“I am naive enough to read incessantly because I cannot, on my own, get to know enough people profoundly enough.”

Why Shakespeare?

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

Titus Andronicus

Henry VI Part 1

Henry VI Part 2

Henry VI Part 3

Richard III

The Comedy of Errors

Love’s Labour’s Lost

Romeo and Juliet

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Richard II

King John

The Merchant of Venice

Henry IV Part 1

Henry IV Part 2

The Merry Wives of Windsor

Much Ado About Nothing

Henry V

Julius Caesar

As You Like It

Hamlet

Twelfth Night

Troilus and Cressida

Measure for Measure

Othello

All’s Well That Ends Well

Timon of Athens

King Lear

Macbeth

Antony and Cleopatra

Pericles

Coriolanus

Cymbeline

The Winter’s Tale

The Tempest

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?

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30 Responses to “I am naive enough to read incessantly because I cannot, on my own, get to know enough people profoundly enough.”

  1. Here’s my short intro about me and Shakespeare: When I read it for the first time It was in Spanish (Romeo and Juliet If I remember correctly) as as soon as I could then graduated to The Tempest (English version) and it blew me away.
    I want to read him now with you all because I’m a really disperse reader and lack structure so this is a great opportunity to enjoy and learn from diverse points of view.
    Eager and ready.

  2. Catherine says:

    Wow! I’m excited like a five-year-old ready for kindergarten. Hope I’m up for the challenge — sounds like quite a reading list. Thanks to Dennis I made it through Proust and Dostoyevsky so hope that qualifies me for Shakespeare. My previous experience is limited to the unappealing high school class similar to the mentioned, attending a few plays in which I understood little, and reading some fiction based on Shakespeare – adult, teen and youth fare.

  3. I forget from whence I came to your site, Twitter most likely. I have been reading Shakespeare on my own after reading Dan Simmons discuss the importance of reading him, along with mentioning Bloom’s fascination with him. I am in the process of becoming a writer and feel it necessary to know Shakespeare through and through.

    I’ve read Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, Macbeth, Hamlet and The Tempest, but of these feel than I only know Romeo and Juliet well, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream so-so.

    I find myself in awe of Shakespeare, and honestly enjoy reading him.

    I simply want to read along with someone who a) also actually enjoys reading him, instead of thinking it a chore and b) can teach me something about his works.

  4. Louise says:

    Are we opting for a particular edition of Shakespeare? They vary, and I want a script with good notes. I am lucky enough to live in London and see amazing Shakespeare performances on a regular basis (most recently Ralph Fiennes in The Tempest, but Propeller Theatre Co still the best in the world). In a performance the actors are helping you interpret the script; in reading I’ll need some help!

    Looking forward to it.

    • Luise:

      I’m going to be using the Pelican Shakespeare, but feel free to use any edition you’d like. I plan on posting a bit about the publishing history of the plays (Quartos, Folio and the like) next week. And I have to say I’m jealous that you live in London and have the ability to see great Shakespeare productions and performances on a regular basis. How was Fiennes?

      Dennis

  5. It seems my comment got lost. Here I go again:

    My experience with Shakespeare is in Spanish. The first text I read in English some years ago was The Tempest but I never went back to the plays. I somehow remember reading Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Hamlet and parts of Henry IV. I want to read it along you guys because I am a very disperse reader and need structure and schedule.

    Also, do you recommend any ebook version of the texts? I’m in Chile and can’t get the originals in physical format.

    Eager and almost ready!

    • Chile? Wow. OK, recommended ebook version. I was looking at what’s available at Amazon (I don’t know what kind of ereader you have), and while the free complete versions are OK, none of the seem to be annotated or have notes on the more obscure words or usages of words — they’ll work, but if you go that route I suggest having a dictionary at hand (or keep a list and ask questions on this thread.) I’m not sure what’s available for you there, but if you can swing it, the pay editions (the only one I’d avoid is the Oxford Shakespeare) have more of the tools you need.

  6. Being old, I forget how I got here, but I’m glad I did. I have The Norton Facsimile of The First Folio of Shakespeare to follow. I must say the f-shaped ‘s’ takes one aback when coming across the word ‘suck’. Any way, I’m old, write children’s fantasies, love Willie the Shakes, and look forward to the dance.

