New books, a play, and some music

A couple of new books.

Over the weekend, we saw The Comedy of Errors, the last production Barbara Gaines will direct as artistic director of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. (Reviews here and here.) For the record, we didn’t mind the framing device, at all. Errors is a fairly ridiculous play; the frame gave it the support most contemporary audiences require. We also heard a short concert given by a small ensemble of Elgin Symphony Orchestra members — really delightful.

Pages remaining in journey: 364


“As for your grace’s valor, courtesy, deeds, and undertakings,” Sancho continued, “there are different opinions. Some say, ‘Crazy, but amusing’; others, ‘Brave, but unfortunate’; and others, ‘Courteous, but insolent’; and they go on and on so much in this vein that they don’t leave an untouched bone in your grace’s body or mine” (p. 472).

It sounds as if Sancho has overheard a few book discussions, doesn’t it?

Earlier this week, one of my reading groups finished Crime and Punishment. Despite ten weeks of engaged reading and discussion, we failed to build consensus around any single idea about the philosophy and/or psychology of Raskolnikov. Might he be a psychopath or, at the very least, disturbed? Did the extremities of hunger and poverty inform his disordered thinking? Do his thought patterns simply underscore the limits of nihilism? Some combination of all of this? None of this? In our eighth meeting, I posited that the compulsion to pin a character to a specimen tray and label each of his acts (or, as Sancho might say, bones) might represent a contemporary tendency, one fueled by popular psychology, legal dramas, and the assumption that everything we do can be ascribed a concrete motive and, by extension, a value judgment: He did [insert act] because [insert motive], and that is [insert moral value]. After all, I suggested, sometimes thoughts and acts follow no discernible logic. Shakespeare gives us a fabulous example of this in The Winter’s Tale. Leontes’ jealous rage occurs in one short speech after his departing friend acquiesces to the queen’s entreaties that he, the friend, remain — for her husband’s sake! Leontes’ inexplicable madness results in the deaths of his son and a courtier, as well as the apparent deaths of his newborn and his wife. In a move that can confound readers, audiences, actors, and directors, Shakespeare provides no explanation for Leontes’ unbridled jealousy. Nothing in the text points to a motive. Rather, the writer seems to say, Some people are like this; here is a story about one. And it works! Why? Because more often than anyone would like to admit, what we say, do, and believe defies both logic and diagnosis.

I reread The Winter’s Tale following that meeting and was struck again by how inessential Leontes’ motive is to the plot. In Shakespeare’s blend of tragedy (the first three acts, the fall of the king), comedy (the fourth act, the pastoral involving the shepherdess and the prince), and history (the fifth act, the kingdom in need of an heir), the why of Leontes’ behavior proves far less critical to the play than the fallout of that behavior. Similarly, the why of Raskolnikov’s behavior – in this reader’s opinion, anyway – proves far less critical to Crime and Punishment than the fallout of that behavior. Like Shakespeare, Dostoevsky refrains from defining a motive for the main character’s action. Yes, he draws readers into Raskolnikov’s head; in fact, many early paragraphs read like soliloquies; but the novel seems rooted in the effects of Raskolnikov’s act, on him and on the characters with whom he interacts. It is not, then, a story about why Raskolnikov kills, any more than The Winter’s Tale is a story about why Leontes spirals out of control. Crime and Punishment concerns what occurs in the aftermath of a brutal act.

Of course, because I am also reading Don Quixote, I have found myself wondering about the Knight of the Sorrowful Face. “[T]he common people think your grace is a madman, and that I’m just as great a simpleton” (p. 471), Sancho informs Don Quixote. The gentry suggest he has overstepped his bounds, and other knights want nothing to do with him. Crazy, amusing; brave, unfortunate; courteous, insolent. Maybe the compulsion to pin a character to a specimen tray and label each of his bones is not as contemporary as I thought, eh? Increasingly, however, I find myself drawn to the idea that we need to keep this character far, far away from tray and pins.

A participant in the tutorial has noted that some of us have been “cheating” on Don Quixote and wondered how that has affected our experience of other novels. I loved the use of “cheating” because I often refer to myself as a recklessly and unapologetically promiscuous reader, one who will leave books partially read to pursue others, only to return to books begun well before any of those, all with the cologne of new books clinging to my sweater. Seriously, though, it is not so much that I have been cheating on Don Quixote but rather that I have added Cervantes to a conversation occurring in one of the rooms of my imagination. While participating in the tutorial, I have also completed two courses on one of my favorite works of fiction, Moby-Dick, a short course on The Odyssey, and the reading group for Crime and Punishment. That puts Melville, Homer, Cervantes, Dostoevsky, and Shakespeare in the same mental living room; imagine my delight! Although I am still working out Dostoevsky’s relationship to the other writers, it is clear that Melville is indebted to both Cervantes and Shakespeare, and that these three have a running tab with the oral tradition that yielded the Homeric epics. In anticipation of another course, I began rereading Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, which begins, “Call me Jonah.” With that nod to Melville, Vonnegut entered the living room. (Speaking of Melville and specimen trays, has anyone yet satisfactorily explained Ahab? Of course not, although CLR James makes some insightful, if dated, points about who Ahab may have become to the collective American imagination.) These authors have a lot to talk about, and I am listening.

