Last year, HST and I read some of the foundational books of the Western canon - Gilgamesh, the Odyssey, the Aeneid and the Inferno. This year, we are reading, more or less in order: Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar (with the addition of reading Plutarch's chapter on Caesar), Richard III, Henry V, Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, The Tempest, and A Midsummer Night's Dream. Over the summer, we saw a production of Macbeth and read The Tempest (we were supposed to see a production of Tempest, but that's a whole different kettle of fish). My idea is to circle back to Shakespeare's final play so we can look at how he developed certain themes through his career.
I am excited about this year for a number of reasons. One, I really do love Shakespeare and often forget how much I love him until I pick up or see one of his plays. And then remember all over again how amazing a writer he is. Two, I am going to be teaching a class at Buena Vista University in Iowa this January about appropriation, and the Bard is a master appropriator. Having read the books we read last year, I find myself picking up on his references to the Aeneid in many of his plays. But he also used folktales, popular plays by other writers, gossip, Plutarch, Virgil and almost any other writer with whom the public might be familiar to recontextualize themes and characters who were well-known. Three, I find some of the themes he returns to fascinating. The public versus the private self. The roles people assume and what makes a king a king (I'm not a Shakespearean scholar, but I would almost guarantee that some of the very first seeds of the American Revolution were sown from Henry V and Shakespeare's musing on the idea that a king is just a man with good props). And, four, this time period in European history is incredible. The more I learn, the more fascinated I am with it. We may think our country is in turmoil right now, but it is nothing, NOTHING compared to 16th century Europe with the conflict between the Catholic Church and the Protestants, the rise of the moneyed merchant class, colonization of North America, a woman (WOMAN!) on the throne of England, and the rise of England as the dominant world power. The intrigue, the politics, the social upheaval. How could it not be the stuff of great stories?
So, HST and I have embarked. Our first stop on this voyage is Taming of the Shrew, probably one of the most controversial plays for contemporary audiences. One critic I read as I was preparing my study guide of HST talked about how, though the play is a farce, it can't be forgotten that Shakespeare was a man and how constrained women's roles were during this age. True. But I think it forgets that this is also the man who presents more nuanced roles for women in his other plays. Why would he have other female characters who have great strength and ask us, in this farce, to take Katherine at face value when she talks about the rightful domination of women by men? It's a difficult play for contemporary women to stomach, I agree. I saw a production that went the full nine yards of making Kate a victim of domestic violence. HST and I have just started, so I'll post again about some of the conclusions we come to, and I've paired Shrew up with Romeo and Juliet, so we have two looks at marriage in radically different plays that both, at their heart, turn on the idea of arranged marriage versus marriage for love.