Reading Shakespeare

February 26, 2010 at 10:51 pm (Asides, Romeo and Juliet) (, , , , , )

I’m reading Shakespeare tonight! Just wanted to share some thoughts about it.

I really enjoy the language of Shakespeare. I know that it’s a barrier to a lot of people… the Elizabethan English turns them off from even making the attempt. For me, there is a real beauty to the words themselves and the rhythms and rhymes. It has been a very long time (over 20 years) since I’ve read Shakespeare, and I am enjoying it a lot.

If you have never taken the time to read Shakespeare for enjoyment (I know most people have to do it for a class somewhere along the line, but that’s different), I really recommend it. Plays are short. They’re meant to be performed in a couple hours, and although it takes me longer than that to read through one, it’s still shorter than a modern novel. So, there’s really not much time commitment involved in reading a single play.

I started with Romeo and Juliet, because it’s one of the most well-known plays. See my Reading Order for more information… the archived blog post there: “An Overview of Shakespeare’s Work and a Few Words of Advice for the New Reader” is really interesting and makes a lot of sense to me about progressing through the plays in a sensible way.

So, R&J may be a good place to start because the basic story is familiar. That said, it’s not necessarily the easiest play to read. I blame Mercutio. He is such a nut. If you knew him in real life, he’d be one of those people you shake your head at. You can just see Romeo and Benvolio grimacing at this guy’s dirty jokes. His incessant punning is a little mind-numbing, and I tire myself out reading the footnotes to figure out his silly double entendres. Really, my advice to a new reader might be to “yada, yada” through Mercutio. He’s funny and witty and all, but I think the rest of the play is much easier to read.

Anyway, as for reading Shakespeare in general… I like to read through a play once to get the lay of the land, a feel for the story line, and read through the footnotes to get the basics down. Then I read the play a second time for enjoyment… listening to the language and noticing the ins and outs of themes and characters that maybe were not evident on first reading.

I’m not saying I’ll read through all the plays twice now, but it is how I like to read Shakespeare’s work… twice in quick succession. That way, on the second read-through, I don’t need to look at the footnotes again, interrupting the rhythm and flow of the words. Because they’re plays, and relatively brief, it’s really not that big a time commitment to read them twice (and the second time goes faster since I can skip the footnotes).

Shoot, I recently read The Terror for my book club, and THAT was a time commitment! Shakespeare offers a lot of bang for your reading buck, I believe. That’s part of my love of these works. Each play is a little gem… everything—plots, themes, character development—is  accomplished succinctly (and poetically!).

So, I’m reading Romeo and Juliet tonight. And enjoying it. And as I read, I’m thinking about plans for this blog. I do not have a grand plan… I just want to read the plays and get to know them. I want to watch film adaptations as I’ve been doing the last couple weeks. And I’d like to go see some live performances when I can.

But what will I blog about as I read the plays? I think first I’ll post a quick and dirty summary of each play, so that people who are unfamiliar with the story lines can still follow my blog. Maybe my summaries will encourage people to read the actual plays? I hope so.

Then, I’ll just write about whatever strikes me in the play I’m reading. With Romeo and Juliet, I think I will probably talk about various characters, the annoying punning of Mercutio, the instant and complete switch in Romeo’s love interest from Rosaline to Juliet. We’ll see what else I feel like writing about.

I welcome any suggestions and discussion… I definitely want to immerse myself in each play. I want to take as long as I feel like with each play and return to it when I feel like. I have no goal other than to read through all the plays, share what I learn here, and talk about it with you!

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9 Comments

  1. Ted Leach said,

    I think your strategy of not having a grand plan is actually a good approach. I was toying for a bit with the idea of reading all the plays in a year, but the pace / schedule I’d have to set for myself to do that I think might take some of the joy out of it.

    Agree with you about Mercutio — though he’s a fascinating character. I don’t think I could ignore him if I tried.

    The thing that I’ve found interesting over the last few years teaching RJ is how Juliet’s story — her conflict with her parents — stands on its own. I love playing devil’s advocate by asking kids to find the climax. Almost inevitably, people will tell me it’s the killing of Tybalt… but then I remind them the play’s title is Romeo and Juliet, not just Romeo. That causes some nice cognitive dissonance.

