Is it worth the time to read the complete works of Shakespeare?
August 2, 2008 12:34 PM   Subscribe

Is it worth the time and effort to read the complete works of Shakespeare?

Sitting in my "books to read" pile is a second-hand copy of the complete works of Will Shakespeare. Help me decide if I should commit the time (probably a year for me) to read it. Have you read his complete works yourself? Was it a life-changing experience? Or would a re-read of only the most famous half-dozen works suffice?

Like most English speakers, I was force-fed a few of his plays and sonnets in secondary school, and have seen a few movie and stage adaptations, but have never really plunged into the deep end of the pool.
posted by schrodycat to Writing & Language (26 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
If you're looking forward to telling people that you read the complete works of Shakespeare, then absolutely. If you're a scholar or teacher of some kind, then maybe. If neither of these apply, then probably not. I mean, Troilus and Cressida? Timon of Athens?
posted by box at 12:46 PM on August 2, 2008

If you haven't the time, then don't bother. Not all the plays are topnotch. You should, perhaps, read a few plays in the "categories" of comedies, tragedies, histories, and at least one of the late plays--tragi-comedies, ie, Winter's Tale or Cymeline or The Tempest.
(yes: I have read them all..they are magnificent but only you can alter your life though insights from others might help. Best suggestion: from time to time read aloud for the best way to appreciate
the magnificence of the language employed.)
posted by Postroad at 12:47 PM on August 2, 2008

Read what you like. Shakespeare is very, very much worth reading, but in my personal opinion, not every Shakespeare play is a winner. Then again, I think Timon of Athens is a hoot and most of the comedies are skippable, so what do I know. You'll never know unless you try!

For the Shakespeare n00b, I'd recommend renting a good Shakespeare movie and turning on the subtitles. Additionally, since you're not in class, no professor is going to yell at you for reading summaries ahead of time, as if they were libretti, so that you can focus more on the language, characterization, and flow. Think of it as learning a foreign language through immersion, and then as you start to feel comfortable with the material, explore as you see fit.
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:48 PM on August 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best suggestion: from time to time read aloud for the best way to appreciate the magnificence of the language employed.

This is true. A friend of mine used to host Shakespeare reading nights, and they were a great way to introduce ourselves to some of his plays. It's also good to have other people around when you're learning Shakespeare.
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:50 PM on August 2, 2008

I like Troilus and Cressida.

They're all worth reading, if only because they influence so much other (all?) writing. But to appreciate/understand them best you probably need nicely-annotated ones so you understand all the puns and allusions. I sure as hell do.
posted by rokusan at 12:51 PM on August 2, 2008

Keep the book; it's great to have the text while watching or discussing the plays.
posted by theora55 at 1:06 PM on August 2, 2008

I bought the complete (or was it "compleat"?) works of Shakespeare as a senior in high school. We were reading our way aloud through Romeo and Juliet, and would take frequent breaks to discuss the play's meaning, or just decipher the verbiage. During this time, we saw a local production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. It was all very interesting and enlightening.

However, my attempts to work my way through the complete works on my own were aborted numerous times before I finally gave up. I would rather have been reading Bradbury or playing tennis, or watching movies. I realized that I my motivation is what box mentioned above: I just wanted to be able to say that I did it.

On the flip side, I did enjoy reading the sonnets, and I did find that reading the little bit I did was enlightening and helpful because I was writing poetry at the time.

I don't think plowing your way through it, even though you're not naturally interested in it, will provide any significant insights or epiphanies. But it wouldn't hurt to keep it handy and pick it up when the mood strikes. Maybe you will get drawn in.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 1:15 PM on August 2, 2008

Go ahead and start if you want to. Stop if it starts to be a chore and start back again later if you're so inclined. I'm assuming you're in a position where it's not a burden to hang on to one book for a while without reading it. Don't slog through thousands of pages you don't want to read just to say you've read the complete works of Shakespeare.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 1:32 PM on August 2, 2008

Troilus and Cressida?

That's a great play, one of his darkest, very heavy messages about betrayal and war.

I've read most of Shakespeare - was a lit. major and really enjoyed it all. But even I would never try to read my way straight through the plays as a project of completion. You might enjoy them more if you break them away from the group and treat each play as what it is - not just a written script that you plough through in singsong reading rhythm, but a complete work of art created for performance. I've always had the best experiences with Shakespeare when immersing myself in a play in many ways: (a) reading (b) reading aloud (c) discussing it with others (d) reading about it and (e) watching adaptation films or plays done by different directors with different creative choices.

