Tuesday, June 22, 2010

"Brush Up Your Shakespeare"

I've never been a reader who can have more than one book in progress. Juggling multiple reads has always felt uncomfortable in an odd and inexpressible way. But when reading a long-ish book (Anna Karenina, Armadale, and Noble House come to mind) or a flat-out tome (Les Miserables) I have often felt the need to break away and let my mind settle briefly elsewhere.

In taking a recent pause from Wolf Hall (which I am enjoying enormously) I wandered over to my bookshelves. A two volume set of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, acquired at some point while I was still in high school, caught my eye. Oddly, there is no publication date in either. Upon opening Volume I, I noted that in apparent youthful exuberance I had placed a small check by the plays I had read. They included A Midsummer Night's Dream, Richard III, Romeo and Juliet, Richard II, The Merchant of Venice, King Henry IV (Parts I and II), The Taming of the Shrew, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, Coriolanus. Although I know I read Cymbeline, it wasn't checked off. Perhaps by that time I had grown up enough to stop keeping score. In any event, some Shakespeare was just the ticket for a little diversion. I thought about the tiny check marks. Was it my early intention to read my way through everything Sweet Ole Bill wrote? And if not, why not? Why not! And so, I shall. They are perfect interludes, beautifully crafted and each one short enough to read in an evening. So, that's my plan...to read every play and sonnet contained in those two volumes and tick each one off as I go.

The first unchecked play was Titus Andronicus - and so that is where I began. I dived in knowing there was some debate whether this play was actually written by Shakespeare. Many scholars reject it as one of his plays altogether. Others argue that, at most, Shakespeare may have made some suggestions to its real author regarding character development. Its style is certainly alien to Shakespeare's in the copious blood department. It was a stunning 16th century version of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. I know Shakespeare was quite the innovator but...who knew? Not being a fan of slasher movies, I found it more than a little disturbing and quite unlike Bill. Example: "And now prepare your throats. Lavinia, come, receive the blood: and when that they are dead, let me go grind their bones to powder small, and with this hateful liquor temper it; And in that paste let their vile heads be baked, to make this banquet; which I wish may prove more stern and bloody than the Centaurs' feast." (Scene II, as Titus cuts the throats of Chiron and Demetrius and Lavinia collects their blood in a basin.)

I was grateful when Lucius (one of the few principal characters to survive with all his limbs, his head and his throat intact) delivered the plays final lines, spoken as he throws the body of Tamora to the beasts and birds of prey rather than provide her with a burial. It was so him.

And so, I staggered to the sink to wash the blood off my hands 1) relieved Titus Andronicus was over, and 2) buoyed in the knowledge I would never have to read it again. I was also grateful it was not my introduction to Shakespeare. I doubt I would have been a repeat customer. Of course, Saw II fans would probably enjoy it.

Because I am trying to read the plays in chronological order, the next is King Henry VI, Part I written in about 1590. It is said to have been produced on the stage in March 1591 and received rave reviews by the audience. William Shakespeare would have been about 26 years old, as if there isn't enough to make underachievers feel queasy. (Someone...please tell me he lied about his age.) Once again, there are some qualifications as to the plays complete authorship and experts can't quite agree that this one is "All Shakespeare - All The Time." It was probably a collaborative effort; most critics concede it contains Shakespeare's "touch," at least.

Looking ahead, perhaps something a little lighter, Maestro? I see Love's Labour's Lost waiting in the wings.

One day I hope to visit the Bard's final resting place.

Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbeare
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones.

Of course, you could skip Shakespeare altogether and simply sing Cole Porter:

Brush up your Shakespeare,
Start quoting him now.
Brush up your Shakespeare
And the women you will wow.
Just declaim a few lines from "Othella"
And they think you're a helluva fella.
If your blonde won't respond when you flatter 'er
Tell her what Tony told Cleopaterer ,
If she fights when her clothes you are mussing,
What are clothes? "Much Ado About Nussing."
Brush up your Shakespeare
And they'll all kowtow.

Sleep well, Bill. Try not to roll over.


  1. I am not good at multi reading normally either but I think that plays and poems are quite good to read alongside other things. Lovely post - thanks for sharing


  2. I DO have to admit that I've seen "Kiss Me, Kate" more times than "The Taming of the Shrew." I'm glad we don't have to choose between Cole Porter and Shakespeare. I THINK I'd pick Bill--but let's face it "You're the Top" is pretty terrific.

    I tried watching Titus once and couldn't get through it; kudos to you for READING it, Grad!

  3. Ah but do we ever grow up from list? And why should we, really?
    I am finding myself in the opposite situation -- I started a few books (Arabian nights, What I talk about when I talk about running, translations of Basho's poetry) which all seem to call for a heftier read at their side... I just can't seem to find what I'd like to read to accompany them!

  4. This one really made me laugh (albeit silently since I'm at work). Loved the comparison between Titus Andronicus and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I'm almost tempted to rent both of them and then review them. Ok, not that tempted. Good luck with the rest of the Complete Works. I seem to remember that Henry IV part I is quite good. Isn't that the one with Bolingbrooke and the King shut up in the tower. We studied that in matric and it was cool even then.

  5. Hannah, I am always amazed and envious of readers who can tackle more than one book at a time. And on top of everything else, it takes me a while to finish a book because I'm one of those people who goes back to re-read sections to make sure I got it right.

