Seeing as the whole point of this blog is for me to actually read some Shakespeare, not just read about him, I figured I should stop procrastinating, get down and dirty and get into it.
So I "solved" the whole chronology problem by deciding to go with the table in the front of my Collins that was included in the introduction to the 1951 edition. I figure it'll stay with me as I cart the book around, and I can tick the plays, poems and sonnets off in pencil and feel very smug, which I look forward to.
The table said I should begin with the Comedy of Errors, so I have, and let me tell you, my brain took a while to clunk into gear at first.
I know that for many of you, reading Billy the Bard is an experience equivalent to drowning. No expression, no description, no image, no plain dialogue makes any sense to you at all, and so after a page, you're asphixiating slowly in a flood of phrases, eyes sliding closed, brain blacking out, hand's grasping wildly at all persons near you to force them to explain. And then, you stop struggling, your face grows increasingly pale, and you slip down into your chair in the back of English class, succumbing to the sweet sweet relief of death. For in death, you think, you won't have to read any more Shakespeare!
Well surprisingly, for those who suspect my love of the Bard is based solely on a snooty capacity to understand what he's talking about, I too share that experience of drowning-whilst-reading-unassisted.
When I come back to the Bard after a long absence, it is a little like riding a bicycle. All the muscle memory does eventually kick back in, but at the beginning, it's all very wobbly. After a while, I can begin confidently to increase speed and difficulty, begin racing up hills and down again, swooping joyfully all over the place, but just like all of us, I couldn't ride a bike immediately, I needed lessons, and training wheels, and a helmet, and adult supervision.
And for some us, all that much needed preparation was done pretty poorly in school, partly because some of our teachers couldn't ride the bike themselves, leaving them and us nowhere, and partly because some of us hadn't really read much of anything at all by the time we needed to tackle Shakespeare, and that makes the whole enterprise difficult in itself. It's like an immensely fat kid going from no exercise a day to a 10k run instantaneously - it's going to hurt, a lot, and may end in cardiac arrest. There needs to be a warm up, and some training.
(P.S. I will note here and now and forevermore. I am allowed to make whatever gentle fat jokes I like, for I am fat myself, and have heard them all. We fat people (mostly) understand one another, but if a fat person would like to register a complaint, please do, and I shall consider toning it down. You skinny people can just shut it :-)
One of the things about Shakespeare that most confuses those who now have to struggle with him in the 21st Century is that his was the language of the common people of his time, and yet it seems so inscrutable to us now... Even my Collins edition comes with a 2,500 entry glossary, (which I only just discovered!) "explaining the meaning of obsolete words and phrases" for the dumbfounded reader. We obviously all need help!
And I think that's ok. It's fine. It's completely appropriate that with all the shifts in language and meaning, with all the new things we've needed words for, and all the old things we don't even know of any more, it's understandable that a person can't simply pick up Shakespeare and understand all.
But let the language wash over you a little. Not in dunking breakers, but in gentle slap-slap-slaps to your semi-submerged face, and you begin to understand a little. After a while, you find you're grasping aspects of the plot, and as the scene changes, all of a sudden, you think you've figured out basically what's going on!
What joy! What rapture!
Now all of a sudden there's two pages of dialogue you don't understand at all, oh no! The blackness begins to creep in at the edges again, and your egg-beaters are powering away under the surface to remain upright and floating...
But then that character from that scene you did basically understand comes staggering on into this one, and you see the action again and know what's going on!
It's fantastic! It's funny! It's all beginning to make sense!