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What can one say of Shakespeare that has not been said over the last four hundred years? Not much that is a new insight. These comments are some personal views on the dramatic works.

The language is, of course, the main thing. Without it the plays are much less engaging, as is evidenced in some modern reworkings. The language seems almost American-English: in some words, such as closet; the agreement between verbs, and the use of countable and non-countable nouns. Some of these things may be poetic use but they occur frequently that it seemed embedded in the grammar. The archaic use of French was an intriguing element too, especially, puissance (power), and moiety (half), spelt in different forms occurred a lot.

Pride is the biggest sin. It afflicts and ruins King Lear, Coriolanus, Othello, Beatrice and Benedick (though they marry, so it’s a comic device); Cymbeline, Leontes, though he is reprieved in an unconvincing manner; Julius Caesar, Timon, Prospero, to a large extent, and probably others too, in small ways, are all infected by pride. As so many characters are nobles and very high and mighty it is a failing that was endemic to their station.

I asked myself why some plays are set in foreign countries: Italy in particular, as well as, famously Denmark and Scotland. Occasionally it made sense for history or commerce (Merchant of Venice) but some did not at all. For example Timon of Athens was really Elizabethan London. The English plays, the histories, are a type of record of the past. No pattern emerged to imply that some people and nations are more comic, or ruthless, and thus the action must be set in a particular nation.

Several things I am happy to give up: the hithers and thithers, beseech etc; noble lords and dukes – all that hierarchy becomes tiresome; plots that turn on a pinhead; emotions that spin 180 degrees to serve the plot, and with it gullibility by some characters to serve the plot. All too easy..

For readers today, one the most curious aspects to the plays is when the plot is foretold by a character. This occurs in tragedies and comedies. Iago explains the machinations of his plot and then they are acted without variation or change. Richard III tells the audience what his plan is, does it, and then turns the audience and says, ‘I am clever and a villain’. Hamlet disguises it after he has explained his method following the ghost scene. In today’s terms this is unforgivably bad writing, perhaps only seen in soap opera and children’s TV. The understanding and intention were different in Shakespeare’s day.

After reading all the plays I can say categorically that Tolstoy was absolutely wrong. If anything, Shakespeare has psychological insight ahead of his time. It is turned to the same moral compass that Tolstoy held, Shakespeare’s vision of life and people is often dark and cleaves to pessimism. But Shakespeare’s language is enthralling and memorable; perhaps too counterfeit an actor itself for the Russian to have accepted. Or Tolstoy was simply too priggish to enjoy it.

My list of plays to see and read again in no order:

1. King Lear
2. Richard II
3. Coriolanus
4. Macbeth
5. Othello
6. All’s Well That Ends Well
7. As You Like It
8. Much Ado About Nothing
9. The Tempest
10. A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream
(Hamlet can go here too but is like an album that is too well-known to reveal much except for a once-a-decade listening.)

Plays that are worth the time:

1. Henry VI Parts 1-3
2. Richard III
3. Julius Caesar
4. Henry V
5. King John
6. Henry VIII

Guy Cranswick
22 June 2012