Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Brush Up Your Shakespeare Month - an introduction

Those of you who were reading this blog last June already have some idea what to expect during Brush Up Your Shakespeare Month, and, frankly, can pretty much skip this post. But if you'd like an introduction to what I'm up to, this is it.

What to expect in the way of posts:

The results of my poll on May 3rd indicated a strong interest in a reprisal of Brush Up Your Shakespeare Month. By which I mean that nobody told me to piss off, and not that I got thousands of responses. On May 28th, I posted a list of eleven plays that I'll be talking about in June. As with last year's event, some, if not all, of the play-related posts are going to be split into two parts, because otherwise they will be overbearingly long. The first two plays will be Hamlet and The Tempest, which takes us through Friday. I had hoped to have a complete schedule sorted out, but as of now, I don't.

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 11 plays, I'll be talking about Shakespeare's poems every Wednesday (at least), as well as about his life and/or books about his life and work. There will be contests every Friday and special guests here and there, and hopefully it will be fun and interesting for people other than me. Because I guarantee you I'll be enjoying myself.

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 in fact 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 (a play we covered last year). 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 of Prince Hamlet), and dumb people and/or comical characters tend to speak in prose, sometimes with mistakes or malapropisms involved (think Elbow in Measure for Measure).

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 contemporary English, although in many cases double (and triple) meanings are completely lost that way; still, if Elizabethan English is too hard for you to parse, these annotated/interpreted versions can be a godsend.

My hope for these posts:

Last year I set out to keep my mind occupied following my husband's cancer diagnosis. This year, he's gog a clean bill of health, but I opted to reprise the event anyhow because I gained so much appreciation and understanding of Shakespeare's writing - and an increased appreciation for the many levels on which he was able to work simultaneously - that I quite look forward to learning still more. In addition to increasing my familiarity with some of his work, I again confess to a nerdy desire to be able to quote him a bit more often. This nerdiness is not mine alone, as I know from last year, when my brother launched into the St. Crispian's day speech from Henry V as soon as I mentioned the play. Neither to I think this nerdiness to be restricted to my sibling and myself, since I know several of you who rely on the Bard quite a bit in your work as well.

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: Hamlet, part 1. I hope you'll stop back for it.
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