This last year I was inspired to create my own content. Many ideas have sparked, developed, come, gone, and some lay in hibernation. That is a part of the creative process, isn’t it? Run with your ideas until you can’t run anymore. Something like that.
Anyway, over the Summer I had this idea to read all of Shakespeare’s (known) plays and make one or many performance piece(s) out of it. As a lover of Shakespeare, since before I can remember, I consider it a great tragedy that I have never read ALL of his plays. So, I have a copy of Shakespeare’s Complete Works and, starting with (what we think) was his first play, I am reading through it from beginning to end. I realize that is quite an undertaking. I usually don’t like to announce such projects before they are completed, because I’m afraid I won’t finish and then I will have let myself and everyone else down. But, in this case, I have gotten far enough that I have created and partially executed a plan and now I can’t wait to share this journey with you…. wherever it leads!
1. Read all of Shakespeare’s Works.
2. Create and perform a piece(s) from all of Shakespeare’s Works.
Starting on Monday, I start a new play reading one act a day so that by Friday I have finished it(Shakespeare’s plays have 5 acts). It is manageable, a small commitment per day, and in no time I feel accomplished! It also makes me happy to daily do this thing that is just for me. I’m not doing it because I have to, like so many other things that fill our lives; I’m doing it because I love to. (This plan fluctuates in practice, but so far I’ve been able to complete at least one play per week.)
If you look at the list of plays in the order we think they were written, you can see that Shakespeare started with a bunch of histories. If you’ve ever frequented a Shakespeare theatre or watched any movies made of his plays, you’ll notice that the histories (especially these first three), are the least often produced. There’s good reason for that. At this point I have read King Henry VI: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, King Richard III, The Comedy of Errors, and Titus Andronicus. What a way to start?!?
One of the things that I love about this plan is that as I’m reading, I am able to map Shakespeare’s progress and maturity in his writing. I am no scholar, and I know many reading this probably far outshine me in the research department, but there are a few things I’ve noticed.
King Henry VI
In the King Henry VI saga, Shakespeare mainly seems to be repeating history, as best he can from his sources. Of course it isn’t completely historically accurate, but Shakespeare didn’t do much to write an interesting story. There are so many characters, sub-plots, and (unimportant)tangents, that, without an extensive knowledge of the history, it is sometimes very confusing. There are a few monologues that stand out to me, but for the most part the story and characters are fairly one-dimensional: good vs. evil; England vs. France; weak vs. strong. (P.S. Joan of Arc and Queen Margaret are probably my favorite parts of this trilogy.)
These plays were not for me. But at least now I can say I read them!
My Modern Comparison: A History Channel Three Part Documentary.
For the first time, it seems like Shakespeare figured out having a central character works really well! Following one main story line makes a better story. Wow! Good job, Shakespeare. On the very first page, Richard tells the audience that he will do everything he can to become king and that is the story we watch unfold. The only mystery of the play is how he will do it. It follows a good, traditional structure of: beginning, middle, end; but as far as characters go, Richard is pretty one-dimensional: just plain evil. There is one monologue in the fifth act, just after the spirits of all the people he has killed haunt him in his sleep, where he wakes up and has a sort of “come to Jesus” moment, only to realize it is too late and he will reap what he as sowed. Yes, you will, Richard. The End.
I can appreciate Shakespeare’s shift in story-telling style, but Richard III seems to lack some of the multi-dimensional aspects of his later works.
My Modern Comparison: House of Cards (only House of Cards is more interesting, in my opinion).
The Comedy of Errors
Mistaken identity times two! Shakespeare copied a lot of the plot from a Roman comedy by Plautus, called Menechmi–The Menechmus Twins. Essentially, “I gave you the money two minutes ago.” “No you didn’t. I’ve never seen you before in my life.” And, “Oh, husband, I’m so angry with you.” “Who’s this woman who thinks I’m her husband?” Hilarious! *sigh*
Also, rhyme. Rhyme. And more Rhyme. That is another thing I noticed. This play seems a lot more rhyme-y than his other comedies with which I am more familiar. “Trying out the rhyme, William? Great.” He uses it (a lot!) and perhaps figures out how to use it with purpose and specificity in his later plays.
As for story-telling, the first scene starts out with Aegeon explaining to the Duke of Ephesus how he lost his wife, other twin son, and his other twin servant a long time ago and begs to be allowed to search for them now. It is a LONG winded story of exposition. It seems that later on Willy figured out how to show the exposition rather than just tell it (i.e. Twelfth Night).
I can be entertained by this play (and I have), but it isn’t one that I want to return to again and again.
My Modern Comparison: The Three Stooges. (Maybe that’s not quite accurate, but the idea is lowest physical comedy.)
Blood. Blood. And more Blood. I have read Titus before, performed Lavinia for auditions, and last year saw an all female production of it which was excellent. It is still bloody and brutal. It is another revenge story. Since writing Richard III, I feel like Shakespeare develops his characters a little more in this one. There is still a clear distinction between the good and evil sides, but I see a little more character and story arc.
I appreciate the story and loved the production I saw, but this is not a story on which I’d like to dwell or tell over and over again. Perhaps, once in my life.
My Modern Comparison: Hannibal
The journey continues. Next time I will be writing about The Taming of The Shrew, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Love’s Labors Lost and more. At least those are on a slightly lighter note. Again, I don’t claim to have any training in literature analysis, I’m just sharing my opinion and observations. I’m excited about what I’ve learned so far and can’t wait to see where this project leads.
My biggest take away: Shakespeare wasn’t the best writer when he started off. That is comforting to me. The point is that he wrote, wrote, and wrote some more, which led to some of the greatest works of literature and performance in known history. Let us learn from his example and keep working, writing, creating, doing, so that we continue to grow, change, and improve.