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.