Projects · Reading · Shakespeare

On reading every Shakespeare play

Yesterday morning, just after 7am, I finished reading “The Tempest”, Shakespeare’s last play. These days I get up early if I can. If I get to bed before 10.30pm (which was unthinkable until about five years ago) I generally get up before 6am the next day. If I could control my sleep cycle (which would mean never going out at night) I would sleep from 10pm to 5am every night, and get 90 minutes to myself every morning before anyone else in the family wakes up. It’s an introvert thing: we need time to ourselves.

I don’t read anywhere near as much as I would like, and last year set myself the goal of reading a Shakespeare play a week. It seemed manageable: 5 Acts per play, spread across a 7-day week, 37 plays in all. I began at the end of April 2015, hoping to finish at the beginning of January 2016. My decision coincided with the announcement of stage productions of plays that I had only seen once on stage and was keen to see again: a local student production of “Two Gentlemen of Verona”, directed by Sir Trevor Nunn, “King John” at the Globe, and all three parts of “Henry VI” at the Rose Kingston, as part of the War of the Roses cycle, and also directed by Sir Trevor Nunn.

It took a month longer than planned, but I got bogged down with “Love’s Labour’s Lost” and “Much Ado About Nothing”. I expected to get bogged down with “Timon of Athens” too, having never read it before, but enjoyed it and read it in a few days in January. This meant that I had read every Shakespeare play at least once, and to complete the set this time round I re-read “The Tempest”, one of my favourites. It was a pleasure to read it again.

When I completed my aim of seeing at least one stage production of every Shakespeare play it was also “Timon of Athens” that completed the set. It was an “experimental” production in Stratford-on-Avon as part of their Complete Works Season in 2006. I have seen enough “influenced by” and “adapted from” productions, and enough shows in fringe theatres where gunshot seems to be obligatory, to make me appreciate straight well-funded productions, like the RSC’s “Henry V” and “Richard II” which I was fortunate enough to see at the Barbican in recent months, thanks to my son’s godmother Angela.

Locally posters are on display for a forthcoming adaptation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Lyric Hammersmith. They show the play’s title and the only other prominent words displayed are “wittily experimental”. My heart sinks a little every time I see them.

My approach to reading the plays this time round has been “blended” (books, computers, eReader, phone). I now have each play as a Word document, with Act and Scene headings marked as Heading 1 and Heading 2, and in most cases have highlighted in bold the lines that meant most to me. I was also reading the plays on my Kindle and on my phone when out and about, and in many cases “on vinyl”, books that I already owned or in some cases bought along the way. I re-read my “New Swan Shakespeare” Advanced Series copy of “Hamlet”, used at A-Level, and wasn’t too embarrassed by my annotations. They’re in pencil, and I need a magnifying glass to read them now.

I set aside a pile of books to take on holiday to France and Italy last summer, to read on beaches or by the pool, but left it behind. I stocked up along the way: the Penguin “Henry V”, bought at Shakespeare & Co in Paris appropriately enough, and copies of “Antony and Cleopatra” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” from a little bookshop in Cortona. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is dual-format: Shakespeare’s words on the even pages, Italian translation on the odd pages. All three books have the odd spot of Factor 50 sunscreen on them.

Sometimes you finish a task or a project and relish the fact that you won’t have to do it again. Having read all 37 plays I look forward to reading them all again at some point, except maybe “Love’s Labour’s Lost”. There’s a good reason why Kenneth Branagh’s movie version was sliced down to 93 minutes, with two-thirds of the dialogue cut out and replaced by classic songs by the likes of Irving Berlin and the Gershwin brothers.

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