Best of the Bard: Thoughts on reading all Shakespeare’s 38 plays

When I started this blog, I was hoping to discover why
Shakespeare is so famous, so timeless, and why he is so consistently considered
to be the greatest writer of all time. More than a year and a half after
beginning this project, and 38 plays later, I feel like I have barely scratched
the surface. Even so, I do feel a little bit closer to understand what makes
the Bard so extraordinary, and I wanted to finally share my thoughts on the
overall experience.

  1. I learned the impact that familiarity has. Pretty
    much without exception, my favorite Shakespeare plays are the ones that I am
    most familiar with. This is why it makes such a difference to reread or be
    exposed to these plays more than once, and it’s why I’m so excited to come back
    to some of them in the near future so that I can learn to understand them
  2. Shakespeare is not difficult. It’s so easy to be
    intimidated because of the looming figure he is in world literature. As
    comfortable as I felt with the Bard before starting this project, I still found
    myself feeling a bit intimidated or overwhelmed when approaching some of the lesser-known
    plays that I knew literally nothing about. That’s why it can sometimes be helpful
    to read a plot summary (and yet another reason it’s so helpful to read the play
    more than once). Despite that, though, his work is not difficult to read! He
    may demand more of you. may take some concentration, and it may feel different
    than what you’re used to reading, but the ability to understand Shakespeare is
    not some special talent that is given to some people and not to others. He is
    accessible to everyone.
  3. There is infinite potential for interpretation.
    Part of what makes Shakespeare such a remarkable writer is that his work is
    eternally relevant; part of why it is eternally relevant is because he doesn’t
    rely on easy explanations. He asks many questions without shoving any answers
    down your throat. There can be completely contradictory interpretations of the
    same play, scene, or line and both of them can be equally valid. That means
    that whatever you are looking for, you can find it. Whatever emotion you are
    feeling, you can find it reflected somewhere in these plays. There are few
    writers that have this quality, and Shakespeare has it in spades.
  4. Shakespeare truly holds a mirror up to humanity.
    The single biggest reason I believe he is considered to be such a special
    writer is that he shows his audience what it is to be human and he shows us the
    humanity in even his most reprehensible characters. It feels like all of his
    work adds up to this plea to his audience: “Remember others’ humanity.” There
    is no writer I have ever read that can make a character like Macbeth or Richard
    III and then show us the humanity in them. This lesson from immersing myself in
    Shakespeare has been perhaps the most valuable. I am not the most patient
    person, and when I was feeling annoyed at something, I literally thought about
    Shakespeare and repeated to myself “Remember their humanity, remember their
    humanity” over and over again. He somehow makes you see that humanity in
    others. There is no greater argument in favor of the universality and
    complexity of human nature and human emotion than Shakespeare’s oeuvre. In my
    opinion, there is also no greater representation of what it means to be human.

So how have I changed as a result of this, if at all? I
think I’ve become a more thoughtful reader, certainly. Knowing that I would
have to write a post about each play made me consider it more carefully and
think in slightly broader terms about what it’s really saying. I think I
learned to notice things in his plays I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.

I think I’m also learning to be a little bit better at reminding
myself of the complexity of other people. Understanding that what I see of them
is a small snapshot in the course of their day and I can’t know what else they
may be facing. Realizing that my assumptions may often be wrong. It has made me
want to look for the good in other people.

More than anything, this project has taught me more about
the power of art than any other experience I’ve ever had.

This is not a lesson I expected, because I already strongly believed
in its power and had personally experienced it.

We live in a world where people that choose to study the
arts and the humanities are legion but undervalued, and there is a growing idea
that the arts and humanities are worthless—or at best, worth very little. My
experience with the Bard this last year and a half has shown me again and again
the true value that art has. Even though I already believed in its value and
power, it’s hard to overstate the impact of reading my way through Shakespeare’s
38 plays. What do I mean about the power of art, or the impact that these plays
had on me?

These plays brought me comfort during some very difficult

They brought a smile to my face when I was extremely busy
and stressed.

They made me laugh after having a bad day.

They made me question the way that I was treating other
people and resolve to try a little harder to be kind.

They made me look a little bit closer for the good in others.

They reaffirmed the value of compassion, which has always
been important to me.

They equipped me to better handle ambivalence and
uncertainty, in a world where things rarely split neatly into a clear dichotomy
of good and evil.

They helped me understand the value of asking questions to
which there is no answer.

They helped me understand what art is and what it can be.

All of this from some marks on a page. Some letters made
into words made into scenes. From a man who has been dead for 400 years. Who
never set foot anywhere near where I live. Who had no idea what 2016 or 2017
would look like but manages to remain relevant all this time later.

I hope that communicates at least a little bit what I
learned from the experience of reading through all of Shakespeare’s 38 plays.

And I hope you can tell that maybe I kinda sorta like

Just maybe.

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