Saturday, August 15, 2009

Wherefore This Blog?

Is there any good reason to read Shakespeare anymore? I mean, he's hard to understand and reading his work requires a pretty significant time investment. In my years as an English professor, I struggled to justify Great Literature to my students. I told them that it's full of big, meaningful questions that are Still Relevant Today. I tried to point out some of those, and a few of my students were appropriately grateful. Many, however, dutifully wrote down what I said, parroted it back in essays and on exams, and doubtless haven't thought about any of it since.

I left academics ten years ago, and the question still bugs me. Why read anything more demanding than a newspaper? Why wrestle with convoluted metaphors and lost historical referents, when you can just watch the BBC video version? And why even do that? Why not just read Jodi Picoult and Dan Brown and leave it there? Or read nothing at all--I know plenty of smart, insightful people who aren't readers. We're busy, and there just isn't time to engage in some elitist commemorative hobby, like reading all of Shakespeare's plays and blogging about them...

Well, maybe not. But I want to answer those questions for myself, so I'm going to do it. I want to know if The Big Guy has anything to tell us about our times, and if I, personally, can still sustain something as consuming as this project will probably become. I don't know if anyone will read this (hence my epigraph, from mad King Lear), and I suppose one can't worry about such things, at least at the beginning.

My plan, at least now, is to go through every play, scene by scene, and comment on both the contemporary context and the textual meaning of what I take to be the significant moments. I will periodically pause for "musings," and think about the texts, ask questions, post links, and generally try to figure out what the play might have to tell us about our times.

So who am I to do this? A Shakespeare scholar? Nope. I was a professor of medieval literature for about 12 years, until a toxic tenure case more or less ended my career. But Shakespeare wasn't my field--I was a Chaucer scholar who taught Shakespeare to undergrads as part of the Early Lit. faculty. I've never written a word about Shakespeare until now. Which, I think, is as it should be. I'm not an expert, just a good reader with a fairly lucid writing style.

I decided to blog the plays more or less chronologically rather than by genre, so that I can get a sense of Will's development as a playwright. I'm going to call him Will, because I simply can't write "Shakespeare" a thousand times. I'm not going to read the sonnets or narrative poems right now, and, I'm going to violate my own rules right off the bat by skipping (for now) Two Gentlemen of Verona, which I've never read and has had a history of contested authorship. I reserve the right to return to it later, when I get better at this. I'll always be honest about my own experience (or lack thereof) with a play--I've read most, but not all of them before--and my own struggles to understand what's going on. I have read criticism, but not a lot of it, and I won't refer to critics in any oppressively academic way. At the same time, if someone has something interesting to offer, I'll note that and give credit where it's due.

My first victim will be The Taming of the Shrew, which has been re-worked as a musical (Kiss Me, Kate) and a high school comedy (10 Things I Hate About You)--probably elsewhere, too. It's kind of a creepy play from a feminist perspective (yes, I have leanings in that direction, but I don't think I'm an ideologue), but it's great fun, too. A terrific actor's play, with a lot of physical comedy.

We'll start there next time, and see where this takes us. I mean me. You too, if you want to come along for the ride.

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