Reading Shakespeare

When it comes to reading, I am definitely what you might call a completionist, and I’ve had the goal of reading every one of Shakespeare’s plays since I was in college. Haven’t made much progress, honestly. This has mostly resulted in me reading, seeing, and studying the ones I like over and over, and saying “fuck it” on anything that would require me to think hard or study. Which, like…that’s just fucking ridiculous. They’re plays. They’re short, compared with novels. And I understand that I have this psychotic thing about “saving” works for when I deserve them, but fuck that, that’s insane. That’s just obviously insane and you can (and should) read things more than once,1  because I never get works of depth the first time, so what does it matter if I fail to get it now, or fail to get it later? In fact, better to start failing now, right? Save time later?

Anyway, the thing that really turned my focus to this is that I finally “got” King Lear in a way I hadn’t before. Somewhere between that Ian McKellan version and the one I saw in Stratford earlier this year, something clicked for me and it made emotional rather than analytical sense. Like, I can appreciate a lot of plays I read, especially comedies, because watching the mechanisms of comedy is always interesting. But I’m pretty sure I didn’t “get,” for example, Julius Caesar until I read it recently because I straight up just didn’t care.

But anyway, to veer towards what this post is actually supposed to be about,2 I’m slightly cheating because I am, in fact, listening to Shakespeare and not reading the plays.

I listen to a lot of audiobooks. I love audiobooks. My favorite thing is to be read to. Absolutely. And normally, I think listening to an audio version is at least as good as reading the story yourself on the page, if not better. I have a lot of voices for fiction, and I use them in my head. The way I read, for example, Don’t Point That Thing At Me, is totally different from how I read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.3 I’m ok with accepting the emphasis of a performer, because I have enough practice to sort out text from performer.

Not so, with plays. I absolutely am guilty of conflating the text of Shakespeare with how I’ve seen it performed. And what I’m interested in is the text, not the performance, which is why I’m not watching those excellent recordings from the RSC.4

Listening to Shakespeare is kind of a nice middle ground between seeing it staged and reading it on the page, but it has its problems. So much of theater is actor choice, and I worry that what I’m really getting accustomed to is ways of performing Shakespeare, not the language itself.

Of course, on stage is where most people will have experienced Shakespeare, so why am I avoiding it? Because when something is that central to literature, you really only have one chance to see it blind of references. And I really wanted to “get it” without hearing it performed, because that so impacts your internalization of it. I feel like you have two choices if you want to have an authentically “you” understanding of the play: examine many shades of the same play in many productions, or read it yourself deeply (at least) once.

I definitely still feel like I’m doing this “wrong” from a proper academic standpoint but at this point, I’m not really willing to wait to find out what doing it “right” would look like for me. Life’s too short. So, anyway, that’s what I’m working on right now as a side project.

nah, we’re too old for this shit
  1. This policy doesn’t quite explain the astounding number of times I’ve read The Time Traveler’s Wife, because I’m pretty sure I got it the first time, I’m just a sucker for that book.
  2. NAILING these segues. Am I the only person who genuinely thought that word was spelled like the two wheeled vehicle?
  3. Basically random examples sitting near me. But man, Don’t Point That Thing At Me has some serious voice.
  4. Alexander Street Press has a lot of these for some reason, if you have access to a library.