In which I begin to cobble together what literary flotsam I do possess and attempt to read the entire works of William Shakespeare.
It’s summer. People are talking about their summer reading lists. Here’s what happened to me: I loved Stephen Greenblatt’s book The Swerve.( http://www.elenalouiserichmond.com/2012/05/swerving-and-centering/) It led me to dust off his Will in the World. Then I took a look at my copy of Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human which had belonged to my father and which I have held back from my annual yard sale for ten years because I thought I might one day read it. Bloom is a little stuffy, a little too enamored of his opinions; but I’m the same way so I’ll suffer him as a reference. In any case, somewhere in all this stuffy dusting, I decided I would read the entire Shakespeare canon using an eight-volume Folio edition of the plays with large print and smooth clean pages, another legacy from my father.
I feel like I am announcing the start of a diet and I’ll be embarrassed if I don’t follow through, but here is the plan: I will read a little every day even if that means only fifteen minutes. I’ve got a notebook to record all the famous bits and all the parts I especially like. It’s my impression that a Shakespeare play is one long train of well-known phrases. I hope that these phrases will function like a treasure hunt to get me through the more obfuscating parts.
And so I have commenced. Commenceth.
I began with The Life and Death of King John I. Two pages in, I had no idea what I had just read. I started over and read it out loud. It’s hard going from David Sedaris and murder mysteries to Shakespearean English. Even my friend Nancy who can tell me every time I have deconstructed a thought and who teaches English, told me that it takes her a few pages before she sinks into the language. I wonder if she’s reading one of those editions where the print is so small that a few pages are almost an entire play.
I decided I would skip King John for now and read Richard II because I had studied that play in college. It was reasonably familiar and there were patches I had memorized. Then I discovered that if I watched a BBC production of the play with the sub-titles on, that was better than reading it from a book and the visuals helped enormously.
On to Henry IV Parts I and II, which I had seen at Stratford in 1977. Like that was going to help. All I remember is where I was sitting in the theatre. I decided the Folio edition presumed too much about a reader’s ability so I got out my old Pelican edition of the Complete Works of Shakespeare crammed into one volume. Even though the print is miniscule, I need those comforting little footnotes. I slogged through Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, the result being mostly confusion. I watched the BBC movie. The actors’ inflections helped not only with the meaning of the lines but they also pulled me into a rhythm where I started to feel fluent.
It’s beginning to feel fun. Maybe I’ll get to where I don’t actually need the help of the BBC.
Did you know that these (now famous) expressions come from Henry IV Parts One and Two:
*The better part of valour is discretion
*Sink or swim
*He hath eaten me out of house and home
Here’s some of my literary flotsam: In Part One, Hotspur has a line “A plague upon it! I have forgot the map.” Later in the play he says:
O gentlemen, the time of life is short!
To spend that shortness basely were too long,
If life did ride upon a dial’s point,
Still ending at the arrival of an hour.
The poet, Lisa Fishman has a poem (which I love) called:
“I have forgot the map”—Hotspur
Too quickly the fields unfolded
in the mind at the end of the palm
on the map in the lines of the palm
if life did ride upon a dial’s point
the name would not be a map
the map could not be refolded
there would be no map to forget
And if you don’t hear any more about my Shakespeare Project, just assume I am reading fifteen minutes a day and I hope to finish before the dial’s point arrives at the hour.