Rahul Reads Shakespeare

Shakespeare hangs like some unholy ghost over the whole of English literature. For this reason, Shakespeare has been the prime terror of my quest to expand my reading. Sometimes it almost does not seem to matter how much I read, or how much I understand and like what I read. Because one can love books, but if one does not love Shakespeare, then that love is held to be somewhat suspect.

And I have never loved Shakespeare. Like every single American, I was forced to read five or six of his plays during middle and high school. I found them incomprehensible and boring, with the possible exception of Twelfth Night, which I found only mildly interesting. When I’ve seen Shakespeare performed (particularly Midsummer Night’s Dream), I’ve enjoyed it, but I think that was due more to the performances than to the words…most of which flew by faster than I could understand them.

For almost a year now, I have been slowly making my way through Shakespeare. I made a command decision to not re-read any of the plays I was forced to read as part of my formal education. The memories were simply too terrible, and would have blotted out any enjoyment I could have received.

But even with fresh plays, which had no poor associations for me, I often found myself somewhat perplexed. The first thing I noticed is that Shakespeare’s plots are absolutely ludicrous. There is nothing elegant about them. They’re full of plays within plays, and feigned deaths, and random hijinx (like the three boxes in the Merchant of Venice), and chance encounters, and unnecessary changes in setting (like the constant and ahistorical shifting between Rome and Alexandria in Antony and Cleopatra) and scenes full of (oftentimes tiresome) banter that has no relation to the story. People do about-faces in character over the course of a single scene (like in Richard III, where the titular character convinces a woman who hates him [whose husband he killed, for god’s sake]  to marry him by giving her a speech).

And none of that’s so bad. I mean, I watch sit-coms, so I have a high ability to suspend disbelief. But more confusing was that I had been constantly told that Shakespeare had some kind of magical negative persona: the ability to inhabit and flesh out any character; to sketch a massive range of characters, almost as if the world was writing them, and not a man. And I just wasn’t seeing it. The characters did not pop out of the page for me. And I also got kind of confused by the sheer number of characters (another example of Shakespeare’s inelegance)

So, at least until I read Henry IV, Part One, my pleasures from Shakespeare were limited to a few good scenes, a few good speeches, and a few good lines (most notably the “winter of my discontents” speech from the beginning of Richard III). But Henry IV was an exception. Some plays were a total wash. I honestly cannot see what the deal is with Macbeth. It’s not even a tragedy. A king’s top lieutenant decides he wants to be king, so he kills his king, becomes king, and then is in turn killed for his throne? That’s not tragedy, that totally makes sense. Sometimes you roll the dice because you want to be King, and sometimes that means you get killed…but it doesn’t mean it was stupid to roll the dice in the first place.

That is why I have not blogged much about Shakespeare, because there is really no way to get all up on a soapbox and be all like, “Shakespeare blows”. Because Tolstoy already did that.

“At the present time, before writing this preface, being desirous once more to test myself, I have, as an old man of seventy-five, again read the whole of Shakespeare, including the historical plays, the “Henrys,” “Troilus and Cressida,” the “Tempest,” “Cymbeline,” and I have felt, with even greater force, the same feelings,—this time, however, not of bewilderment, but of firm, indubitable conviction that the unquestionable glory of a great genius which Shakespeare enjoys, and which compels writers of our time to imitate him and readers and spectators to discover in him non-existent merits,—thereby distorting their aesthetic and ethical understanding,—is a great evil, as is every untruth.”

And as George Orwell already pointed out in his response to Tolstoy, it is kind of pointless to criticize Shakespeare:

“But finally the most striking thing is how little difference it all makes. As I said earlier, one cannot ANSWER Tolstoy’s pamphlet, at least on its main counts. There is no argument by which one can defend a poem. It defends itself by surviving, or it is indefensible. And if this test is valid, I think the verdict in Shakespeare’s case must be “not guilty”. Like every other writer, Shakespeare will be forgotten sooner or later, but it is unlikely that a heavier indictment will ever be brought against him. Tolstoy was perhaps the most admired literary man of his age, and he was certainly not its least able pamphleteer. He turned all his powers of denunciation against Shakespeare, like all the guns of a battleship roaring simultaneously. And with what result? Forty years later Shakespeare is still there completely unaffected, and of the attempt to demolish him nothing remains except the yellowing pages of a pamphlet which hardly anyone has read, and which would be forgotten altogether if Tolstoy had not also been the author of WAR AND PEACE and ANNA KARENINA.”

So I kind of felt that if I didn’t get Shakespeare, the least I could do is keep silent and feel a little ashamed of it.

So why am I blogging now?

It’s because I’ve actually enjoyed two consecutive Shakespeare plays. Yep, a month ago I read As You Like It and was like, “Hey, this is pretty good”. And an hour ago, I finished reading Much Ado About Nothing and was like….”What? This is pretty good too. I should blog about this”

I cannot explain it. I wonder if these plays are somehow different? But they’re both kind of inelegant too. Much Ado has a faked death that occurs for no reason, and a pair of bantering walk-on constables, and a doubling of pretty much every role (I am pretty convinced Antonio could go without doing any harm to the play).

But while my mind might know those reservations, my heart does not. I finally managed to get some understanding of character out of these plays. And I liked the characters. It was not a chore to read them. I even laughed sometimes.

But I am wary of this liking. As always, whenever I enjoy something that is not the kind of thing I usually enjoy, I think that I might be doing some kind of self-hypnotic trick, and convincing myself that I liked it in order to retroactively justify the time I spent reading it. And this is particularly the case with Shakespeare, where I thought I had liked some plays, only to be shown, by these two plays, that what I had thought was a sincere liking was actually a very weak liking indeed (for instance, my liking for The Tempest pales in comparison to this liking).

I do not know. I do not have any analysis for you, or anything further to say. I do not know what if, anything, happened. But whether this liking is real or made-up, I still regard it as a major accomplishment.