Friday, 11 December 2015

I have a terrible admission to make : I've never read or seen Romeo and Juliet or Merchant of Venice all the way through!

I know what happens in Romeo & Juliet and Merchant of Venice, of course, but that's hardly the point. I have no idea why I've always avoided these two plays, but I intend to put it right in the New Year. I've only seen Taming of the Shrew as a film, starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, so I probably need to read that as well.

So far, I have found only one Shakespeare play unreadable: Comedy of Errors, whose artificiality made me weary. I wasn't that crazy about Love's Labour's Lost, but I did manage to finish it. I've read all of the other comedies, apart from Merry Wives of Windsor. I've read all the tragedies, (apart, as I said, for Romeo & Juliet) but I still have a few history plays to catch up with - namely the three parts of Henry VI, King John and Henry VIII (I'll leave them until last, mainly because they appear to be collaborations).

In the middle of this year's Shakespeare marathon, I decided to read the plays of two of his contemporaries - Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson. I was hugely impressed by Marlowe's Tamburlaine, Parts 1 and 2 and Edward II, and Doctor Faustus is simply astonishing. I'm an admirer of some of Ben Jonson's poetry, but Every Man in His Humour, The Alchemist and Volpone were borderline revolting: lots of energy and robustness and word-play, of course, but pretty much every single character is despicable, and the moral universe the plays inhabit is so depraved I ended up feeling distinctly queasy. Perhaps I'm turning into Mary Whitehouse in my old age, and I remember G. Wilson Knight in The Wheel of Fire (1930) warning readers not judge characters in plays using their own moral yardsticks -  but I just got tired of all the quacks and trollops and conmen and dupes and tricksters and suchlike. T.S. Eliot wrote well about Jonson in The Sacred Wood (1921), and I should probably read that chapter again before returning to the fray - but I think I'll leave it for a bit. (Actually, it may be a pointless exercise - for instance, my natural prudishness means that I've always found Restoration comedies, for instance, about as enticing as Confessions of a Window Cleaner, and I doubt I'll become any less of a prude in old age.)

Some Shakespeare plays are a trifle manky in terms of contemporary morality - Pericles, where a fourteen-year old girl is captured by pirates and sold to a brothel, is a bit nasty (even though Miranda manages to retain her maidenhead), and plots where women fool men into having sex with them by pretending to be someone else, as in All's Well that Ends Well and Measure for Measure are, I suspect, a little too ripe for modern tastes. But there's an underlying moral seriousness in Shakespeare - even in the frothiest of his comedies - which was missing from the three Jonson plays I read. Anyway, as I say, I'll return to Jonson eventually, having left my deeply suburban moral compass at the door.

1 comment:

  1. FRAL Rowse - Leavis19 December 2015 at 03:52

    All Merchant of Venice's post - modern textual critics are faced with the evidence of Antonio's opposition to gay marriage :

    "My ventures are not in one bottom trusted."