Monday, August 27, 2012

Renaissance Man: The Debrief

Back in 2009, I started a blog -- a fourth blog at the time -- called Renaissance Man.  The plan was that I was going to read all of Shakespeare and talk about it in excruciating detail.  It never really took, despite having a pretty good title, and I finally pulled the plug on it a few months ago.  The only remnant is the "Michael5000 v. Shakespeare" feature here on IAT, which has proven to be a real conversation-stopper.

Still, I've upped my Shakespeare intake over the last three years, and so I thought it would be interesting to revisit a list of preconceptions that I made when I started Renaissance Man, and see if I've learned anything in the meantime.  Probably more interesting to me than to you, of course, but then that's often the I'm case on Monday morning.  I'm curious about what Shakespearean conceptions other people have on tap, if anybody feels like jumping in, but there are limits to how far I'll ask you to indulge me.

A Midsummer Night's Dream -- The cute one. I know the plot in outline, and could name many of the characters and themes. There was a movie version about 10 years ago that I saw.  Update: I've read it and watched an older movie version within the last few months, and could reconstruct it in outline if all extant copies were somehow destroyed. 

All's Well That Ends Well -- This one falls into the category of Comedy Difficult to Distinguish From Other Comedies (CDDFOC).* I might have seen a performance of this one, or maybe it was one of those other ones.  The CDDFOCs remain problematic.  I'm not sure I've learned anything about this one.

Antony and Cleopatra -- I know almost nothing about this play beyond the basic plot, yet have a preconception that it is kind of frou-frou and lite.  I think I've heard that this play is unusual for having a million scenes.  But, I haven't learned anything much new about it.

As You Like It -- A CDDFOC.  A CDDFOC.

The Comedy of Errors -- CDDFOC.  A CDDFOC.  It is about mistaken identities, but aren't they all?  It features estranged twins, and I have seen it performed in the park, but I think it was quite some time ago.

Coriolanus -- I really have no idea.  I have an idea now: it's the one about the conflicted Roman general.  I learned this more from looking at art and from writing a quiz question back when we did quizzes then from directly Shakespeare experience, though.  There's a recent movie version that I'm going to watch soon.

Cymbeline -- I have read this one, and read a certain amount about it, and have good reason to try to keep it fresh in my head. Yet I have trouble keeping track of it. There are two reasons for this, I think; that it has relatively little cultural footprint, and that its plot is so odd as to make you doubt that you are remembering it correctly.  I have read and seen a live performance of Cymbeline in the last year, and have a pretty good sense of its plot.  I also kind of like it; it's a quirky beast.

Hamlet -- Hamlet, on the other hand, has a whopping big cultural footprint. I've read it, read about it, and seen five or six cinema adaptations. I've also read and seen a film version of Rosencratz and Guildenstern are Dead, an important riff on Hamlet. I've never seen a live performance, though.  I've seen a live performance now!

Julius Caesar -- I read this one in college.  No particular change here.  I haven't done much with it because I don't have the sense that it is very interesting, outside of the well known speeches, which can stand on their own.

King Lear -- I must have seen a movie version of this; I have a recollection of, if you will, eye-popping special effects. I have deep prejudices against Lear, which I -- wait! it's coming back! William Hurt as the Fool, yes? -- anyway, deep prejudices, because it has about the saddest and most depressing plot possible. Bums me out.  No particular change here.  I haven't done much with it because of the deep prejudices.

Love's Labour's Lost -- CDDFOC!  This is the Four Brides for Four Dudes of the Navarrean Ruling Class one, with the goofy oath of chastity and the masque and what-not.  I saw the truly weird Ken Branaugh adaptation.

Macbeth -- OK, everybody knows Macbeth. This is the one we read in high school.  No particular change here.  I haven't done much with it because, oddly perhaps, I don't have the sense that it is very interesting.

Measure for Measure -- Another CDDFOC! Heavens, I didn't realize I had quite so many in this category. This is the one about whether or not you ought to sleep with the Assistant Duke when he threatens to kill your brother if you won't, and about how if you are the Duke it is interesting to leave your country's administration in the hands of an unreliable assistant, just for the hell of it.  It needs work.

The Merchant of Venice -- I saw a performance of this one in college, but I feel like I know it quite well. Maybe I saw a film adaptation at some point or something?  No particular change here.  I haven't done much with it because, despite my sense that it is very interesting.

The Merry Wives of Windsor -- I know nothing about this one, not even enough to throw it on the CDDFOC heap.  I haven't read or seen this play, but I have assimilated the information that it features Falstaff of Henry IV fame, except in a different context.  And century.

Much Ado About Nothing -- This one, however, goes on the CDDFOC heap.  I have seen this one live and in two adaptations -- it's the one with Beatrice and Benedick (Hector Berlioz called his opera version Beatrice and Benedick, which was a real titling coup) that is really funny in the first half and kind of grim and distasteful in the second. 

