Reading Shakespeare again for the very first time
A decade ago this month, to begin the new year, I challenged myself to read, or in some cases re-read, one work of Shakespeare every month.
Prithee, why surrender myself to such a gloomy and gnarled courtship? Leave the past in prologue, you say. Bid adieu, good riddance, Sirrah. Do not the Ides of March come but once in a life? Then give me leave to accept what’s done is done.
Blah blah blah. I’d had enough of the oft-quoted and language-defying Bard of Avon in high school. So why, indeed, put myself through such torture?
The only reason I can offer: I felt was finally ready.
Back in my youth, the Bard of Avon had been part of a broad category of books I should have read but didn’t, or did read but with so little regard for what was in them I might just as well have never cracked the cover. Many of the books making that list back then were written by authors I have still not yet warmed to—Dickens, Hawthorne, Beckett. Others were novels—All Quiet on the Western Front, Catcher in the Rye, The Death of Ivan Ilyich—which fall into the category of should be read but later in life, once age and experience make them more relatable.
My own reading in those days tended to not stray far from the subjects of nightmares, espionage, occasionally a dragon, and certainly a cowboy or two, which is to say that it was not necessarily bad reading—and definitely not not reading—it just wasn’t exactly life changing (with one exception, The Thorn Birds, around which I centered the speech I gave at my Highschool graduation, because how can you not be moved upon encountering that romantic saga?!).
For those interested, click here to read the legend of the bird that sings just once in its life and then tell me you don't feel it, too:
There is a legend about a bird which sings just once in its life, more sweetly than any other creature on the face of the earth. From the moment it leaves the nest it searches for a thorn tree, and does not rest until it has found one. Then, singing among the savage branches, it impales itself upon the longest, sharpest spine. And, dying, it rises above its own agony to out-carol the lark and the nightingale. One superlative song, existence the price. But the whole world stills to listen, and God in His heaven smiles. For the best is only bought at the cost of great pain.... Or so says the legend.
The quote that follows, however, is more pertinent to our discussion:
“Youth is a wonderful thing. What a shame to waste it on children.”
—George Bernard Shaw
It’s not clear to me at what age Shaw’s famous line begins to take hold in the mind. As the responsibilities of adulthood mount? With the arrival of children? The labors of work? The eventual understanding that much of we are taught about life as young people is bullshit? Whenever, however, and through whatever means it takes shape it has the power, if we do something with it, to enrich our life and heighten the understanding of what exactly makes it wonderful. How it can improve our own experience?
A Piece of Work
For me, there were fits and starts of the whole wasted-on-youth notion setting roots soon after I graduated from college, then entered the Army, went to war, fell out of love and then into love once again—which pretty much sums up my 20s. But in early adulthood you are still figuring out the rules written by society and by upbringing, wondering how to break or conform to them in a way that won’t come back to haunt you. Which will, regardless of the chosen path, probably do so anyway in your 30s.
Those decades are the most ideal time for many of us to sit down with the likes of Ivan Ilyich, Holden Caulfield, Paul Bäumer, and the master storyteller of life’s greatest tragedies and comedies, William Shakespeare. By then, we should be able to truly appreciate them, learn from them, recognize the lives and emotions they represent in our own thoughts, behaviors and passions.
For me though it wasn’t until my late 40s when I found myself thinking about where had all the time gone and how had so many notable works slipped past me unread, or in some cases read but under-appreciated. By then we had made all the babies we were going to make; owned house, had debt, paid bills, quite jobs, started new ones, etc. In other words, I had lived some. So when Shakespeare wrote of Iago in Othello: 'Tis in ourselves we are thus or thus, I understood what he met.
Resolutions… are so what?
I wonder is this not the point of New Year’s Resolutions. To wake in us something already there, some yearning, some distraction from reality, a direction determined and set by our own internal true compass. To help us better find ourselves as thus or thus.
For years in our family we used to create, like millions of others, a list of three or four things about us that we wanted to start, stop, or do differently in the coming year. But with a special twist: We took suggestions from one another, breaking and boiling them down at the dining room table until we had what passed for a pretty good list of resolutions. It felt, at the time, like a good practice because really who knows you better than family, but then, occasionally, the conversation would crash and tears would follow (because, you know, who knows you better than family).
We abandoned the practice a few years ago, but despite the tears, I think it was good for the same reason reported in the New York Times recently:
[Suggestions] can be a tool for self-discovery, a mirror to reflect on our beliefs and blind spots. Input from others elicits the opportunity to think something over. By determining if it is something we want, and if it matches our desires or values, we’re forced to name what our desires and values are in the first place.
Self-discovery. Opportunity. Desire. Words that lead me to another famous saying, un-attributable, but backed up by science: You’re only as old as you feel. It was that which reminded me of Shakespeare a decade go, on the cusp of turning 50, reflecting on my youth and disappointed in my lack of effort at not having made more of an effort to read influential works in order to better understand, appreciate, and, come what may, influence my view of the world.
Enter the Bard
So that year I committed myself to read one Shakespeare work every month, thirteen in total—in December I read two. (Oddly enough, Shaw himself, apparently, would have thought such a commitment ludicrous as he disapproved of Shakespeare as a thinker and philosopher and to show it coined the anti-worship term, bardolatry to show it).
Here’s the rundown of my Bard ‘Bout Time Book Club and star rating, if you’re curious, for each (also if you’re on Goodreads, click here to see my rating and review of all thirteen of the plays I read):
I’ll leave this with what was my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays and the quote I turn to most often when I want to relive those nights gathered around the table, hashing out life’s biggest questions, striving to understand the reality, to see things for what they really are. Bring on the tears.
5★ to King Lear.
Break, heart, I prithee break—King Lear (Quarto text).
In parts a difficult read but one of the most heart-wrenching endings to any the plays, especially for a parent. Though I read the Quarto text—from which the quote above comes—the Folio version was included side-by-side and I often found myself glancing at it, too. My favorite lines are spoken there at the very end by Lear of his daughter Cordelia just before he himself dies:
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have a life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more
Never, never, never, never, never.
Pray you, undo this button. Thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her! look, her lips,
Look there,look there—
Look there, look there, indeed. It feels good to have finally come full circle.
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