By Dennis Abrams
As Harold Bloom insists, if not Shakespeare, who else? He is at the very center of the canon, and Western literature is unimaginable without him. But I suspect it is for that very reason that he becomes not “William Shakespeare the most popular playwright the world has ever known” but “Shakespeare” a seemingly unapproachable writer whose characters “talk funny;” a writer who is great because the powers that be have decided that he is great. I’m afraid that as is often the case with so-called classic authors, that readers, Virginia Woolf’s “common reader,” has lost sense of what made him great in the first place.
From Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon:
“There is a substance in Shakespeare’s work that prevails and has proved multicultural, so universally apprehended in all languages as to have established a pragmatic multiculturalism around the globe, one that already far surpasses our politicized fumblings toward such an ideal. Shakespeare is the center of the embryo of a world canon, not Western or Eastern and less Eurocentric; and so again I am thrown back to the great question: What is the singular excellence of Shakespeare, the difference in kind as well as in degree from all other writers?
Shakespeare’s command of language, though overwhelming, is not unique and is capable of imitation. Poetry written in English becomes Shakespearean frequently enough to testify to the contaminating power of his high rhetoric. The peculiar magnificence of Shakespeare is in his power of representation of human character and personality and their mutabilities.”
To which I have to agree.
Bloom added this in his book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human:
“His few peers – Homer, the Yahwist, Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Tolstoy, perhaps Dickens – remind us that the representation of human character and personality remains always the supreme literary value, whether in drama, lyric, or narrative. I am naïve enough to read incessantly because I cannot, on my own, get to know enough people profoundly enough.”
And with that, I am happy to announce the official launch of The Play’s The Thing. Beginning on the 21st and proceeding over the next year (more or less) we’ll be reading, in roughly chronological order (I say roughly because there is some question of the order in which some of the early plays were written), the plays of William Shakespeare:
The Two Gentlemen of Verona
The Taming of the Shrew
Henry VI Part 1
Henry VI Part 2
Henry VI Part 3
The Comedy of Errors
Love’s Labour’s Lost
Romeo and Juliet
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The Merchant of Venice
Henry IV Part 1
Henry IV Part 2
The Merry Wives of Windsor
Much Ado About Nothing
As You Like It
Troilus and Cressida
Measure for Measure
All’s Well That Ends Well
Timon of Athens
Antony and Cleopatra
The Winter’s Tale
Henry VII (All Is True)
The Two Noble Kinsmen
We’ll examine them from every angle possible – language, plot, and for me, most importantly, character. We’ll study Shakespeare’s development as a writer. We’ll look at the history of each play’s production to learn how every age has interpreted it. We’ll look at the films they have inspired, and the works that inspired the plays. But most of all, we’re going to have a great time reading some of the greatest works of literature ever written.
A little about me and Shakespeare. Like many of you, my first experience with Shakespeare was in high school, reading Julius Caesar, an experience dreadful enough to turn me off any further reading for years. (WHY do schools insist on using Julius Caesar, a good play but one that seems to consist mostly of Romans making speeches at each other, as an introduction to Shakespeare? Wouldn’t something like A Midsummer Night’s Dream be a better place to start?) By the time I got through with college I had recovered enough to start reading the plays on my own, and I’d venture to say that by now I’ve read most of the plays at least twice (some of my favorites, King Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Measure for Measure, Antony and Cleopatra, Henry IV 1 and 2, As You Like It…numerous times), while admitting to having never read All’s Well That Ends Well, Timon of Athens, Pericles, or A Winter’s Tale.
Am I an expert? Hardly. And that is why I hope that this exploration of Shakespeare’s works becomes a dialogue among all of us, and not just a monologue by me. Post your questions and opinions, challenge my statements and opinions, question each other. Respond to my posts and I’ll respond back as quickly as possible. Promise.
I plan to post a minimum of three days a week: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, especially for the early plays. (When we get to some of the histories and tragedies, I’ll undoubtedly be posting more often.) In each day’s post, I’ll provide a brief synopsis of what we’ve just read, my take on points of interest in the text as well as whatever insights I’m able to bring, plus the insights of some of the greatest Shakespearean critics and scholars of all time. Figuring out the reading pace might take me a few tries — right now I’m figuring, depending on the play and its length, 1-2 acts every 2-3 days. Please let me know as we go along whether the pace is too fast, too slow, or just right.
So let me begin the discussion with these questions: What brings you to the site? What’s your previous experience been reading Shakespeare? What makes you want to read him now? What would you like to see me do in my posts?
The ball is in your court.
Coming Sunday afternoon: Who wrote Shakespeare?