Supporter Spotlight: You
26 May 2020
Thank you for your questions. I have been struck by them and often spun into very interesting contemplation by these provocations. I look forward to sharing these with you over the coming months. I decided to start with this question from Mario which I think could begin a sort of book club for anyone who wishes to partake. Please feel free to ask questions within other questions if you wish.
Dear Peter, what in your opinion is the best way to read the complete works? Chronologically or random selection? I’m very keen to further entrench the love I’ve developed for him.
I really love this question and can only imagine others will too. I don’t think I have been asked this before. About the time I became interested in Shakespeare I also became obsessed with film and I have often written lists for friends and family of recommendations or ways into a particular genre or filmmaker but not for Shakespeare’s complete works.
I think approaching the works chronologically is interesting, but I would suggest not the most interesting way in. The plays cut up in a myriad of ways and so I am going to suggest a weave and wend approach. Normally we would be in a foyer and I would grab a napkin and pen and start by asking you some questions to find the most appropriate way in for you personally, but in lieu of that I am going to suggest a bunch of collections that will get us to about half way through the complete works. If some of these work for you I suggest you write back to me and we can come up with another series. And of course, that applies to any other humans who wish to take on this extraordinary project.
If you haven’t done the three great tragedies that Shakespeare wrote during the middle period of his writing recently, or ever, then let’s start with these:
Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear
After those I would throw in a palette cleanser that carries a satisfyingly bitter aftertaste with Twelfth Night, written during the same few years. Late for this kind of comedy. It is especially interesting comparing the fool Feste with Lear’s Fool. Twelfth Night is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Romantic, brilliant cross-dressing heroine, drunk clowns but the play has a seam of anger too. I sense with Malvolio, who can sometimes steal the play, Shakespeare’s rage at the puritans who were constantly trying to shut the theatres down. And who eventually did, thankfully after Shakespeare’s career had long ended.
Ok. Now let’s settle in and grapple with Shakespeare the political philosopher. This is most clearly demonstrated in the Roman Plays.
Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra
Attack them in the order of their period rather than the order they were written. Early republic with Coriolanus [in fact written last of the three by Shakespeare around 1606] then into mid first century BCE with Julius Caesar on the rise of Augustus and the start of Empire with Antony and Cleopatra. Shakespeare is fascinated by political systems and knew what he was talking about. Don’t let the anachronisms fool you. The clocks and spectacles are entirely intentional. Shakespeare wrote about the period his plays were set and the systems of government they operated and his own times simultaneously.
Maybe palette cleanse with Titus Andronicus if you wish. A fictional Rome of 2nd or 3rd Century AD and a very early work. Something of an outlier in many respects, it will certainly leave you with a deliciously bad taste in your mouth!
And/or crack into the History plays.
Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, Henry V
Again, in order of period but this series corresponds to the order they were written also, unlike the later chronology that was earlier in Shakespeare’s career and written out of order. He probably wrote Henry VI Part 2 and 3 before writing a prequel in Part 1. We suspect this was in response to demand much like the sequels and prequels we see in the Marvel universe of today. [Quick side note: John Bell would never pick a favourite of Shakespeare’s plays, but he once admitted to me if he had to, it would be Henry IV.
Now these could be followed or interspersed with an early tragedy in Romeo and Juliet followed by A Midsummer Night’s Dream and then As You Like It. Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream were written between Richard II and Henry IV and As You Like It the same year as Henry V.
Or… you may be interested in another approach which is style and structure. Aristotle liked plays to have what he described as Unities. This meant plays should have one location and one plot and take place within one day. Shakespeare rarely got close to these ideals, but the three exceptions are:
THE CLASSICALLY STRUCTURED PLAYS
The Comedy of Errors, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest
The Comedy of Errors and A Midsummer Night’s Dream are relatively early, and The Tempest is arguably Shakespeare’s last solo work before retirement, but I cannot help but think A Midsummer Night’s Dream was in his head 15 years later when he wrote The Tempest. See what you think. They are such delights.
And here is an idea that appeals to me in our current age of the strongman political leader:
Richard III, Henry V, Macbeth, King Lear, Coriolanus, The Tempest.
I sometimes get asked about certain political leaders around the world and whether I saw them as Shakespearean. My first thought is that it would be flattering these clowns who are not nearly as interesting as they think they are. But perhaps that’s unfair…
Anyway Mario. Thank you for the question. I love a list and hopefully this gives you some options for a way in. Please let me know how you go and what is working for you. There are many gems not included that I look forward to writing about in the future.