Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Pretty Orders Beginning

When I started contemplating this project, the order in which to read the works was the opening question. Several approaches came immediately to mind -- chronological, reverse chronological, tragedies-histories-comedies, chronological by setting, alphabetical, in order written, or even just randomly selected in some way. I did some poking around online, and came across a very thoughtful post at the excellent and comprehensive site The Shakespeare Standard suggesting an order for a new reader to tackle the plays. In essence, it suggests that the works be roughly divided into "earlier works" and "later works" and within those two buckets an order established that groups the plays thematically or, in the case of the histories, in the order of events. It suggests a new reader give herself a soft landing by starting with the most familiar plays, Romeo & Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream, but since those two are so familiar to me and I've read them recently, I'm going to use them to leaven that long slog through the histories. I may sprinkle the big poems and the sonnets around there too.

So here is the list. I am sure I will find reason to rejigger this from time to time, but at least I have a rough plan.

Much Ado About Nothing
Love's Labour's Lost 
The Two Gentlemen of Verona
The Comedy of Errors
The Taming of the Shrew
King John
Edward III (for kicks, I could stick Marlowe's Edward II before this)
Richard II
Henry IV, Part 1
The Merry Wives of Windsor
Henry IV, Part 2
Henry V
Henry VI
Richard III
Henry VIII
And before we exit that last run of 10 plays, we'll also do:
Romeo & Juliet
A Midsummer Night's Dream
The long poems
The sonnets
Titus Andronicus
The Merchant of Venice
Julius Caesar
Antony & Cleopatra
Twelfth Night
As You Like It
King Lear
All's Well That End's Well
Measure For Measure
Troilus & Cressida
The Two Noble Kinsmen
Timon of Athens
The Winter's Tale
The Tempest

And then I keel over.

* Today's title is brought to you courtesy of Measure for Measure, Act II, scene i.

Tongues in Trees*, or What is This All About, Anyway?

So I've decided I'm going to spend the next year(-ish) reading all of Shakespeare.

There, that's what it's all about. Thanks, don't forget to tip your waitress!

Oh, OK. The more detailed explanation goes something like this:

I loved Shakespeare from the time I was lucky enough to have a marvelous English teacher in high school, Mr. John Broza, whose enthusiasm for The Bard was boundless and infectious. If you take the even longer view, I think I may have loved Shakespeare from the time we read Romeo & Juliet in ninth grade English and we saw the entire Zeffirelli film in class, a feat probably impossible today, what with the post-adolescent bare buttocks and what have you.

Anyhoo. My exposure to great literature in high school, including Shakespeare, with teachers who loved and could really teach it, and who brought it alive off the page created a lifelong passion. Coupled with a passion since childhood for theater and things theatrical, I majored in theater and obtained a MFA in dramaturgy and dramatic criticism before, as my friend Seth's grandmother once perfectly put it, giving up the drama of the stage for the drama of the courtroom. That is, I went to law school, and proceeded to practice law for 17 years.

The theater bug never left me, and my shelves of drama books have been lovingly tended over the years, plays seen and read, filmed versions taken in (in small doses between falling asleep on the sofa, the curse of the mother of three with full time employment outside the home). I have obsessed over the brilliant Canadian TV series Slings & Arrows (more on this to come, I am sure), bought Shakespeare tales and Lego brick retellings for my children (more on these later, too). We've cooked a Shakespearean feast and filled long car drives with delicious arguments about how to cast King Lear with Warner Brothers cartoon characters or riffed on my friend Nicole's fantastic Star Trek/Midsummer mashup idea.

I didn't realize quite how much I missed real immersion in theater, dramatic literature, and Shakespeare it until I found myself exploring career options outside of law. After several years of soul-searching, I decided to become a teacher of theater, with plans to work with adolescents. I enrolled in a teacher certification program and was delighted to learn that a required course was "The Art of Teaching Shakespeare." I also spent a month of mornings doing fieldwork observation with a Waldorf School ninth grade class reading Iphigenia at Aulis and Romeo & Juliet. Encountering Romeo & Juliet again after not having read it for probably 30 years was revelatory. It's still, of course, one of the greatest stories of forbidden love ever told, but I was struck by how deeply I felt for the parental figures (including the Nurse and Friar Lawrence). At the same time, I've been working on and off for years on a novel adapted from A Midsummer Night's Dream, and similarly found myself less focused on the pairs of young lovers but on the themes of rebellion, parental control, and custody over children. What was so exciting was to experience how these master works continually reveal new richness and depth as I changed as a person and gained new life experiences.

I also realized how stale and rusty I was with what Shakespeare plays I'd read or seen in the past, and how many I'd never managed to read or see. It felt time to remedy that, and since I have stretching before me more than a year without paid employment (my career change is mapped to a bigger change in our family -- we are relocating to Vancouver, my husband's home town, where I will need to wait until I have appropriate permanent residency papers in order to get a job), what better time to take it on.

I'm going to set an order for planned reading, and I will post my thoughts here on what I read, as well as any other relevant stuff about Shakespeare, thinking about teaching Shakespeare, productions I see, wacky ideas I have for productions, Shakespeare-inspired reading, and the like. The deranged bureaucrat inside me will pressure me to think of this project as a failure if I do not follow the set order, take long breaks, skip past boring stuff, and so on. I intend to fight off that deranged bureaucrat with a stick. If this stops being fun and feels like work, or like the Shakespeare Blog Police will come and arrest me if I get bogged down, that will be the failure.

I hope, if any friends choose to follow this blog, that you will feel free to converse. Join in with all or part, if you feel like it! Let me know what you're reading and thinking and seeing! Enjoy!

* A word on the blog title -- The phrase comes from As You Like It, when the Duke and his party arrive in the Forest of Arden at the top of Act II and he extolls the pastoral life thusly:

And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in every thing.

I was hanging around before class with our instructor, Mark Kenny, and we both starting scanning through our Shakespeare text apps looking for something that might work as a title that wasn't Words, Words, Words. He found this, and it struck me as marvelously apropos, especially given my imminent departure for somewhat more natural environs. Poking around, I realized it introduces recurrent language in the play, and I look forward to exploring it later in the project. So thanks, Mark!