June 17, 2013

A Monstrous Little Voice

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This month marks the end of an Epoch.  Or of my high school career, at least, which is as near to an Epoch as an extremely ordinary life ever gets.  On June 1 I did one last round of tidying up - a bit of accounting review and such like - and closed the book, literally and figuratively, on that period of school.  My senior year is squarely behind me and I am looking down the road to a busy summer and, afterward, entrance into college.  Among other, more remarkable implications, this means that for as long as I like, I don't have to pick up another work of Shakespeare.

For those of you who follow me on Goodreads, you already know that I've been jumping from Shakespeare to Shakespeare ever since August.  He was my literature course this year.  Having already done the usual British and American literature, and probably some others that I can't remember now, we were a little at a loss when it came down to my senior year.  The choices were Eastern literature and Shakespeare, and I'm glad we decided to go with the Bard.  Nine straight months of him has been a strain; I can't imagine what nine straight months of Confucius would do to me.

The school year has, I think, been fairly evenly divided between tragedies and comedies (with a few histories thrown in, and sonnets at the end):

comedies

As You Like It, which demanded too much suspension of disbelief;
Much Ado About Nothing, a favorite;
Twelfth Night, another good, lighthearted romp;
A Midsummer Night's Dream, enjoyable but a little brief;
The Taming of the Shrew, possibly the top of the list;
The Comedy of Errors, definitely at the bottom.

tragedies & histories

Antony and Cleopatra, which was almost laughable in its drama;
Julius Caesar, which was also over the top;
King Lear, depressing, but I appreciated it;
Richard III, full of propaganda, but it's got some great speeches;
The Winter's Tale, which doesn't actually fit anywhere because it's so weird;
Henry VIII, which was episodic and rather stilted.

Apparently I leaned more toward comedy, since many of Shakespeare's more famous tragedies, including Macbeth and Hamlet, I had already read.

I didn't enjoy everything: The Comedy of Errors, for instance, or Henry VIII.  Like all writers, Shakespeare was not amazing one hundred percent of the time (although I get the feeling that scholars would like to make him so).  He had plays that were disjointed, puns that stretched humor, and in the main his plots were lifted from ancient or contemporary writers - fortunately plagiarism wasn't a big deal unless the famous person was the one being plagiarized.  Characters are not always given, in a mere five acts, sufficient time for what we might call development.  And, well, there are just some plays that ride the coattails of others' successes. 

However, Shakespeare had to develop some coattails before lesser works could begin riding on them.  A few less-than-stellar writings cannot negate the genius displayed in the true masterpieces - the Much Ado About Nothings, the Richard IIIs, even the King Lears.  For Shakespeare had wit.  He had a deft pen, a way with words, a skill at creating something beautiful out of the English language.  This is particularly apparent in his Sonnets, which, I confess, I did not read straight through; but I had to go write one after I had read about 40, and let me tell you, a man who can write 154 of them is nothing to sneeze at.  

It is also comes to bear, though, on his plays, tragic and comic.  There's a reason Shakespeare is so widely quoted (often incorrectly, I'll grant, but still quoted).  In plays like A Midsummer Night's Dream he infuses the dialogue with a lyrical quality, while in the highflown speeches of Richard III he conveys desperation and, of course, villainy.  The hopeless babblings in King Lear encompass the bleakness of the story, and the writer does banter like nobody's business in Much Ado About Nothing.  Shakespeare was always Shakespeare; having read about eleven of his plays more or less in a row, I picked up Henry VIII and, not knowing that it is thought to have been co-written with Shakespeare's successor, felt that the style was "off."  But Shakespeare was also dexterous enough to craft a story out of comedy, out of tragedy, out of a tertium quid

Shakespeare is not altogether popular, and many shy away from him.  Either the Elizabethan speech is thought too hard, or it feels weird to read a play, or they "don't get him."  I was somewhat on the fence; I had read some of his works, even enjoyed them, but with no particular appreciation or relish until I started off on this jaunt.  I'm no scholar now and I admit I'm ready to take a break, but I have enjoyed scratching the surface and, through essays and reviews, observing the genius. 

