Monday, April 14, 2008

Happy Birthday to the Bard

Quite a few years ago, when I was studying for my comps at the end of grad school, the broad range of possibilities was daunting. I asked Dr. Bill Foster, the head of the English department at the Unversity of North Alabama, "How do I study for comps? How do I prepare for a test over Shakespeare?" His answer: "You re-read everything he wrote, and then you read everything written about him." He paused then said, "You don't. You know it or you don't."

I must have been at least adequately prepared; I passed. Since then, however, I have taken every opportunity to read--and quite often, re-read--the Bard's plays and poetry. What I want to share, though, are some companion reads:

Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.

Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World.

Bill Bryson. Shakespeare: The World as a Stage.

in a category of its own--

Bob Smith. Hamlet's Dresser: A Memoir. I can't say enough about this true story of a young man growing up shouldering a huge responsibility for a handicapped sister, who finds a life and an escape in the local Shakespeare theatre. As an adult, he leads reader's theater for the elderly. This is one of those survivor stories that ranks up there with Angela's Ashes or The Glass Castle. For lovers of the stage, I can't recommend it enough.

Harry Turtledove, Ruled Britannia. In another of his alternate histories, Turtledove imagines what might have happened if the English fleet had been defeated by the Spanish Armada. Queen Elizabeth is in the tower; William Shakespeare, already well-known as a playwright, is commissioned by Spain to write a play honoring the king, expected to die soon. At the same time, an underground movement commissions him to write a play that will galvanize the British people to overthrow the Spaniards.

Robert Nye, Mrs. Shakespeare. This is a slim, titillating novel, the imagined journal of Anne Hathaway. The sonnet that begins "Shall I compare thee to a summer day..." will take on new meaning.

Paul Rudnick. I Hate Hamlet. The protagonist is an actor who leaves daytime dramas and moves to New York to try his hand at serious acting, reluctantly landing a role as Hamlet in Shakespeare in the Park and finding himself living in an old apartment haunted by its former tenant, Barrymore, who helps him prepare for the role he has taken reluctantly.

The Reduced Shakespare Company. The Compleat Wks of Shkspr, Abridged. If you've seen the performance (a three man show with an audience member starring in a cameo role as Ophelia), you know how hysterical it is. The footnotes in the script made me cackle.

I'm sure I'll think of more--and I'll add them later. What have I forgotten?

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