The Pleasures of Background Reading

Background reading is always tricky for me during the academic year. It is difficult to manage time to include primary texts, criticism and historical reading. This year I discovered reading background materials along with primary texts is very revealing. I am not sure exactly why, but reading historical data and primary texts side by side helps me to notice very particular things in the literature I enjoy so much.

 Enjoying the literature is the key thing. The historical perspective helps to focus my reading and opens up great lines of thought.  The things I noticed this year while focusing a bit more on background reading were actually very literary which. I did not expect background reading to illuminate tropes. Reading Chaucer and Tuchman’s ‘The Distant Mirror’ helped me to develop insights about irony in Chaucer and its relationship to the many reversals in his works. It made me very curious about Shakespeare and put Dante in a new perspective.

 A new perspective on Shakespeare is my goal this year.  Taking on Shakespeare’s complete works would have turned me to jelly a few years ago. This week I started reading Honan’s biography of ‘William’ as he endearingly refers to this amazing man with such a fever for words. His writing has piqued my curiosity about Shakespeare. Suddenly ‘William’ seems very likeable; his writing is full of keen observations but suddenly I find compassion and wit between the lines.

 You can read many things ‘between the lines’ in Shakespeare. This week what I find so compelling and touching is the sense of a keenly intelligent, talented man bringing his extraordinary resources to bear in equally extraordinary circumstances. Park Honan’s book is very insightful and gives a good sense of the reality of early modern life generally, and Shakespeare’s life particularly, but I take a rather more romantic perspective.

 Since I am reading romances a romantic perspective seems somehow productive. I mean ‘romantic’ in a rather self-indulgent sense, not the literary or historical sense. Each time a breeze rustles the leaves in my garden I think of the Forest of Arden, the paradox of romance and reality in graceful characters like Celia and Rosalind, and real women like Anne Hathaway and Mary Arden.  It is touching to think how carefully Shakespeare must have thought about people around him and the events that enveloped them.  It is inspiring to think about a poet and writer as an artiste and Shakespeare’s fortunate timing. His star and the star of the English language crossed at a time when intellectual skills were prized along with manual skills of ‘craftsmen’ artists and artisans. Both skill sets are present in the theatre. I also appreciate the relationship between skill and beauty in both the original Latin ‘ars’ (art) and in Shakespeare’s writing.

 For me, Shakespeare’s writing is a beautiful koan best appreciated by contemplating it from many perspectives, much like I imagine Shakespeare contemplated the very personal layers he assembled to create his brand of art. This is a very refreshing pleasure for me as I take up Shakespeare and the writers who inspired him. While Shakespeare’s writing is even more daunting than Chaucer’s Middle English my background reading opens windows on these astonishing lives and works. It is very exciting and a wonderful way to begin a new term. Happy reading!

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