  7. I’m really looking forward to joining this group in reading Shakespeare. I currently work for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford Ontario, Canada and so live with Shakespeare on a daily basis. I’ve seen most shows performed but have never really taken the time to read through all the plays in this particular order. I’m excited to see what everyone has to say about each script and how it speaks to each of us.
    I believe this game up in one of my Shakespeare searches that happen on a daily basis. Really looking forward to reading along with every and participating in the discussion.
    Aaron

  8. Suzanne Parke says:

    I’m a voice teacher for drama school students so my interest is in the storytelling. I’ve heard a lot of Shakespeare, and I’m always blown away at how deep one can dig with a piece of Shakespearean text to bring it alive to the ear. I’m really looking forward to reading the texts and would love it if technology permitted us to have a go at speaking it to each other as well.
    Suzanne Parke

  9. Sally Padley says:

    Dennis, this is major! I love that you’re going to do this and will dip in and out as I am able. After taking students to the Stratford, Ont. Shakespeare Festival for seventeen years, I hope I’ve contributed to an appreciation of many of the plays. This summer I was lucky to visit England and see “As You Like It” at the Globe and visit Stratford and Shakespeare’s birthplace. Am still teaching (Creative Writing at KVCC) and frequently refer to some of the plays to emphasize points about characters and the enduring quality of his language.

    • Sally:

      As you might recall, I was with you on one of those visits to Stratford — we saw Brian Bedford in “Richard III” — and wasn’t Maggie Smith in it as well? So yes, I can say that you contributed to my appreciation of his plays.

      Dennis

  10. artmama says:

    My first encounter with Shakespeare was probably high school English class, and it was “Troilus and Cressida.” It was totally forgettable. The next time was a college production of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and I did the costumes. That helped to make Shakespeare real for me. In recent years my family and I have enjoyed numerous productions of our favorites “Much Ado About Nothing,” “Romeo and Juliet,”and “As You LIke It.” I look forward to learning about the broad range of works.

  11. Helene says:

    Dennis, thanks so much for this! I am still reading Proust: book 4 now and following the June posts on your cork-lined room website. The Penguin version of Shakespeare’s work is on its way via Amazon and I am really looking forward to reading it together with you and everyone else here. My reading experience of Proust has been greatly enhanced through your questions and comments. I especially appreciate the secondary literature and analysis that you present for us as well as your personal comments on what you have read. I have read and enjoyed a few of Shakespeare’s plays and of course am aware of his very high status among critics, writers and readers in general. This is a great project!

  12. Chris Tebow Smith says:

    I had a tepid, spotty education and though I read constantly, I haven’t read anything more challenging than a well-written mystery (which I don’t even try to solve anymore) in years. I want to prove to myself that I can do it, that my mind isn’t completely mush. I have long wanted to to really read and experience Shakespeare, not just fake it. My experience with Shakespeare is largely from high school, famous snippets, and – alas and alack – movies. What a great idea this is!

  13. My high school English teacher, 1955 to 1959, did such a thorough job eviserating Shakespeare’s plays, especially Julius Caesar and Taming of the Shrew, that I did not reacquaint myself with Shakespeare until I discovered the University of Texas Shakespeare plays at the “barn” in Winedale, Texas. It should be illegal for high school English teachers to even mention Shakespeare.

    I have found many sources for his plays with commentaries on-line using the simple Google search for free shakespeare plays.

    Now if I can decipher the “Follow” procedure I will join the journey.

  14. MG says:

    I was supremely fortunate to have as a high school English teacher the fabulous (before it was OK to be fabulous, if you catch my drift) Reggie Schwander. He did in fact introduce us to Shakespeare with “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and I was off and running. The BawdyBard has since been a great favorite of mine, although I have not devoted much time consistently. Whenever I had an option of taking a class in Shakespeare instead of some more tepid English comp or lit, I did so.
    I have been Robin Goodfellow many times for Halloween; Lady MacBeth is my favorite ever guilt-ridden evil mastermind; Iago my favorite ever incomprehensible sociopath. I have missed them all.
    Years (nay, decades) later, it is past time that I should come back and start in again. So I was delighted to see an article about your blog in the Houston Chronicle column of Lisa Gray.
    I am totally planning on having a fabulous time!

