My attempt to read all of Shakespeare's plays. 22 April 2016 'I would challenge you to a battle of wits'

If you’re reading this from any corner of the theatre industry, you’ll know that it’s currently impossible to escape the Shakespeare400 celebrations. So in the spirit of ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’, I challenged myself to work through all of Shakespeare’s plays and get familiar with some of his lesser-known buggers gems.

There are numerous reading plans proffered online, which promise to get you through all of them in anything from six months to ten years. Now, I plan to live fast and die young, so I can’t be messing around with Shakespeare for ten years. Fortunately, I had already read about half the canon, so I was off to a flying start – and, anyway, what can you really achieve in five years except, you know, ruin the Soviet economy or something?

Day 1: I decide to start with Cymbeline, having seen a rather wonderful production of it at the Globe only two days before. It later transpires that Cymbeline is Shakespeare’s third-longest play. Hmm.

Things I have learnt, #359: editorial musings matter. I’m particularly enamoured of the snippy interjections of J. M. Nosworthy, whose jibes are targeted at everything and everyone, from his fellow critics to the wilds of Wales, via the Oxford English Dictionary.

Day 2: I have just forgone the much-anticipated Better Call Saul finale to finish reading Cymbeline. If only I could have been such a dedicated Shakespeare scholar when I was doing A-level English Lit. Here’s a thing: Cymbeline is pretty great! Why don’t people put it on more? I guess the (literal) deus ex machina in Act 5 is pretty off-putting, but if we millennials can’t lean on the dual pillars of abstraction and modern technology to get around a god descending from the sky, what on earth’s the point? We might as well go back to 1599, run into Colin Firth and inspire him to invent the Biro.

Day 3: One down, 17 to go! At less than half the length of Cymbeline, The Comedy of Errors is my next project. ‘I’ve seen a dodgy student version of this,’ I think to myself. ‘It’s a comedy!’ I say. ‘It should be a piece of cake!’ I say. Hmm. Hmm.

Day 4: Thrilled that evening drinking plans have been derailed by a friend’s workaholic tendencies, I power through The Comedy of Errors. It is not very funny. I am in general unconvinced about the comedic value of twins, unless those twins are also redheads. See: the Weasley twins, or Lindsay Lohan in The Parent Trap. I then read that the play was first performed on 28 December 1594, when the whole audience was presumably swimming in leftover Christmas alcohol. This explains a lot.

Rather than feel aggrieved that the play is less than side-splittingly hilarious, I decide that Shakespeare was remarkably modern in his refusal to be pigeonholed. Check out the categorisation below, from the First Folio. 

Cymbeline was here deemed a tragedy, but – although it teeters on the brink of catastrophe – everything turns out to be positively dandy. Even the Machiavellian Iachimo gets off with his life, which is more than can be said for loose-tongued but well-meaning Lucio in the ‘comedy’ Measure for Measure.

Day 5: Next stop, Troilus and Cressida. Given that my knowledge of the Trojan War comes mainly from the film Troy and my 15-year-old self’s questionable GCSE translation of The Iliad, I am treading pretty deep waters.

As I clutch my copy of the play on the DLR, I am regarded approvingly by a weary-looking, French-speaking man, whose style I would generously describe as post-chic. He sighs as his two young sons hit each other unremittingly, and I feel him thinking, 'I can’t wait until they grow up to be as sophisticated and intellectually curious as that charming young woman who is too nonchalant to care that she is going to fall over at the next stop in her eagerness to turn the page.' 

In that moment, I’m pretty smug, but I soon feel like a charlatan; a dumb Greek soldier rolling undetected through the gates of Troy in a proud wooden horse – a wooden horse, for that matter, which is rather sturdier on its feet than I am. People with Kindles just don’t have these problems. And yes, I do know that I can get the complete works of Shakespeare for free via a handy app.

Things I have learnt, #412: Shakespeare repeated himself a lot. Reading in bulk makes clearer than ever the recurrence of certain tropes and sayings, which makes it unsurprising that Shakespeare is the source of so many of our modern adages. I had assumed that the phrase ‘out of joint’ was particular to Hamlet, but no, there it is in Troilus and Cressida too, in a rather more literal context: “he hath the joints of everything, but everything so out of joint that he is a gouty Briareus”.

Day 6: Now that Dia del Muerte is rolling around (surely I can’t be the only one who wants to see a Shakespeare-themed Day of the Dead mask), I am reasonably confident in my ability to get through the whole oeuvre. Yes, I’ve only managed two and a half plays in five days, but that amounts to two days per play, which means that I could have finished them all in a month. More importantly, I feel increasingly that this is a worthy enterprise. Shakespeare may not do anything to further my ‘alt’ credentials, but he makes hungry where most he satisfies: in modern parlance, his plays are a gift that keeps on giving.

To be continued...

- By Jessie Anand

See Also: Andrew Dickson on Shakespeare's Global Reach


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