Othello -- I saw a film version about 10 years ago, but know little except the bare outline.  I saw a ballet (!) version of this one.  It turns out it's about people dancing.

Pericles, Prince of Tyre -- We saw a Shakespeare-in-the-Park version of Pericles.  It turns out that it's a comic farce that has nothing to do with, like, Pericles, and is all about shipwrecks and mistaken identities and  ludicrous coincidences.  Deserves to be a CDDFOC, and probably would be if it had a vaguer title, and didn't sound like an educational play about a Greek statesman and political theorist.

Romeo and Juliet -- Well, duh. I know this one pretty well, of course.  I even think it's pretty good.

The Taming of the Shrew -- I know the basic plot outline here.  No particular change here.  I haven't done much with it because, despite my sense that it is very interesting.

The Tempest -- I've read this one, and twice watched Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books in the mistaken notion that something on which so much care and expense has been lavished must have some kind of redeeming value. I like it a lot; along with Hamlet and Titus it makes up my Shakespeare "Big Three" going into the project.  I read this one recently, and have watched two film adaptations,including the new one that nobody likes except me.  It turns out that there's a lot more ambiguity in there than I thought there was in The Tempest, which makes it more interesting but perhaps a little less fun.

Timon of Athens -- [stares blankly]  I've read it.  There's a good reason it's not a greatest hit.

Titus Andronicus -- I have read, seen a live performance of, and twice watched the movie adaptation of Shakespeare's allegedly worst play. If that oft-cited critical consensus turns out to be true, this is going to be one awesome project.  I haven't revisited it, because it's probably the play I knew best coming in.

Troilus and Cressida -- Haven't a clue.  I've watched an adaptation.  It was every bit as good as Timon of Athens.

Twelfth Night or What You Will -- This would be a CDDFOC, except I've had a few conversations lately to remind me that this is the one about the cross-dressing girl, and the brother who turns out to have survived the shipwreck, and if music is the food of love, play on! I've seen a couple of filmed versions. It's a good'un.  Saw a live performance last summer.   It was full of comic hijinx.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona -- No idea.  Still no idea.

The Two Noble Kinsmen -- Also, no idea.  Still no idea.

The Winter's Tale -- I saw a staging of this one the year before last. It is rather marred by an excess of arbitrary occurances, methought.  In retrospect, complaining about arbitrary occurances at the theater seems a bit dim of me.  I haven't revisited Winter's Tale, though.

King John -- Oh right, there's a "King John"! For some reason, I know that in Victorian times this one was popular as an excuse to throw a patriotic Magna Carta pageant in the middle. And isn't it traditional to put it on when the British monarchy rotates over, or rather wasn't it so before Elizabeth the Immortal took the throne? Anyway.  Still no idea.

Richard II / Henry IV, part 1/ Henry IV, part 2/ Henry V -- Two of these are an old Kenneth Brannaugh movie!  I've had the opportunity to see IV-1 and IV-2 live, and found that their most remarkable feature is that they are essentially the same play twice.  It's a pretty good play.  In the same way that Promethius is pretty good if you want to see Aliens again, but different, IV-2 is good if you want to see IV-1 again, but different..

Henry VI, part 1/Henry VI, part 2/Henry VI, part 3/Richard III -- I've seen Richard III both live and in an excellent film version!  No progress here.

Henry VIII -- Oh right, there's a "Henry VIII"!  I got to see Henry VIII in performance, too.  It's a bit of a mess.

So, this is sobering: I'd say I'm quite familiar with three plays, somewhat familiar with an additional four, know the basics of ten more, and let my jaw hang open like the rustic yokel I am when confronted with the remaining fourteen (six of which are CDDFOCs). I actually thought I was considerably further along than all that.  It looks like I've more than doubled the "Quite Familiar" category, to seven; vastly improved the "Somewhat Familiar" category, from four to eleven; have the basics of nine; and only gape at eleven.  The reason that there are six more Shakespeare plays than there used to be is that I'm counting the four-parters individually this time, which seems like a good sign.

In summary, it looks like you really can learn more about the plays of Shakespeare simply by applying yourself, neglecting your household duties, and foregoing more obvious entertainment options!  I only wonder where I'd be today if I had been able to avoid "Angry Birds."


Elizabeth said...

I liked the new(ish) Tempest quite a bit, actually, except for Ariel. Too foofy. Did you see the Shakespeare In The Park version last summer? I think it was last summer. The one I saw was staged in and around a fountain and they were chucking buckets of water around. Lots of fun.

Christine M. said...

I watched the version of Hamlet with David Tennant, pretty much as an excuse to watch David Tennant.

Elizabeth said...

AND Patrick Stewart.