Should You Read The Complete Works?

This question has come up in the past, and I’ve often seen it appear on people’s bucket lists: read the complete works of William Shakespeare.
I open up for discussion the question of whether this is a worthy goal. Keep in mind that, at least in this particular instance, I am not talking about a life long goal of experiencing every play, or otherwise diving deep. I’m talking about getting yourself a Complete Works, starting on page one, and then reading cover to cover and calling it done. Saying you did it, in other words. A checkbox on ye olde bucket list.
Although my answer has probably changed over the years, right now the answer is “No. Don’t do this.”
I’ve done it. I can answer in the affirmative if the question ever comes up. Now ask me my opinions on Measure for Measure or All’s Well That Ends Well and I’ll ask, “Which one was that again?” and struggle to remember even the barest of the plot. I’ve not seen them, either on video or live. I didn’t study them in school. So my retention for most of them is just terrible. Probably because there was no reason to retain it.
I’ve known people who set it as a goal to *see* all of the plays. Depending on where you’re at and what resources are available to you, this is a project that could take a great deal of time, travel and money. But for each play you’ll have the memories to go with it – how you got there, what the circumstances were, what sort of troupe it was, etc… – and those things will help lock it in your memory. I’ve seen The Tempest 3 times, and I can tell you vivid memories from every show.
Ask yourself why you want to do it – whether it’s for the accomplishment of saying you did it, or if it’s out of a true desire to experience every bit of Shakespeare that you can. Because if it’s the latter, well, you’re not even scratching the surface if you just read the book and call it done.

10 thoughts on “Should You Read The Complete Works?

  1. I think I have to disagree– at least if you're an English major or a fan of Shakespeare.
    I started reading the Complete Works shortly after I graduated high school. I was completely disgusted by Shakespeare and irritated by the plays the school board had selected us to read: Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet. To this day they're at the bottom of my list. When I read the plays I'd mix it up: Tragedy, Comedy, History (let's face it, reading the tragedies all at once could be so depressing you might find slashing your wrists appealing). The first time through was filled with so many surprises– I had no idea how delightful The Winter's Tale would be or how intense Measure for Measure was. King Lear– what can I say– that's a masterpiece.
    By the time I went to college a number of years later I had read the Complete Works again. I've never regretted it a moment and yeah, I think if you're into literature reading the Complete Works at least once should be on the bucket list. It's not as hard as one might think; some of the plays can be read in an afternoon. At any rate, it's a lot cheaper than trying to track down performances of all the plays.

  2. LOL @Hex. I think I read Hamlet more than any other play in college. I like that reading the plays has given me a chance to form my opinions which typically vary greatly than what other people think. With the exceptions of Lear and As You Like It my favorite plays are mostly lesser known works…like Henry VI part 3.

  3. Jon Conrad says:

    @Hex R, I'm still recovering from my shock at the idea that Measure for Measure and All's Well That Ends Well are instantly forgettable! I find them among the most fascinating of all, and the former, at least, is in my Top Favorites list. (I've seen them both onstage, but that was after I'd read them and knew I desperately wanted to see them.)

    I would take at least a partially contrary point of view; if you like Shakespeare at all, keep digging through the canon, because you may find you like some that nobody else does. The way that worked for me was getting a cheap book of "stories from Shakespeare," a low-rent paperback study-guide sort of thing (not Cliff's Notes, but not a whole lot different), decades ago. That gave me an idea of which ones I'd like to explore further, so I did. Many Complete Works volumes devote a page or so before each play to telling the story, so that could serve the same purpose.

  4. C'mon, if you know Henry VI part 3, then you'll know there's not a single element of hipsterism and nothing but unending genuine love involved in Darth Laurie's comment. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    I just wish I'd been introduced to the Histories sooner. Didn't really relate to the Tragedies, didn't think the Comedies were funny, then I found Henry V and EVERYTHING just slotted into place.

    I don't know if people should endeavour to read the Complete Works, but I do think everyone should read AT THE VERY LEAST two Histories, two Comedies, two Tragedies, one Problem, and one Romance. That way, they get a decently rounded and fairly wide idea of what Shakespeare's all about, and they can move on with the knowledge that they gave him a good shot. Unless, of course, they end up loving him. Which is the ideal. ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. I am hugely amused by the idea of a Shakespeare hipster. "I was into Coriolanus before it was popular."

    Sitting at my desk, I can see the list I've pinned to my corkboard of every Shakespeare play. I've checked off the ones I've read, drawn an eye next to the ones I've seen, and starred the ones I've acted in or directed. Once I get around to reading All's Well and Henry VIII, I will have checked them all off (and before you ask, I will read Edward III and the other disputed plays someday, but they're not at the top of my list). Seeing them all may take a while, but thanks to the renewed interest in the history plays I'm fairly certain I can do it. Acting/Directing every play? I don't know if I'll reach it, but I still like to keep track.

    I suppose I'd have to say reading the complete works isn't for everyone. But if you start identifying as a Shakespeare fan, you should give it a shot. I read King John just the other day and was pleasantly surprised by the number of marvelous scenes in the seldom-performed play. Before you delve into Shakespeare's lesser known works, though, I'd suggest reading some of the more famous works by his contemporaries, like Marlowe's Doctor Faustus and John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. That way your appreciation for early modern theatre will extend beyond Shakespeare's canon.

  6. Hex Reinette says:

    You…don't….like Hamlet? *dies of shock*
    I wouldn't say it's a bad thing to read all the plays, although there is a risk that they become a chore, or just another box to tick.
    I think I'd agree that it's better to aim to *see* all the plays – they were, after all, writeen to be performed.

  7. In their preface to the First Folio, Heminge and Condell say "Read him, therefore, and again, and again." And so I will go out on a limb and suggest not just that one should definitely read the Complete Works, but one should do it more than once! Some of those "lesser known" plays have a way of growing on you.
    If you can appreciate "Titus," Duane, I think you might find that "Measure" and "All's Well" might deserve a re-reading. Especially if you find a good edition, and maybe some interesting commentary.
    And I wholeheartedly agree that the Histories are undervalued.

  8. When I posed the question I was thinking of people who indeed look at it as "something to check off the list" and aren't particularly the kind of Shakespeare geeks that hang out here. People who want to read Shakespeare for love of the material don't announce that they're going to do it…they just do it.

    As for All's Well and Measure, what can I say? By pretty much every metric I've looked at over the years – from what is taught, to what movies are made, to what single-play books are published, to where all the most popular quotes and cliches come from, they are not at the top of any of those lists. There's got to be a reason for that.

    I can't help but think there's a bit of the ol' "hipster Shakespeare" going on when I hear people rave about the "lesser known" plays. "My favorite play? Oh, it's a really small play called Timon of Athens, you've probably never heard of it." Or, Darth Laurie, you were disgusted and irritated by everything the school board made you read? Is that coincidence, you think, or was it *because* they made you read them that you didn't like them? So you went and picked plays on your own and declared those to be your favorites instead.

  9. I think even those interested in reading or watching Shakespeare's complete works only to check off a list should indeed do it. Many are introduced to Shakespeare in strange ways, and maybe they'd find more there than just prestige.

  10. It's taken me six years of work, but I have finally read the Complete Works of William Shakespeare. One of the BIGGEST ways this has been a rewarding experience is that I kept a detailed notebook as I was reading, so now that I've finished, I can look back and truly appreciate all the work that went into it. But reading every play was only the first step, I'm also endeavoring to see and perform in every Shakespeare play. So far, I've performed in three roles (Richard III, Caliban, and King Claudius), so I have a very long way to go…

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