Thursday, July 19, 2018

A Fast Hack to Shakespeare Knack

Zestful Blog Post #273

I often find myself, when talking to groups about writing, giving a particular piece of advice, and I’d like to mention it here:

If you read and well digest nothing of Shakespeare but the three main tragedies—Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth—you will have all you really need of the Bard. This of course is arguable. There are Shakespeare scholars who would consider what I just said blasphemy. Isn’t blasphemy a good old word? Aye, ’tis.

[my college-days editions, with crayoned prices…bastards always overcharged...]

You can argue for Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Richard III, and the popular comedies like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night. You can argue for any of his plays; I mean, the guy was a genius with words and stories. Personally, I find his comedies to be kind of tiresome, with all the mistaken identities and blind misunderstandings. They’re like lots of operas in that way, but without the great songs.

I’m talking about a hack that will educate you pretty damn well as to what Shakespeare was all about, and that will give you a solid grounding in what are considered by many to be his top three plays—as in most influential, most popular, most highly regarded by scholars and dramatists. So many cultural references come from those three tragedies I couldn’t even begin to do them justice. But off the top of my head:

“To be or not to be…” Hamlet
“Nothing will come of nothing…” Lear
“Out, damned spot! out, I say.” Macbeth

Ideally, you’ll read and study these plays via annotated versions, which will tell you things like what the hell a ‘chameleon’s dish’ is and what it’s supposed to mean. Right, that’s from Hamlet. Chameleons were thought to live on air, and thus there might be a pun on ‘heir’, involving a possible implication by Hamlet that he might not be entirely satisfied with the promise of succession to the throne. But others differ. You can start to see why Shakespeare is as heavily studied and interpreted and argued over as the Talmud, which makes it an endless source of interest. You can read and reread these plays and notice and learn new things every time. Then you can go to a Shakespeare festival and have the time of your life. Apart from that personal enrichment, whenever you’re in company talking about literature and the Bard comes up, you’ll have a good grounding and be able to contribute.

Part of my admiration for Shakespeare is his economy. He packs so much plot, character arc, and action into so few pages! My annotated copy of Hamlet is only 172 pages long! Lear is even shorter at 147! Macbeth shorter still at 100!

Now, I call this a fast hack, which is a relative term. Compared with skimming a couple of copies of People in the dentist’s waiting room, reading three Shakespeare plays is slow. But compared with reading all or most of his plays, reading these three is fast.

And there ya go. Are you a Shakespeare devotee? Tell us about your experiences with the work of the great Bard. To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

Before I go, I want to give a shout-out to pal and Zestful Blog follower and commenter Ona Marae, whose debut novel, Gum for Gracie, is available! 

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  1. LOVE Shakespeare. I sat in on a graduate class years ago and it is still one of my favorite classes (badminton was the other--but that's another story). I went to London this summer and The Globe was on my "must do" list. It's been on my bucket list since I went to Stratford-on-Avon in Canada.

    1. Oh, how cool! I do believe Shakespeare's favorite sport was badminton, BTW.

  2. Congratulations to Ona Marae on her debut novel! The first one is pretty amazing! Shakespeare is fascinating, since so many famous one-liners came from his plays.

  3. Where I live, local adult learning classes (Florida Atlantic University) offer Shakespeare! The professor makes each class a pure joy! There's about 150-200 students each time, no tests, no required reading, just entertainment & learning. Highly enjoyable.

    1. Wow, that sounds super cool, Pam. Good on ya for going.

  4. Be still my heart. My Shakespeare college prof was a Shakespearean actor. In a 3 credit class, he/we read all the plays & sonnets. Along the way met Dame Judith Anderson backstage while playing Hamlet who signed our programs. Why can't Shakespeare get away with the same slock as any RomCom? Give the guy a break, EZ. (Vast smile.) We're still breathing and trying to approach his genius.

    1. I can only imagine how cool it would be to have a Shakespearean actor be your prof. And I worship DJ Anderson. Worship her as Mrs. Danvers in 'Rebecca.'

  5. In grad school (1975-1977) I worked for Professor Richard Knowles at the U of Wisconsin who was editing the Variorum edition of King Lear. Variorum editions do a line by line comparison of all the editions of the work along with the critical history of that line.

    After almost six months on the job, you’d think I’d be tired of reading the play. Nope. One day I was at the part where Lear is holding the dead Cordelia in his arms. He says, “Never. Never. Never. Never. Never.”

    I was crying over that line (I always do—even now I’m misty!) when Professor Knowles walked in. “What’s the matter?” he asked with alarm.

    I looked up at him, tears streaming. “It’s just so sad.”

    Prof. Knowles told me that he tells students about this little episode if they ever ask, “Don’t you get tired of Shakespeare?”

    When I visited Prof. Knowles four years ago, he was going over the proofs of this 2000-page tome. I just checked on Amazon and the book has not yet been released for publication. That means that this Variorum project had taken over forty years to complete. Now that’s almost enough to bring tears to my eyes again!


    1. What. A. Story. Thanks so much for sharing it with us, Becky. I'm gonna tell it too (giving proper credit) when the occasion arises. And my God, I've got to save up for that book; I see it's $180 on Amazon. Imagine the gift it will be to the world's Shakespeare scholars.

  6. I think you and your readers would enjoy reading "Shakespeare in the Bush" by anthropologist Laura Bohannan. It's easily findable on line. I keep a copy on my computer so I can reread it without having to look for it. Each time I read it, it delights me.


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