I've also discovered that there really is no excuse for not delving into Shakespeare, at least a little.  Certainly it is best when performed, and performed well, but the beauty of the dialogue is not lost when read; and as for the style, while not every section makes perfect sense, context and practice do wonders for conveying Shakespeare's meaning.  It takes a bit of work, sometimes a bit of cheating and looking at Dover footnotes, but the more you read, the clearer it becomes.

As I said before, some scholars go overboard: all Shakespeare's works are good, and every element has Particular Meaning, and he was really talking about gender-equality-free-speech-nature-reason-the-mind-true-love-every-other-liberal-keyword-out-there.  Maybe he was.  Maybe he wasn't.  But the short and the long of it is that the centuries after Shakespeare owe him a great debt for his wit and for the beauty of his writing, and writers especially would do ill to discount him.

at the very least, a study of shakespeare adds some splendid quotes to your repertoire.

12 comments:

  1. I love shakespeare! My favorite right now is Richard II but I also love Midsummer night's dream and Richard III. Henry VIII is one of my favorites and I'm looking forward to reading Henry V {we are glad the dauphine is so pleasant with us!}.

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    1. I've not yet read Richard II. Perhaps, when I've had my break, I will read that one. As for the others - I expected to be extremely peeved with his Richard III because he was so obviously biased, but the speeches were brilliant enough for me to be a little forgiving. I ought to reread Henry V; it was my inspiration for The Soldier's Cross, but I haven't gone back to it in years!

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  2. Congratulations on graduating! If I may ask, what school do you plan to attend in the autumn?

    I haven't read nearly as much Shakespeare as you — only a few plays here and there, as they were relevant to the rest of my schooling — but I very rarely regretted it. Hamlet is dark, but intriguing; Henry V is soul-stirring and inspiring; Much Ado About Nothing is nothing short of brilliant; Macbeth is foreboding and complex. Romeo and Juliet was the only one I disliked, and that because it was an odd combination of dramatics, bloodshed, and bawdy humor (the last is unavoidable with Shakespeare, it would seem, but this play in particular almost revelled in it).

    If there's one thing I've learned from reading the Bard's renowned works, it would be that he is rarely what people claim. Clean? . . . Check back at a later date. (The public generally assumes that since he wrote in Middle English, he must have been as chaste and pious as a Puritan.) Deep and meaningful? It depends. Brilliantly witty? Of course, but not in the way most suppose. Context and historical background lend a different meaning to the pithy one-liners that are cut out and pasted on pins. What few can argue with is the fact that his quotes, in their original form, undeniably add a certain spice and richness to conversation. For that reason, I won't put chinks in his stone pedestal, as the gentleman certainly knew how to wield a pen, but he was in no way the demi-god some would make him out to be.

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    1. I have never, ever heard Shakespeare called "clean." That is a new one for me in the annals of absurdity. He does have some plays that are less bawdy than others - I was particularly pleased with Twelfth Night - but then he has others, like A Comedy of Errors, that nearly made my eyes pop out. As for deep and meaningful, Hamlet and King Lear are probably closest to the description...and they're both incredibly dark. I think Romeo and Juliet was meant to be a comedy and has been misinterpreted.

      I don't think Shakespeare was a demigod, but I do think it interesting to realize how much his writing has impacted our language today. I haven't delved into that deeply enough to be able to say why it has, but now I want to find a book on the subject. Because, as you said, he wasn't always witty and brilliant - so why did he leave such a huge legacy? It would be interesting to trace. (Oh, well, something else to study!)

      College! I will be attending Furman University this Fall, Lord willing, majoring in History. Yes, I know, that's a real shocker for everyone around here...

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  3. What an amount of Shakespeare! My Shakespeare readings have been few and far between: Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing and Henry V are all I can boast. :/

    In my reading of his works, I've found them less than what the world would have him to be (which is a splendid man of words) and more of a moderate Good Writer With Flaws Like The Rest.

    But that isn't to say Henry V isn't probably my favorite play ever. And anyone who stuffs my quote repertoire is usually in my favor.

