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Why know when you can wonder? The enduring joy of reading Shakespeare

On the 400th anniversary of the publication of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s works, Monica Sharp explains why she decided to dive into the great Bard’s plays and the ocean she discovered.

Last month I completed my own Shakespeare Project – reading all 39 plays. Begun in 2022, after many disorganized starts, my ambition was so great that I believed I’d have all of that autumn left over, and so optimistically purchased also the collected works of Marlowe. But that is not how it unfolded. 

The first half of the reading went well, until summer, but then we took a long trip home and struggled with family health for some months. I picked up the thread in early 2023 and once more the work went quickly until it got bogged down, again in the summer. But I kept at it until I completed it, just in time for the 400th anniversary of the publication of the First Folio in London, on November 8, 1623.

I was dimly aware of the First Folio anniversary when I began The Shakespeare Project. I knew it would be worth it, for me, for I had lazily tried to ‘read more Shakespeare’ or ‘attend more Shakespeare productions’ without really putting any structure into my plans. This is not an effective planning strategy, and had I kept to it, I would not be writing this now.

Universal questions

Before I began, I asked around to see if anyone I knew wanted to join me for any part of the Shakespeare Project. I sourced all the free text and found links to free videos of quality productions. I’ve got this down to a science, I assured people. We can do it efficiently. I just wanted to bookclub, more or less, with the content. Bounce ideas off one another. What did we think? What was worthwhile, or perhaps a surprising occasional letdown?

No one took me up on it. I got some side eye, a few “that is very crazy” comments, and some earnest friends who simply didn’t have the time. One friend in the UK had another friend who did this a few years ago too, reading every Shakespeare play in one year. I don’t know if that reader wrote about this experience or where they might have posted their insights. But I took heart in the fact that I at least knew about one other person who did this for amateur motivations.

Maybe Shakespeare is like an old sofa that needs to be brought into a hipster vintage shop to renew appreciation. Maybe Shakespeare is too old, too dead, too white. Too ambiguous on racism and colonialism, too illustrative of sexism, even taking into account his stronger female characters – Katherine (unfair branding, not at all a shrew), or Beatrice (much ado was really about something and she lays it out very clearly), Portia (her lifesaving intellect and wit in Venice lead her to …. marriage). 

The compliments can seem backhanded. And while that is how history may seem to us in the rearview mirror, why can’t we imagine a future where positive qualities are just that? Or is it in fact the case that human nature is what it is? Or do we confuse human nature with culture and anthropology?

These are the questions that make it impossible for me to sleep, and are also the sorts of questions that reading Shakespeare, or Dante or Milton or Austen or Woolf or Elizabeth Barrett Browning or Sally Rooney, for that matter, helps us to tease out and consider: Where does the human spirit overlap with the host culture?

What would we like to do, and what do the exigencies of culture more or less force us into doing? What are the consequences of acquiescing or resisting? 

These questions, set in a literary context, help us to humanize ourselves and others, recognizing our dilemmas for what they are: universal and transient.

Shakespeare endures because he has persisted through centuries as a relatable touchstone, not only through the merit of his own work but thanks to constant references to his work in art and literature. 

Humanity loves the Bard because of what he reflects in ourselves to us. The distillation of human psychology, its collective wisdom (oh, how we need it now!), presented to us in a format more graceful and poetic than we might devise for ourselves in the moment. 

For ‘the Moment’ is often awkward or unexpected and hence, although very relatable, actually challenging to relate. The Moment rarely appears sedately. To take these moments, these disparate experiences of human life, and transform them into something durable and infinitely relatable: that is the gift. To turn many moments into The Moment, discovering the universal truth.

And that’s why, I think, seekers are drawn to Shakespeare and other enduring truth-tellers.

Bravery and patience pay off, in reading as in life.

History of the project

My Shakespeare story begins on a family bookshelf, moved with its contents many times to different locations. Each time we unpacked the boxes the same books came out to be lined up on the deep shelves like old friends. In the middle shelf to the far left always sat The Complete Works of Shakespeare, Vols. I and II. Hefty tomes with beige and maroon dust jackets and very vintage spelling.

As a child, my taxonomy of literature began with Very Easy and progressively increased in complexity, until the far right end of the spectrum tapered off into an ether of Too Difficult, where I mentally placed the Shakespeare volumes. I never actually opened the books until late high school, when we were reading Shakespeare in English lessons, and what pleasure it gave me then to watch Kenneth Branagh as Henry V while following the text. 

But they stood as stalwart sentries across some very uneven years, and even if I never read them, I felt them there, like a post-modern Ark of the Covenant, in our living room, patiently waiting for my life experience to match the characters and action in their pages. Deep down I hoped it would happen.

As a language person, a polyglot, and a reveler in idiom, the cadence and vocabulary of Shakespeare (and Austen, and a handful of others) often found their way into my vernacular. First, the language offers an amusing departure from our listless modern accents. Secondly, it’s evergreen. Third, it wakes the modern ear. Fourth, in terms of humor, it quickly separates the better-read wheat from gossip magazine chaff.

When I resumed creative writing after a long hiatus, I found myself reading more selectively than before. (Lifelong bookworm, and not very choosy, in some years, about what I consumed.) How did the pieces fit together? Where in the past I focused on language alone – the pleasing turn of phrase, the throwaway quip, à la Parker or Wilde – wading into the deeper waters of writing literary fiction brought a new set of problems. Character and dialogue come comfortably to me with turns of phrases and glimpses of poetry. What was – has been – is my Achilles’ heel as a fiction writer is plot.

I’m not alone in this. A famous writer once joked that he’d spent the better part of his week trying to move his characters from the dinner table to the drawing room. You’ve sketched and fleshed out characters, made them say amusing things, but now what?

Now what.

After a few false starts with the Shakespeare project (dilettante, lazy attempts, no real structure, much talk little reading), and years of my own writing in the rear view, I decided that reading Shakespeare, closely and well, would help me understand how he, a master playwright, put the pieces of his story together for the stage. If anyone knew how to make characters Do Things, in a believable and meaningful way, well, then it was certainly Shakespeare.


A shocking discovery

Go to. My in-depth reading soon corrected the error in my assumptions. For Shakespeare, such as he was and how he wrote – in a team, now, I am well convinced, as a lead writer – had at hand maybe three or four of the most cliched plots ever that he simply used and reused and recycled and reused again.

I was surprised to discover that in the plays of Shakespeare there is very little originality in what happens. 

And the plot elements – such as they are – are so fantastic, what with a seemingly endless parade of twins, mistaken identities, plays-within-a play, shipwrecks – and more  shipwrecks! – lethal potions, real murders, and faked deaths both inadvertent and purposeful – as to become pastiche.

Illustrative Example: Love’s Labour’s Lost. (This one really slays.) After vowing to avoid women, the King and three of his friends host a princess and (surprise!) her three ladies. The four men fall in love and court the women. They put on a play within a play titled Nine Worthies. During the performance, a messenger arrives to say that the King of France is dead. The Princess decides that she must return home. That’s pretty much the whole plot of a play that’s been produced for over four hundred years.

Second method: Use an existing history source, like Plutarch or Holinshed, and presto, there’s your plot. Now you can really concentrate on making everything witty, or pathetic, or full of so much poetry that your audience will go wild! (King John, I am looking at you in your 100% verse.)

The basic message here regarding plot, my takeaway after reading and watching hours of Shakespeare, is plot doesn’t really matter (pace Aristotle). It doesn’t matter what your characters do so long as the audience feels strongly about the characters as depicted. 

For the purpose of plot is to provide an armature upon which to hang your well-drawn characters with all their glimmering gifts and cringeworthy foibles – and your fantastic poetry. You may get a plot from anywhere. It need not be complicated. Readers and spectators are not federal agents; they know they’re stepping into the Fiction Zone or the Field of Theater. 

Your audience will forgive many, if not most, or even all, of the shortcomings in the work if you give them engaging, entertaining characters and make the words sing. I imagine William now with a short list of plot elements. One of these, one of those … name the characters … glue them together with poetry and words. Blow life into it, set it alight, watch it float away.

I thought that, by reading all of Shakespeare, I would learn what made his plays and their plots tick. Instead, I learned that Shakespearean plays are quite cavalier, almost careless, about plot. They didn’t go through some sort of plot element supercollider to break them down and examine them for their tiniest parts. They were put in place to move the play forward for the purpose of pleasing the audience.

Why read Shakespeare?

But why did I keep returning to Shakespeare?

