Month One [A Summary]

Travel Journal

The majority of this blog is dedicated to the project of reading all of Shakespeare’s works within the span of a single year. Every so often (the end of the month seems a good time), it’s important to stand back and survey the terrain covered thus far, to attempt to make sense of what I have learned about Shakespeare and his plays, but also – and equally important – to assess the impact (if any)doing so has had upon my life.

Attempting to tackle the entirety of Shakespeare’s canon is a bit like globetrecking or climbing Mount Everest. One assumes that the view from the top will be life-changing, that the process of leaving home and setting off on the adventure will exert an influence akin to a junior year abroad, a gap year in Africa or sailing around the world.  But is that assumption accurate?

It could just be another dumb cliché in my own head, an easy metaphor ripe for debunking. So it’s important to take notes from the road, to stay honest, alert, and focused. I must continually ask questions honestly and confess whether or not all this effort is worth it. Is the experience fun? Enlightening? Does it change the way I write or view the world? Would I recommend it to others?

As I type this, a month has passed since the start of the new year and the launch of this endeavor. I have finished three plays at this point: Othello, Titus Andronicus and Richard III. In doing so, I have discovered my woeful lack of knowledge regarding English history and succession – a weakness I plan to remedy in February with one of The Great Courses (more on that later).

Looking back, I had a few options about how to map out the trip: a) strictly chronological regardless of genre b) thematic c) chronological within genre d) random, willy-nilly, whatever I felt like tackling. I decided to launch with Othello, the greatest play by reputation that I had never read before, and followed it with Titus, Shakespeare’s earliest tragedy, following up with Richard III, a tragic history I vaguely remembered from high school.

That sequencing was not the best. Yet the plays have much in common, strong villains being the primary. Othello set the bar tremendously high. Titus proved a gruesome yet strangely rewarding task – teaching me to observe that Shakespeare’s true intentions might not be plainly obvious. And Richard III walloped me with the realization that a grounding in basic English history would serve me well, especially with many more historical plays to follow.

What I like so far: Shakespeare’s language is becoming more familiar, less daunting while increasing its impressiveness (if that’s possible) with time and practice. I check the footnotes less often, intuit a meaning from context that often turns out to be accurate enough. I have learned that Shakespeare tailored his dialogue to individual characters, whereas before I naively assumed he wrote…I don’t know…”Shakespeare-ese.” His craft has become much more noticeable, how he condensed character and time to fit the 5-act structure. His flare for drama and conflict is pronounced. He was a consummate showman. His scenes never bore, advancing the plot, setting a mood or deepening a character. Every role leaps off the page or stage in 3-dimensions. Personalities such as Iago, Aaron, Desdemona, Titus and Richard III become iconic, metaphorical and utterly unforgettable. They each sound unique, act distinctly, represent a quadrant of soul set apart with their own tone and timbre such as members of my own family and friends. Shakespeare is a genius in manifest ways that I have only begun to explore.

What I don’t like: the scope and scale of the tragedy thus far. I am done with murder and treachery, ready to move on to the comedies, romances, the sonnets – anything with a little promise of happiness. I also am not thrilled with my own ignorance about history and context. As the saying goes, the more I learn, the less I know. But it’s also important to remind myself that this process has just started. I must allow myself room to breathe, to expand, to absorb, to develop. Associations will come. The context will gradually fill in. No matter how stupid I may feel at any one moment in time, the experience as a whole is deeply enriching my life.

Three plays in one month creates a nice pace, on schedule but overall slightly behind where I need to be to complete my year’s sojourn on time. I will have to make up ground and February should provide ample opportunity, since the comedies are shorter, lighter and breezier than the histories and tragedies. Love shall prove a suitable theme around Valentine’s day. I look forward to Love’s Labor’s Lost most of all, a play that I have never attempted before. Taming of the Shrew, on the other hand, is one of my all-time favorites.

I recently received a copy of The Sources of Shakespeare’s Plays by Kenneth Muir which will get added to the repertoire in February. It traces Shakespeare’s development as a writer, based upon how he adapted background materials. This should help quench my yearning desire to understand Shakespeare’s apprenticeship and mastery as a playwright.

I continue to make progress in Shakespeare: the Biography and Will in the World. I have also begun a Great Courses program by Peter Saccio called: “Shakespeare: Comedies, Histories and Tragedies” available HERE.

Yet the more resources I bring to bear, the more highly I value the St. John’s credo of reading each text for myself. It may sound overly romanticized or too Dead Poet Society for some people’s liking, but the real joy comes from the direct encounter with each play, the excitement generated by not knowing what’s about to happen. Like travel, nobody can do the hard work for you. Nor can they convey what the authentic, first-hand experience is like.

So get out there. Set forth. Pick up a play or attend one. Join Audible. Start your own journey somewhere and then follow through. This blog will serve as a companion. But Shakespeare will always be our guide.

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