The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1994. (Based on Arthur Henry Bullen’s Stratford Town Edition, Shakespeare Head Press, 1904.)
[Note: When I retired in May 2010, after teaching for thirty-seven years at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta, GA, the first thing I did was to purchase two hefty volumes that I hoped would grease the skids into my retirement. An entry from my journal, written a decade later, reveals that the completion of that plan was long delayed:
25 May 2020:
Yes! I’ve finally begun my long-delayed project to read all of Shakespeare’s plays. I bought the book at Barnes & Noble as I retired from Westminster in late May 2010, along with Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which I read early on.
The Shakespeare volume was surprisingly inexpensive, I guess because it was based on a 1904 version printed in Great Britain and was presumably now in the public domain. Except for a fairly thin glossary in the back, this version includes no essays, notes, or other scholarly apparatus. It’s lovely to look at and handle, though: heavy, faux leather covers; a generous use of gold leaf on front and rear covers, spine, and the edges of the pages; and colorful “marbled” end pages suggesting a large flock of peacocks viewed close-up from above, with tails spread.
What I did not expect, however, was that reading Shakespeare’s plays would become a “pandemic project” for me, once Covid-19 shut the country down. But it did—you can’t make this stuff up, right? What follows explains how it happened.]
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The first thing I need to mention is that I was not an English teacher, though once upon a time I had wanted to be. Rather, I was a historian. So, where did my interest in the works of the Bard come from? Well, first of all, I had of course read “the usual suspects” in the Shakespearean canon in high school and college. But, still, memories of those “warhorses” did not whet my interest to read the complete plays. So, what did?
One of the “what” was a “who”: Eddie DuPriest, an English teacher at Westminster and a good friend. Eddie is a Shakespeare fanatic. He inherited the Shakespeare course from Westminster’s legendary Shakespeare teacher, David T. Lauderdale, and for the rest of his career at the school, DuPriest labored to make it his own. And he largely succeeded.
Eddie loves to talk, as I do, and we spent hours over our years at Westminster discussing curriculum. I was not a big fan of interdisciplinary learning, though, and I missed a real chance to broaden my horizons. Eddie and one of my History Department colleagues, Dave Drake, agreed to co-teach a Shakespeare course wherein Eddie would handle the plays from the English teacher’s perspective, and Dave would provide the historical context.
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And then there was Covid-19. For a decade after I retired, the lovely volume of Shakespeare’s complete works was on my desk, a daily challenge that I managed to avoid confronting, at least until the nation “shut down” because of the pandemic. That was the proverbial “last straw”: I decided to read all of Shakespeare’s plays in chronological order of publication (at least according to the editor of the volume I’d purchased).
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I completed the earliest play, “The First Part of King Henry the Sixth,” over Memorial Day weekend in May 2020. By early October of that year, I had read fifteen of the plays, through “The First Part of King Henry the Fourth.” Then I took the first of several breaks.
I returned to my self-appointed pandemic task on May 2, 2021, with “The Second Part of King Henry the Fourth.” This success touched off a spurt of Shakespearean energy on my part that carried me through six additional plays over the next month, ending with “Twelfth Night” on June 2. Time for another break, though a shorter one.
I resumed with “Hamlet” in late July, finishing it on August 1. Another burst of activity ensued, which carried me through “Troilus and Cressida,” “All’s Well That Ends Well,” and “Measure for Measure” by the end of August.
My next break lasted for seven months, until March of 2022, when I read “Othello,” followed by “Macbeth,” “King Lear,” “Anthony and Cleopatra,” and “Coriolanus” through the end the month.
April 2022 featured several less well-known (to me, anyway) works: “Timon of Athens,” “Pericles,” “Cymbeline,” and “The Winter’s Tale,” none of which thrilled me, though they were part of the Shakespeare canon.
On May 11, I finished “The Tempest”; four days later, on May 15, I added “King Henry the Eighth.,” and, thus, completed reading Shakespeare’s plays, which meant that the project had lasted almost exactly two years. (Of course, Covid-19 still hung on stubbornly, though the panic associated with its outbreak had diminished by then.)
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Assuming that my “pandemic project” to read the complete plays of William Shakespeare had been successful, so what?
Well, first of all, my self-appointed task carried me through the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, no mean feat when you think of it. (Occasionally, I’d think about that group of Italians who, in Boccaccio’s Decameron, took refuge in the supposedly “safer” Italian countryside in hopes of escaping the Black Plague.)
Moreover, I have to wonder how many other folks out there can honestly say that they’ve read every play by William Shakespeare, pandemic or no pandemic.
Finally, there was the review of Elizabethan English I received every time I opened the Shakespearean tome and began to read. Yes, there was that minimalist glossary at the back of the book; but, because it was less than exhaustive, reading each drama or comedy could occasionally become difficult. In the end, though, I welcomed the challenge, and the closer I got to the end of the “project,” the more excited I became.
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Do I wish the collection had included a more detailed glossary? Sure! Can I tell you much about the Bard’s plays that I read for the first time during this unplanned exercise? No, though, if pressed, I could list the plays that disappointed me, because, although they were by Shakespeare, they were not nearly as engrossing as the ones I was more familiar with. Put another way, his perhaps less than scintillating plays simply reminded me that, before he became a world-renowned playwright, William Shakespeare was just another English dramatist trying to make ends meet.
But, looking back on this two-year journey into the art of William Shakespeare, am I glad I did it? Absolutely! Like education in general, reading Shakespeare’s plays, once you’ve done it, is something that no one can take away from you, even if, like me, you’ll not have much of an opportunity to share that knowledge with anyone.
Oh, wait–that’s what I’ve just done! Who says blogging is an empty exercise? Certainly not me!
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: