Monday, March 31, 2008

A beginning is a very delicate time...

So I’ve been in love with Shakespeare for most of my life. For all the usual reasons, I suppose: those people live so big, and die so big, triumph, rejoice, despair and are vanquished on a level that is so grand it is almost out of an ordinary person’s comprehension. And those words…oh, those words, that feel like lightning and echo faintly in your mind the rest of your life. Even his crummy plays—and he wrote a few, no mistake—have at least a passage or two of pure gold. And the best ones? Horatio can’t even say, “It’s getting light; let’s go find the prince,” without uttering some of the finest poetry in English.

I acted in a little Shakespeare in college while I was supposed to be studying for my Computer Science degree, and I recently went back to my alma mater to assist with a production of Macbeth, for which I coached the actors and produced a very tight 90-minute version of the script of which I’m kind of proud. Last year, I made it a project to read all of Shakespeare (some of it for the first time), and experience all of the plays in production (some live, some video, some audio)—a wonderful journey that my overheated little brain is still processing; resonances and connections float up to my conscious mind from time to time.

And yet, fantastic as it was, I couldn’t help feeling a bit small-minded about it, even a bit guilty…particularly as I slogged my way through the approximately five billion stanzas of Lucrece, which I didn’t enjoy at all. I’ve always had this nagging awareness that Shakespeare was just one figure—albeit a titanic one—in the story of the English Renaissance. He didn’t write the forty best plays of the period, but it’s much, much easier to find a production of an indifferent Shakespeare (Two Gentlemen of Verona, say), than of the masterpieces of Jonson, Marlowe, Webster, and so on. And here I sat, indulging in the cult of Shakespeare. I felt cheap.

I decided it was time to spread out, try to find some of that magic in the words of the people who wrote at the same time for the same stage. If nothing else, I would deepen and refine my understanding of one of the great treasures of human art. And if there’s another Shakespeare out there, waiting to be read…

Enter, at that moment, Gary Taylor, with his 20-years-in-the-making, cast-of-thousands edition of the collected works of Thomas Middleton. “Our other Shakespeare,” he likes to call him. You haven’t ever been able to read him properly, but now, for the first time in 400 years, you can.

You know that I held Epicurus strong
And his opinion: now I change my mind,
And partly credit things that do presage.

I have to take a chance on an omen like this. I have my doubts—a bushel of them. Gary Taylor is an infamous name in some Shakespeare circles; he makes me awfully suspicious. And Middleton? I mostly think of him as the hack who scribbled all over Macbeth in 1616 or so, and prevented us from ever being able to read Shakespeare’s original. But I’m going to give it a go. has my money, and soon I hope to open the steel-reinforced box bearing my very own copies of Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works and Thomas Middleton and Early Modern Textual Culture, 3,200 pages in all. And I bet there aren’t even pictures.

I’m not committing to the lot, you understand. But I’m going to give Middleton the fairest shake I can. Falling in love with Shakespeare was hard work, sometimes, but worth it in the end. If you’re interested in the journey, gentle reader, I will use this blog to post dispatches along the way. Perhaps, I can show you some new and undreamed-of treasures…or at worst, warn you away from the quicksand.

I’m not offering heroics, like Julie Powell did when she cooked every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking over the course of one year (though perhaps I should; she got a book contract and a movie deal for her trouble); I’m going to go at my own pace, and if I want to sneak off and read some Shakespeare in the middle of it, I’m gonna. I’m sure I could force myself to get through ten pages of Middleton a day, and just as sure that it would pass almost unimpeded out the other side of my mind. Taylor spent, after all, a good chunk of his professional life on this project—I owe it enough time to take it seriously. Check in with me once in a while, and we’ll see if I have something worth sharing with you.