By J.D. Reid
Ask any flat-topped, gum-smacking 11th grader whether he would rather (a) read William Shakespeare or (b) die, and it's likely he will give both sides a fair shake. On the one hand, his eyes would have to glaze - I'm sorry, gaze - over countless e'ens, o'ers, dosts, and thous and lines like, "They doubly redoubled strokes upon the foe." On the other, he would die. "Fine," he'll say. "Kill me."
We can sympathize; 400 years ago, the language was different, spelling and letters were different, and things like "Love's Labor's Lost" looked like "Loues Labours Loft." Writers these days are spoiled with dictionaries and erasers; when Shakespeare was chiseling Romeo and Juliet into his cave wall, he didn't have the luxury of Office Depot. It was hard enough to compose canonical drama while keeping dragons at bay with a torch. Nonetheless, Shakes managed, even in those dark ages. Surely if his drama could entertain his illiterate, pox-friendly contemporaries, our standardized-tested, antibacterial brains can stomach what I'm calling Ye Olde Sum'er o' Shaxper.
Start with a bang by picking up Hamlet, which should be a refresher reading for you. (If you made it through school without having read it, odds are you didn't make it through school.) Hamlet is so classic and so comfortable that it's like warm apple cider on Chriftmas Eve. Moral of the story: Poison goes in the ear, not in wine, where it is susceptible to glass confusion.
While we are still in violent moods, we'll hit Macbeth, the Fargo of Shakespearean plays. And bloody? You betcha: Stabbings, beheadings, suicide - even the witches use blood as a sort of heavy broth in their soup cauldron. Moral: When in doubt, kill everyone.
Ooh, and Titus Andronicus. Have you been looking for more gore in your classic literature? Then this one's for you. Hands, tongues, and heads are lopped off all over the place, which leads the story to one grand question: How do we taste in pie form? Moral: Actually, I don't think there is a moral in this one.
So those should kick off Ye Olde Sum'er o' Shaxper. Where to find them? Easy: This month Modern Library releases the monster William Shakespeare Complete Works ($65), certain to devour all those too-heavy, two-point-font, onionskin anthologies that you would never actually read. All you need now is a lamp. Oh, and, of course, silence.