June 22, 2012

The Shakepeare Project Act 1 Sc 1

Tags: , , , , , ,

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.( 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

O gentlemen

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.




Leave a Reply