The other books I am reading have not been enveloped by Don Quixote; nor the reverse. Rather, each of the books amplifies the others.

“…I give you a Don Quixote who is, at the end, dead and buried, so that no one will dare tell more tales about him, for the ones told in the past are enough…” (p. 458).
Spoiler alert, right? Since January 2022, I have participated in one discussion group and two courses on Moby- Dick, and in each, participants were upset when the conclusion was referenced. And our Crime and Punishment group agreed to avoid spoilers, although privately I argued that the title is as much a spoiler as this quote from Don Quixote.

“…I only devote myself to making the world understand its error in not restoring that happiest of times when the order of knight errantry was in flower” (p. 464).
Don Quixote has a vision board.

“It seems to me,” said Don Quixote, “there is no human history in the world that does not have its ups and downs, especially those that deal with chivalry; they cannot be filled with nothing but successful exploits” (p. 476).
Given my reflection above, you will understand how the idea of Don Quixote saying this to Leontes or Ahab simply cracked me up.

“To say witty things and to write cleverly requires great intelligence: the most perceptive character in a play is the fool, because the man who wishes to seem simple cannot possibly be a simpleton. History is like a sacred thing; it must be truthful, and wherever truth is, there God is; but despite this, there are some who write and toss off books as if they were fritters” (p. 478).
Elsewhere, while discussing Moby-Dick, I observed the parallels between Pip and Lear’s fool, which, naturally, ensured I added King Lear to my to-be-(re)read stack, but arriving at this passage, I wondered, Does Don Quixote have a fool? If so, is it Sancho? Or is the Knight of the Sorrowful Face the author’s fool? (And, yes, there is truth, my readerly kryptonite.)

O wonderful son


“Your silence will not protect you.”

We have seen more than a few Hamlets, stage and screen. The incredible production at the Gift Theatre is the best we’ve experienced.

From the choice to portray the relationships between fathers and children as warm and affectionate to the decisions surrounding the expression of Ophelia’s madness, from the decaying set to the superlative performances — it’s simply riveting.

Notes from the last few weeks

Baltimore Oriole.

The orioles arrived before May concluded, but we have not yet espied the indigo buntings — in the yards or on the bike trail. And now it is June. In fact, it is fiercely June: The rains abruptly concluded about ten days ago, and the grass, which has assumed a slightly o’ercooked tan-green hue, sighs, “More water, please,” as it crunches underfoot.


We have enjoyed some terrific theater since I last wrote: Not about Nightingales at the Raven, Pass Over at Steppenwolf, and Great Expectations, a Remy Bumppo and Silk Road Rising collaboration.

We had not been to the Raven since All My Sons in 2014. The excellent performances in Nightingales, an early and uneven Tennessee Williams work, ensured that we will make returning a priority.

Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s Pass Over (which features ensemble member Jon Michael Hill — popularly recognizable for his Elementary gig) leans heavily but effectively on the structure of its chief influence, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and its leads, Hill and Julian Parker, deliver compelling, get-out-your-chair-and-applaud performances. (Added bonus: Hill and Parker are Illini!) If you’re in the area, you should see this one.

You should also see the collaboration of Remy Bumppo Theatre Company and Silk Road Rising, in which Pip’s “great expectations” take him from his small Indian village to colonized Calcutta. (More information here; review here.)

We also saw the National Theatre Live broadcast of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, featuring Daniel Radcliffe. Catch a rebroadcast, if you can.

Do you listen to podcasts? Our drive in and out of Chicago yesterday was punctuated by the first three episodes of S-Town. Fans of both seasons of Serial, we all agree Brian Reed’s narrative style outstrips that of Sarah Koenig: Hers were great stories adequately told; his is a good story well told.

That said, the spoiler-ish “Was the Art of S-Town Worth the Pain?” (The Atlantic, April 9) has made. me. think.

Evaluate the moral price of producing good art and what damage it might cause to those involved when their secrets are instantly available for the entertainment consumption of thousands or millions of listeners. ­­S-Town may be a groundbreaking new kind of podcast; it also, like many poems, memoirs, and articles before it, confesses other people’s pain in a public—and at times questionable—way.