Some pleasures are best reserved for the latter decades. Let’s leave Easter chocolate and chocolate chip cookies and brownies and silver dollar pancakes to the kids – there is so much on the menu they will not touch. Adults in the room, raise your hand for chocolate truffles, mushroom truffles, single malt Scotch, subtle fragrance, matching intimates, and Shakespeare.

I was chatting with a new friend about the merits of genius and how a child can be a prodigy at chess, or math, or music, because these are skills that can be memorized and honed, skipping across the quick synapses of a young brain. But show me the true child prodigy in art, psychology, literature, or medicine.

Some arts do not lend themselves to the very young. The eye, the ear, the heart, the hand, all become with increasing years more discerning, understanding, and more finely tuned.

Why is this? Developmental psychology may hold a hint. An awareness beyond oneself is necessary to engage in literature in particular, whether reading or writing. There is the basic sociopathy of the very young – and some adults – in the failure to take into consideration other people, a concept of reality that perceives all other beings on the planet as paper dolls, moving flatly through a world in which the child, or the childlike adult, treads alone in three dimensions.

With awakening and seeing comes noticing and appreciating. The Shakespearean oeuvre gives us tragedy, comedy, history, in a compendium of accumulated psychological wisdom that remains evergreen and relevant through the years. 

Would you like to consult on near misses, broken hearts, disappointed or proud parents, career woes, the trouble with leaders, the folly in group decisions, and the weight of history? Care to tour mental health, see grief tenderly depicted, and death met head on? Have someone explain their joys and regrets, or fail to see them and thus write their own tragic end, or take a risk on a new love and wind up happily married? (We hope so – Shakespeare never wrote a mid-marriage drama, preferring to tie the bow neatly on a wedding day.)

For this same reason I return again and again to literary classics, epic poems, history podcasts, and yes, even faith, in the form of two thousand years of accumulated psychological wisdom. This is why I, a dabbler in heterodoxy, returned again and again to the Western church, for the simple reason that it’s mine, and it lives in my heart even when I don’t realize it.

What a gift at my age to come to unknown pieces, master works that have stood the test of time and proven each time to merit the effort and attention, and still to harbor important truths. How were these never spoiled for me? 

Perhaps I, in childish wisdom, held myself back on purpose for The Proper Time (timing is everything), in much the same way as did my three-year-old son when he was presented with his newborn sister. Afraid to touch her for months. “Too little”, he murmured, but I was never sure if he meant that he was, or she was. When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools. (King Lear, act IV, sc. 6)

Treasures wait in the Classics for anyone who wishes to seek them. I’m not saying you have to read every single play, but you should watch Andrew Scott in Hamlet to see how this is still so fresh and wry. These works renew a connection between us and our past and history that is always there, accessible and available. 

Living history doesn’t mean Williamsburg and cosplay colonists hopping around their butter churn in petticoats. Universal truths are gracefully preserved in the works of Shakespeare and others. Our lives are enriched by them; they become a common bond; they strengthen our community in the broadest sense. There is a history in all men’s lives. (Henry IV, Part 2, act 3, sc. 1)

How lovely to wonder and to know. Why wonder when you can know? was my mantra deep in the midst of a professional career that now feels a lifetime ago. But today, the mantra has flipped to become Why know when you can wonder? As Miranda exclaims, O Brave new world that has such people in it. (The Tempest, act V, sc. 1).

So, if you have some large project that you’d like to undertake, go to, and don’t be afraid. Think of how much you could accomplish if you were to put your phone in another room, or another dimension, and scrape all that time together to put toward something you really, really want to accomplish. Be that thou know’st thou art and then thou art as great as that thou fear’st. (Twelfth Night, act V, sc. 1).

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Monica lives and works in Florence, Italy. Her international spirit travels with an American passport but she's long since lost count of all the relevant metrics. She currently moonlights as a legal researcher for a local law firm, and prior to that, pursued careers in international education and software. Her off-hours in Italy are filled with a creative buffet of writing, art, music, reading, parenting, and more. Monica frequently writes about cultural forays, interpretive adventures, and close observation.

One Comment

  • Tod Cheney

    Brilliant article. Monica’s comments on plot are revelatory and inspiring.
    I’ve followed her Shakespeare Project Substack posts for some time,
    and her creativity and enthusiasm always make for original and refreshing writing.

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