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4 Plays: As You Like It; A Midsummer Night's Dream; The Tempest; Twelfth…

by William Shakespeare

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The four comedies collected in this text were written between 1595 and 1602, and demonstrate the evolution of Shakespearean comic form. The collective triumph of these plays lies in their mingling of humourous stage business and word-play with a more serious consideration ofissues of identity, gender, dreaming, the meaning of love and even theatre itself.… (more)
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This is an old paperback from the 1960s (although apparently reprinted from a 1950s edition) featuring four Shakespeare plays: A Midsummer Night's Dream, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and The Tempest. It's not a great edition. The introduction to each play, and the introduction to the volume as a whole, seem, if I'm interpreting the copyright page correctly, to be lifted from some Shakespeare scholar's book from decades earlier, and not lifted with any great care. I mostly found them really annoying and over-written, and completely unhelpful in understanding or preparing to approach the plays, so I mostly ended up skimming them or skipping them entirely. The brief, scene-by-scene plot summaries that are also included were a lot more welcome, though.

Also, this is the first time I'd read Shakespeare in an edition that didn't feature annotations to explain some of the archaic words and cultural references. I didn't find this a problem at all with A Midsummer Night's Dream, which was perfectly clear and comprehensible all the way through, but there were a few moments in the other plays where I would have appreciated some translation. There is a glossary in the back, but I found it inconvenient and not particularly helpful.

As for the plays themselves, well, I'm hardly going to add anything to 400 years' worth of Shakespeare scholarship here, but I'll say a few words about my own reactions to them, keeping in mind that I hadn't read any of these or seen them performed before:

A Midsummer Night's Dream: Honestly, I was surprised by how slight this was, with both the plot and the characters feeling paper-thin. Which isn't to say that it's entirely shallow. There is, underneath all the wacky love potion hijinks, a sardonic sense of just how absurd human love relationships are. There's a good reason, after all, why "What fools these mortals be!" is probably its most famous line. There's also some real darkness in among all the silliness, too. I mean, it starts off with a woman being told, in no uncertain terms, that she must marry the man her father has decided to give her to because she is his property to do with as he sees fit and to mold into whatever shape he likes, and if she fails to cooperate, he'll have her locked up or killed. Admittedly, that probably didn't feel quite as unthinkably horrific to the sensibilities of Shakespeare's time as it does today, but there's no way that's happy, not in any context., All that notwithstanding, though, it's still pretty much fluff. High-quality, Shakespearian fluff, but still. Pretty fluffy. Which feels a little bit startling when your previous experiences of Shakespeare have involved things like Hamlet and Julius Caesar.

As You Like It: I found this one a lot more satisfying than A Midsummer Night's Dream. The plot's a bit more substantial, with some nice, clever touches, and the characters are great, especially the very appealing and memorable Rosalind. (Although I have a bit of a soft spot for the melancholy Jaques, too.) I'd really like to watch a good version of this performed sometime.

Twelfth Night: It seems a bit of a disservice to read this one immediately after As You Like It, because they share enough story elements to make it start to feel a bit same-y. Of the two, I think I liked As You Like It better; it certainly has the better characters. But I maybe found the humor in this one a bit more amusing. Which is odd, because it mostly consists of really awful people playing awful, nasty practical jokes, which is not something I usually find funny at all. But Shakespeare was a man of many talents, and apparently making that sort of thing actually entertaining to me is one of them.

The Tempest: This... is not a comedy. It's not a tragedy, either, and it does have some moments of humor. But it's definitely not a comedy, and it seems very, very strange to include it in a book that calls itself "Four Comedies." Whatever it is, though, I liked it a lot. The fantasy elements hold considerable appeal for me, and several of the characters seem interestingly complex in ways that the play hints at but never really pins down, which I find fascinating. Hard to believe it took me this long to get to this one, when I've known for ages that other stories I love have been directly inspired by it. I'm thinking mostly of the classic SF movie Forbidden Planet here, which I have an almost overwhelming urge to re-watch now.

Rating: 4/5. Yes, that's a good-but-not-perfect rating. Because Shakespeare is Shakespeare, but this is not an especially great presentation of it. Plus, I have definitely decided that I prefer the tragedies to the comedies. ( )
  bragan | Dec 11, 2016 |
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» Add other authors (29 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
William Shakespeareprimary authorall editionscalculated
Van Doren, MarkIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wright, William AldisEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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The four comedies collected in this text were written between 1595 and 1602, and demonstrate the evolution of Shakespearean comic form. The collective triumph of these plays lies in their mingling of humourous stage business and word-play with a more serious consideration ofissues of identity, gender, dreaming, the meaning of love and even theatre itself.

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