"Ars bene honesteque vivendi"



I had planned to write a book on moral dilemmas when I took early retirement in 1999. I had to defer this ambition until I finally retired again after spending 12 years as CEO of Goodwill Toronto. By this time, my thinking had changed considerably, and I felt I had to reground myself affectively before setting out on the writing of a revised book. I could think of no better way to re-ground myself than to walk through the entire output of Shakespeare from beginning to end in chronological order. My hope was to:

  • Access all of the plays, especially those I did not know
  • Read all of the Poems and Sonnets , especially those  I did not know
  • Gain a better understanding of what Shakespeare was thinking when he wrote these masterpieces.

I was already a fan of Shakespeare, having first encountered him seriously at school at age 16. So the journey I set out on was one of love and joy, despite its obvious challenges.

For the non-academic, Shakespeare studies present some serious hurdles. There are the technical issues of text, of date, of sources, which can baffle the person who is not an expert in the subject. There is the relation of one play to all of the plays, which again can baffle the person who has not experienced all of the plays. There are thousands of books and opinions out there, with some views bitterly contested. And yet, Shakespeare remains open to all, in print, on sound recordings, and now on DVD and You Tube.

My sources:

I chose the recent (2002) Pelican Edition of the Complete Works, because there is a complete set of the works recorded on compact discs by Arkangel which uses this version. Thus I could listen/read at the same time, and could stop at any word to check a footnote, or look it up elsewhere, as well as replay any section I wished to experience again. I could also read the Introduction to the play, and consult it at any time also.

I then watched the DVD of the play in the BBC/Time-Life edition available from Ambrose Video (referred to throughout the notes as BBC DVD). These are largely uncut versions of the basic text of the play, uniformly very well acted, with varying degrees of directorial success. I augmented these viewings with any other filmed version I happened to have on DVD.

I used Nuttall, Shakespeare The Thinker, and Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human as basic texts, supplemented by Tanner and various other authors whom I cite and whom the eager reader can track down on the internet. I also used the Arden individual play editions for commentary as well as for carrying in my pocket if I was out travelling and wanted to dip into the text.

The simple truth is that one could spend a lifetime working with Shakespeare, but I was not interested in writing a thesis, but rather in learning from Shakespeare some important lessons which would enable me to look at life afresh as I entered my twilight years and tried to pull some thoughts together on how a person might want to live out a life which included encounters with people like Shakespeare. I felt this was important to do, because these encounters had been so meaningful to me personally in my own life, and I have this desire to pass on some of what I have learned to others who may share my views, and who might become part of this affinity group who live within me – a sort of network society who seek to create an art of living well and decently.

How to Navigate the Walkthrough:

Each play, poem and the Sonnets (as a whole) has its own separate note. The content of the note varies depending on the play. In each case it is assumed that the reader will experience a performance of the play by reading, listening, or participating in a  live version, either recorded (DVD) or acted in the theatre.

Each entry is listed below:


Is This Simply Another Set of Simple Study Notes?

These notes are my initial response to the play in question. They are not scholarly pronouncements, nor are they detailed commentaries. Rather, they are my personal responses to the plays and to Shakespeare. Many of the observations may be inaccurate and academically frowned upon, but they remain my personal responses, for better or for worse.

The Context In Which These Notes are Offered:

These notes form an integral part of the poem Cantokentigerni and are meant to provide some support for my argument that everyone should be able to access Shakespeare, and my hope that everyone can learn some beginnings of wisdom from this encounter. They are evidence of my personal struggles with Shakespeare within my love for his genius and his legacy, and an example of what anyone else could attempt to a greater or lesser degree.

The Conclusion of the Walk-through:

What then are my thoughts having completed this exercise? First, it has taken me nine months – much longer than I had originally anticipated and this despite the fact that I was quite rigorous in sticking to my agenda and not being sidetracked into extensive pursuit of issues raised by the plays or commentaries. Secondly, I am overwhelmed by the sheer brilliance of the scope of these plays and the poetic language used throughout. It is astonishing that any single person could have produced so much so quickly without any real precedents in terms of the specifics of his approach. I agree Shakespeare was above all a dramatist, and we can only really understand what he is trying to present through the eyes and ears of the theatre audience. The actors bring that written text to life and the audience in its response creates the totality of the experience intended by Shakespeare.

