Why would anybody read Shakespeare? This is a question I always ask myself whenever I open one of those world famous plays. Shouldn’t you just see them performed live on stage, or perhaps as a movie adaptation? Does reading those 400 year-old texts give you any pleasure?
For me, the pleasure in reading Shakespeare is biggest just before I start and directly upon finishing. Between those two moments – that is, during the actual reading – pleasure is sometimes hard to find. To help my imagination a little I usually speak all the lines out loud, which gets pretty exhausting after an hour or two. In order to catch some of the references I try to look at the footnotes on each page, but this makes it almost impossible to pick up any speed whatsoever. Besides, most footnotes explain the intended puns in the character’s wordplay, the humor of which I usually don’t care for. Then, there are these somewhat redundant comic relief scenes, necessary from a structural point of view – because an audience couldn’t stand three hours of non-stop tragedy – but difficult for a reader as they distract from the action and are not all that funny.
So again, why? Why did I just read Romeo and Juliet? Because, for me, there is great pleasure afterwards. Despite having seen a few Romeo and Juliet movies (Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet and the Jet Li version Romeo must die), I had never yet read Shakespeare’s original. Now that I have, I feel I appreciate all those other works that followed Romeo and Juliet better. This is still my main reason for reading Shakespeare. Know your basics, see where it all started, and immediately you will recognize more artists that somehow got their inspiration from Shakespeare.
Just keep going, follow the rhythm, skip footnotes, take the inevitable wordplay in your stride, enjoy the purple passages (such as the famous ‘To be or not to be’ speech); reading Shakespeare is possible. Possible to do and possible to enjoy. It takes some determination, but you get a lot in return. Nice lines like these, about Romeo in love:            

Mercutio:
“Alas poor Romeo, he is already dead, stabbed with
a white wench’s black eye, run through the ear with
a love song, the very pin of his heart cleft with the
blind bow-boy’s but-shaft.” (Act II, scene IV, ll. 13-16)

And, of course, Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene, which starts with the often-quoted “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? / It is the east and Juliet is the sun!” (Act II, scene II, ll. 2-3)
There was a lot of memorable material in Romeo and Juliet and the ending, well-known as it is, does take your breath away. I cannot say when will be the next time, but there will always be more Shakespeare for me to read. King Lear seems a good contender.

20 February 2013

Arden Shakespeare, 1980
Originally published 1596






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And so, inspired by Bryson, I did what I wanted to do: finally read one of the Shakespeare plays that have been waiting for years (ever since Steve's Shakespeare course actually). Almost read it in one sitting which took me a full day. Richard II is a tough one, but ultimately quite rewarding. Maybe I should read the whole Henriad now...? I could start with 1 Henry IV.

9 May 2010

 

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A gift from English book importer Van Ditmar and my first (finished) Bryson. Quite a plus, such an illustrated edition, with lots of portraits, sketches etcetera to make things go down smoothly. Rather a light book, but in a good way; I read it in a nice flow. Really makes me want to read Shakespeare again (which is too long ago!) and A Short history of nearly everything as well. Maybe an illustrated edition could help me finish it this time.

7 May 2010

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I read this in preparation for a Dutch production of the play, tonight, by Het Nationale Toneel. To appreciate a live version of Shakespeare, one should read the written version as well is my motto. I can see why this play rates high in the Gender ranking lists. What with all the cross-dressing, gender confusion etcetera. But besides that, it feels like a reshuffling of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Same sort of plot, confused characters and corny comedy. That is not such a bad thing though. I liked watching Midsummer, so I suppose I'll like watching As You Like It (although this one's in Dutch). These comedies usually work better live than written.

23 April 2008

Arden Shakespeare, 2002
Originally published 1623


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reading now


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