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            Spending the pandemic with Shakespeare

            William Shakespeare First Folio at the Free Library of Philadelphia

            The Free Library of Philadelphia owns a first folio of William Shakespeare's plays that contains handwritten notes by poet John Milton. Photo courtesy of the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Special Collections.

            Back before the lockdown, before I or most anyone had even heard of COVID-19, I made a silent resolution – in 2020, I would read every play written by William Shakespeare in as close to the order we think he wrote them as possible.

            I’m not even sure why I resolved to do this. After all, January was many years ago.

            I probably hoped it would make me a better writer. They say Melville read through Shakespeare’s plays before he wrote “Moby Dick.” He also died in relative obscurity and near poverty, which is not something I aspire to, as career moves go. We don’t know for sure when Shakespeare wrote each play, but we have a rough idea. That was enough for me. It was something I had told myself for years that I would eventually do. And hey, who knows what the new year will bring, right? Or as Shakespeare himself put it: “O, what men dare do! What men may do! What men daily do, not knowing what they do!”

            I started with “The Taming of the Shrew” on Jan. 1. I resolved to also reread the ones I had already made my way through. I made a few modifications to the list – I took in all the history plays dealing with English kings in their historical order, to see the unfolding stories. I spaced out the readings because I didn’t want to go too quickly. Usually I read about six plays a month, often in two or three days' time for each. I breezed through the better ones – some were a harder fight. This week, I finally finished “The Two Noble Kinsmen,” the 38th and final play.

            When I told a few people what I was doing, they asked, “How is it?” My answer was usually the same:

            He’s good. He’s really good.

            Just writing about the greatness of Shakespeare seems a trite thing to do, because it’s seemingly been done to death. But there were times as I was reading where I thought to myself, “Man, he’s having a ball.” It was an unexpected pleasure to see Shakespeare’s style develop over time. He goes from being a clever writer with a gift for wordplay and rhythm into a genius at plot, character and action. And then he goes beyond that, growing into a philosopher and a prophet, comedian and mourner. And beyond that again. And again.

            The sheer inventiveness of the man is astounding. It’s easy to say that about someone whose writing has endured for four centuries, but to actually witness it flickering on the page, time after time, was a constant miracle. I discovered things I had never noticed about the plays I had read and seen before. I developed a new fondness for some of his comedies, which hadn’t really moved me so much. I would open plays I had no idea about and suddenly be carried away.

            This man, who probably did more to shape our language and culture than we will ever know, took five act play as his laboratory and flung away whatever the rulebook was. I was surprised by his history plays, and how he put the deepest observations into throwaway characters, so that the highborn will not listen to them, to their collective dooms. You can often see him, off in the shadows, deciding that the audience needs a break - so let’s have one scene of jokes and double entendres to lighten the mood. So, we have an all-male troupe of actors? Let’s have one of them who is supposed to be playing a woman instead play a woman pretending to be a man. Confused yet? It gets better. Oh, you think that character’s dead? Well, just you wait. And to think he just turned this stuff out year after year, page after page, play after play.

            It was interesting to see how he shifted over time. He migrates from sometimes lighthearted comedies and history plays, around the midpoint of his career, to a vision that grows darker and more acidic. “Julius Caesar” is still my favorite, even though it peaks with Marc Antony’s funeral oration, and I couldn’t care less. “Hamlet” remains an endless sea to sail on, as profound a meditation on grief as it is on the human psyche: “What a piece of work is man…” “Troilus and Cressida” was absolutely blue black with cynicism about war and humanity. “Macbeth” is a wonderfully compact, brilliant horror show, still as spooky as when I first encountered it. “The Comedy of Errors” was genuinely funny and has been shamelessly stolen from countless times, just as it was likely stolen by him. “The Merry Wives of Windsor” barely registered – which was reassuring, as even Shakespeare had moments when he was probably doing it for the money.

            And in a way I could never have foreseen, Shakespeare got me through the lockdown, the disappointments, the disasters, and the endless complications of 2020. About the time our dining rooms and theaters closed, I had made my way to “Romeo and Juliet,” where I was reminded that if Friar John had not been confined to a house suspected of harboring the plague, Friar Laurence would have received the letter that might have kept the star-crossed lovers alive. When Facebook kept reminding me of what Shakespeare did when he was a prisoner of the plague, I could read it myself in “King Lear,” with the assurance that “cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen.” As Americans took to the streets in protests and violence over issues of race, I saw Othello convulse in murderous anger because of the sinister machinations of Iago. I drew toward the end of the journey just as the presidential campaign headed toward its climax, with the court intrigues of Henry VIII speeding me along, reminding me to “Heat not a furnace for your foe so hot that it do singe yourself.”

            I confess that I got a little weary toward the end, like a bad runner in the last mile of a marathon. But then came “The Tempest,” with the story of an old magician on a lonely island enacting his revenge, and then moving on to something more benign. It reminded me of the reason I had taken this journey in the first place. The air, cramped and constrained by the pandemic, was again filled with luminous magic. “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep” is not just a bit of high-flown whimsy. More than once, Shakespeare reminded me, even in the worst and most challenging of times, about the gift of life itself, the inexhaustibly gracious wonder of existence. About the deep and abiding hunger of evil. About the human heart, lacerating itself and others, then suddenly drawn back from the abyss by that most alien and most welcome thing, love. I had seen all these pageants play out on the page, and on the stage, and in different versions on my television and in our streets. But as for the plays, our revels now had ended.

            As I said, so much has been written about Shakespeare that it seems silly to add a few lines more. Whatever I think he says to our time, I think it’s more important that we remember what he says for all time. Our age, seemingly teetering on the brink of disaster, with all of us filling the air with selfies to document it, may argue about what Shakespeare meant, or means, of if he still means anything at all.

            But when we do that, I think we sometimes lose sight of the very real man who I feel a little closer to now - an actual flesh and blood human, scribbling on deadline, trying to avoid putting those particular lines into the mouth of a barely competent actor he knows is incapable of saying them, mindful of the previous night’s intake at the box office, knowing that the audience is impatient and unforgiving, but ready to go anywhere that will leave them spellbound. For that man, where in his mind it was probably always 10 minutes to curtain, what we might think of his writing may not have entered into his mind.

            But we want him to have cared, which shows how much he matters to us, still.

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