Speaking of episodes, my husband and I must catch up on 8 and 9 of The Handmaid’s Tale before the finale this week. (I hope you’re all watching.)

When I’m not watching (or backyard birding or biking or writing or…), I am, of course, reading, and my participation in the “Shakespeare in a Year” project is going particularly well. In fact, finishing The Rape of Lucrece early last month put me ahead of schedule. My remarks on the poem:

Last year, I read Cymbeline in anticipation of seeing a Shakespeare Project of Chicago production; and more recently, I stumbled on a film that imagines Cymbeline as a conflict between a motorcycle gang and corrupt police. As I read The Rape of Lucrece, then, I was immediately reminded of the Posthumus, Iachimo, and Imogen storyline.

Fundamentally, the similarity between Imogen’s story and Lucrece’s, the origins of both of which are ancient, is that their husbands publicly rhapsodize on their beauty and chastity — and thus, embolden their listeners. The husbands’ lack of circumspection leads to the violation of their wives. What a theme, eh? The listener in Cymbeline is Iachimo, who spends an uncomfortable amount of time ogling Imogen as she sleeps before stealing a trinket. He later lies about enjoying her bed. In The Rape of Lucrece, the listener is Tarquin, who also leers at the slumbering wife before violating her.

On hearing Iachimo’s false claims, a jealous Posthumus arranges for Imogen’s death. Of course, when the duplicity is uncovered at the conclusion of the play, Posthumus and Imogen are reunited. Yes, I am aware that we are readers “out of time,” so to speak, but I remain as horrified by their rekindled relationship as I am by that of Hero and Claudio in Much Ado. (Would that Benedict had killed Claudio, but, then, that’s not a comedy, is it?) How does the idea that one’s partner wished her dead inform the union?


Unlike Imogen, who is initially unaware of the attack on her reputation, the raped Lucrece determines to tell her story and name her attacker. That she sees death as the only release from her shame resonates in this, a month in which many are talking about a television show that depicts the rape and suicide of a high school student who, with her recorded note, tells her story and names her attacker. Shame transcends time, apparently, as do jealousy, lechery, and sexual violence.


In one of those moments of serendipity / synthesis / synchronicity, we visited the Art Institute not long after I had finished the poem and posted to the “Shakespeare in a Year” group. Now Tintoretto’s Tarquin and Lucretia, always unsettling, is forever stitched to my reading.

More soon.

Reading notes

Here are some passages for the commonplace book:

From Before the Fall (Noah Hawley; 2016. Fiction.):

p. 95
The machine he believed himself to be broke down. and Gus found himself immersed in an experience he had witnessed for years in his job with the NTSB, but never truly understood. Grief. Death was not an intellectual conceit. It was an existential black hole, an animal riddle, both problem and solution, and the grief it inspired could not be fixed or bypassed like a faulty relay, but only endured.

p. 101
Convergence. It’s one of those things that feels meaningful, but isn’t. At least he doesn’t think it is. How could it be? A batter in Boston fouling pitches into the stands while a small plan struggles through low coastal fog. How many millions of other activities begin and end at the same time? How many other “facts” converge in just the right way, creating symbolic connectivity?

p. 251
He breaks off, thinking, aware that he is not giving them what they wanted, but concerned that their questions are too important to answer in the moment, to define in passing, simply to meet some kind of arbitrary deadline. What was the experience like? Why did it happen? What does it mean going forward? These are the subjects for books. They are questions you meditate for years — to find the right words, to identify all the critical factors, both subjective and objective.

It’s unsurprising that the flow of this “thumping good read” reminds me of great television; Hawley is a television writer and producer.

From The Last One (Alexandra Oliva; 2016. Fiction.):

p. 58
This adventure I asked for, it’s not what I was expecting, not what I wanted. I thought I would feel empowered, but I’m only exhausted.

p. 90
For all her love of animals, for all her work with animals, she feels little remorse. She is comfortable in her knowledge that humans are omnivores and that securing reliable sources of protein is what allowed the species to evolve its current intelligence. She will not kill to kill, but she will kill to eat, and she sees little difference between the eyes of a dead fish and a live one.

Some reviews mentioned that the book erred in revealing its “twist” in the opening pages. They miss the point. Completely. A central conceit of a “reality” survival show is that the audience has information the participants do not. Here, the reader has knowledge the protagonist does not, so The Last One delivers its gut-punch not in a twist but rather in Mae’s eventual comprehension that what she had thought was the fakery of television is actual her new reality.