The text alone is great stuff, but even Shakespeare knew he wasn't writing just text. He was writing for the human voice, and writing for dramatic presentation on stage. There is a skill involved in reading plays which not all readers are great at - the skill of filling in all the blanks - all the action, all the visuals, all the character appearance. Shakespeare doesn't include any of that, since he knew he would be around to help the production come together. It takes imaginative interpreters, actors and directors, to add that element -- so I find it hard to come to any full appreciation of the plays just on the text. They weren't really written to be read.

But even so, there is a lot of reward to reading in conjunction with viewing. One of Shakespeare's greatest talents is for dense and detailed metaphor. He packs more meaning into a few short lines than any other author I can think of, and sometimes you'll come across a few sentences that would zoom by onstage, but because you're reading you can really stop and spend time with them, take them apart like a delicate little watch and marvel at how the pieces fit together.

The other good reason to read Shakespeare is that once you are familiar with his writing, you'll understand the culture better. Western culture is riddled with Shakespeare allusions - I would actually bet that it's kind of impossible to ever go a week without encountering one. They will start to show up for you as you become more familiar with them. Similarly with his clearly drawn character types, people who are certainly living amongst us today. Now you'll know when someone really is pulling an Ophelia or acting Puckish.

But don't just plow through them all at once. It sounds dreary and boring. I'd say to start with some of the greatest hits. Pick a comedy, a tragedy, and a history (his 3 main genres). For the history, you can't go wrong with Henry V because you can watch the Branagh movie, which is awesome. Similarly, Much Ado About Nothing for the comedy lets you watch more Branagh. And Hamlet. Those would be a good place to start. Give each play its time and live with it a while. Read it and then read it aloud, again. Watch the movie(s). Go see some local productions. Read about the plays online.

Shakespeare's always worth it!
posted by Miko at 1:33 PM on August 2, 2008 [3 favorites]

Yes. Yes it is. Even Troilus & Cressida. Even the kinda "meh" ones like Taming of the Shrew have a lot to offer.

Hopefully, your edition has a healthy portion of annotation. Whoever claims they can decipher an entire Shakespeare play without a couple footnotes is a filthy liar. But what's awesome about reading with annotation and footnotes is that your vocabulary is going to explode with wonderful old words and phrases.

The advice about reading some of the lines out loud is spot-on. Often, a line that confuses the reader in text makes a lot more sense to the listener when spoken.

I would recommend you approach this project like so: find some brief summaries or synopsi of the plays, and begin with the ones featuring stories and characters that most interest you. Try to pick representatives from the major groups - you know, tragedy, comedy, history, yaddayadda. Choose the next plays you read based on your experiences with this first run - you dug the comedies the most? Read more of those. The histories did it for you? Read some more, and read a little about the period in question while you're at it!

I like to see a film version or a performance while the text is fresh in my mind, or even while I'm still only partway through the play. With so little in the way of stage directions in the text, seeing actors interpret it is really helpful to your rate of absorption. There's a wonderful variety of interpretations to choose from, especially of the better-known works. For the more obscure plays, check with the BBC - some years back, they staged and filmed all of old Shakes' plays, so in all cases, there's at least one film version available to you.

You may also find the reading of critical articles about the plays and characters enriching to your experience. I don't feel this is required, personally, but it does make for some nice garnish.

This is a daunting project, and I applaud you for even considering it. I would encourage you to undertake it, even if you don't wind up completing it. Reading and interpreting these plays is enormously rewarding. Grappling with some of the unanswerable questions raised by the texts is an awful lot of fun, especially in the company of like-minded readers. There are arguments about Shakespeare, his characters and his stories that will go on for as long as people speak & read English. By reading even a largish chunk of Shakespeare's oeuvre, you'll be able to take part in this immortal debate.

I suppose the attraction of that argument element would depend on your particular flavor of literary nerdiness.
posted by EatTheWeek at 1:37 PM on August 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

First of all, Timon and Troilus are both great. I think that if any of them are skippable it is maybe Pericles. But after you've read the first thirty-five you might as well go and finish that last one, right? I'd say about half the plays are great, another quarter are really good, and the last quarter are good or okay. None of them are really a waste of time, IMO.