  15. Lesley says:

    My first jewelry box, a Christmas gift, played “The Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet” aka “A Time For Us” which I suppose was my first impression of Shakespeare a’la a music box version of a score for a Zeffirelli flowery production. It was several years later when the actual movie came to our town and a group of us teenie bops went to the show. Love, impossible love, was my first impression of Shakespeare, which prompted both dramatic exits and deep yearnings. A filmed view, not a staged view.

    Besides Zeffirelli, my only early contact with Shakespeare were several dog-eared paperbacks on our family bookshelf. I opened MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING once or twice but I didn’t like having to read so many footnotes to comprehend what I was reading. Shakespeare, along with THE HOLY BIBLE and SILAS MARNER went back on the shelf. None held my interest as a young reader.

    Otherwise, my only direct reading of Shakespeare was in high school. Sophmore year was JULIUS CEASAR in the fall and MACBETH in the spring. Senior year was HAMLET. Of the three, MACBETH was my favorite. My enjoyment came more from the discussion than from the actual reading.

    I haven’t formally revisited the texts since high school, but it is difficult to completely avoid Shakespeare. If one reads or watches movies, or even if one doesn’t; Shakespeare is everywhere. In recent times, I’ve purchased several of the plays: THE TEMPEST; LOVE’S LABOR LOST; OTHELLO; and, most recently, KING LEAR–all of which were prompted by some other reference. I also bought a used copy of Harold Bloom’s tome, a few years ago, when I kept “bumping” into Shakespeare. These purchases indicate a late budding interest in actually reading Shakespeare. Maybe at 50, I am finally ready to take him on.

    It is my hope that my trepidation will cease, and that my appreciation for reading Shakespeare will blossom. If not I hope to learn from the wise readers among us.

    • Leslie: That is a very cool story about the jewelry box. And…give it (and him) a chance, and I can almost guarantee that your trepidation will cease, and your appreciation for reading Shakespeare will blossom.

  16. Mohsen says:

    Hope it’s not too late for me to reply to this post.
    Just like many of you, my first introduction to Shakespeare was in high school. It was Hamlet. Since then my experiences with Shakespeare have been mostly just talks about reading his work, and not much else. So now I’m going to take advantage of this opportunity and learn as much as I can with you guys.

  17. lxp says:

    Like Dennis, I was tortured by Julius Caesar in high school. The injuries were so bad that I ignored Shakespeare in college. My conversion took place one summer in 1982 when my boyfriend and I were on vacation and were driving back to London. As we passed Stratford, I suggested we stop and take a look around. Since there was a Saturday matinee, we impulsively went to the theater and found that tickets were available for Much Ado. I shrugged – why not and in we went. Well, it was great. At intermission, I was chafing for the play to begin again. For the first time I experienced the fun, the language, the beauty, the wisdom of Shakespeare and have not looked back. BTW, Derek Jacobi and Sinead Cusack played Beatrice and Benedict. Since then, my own Shakespeare project has grown over the years. I look forward to rereading the plays I already know and to reading the ones that I have not yet read – like Two Gentlemen.

    • lxp: 1. I’m glad you’re going to be with us. 2. I’m VERY jealous that you saw Derek Jacobi (who is now a leading anti-Stratfordian by the way) and Sinead Cusack in Much Ado. I’m guessing it was a tremendous experience.

      Dennis

  18. Pingback: Reading Shakespeare Together Online: The Plays the Blog | The Great Books Summer Program

  19. Kira says:

    In terms of language and poetry, Homer equals Shakespeare, perhaps in human condition the old Greek equals the Bard, the advantage of Shakespeare is his unsurpassed range, he could play matters more than any other writer (ancient or modern as Tolstoy remembered), I would say that the comparison of Shakespeare to Homer and Dante is that both are very high lines in graphics, but the line of Shakespeare has more width.

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