The Shakespeare Project, Part 1

In between the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birthday and 400th anniversary of his death (that is between April 2014 and 2016) I have embarked on a self-improvement project I’ve excitingly called The Shakespeare Project, because my life is one big roller-coaster ride. I’m reading all the plays: those I already read and those I always managed to avoid. As I finished 10 plays already, let me share some reflections and hasty judgments.

1. The Tempest

Reading: Third

Pluses: The philosophy of intelligent design, as it were, how the play suggests everything happens for a reason, even if we don’t immediately see it (true, you have to read pretty deep for that and I’m sure there are other viable interpretations but I like this one). The parallelism between the high plot and the low plot of slaves’ rebellion is an interesting structural device. Prospero is interestingly ambiguous as a character.

Minuses: Some of the worst comic reliefs ever. We may as well get it out of the way immediately: I detest Shakespeare’s punning humor, his clowns and all the nonsense that happens between the good stuff. I will be berating it constantly, just saying. Also, boring romantic leads.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥ (out of five)

2. The Merchant of Venice

Reading: Second

Pluses: As I didn’t remember anything out of my first reading, I really felt like I was catching up on some culturally relevant references, including “pound of flesh.” Women versus men tricks are mildly entertaining. Shylock’s character gives itself to various conflicting interpretations and is particularly challenging in the era of political correctness. I like all the interpretations stressing the role of the oppressed, including Antonio’s possible homosexuality.

Minuses: Nobody is particularly likable (nope, neither Shylock, nor the good guys). Various plots are disjoint and only come together at an effort.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥

3. Midsummer Night’s Dream

Reading: Second

Pluses: This is actually one of my favorites. The first time I read it it surprised my to no end with the fact that play-making imbeciles are actually sort of funny (which goes against anything I believe, as you may imagine). I like the setting in the woods, the conflict between the two girls and the fantastic world and its never-ending cultural relevance (remember them in Sandman? Things like that).

Minuses: Shakespeare’s Athens seems like the worst place to live. That’s all.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

4. Titus Andronicus

Reading: First

Pluses: The Rome from this Roman Horror Story is an interesting intellectual proposition.

Minuses: It’s not a proposition that would appeal to me very much, though. I dislike the cartoonish violence, absurd villains and the lack of at least one likeable character.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥

5. Henry IV, part 1

Reading: First. I’m particularly behind in historical dramas because they always seemed so opaque with all the mixable names of English provinces that are really people

Pluses: You can mostly tell living characters from dead ones. I guess the contrast between the high world of the court and the low one of taverns is interesting. In theory.

Minuses: Well, it is mostly boring. Prince Harry and particularly his companions are thoroughly detestable. I know we’re supposed to like Falstaff but I truly can’t fathom why.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥

6. Henry IV, part 2

Reading: First

Pluses: Well, the prince’s transformation and his relationship with his father. These are pretty much the only moving moments of this play.

Minuses: Every. Single. Damn. Tavern. Scene. They had me groaning and pouring tears of boredom. We get it, there are many things which sound like penis! Seriously, it’s like talking to a 13-year-old in the middle of hormonal storm.

Hasty judgment: ♥

7. Richard II

Reading: First

Pluses: It is very elegantly written, with some subtle imagery and epic gloomness. A perfect lack of comic reliefs is truly perfect. Richard is quite impressively complex.

Minuses: Well, the central conflict is not that exciting or, frankly, relevant past the era of God-appointed kings. Sure, you can look for analogies with other political systems but the truth remains: it’s a play about whether you can depose the king.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥

8. Much Ado About Nothing

Reading: Second

Pluses: It’s quite a breezy one, without the heaviness of even some of Shakespeare’s comedies (not to mention tragedies). Beatrice and Benedick’s affair is somewhat original, too.

Minuses: It’s really not much about anything and poor Hero is so will-free you just want to kick her.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

9. Henry V

Reading: First

Pluses: It’s almost pleasurable how detestable Henry has become. You really get the kick out of hating him. I admit the play is rather well-written, with its mixture of tones and languages.

Minuses: I guess if you’re English you might read it differently? But this is really a play about a hypocritical, war-mongering aggressor who’s almost proud of all the violence he’s about to unleash on another country. Shakespeare tries to make him heroic (or, at best, ambivalent) but there are really few saving graces here. And his romantic suit at the end makes one sorry for Catherine.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥

10. Julius Caesar

Reading: First

Pluses: This one is quite a beauty. It doesn’t get bogged down with too much exposition (or comic reliefs), things happen swiftly, characters make bold and stupid decisions and everything unfurls into the undoing of all but Mark Antony and Octavius. Brutus and Caesar’s dilemmas are palpable and character’s flaws make them human, not paper.

Minuses: It gets slightly more messy in the second half but the first one, up to the speeches over Caesar’s body, makes up for it.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

That’s it for now. I’ll be back with the next portion once I’ve read it. I still don’t find myself a die-hard Shakespeare fan but there certainly are fairly impressive parts to his oeuvre.



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