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William Shakespeare : Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies

Based on how much I’d enjoyed Bloom’s Seven Major Tragedies, I checked out another lecture series: Peter Saccio’s William Shakespeare : Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies, from the library. These lectures broadened my understanding of Shakespeare generally, and in regard to his specific works.

Since I listened to Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies right after Bloom’s lectures, I can’t help but compare the two. I prefer Bloom’s reading of Iago to Saccio’s—I think it’s deeper and more honest, and maintains the layer of unknowable nihilism in the text. In the words of Alfred in The Dark Knight, some men just want to watch the world burn. And Saccio’s “thespian” voice is affected and pseudo-British, which is unnecessary. I prefer Bloom’s readings, which are full of passion without seeming silly.

But Saccio provided a scope Bloom’s lectures didn’t have. He covered all the major comedies, histories, and tragedies (as the title says), and did so well. He talked about cultural and period issues, how the Elizabethan audience would have responded to the plays, what the stage was like, and many other concerns Bloom didn’t touch. Both gave examples of interpretations of the plays, and good performances to watch. I’ve added Ian McKellen’s Macbeth, Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet and Henry V, and some of the BBC performances to my watch list.

These lectures stressed the period and climate in which the actors staged the plays almost as much as the text. Saccio says, and I’m paraphrasing, that Shakespeare’s text was a starting place, not the end. He gave examples of performances of Shylock which completely altered the audience’s perception of the character—an aspect of theater I hadn’t considered fully before, and one which strikes to the heart of reading and story. A similar effect occurs in the mind of the reader—of a novel, comic, whatever. In a play, the actors form another layer of interpretation, which means a director can take the audience places the playwright didn’t intend. That makes my writer’s heart a bit nauseated, but there you go. If you love something, set it free. A good director can take your play-on-paper and transform it into something more than you intended. That’s the mark of good collaboration, which a performance certainly should be.

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