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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Where there's Will, there's a way to say it

A couple of years ago, as I was nearing my fiftieth birthday, it hit me hard that my time was running out and I'd left too many important books unread.

For the purposes of calculation, I gave myself another 20 years, and considering that, in a good year, I get through about 40 books, that meant I had another 800 to go before the Final Exam. Among the books I'd never read at the time: Homer's "Iliad" (and I'd been Bishop of Troy for five years already!), Virgil's "Aeniad" (see previous parenthesis), two-thirds of Dante's "Divine Comedy" - the list goes on and on and on. To my particular shame (as my first degree was in English literature), I had only read or seen performed, at most, ten plays by William Shakespeare: "Hamlet," "The Merchant of Venice," "Romeo and Juliet," "Macbeth," "Othello" (my favorite), "Richard III," "As You Like It," "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Now ten may seem like a lot, but the man had written, in whole or collaboratively, a whopping 37! Looking over the list, I forgave myself for not having gotten around yet to "Coriolanus" or "Timon of Athens" or "A Winter's Tale," but "Antony and Cleopatra"? "The Taming of the Shrew"? "Measure for Measure"? "King Lear"??? No, something clearly had to be done about it! So I set myself the goal of reading all 37 plays, in approximate chronological order, from "Two Gentlemen of Verona" to "Two Noble Kinsmen," before I turned 51. And it wasn't to be a matter of getting through a text as quickly as possible, just to say that I'd done it. No, I invested in recorded performances of every play, which I'd listen to while commuting to and from work, and filmed versions, including adaptations, which I'd watch in the evenings, and whenever possible, I took in live performances. And I read books and essays about the man and his times, and about the men and times he wrote about. And a year into it, I'd made it through "Hamlet," the 19th play (according to order I was following). In other words, there were another 18 to go! As much as I'd enjoyed myself getting to the halfway point, it seemed to me a good time to take a break of a few months. Unfortunately, with one thing and another, I haven't returned to my project, but I genuinely look forward to doing so. Next up: "Twelfth Night."

One of the reasons I came to Florence for my sabbatical, as I've mentioned before, was to read Dante here, and it was exactly the right thing to do. I've been reluctant to burden you with my thoughts on him so far, though I do plan to write something on him some time next week, when I get through "Purgatory." You may also recall that I planned while here to read only books about Florence or by Florentines, and up until now I've kept to the program. A couple of nights ago, though, I allowed myself a little break and read Bill Bryson's latest, "Shakespeare: The World as a Stage." Those of you who've read him before will know how much fun he is, and those of you who haven't had better get a move on! Pick up anything by him; he never disappoints. In fact, I can recommend this little Shakespeare book (190 pgs) with the warmest enthusiasm. I felt all the while like I was in the company to a good and wise and funny friend, discussing a mutual, much admired, if ultimately mysterious friend. I can't imagine anyone with even the faintest interest in the greatest writer ever to use the English language not finding something to love in this gem of a book.

I leave you with a couple of passages in which Bryson calls attention to how profoundly Shakespeare enriched our articulate world:

"[Shakespeare] coined - or, to be more carefully precise, made the first recorded use of - 2,035 words, [...including:] abstemious, antipathy, critical, frugal, dwindle, extract, horrid, vast, hereditary, excellent, eventful, barefaced, assassination, lonely, leapfrog, indistinguishable, well-read, zany, and countless others (including 'countless').... His real gift was as a phrasemaker: one fell swoop, vanish into thin air, bag and baggage, play fast and loose, go down the primrose path, be in a pickle, budge an inch, the milk of human kindness, more sinned against than sinning, remembrance of things past, beggar all description, cold comfort, to thine own self be true, more in sorrow than in anger, the wish is father to the thought, salad days, flesh and blood, foul play, tower of strength, be cruel to be kind, blinking idiot, with bated breath, pomp and circumstance, foregone conclusion."

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