Reading Shakespeare

December 25, 2014 Tagged with: books

My reading goal in 2014 was 52 books (one per week). I ended up reading 66 (and counting). My tentative goal for 2015 is to read all of Shakespeare’s 38 plays.

I started early with The Merchant of Venice.  I read the text first – it’s quite short, but slow, slow going. Shakespeare being Shakespeare, the writing is not…straightforward.  To call it “flowery” would be an insult to flowers.

I bought a book which, along with the script, had a scene-by-scene, Cliff Notes-ish companion. All throughout, I was dismayed at how much I was missing. I would read a scene, then read the summary, and realize that huge parts of it had gone over my head.

In an effort to better understand it, I figured I should watch a performance of it.  Completely by luck, I stumbled on an amazing collection of 14 YouTube videos comprising the entirety of a 1974 TV special.  I watched the entire thing, while reading along with the text, and I learned a lot about the performance of drama:

(Also worth nothing about this play in particular: it’s anti-semitic as hell.  It’s uncomfortable in its stereotypical depiction of Jews. I’m wondering if every bigoted perspective of Jewish people as greedy money-lenders came from this play. The character of Shylock the Jew is a grand collection of every negative cliché associated with the Jewish people.)

A script is a tough read in general.  I’m beginning to wonder if my goal to “read” Shakespeare should perhaps instead be a goal to watch a performance of each of his plays, while following along with the script. There’s no doubt that I’ll have to watch each play to make sense of it, and would it be…legal, to do my reading of it at the same time?

Indeed, was drama meant to be watched, rather than read?  Can you read a play and expect to comprehend and appreciate the full weight of it?  I think when you have a combination of (1) language and verbiage very different from contemporary usage, and (2) minimal stage direction, this makes it very hard to envision and understand what’s going on.


cmadler says:

A few years ago I realized that my reading had gradually declined (partly since the birth of my daughter, partly since I started a blog). To get myself reading more again, I gave myself permission to just read absolutely anything that struck my fancy. I’ve read a lot of crap since then, but I’ve also stumbled across some pretty good stuff, and checked several items off my to-read list (Sandman series, a couple YA series I’d been meaning to get to for a while, and about to finish the Sherlock Holmes canon). My big goal for next year is to do some non-fiction reading for pleasure. (My non-fiction reading in 2014 was all prep work for continuing education and/or work-related certifications.)

As for Shakespeare, I completely agree. His plays are very difficult to just sit down and read, but are easily accessible when presented as drama. I think this is part of the problem that many people have with Shakespeare today: schools too often present his plays as something to be read rather than something to be performed (or to watch a performance of). When read, especially by someone who’s not familiar with the style and context, he comes off as stilted. But when seen performed, or at least performed well, it becomes clear that an awful lot of his writing is lewd, crude, bawdy, and otherwise played to the low-brow...but in an incredibly artful manner.

You can use your left/right arrow keys or swipe left/right to navigate