So I would give as an answer a definite "yes!" but only if you're actually enjoying yourself. It was a life-changing experience for me as it was what convinced me to become an English major with a focus on Renaissance drama...but then I didn't actually finish reading all of them until a couple of weeks ago (I read 1-35 in high school but just couldn't get into the Merry Wives of Windsor). It's not like you gain an XP bonus that only takes effect after you've read all of them.
posted by phoenixy at 1:48 PM on August 2, 2008


Buy a copy of Harold Bloom's Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human and use it as a guide. Bloom is an arrogant, narcissistic blowhard and you will often find yourself shaking your fist at the page. But he's also a colossal genius with wonderful literary sensitivity. Far better to read with him as your guide than to muck through it alone. You could buy the Arden volumes and use the commentary and notes there, but you'd miss the overarching structure that Bloom provides. Even if it's wrong (and it most certainly is), it'll help you relate the various elements of the corpus with one another, which is the point of reading the collected works as opposed to, say, a single play here or there.
posted by felix betachat at 1:55 PM on August 2, 2008

All of them one after the other? Egads. That's a bit much. And I say this as someone who concentrated on this period for my B.A. in English.

If I was going to come up with a nice reading schedule, I'd alternate major Shakespearean plays with the greatest works from his contemporaries to present-day. It's fun to see the reverberations of language and themes throughout dramatic literature.

As for annotated works, the thing that I would most recommend is to see if you can find something that explains the cultural in-jokes -- the equivalents to "there once was a girl from Nantucket..." -- so that you can catch the references. The allegedly comedic bits are a whole lot funnier when you can actually get the jokes.
posted by desuetude at 2:33 PM on August 2, 2008

Shakespeare was primarily a playwright. Don't read the complete works, unless you're a scholar. But go see as many stage or film productions as you can!
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:39 PM on August 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

The answer is yes. Maybe alternate between tragedies, comedies and histories, but if you have an itch to read them, go ahead. And don't hesitate to declaim aloud if the mood strikes you, except maybe on the bus.
posted by zadcat at 3:05 PM on August 2, 2008

Nthing the suggestion to watch a lot of Shakespeare--the comedies, in particular, benefit incredibly from actors who know what they're doing. Instead of just trying to go straight through the plays, a fun project might be to read a play and then go forwards and backwards, looking at what inspired Shakespeare and what Shakespeare has inspired. (For example: when I teach King Lear in intro to lit analysis, we look at Lear, a bit of Geoffrey of Monmouth and King Leir, A Thousand Acres, and either Ran or The Madness of King George.)
posted by thomas j wise at 3:15 PM on August 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Seconding Cool Papa Bell. Plays are meant to be performed and watched. Reading Shakespeare is like reading a really good movie script--it's no substitute for the real experience. (Although it might be nice to have the script around later to look up your favorite dialogue.)
posted by Pater Aletheias at 4:19 PM on August 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Well, I'm a big believer that you should read only what you feel like reading. That said, there's nothing like Shakespeare. I'm not quite sure what the point is of reading all his plays at once (and, in general, the middle and late ones are better than the really early ones), but reading them (not at once, but many of them over and over) absolutely has been worth it for me. Shakespeare has affected me more than any other writer. Yes, he has changed my life. And his plays are so complex that he continues to change my life.

It's hard explain how he's changed me, because we're talking about something like love. But I'll try. I'll try to at least explain why I love to read him. But first I'd like to tackle this:

Plays are meant to be performed and watched. Reading Shakespeare is like reading a really good movie script--it's no substitute for the real experience.

I'm always skeptical of passive-voice declarations like "plays are meant to be performed." WHO meant them to be performed and why should I care what he meant? We don't know Shakespeare's intentions (and even if we did, why should we care?) Since he was writing for a theatre company, no doubt he did mean them to be performed. But he and/or his colleagues might well have meant them to be read to. People did publish plays (for readers, not actors) in Elizabethan England.

But I don't really care what they were "meant" for. All I know is that I LOVE reading them. (And I'm not alone in that.) And I say that as someone who runs a Shakespearean theatre company. I'm currently rehearsing "Cymbeline," and I love watching and listening to the actors perform. But I love reading the play, too. Each is a totally different experience with its own benefits. Watching a play is dynamic. But the words go by so fast. When you read Shakespeare, you can slow down and savor the words.

Only read Shakespeare if you love words. (Or perhaps, if you want to learn to love them.) That's why I love reading Shakespeare. His plots are fun, but there are other writers who are better plot-smiths; his psychological observation is acute. It's really first-rate, and he created some of the most amazing characters ever (Falstaff, Lear, Hamlet, Shylock, Imogen, Beatrice....). But there are other writers -- Chekhov, Austen, Dickens, etc. -- who craft amazing characters. What Shakespeare does better than anyone else (a subjective claim, I grant you) is string words together. He plays English like Itzhak Pearlman plays the violin.

