Not only has April 23rd been the International Day of the Book (or World Book Day) ever since 1995… for much longer it has also been the birthday (and death-day, actually) of a certain someone called William Shakespeare, and today we are celebrating it for the 450th time. Since the birthday boy is unable to make it to the party for obvious reasons (well… IF they were already done filming Series 8 of “Doctor Who” and IF they’d had the good sense to include a Shakespeare-themed episode this would have been a different story, perhaps, but alas, it isn’t to be 😉 ), I thought it would be nice to write a bit about my personal “encounters” with The Bard.
The first time I read anything by Shakespeare was in late 1996, around the time when the “Romeo & Juliet” movie with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes was released. I read the play before I’d seen the movie (I think) and even though I was struggling with Shakespearean English (I was 15 and had only been learning English for about 4 years), I thought the story was lovely and I even liked the writing (well, the parts I understood, at least). To be honest, though, I found it a bit weird to read about a pair of lovers who were only around my own age and wanted to be MARRIED (!!). Back then I didn’t really know much about history and that it was quite normal for people from a certain era to be married at such a young age. However, this didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the play and I wanted to read more of Shakespeare’s works. My friends got me The Complete Works of William Shakespeare for my birthday that year – a big, chunky paperback edition that is still sitting on my bookshelves to this day (and looking quite battered and well-loved by now).
The next time I came across a Shakespeare play was when we watched “Dead Poets Society” at school and that movie made me want to read “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. I didn’t get very far, though, because to be honest, I found it a bit too silly and weird with all the enchanted humans-/woodland creatures-/fantasy-themed drama. That wasn’t my cup of tea back then (it still isn’t, really), so I stopped reading pretty soon and when we did the play in class at uni several years later (what with me doing English Lit and all), it took some convincing to get me to pick it up again. This time around, I enjoyed it a bit more but I can’t say that it’ll ever be among my favourites.
Another play I came across at school was “Much Ado About Nothing”. I had watched the Kenneth Branagh/Emma Thompson movie adaptation first and got to watch a brilliant modern performance of the play during a visit to Berlin with my mum in 1998 before actually reading the play myself for class. Sadly my English teacher at the time wasn’t very successful in getting my classmates interested in the play, so we basically just read it and talked about the text very briefly. Still, it’s my all-time favourite of the plays I’ve read, I just love all the witty wordplays and innuendoes and the characters of Benedick and Beatrice.
In 2000 we went on a week-long school trip to London and got to do a workshop at The Globe Theatre there, which also included going up on stage and reciting/acting out a few lines from various Shakespeare plays. To this day I never fail to mention to everyone who cares to hear it (and those who don’t 😉 ) that I once stood on the stage of The Globe, reciting Shakespeare! 🙂 We also went to Stratford-upon-Avon during this trip and saw Shakespeare’s birthplace and Anne Hathaway’s cottage and also Shakespeare’s grave in the Holy Trinity Church there.
When I started uni I got my first taste of Shakespeare’s history plays and it came in the form of “Richard II”. I absolutely hated that play! Well, not the play itself, but the character of Richard with his whiny, spoilt-brat-personality, who kind of reminded me of Dudley Dursley from the Harry Potter books. He totally ruined the play for me. And yes, I know that the reader is supposed to hate him but I just couldn’t get past this and enjoy the plot, I just kept thinking what an awful person he was and that overshadowed everything. I plan on reading it again sometime, though, hopefully I’ll enjoy it a bit more then.
For the same class at uni I had to read “Hamlet” and “Macbeth” and I quite liked both of them, possibly “Hamlet” a bit more than “Macbeth” because I got really fed up and annoyed with the character of Lady Macbeth, kind of in the same vein as with Richard II. These two I plan on reading again sometime as well because I’ve forgotten quite a lot about their plots already.
A different class at uni dealt with a few others of the history plays, namely “Richard III”, “Henry IV (Parts 1 & 2)” and “Henry V”. Out of these, I liked the two Henries the best but for some reason I wouldn’t want to read them again, as opposed to “Richard III”, which I somehow feel I’ll enjoy much more now that I know quite a bit more about the real Richard III.
That’s it for the plays I’ve read so far. Not too many, I know, but hopefully that’ll change over time. As for the poetical works of Shakespeare, I’ve only read a few of the sonnets. My favourites are Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) and Sonnet 116 (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments”). I can still recite both of these off by heart, even though I haven’t read them in ages. They are just so lovely!
So which are your favourite works by Shakespeare and why? Let me know in the comments.