03 December 2005

This morning I finished reading Shakespeare's Sonnets, which means that I've technically read all of Shakespeare (although how much I've retained is, of course, open to debate). At this point, I'm not sure what this means. At the very least, I've given myself the opportunity for a lifetime of rereading, which I expect will pay off in ways that I can't even begin to anticipate. After you've closely read a book, even if you forget most of it, at least you have intellectual and emotional access to it for the rest of your life. My hunch, or hope, is that having intellectual and emotional access to Shakespeare will make me a better, more complete person. (If it happens, I'll make sure to blog about it.)

In any case, it took eight months of close reading, but I've finally resolved my lifetime ambivalence towards Shakespeare. Previously, my major issue with Shakespeare was that he did not provide me with a role model in the way that, say, Dante, Goethe, or Proust did. Based on reading a sampling of his plays in no particular order, I had concluded that he had no method or carefully constructed personality. I had no image of Shakespeare in the way I had a cherished image of the young Dante (based more on the fictional Dante the Pilgrim than on the historical poet). In any case, I was wrong. I've discovered that it is indeed possible to know Shakespeare, or at least to know something of how he wrote and thought, and the best way to do this is to read the plays in the approximate order of their composition.

In a way, I think that Shakespeare's essential achievement consists of Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth, but even these plays are incomplete and perhaps misleading (and certainly too depressing) when taken out of context. To take things one step further, I would argue that the most convincing reason to read all of the plays in chronological order is to encounter Hamlet where it belongs, as a kind of rift in the literature of the world. There's nothing that prepares you for Hamlet when you encounter it after the laughter of As You Like It and Twelfth Night, and coming across Hamlet in the context of Shakespeare's development as an artist restores something of its original strangeness. To quote Harold Bloom:
It is a peculiarity of Shakespearean triumphalism that the most original literary work in Western literature, perhaps in the world's literature, has now become so familiar that we seem to have read it before, even when we encounter it for the first time.
Reading this over now, it occurs to me that if reading all of Shakespeare is the only way to understand Hamlet, perhaps reading the entire Bible is the only way to understand Jesus. (Well, there's always next year.) Anyway, reading all of Shakespeare is something that everyone should do, I think, but has more in common with other critical life events than with other works of literary or aesthetic experience. Everyone "ought to" read Dante and Proust and see The Red Shoes and internalize Abbey Road, but people "ought to" read all of Shakespeare the way they "ought to" fall in love and raise children. Not everyone will have a chance to do these things, of course, but for me, at least, there's a nagging sense that life without them is somehow incomplete.

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