I’ve done it!
Although it’s around 2,500 pages of small print, I’ve finally finished reading The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. It only took me about 2 months to do so.
When beginning to pursue this goal, I realized there are many versions of Complete Works to choose from. Some provide the First Folio text (1623 publication) with very little commentary. Others are abridged versions, but I don’t agree that you can have a “complete” works if its abridged. I chose The Modern Libary’s version, which was published in 2007. This version, endorsed by the Royal Shakespeare Company, claims to be “the first authoritative, modernized, and corrected edition of Shakespeare’s first folio in three centuries.” I have no other claims to dispute this.
The Modern Libary’s Complete Works begins work a 50+ page introduction with a brief history on who Shakespeare was, a history of theatre from Shakespeare’s age and a history on the publication and performance of Shakespeare’s works. Throughout the course of the anthology, editors Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen provide background on each play’s plot, sources and any discrepancies between Folio and Quarto texts.
The order of the plays follows that of the 1623 First Folio, beginning with the Comedies and followed with Histories and Tragedies. Two additional plays are included that Shakespeared co-wrote — Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen — that were excluded from the First Folio. There’s also Shakespeare’s poems and sonnets (all 154 of them) and charts to provide additional context to the historical plays. Being the nerd that I am, I read everything.
While the plays themselves contain extensive footnotes, I found that frequently referring to them took away from enjoyment of the plays themselves. After trying to read the footnotes in the first play The Tempest, I gave up and only consulted them when I absolutely needed to. I was surprised how many of the footnotes referenced sexual inuendos — something I didn’t learn in high school English class.
My favorite comedies were The Merry Wives of Windsor and A Winter’s Tale. Merry Wives was written especially at the request of Queen Elizabeth I because she loved the character Sir John Falstaff from Henry VI and wanted to see him in a comedy. The play has a number of strong roles for women (although they were played by boys in Shakespeare’s day). It also has the highest percentage of prose of any Shakespeared play (about 95%). A Winter’s Tale is a dark comedy and one of Shakespeare’s later plays. According to legend, a live bear was brought on stage during its original performance at the Globe, although I suppose the scene where one of the characters is eaten by a bear was only staged.
I enjoyed the history plays much better than I thought I would, and it inspired me to read more about early English history as well (especially about the Plantagenets). But overall, I enjoyed the tragedies the best. I’d never even heard about Timon of Athens — about a former misanthrope who gives everything up to live in a cave — and scholars debate whether it was even performed in Shakespeare’s day. While I appreciate the genius of the power-hungry Macbeth, my favorite Shakespeare play overall was Titus Andronicus. This latter play is so disturbing that it’s hardly ever performed. But, as a stroke of (potential) fortune, they happen to be performing it this year at the Utah Shakespearean Festival. My husband and I are currently trying to procure tickets (and I don’t want to spoil the plot for the friends who might join us) so another post on that will follow.