Shakespeare is one of those cultural assets that humans seem to absorb like the air, just by being alive. Often, we are not even aware that we are quoting a phrase first set down 400 years ago, it's simply a set of words we are used to hearing together. So even if you have some mental image of Hamlet holding a skull and saying "Alas, poor Yorick I knew him...something something"...you may be surprised later to hear "every dog has its day". Or to watch Othello and hear Iago describe jealousy as a "green-eyes monster". Hundreds of English language expressions appear to have originated in Shakespeare's work!
Watching the Shakespeare plays over the years has been a fascinating discovery process like that for me. At first, the process was slow. Seeing "The Merry Wives of Windsor" with the university Basilian Literary Association. An occasional Shakespeare in the Park or local production. But it wasn't yet a serious pursuit, yet.
The big turning point was listening Peter Saccio's Great Courses audio course about Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories and Tragedies. A distinguished and illuminating lecturer, Professor Saccio's course underscores brilliantly how much stimulating material there was to learn. This quickly led to acquiring a small collection of books and DVDs about the plays.
About a year ago, this BBC box set appeared in the mail, including their versions of nearly all the plays ("The Two Noble Kinsmen" wasn't included in the BBC productions). This series was produced and broadcast by the BBS during the late 70s and early 80s. Watching them wasn't power-watching weekend fare for me, I was trying to get a good understanding with as many of the plays as possible. The usual process would be to flip through the Rough Guides Shakespeare book to get a rough idea of plot, then read commentary about the play by Marjorie Garber or Harold Bloom, two favorite critics regarding matters Shakespearean. Watching these Region 2 DVDs on computer made following along in the text easy. This has been a FANTASTIC experience, offering the experience of many neat bits in the less-performed plays.
Around a month ago, I realized that I had seen almost all of the plays and made it a goal to see them all before year's end. The lack of "The Two Noble Kinsmen" was made more complicated by there not seeming to be any versions on DVD. Fortunately, there are a couple enjoyable versions available on YouTube. The version performed at Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand) was a lot of fun: the New Zealand accent mixes well with iambic pentameter!
Well, yesterday I checked off my last play, "Pericles: Prince of Tyre".
Is that it for my Shakespeare-watching? HARDLY! Many or these plays are deeply entertaining and deserve additional viewings and closer study. There are also a number of great versions available for some of the plays, such as the Royal Shakespeare company, Kenneth Branagh productions, the Globe in London. There is years of material yet to be seen and explored are tremendous amounts of critical analysis to be pored over. There are metaphorical side streets to be explored, like learning about the rhetorical devices used in the plays, learning about Elizabethan history and culture, as well as the history of the Plantaganets.
This is only the beginning....