    Tinky, The Taming of the Shrew is my second fave Shakespeare play (second only to A Midsummer Night's Dream) and I love Kiss Me Kate. Hearing Wunderbar sung always makes me happy and wanting to dance across the room (blinds drawn so neighbors don't call for help.)

    Charlotte, have you read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak? It's beautiful but quite heavy. I think you'll welcome the Arabian Nights sitting on your bedside table for a little lightness. I know I needed to read something light after finishing it.

    Pete, I was shocked by the blood and guts in Titus. If it really is Shakespeare's, it must have been written when he was a teeny-bopper... one who didn't have video games so he had to create one in his head. I just started Henry VI, Part I. Henry V has died, his liege lords are broken hearted and to make matters worse, England is fighting to keep its French territory...and losing. Henry's son, Henry VI, is just an child and unable to take the throne. His uncle and his great uncle try to muscle each other for power setting the stage for the War of the Roses. Joan of Arc will make her appearance as she's in the cast of characters. I think Bolingbroke was imprisoned in Richard II. Someone is surely going to the Tower in this one as well, I'll bet. It is yummy so far.

  6. Oh how I love Shakespeare! And this post! :) Chuckling to myself as I contemplate turning immediately to the collected Shakespeare to continue reading my way through the unticked plays (I, too, did the tick-if-read thing, but, alas, I don't think I've ever grown out of keeping track of reads . . . especially if you count my blog).

    And I love, love, love Love's Labour's Lost (including Branagh's critically dubious film version). One of my favourites.

  7. Inkslinger, let's set out to read everything Bill has written, shall we? Although it makes practical sense to read the "Henry's" in their historical chronology, I wanted to read the plays in the chronology they were written because a) that's the order they are printed in my edition and b) to see if I can notice any stylistic changes in his writing as he progressed. One thing is certain: Shakespeare has managed to stay current...and cool. Totally cool.

  8. You know I have no problems having multiple books on the go :) I have not read Titus but I enjoyed your post on it. I had no idea it was so bloody. Makes me hesitant to want to give it go even if someone can prove once and for all Shakespeare did write it.

  9. Stefanie, you are the Master at multiple books on the go!! :> How you do it, I have no idea. I get totally confused - Where am I? Who's speaking to me? What century is it? Titus Andronicus was very un-Shakespeare-ish. It was lively and well written - it was even, dare I say, swashbuckling. But it was just too bloody for my taste. I am totally enjoying Henry VI, which I will finish tonight. Then it's back to Wolf Hall.

  10. What a great plan! Given my lack of reading in Shakespeare's history plays, I could benefit from such a plan myself. But not now. Now's not the right time for it. Maybe someday :)

  11. wow. titus is a rough one to go with. i cannot sit through it or read it! my favorites are the tempest and winter's tale. love's labours lost is fun! much easier on the gore!

    i have an award for you at the plum bean!

  12. Dorothy W, I love someday! It's my favorite day, actually. It's the same day I'm starting my diet and beginning my new exercise regime. :>

    Priya, Titus is a real mess. I doubt it was Bill's doing, but not being anything close to a Shakespeare scholar it's just my guess. I'll have to check out my award. Cannot get too many of those. Thank you!

  13. Laughing softly to myself so as not to disturb the other writers (we have discovered Varuna's walls are very thin...) - adored this post, Graddikins. What a brilliant idea - perhaps I should do the same, intersperse each novel I read with a Shakespearean play...like a palate cleanser as well as a bloody good lesson in the art of storytelling! I might skip Titus Andronicus, though...

    I can't believe he wrote Henry VI at 26... that makes me want to weep. At least with Shakespeare, though, one can draw some comfort from his being truly one of a kind and absolutely incomparable. Prat.

    Glad you're enjoying Wolfie - it's a damn big book. I'm not surprised you felt like a breather.

  14. Di, Bill certainly was unusually gifted but I wonder if the kids his age made fun of him when he went about "forsoothing" here and "harking" there. One doesn't wake up at 26 and find out one is "The One The Only...SHAKESPEARE!" He must have been penning all kinds of heady stuff at 10 or 11. I wonder if he ever played in the dirt and got his knees skinned. Was he ever a real kid? Hmmm. Grist for a post for sure - or forsooth.

  15. Didn't someone publish a slim volume on Bill in the not too distant past...? Of course there are accounts galore of Bill the Bodacious Bard, but I don't know how much they really know about his childhood... I'd love to know more! I can't help hoping he was incredibly cool and had the children of Stratford-upon-Avon trailing after him as though he were the Pied Piper...

  16. I like that phrase "perfect interludes." Even almost any of his individual lines would quality for that too, so resonant: no "dead air."

    And as I said on my site, there aren't many websites where you can find a post that gracefully touches on Shakespeare and Cole both!

  17. Love the comparison to the Texas Chain Saw Massacre! Lol! They were a brutal people in those days, just like they are now... I know so little about Shakespeare as I stop reading about 1830. There have to be limits or else the whole business gets out of hand, I find. Great post, Grad.

  18. Di, I did a little "reading up" on Bill's background - shrouded in mystery, that man. There is (are?) even something called "The Lost Years." (Da da dum dum dum dum dum dum dum - kinda spooky).

    Shelley, I hope that Shakespeare would have appreciated Cole Porter's musical tribute! Geniuses both. Don't know which I prefer, but I bet Bill is kicking himself for not dreaming up musical theatre.

    Litlove, I was just thinking along those lines this morning...about the limits thing. I want to read it all (sigh).