At the turn of year, but on the spur of the moment, I decided to devote a good portion of 2022 to reading the complete works of William Shakespeare. To begin with: one play each week, one act each weekday, from the first full week of January until mid-September. Thereafter: a couple of sonnets each weekday for the fifteen weeks before Christmas, then an extra pair on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, until I’ve read all one hundred and fifty-four. If I have time, maybe a few books on Shakespeare and his art. We’ll see how that goes.
I’m not unfamiliar with Shakespeare, of course. I’ve taught Hamlet, Othello, and Macbeth in the classroom; I’ve co-directed student productions of Romeo and Juliet and Much Ado About Nothing; I’ve seen all of those plays performed by professionals, and I’ve also read and seen King Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Richard II and Richard III, Twelfth Night, The Tempest, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. But there are some major plays with which I’m totally unfamiliar — Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and most of the comedies — as well as others I must have glanced at when I was in high school, though never again. So, out of admiration and curiosity, I’m going to take the plunge; and as I go along, I’m going to use this space to record my impressions — some rudimentary, some more fully-formed.
On the one hand, my hopes and intentions for this project are fairly prosaic: I’d like to think I can discover a few gems among the works I haven’t encountered yet, and I’m sure I’ll find new things to admire and wonder at in the works I already know well. More broadly, though, I’d like to think I can search for Shakespeare himself between the lines of his plays and track his growth as I move through them week by week. I don’t mean Shakespeare the man — husband, father, money-making dramaturge — but rather Shakespeare the artist, especially the artist in his infancy, self-discovery, and ad hoc apprenticeship. In the later plays, especially the great tragedies, there is a supreme intelligence at work — an intelligence that I think is discernible in its extraordinary awareness of, and facility with, the aesthetic resources available to playwrights of the Elizabethan and Jacobean period, as well as in the breadth and profundity of its philosophical outlook on the human condition and its almost supernatural mastery of the English language.
This intelligence, to me, is Shakespeare. It is generally what I am referring to when I use his name. But Shakespeare as such did not enter the world fully-formed; he was brought into being through an apprentice playwright’s painstaking process of trial and error, of experimentation with the artform of stage drama — of toying with its building blocks, discarding or finessing its conventional elements, working within or around its known constraints, grasping towards if not striking out for its as-yet-unrealised possibilities. Taken collectively and more or less in chronological order, can the works of William Shakespeare allow a reader to track the growth of the playwright’s intelligence through trial and error? If so, as I suspect, then my ultimate hope is to obtain a view of artistic genius as something not given but honed — a disposition towards an artform of choice, which disposition is itself created through the act of artistic creation. I’d like, in short, to try to see Shakespeare slowly emerging from his own corpus and developing into an artist for whom naïveté, haste, error correction, and other such “flaws” are as integral to his achievement as any of the more lofty virtues we traditionally ascribe to him.