"Trust not my reading, nor my observations..."
June 23, 2019 2:47 PM   Subscribe

I find myself with some free time, and so I'm embarking on a project I've wanted to do for a while, which is a full read-through of Shakespeare. I've read some of the plays, seen many performances, and had all the normal exposure throughout my education, but there are many plays I haven't read or seen and have no knowledge of, and I'd like to fill in those gaps and gain a deeper appreciation. I have my wonderful Riverside Shakespeare, and a friend or two to discuss with. What resources are out there that I should be drawing on, that would enrich this enterprise? What should I keep in mind? How should I approach this in order to get the most out of it? I'm interested from an academic and a literary perspective, but also as entertainment and fun, so I'm looking for a wide variety of resources and advice, including performances. Thanks!
posted by cosmic owl to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Might be interesting to have a good dictionary like the OED on hand, something with word histories provided. I would think what words and how Shakespeare used them would be fascinating considering his influence on the language.
posted by Fukiyama at 2:51 PM on June 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

First thing that comes to mind is the excellent Chop Bard podcast.
posted by demonic winged headgear at 3:06 PM on June 23, 2019 [2 favorites]

You should read Thinking Shakespeare, by Barry Edelstein, and if you can ever attend one of his Thinking Shakespeare Live! performances you should do it!

I went to it last year at the Folger, where I see the plays, and it really helped me a lot.

Here's a podcast that is an abbreviated version of Thinking Shakespeare Live!
posted by jgirl at 3:34 PM on June 23, 2019

You should have a history of England at hand, just for a paragraph or two of the conventional historical view of the various English kings.
posted by SemiSalt at 3:46 PM on June 23, 2019

Fundamentally, you will understand Shakespeare's plays better if you understand more about how they are (and were) performed. These were not written primarily as literary texts; they were meant to be played! It's like sheet music -- you can learn from it by just reading it, but you'll get so much more out of hearing it too. In the same way, your understanding and enjoyment of these texts will be greatly enhanced if you both read them and see them performed, or perform them yourself! If there's any chance you can get friends together for a dramatic reading, that can be a great learning experience and a really fun time. And of course, seek out all kinds of performances -- live is best, but there are many good filmed versions as well. As for other resources...

In the spirit of understanding the performance, you might enjoy reading about Original Practice. The book I recommend is Patrick Tucker's Secrets of Acting Shakespeare: The Original Approach. The basic idea is this: Shakespeare's actors performed up to a dozen plays in rep at once, and learned new plays within as little as two weeks. They did not use contemporary rehearsal processes (everybody gets the full script, has a read-through together, rehearses extensively, etc.). Instead, they got only their own cues and lines, and used a variety of interesting techniques, supported by specific cues in the text, to speed rehearsal along. Some contemporary companies try to follow these methods under the name of "Original Practice" or "Unrehearsed Technique" -- if there are any in your area, check 'em out for an interesting take! (If this topic interests you you might also like learning about Original Pronounciation.)

It can be illuminating to examine different versions of Shakespeare's texts. When I direct, I start with a modern version (like the Riverside), but I also get a copy of the first folio (I love the Applause editions; you can also find folio facsimiles free online). Patrick Tucker gives some good explanations of the usefulness of the first folio; modern editors have generally tried to smooth away all the rough edges of grammar and meter, but in the more idiosyncratic first folio, you can often find text that better supports an actor's emotional choices (for instance, a long line may indicate emotionally disordered thinking, or a sudden break into prose may come at a moment when someone's social mask has dropped). It's certainly very interesting to compare and contrast the modern and folio versions. The Applause editions mentioned above give very helpful glosses that highlight interesting differences between folios, quartos, and modern versions.

A Shakespeare glossary can be very helpful. It looks like Shakespeare's Words has a free online searchable version (including the great notes on language that are in the book -- I recommend the Thou/You section as a starting point). There are plenty of other good glossaries (and pronunciation dictionaries, if you want them).

