The Complete Shakespeare Read-Through

I’m doing it. Even though I’ve read most of his plays and poems, I haven’t read his complete works and what kind of fan can I call myself if I have yet to read everything the greatest writer has put down. So using my David Bevington The Complete Works of Shakespeare I plan to put to rest the nagging feeling in the back of my head. I will go in the order that Bevington laid out with the comedies first, then the histories, and finally the tragedies before finishing up with the sonnets. In between each play, I will read other novels that have been piling up on my bookshelf and plan to write reviews for the good ones, but every play and eventually every poem will get its own proper elaboration as they travel through my mind and eventually my fingertips to show up here. Here’s to the beginning of a long and illuminating journey!

The Comedy of Errors

My mind must be focused in on the topic of communication because that is again the dominant theme I read from Shakespeare’s supposedly earliest and supposedly weakest play. Well, communication coupled with identity. Shakespeare gets these ideas about communication and identity clearly across from the outset with a plot centered around two sets of identical twins. Even without this device characters express a wish for identity immediately by attaching themselves to their home country or a search for a new home in the case of Antipholus of Syracuse.

But let’s start it all with the communication part. At the beginning Egeon tells his story of woe to the Duke in order to be granted a day to pay off a fine that if not met will lead to Egeon’s execution. Words mean everything here as they stave off the law, which is in itself words that do not lead to the best results but still can create great damages as the rest of the play demonstrates. Then Shakespeare truly drives home the point when S. Antipholus and his slave/best friend S. Dromio take the meaning behind words to a ridiculous level. The two barely keep up with each other in double entendre, puns, and references that aren’t entirely clear to the audience or even the characters speaking them. This furthers into mistaken identities because of S. Antipholus and S. Dromio’s identical twins walking around the same market streets. Words create massive confusion and chaos for every ear that is around to take them in and misconstrue the meanings and intents.

The greatest part of all the misperceptions and misunderstandings is how they are ingrained with characters lacking identity. It might be a stretch to state that Shakespeare is clearly telling us that if you don’t know who you truly are then you can’t say anything with clear meaning because Shakespeare is here and in every piece of writing absent, which would preclude we can’t trust his words. The loop is as endless as any of his other plays and makes me think that he titled the play more deliberately than at first glance. This is ‘The’ comedy of errors. No other mistaken identity work gets at the essence of not knowing who you are. When that known core of the self is unclear to you then there is no possible way you will clearly express anything. Did Shakespeare know himself well enough to completely disappear in his work, so that we would not be caught up in creating identities reflective of his but rather reflective of ourselves? So we can then take his words as something true coming from an unassailable essence of a human soul, maybe? I think I need to be surer of whom I am first or I might just keep seeing the same themes in all literary work over and over in an endless loop.

Lastly, how can you hit it out of the park so well on the first try (supposedly) like Shakespeare did? I’m hoping my last at bat will come somewhere close to his worst.

Sorry for the baseball analogies; I’m coaching softball right now and it seeps out.

The Crying of Lot 49 Review

A welcome bit of inspired literature after reading two highly acclaimed yet disappointing novels over the last couple months. I may be biased or simply have a limited scope on what constitutes literature but when I approach a novel, poem, play, or the other written forms meant for more than simple entertainment purposes the expectation is to read something with excellent style and a graceful, expansive expression of a theme or connected themes throughout. In my short survey of more recent works of literature the style is very much present, but the themes seem to appear only in a select few.

I understand not everyone is a Shakespeare (or, with my definition of literature, a David Foster Wallace or Thomas Pynchon) but there should be an apparent striving to reach these top players when contributing to the art. Otherwise the contributions become more noise distracting the public from gaining insight into something more than their own perceptions of reality and self. I read that Pynchon felt he failed in the writing of 49 and maybe he did in his vision of literature, but I feel he did accomplish a writer’s goal of making art.

Although 49 shares the major theme of communication with Infinite Jest they do so in a disparate enough way to enlighten different portions of the innumerable facets related to humanity’s arguably most important tool. And like its more contemporary, giant counterpart 49 consciously uses style to elevate theme. To narrow down the theme into a more approachable manner, it’s best to focus on how Pynchon explores the breaking down of communication.  From the beginning of the short novel when the protagonist Oedipa Maas (the character names are a whole other form of communication/identity break downs) receives a letter in the mail, Pynchon makes it clear that as much as the character and the reader expects concrete answers from words we won’t be getting them. On the flip side of this pessimistic view, I believe Pynchon pushes just as hard an optimistic belief in the hope that language, both spoken and written, can lead us to a happier state of being and freedom once we understand more fully the weaknesses and strengths in this most powerful tool. Take for example the abstract advice Oedipa’s psychiatrist imparts on her before his arrest that she should cherish all fantasies because they are what make us human. Although Dr. Hilarious’s (greatest psychiatrist name ever) words should be taken with caution it is the best answer Oedipa and the reader get. We should indulge in the fantasies our minds and others generate through the many forms of communication, whether it be novels, plays, songs, television, telekinesis, or very simply talking under the influence of various substances or none. Yet we need to delve into imagination with the understanding that language is a construct of man and will never fully encapsulate the abstract forms of nature/the world/existence and so on because it’s not about capturing the answers to these things but acting on and with the best of words can bring us. That’s what beautiful literature is for.