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    1. My reading of Shakespeare was pretty much a mere smattering before I had to take this course - limited to taking up a play every now and then when I felt a fancy to do so. It was when the reading was required, and I plowed through a whole bunch back-to-back, that I started to see patterns of Shakespearean brilliancy. I'm not a full convert: I don't expect to spend the rest of my life studying the Bard. But it is easier to appreciate him now. (And understand him, which was incredibly difficult when I first started reading his plays. "Hubba-whaa...?")

      Henry V was excellent, though I have to say, I think Macbeth still tops my tragedy list. I need to go back to Hamlet, because I read it too quickly the first time and failed to see what all the fuss was about. Maybe I'll still fail to see it. It's quite possible. And Much Ado About Nothing...!

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  4. Abigail,
    In the past I have enjoyed your beautiful people you and Jenny should check out http://knittedbygodsplan.blogspot.com/p/character-encounters.html
    God Bless
    Tabitha
    P.S. I love the Pride and Prejudice with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, It's the best!

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    1. Oh, I'm glad you've enjoyed them! I haven't done any recently, not having a new character to introduce, but I probably will at some point in the future. We shall see.

      (The 1996 Pride and Prejudice is unequivocally the best. No contest.)

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  5. Congratulations on finishing school!!!! Isn't it a wonderful feeling to be done?

    What will you be studying at college?

    I enjoy Shakespeare. As You Like It is one of my favorites. Other favorites are Julius Caesar, Henry V, Twelfth Night and Hamlet.

    I agree, he had a way with words. And he had a very good grasp of human nature and life, which IMHO is one reason his plays are still so popular today.

    And being a writer, his excellence with the written word has inspired and influenced me.

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    1. It's actually an overwhelming feeling. There is so much to do now that high school is behind me - I'd almost rather turn around and scoot back! But of course I can't, and there's no good being Peter Pan-like about it.

      I'll be studying history in college (surprise surprise), along with the other obligatory things they drop on me. I'm looking forward to it; some of the courses sound fascinating, and I'm sure it will help broaden my horizons and freshen my writing.

      I thoroughly enjoyed Twelfth Night: it was lighthearted and not too bumptious, and had fewer coincidences. I'm afraid I haven't been able to reconcile myself to that plot device yet. It's used in comedy all the time, but I still go, "Nope, you lost me." That, among other things, was my problem with The Comedy of Errors. I liked Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night because their humor depended more on wit and hijinks than on coincidence and absurdity.

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  6. First, congratulations on finishing your senior year :) You and I are in the same boat, and I look forward to my coursework next year. (Though I'm doing my courses online.)

    Thankfully, and surprisingly, I haven't read much of Shakespeare. I read Romeo and Juliet in school about two years ago, and I did enjoy it, but I also had a teacher to help me understand some of the phrasing I wasn't familiar with. Last year I picked up Hamlet to try and read, but...I didn't get very far. It just didn't appeal to me, from the story (in which I was complete lost..in the bad way) to the speech. I didn't grow up with the King James language (with the Bible, I mean) and so I wasn't at all familiar with it, and to this day I can't understand it very well. So that could be part of my problem.

    I may be pre-judging since I really haven't read much of his work. I think you're right, Shakespeare has great wit and I'm sure some of his other plays are very good, and maybe someday I'll pick one of them up, but I think a lot of people put him on this great pedestal and, for me, he just isn't one of my heroes.

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  7. Congratulations on finishing school, Abigail! I will resist the urge to envy you, because I am sure you have a lot before you, what with college lurking in the near future. You'll be in my prayers as you enter this new stage with all its challenges, but it is a wonderful event, the finishing of one's first twelve or so years of schooling.

    Ah, Shakespeare. I have not read anything for him yet. Only bits and pieces and quotes. Yep, ACE (the curriculum we homeschool with) does not require or even have the option of having him for Literature, both a blessing and an annoyance. I want to read some of his plays, though; I love how quotable he is! But you have sure done your share of reading his works... :D

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meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
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Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
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Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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