Sunday, May 17, 2009

Homework on the Bard

Last Monday, I asked whether folks (besides me) were interested in brushing up their Shakespeare in the merry month of June. Nineteen readers said "yes" and none said "no". I shall, therefore, proceed with my nascent plans to declare June 2009 "Shakespeare Month" here at Writing and Ruminating, in preparation of which I have begun brushing up on my own Shakespeare.

I pulled out my copies of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare: All the Plays, All the Poems, which used to belong to my father, I believe. (My copies look like the ones you see to the right, except that Volume II is missing its dust jacket these days, and were put out by Nelson Doubleday in the 1960s, quite possibly as part of a book club.) All of his plays and poems are stuffed into 1140 pages, with each book containing fewer than 600 pages inside. Each work is prefaced with commentary from the Shakespeare Primer by Professor Edward Dowden; otherwise, the book lacks any notes or commentary at all, which is both a blessing and a curse. It's wonderful to have such a concise text available to me, and nothing gets in the way of reading quickly through a play. On the other hand, reading Shakespeare's plays silently leaves much to be desired - too much is lost that way, since one can't appreciate the wordplay quite as well when it's processed in-head rather than aloud. After all, "the play's the thing." Still, I've started to re-read (and in a few cases, read for the first time) some of the plays about which I may blather come June.

I also went out and obtained a few new books to assist me in my ramblings. With a gift card (thanks Jenn!), I purchased the Folger Shakespeare Library edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets and Poems and Filthy Shakespeare: Shakespeare's Most Outrageous Sexual Puns by Pauline Kiernan. The Folger edition of the Sonnets and Poems prints the poem on the right-hand page, with handy-dandy explanatory notes on the facing (left-hand) page, explaining archaic, forgotten, or double meanings, etc. In addition, the book includes lots of information on Shakespeare's life, work, and source material, including translations of Ovid's Metamorphosis, and essays by modern scholars on interpretation of the poems in the book. Filthy Shakespeare is a scholarly work dressed up in tart's clothing: it appears to be a vulgar reduction of some of Shakespeare's writings, but it is making valid points about double meanings and subtext. Not only was the Bard writing High Art, but he was also writing lowbrow comedy. And no, not just by including lowbrow comedy in the speeches of his minor comic characters - once one knows that there were over 200 words that were references to the female and male genitalia (that's at least 200 each, mind you), one can more readily appreciate the double meanings of an awful lot of speeches that one might otherwise have thought Serious, Dry and/or Tedious.

My desire to prep for Shakespeare Month (which is in want of a better name, methinks) extended to my desire to brush up on my knowledge of Shakespeare's life. So in addition to perusing my copy of Shakespeare: The World As Stage by Bill Bryson (which hubby got me for the holidays in 2007), I purchased Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate (with thanks to Sara Lewis Holmes for directing my attention to its existence). And from the library, I brought home Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt and Shakespeare Unbound: Decoding a Hidden Life by Rene Weis. I will likely not finish all 4 biographies by the end of May (or even by the end of June, for that matter), but I'm enjoying having them to skim through and to compare/contrast.

Oh. And there will be movies as well. In fact, once writing time this morning is finished, I'm off to locate a copy of Much Ado About Nothing, which I read the other evening. I so enjoyed reading the play that I'm quite eager to watch a performance of it. Lacking the ability to conjure live theatre to suit my whims, decent movie versions will have to suffice. When it comes to Shakespeare, I think stage versions are to be preferred to movies because the audience was very much a part of the plan when Shakespeare wrote, and the actors were expected to play to the crowd in a more interactive way than that to which we are accustomed, not to subvert themselves so far in their characters that the audience was confined to watching from behind a wall. But I digress.

As I continue to prep for next month's post, I am thinking that some lines Shakespeare wrote about Cleopatra apply, with the appropriate gender change, to the Bard: Age cannot wither him, nor custom stale his infinite variety.

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