Final Thoughts on “The Complete Works of Shakespeare”

So I’ve finished reading the complete works of Shakespeare.  I started reading it way back in about April of 2022 with “King Henry the Sixth” and so it’s taken me about nine months to get through.  I’ve enjoyed a lot of the classic dramas, was hit and miss on the comedies, and in general didn’t care much for the historicals … with some exceptions.  So, after all of that, a question that was raised a bit earlier turns out to still be relevant here:  why did I bother?

The first reason ties back into the reason why I read the complete works of H.P. Lovecraft before delving into this one:  I had somehow got a hankering to read some of these and found some incredibly nice versions of them from Amazon (I think) … and then never read them.  Seeing those nice volumes in my bookcase knowing that I had never finished Lovecraft and hadn’t even started  reading Shakespeare hit my new “Accomplishments” mindset and made me decide that I wanted to get through them and have those books actually fulfill their original intent and not just be something that looks impressive on that bookshelf that no one ever sees except me anyway.  And thus it was a success, and I’ve finished another accomplishment.

The second reason ties into my reading a lot of other classic works and deciding to comment on them, like “War and Peace”.  There were two reasons for me to start doing that.  The first was that these were classic works in those genres that I have never read and, given that, I figured I should probably try to read them (this is also what got me to watch “Casablanca” and “It’s a Wonderful Life”).  The other was a genuine curiosity of see if I would actually enjoy reading them not as classics to be studied but instead as things to be read simply for enjoyment.  I obviously wasn’t going to have the trouble with language that others might, nor with heavy or long works, and so it seemed like an interesting experiment to consume the works and talk about what I thought worked and didn’t work, even stepping outside of my normal comfort zone with “The Divine Comedy”.  And I think that worked here, as well, given that I can pretty much identify which ones I really liked and which ones I didn’t, although sadly there weren’t really any surprises on that score other than not really liking most of the comedies and actively disliking “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.

But there’s a final reason to have done this, and this is what I want to talk about here, which is that over the past number of years there’s been a big push to diversify the works studied in English classes, and one point that is usually made implicitly but is often made explicitly is that the classics like Shakespeare are studied because they are the ones that were spawned from Western culture and so are the ones that we just automatically consider worthy of study, but without that they don’t have anything to offer us or teach us anymore.  We can turn to modern works or works from other areas or other culture or whatever and get just as much from the study of those, and studying those are more inclusive and less problematic than the Western classics that we study today.  A version of this sort of culture clash is what got me to both read all the Hugo Award winners when that kerfuffle was going on and also to read all of the Ben Bova works I owned as well as a number of Robert Sheckley works  to see if the modern works were as good as some were saying and comparing them to the older works to see what the quality difference was.  So this does raise the question:  is Shakespeare still relevant, even uniquely so?  Are there things that we can learn about playcraft, at least, that we can best learn from him?

What I learned while simply reading these works is that Shakespeare is indeed a master of his craft.  While I was only reading them and not watching them being performed I can confirm that for even the plays that I didn’t like the structuring of the events and the dialogue was generally top-notch, even when I found it flawed.  But it would be easy to argue that perhaps other playwrights could rise to that level as well, and I don’t have enough experience with plays to gainsay them.  But there are two other facets where Shakespeare is supreme where I can make a better assessment.  One of them is with banter.  Shakespeare is an absolute master of banter, to a degree that I haven’t seen in any modern work.  The closest I’ve ever seen is from Aaron Allston (mostly from his Star Wars Legends works) and it’s still no comparison.  No one that I’ve read or watched, classic or modern, can even approach him when it comes to banter, which is one of the things that makes his comedies really pop.  If you want to learn how to write good banter, he’s the ur-example of how to do it well.

The other area is in his speeches.  Shakespeare is a master of speeches, which is most strongly evidenced by his soliloquies.  An inspiring speech is one thing, but an inspiring speech where all we have is one character talking out loud about their inner thoughts is quite another.  It would be easy for such speeches to seem self-indulgent or boring and meaningless, but he imbues them with meaning and with emotion so that we don’t mind sitting there watching — or reading — that character just talking about themselves for all that time.  For plays, it becomes an ingenious way for him to get those inner thoughts out in the open so that we can understand them and their dilemmas, to expound on some philosophical points, and to provide needed exposition in a way that’s not overly artificial and not boring.  Again, I have not seen anyone, classic or modern, who does that anywhere near as well.

(And in fact, the worst parts of Shakespeare’s plays are when he mixes the two by using speeches as banter, as he loses the pithy nature of his banter and the meaningfulness of his speeches.)

So, yes, I think we can learn things from Shakespeare yet, and reading everything he had written has simply driven that home for me.

So, that nine month project is now complete.  What am I moving onto next?  Well, observant readers will have noted that these posts always came out on Wednesdays, and something needs to fill that gap.  Something also needs to fill that gap for me of finding something to read while doing laundry.  For the latter, that’s going to be a bunch of King Arthur books, as well as a bunch of philosophy books.  Yes, Shakespeare can only be reasonably replaced by two different genres, not just one (also, I end up needing another hour to do laundry now so there’s room to fit in those two categories that I desperately want to make progress on).  But the philosophy stuff will generally end up on Fridays, and neither of them are things that I’ll get through quickly enough to talk about every week, so those posts will not fill the Wednesday slot.  I’ll slot the King Arthur stuff in on Tuesdays as I get far enough along (generally, when I finish a book).  In the place of the Shakespeare will be … a Comprehensive review of the episodes of the original “The Twilight Zone” show inspired by when I did the same for “Tales from the Darkside”, mostly because I want to examine how much the format itself was responsible for the failings of that series by seeing if “The Twilight Zone” will work out better for me.  Watch for those posts starting next week (yes, I have some disks watched and some posts written already, but I’m trying not to give any hints about what I think of them yet).

I am glad to have finished the Shakespeare and enjoyed reading them, but in line with my normal commentary I cannot see myself ever taking the nine months to read them all again … although some of them I certainly would.


One Response to “Final Thoughts on “The Complete Works of Shakespeare””

  1. Video Game Playlists | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] doing with DAO and wanting to play at least DA2 after I finish that.  And after the success of the nine month project to read the complete works of Shakespeare, I’m right now feeling pretty good about committing to things that will take a long time to […]

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