It’s pretty tough to justify a name like “Classically Educated” after writing only tangentially about Shakespeare over the course of the past couple of years. Being completely impervious to criticism (what’s the use of living in an ivory tower if you can’t occasionally drop some boiling oil on critics?) we’ve ignored the hue and cry, pointing at our excellent track record of reviewing old films and discussing everyone from Homer to Umberto Eco every once in a while.
The main problem with Shakespeare isn’t the Elizabethan English or the sonnets (although the sonnets, admittedly can get pretty ugly when you realize that he was writing a bunch of them for patron’s children, and not for love of anything other than money – this comes through loud and clear when you read them in succession. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” was written for a male youth, probably the son of a patron.).
But that isn’t the problem. The problem is that, to get some insight on Shakespeare, you really have to got through and read all the plays in succession… yes, even the Winter’s Tale. So, that is exactly what we did. Armed with an inexpensive leather-bound edition of the Oxford text, the most universally accepted version which is roughly divided into four sections: Comedies, Tragedies, Histories and everything else, I set out to see whether we could make some sense of this Shakespeare thing.
Now, first things first: a lot of Shakespeare scholars attempt to make a name for themselves doing textual analysis on the plays and attempting to attributing the plays to random other figures. Everyone from Shakespeare’s wife to his cook and other playwrights of the time gets a look in. We won’t be playing at that, just looking at the plays on their own merits.
But first, we must eliminate the rest… There’s a reason Shakespeare was revered in the theatre more than as a poet, and that is because most of his poetry isn’t at the same level as his plays. The longer ones, sadly, are just long, while the shorter ones have some good lines in them (that summer’s day one comes to mind), but don’t have quite the impact of the theatrical work.
So, onto the plays…
To modern audiences, the comedies are a bit predictable. You know it’s going to come out well in the end, and you can usually tell how it’s going to be fixed as soon as the tableau is set, except for Merchant of Venice, which it is no longer politically correct to discuss. Fortunately, Falstaff makes some appearances (he is probably Shakespeare’s most interesting character), and gets clobbered by the Merry Wives. I’ll agree with Hollywood on this one: Much Ado About Nothing is likely the best. The weird ones (Tempest, Midsummer’s Night) would probably be a nice primer for anyone attempting to track the evolution of the Fantasy genre in the English language.
Had Shakespeare only written comedies, time would likely have preserved some, and they would be part of the canon, but the bard himself would be of much lesser stature. The tragedies are where he made his name, and rightfully so. These are better than the comedies in general, and the Scottish Play in particular is nearly perfect.
The rereading of Hamlet was interesting, as I’d forgotten how convoluted it actually is, while Lear, as always, is brilliantly insane. But none comes close to Macbeth for utter depth of the despair it produces in the reader. This one, much more than Timon of Athens, brings the sensibility of the Greek epics to a renaissance audience.
Romeo and Juliet, of course, is nearly unreadable. I had to force myself through the thing while attempting to avoid tossing the rather large volume out of high windows.
Last, I’ll discuss the histories. To my shame, other than having watched the aforementioned film version of Henry V, I’d really not paid much attention to these. So when, one after another, they turned out to be much more interesting than both the comedies and the tragedies, I sat up and took notice.
Perhaps I would have enjoyed them less had I remembered the history of British monarchs, which I’d long since forgotten. But possibly not, since Julius Caesar was good despite knowing exactly what would occur.
So, strangely, I have found that the most neglected part of old William’s oeuvre is probably the best for modern readers. One never really knows what’s going to happen unless one remembers his British history (it’s safe to say that most people emphatically don’t). It was a pleasant surprise, and made the huge reading/rereading project worthwhile.
So, if you’re yearning for some Shakespeare, might I suggest forgoing the obvious and grabbing the Histories? You’ll probably find them much, much more rewarding!