From The Hard Problem (Tom Stoppard; 2015. Drama.):

From Scene Five:
Hilary (roused) Being wrong about human behaviour half the time is our guiding star, Leo! It’s what’s telling us the study of the mind is not a science. We’re dealing in mind stuff that doesn’t show up in a scan — accountability, duty freewill, language, all the stuff that makes behaviour unpredictable.

We saw Stoppard’s latest play at the Court Theatre this past weekend. If you’re in the area, both it and TimeLine Theatre’s A Disappearing Number are must-see theater. Both run through April 9.

In other reading…
Election Day (April 4) was a long slog made bearable by Lucinda Rosenfeld’s Class, a book light enough that I could regularly look away but meaty enough that I didn’t feel like I had consumed the mental equivalent of Yodels.

Brian Wood’s The Massive is a pretty terrific post-apocalyptic tale. My daughters, both artists and readers of graphic fiction, say that I should remark on the art when I talk about graphic fiction. It’s generally all about the story for me, but in these volumes, I realized that I do know when a different artist takes over. In a medium dependent on image, why would one change artists partway through the story? Different styles change the narrative in subtle ways. Is that the point? Or is it simpler than that? Is one artist available when one issue or arc is being prepared for publication but unavailable for another? Well, in any event, Danijel Zezelj’s work in the “Sahara” arc was particularly powerful.

For my “Shakespeare in a Year” project, I have read through Sonnet 45 and Line 936 of Venus and Adonis, the latter of which I find the more satisfying endeavor. (No pun, Shakespearean or otherwise, intended.) Don Paterson’s commentary, however, quite nearly makes slogging through the sonnets worth it. Irreverent and insightful and highly recommended.

Since my last bookish post, I’ve also (re)read Richard II, a favorite of mine…

Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,
Let’s choose executors and talk of wills….

… and Romeo and Juliet. Is it old(er) age that makes me increasingly immune to this story’s appeal? I must have muttered, “Overwrought,” two dozen or more times while reading and listening. Mercutio, though. What an invention! I think it was Bloom who posited that the Mercutio passages presage the verbal antics of Hamlet. I can believe it.

In advance of seeing the CST’s Tug of War: Foreign Fire last year, I read Edward III, which occurs in the reading plan between Richard III and The Comedy of Errors. I simply have not been able to bring myself to reread it. Since this admission does not appear to have gotten me booted from the group, I plan to move on to A Midsummer Night’s Dream this coming weekend.

A related aside: Over spring break I shared with my daughters my proposal for the CST’s 2017-18 season: Richard II with Scott Parkinson as the deposed king, Coriolanus with Timothy Edward Kane as the (to my mind) underappreciated noble, and Titus Andronicus with Larry Yando in the lead. You heard it here first, folks.

The Shakespeare Project of Chicago

The Changeling
By Thomas Middleton and William Rowley
Directed by Steve Scott
February 24-28, 2017

She that in life and love refuses me,
In death and shame my partner she shall be.

From the Shakespeare Project of Chicago‘s performance announcement: Lady Beatrice has a problem: she is unhappy about the husband her father has selected for her to marry. With her wedding looming, she devises a solution with the help of DeFlores, her father’s servant. The price for murder is never cheap, and never higher than what is revealed in this Jacobean classic from Thomas Middleton (The Revenger’s Tragedy) and William Rowley. The Goodman Theatre’s Steve Scott makes his Shakespeare Project directing debut with a cast that includes Gary Alexander, Theo Allyn, Jordan Brodess, Tony Dobrowolski, Kurt Ehrmann, Jose Antonio Garcia, John Green, Torrey Hanson, Andrew Jessop, Patty Malaney, Jeff Parker, Matt Penn, Christopher Prentice, Rebecca Spence and Randy Steinmeyer. Music and sound design by George Zahora.

Friday, February 24, 2017 at 7 p.m.
The Niles Public Library*, 6960 W. Oakton Street, Niles, Illinois

Saturday, February 25, 2017 at 10 a.m.
The Newberry Library, 60 W. Walton Street, Chicago, Illinois

Saturday, February 25, 2017 at 2 p.m.
The Wilmette Public Library, 1242 Wilmette Avenue, Wilmette, Illinois

Sunday, February 26, 2017 at 2 p.m.
The Highland Park Public Library, 494 Laurel Avenue, Highland Park, Illinois

Monday, February 27, 2017 at 6:30 p.m.
Vernon Area Public Library*, 300 Olde Half Day Road, Lincolnshire, Illinois

Tuesday, February 28, 2017 at 7:15 p.m.
Mount Prospect Public Library*, 10 S. Emerson Street, Mount Prospect, Illinois

An introduction to the play commences 15 minutes prior to curtain.
Admission is free, but seating is limited.

