick and Beatrice are the best Shakespearian couple ever, and are far more interesting than Claudio and Hero. Bonus points that I had read Macrone’s book, and as such was aware of the dirty, dirty pun Shakespeare is making in the title, what with “nothing” also meaning “vagina”.*
*Speaking of which, there are double and triple meanings to be derived from Ygritte’s “You know nothing, Jon Snow,” in A Song of Ice and Fire. Most of them filthy.
So that’s my 20+ year Shakespeare journey, as it stands at the moment. Suffice to say, my biggest fault was underestimating the comedies for far too long, but better late than never, I suppose. It’s just that when one is caught between lack of knowledge about which plays are the good ones, and the (false) conventional wisdom that everything Shakespeare wrote must by definition be solid gold, I can at least understand my little blunders. I should have hung out with thespians more often! 🙂