Reading Shakespeare

Taking the measure of language—and humanity.

A hands-on ingenuity for exploiting the exuberant irregularity and makeshift legacy of English

His dramas draw from traditional sources of narrative and lore: Ovid, Plutarch’s Lives, Holinshed’s Chronicles, popular poems and plays, abiding legends. Yet the playwright is able, again and again, to imbue conventional forms — stories of love and of revenge, moral fables, historical pageants, comedies of mistaken identity — with an originality of expression that polishes the oldest pennies into ever valuable currency. Although his plots, stripped to their essential progression of entrances, exits, and events, are seldom unorthodox, they’re viewed through a prism that refracts the subtlest colorings of human nature.

Ay, there’s the rub: How do you navigate the daunting seas of Shakespeare’s soliloquies and sonnets?

This gives his texts a moment-by-moment energy that is exhilarating if you are intrepid in embracing it. Ay, there’s the rub: How do you navigate the daunting seas of Shakespeare’s soliloquies and sonnets? His diction is formal, his metaphors are complicated and sometimes arcane, his syntax knotty, his vocabulary often obscure, and his metered verse uncongenial to readers bred on simpler sentences. You could bury yourself up to your ears in the abundant notes that accompany most editions of the Shakespearean canon, or you could resort to “translations” into modern, no-frills English (although this is akin to eating a steak substitute that provides some of the protein while skipping all of the flavor). A better way is to throw caution to the wind and read the plays right through without worrying too much about comprehending every aspect of their meaning. You don’t have to understand it all: If you’re alert, you’ll soon enough grasp the arc of the action and the contours of the characters.

Excerpted from the book, 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die by James Mustich. Copyright © 2018 by James Mustich. Published by Workman Publishing.

Now: Author, 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die. Then: publisher and chief bookseller, A Common Reader. https://www.1000bookstoread.com/

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