* Pre-registration required; call the library.

Reading notes

img_1546Books about books appeal to me, and in 2012, Will Schwalbe’s The End of Your Life Book Club proved to be an amiable enough contribution to the genre, as did his recent Books for Living. One of the delights of the books about books genre is adding to one’s TBR pile, so what a pleasure it was to find that the recommendations that most interested me were already on my shelves.

To read: The Importance of Living (Lin Yutang); A Little Life (Hanya Yanagihara); A Fine Balance (Rohinton Mistry); Valley of the Dolls (Jacqueline Susann)
To reread: Stuart Little (E.B. White); David Copperfield (Charles Dickens); Reading Lolita in Tehran (Azar Nafisi); The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Muriel Spark)

The only purchase I made while reading Books for Living was The Confession, a John Grisham novel about the death penalty, which, because I read Just Mercy earlier this month, touched a chord of serendipity / synthesis / synchronicity.

For the commonplace book:

p. 188
The world is filled now with huggers. Maybe that’s because we live in such a technological age that people crave human touch. Men and women whom you barely know hug you hello and goodbye. Kids in school hug each other. Even in business meetings, people will give you a hug if they’ve sat with you in meetings a few times before (though not if they work at the same company). I really don’t like being hugged by anyone other than my husband. People regard this as a character flaw. One friend even devoted an hour of time with his analyst to discussing why I didn’t like to hug. I gather he takes it personally.

p. 255
Reading is a respite from the relentlessness of technology, but it’s not only that. It’s how I reset and recharge. It’s how I escape, but it’s also how I engage. And reading should spur further engagement.

(This entry from late last year discusses an excerpt of Books for Living: On reading.)

Speaking of the commonplace book, much of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros might be pressed into mine, but I will content myself with the following bits from Act III, when Dudard and Berenger discuss the way things are:

p. 75
BERENGER: I understand what you mean, at least I’m trying to. But you know — if someone accused me of being a bad sport, or hopelessly middle class, or completely out of touch with life, I’d still want to stay as I am.

p. 78
BERENGER: If only it had happened somewhere else, in some other country, and we’d just read about it in the papers, one could discuss it quietly, examine the question from all points of view and come to an objective conclusion. We could organize debates with professors and writers and lawyers, and blue-stockings and artists and people. And the ordinary man on the street, as well — it would be very interesting and instructive. But when you’re involved yourself, when you suddenly find yourself up against the brutal facts you can’t help feeling directly concerned — the shock is too violent for you to stay cool and detached. I’m frankly surprised, I’m very very surprised. I can’t get over it.

The Remy-Bumppo Theatre Company hosted a staged reading of this oft-read but rarely seen play last night, and as I did when watching the Shakespeare Project of Chicago’s King John last month, I thought, This is a play for our time, to be sure. From the conclusion:

People who try to hang on to their individuality always come to a bad end. [He shakes himself out of it.] Oh well, too bad! I’ll take on the whole lot of them! I’ll put up a fight against the lot of them, the whole lot of them! I’m the last man left, and I’m staying that way until the end.

I’m not capitulating!

I first read Rhinoceros in high school and thought myself so clever for “getting” it and Sartre’s No Exit and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. As so many of us discover when we return to the books we swallowed whole as younger readers, though, I “got” little more than the tattered texts I purloined from the shelves of the English department — well, that and the tacit promise that I would return to the treasures at some point, (which, happily, I have).

On the topic of returning to books, as I mentioned here, The Last Policeman (Ben H. Winters) so pleased me that I was reluctant to begin Countdown City, fearing the second in the trilogy would disappoint. It did not. I plan to read the third book later this week.

Much of the “Shakespeare in Year” project also represents a return of sorts, although I find that I am less chagrined by these past readings than, say, by that of Rhinoceros. This is probably because I have been (re)reading Shakespeare for the last fifteen years; as an adult and an autodidact (as opposed to a cocky, know-it-all, “I ‘get’ it” teen), I have approached the plays and now the sonnets and long poems knowing that so much remains for me to learn.

Other commitments require that I continue to read ahead in order to keep up with the schedule, so at this writing, I have read through Sonnet 27 and Line 576 of Venus and Adonis and completed the following plays:

The Taming of the Shrew
The Two Gentlemen of Verona
Henry VI, Part 1
Henry VI, Part 2
Henry VI, Part 3
Richard III
Titus Andronicus
The Comedy of Errors
Love’s Labour’s Lost

A few notes: I appreciated Titus Andronicus much more than I had thought I would, but that doesn’t mean it was an easy read. Even if one accepts the idea that the plot is willfully over-the-top, it’s still horrifying. Given the graphic sound effects in the Arkangel recording, I had unhappily anticipated close-ups of violence and bloodletting. The film featuring Anthony Hopkins in the title role was, however, rather restrained, for which I was most grateful. Not all of the production choices appealed to me (frankly, I just didn’t understand a few), but overall, it earned a thumbs-up for both acting and restraint.

