Reading The Complete Works of Shakespeare
Tuesday, 22 August 2017
So, having got my idea for a book about a clone of Shakespeare, I started on my research. I needed to know about clones, and I needed to know about Shakespeare. I read some books and articles about identical twins, particularly identical twins separated at birth, who, intriguingly, tend to be more alike than those raised together. (If you find this topic as interesting as I do, there was a particularly great long read in the New York Times about it.) I also read the Complete Works of Shakespeare.
"I'll read the Complete Works of Shakespeare," I thought. "There is no downside. Even if I end up never writing this book, at least I'll have read the Complete Works of Shakespeare." As it turns out there are several downsides to reading the Complete Works of Shakespeare: Henry VIII, The Rape of Lucrece, all of the worldplay in Love's Labour's Lost, but I am getting ahead of myself. First I had to buy the damn thing.
There are lots of editions of The Complete Works of Shakespeare and they are not all the same. Partly because they all come with notes explaining the plays and what many of the words and phrases in them mean (and believe me I needed that) and partly because for complicated printing-related reasons there are lots of different versions of the plays. Some are so different that certain editions publish, for example, two distinct versions of King Lear. He dies in both of them. (By the way, I'm going to assume that spoilers about Shakespeare don't count as spoilers, because he's been dead for 500 years, and also because it actually helps if you know what happens before you see the play. I once made the mistake of trying to see King Lear fresh, as it were, and was completely bamboozled when Edgar turns up in disguise, believing him to be another character, and thus totally missing the point of that entire part of the play. What can I tell you, I wasn't sitting near the front and one of the Edgars had a Welsh accent and the other one didn't.) I did a lot of research on which edition to choose, and in the end I went for the RSC edition (which is an edited first folio edition, in other words it sticks closely to the first published version of the almost complete works). I had been assured it had great notes (it does), and also only prints one column of text per page - many editions print two, and as I was going to be reading the lot I needed it to be easy on the eye. Also one of the Amazon reviews I read of it said, in its totality, that it was 'OK'. Yes, someone read the Complete Works of Shakespeare and deemed them 'OK'. That was recommendation enough for me. So I ordered the book and soon it arrived, almost 2,500 pages of ant-footprint-sized type.
I read it. It was OK.
Oh, you want more detail than that? Well, the RSC edition follows the order of the First Folio, which means it gathers all the comedies together, then the histories, then the tragedies, then the plays not in the first folio, and then the poems and sonnets. It seemed most straightforward to start at the beginning, read through to the end, and then stop. In a way, this is sensible - it certainly makes sense to read all the history plays in order, for example, so you can trace characters from one to the next. (For a while it gave me a great understanding of that period of English history, but obviously I have since forgotten it all.) In another way, it is madness, because it means you have to read all of Shakespeare's comedies one after the other, and you have to do that at the beginning, when your resistance might be weak and the end is nowhere in sight.
If you're not particularly familiar with Shakespeare you might guess that the comedies, being comedies, are more fun, and the tragedies, being tragedies, are more heavy going. This might be true if you see the plays in the theatre, where the actors are working their butts off to distract you from the fact that the jokes in the comedies are largely incomprehensible to a 21st century audience, but it is very much not the case when you are reading them all in one go by yourself in Amsterdam, or elsewhere, but I was in Amsterdam, and somehow that has become part of the scarring. I mean let's just pick a speech pretty much at random -
BEROWNE: The king, he is hunting the deer: I am coursing myself. They have pitched a toil: I am toiling in a pitch, pitch that defiles. Defile, a foul word. Well, set thee down, sorrow, for so they say the fool said, and so say I, and I the fool.
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha HA HA HA HA HA ha HA ha HA, amirite?
That speech goes on for another nine lines. That play (Love's Labour's Lost) is 56 pages long. In total, the comedies, plus commentaries, run for 767 pages, and there are good bits, lots of them, don't get me wrong, dude knew what he was doing, but I do kind of wish I had read these in the seventeenth century, back when I would have known a hawk from a handsaw (Shakespeare in-joke) and could have actually understood what was being said. Humour does not travel, and it definitely does not time travel. (My novel will be a horrendous read in 2517.) The relief when you make it to the tragedies with all the drama and doomed heroes and villains and dead bodies and To Be-s Or Not To Be-s is IMMODERATE. (That relief is in many ways misplaced, because you still have all of the poetry to go, including seventeen near-identical sonnets about why having babies is a good idea, but by then you're into the last few hundred pages, and nothing bar death or your hands no longer being able to hold the book up can stop you.)
What's ironic is that I ended up reworking The Comedy of Errors, which is the fifth play in the book (page 215-255) so arguably I could have quit well ahead of the three months it took me to make it to the end of it all (I have no idea how this compares to other readers) and yet I have no regrets. I'm not a sporty person, I am never going to run a marathon or climb Everest or sail single-handedly across the Atlantic, so this was my personal feat of endurance. And there was no way that I could write a play about Shakespeare being a genius without actually checking whether he is a genius (he is). I had stretches of transcendent swoony joy revisiting my favourite plays (Hamlet, Othello, Antony and Cleopatra, all the good bits of Much Ado) and made some great discoveries of plays I didn't know that turned out to be terrific (such as Measure for Measure, which is about an evil deputy duke who tries to force a nun to shag him in exchange for commuting the death sentence of her brother. There is a priceless scene in which the nun says to her bro, 'sorry, couldn't do it, but I know you will understand the importance of preserving my virtue' and the brother says 'SCREW YOUR VIRTUE, LITERALLY, GET BACK IN THERE AND HUMP THE GUY' [I paraphrase]. I don't know why it isn't staged more often.) Plus I found some excellent themes and sources for jokes for the more Shakespeare-familiar of my novel's readers (who I am hoping will forgive the irreverent tone of this blog post). And you know, now I have read the Complete Works of Shakespeare and I feel pretty darn proud of myself. Though obviously, should I end up on a desert island with only The Complete Works of Shakespeare and one other novel for company, I am going to regret having peaked on this too soon.
Next blog post (possibly shorter than this one, but let's face it, probably not) will be about how I went about turning the idea of 'what if somebody cloned Shakespeare' into an actual story.
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