After about a year and a half, I’ve finished reading Shakespeare’s works. I could have accomplished this more quickly, but I consciously slowed down to enjoy the experience. At my age, I consider it unlikely that I will ever read all of Shakespeare again, so I wanted to get as much as I could out of every play or poem.
Of course, I had read many of these before, some of them multiple times. One of my high school English classes was devoted entirely to Shakespeare. One of my teachers gave me a copy of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, which I read at age 18. Nevertheless, I discovered new wonders in both the familiar and the novel.
Interestingly, the group of works that I was most sorry to leave behind were the historical plays. Of these, I had previously read only Richard III, and I had seen Henry V performed twice. I found each of these plays most interesting, especially Shakespeare’s portrayal of the psychology of the kings. He makes you feel that they’re very human, and that royalty weighs heavily even on those who desire it most.
Re-reading Hamlet for perhaps the fourth or fifth time confirmed again my high opinion of this play. I’m always amazed by its depth of characters. Polonius, who might have been a mere caricature of obsequiousness, displays some fine insights into life. Even Claudius is not painted entirely in black – we’re given a glimpse of his struggles with his guilt that almost makes us pity him.
Once again I was surprised by how much I appreciated Romeo and Juliet. If you just rattle off the the plot, it sounds ridiculously romantic. But Shakespeare builds out both the strengths and weaknesses of his characters in such a believable fashion that you can’t help being taken by the story.
When I reached the Sonnets, I was surprised that in my earlier reading of them (more than thirty years ago) I entirely missed the homoerotic references in many of these poems. Although some scholars interpret these as hyperbolic praise of a friend, I find it difficult to reconcile Shakespeare’s expressions of physical admiration and jealousy towards this young man as anything less than what he later expresses for the dark lady. Perhaps Shakespeare wasn’t a practicing bisexual (in one sonnet, he wishes that the young man were a woman so he could make love to him), but he certainly didn’t keep his feelings in the closet.
In Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare gives his most graphic descriptions of sexual desire. Venus desires Adonis, who is not interested in reciprocating. Thus, it’s natural that the poem, which is almost told from Venus’ viewpoint, spends more time praising the beauty of Adonis than that of Venus. Nevertheless, in light of the Sonnets I wonder if Shakespeare may have found Venus’ voice quite natural, especially in expressing her frustration of desire and eventual loss of Adonis, just as he apparently lost the love of the young man of the Sonnets.
Lest anyone think that I’m homophobic, I admire Shakespeare’s ambiguity on this point. I don’t happen to share his apparent desire for a man, but I honor his honesty and ability to express it without explicitly “taking sides” on the issue. Shakespeare is first and foremost a complete human – and he shows us all aspects of humanity as brilliantly as anyone ever has.