There is of course endless debate in the academic circles around authorship, dates, urtext, etc, and there is no end to experimentation in the presentation of these plays in the theatre both by directors and by actors. This does not surprise me since the parallel with music seems to me to be a valid one. The extraordinary amount of information available on YouTube is eternally refreshing in this regard.

I do not want to spend any time on the various versions of the plays on CD or DVD since I have covered this in my notes to individual plays. Suffice to say that it is to be regretted that we have so few filmed versions of uncut plays in circulation. The Apps of the Sonnets is a brilliant production of extremely high quality. I certainly hope that there can be more of this sort of collaborative effort in the future.

In essence, I am closing off this walkthrough without any effort to express any form of learned insight into Shakespeare, but rather to explore the affective impact this exercise has produced in me. I think the most overpowering learning has been the empathy Shakespeare has for every single character he creates, regardless of whether they are villains or heroes. He seems to accept the ambivalence of human nature as a given. His constant appeal for mercy, reconciliation, and the tempering of integrity with commodity, ambition and lust, is done in such a way as to allow wide differences in approach to issues of daily consequence which impact a life when measured over time. In this he appears to me to echo the spaciousness I originally found in the Rule of St Benedict. This avoidance of black and white distinctions is to me absolutely essential in our efforts to live an authentic life. Equally his preoccupation with time and the inevitability of death conjure up networks of connections which are near and dear to me. I find the position of Thomas More in Shakespeare’s thought to be significant. I also hear echoes of Hamlet in Heidegger and virtually all of modern thought. Of course, the so-called nihilism of the final tragedies needs to be repositioned in a secular context and within the framework of biological evolutionary theory. Characters like Timon and Coriolanus do not hesitate in the face of death, as Hamlet does, but embrace death as some final chapter in a life lived in a particular way. The romances, it seems to me, address the issue of time and imagination in a magnificently theatrical way in which Shakespeare seems to suggest, as he already has in a Midsummer Night’s Dream, that imagination may mislead us. Thus in the romances characters believe that other characters are dead when they are not and so they suffer from a delusion, and Shakespeare wants to explore what these delusions really are. Also the Sonnets remain essential to the full understanding of Shakespeare’s mind because in the Sonnets he lays bare the delusion of the lover whose infatuation with the boy is all-consuming and even blinding. Even when the older author realises the non-reciprocity of the boy, he continues to dote on him, realising he has almost become like an addict who knows that what he does is destructive yet continues to consume. Equally the Dark Lady sonnets demonstrate the equivalent ambivalence of infatuation, love at first sight, between man and woman, which Romeo and Juliet epitomise.

In all of these explorations Shakespeare remains extremely candid and I see no case where he holds back any of his thoughts in his characters as expressed by the actors. And of course this is the genius of the man in that he develops positions via the dialogue between actors/characters within the context of the dynamics of the play in its own space and time. How he did this is quite beyond my imagination.

He also achieved all of this by using the most exquisite language. His poetic gifts are so extraordinary, and the experience of his language in a play is overwhelming. I cannot sing his praises enough in this regard.

So where does this leave me? I can now begin my first attempt at writing my thoughts in verse. I say verse but really I am simply talking about the form of poetic expression which I have attempted to create since my youth in sporadic efforts. This form of expression, for better or for worse, is a genuine voice which only I can speak and that is what I intend to do. In some ways, like Pound, I will attempt to address people both contemporary and future, and will converse with others long since dead but still living in their legacies. Of course I am acutely aware that I march within time and that my days are essentially numbered. In retirement, I do not have a time horizon within which I must achieve actions on a daily basis which have instant impact on the world in which I live. This I have done all of my working life and part of the purpose of this walk-through was to redirect the focus of my energies into another form of productivity which still creates value in my eyes and hopefully in the eyes of others. Thus I come on this day to a peak, if you will, similar to Darien, where silence reigns, as the pregnant pause preceding my expression of my thoughts in my own language and to my own metre.