Maybe it was my mood, but The Comedy of Errors fared much better in this, my third or fourth, reading. Would that I could say the same about my second reading of Love’s Labour’s Lost. I’m actually a little concerned because we will see the Chicago Shakespeare Theater production next month; can they make this seem less… ridiculous? Again, maybe it was my mood.

The Sonnets. Sigh. Don Paterson’s commentary, though, makes the journey bearable. And perhaps I am too old to encounter Venus and Adonis for the first time because I have, several times, wondered, Kissing is a polite euphemism, right? What this work has made me realize is that I must read Ovid’s Metamorphoses. (I read some early in our home education days and some more before seeing the Lookingglass Theatre presentation of Mary Zimmerman’s play.) This year’s reading plan is already wildly ambitious, but Ovid is moving up.

Well before I get to Ovid, though, I will reread Edward III for “Shakespeare in Year” and finish The Changeling (Thomas Middleton and William Rowley), which the Shakespeare Project of Chicago will present later this month.

I will also read a few more books about geocaching. To explain: As an election judge, I have met some interesting folks with whom “What are you reading?” has been the perfect way to step around both banalities and (most) politics. Last week, a fellow election judge mentioned a popular fiction novel I had tossed across a hotel room in disgust three years ago, but rather than going there, we moved onto EMPs and emergency preparedness, which is not my usual fare, but in confirming via Amazon that, yes, he was talking about the tossed book, I saw Ted Koppel’s Lights Out, a book I knew was already on my shelves. It was clear-sighted, but I was glad to finish. Since early November, I have felt, well, not unlike Berenger: If only it had happened somewhere else, in some other country, and we’d just read about it in the papers….

The same judge also talked about his family’s interest in geocaching. When I first heard about this pursuit years ago, it seemed like a perfect fit for our family, but our days were already so full. The rhythm of our lives has changed a great deal since then, though, and the judge’s enthusiasm was contagious, so as we parted, he extracted a promise that I would tell him about our adventures when we work together again this week. On the way home from the polling place, I borrowed The Joy of Geocaching (Paul and Dana Gillin) from the library. That evening, I created an account at and downloaded the app to my phone, and this weekend my husband and I found our first cache. Actually, the truth? I found the cache on Friday afternoon, but I didn’t understand what I was looking at. When I brought my husband to the same spot on Saturday afternoon, he indicated that I had read the map and the app’s compass properly (I defer to him in such matters; he is an Eagle Scout), so it should be here…. “I’ve got it!” I hooted softly. “I’ve got it!” Aware that I needed to be discreet, I showed him the contents and the ingenious hiding spot, and we logged the cache in hard copy and in the app. We are late to this but, oh, how it dovetails current pursuits: biking (we took the first ride of the year on Saturday, by the way: thirteen easy miles; it was beautiful), walking / hiking in the county and state parks and conservation areas, and archery.

In addition to Rhinoceros, Books for Living, and The Joy of Geocaching, Calculating God and Diary of a Provincial Lady are pictured above. The latter is a reread. In recommending it recently, I suggested that if one thought Downton’s Dowager Countess was the primary reason to sit through any episode of Downton Abbey after the middle of Season Two, if one fancied the idea of British Bombeck, and if one craved a book that would take him or her completely and utterly out of this place and time, then one might be advised to reach for Diary of Provincial Lady.

Calculating God arrives on my stack via one of those “blind date with a book” gimmicks that popped up around Valentine’s Day. I answered a flurry of questions and landed on this. I read and enjoyed Sawyer’s WWW : Wake in 2010, so I am actually looking forward to my date.

Shakespeare formation

This image was taken ten years ago, nearly to the day.

From Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998):

Bardolatry, the worship of Shakespeare, ought to be even more a secular religion than it already is. The plays remain the outward limit of human achievement: aesthetically, cognitively, in certain ways morally, even spiritually. They abide beyond the end of the mind’s reach; we cannot catch up to them. Shakespeare will go on explaining us, in part because he invented us….

My immersion in the “Shakespeare in a Year” project prompted me to revisit old posts about introducing Shakespeare to younger readers. Of course, so much of what we did in our family-centered learning project brought me to Shakespeare. In other words, what works for young readers works for oldsters, too.

