The Plays Of Shakespeare

An Introduction To This Subsection

About 2 years ago, I began a intense interest in the plays of William Shakespeare. At the time, I had just finished reading the autobiography of John Hauseman. You remember, Kingsfield, the law professor from The Paper Chase. Before he was Kingsfield, Hauseman was a producer and director. In his autobiography, Hauseman talked about staging the plays of Shakespeare with Orson Welles in the off Broadway Mercury Theatre. Oddly enough, his discussion of the staging approaches sparked my interest in the plays. I guess I felt that if they could stage the plays so imaginatively, then they might be worth reading.

I don't mind telling you that I approached reading the plays with some trebidation. After all, everyone knows that the language is contorted, right! Well, everyone is wrong. The first play that I read was Macbeth. Truthfully, I was quite blown away. This play is incredibly intense and nothing like I had anticipated.

Eventually, I read all 37 plays by Shakespeare. This experience was the most enjoyable reading experience of my life. Shakespeare's plays are just amazing. The stories cover the range of possible human situations including sex, murder, incest, torture, mutilation, humor, puns, witty interchange, and political intrigue. His characterizations are the most sublime and intuitive that you will ever read. As far as his language, he is absolutely elegant. His poetic structure and choice of phrases are simply brain candy for the mind.

If you have never read Shakespeare, then start with Macbeth. At the end of this section, I discuss the reason for the reticence by most persons to read Shakespeare's plays. I can tell you, however, that I am glad that I overcame my natural resistance and read all of the plays.
Some Shakespeare Favorites

Favorite Quote From Shakespeare

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Macbeth, Act V, Scene v, Line 19
Favorite Play From Shakespeare

My all time, hands-down, no competitors favorite play by Shakespeare is Richard III. According to most analyses, the characterization of Richard in this play is taken from histories to which Shakespeare had access. According to Shakespeare's sources, Richard basicly murdered his way to the kingship -- including a brother, lots of in-laws, and his own nephews. Eventually, he becomes a dictatorial tyrant, causing a rebellion.

But, Shakespeare does a turn better. He makes the Richard character into a likeable scumbag. The guy is a two-faced as they come. He is friendly to everyone's face, acting humble, while he is simultaneously performing political manipulations and murdering anyone who stands in his way.

Richard III represents everything that is vile and scummy in the royal family of England. After reading the play, you will understand why the current royal family is capable of such silly behavior.
Favorite Movie Made From Play Of Shakespeare

This choice will probably not be a surprise to you, but my favorite movie based on a play by Shakespeare is a version of Richard III produced in 1995. This version is filmed with excellent panoramic detail and does an excellent job of telling the story in a continuous sequence. I really like the sound track also.

For a setting, the movie is cast in 1920's England. The sound track of the movie is jazz and swing music from that era. This really adds to the realism of the movie for the typical moviegoer.

The movie begins with a civil war in which Edward, Richard's brother, usurps the English throne. The first five minutes of this film is a panorama of the civil war showing tanks, using music, and ending with Richard killing the current king, who was Henry VI.

Actual dialog begins at a celebration banquet for Edward's accession to the throne. Richard begins his great opening soliloquy as a congratulatory speach to Edward. This presents a problem for the filmers, since the second half of this monologue is about Richard's secret plotting to take over the throne. So, in the middle of the monologue, Richard transitions to a different context. He talks about his plots to the audience while looking back at you from a urinal. You can guess what he is doing at the urinal!

I think I have seen this movie at least a dozen times. I get more out of the movie every time I see it. If you want an easy visual introduction to the plays of Shakespeare, this movie is a great start.
The Controversy Of The Authorship Of Shakespeare

As you probably know, some critics seem to feel that Shakespeare was not a real person. In otherwords, Shakespeare was a pen name for an individual who could not reveal their true identity for political or safety reasons. They also feel this to be true due to an amazing lack of real material records documenting the life and activity of Shakespeare.

Candidates usually considered include Sir Francis Bacon, Roger Manners, the fifth Earl of Rutland, William Stanley, the sixth Earl of Derby, Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford, and Christopher Marlowe, one of Shakespeare's major competitors.

I don't have enough space here to go through all the arguments about each one of these possibilities. The latest book on the subject is Shakespeare: The Evidence by Ian Wilson. This excellent book does a pretty thorough and believable job of bashing the alternatives and establishing the existence of a real person named Shakespeare.

All the same, why are the four documented, hand written signatures written by Shakespeare so completely different? Read Wilson's book for the solution to this little gem of a mystery.

The Controversy Of The Character Richard III

This controversy is another interesting aspect of Shakespeare's plays. Apparently, a healthy percentage of England's population feel that Shakespeare was really unfair to Richard III. Seems that Richard did quite a bit of good. These critics say the Shakespeare took extreme literary license with Richard's character.

In fact, this notion has become sufficiently popular that a large number of persons have formed a society devoted to reversing this negative perception of Richard III. Yes, they have a web site: The Richard III Society. The society has branches in both England and the US. They also publish a newsletter and some on-line papers.

Recently, I picked up a copy of Richard III: England's Black Legend by Desmond Seward. This book effectively establishes the accuracy of Shakespeare's portrayal of the Richard character based upon very solid research.

The book is even more convincing because the author spent 30 years believing that Shakespeare was wrong. So, he actually did the research and found that Shakespeare was right on target. As a result, he switched his own beliefs.
Some Quotes You May Recognize

Listed below, you can find a few interesting quotes from various plays by Shakespeare. You may be surprised at how many of these are an integral part of the English language!

>> Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
     Hamlet, Act I, Scene ii, Line 66

>> For 'tis the sport to have the engineer
     Hoist with his own petar.
     Hamlet, Act III, Scene iv, Line 207

>> This was the most unkindest cut of all.
     Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene ii, Line 185

>> The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.
     Henry VI, Part Two, Acti IV, Scene ii, Line 75

>> Doth thy other mouth call me?
     The Tempest, Act II, Scene ii, Line 98

This last is a personal favorite!
Books Of Quotes That You'll Like

    A Dictionary of Quotations From Shakespeare
         by Margaret Miner and Hugh Rawson
    Shakespeare's Insults
         by Wayne Hill and Cynthia Ottchen
Why Most People Dislike Shakespeare

As the comedian Dennis Miller would say, "I don't want to go off on a rant, but . . .". After completely reading the canon of Shakespeare, I have thought long and hard about my initial aversion to his plays. And, in my case, I feel that I have to lay the blame for this aversion directly at the feet of the secondary school system in the US!

In high school, I was forced to memorize passages from several of Shakespeare's plays. Like most persons, I really hate forced memorization. Worse yet, the passages are not impressive when memorized out of context. Let me give you an example. I was forced to memorize the famous dagger speech from Macbeth. If you don't remember this scene, the passage starts, "Is this a dagger I have before me, the handle in my hand?" What a pain in the rear to memorize!

Now, when I started the project of reading the whole canon, I first read Macbeth. The dagger speech takes place some time after Macbeth has killed MacDuff, the king. Macbeth has been slowly but surely going mad with guilt over the murder he committed. When he sees the dagger and makes the speech, the character is in a context of intense emotional stress. The passage is a fevered expression by a near mad man consumed with such extreme guilt that he is actually hallucinating the knife he used to murder the king. Hey, this whole thing gives me goosebumps just thinking about it. Quite a bit different from simply memorizing the passage, wouldn't you say?

As a result of the lack of insight into the literary aspects of the plays by my typically brain dead teachers, I had the same hangup most others do. Shakespeare is simply a pain in the ass. But, I managed to get over my resistance. Try it, you'll like it!