Thursday, November 01, 2007

Up to My Armpits in the Bard

I've been taking an on-line Shakespeare class, and the pace is extremely fast. We read a play a week, and write a paper bi-weekly (i.e., one half of the class writes on one play one week, the other half on the next play the next week). So far, we have read Much Ado About Nothing, Richard III, Henry IV, Part One, and Macbeth. Every one, with the exception of the Scottish play, has been an absolute pleasure, and I think my favorite to date is Richard III. I found it unremittingly hilarious.

Of course, since I am nothing if not obsessive when on the trail of a new, enriching study, I have been steeping myself in other Bard-ish delights when not reading his plays. I have read Bill Bryson's excellent and compact contribution to the Eminent Lives Series by Atlas Books, Shakespeare: The World as Stage. First of all, Mr. Bryson is a writer in whose work I almost always delight. Should you wish to treat yourself at some time and haven't yet done this, I want to encourage you to read any or all of A Walk in the Woods, In a Sunburned Country, or The Mother Tongue. Then, proceed on to his other books, and stop when you've enjoyed them all. But, do try to spread them out -- my father OD'd a year or two ago, and now he is uninterested in reading Bryson's Shakespeare bio. That is a shame, because it captures so succinctly the mystery and magic of the Man from Stratford (and, no, Bryson does not buy into any of the anti-Stratfordian garbage -- his final chapter of this book is dedicated to putting those loonies (one of whom was named "Looney") in their proper place: the fringes). Bill Bryson was a good fit for writing this biography, because his authorial voice is just about perfect: humorous, inquisitive, reflective, and not at all worshipful, mystical or academic. What a readable book! If you are interested in getting an overview of Shakespeare that you can read in about a day, you will, almost without one doubt, value this book.

Another Shakespeare book that I've just started and that promises to be a great ride is Becoming Shakespeare by Jack Lynch. This is a story of his afterlife -- that is, it tells the fascinating tale of how (from the introduction) "Shakespeare, the provincial playwright and theatre manager [turned into] Shakespeare, the universal bard at the heart of English culture." I'll be burning the itty-bitty booklight to finish this one.

A Shakespeare book that I picked up at the same time as the two previously mentioned but will return to B&N as soon as I can is Filthy Shakespeare by Pauline Kiernan. I had purchased it without looking it over thoroughly because a) rarely have I found a book with no redeeming qualities, b) I like a bawdy romp through Elizabethan and Jacobean sensibilities and protocols as much as the next girl, and c) how bad could it be? Well, it's pretty bad. Jason laughed at my disappointment and said, "What in the world did you expect from a book called Filthy Shakespeare?" A fair question, and the answer, I guess, is that I was expecting something more, well, subtle and witty and British than what simply reads as crude and artless attempt to shock. Ms. Kiernan is a Shakespeare scholar, and I certainly am not, but I just wasn't buying every sexual pun she cited. She couldn't convince me that other interchanges in the plays were quite so graphic as she claimed. Wm. Shakespeare was certainly sly and multi-layered, and not above heating things up on stage with naughty bits for the delight and appeasement of the groundlings, but, it's hard to imagine that he could have gotten anywhere with the plots had he spent so much time churning out the sex jokes. So, back to B&N it goes -- the first time in my life I have ever returned a book because I did not like it.

I'm off to read Othello!

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