What I mean is this. If you want to read about joy, read Shakespeare, because he found the best way to describe joy. His words will make you feel joy while you're reading them. Same thing if you want to read about anger, jealousy, lust, fear, etc... THAT'S how Shakespeare changed my life -- by giving me words to express my inner-most feelings, by expressing them better than I ever could. And because he wrote about every sort of person, different words affect me as I age and change.

Here is Imogen talking about what she would have done if only she could have been on the dock to see her husband sail away. He's been banished and she thinks she'll never see him again:

I would have broke my eyestrings, cracked them, but
To to look upon him till the diminution
Of space had pointed him sharp as my needle;
Nay, followed him till he had melted from
The smallness of a gnat to air...

(Rough translation, for those new to Shakespeare: I would have broken my eyes, cracked them in fact, straining to see him until he was so far away, he looked like the point of a needle. No! I would have watched him until he had shrunk from the size of a gnat to thin air!)

The problem: Shakespeare was writing in a foreign language. His words will cast spells on you, but ONLY if you understand them. And you can't magically do that. You have to be willing to study. You have to read lots of notes. You may need multiple editions (I buy used copies whenever I can. They're cheap, and each publisher has different notes.) Not everyone is willing to do this work, and that's understandable, but I promise you that if you do it -- and if any part of you loves words -- the payoff will be tremendous.

(As with any language, the more you read, the easier it gets. There are tons of Shakespeare plays I can pick up and understand as if they were written by David Mamet. But that's because I put in the work, earlier.)

Note: the paperback Folger editions are great, because the notes are on pages facing the text. it's a pain when you have to look down at the bottom of the page for notes or -- worse -- flip to the back of the book. That said, the Folger's notes are a little basic. The Arden and Oxford editions go into more depth. Buy multiple editions!

Because Elizabethan English is close to contemporary English, it's possible to get the gist of Shakespeare without doing the work. And it's much easier to get the basic idea of what's going on by watching actors perform than by reading, because a lot of stuff that you don't understand on the page will become clearer via body language and inflection. (I suspect this is why people say Shakespeare is better to see than read -- when they see it they have an easier time understanding the plot.) But you'll still be just getting the gist. You won't be reveling in the words themselves. (And you'll totally understand the plot if, when you're reading, you read the notes.)

I am not belittling performances. There's nothing more thrilling than seeing a great actor -- like Branaugh or McKellen -- perform Shakespeare. But it's even more thrilling if you REALLY understand what he's saying.

Personally, I urge you NOT to read Harold Bloom or other academic stuff. I recommend "Thinking Shakespeare," by Barry Edelstein. (Here's my review of it.) It's a guide for actors, but it's great for general readers too. Edelstein really delves into the mechanics of the language in a lively and playful way. I agree with everyone here who is telling you to read Shakespeare out loud. Edelstein will teach you how.

If you have the cash, I recommend buying The Complete Arkangel Shakespeare These are very clear (and generally well-acted) audio performances. And they're uncut. I like to "live with" particular Shakespeare plays for a while. For instance, I'll pick up a slim copy of "King Lear" and carry it around with me. I'll also listen to the Arkangel production on my iPod, sometimes when I'm lying in bed. Or I'll listen and read at the same time.
posted by grumblebee at 6:15 PM on August 2, 2008 [7 favorites]

The complete works? You mean, like, each and every thing he ever cranked out?

No. Not in the least. And this goes for every writer, from lowest to highest. Nobody bats 1.0. Every writer has a few stinkers to his or her name.

It's important to note that Shakespeare's career didn't fit the stereotype of the starving artist slaving away in a garret for years. Shakespeare was a professional. He had a whole bunch of actors and other theater staff who depended on him and a professional reputation to uphold as well. And, like everyone else, he had financial obligations to fulfill. He didn't have the luxury of spending five years, ten years on a draft in the hope that it would someday embody his capital-V Vision. Theater in his time was a mass medium like television. People would take the boats across the Thames to be entertained on the weekends. And there had to be something there for them.