One last recommendation: this summer, I got a great book about music in Shakespeare -- it's called Shakespeare's Songbook, and the accompanying CD is also available on Spotify.
posted by ourobouros at 4:20 PM on June 23, 2019 [5 favorites]

I like to watch the relevant episode of the PBS show Shakespeare Uncovered after reading each play.
posted by TrarNoir at 4:56 PM on June 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

The podcast In Our Time has a bunch of episodes about various Shakespeare shows with really interesting information, historical context, etc. I learned a lot.
posted by bleep at 5:01 PM on June 23, 2019

- For getting through the history plays, I'd recommend watching The Hollow Crown, especially the 2012 adaptations for Richard II with Ben Whishaw and the Henry IV & V plays with Simon Russell Beale. Both earned well-deserved BAFTAs for their performances, and as ourobouros noted above, Shakespeare's writing was meant to be performed - it'll enhance your enjoyment and likely your understanding of the dialogue if you can actually hear people saying it, and it'll be even more enjoyable from some of Britain's best thesps.

- I'm not someone who enjoyed studying Shakespeare's plays in college, but I did appreciate them a little more after reading approx. 75% of Greenblatt's The Norton Shakespeare over 2 semesters. You might be interested in checking out the Norton to compare with the Riverside to see how the footnotes and academic commentary differs. This 1998 Harvard magazine review brings up an interesting point of comparison, for example:
In its simplest expression, that means that in the Norton Shakespeare, of which Greenblatt is general editor, when Claudio in Much Ado about Nothing says he'd marry Antonio's daughter "were she an Ethiope," Greenblatt remarks on it with this footnote: "In other words, black, and therefore, according to the Elizabethan racist stereotype, ugly." Says Greenblatt, "Were she revealed to be an Ethiope means to an Elizabethan 'were she the most ghastly thing to marry imaginable.' Which I think is funny, because I think in our own aesthetic we regard Ethiopians as ravishingly beautiful." The footnote is just one of thousands written by Greenblatt and his fellow editors, but he cites it because, he says, it reflects a "combination of understanding something about the period--that black meant ugly--and understanding something about what our needs are. From our perspective, that's a racist stereotype." The Riverside Shakespeare doesn't footnote the word at all. "Maybe they thought it was a little embarrassing to notice it, that you might sound--I don't know--too politically correct," he says pointedly.
posted by rather be jorting at 5:28 PM on June 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

The Teaching Company has a number of courses on Shakespeare. These cost money, but their courses are very high quality (and I personally think it’s good to pay people for their work and that the idea that everything should be free is Ruining the World). I have been using their courses for my current project of reading Homer, and they’re a huge help.
posted by FencingGal at 5:48 PM on June 23, 2019

The Globe Player app by Shakespeare's Globe in London gets you access to filmed versions of all their productions, which you can buy as downloads or watch online. I think their Henry IV-V cycle with Jamie Parker and Roger Allam as Falstaff knocks spots off The Hollow Crown. There's also a good bit of free content up there.
posted by Pallas Athena at 6:09 PM on June 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

I second in our time podcast. Another BBC show called Shakespeare Sessions also has radio drama of Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Two Noble Kinsmen, and some other of the plays. I think they're brilliant.

I have the Oxford University Press series. (I really like them.) The section of the introduction on stage and screen adaptations are very helpful - they explain different stagings and how the plays were interpreted over time. (I'm not familiar with Riverside. I assume they also have a similar section?)

Also look around for contemporary newspaper reviews of performances to see how the plays are interpreted right now.

In one way, the English history plays are a good place to start. The story lines are relatively straight forward, it's either war with France or a civil war - yes, that's a glib over generalisation, but the plot lines and the plot devices are generally more realistic and less complicated than in some of the other plays (e.g. the fairies and dreams as in Midsummer Night or the love rectangles and mistaken twin identifications in other comedies).

