William Shakespeare’s Complete Works

So I’ve tackled Shakespeare’s Complete Works. For those who haven’t yet read them all, the Bate and Rasmussen’s edition is somewhere around 2500 pages. Shakespeare’s body of work consists of 14 comedies, 10 histories, 12 tragedies; 2 plays not in the First Folio, 5 poems and sonnets and a scene for Sir Thomas More.

I’ll fess up: I didn’t have the time to read all the plays. I’ve read the poems and sonnets and the scene for Sir Thomas More. However between the plays I read in the past (I re-read a few but not all of them) and the ones I read to prepare this review I’ve covered 25 plays out of 36, all the poems and sonnets as well as the scene for Sir Thomas More.

What does one say about the Bard and his work? It’s at once super easy and extremely hard. Everyone’s read Shakespeare, even if I imagine few (normal) people actually read his entire body of work. By its sheer volume, it’s complicated to dissect and review.
I studied Shakespeare when I learned English, which is arguably the worst idea ever since English is no longer spoken as it was then. To be entirely honest I was grateful for the notes at the bottom of each page, because some stuff would have completely escaped me. I may be bilingual but reading Shakespeare is almost like learning another language 😛 .

I find Shakespeare’s work fascinating. He embodies to me what theatre is about – in his comedies and tragedies (the histories never appealed to me as much): a critique, an analysis or a review of society’s ways.
It’s complicated to list every subject that Shakespeare addressed in his plays: betrayal, loyalty, classes, racism, ambition, jealousy, the different expectations set on men and women.
And after seeing the Comedie Francaise’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, there’s no way I can read that play again without sex on my mind. One could also argue that in some way he addresses transgender and homoerotic relationships: the fact that young adolescent boys were playing female roles enhances this confusion of gender (many cross-dressing women in the plays : The Two Merchants of Verona, Twelfth Night, As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice…).

On the other hand, it’s sometimes hard to read Shakespeare as a woman of the 21st century. No way I’ll ever forget The Taming of the Shrew, which I first read as a 16 year old. Somehow it’s one of the plays I like the least. Not to say that Shakespeare created submissive, bland female characters. In fact, most of them aren’t. I have a special place in my heart for Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing and Emma Thompson’s interpretation of the character in K. Brannagh’s movie added to it.
Still when I read, even in some of the comedies, the female characters sometimes feel like they’re going along with the plot instead of influencing it. There are exceptions of course: Rosalind and Portia come to mind. Lady Macbeth in a dark manner. Still. Not surprising I know; after all it was the 16th and early 17th century, what else should we expect?

The one thing I’ll say is that theatre is meant to be experienced: it’s not the same to read and to be in an audience watching the performance. I sincerely believe that the nature of theatre makes it a tough read. Particularly for someone not reading in their native language. The cadence and rhythm of the lines are as important as the words themselves, and when you read, you lose that a bit. And it’s such a huge part of the English language. So I didn’t enjoy the reading as much as I’ve enjoyed watching the performances of the numerous Shakespeare’s plays I’ve seen either in English or French.

Have you read Shakespeare’s works? I’m sure you’ve read some.
What’s your favourite play? Why?


4 Comments Add yours

  1. Michael says:

    For me A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been a favourite along with Macbeth and King Lear.
    My reason for like MSND is that within that play, and you are right about the sex aspect, we get from the play how Shakespearean plays work. With everything happening in the daylight in those times audiences were told what and where the action was occurring. For example when the artisans go to perform the Pyramus and Thisbe play Theseus says “Let us hear this play”. This is the significant difference between plays today and plays back then. Today we go to see a play in Shakespeare’s time they went to hear a play.
    For many years I had students who used to compete in a national Shakespeare Competition and we often ‘played’ with the plays finding new ways to interpret and perform them..it was a lot of fun.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really enjoy a Midsummer Night’s Dream; I’d seen it performed a few times but never with sex such an obvious part of the play. Sometimes more as an innuendo…
      I’d never really thought about the hearing vs the seeing although when you think of how theatres were built few could actually see the play; mostly it was heard. From before Shakespeare; after all wasn’t the strength of Greek amphitheatres the fact that you could hear even a whisper on stage.
      I’ve never played or acted Shakespeare but we used to act Moliere and Racine, French authors you know 😉 . We weren’t good enough to find new ways to interpret things (we were in middle school) but it was fun, most of the times.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Michael says:

        Not only was it fun to find new ways of performance of the plays but we shocked a lot of the conservatives. It was pleasing in later years to see kids using some of the methods we used.

        Liked by 1 person

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