1. Begin early.
My daughters (now nineteen and twenty-one) met the bard in Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V (“O Kate! Nice customs curtsey to great kings”), but they fell in love with him (yes, at six and eight) during a Chicago Shakespeare Theater (CST) production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

A rappin’ Puck.
A show-stealing Bottom.
The grace and wonder of that stage.
The fact that the actors met the audience in the lobby.

They were hooked.

(Their older brother met and became hooked on Will during an earlier staging of the same CST production  of Dream but didn’t fall in love until he watched Julius Caesar, with Jason Robbards as Brutus and Charlton Heston as Mark Antony. “Would he were fatter!”)

2. Provide an adequate introduction.
When the children were young, we would, prior to watching a live or filmed performance, read aloud from an abridgment (e.g., Charles and Mary Lamb, E. Nesbitt, Beverly Birch, Bruce Coville, Adam McKeown — the latter two being particular favorites). That gave us the basic plot and, often, the key subplots. As they grew older, they appreciated a more detailed synopsis of the play prior to watching. For this, we turned to Boyce’s Shakespeare A to Z; The Essential Reference to His Plays, His Poems, His Life and Times, and More.

3. Watch.
Shakespeare wrote plays, not novels; that is, his works were meant to be seen and heard, not read — at least not at first. While I prefer live theater, that’s more easily said than done for some folks, given travel, time, and/or budgetary considerations. In my experience, a well regarded film is preferable to an amateur-ish “Shakespeare in the Park” production. Bad theater, no matter how well intentioned, is just bad theater.

4. And watch again.
A different production. A live performance and a film. Two different films. Whatever arrangement works.

5. Read.
We read the unabridged play to the accompaniment of a quality audio production. The Arkangel recordings are excellent, but a few of our favorite audio productions include Naxos (King Lear, King Richard III, and The Tempest), Caedmon (Twelfth Night), and BBC Radio Presents (Hamlet).

6. Read closely.
Not younger students necessarily, but older students, yes. After reading / listening to the the play, dive in — deeply. Get in the text. Swim around. Read aloud to one another. Revisit passages that were memorable in performance. Review speeches that others have deemed noteworthy and discover why.

7. Keep a commonplace book.
We copy passages that “speak” to us and share our entries. How fascinating to see what someone else deems worthy of preservation.

8. Supplement and discuss.
Don’t overdo this with younger students, but take it as far as ability and interest allow with older and/or advanced students. A few oft-consulted resources:

■ Asimov, Isaac. Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare (Volumes One and Two).
■ Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.
■ Boyce, Charles. Shakespeare A to Z; The Essential Reference to His Plays, His Poems, His Life and Times, and More.
■ Epstein, Norrie. The Friendly Shakespeare: A Thoroughly Painless Guide to the Best of the Bard.
■ Goddard, Harold C. The Meaning of Shakespeare (Volumes One and Two).
■ Lomonico, Michael. The Shakespeare Book of Lists.
■ O’Toole, Fintan. Shakespeare Is Hard, But So Is Life.
■ Saccio, Peter. Shakespeare: Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies (The Teaching Company).
■ –. Shakespeare. The Word and the Action. (The Teaching Company.)

9. Review, revisit, reread.
Return to the plays again and again. And again. You will discover something new on every viewing and every reading.

10. Memorize.
For most plays, I asked my students to choose a passage for memorization, but we have memorized wide swaths of Shakespeare over the last decade simply through repeated viewings and readings / “listenings.” Obviously, too, the nature of a family-centered learning project (as opposed to a more conventional learning environment) allows for many, many everyday conversations that are colored by bardolatry. What we use, we own. It’s really that simple.

11. Enjoy! Don’t be afraid to have fun!
My daughters were onto something all those years ago, when their Ken nodded to Barbie and assured her that nice customs curtsey to great kings. Using Barbies or Little Ponies or puppets or whatever to illustrate plot twists or illuminate intent… well, that’s just child-like genius at work. Harness it to help your young viewers understand the intricacies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream or the intrigue of Hamlet. My daughters also illustrated the works, another way to come to grips with the plays and to make them their own. Even as they grew older, they continued to find value in marrying their love of art and their love of Shakespeare.

Shakespeare in a Year

Four shelves of Shakespeare.

Four shelves of Shakespeare.

Now knee-deep in this project, I feel confident discussing my progress. So. Using this plan, a number of readers are attempting to read all of Shakespeare’s works in 2017. At this writing, I have completed the Sonnets through 18, Venus and Adonis through line 432, and the following plays:

The Taming of the Shrew
The Two Gentlemen of Verona
Henry VI, Part 1
Henry VI, Part 2
Henry VI, Part 3
Richard III

Because the Shakespeare Project of Chicago presented King John (a play for our time, to be sure) in January, I have also read that. Why am I off schedule? Early voting for the consolidated primary begins next week. This, coupled with my other pursuits, requires that I work ahead to keep up.