(I'm doing something similar, trying to read all the plays this year. I'm enjoying it. I hope you do too!)
posted by philfromhavelock at 6:15 PM on June 23, 2019

Ages ago, the BBC recorded a full set of the plays. They may be your best option for seeing performances of the more obscure ones (though that freaking Titus Andronicus haunts me 25 years later).
posted by praemunire at 6:54 PM on June 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

All of these suggestions are excellent -- especially the filmed performances that people are suggesting! Streaming services are excellent; lots of stuff is on Netflix, too. The old BBC Shakespeare's can be hit or miss, but they are complete.

I'm a Shakespeare prof: a couple of suggestions I routinely make to my students:

1) It helps to literally 'read along' with a filmed performance -- the play will have been cut, and there's loads and loads of slight and not so slight variances between Quarto and Folio versions of the plays** but you'll still have a clearer idea of who's doing what, particularly in the histories, which have huge casts of aristocrats who all have multiple titles and family names. Having a face to attach to the name/title/family cognomen helps keep things clear.

2) A big single-volume treatment of the plays is really helpful: I really love Marjory Garber's "Shakespeare After All", based on her lectures over 30 years of teaching at Yale. It's insightful close reading, accessible and engaging, and she deals with everything, including Venus and Adonis, Henry VIII and Two Noble Kinsmen. Bloom's "The Invention of the Human" is a much more conservative (too much so for me) overview, and it's similarly pitched to an intelligent general audience.

3) Good editions are important. The Riverside is great (and an excellent workout for the biceps!) but I second the Norton Shakespeare: the introductions are great, the general introduction invaluable, the annotation is accessible and helpful and it suggests further reading if you're really taken with a particular play. And it comes in splits: you can buy all the comedies or all the tragedies. I routinely assign the single volume Oxford World's Classics to teach: the introductions are wonderful.

4) Having a sense of the period, the playing spaces and cultural conditions is key: Ouroboros' comment is excellent and I second it all, but having a sense of the stages and audiences the plays were *originally* performed for is important. There really isn't a book written on this for a general audience, but Gurr's "The Shakespearean Stage" is now in its 4th or 5th edition since the 70s. I have friends who rail against the Gurr hegemony, and I can pick nits with him too, but it's invaluable and readable. And for the Histories, Saccio's "Shakespeare's English Kings" is super old but very handy. Also for fun and context: Greenblatt's "Will in the World" and Shapiro's " A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599" and "The Year of Lear: 1606" are all readable, lively and fascinating.

Don't start right in with the early comedies, as Two Gentlemen is really pretty dire. And read the Histories back to front: read the Second Tetralogy FIRST (Richard II, Henry IV 1 & 2, Henry V) and then go on to the first one (the 3 parts of Henry VI and Richard III).

**Quick textual note: the plays we have are all copies that were printed in the period: manuscript copies of scripts largely didn't survive, because they were working playhouse documents. Only plays that made it to the press survived, and with Shakespeare there's usually a difference between the text of the quartos (small, cheap single play editions, often knocked off quickly and sometimes pirated) and the Folio (big, expensive edition of the collected works, published after Shakespeare's death by two members of his company). People fight like cats in a sack over the reasons for this.
posted by jrochest at 10:55 PM on June 23, 2019 [4 favorites]

Another podcast suggestion: Shakespeare Unlimited from the Folger Shakespeare Library. They interview academics, historians, and actors to get a variety of takes on the plays and Shakespeare's world.

Speaking of Shakespeare's world, the BBC did a limited series podcast called Shakespeare's Restless World which takes an object from each play and traces its origin and use (in the play but also just in general Elizabethan life.)

And lastly, there is an Oxford academic podcast called Approaching Shakespeare. I think it's audio recordings of university lectures; in some of the recordings there's a particularly coughy student, but most are decent quality. Each lecture takes on a single play.
posted by basalganglia at 3:50 AM on June 24, 2019

Seconding FencingGal's idea, but with a specific recommendation: Peter Saccio's "William Shakespeare Comidies, Histories, and Tragedies" (Audible link) (The Great Courses link).
posted by hankscorpio83 at 5:57 AM on June 24, 2019

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