Yeah, I’m talking to you. You think you’re so smart just because you’re a genius. If you’re so great, why are you dead? What, your literary legacy affords you some sort of immortality? It’s only been four hundred years, Billy. You’re going to have to do a lot better than that if you’re going to catch up with my man Homer. I wonder if people will be reading you in a thousand years, or if Suzanne Collins or Joe Eszterhas will be the new Shakespeare by then. The new you.
Let me introduce myself. My name is Alex and I’m a dum-dum. I don’t mean I’m stupid or that I can’t function in the world properly. I’m a dum-dum in the way a dog playing with a sprinkler is a dum-dum. The dog is perfectly happy doing what it’s doing and really has no need to move on from joyfully chasing cold jets of water around the yard. That is, until something utterly distracting comes along. Something like a squirrel running along the fence line. A squirrel with the presumption that it can get away with entering the dog’s yard and go about its squirrely business without a care in the world. The dog is not going to let that happen, in fact, the dog cannot let that happen. Not because there is anything inherently wrong with the squirrel’s presence in the yard, but because the dog doesn’t understand why it can’t stop thinking about the squirrel. The squirrel never did anything other than live its squirrel life. In truth, it’s not about the squirrel at all, but what the squirrel represents: a life unfettered, free, and undomesticated. The squirrel is everything outside of the dog’s yard come crashing into the dum-dum’s supposed territory and sphere of control with seeming impunity.
Billy, you are my Squirrel.
I have spent the last thirty years reading books, watching movies, and consuming any number of other artforms, happily following my instincts. Such instincts have led to a rather scattershot knowledge of the literary canon, with Leo Tolstoy and Emily Brontë exciting me as much as Stephen King and N.K. Jemisin. I had a brief dalliance with the French Romantics and have devoured enormous epic fantasy series, devoting just as much mental energy to working out magic systems as to considering the symbolism of a madeleine. But you just keep flitting across the yard like you own the damn place. I cannot seem to get away from you. You are in every story I read, but I don’t actually know you. It’s time I stepped away from the sprinkler and catch you.
Like many modern Americans, I have only ready a handful of William Shakespeare’s plays and poems. Through my public high school education, I was exposed to Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet. I liked all four plays because they were filled with sex and death, appealing mightily to my teenage sensibilities. As a graduation present, my mother gave me her college textbook of the Collected Works of Shakespeare, edited by G.B. Harrison. The volume is charmingly worn and looks great on a pretentious young man’s bookshelf. However, even with a budding interest in a few plays and possession of his entire oeuvre, I never did return to my old friend Billy Shakes. Even in college, my Shakespeare class went over the exact same plays I’d already read, so I considered myself lucky and didn’t bother with the reading (I got a C in the course, thank you very much). So here I am, in my early forties, feeling that it is high time I broke out the ol’ Collected Works and read through every play and poem.
I plan to go roughly in chronological order on the plays and sprinkle in the poems from time to time. So, first up is Henry VI Part One. A play about a king’s bloody rise to power, as well as the influence of a teenage girl with a direct line to God.
It’s nice to finally make your acquaintance, Billy.