Monday, October 4, 2010

Shakespeare After All

The title refers both to a 2005 book by popular Shakespeare scholar Marjorie Garber and an accompanying class given by Garber at Harvard University in 2007 whose sessions were recorded and are now freely available online. The book is a hefty one-thousand pages, devoting a chapter each to the thirty-eight plays now considered to have been written by Shakespeare. The course, obviously more stretched for time, looks at only eleven works of his later career, addressing them in the order in which they were (probably) written, starting at Troilus and Cressida, working through his classic tragedies and romances, and ending with The Tempest.

Small guess, then, as to what I've been up to lately... I had a mission, as far back as August 2009, to read all of the Bard's plays, and by September of this year I had read eleven. Now... not to make the greatest author of all time sound like a chore, but I was having some trouble keeping a schedule, knocking the plays down like so many carnival-midway targets. I was reading haphazardly, if not quite randomly. I started with Hamlet, almost a year ago, simply because Hamlet is all the rage these days. And why did I read The Taming of the Shrew about a month ago? I wanted to watch Kiss Me, Kate and felt no self-respecting self-proclaimed "Shakespearean" could watch that jaunty 50s-era musical without first suffering through its source material.

But now I'm all business: in about half a month I've gone through Troilus and Cressida, Measure for Measure... Othello is next. I have settled into a routine: I read the play (in my big crappy one-volume complete works collection), then read the accompanying chapter in Shakespeare After All (which I borrowed from the library, but you can read most of it on Google Books or, ya know, buy it), and then finally download the appropriate lecture.

The scheme has worked out just fine. In fact, I recommend it. It's perfect for those who, like me, are working through the Shakespearean canon for the first time, hopefully laying a foundation for years of rereadings, related reading, and viewing of stage productions: a lifetime of Shakespeare... Or a week... or a month...or a year... In any case, it's very likely you'll walk away with something -- it is Shakespeare, after all, and any time you devote to it is time well spent. But if you're floundering a bit, or you're having trouble just jumping in, I can't think of anyone better to assist you than Marjorie Garber.

Garber has already devoted much of her life to these works so she's fitting, not to mention willing, to help others on their way. She has packed her book with sharp, close-to-the-text analyses of each work, ideas so solid that some might be tempted to commandeer them for their own, a crime called plagiarism that's ironically frowned upon in most academic (yes, even Shakespearean) circles. A bit of reading Shakespeare After All and then you can knick a few lines like these, to impress your friends into boredom: "The outer world of Hamlet, the play, mirrors the state of mind of Hamlet, the character," or "In Twelfth Night the complacent, passive natives of Illyria are stirred into action by the arrival of the very active foreigners" (principally Viola, who disguises herself as "Cesario," and Sebastian, her twin brother)...

As if being a thief were not crime enough, I've gone and committed the crime of enthusiasm. "I can't help it, your Honor!" (That's how I'll plead my case in court.) Garber's enthusiasm is as infectious as her ideas. And, besides, it hardly feels like theft at all since most of her assertions are so sound, so close to the text itself that they feel like common sense. Yes, common sense: perhaps the highest compliment a piece of literary criticism or analysis can receive. Such nonsense doesn't hold punch with other critics -- no, they need something wacky and dense to pull apart with tweezers -- but surely the common crowd has sense enough to pay some attention to this book.

And while you're at it don't forget the accompanying course, either! the course that compliments the book so well. Part lecture, part discussion, the course allows Garber to fill in and flesh out some of the gaps she left in her book, and creates a forum where various forms of tongue-tied stuttering students can ask questions of Garber, and unconsciously fawn before her greatness. The teacher/writer herself, however, takes it all in stride and generally answers their questions well, with charming alacrity...

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