To complement my reading, I chose Tony Tanner’s Prefaces to Shakespeare. Garber, Bloom, and Van Doren were well exercised during our home education years, so it was time to turn to another resource. That said, I may supplement with a rerun of the Saccio lectures. For the sonnets, I am using Don Paterson’s Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets and the app that features the filmed performances coupled with Paterson’s comments. (By the way, I purchased the Tanner seven years ago. It has given all of the stockpiled companions around the house hope: “Maybe she will read me next!” Heh, heh, heh.)

The plays
Going forward, I will try to be more methodical about my notes. As I recall, my remarks about Taming centered on how I would direct the final act as if Kate were complicit in the wager. I’ve written about my experience of Gentlemen a few times, including here; my reread was swift. The Henry VI plays were not tedious for me (some find them so) because I read them last year to prepare for the Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Tug of War. (Foreign Fire and Civil Strife covered three plays each: Edward III, Henry V, and Henry VI, Part 1; and Henry VI, Parts 2 and 3, and Richard III. Yes, three plays, one meal, two snacks per event. It. Was. Awesome.) The “read a synopsis or retelling / watch a(t least one) production / listen to an unabridged recording with text in hand / dig into additional resources” approach works well for me, and this go-around, I watched The Hollow Crown, Cycle 2, and read the plays while listening to the Arkangel productions. Margaret interests me greatly; what a role that would be!

Richard III more naturally follows the Henry VI plays than Titus Andronicus (the next play on the plan), so I reread Richard III first. In addition to the CST production in the fall, we saw the Gift Theatre production of Richard III at the Steppenwolf last year. Wow. What a mesmerizing performance. Yes, he rose from his wheelchair and encircled Anne with his walker. Brilliant. (Review here.) Over the weekend, I also watched Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard in The Hollow Crown, Cycle 2. Maybe it was Richard III overload (or Benedict Cumberbatch overload, for that matter), but his Richard lacked the dark wit that usually makes the character such a delicious role.

Speaking of delicious, ahem… ‘gainst my wont, I have begun reading Titus Andronicus, one of the few plays I have not already read and studied, before seeing a production. Amazon Video had nothing, nor was there anything on our shelves, so I await word on my library holds. Spoiler alert: As many folks know, Titus Andronicus is a horror show of a play. Even if you choose to reconcile the violence as purposeful camp, it’s still rough going, especially if, like me, you use the Arkangel recording to complement your reading. You’ve been warned.

The sonnets
It is a reflection of my limitations, obviously, and not the poet’s, but the sonnets, with one exception, hold little appeal for me. The exception is Sonnet 74, which was sent to me with the note:

Below is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 74, where the poet addresses his beloved, advising that his spirit will live on after his death in what he leaves behind (his poem) and his spirit in his beloved’s heart. Bold emphasis is mine.

But be contented: when that fell arrest
Without all bail shall carry me away,
My life hath in this line some interest,
Which for memorial still with thee shall stay.
When thou reviewest this, thou dost review
The very part was consecrate to thee:
The earth can have but earth, which is his due;
My spirit is thine, the better part of me:
So then thou hast but lost the dregs of life,
The prey of worms, my body being dead,
The coward conquest of a wretch’s knife,
Too base of thee to be remembered.
The worth of that is that which it contains,
And that is this, and this with thee remains.

This reminds me to make the following commonplace book entry from King John:

You hold too heinous a respect of grief.

He talks to me that never had a son.

You are as fond of grief as of your child.

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;
Then, have I reason to be fond of grief?
Fare you well: had you such a loss as I,
I could give better comfort than you do.

Yes, I have mentally SCREAMED this:

[S]He talks to me that never had a son.

And this:

Fare you well: had you such a loss as I,
I could give better comfort than you do.

Once I finish Titus Andronicus, I will use the rest of this week’s Shakespeare time to read through Sonnet 27.

The long poems
Which leaves Venus and Adonis. While tame by today’s standards, this is certainly naughty Shakespeare. Chuckle. According to my husband, this poem merits my eyebrow face — when my eyebrows rise so high, they all but disappear. My reading / listening, though, has been a powerful reminder that so much of human narrative — perhaps especially Shakespeare — is meant to be heard. I blame the Q Brothers for this, but my imagination’s ear *totally* heard an ad-rap-tation of the poem! My goal, in addition to Sonnets 19 through 27, is to read through Line 576 this week.