Tuesday, June 8, 2010

STL #95: How do you blog about Shakespeare?

So I've been reading my way through Shakespeare's plays in my spare time over the last year and a half. I started with the comedies, which took six months, then hopped to the end of my Riverside Shakespeare to read the romances (essentially his late, and less straightforwardly funny, comedies) over winter break. I began this year with a chronological reading of the histories (by time of the plot, not order of composition), and now am halfway through the tragedies. I haven't mentioned this reading here for two reasons: 1) I hardly write about anything here anymore; and 2) how do you blog about Shakespeare? The words "blog" and "Shakespeare" don't combine promisingly. One is ephemeral, imperfect and the other (rightly or wrongly) signifies the eternal and blotless. My posts are somewhat developed for an unaffiliated Internet poster (and I avoid the words blog and blogger), but it's hard to imagine myself writing anything that isn't cant and trite. Given my relative laziness (I'll read the plays and maybe the introduction in my edition, but have done no serious research) couple with a lack of training (by no means am I a Shakespearian scholar), what insight am I likely to bring? Instead, isn't it far more likely that I'll embarrass my anonymous self and mislead the legions of readers of this blog out there?

But my objections, that I'll embarrass myself or mislead my readers, are defeated in stating them: I do this anonymously, far from my professional life, and this forum remains in blessed obscurity. The reasons I keep returning to this space aren't entirely clear to me, but I think the following apply: it's a kind of r&d lab in which I might strike on something brilliant that I can develop and use elsewhere; it helps me figure out what I think about topics that matter to me; I remember things I write about much better than things I don't write about; it's fun, after a fashion.

Would writing about Shakespeare be so different than my adventures through Don Allen's "New American Poetry" anthology? You remember, dear reader, the epic run of STL #65-91, my dogged commentary on each poet included in that book. Half the time I was talking out of my ass, so why is it any different if the topic is Two Gentlemen of Verona rather than "A Supermarket in California"? Is it just because I don't need a footnote to explain what the setting is? My gigantic scholarly edition has those anyway. Using the lab framework, there isn't much difference, though I think I'm less likely to ever write anything formal about Shakespeare.

What would I gain by the writing? Primarily, the act of composition would help be regain what I've already started to lose-- a recall of the plays. Which one is Olivia? Is she in the one in Illyria? What was it Hamlet said to Osric (I just read that one, but I can't really remember) about his "bonnet"? Writing even a brief note on each play would help me reclaim it in my memory--and each note could be a gesture toward what I want to retain. But if I write as an aid to memory, what am I trying to reclaim? Or, to put this question another way, what did I hope to gain by the reading in the first place? That is not a question I can deal with here--the majority of my interior life is based on a reading regime which I continue on the faith that it enriches my life. But that remuneration can't continue if I forget the material, whatever its nature might be.

Two of my favorite modes of operare deliberation and codification. I love to decide in writing, and I love to establish rules for myself to follow. So having determined that I can proceed, the real question is how should I proceed? Since the reading project has encompassed the whole body of Shakespeare's drama, I'd like to touch on each play, if only briefly. Since I'm nearing the end, that suggests a retrospective: I'm late in the tragedies, but began early in the comedies. This might be a good opportunity to put the plays back together in a way different than I read them: in the (supposed) order of composition. I did begin reading with one Shakespeare's first plays, the "Comedy of Errors," but my reading order led to seeing how his comedy developed. What if I reconsidered the "Comedy" as the play between Richard III and Titus Andronicus? Not that I'm in any position to expansively synthesize themes--such things have been done before I'm sure. No, this reconsideration is simply to help me think about the plays again.

So I'll return through them in order of composition. To further the concept of this writing project as a reclamation for memory, each piece will focus on something I find worth remembering about the play in question--a scene, an insight, or some piece of language. I know that I want to commit some few lines to memory, so I'll start with Shakespeare's first words as a dramatist.

Henry VI, a three-part potboiler, starts with a series of speeches bemoaning the death of King Henry V, who Shakespeare will chronicle later in a far better play. Henry VI is a clunkly, obtuse play, but right from the beginning we can see the playwright's verbal gifts. The Duck of Bedford opens the play:

"Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!
Comets, importing change of times and states,
Brandish your crystal tresses in the sky,
And with them scourge the bad revolting stars
That have consented unto Henry's death.
King Henry the Fift, too famous to live too long!
England ne'er lost a king of so much worth."

Notice the sound patterns at play here--interlocking aspirant h and b in the first line, which introduces the liquid l that manifests in the l and r's holding together the middle lines. The kr of crystal turns around in the form of "scourge" which takes the returning b and a sequence of l and r's as its object. The rhetoric of the passage is interesting itself--using a astronomical sign to punish the engines of the fate, the "bad revolting stars" who are blamed for taking Henry V, and the fine line of saying not that Henry was the best king (and therefore better than the current king) but the best they have lost.

I'll let this happy beginning stand in for the entire trilogy. So having begun, I'll try to continue at a fairly rapid pace. Next week, I'll do address at least "Richard III" and "The Comedy of Errors."