What did I learn? There were some unexpected things. After I'd read six or eight plays, the language made complete sense to me. I could go from phrase to phrase without looking to see if there was an insult or praise or what. You 'get' it. Since Elizabethan English is something of a foreign language, this is a big deal.
Another thing was that I didn't realize just how much concern there was for adultery and cuckoldry. These are themes that come up nearly constantly. We still think about adultery now, but I can't remember the last modern story I read/watched that had any concern over the parentage of a child. There is always a danger of over-reading, but I couldn't help but wonder if Elizabethans really, really worried about raising a cuckoo.
In a related note, we don't write love stories like they did back then either. Shakespeare wrote about eternal love, or at least a willingness to die for your love, without a second thought. Our more common story today, features a 'more fish in the sea' type perspective. In fact, if you wrote a modern day Romeo and Juliet story, the lovers would probably be seen as creepy in their singlemindedness. (I doubt that this is an improvement as a culture.)
I fell in love with some of the couples. Yes, with Romeo and Juliet, because of the purity of their love. But also with the delightful Rosalind and Orlando. And I felt very deep sympathy for poor Desdemona, who might have gotten the rawest deal in the whole canon.
I also learned about responsibility. The tragedies and history plays are simply steeped in the idea of being responsible. King Lear dooms himself by setting aside a part of his responsibility. Henry IV (both parts) are consumed with fears that the young prince Hal won't live up to his responsibility. Fortunately, in Henry V, he becomes a full out hero. Shakespeare wrote quite about being responsible with power and having that power be legitimate. I'd rather see the entire line of tragedies judged by questions of power and responsibility than by questions of 'fatal flaws'.
There were shocking moments, like Titus Andronicus and his own hand. Or Gloucester's poor eyes. One of the most deeply touching moments was when Richard II was made to hand over his beloved and rightful crown. Simply devastating.
One of the most unexpected things for me, is that I couldn't stop trying to figure out how I would stage each of the productions. I've done work on the stage but I've always been to jealous to watch from the audience. Reading this time, I couldn't help but think of how to perform each work. Maybe I'll have the kids doing the plays for the neighborhood?
Speaking of which, another unexpected joy was being able to share Shakespeare with my children. This mean some memorization for them, which was great. But there was also a time in the spring when I would walk the older ones to the bus stop and tell them the plot of one of the plays. I loved it, of course, but they began to look forward to it too.
I think a seed has been planted.
This project wasn't hard, it just took some time and a willingness to stick to it. The lists (pictured above) also helped. Like many parts of the Great Books project, I wish I'd done this years ago. At least I can say that I've done it now.