    • orwhatyouwill said,

      Oh yeah, I’m no Julie Powell. I don’t like setting schedules, anyway. I’m just doing this purely for fun.

      Interesting, I never thought about that with Juliet. That whole relationship with her parents is interesting. I’m really struck by the change in Capulet when dealing with Paris. He abruptly goes from “wait a couple years, woo her, she needs to want you and my opinion is only part of the equation” to “take her next Thursday, buddy.” And when she doesn’t go along with the program, he threatens to disown her! It’s one of the quick changes I’m thinking through in the play.

      Right. So you have me thinking now about the climax… what do the kids talk about? Tybalt’s death is pretty climactic. I guess if you bring up Juliet, then the climax is when daddy tells her to marry Paris on Thursday or go to hell. Is that where they end up going with the conversation? Because that sends Juliet to Friar L for the sleeping potion, etc. etc.

      What level are you teaching?

  2. Ted Leach said,

    I teach high school English and Journalism — this year 10th grade, but I’ve worked across all grade levels.

    Good point about “quick changes” and quick decisions — I never really thought Capulet’s order as one of the many quick decisions made in the play. I’m writing that down for later use.

    What do the kids talk about? a)How cute Leo is; b) how much Juliet’s parents suck making her get married; c) how weird are the costumes in Zeffierelli’s version. Actually that’s not really fair to them — they do have thoughtful and accurate things to say about the play. Once they get over the hump of the language and get into the play, things roll pretty well. Then you can bring them back to the language; I like giving them a word to map, like “night” — Juliet’s wedding night speech seems to work well for them.

    • orwhatyouwill said,

      Ahh yeah, well, I’m sure they keep you on your toes!

      It’s interesting to contrast the parents. The Montagues are largely no-shows. They never speak to Romeo in the play, right? They talk to Benvolio and say they worry about R and hope he’s doing okay and then they skedaddle before he comes near (like they don’t want to scare him away or bug him or something). Then… that’s it, right? Montague is there at the very end to shake Capulet’s hand and talk about big golden statues, and the mother is dead (why?). So there’s no relationship really between Romeo and his parents. While the relationship between the Capulets and Juliet is pretty central to the plot. So… it says something maybe about how girls were protected and boys were left to sow wild oats. But what else? I wonder why else the Montagues are hardly seen in the play.

      The other thing that gets me about Capulet… I feel like he is one of those people who cares only about his public persona. Those scenes where he’s worrying and fretting about the preparations for the feast and then later for the wedding that never happens. He’s all nervous and bugging the servants and you can just see him being in the way and annoying everyone. Plus, the way he freaks at Tybalt when T wants to pick a fight with Romeo at the feast… like T better not make a scene OR ELSE. You know? So he seems very, very worried about how the world sees him.

      And I wonder if that plays into the quick switch with Paris. Like Paris coming back to him again about Juliet… C suddenly decides it’s important for status reasons for J to be married off to the Count…. you know? I wonder if it matters more to him at that point that the man after J is a count and of some account.

      It’s mentioned that he wants to marry off J in a hurry because he thinks she’s upset about Tybalt’s death and that the marriage will cheer her up, but this seems false to me. It’s such a complete change in reasoning for him and if it were the case, he wouldn’t have gotten so pissed at J when she said no.

      Hmmm, still thinking about your climax thing. It’s kind of a silly thing, but when the Nurse tells J to go ahead and marry P…. that is a huge thing for J. Here’s her trusted nurse, BETRAYING HER in the worst possible way. From being the biggest cheerleader/enabler of the relationship with R to suddenly moving on to Bachelor #2. And J does not take it well. While it may be stupidity/pragmatic on the Nurse’s part, it really has a big impact on J and really that’s what sends her directly to Friar L’s cell. She was undecided before that.

  3. Ted Leach said,

    I like your point about Capulet — he’s not a character I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, but that’s one of the joys of rereading — picking up on aspects of the play you’ve not noticed before. Status and appearance do seem to be important to him, and you make a coherent argument.

    As far as climax, this is precisely the point I like to get the kids to think about. The nurse’s betrayal is huge in this case. As a teaching thing, one of the broad points I like to make in this case is that literary terms (such as climax) are useful because they give you a tool by which you can analyze and discuss literature. Too often students look for “the right answer,” and this is one where the “answer” can be less obvious.

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