Archive for the Monthly Summary Category

Month Three: A Summary

Posted in Monthly Summary on 2014/03/31 by mattermind

After month two, I confessed to experiencing a bit of “Shakespeare fatigue.”  I had been hitting the material hard, coming at it from as many different angles as possible.  The downside? My own writing suffered and I felt conflicted, wanting to produce my best efforts on both fronts.

Now, at month three, I feel refreshed.  A major decision to pursue the historical plays in chronological order, rather than the order in which Shakespeare wrote them, has turned out to be transformational.  My eyes have been opened in particular to England in the middle ages and the development from feudalism to the Renaissance.

In the coming days, I will update my progress on Shakespeare’s biographies.  I’m excited about starting Henry IV and pushing on toward the sonnets, poems and major tragedies to come.  I’m only one quarter of the way through the year.  There is much work – as well as a major celebration – on the near horizon.

The biggest impact Shakespeare has had on me personally is to change the way I view drama, whether it be on stage, in movies or on TV.  I’m a lot harder to please, I think.  Some might even say cranky.  I can’t help but compare what I encounter to Shakespeare – and of course the majority of that will wind up lacking.  I have unwittingly set the bar ever higher, just because Shakespeare has become an everyday phenomenon in my life.  I brush my teeth thinking about Othello or Titus or Richard II.  I go to sleep with thoughts of Desdemona.  It’s hard to all of a sudden just let that go.

As I noted previously, Shakespearean language becomes more familiar even when the exact meaning of archaic expressions remains elusive.  I bother with footnotes less, depend on context to provide the gist and continue reading.  There are times when I need to parse a phrase or delve into research material to explicate a contextual reference; that’s because Shakespeare draws from such a wide pool of knowledge and employs a vaster working vocabulary than any other writer who ever lived.  He invents words, spins them in novel phrases with metaphorical and poetical panache.  I scramble to make sense of much of it.  But on the whole I feel freer to savor sounds as if basking in a foreign language or sitting by a babbling brook.  Somehow the overall meanings manage to trickle through.

I seldom doubt whether the project has personal significance, but I have become skeptical whether the blog makes any sort of difference to others.  That makes it hard sometimes to stake out the necessary time and space to give each entry my all.  I wanted the positive pressure of committing to a daily task with public accountability on a highly-visible blog…but I failed to grasp how even that might not prove incentive if nobody shows up to read what I’ve done.

That’s not the internet’s fault.  I simply haven’t produced content that people care about.  Maybe that means I need to rethink my strategy.  Or maybe it’s the format.  Or it could be my voice.  I don’t know exactly.  It’s another barrier I have to push through.

I care a lot.  Maybe I get too wrapped up on whether what I’m doing is connecting to others.  I get excited when people plug in and we share a virtual connection through Shakespeare’s words.  I wish sometimes that I had set the whole year aside for only Shakespeare.  That would be my advice to anybody considering a similar project: take the entire 365 days and turn it into a book or documentary or diary.  Don’t add it to whatever else you have going on or you may find yourself pressed from two many competing priorities.  Shakespeare demands the best of our intellect and our passion.  Doing this halfheartedly is almost worse than not bothering at all.

Here’s to the next quarter, I guess.  Spring has sprung.  One more month and I begin the sonnets, poems and Romeo and Juliet!


Month Two [A Summary]

Posted in Monthly Summary on 2014/02/28 by mattermind

As month two comes to a close, I’m beginnning to experience my first bout of “Shakespeare fatigue.”  I have never concentrated so hard on one writer.  And though he’s well worth the time and effort, there are days when I feel overwhelmed.

I’m also slightly behind schedule.  I need to keep a three-play-per-month pace to have a chance at reading all 38 plays within the year.  As of today, I have barely begun my 6th.  Luckily, it happens to be a fairly breezy one: Two Gentlemen of Verona.

With two months now under my belt, I’m starting to get a better sense not only about what the project is taking out of me, but what it’s more than giving back.  For example, I am shocked by how much I have learned about English history in preparation for the history plays.  It feels like an education unto itself, over and above the associations with Shakespeare.  Now when I hear the names Alfred the Great or Richard Lionheart, I perk up and look forward to knowing more about them.  Beowulf, the Song of Roland, tales of King Arthur and courtly love poetry have a whole new context and meaning for me.  It may sound silly, but I feel wiser in the best sense that education provides.  If for no other reason, this decision has already proven worthwhile.

There are days when I realize that I’m writing to the wind – soliloquizing, essentially – by keeping this odd public diary.  But the discipline is having an effect on my other writing.  A daily blog forces me to be on point and a lot less fussy about getting my work out there.

As for Shakespeare himself, I have learned much about his personal life thanks to the biographies by Peter Ackroyd and Stephen Grenblatt.  I have read far less criticism than I anticipated.  Isaac Asimov remains my primary resource for background material and should prove crucial through the history stretch.

I understand that what I’m doing won’t interest Shakespeareans and has little interest for the public at large.  I stand utterly in no man’s land, a neophyte bumbling his way through the catalog of the greatest writer of all time.

Be that as it may.  I must steel myself for the down periods.  This adventure is akin to sailing solo around the world.  At times the thrill of the challenge holds me spellbound.  But in dark moments I wonder what possessed me to leave home on such a fool’s errand.

I stare into some of the later plays like Cymbeline and the Tempest and shudder.  I am still too green, too unworthy, too unready to ascend their towering peaks.  Maybe by then I’ll feel differently.  For now, there is the immediate work at hand.

In the end, the journey is all.  I won’t know how Shakespeare changed me until I have completed the trip.  And there’s still a long, long way left to go.


The histories are nigh.  One more comedy, then into the breach I go.

Month One [A Summary]

Posted in Monthly Summary with tags , , , on 2014/02/01 by mattermind

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.