January 19, 2010

Circular reasoning

I've just started writing about Shakespeare here and hope to eventually go on a Hamlet bender, but first here's a random thought on great literature: it's impossible to read a work of it the first time. That is to say, in order to read one--especially if it is dense and rich--you have to have already read it. At least once.

That may sound strange, but I'll explain. I remember trying to read things like Hamlet and Dante's Inferno as far back as high school. But I didn't get much of it. If someone would have asked at the time what I was reading, I'd have to say with Hamlet, "Words, words, words."

Even things like William Blake's poetry, which seem deceptively simple at first, take a lot of work to really get.

I've found that really difficult (but good) works demand more than one effort and often require background reading before you can really get anything out of them. I'm not ashamed to say I've cracked open some Cliff Notes or the equivalent on more than one occasion just to get my bearings. There's a whole lot you miss the first time through.

I think it took me at least three or four assaults on The Iliad to really begin to get it. Probably more with Dante. Not that I think I've really mastered either. A lot of Shakespeare is like that. While you always get more if you go back, some are easier to get the gist of than others: Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and Julius Caesar might be examples. Others, like Lear and Hamlet take more work. But I'd say it's worth the effort.

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