Sunday, August 19, 2007

Readin' Shakespeare

Holy moly, is this our first post about Shakespeare? Where's our lit cred, for Pete's sake? Considering my first post was about Stephen King, I think we're overdue.

I believe I have only read Hamlet, Lear, The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, and The Tempest. That's it...until now. Because my book group has decided to read all thirty-six plays, in order (according, anyway, to Norton), over the next four years, and intersperse them with the sonnets, and a few contemporary writers, Jonson and Marlowe, specifically.

Loyal readers might recall that this book group had been slogging through Proust for some time, and while we enjoyed and are continuing to enjoy him, the experience is sometimes akin to serving a lifetime sentence in an extremely beautiful prison in which everyone is wearing fascinating hats. Shakespeare, on the other hand, is the precise opposite--he is a breath of fresh air, hilarious and cutting and far-ranging in scope.

That is not to say that the first of this project, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, is the most emblematic of those virtues. In many ways, it kind of stinks. A comic meditation on love and friendship (and, enigmatically, the idea of service), it's about two friends, Valentine and Proteus, who fall in love with two women, Silvia and Julia. Valentine is the more honorable of the two men, while Proteus is, well, protean, sneakily reinventing himself to suit the situation, lying to everyone he meets, and generally making a mess of things. Proteus is in love with Julia, you see, until he hears Valentine go on about Silvia, at which time he falls in love with Silvia, then betrays Valentine to her father in a ploy to separate the lovers. The play ends with Proteus actually attempting to rape Silvia--Valentine catches him in the act, denounces him, and, five lines later, forgives him for everything, and everybody agrees to get married.

Whaaa? No, it doesn't make any sense at all. But the play is interesting, not only because of the way the young Shakespeare grabs hold of the cliches of genre and bends them into all kinds of crazy shapes; not only because of some really very nice verse here and there; and not only because of the terrific clown Lance and his urinating dog Crab--but because it's really about two men awkwardly expressing their intense love for each other through the unfortunate medium of a couple of women. Not that it's homoerotic--although Shakespeare's famous bawdy punning is already evident throughout--but it does grapple, quite amusingly, with the notion of male friendship, and in what strange ways sex is brought to bear upon it.

If you read it, don't look for it to push the same buttons Lear does. Rather, think of it as an Elizabethan Superbad.

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