James Shapiro’s book A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE 1599 was a revelation to me: AS YOU LIKE IT, HENRY V, JULIUS CAESAR and HAMLET were all written in 1599. Now that’s what I call a good year! This was also was about halfway through Shakespeare’s career as a writer. After reading Shapiro’s book, I became obsessed with the entire arc of Shakespeare’s writing career.
And so in 2009, I got the bright idea to march through the entire Shakespeare canon in chronological order. My colleagues in the literary office – Lezlie Cross and Lydia Garcia – and I set up a Wednesday noon “class” in a conference room at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. “Bring your lunch and come talk about Shakespeare” was the catchy advertisement.
Starting in early January until the third week in October, we talked about the plays in the order set out by Marjorie Garber in her book SHAKESPEARE AFTER ALL, a book that continues to be a resource for me. We had to insert EDWARD III somewhere because it wasn’t included in her book. (For the Festival, I choose to place it between KING RICHARD II and KING JOHN, as all three plays are in 100% verse.)
By this time, I also had grown obsessed with charting plays. I am deeply interested in knowing what plays are made of. I think if we understood how the parts work together, we could figure out how to present the material. Plays are larger than one’s own experience. And one needs to have different tactics to approach different plays.
So during the lunchtime meeting, we charted the plays, and we began to see patterns of repetition of conventions. Every play seems to include the delivery of a letter. There are speeches and characters that show up over and over again, and I don’t just mean Falstaff. Often the repetition appears years later, as if Shakespeare circled back to previous material and reworked it. There are many plays that either have pirates in them or mention them. (Pirates became the team mascot for the OSF literary department. Aarrrgggh! )
I suppose I should have taken better notes because maybe I wouldn’t need to do the chronology exercise again. [We did take notes and we photographed the charts. See bottom of this post.] So when I thought up the Play On Festival two years ago, I knew we would use the plays’ chronology as an organizing principle.
The chronology that we are presenting is mostly based on that Garber book. I consulted other resources as well and it seems that the biggest disagreements about the order of the plays occur in the early years. I chose TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA as the first play for two reasons: one had to do with synchronicity. I liked the idea of beginning with TWO GENTLEMEN and ending with TWO NOBLE KINSMEN. How would Shakespeare deal with young men at the beginning of his career when he was a young man, and how would he view them later in his career when he was more mature? The second reason has to do with what TWO GENTS is made up of: many of the conventions and themes that Shakespeare explored throughout his 20-year writing career begin in this play. And I liked the idea of having these conventions introduced early in the Festival.
I fudged a little bit here and there for scheduling purposes. Once we knew that there were going to be Monday night readings, for instance, I wanted to make sure that the Monday night plays were ones that people may be more familiar with. (It was a good day when I discovered that Macbeth would land on one of the Mondays!) And while it is not a deal breaker that the playwrights be present for their readings, I did make several adjustments to accommodate schedules.
I very much wanted to keep the HENRY 6s together, and I loved the idea of squeezing THE MERRY WIVES in between the HENRY IVs. And the thought of MIDSUMMER right after ROMEO AND JULIET proved irresistible!
Also, I liked the idea of having all of the so-called Romances together. While Shakespeare didn’t seem to have a pattern of writing only one genre at a time previously in his career, those last four plays do seem to be similar. In the first half of his career there was a mixture of comedies and histories, and in the second half he began to write mixed genre plays – perhaps Polonius sets this up! – where histories are disguised as tragedies and comedies are complex character studies. I don’t know what to make of this yet, except to say perhaps even Shakespeare had a dramatic shift somewhere around the middle of his career – 1599 perhaps? – and he stepped into a new kind of writing after all.
I know that there will be people who will quibble about the order I have chosen. The pragmatist in me just set down some tracks so we could move forward. One can quibble about such things for a long time and be no closer to getting started. I’m looking forward to hearing the plays this time, as opposed to just talking about them the last time. And I promise this time to take better notes!
Notes from the class on R&J
We began the class with a discussion of: is this a 2/3rds play or a ½ play?
The 60% mark for this one is when Friar Lawrence tells Romeo he is banished
The 50% mark is when the Prince proclaims R’s banishment
We saw how much Shakespeare begins this play by playing with conventional verse and sonnets (R&J’s first exchange is a sonnet). However, this convention totally disappears in the second half. It’s as if the chaos of the situation can no longer be contained in such measured verse.
The use of the chorus in this play (a Shakespeare first) is also an example of this – the prologue opens the play, there is another one at the top of act two, and then never again.
For all that, it is a really balanced, mathematical play.
There are a total of 6 deaths: 2 Capulet (Juliet and Tybalt), 2 Montague (Romeo and Lady M), and 2 of the Prince’s men (Mercutio and Paris)
It is taken from Arthur Brooke’s poem (for those that are interested, you can read it here: http://www.clicknotes.com/romeo/BrookeIndex.html )
Like LLL, this is a play that starts in comedy and ends in tragedy (ok, here a more extreme kind of tragedy). Here, we also have a comedic war going on at the beginning and a “glooming peace” at the end.
The play also begins in a very “young” world and then by the end of the play, all the young people are dead and the stage is filled with the older generation (perhaps another way that the plague influenced the way S saw this story)
This play seems to us to be the turning point into Shakespeare’s “middle period.” As he gives us more complexly detailed characters – there is no one interpretation of any of their actions.
This play was written either during, or just after the theatres were closed due to the plague. The plague comes into the play, specifically in Mercutio’s famous curse and in the thwarted letter from Friar John – who cant get to Romeo due to the plague.
We talked a bit about the role of the nurse and how she stands out in this play as really the only stock character, the only character who is not changed by the events of the play.
Some of our old conventions show up here:
Bawdy, punning language – especially from Mercutio
letters gone astray
cruel law that is changed
Romeo and Juliet are never in a scene by themselves – they are always interrupted, generally by the nurse.
For fun, we charted the progression of everyone EXCEPT R&J in this play. Here’s what we learned:
100 lines into the play, the Prince declares the inflexible decree “anybody else who fights is dead” at the 50% mark, he changes this to “ok, Romeo’s just banished” and 120 lines from the end the Prince enters the scene.
Paris is heavily in act 1 (1.2, 1.3, 1.4) and then not seen again until after Tybalt’s death, then he sees Juliet before and after her “death” and is in the tomb.
interestingly, he always seems to show up right after Romeo does, so he never even has a chance in the minds of the audience (or Juliet for that matter).
SW pointed out that really, Paris is the perfect man – and that Juliet might have been happy had she married him.
The nurse pops up every five seconds (1.3, 1.4, 1.5, 2.2, 2.4, 2.5, 3.2, 3.3, 4.3) but is never seen again after Juliet dies.
The Friar isnt seen until the end of act 2. In the first half of the play he is with Romeo, the second half with Juliet (the play sorta works that way too)
Benvolio is strongly in the first half of the play, but is never seen again after Romeo is banished.
There are a number of these characters that disappear: Benvolio, Mercutio, Tybalt, Lady M – we had some fun speculating how the actor might have been doubled, coming back in as Friar John, Balthazar and the Apothecary
Like the Prince, Lord M is only seen at the top, the middle, and the end of the play.
Copy of an R&J Chart