So, given these financial pressures, it's not too surprising that some of his plays kind of suck. The critical consensus is that Titus Andronicus is the absolute worst. I have never read this, myself, and I don't think view this as a gaping hole in my education.
posted by jason's_planet at 9:23 PM on August 2, 2008

Adding my voice that you should watch them rather than read them.
posted by Lleyam at 4:21 AM on August 3, 2008

The complete works? You mean, like, each and every thing he ever cranked out? No. Not in the least. And this goes for every writer, from lowest to highest. Nobody bats 1.0. Every writer has a few stinkers to his or her name. ...The critical consensus is that Titus Andronicus is the absolute worst. I have never read this, myself, and I don't think view this as a gaping hole in my education.

Personally, I can't think of a shoddier, drying, colder reason for reading than to plug up holes in my education. Read for pleasure! If some of Shakespeare's plays don't give you pleasure (after you've done the work you need to do to understand them), stop reading them.

I agree, they're uneven. I have a hard time getting through "Comedy of Errors" (in print or on stage), but even the clunkiest plays have gems in them. For instance, the "Henry VI" cycle is very early Shakespeare*. It lacks the psychological depth of the middle and late plays, and some of the verse is lackluster. Yet if you skip it, you miss out on gold like the following, from "Henry VI, Part III" -- a speech in which the king mourns the fact that his life is so complex. He wishes he could live like a simple swain (a shepherd) and carve dials (sundials). Speak it aloud!

O God! methinks it were a happy life
To be no better than a homely swain,
To sit upon a hill, as I do now,
To carve out dials quaintly, point by point,
Thereby to see the minutes how they run:
How many makes the hour full complete,
How many hours brings about the day,
How many days will finish up the year,
How many years a mortal man may live.
When this is known, then to divide the times:
So many hours must I tend my flock,
So many hours must I take my rest,
So many hours must I contemplate,
So many hours must I sport myself,
So many days my ewes have been with young,
So many weeks ere the poor fools will ean,
So many years ere I shall shear the fleece:
So minutes, hours, days, months, and years,
Pass'd over to the end they were created,
Would bring white hairs unto a quiet grave.

And I don't know how anyone could hate this juicy bit from "Titus Andronicus":

I am Revenge: sent from the infernal kingdom,
To ease the gnawing vulture of thy mind,
By working wreakful vengeance on thy foes.
Come down, and welcome me to this world's light;
Confer with me of murder and of death:
There's not a hollow cave or lurking-place,
No vast obscurity or misty vale,
Where bloody murder or detested rape
Can couch for fear, but I will find them out;
And in their ears tell them my dreadful name,
Revenge, which makes the foul offender quake.

* a dead giveaway that this is early Shakespeare is the frequency of "end-stopped" lines. Note that in the speech, almost every verse line has a natural pause at its end (in this case, commas). As he matured, Shakespeare got more experimental with the verse form. He broke clauses over multiple lines; he finished sentences mid-line. For instance, note the punctuation in this famous bit from "The Tempest":

How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in't!
posted by grumblebee at 7:35 AM on August 3, 2008

What Miko said. What grumblebee said.

Shakespeare has something to offer everyone, and everyone will find different things in his work. To your question: yes, it is well worth a year-and-a-bit of your life to read the complete works (not just the plays but the poems too.)

Different plays and poems will suit different times and moods in your life, so you needn't read in any particular order: just pick one and go with it.

Have fun.
posted by Pallas Athena at 10:55 AM on August 3, 2008

Performances are a wonderful way to experience Shakespeare, but I also have to disagree with the proposal that they should be seen instead of read. Both, please.
posted by desuetude at 1:09 PM on August 3, 2008

The critical consensus is that Titus Andronicus is the absolute worst. I have never read this, myself, and I don't think view this as a gaping hole in my education.

I know that it's trendy to dig Titus Andronicus after Julie Taymor made Titus, but seriously, it's not a bad play. Also, Titus is thoroughly, thoroughly awesome. I would even go so far as to recommend it as a starting point.
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:47 PM on August 3, 2008

Grumblebee, that was great.

About 20 years ago I read Hamlet very slowly over a period of evenings, stopping every few minutes to ruminate and savor. It was one of the best reading experiences I have ever had. The high intelligence and biting wit of Prince Hamlet popped off the page like a hologram. What a companion!

I hate reading slowly. But I have never forgotten that experience. In fact just last week I bought Hamlet in paperback and am going to do it again. Choose a play and try that instead of gulping down bucketloads.
posted by mono blanco at 12:58 AM on August 4, 2008

Response by poster: (OP)
What great answers, everyone!

I and my bosom must debate awhile, but I think I'll be more selective than a straight slog from cover to cover. And I'll be sure to read the best bits aloud.
posted by schrodycat at 5:15 PM on August 5, 2008

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