Writing and Ruminating

Thoughts on writing, reading, and poetry. With the occasional diversion, bien sûr.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Brush Up Your Shakespeare in June - Introduction

Back on May 11th, I asked whether anyone was interested in brushing up their Shakespeare, and quite a number of people said yes (19 on that post alone, plus more after I made the official announcement on May 17th that I was moving forward with it.

What to expect in the way of posts:

In my post on May 24th, I posted a list of twelve plays that I'll be talking about in June. In prepping the first one I'm going to talk about - which turns out to be Much Ado About Nothing, by the way - I realized that some, if not all, of the play-related posts are going to need to be split into two parts, because otherwise they will be overbearingly long. Today, I set up a schedule for myself, just so I'd know which posts to write and code next, etc. The first three plays will be Much Ado About Nothing, Romeo & Juliet, and Love's Labour's Lost, which takes us through next weekend.

What to know about these posts: some of them will be long, but none of them will be anywhere near as long as the actual play. They will include commentary as well as summary and quotes, and now and again they will include movie clips as well. There will be daily posts, and sometimes more than one post in a day, since in addition to the 12 plays, I'll be talking about Shakespeare's sonnets every Friday (at least), as well as other of his poems (sometimes contained within the plays, but easily split out), and about his life. To say nothing of mentioning some of the Shakespeare-related books I have in mind, which includes manga, graphic novels, adaptations, and books that happen to include a lot of Shakespearian references. And yes, Lisa Mantchev, I'm looking at you, among others.

Some background stuff about the Bard's writing:

Nobody alive today knows how many plays or poems Shakespeare actually wrote. Thirty-eight plays survive, as do 154 sonnets plus two longer poems, Venus and Adonis and Lucrece, but it is known that several of his plays (including Love's Labour's Won) have been lost, and it is entirely likely that additional poems were lost as well.

Shakespeare's plays include a mix of prose and poetry. Quite a lot of characters speak in verse of one sort or another. High-born characters (princes and kings, lords and ladies, nobles of all sort) tend to speak in blank verse (another name for unrhymed iambic pentameter, in which each line of dialogue contains five iambic feet: taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM). That said, there are a number of times in the plays where people who are speaking in verse use other forms - rhymed couplets, perhaps (like some of the dialogue between Hermia and Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream), or sonnets (like some of the early dialogue between Romeo and Juliet), or trochaic tetrameter (four trochaic feet, or trochees, per line: DUMta DUMta DUMta DUMta) like the witches in Macbeth. People who are mad often spout nonsense or sing songs, like Ophelia in Hamlet or Lear in King Lear. Smart people tend to have the most complicated sorts of lines (think Hamlet or Richard III), and dumb people and/or comical characters tend to speak in prose, sometimes with mistakes involved (think Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing).

Shakespeare wrote using an inordinate amount of puns, sexual innuendo, and double (and in some cases, triple) meanings. Words that today have only one meaning (e.g., "nunnery" = convent, "lap" (n.) = lap) in his day often had two (e.g., "nunnery" = convent OR whorehouse, lap (n.) = lap OR vagina). Some of them are easier to see than others - references to swords, for instance, are in many contexts clearly references to penises as well. Some of the scenes that are today seen as tedious are so only because we've lost the second meanings that Shakespeare's audiences would have known. I learned this while reading Filthy Shakespeare: Shakespeare's Most Outrageous Sexual Puns by Pauline Kiernan, as well as reading other commentaries (including but not limited to those in the Folger Shakespeare Library editions of the plays and poems I'll be discussing). I'll be sure to mention some of that as I move through the plays.

Even though Shakespeare consciously included so many double and triple entendres, knowledge of them is not required in order to understand and appreciate his plays (although in some cases, it certainly enhances the understanding of the subtext of the scenes, which is often as important as what's being said). If all you have at hand is the original text of a play, reference to a dictionary is advisable when an unfamiliar term comes up, or a word that is familiar on its face seems to be used in an usual way. The Folger Shakespeare Library editions include unfamiliar terms and phrases on the facing page, and the No Fear Shakespeare editions put all of the lines into English that can be understood by contemporary audiences on the facing page, although in many cases double (and triple) meanings are completely lost that way; still, if Elizabethan English is too hard for you to parse, they can be a godsend.

My hope for these posts:

Besides taking up a lot of my time in the reading and typing and coding (which I can assure you, given my husband's health situation, is an entirely welcome diversion and a large part of why I set the task for myself in the first place), I was hoping to improve my own understanding and appreciation of Shakespeare's writing, as well as increasing my familiarity with some of his work. I confess to a nerdy desire to be able to quote him a bit more often. This nerdiness is not mine alone; I say that not just because of the authors I know who invoke the Bard in their own writing, but also based on my telephone conversation with my brother, in which I told him what I was up to for June. He immediately launched into the St. Crispian's day speech from Henry V. I really ought to challenge him to a nerd-off some time. But I digress.

One of my other hopes was that the posts would spark some serious discussion in the comments. So I hope that if you take the time to read some of the posts, you'll consider dropping a comment or two. Talk amongst yourselves, even. Because I know for a fact that there are folks out there who know this stuff way better than I do, even if they aren't the ones initiating the posts. And I know there are folks out there who have questions about meanings and contexts and subtexts and character development and more. And probably even a few nerds like myself, who'd like to find a few killer lines to spout now and again.

Later on today, the first play-related post of the month: Much Ado About Nothing, part 1. I hope you'll stop back for it.

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