I am repeatedly amazed at the transformation each of these plays we read seems to go through as a result of our conversations. After reading a play, I have never been quite sure where to begin, and looking over our previous discussions I find that we all often get off to a slow start. Yet by the end of the second discussion period we have established a variety of lively strands, and my impression and appreciation for the play has deepened.
This was certainly the case for me with Two Gentlemen of Verona. I presented a set of relatively generic questions, with the exception of my specific concern about how one stages the abrupt set of forgivenesses at the end. Ernst invigorated the conversation with a wonderful set of posts examining the "central essence" of the play. Was it friendship? Forgiveness? Love? I especially enjoyed his presentation of and response to Bill Matchett's Shakespeare and Forgiveness take on Two Gentlemen of Verona. I agree that friendship is an underserved theme in the play, and that forgiveness may be central but is not resolved satisfactorily by the end. Ernst's further refining the play's essence to "pastoral romance" is compelling; in addition to revising my reading of the play in interesting ways, his comments put the play in a context that will be more accessible to our future readings of plays like As You Like It. And the inter-contextuality of these plays, as well as our perceived growth of Shakespeare the dramatist, is one of my favorite aspects of our group.
I also very much enjoyed Ernst's supplemental materials. I really don't think any other book club would have me up at 2:00 a.m. (with grades due soon) reading Boccaccio's Decameron, or stealing moments from a busy day to search the Internet for extant online copies of Damon and Pythias.
Gil took my complaint about sexism and turned it into a provocative piece on "coyness," which has both caused me to rethink some of the modern criticisms I have made in the past and deepened my understanding of the relationships between men and women in this play. Gil also alluded to a question I am looking forward to discussing again as we get further into Shakespeare's career, writing "I think by Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare is more sure-handed in his parody and put-down of the conventions of romantic love…". Among these conventions, it seems to me, is the Petrarchan imagery we have frequently referred to. And, having just been through Twelfth Night with students who saw Orsino the same way Gil sees Romeo and Juliet, I wonder how long these conventions will be a foil for his romantic plots.
I think there is a parallel to this use of established convention as foil for Shakespearean view in the history plays. When we read the Henry VI plays we talked a lot about the passing of the chivalric age, and reading 1 Henry IV this month with my students, the same observation has come up: Hotspur as old honor and chivalry; Hal as modern politician, not anti-chivalric, but not governed exclusively by an out-dated code. Food for thought as we go into the second tetralogy later this year.
And is there a similar trait in the tragedies? For example, is it the conventions of revenge tragedy that turn up revised and evolved in Hamlet?
I worried a year ago, privately, that we might get eight or ten plays in and run out of gas or lose interest. Today, I feel the opposite. I feel that each play and subsequent discussion has increased my desire to get the rest and to hear your thoughts, ideas, and reactions. If we stopped today, after ten plays, I would feel a sense of real accomplishment, but I would also be tremendously disappointed. I look forward to our group that much.