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Friday, 24 October 2014

The Narrative Poems, by William Shakespeare, Reviewed.

I always feel nervous commenting on the works of the Bard. After all, as England’s foremost dramatist, he has one hell of a reputation. Part of my anxiety stems from simple ignorance: a lack of knowledge of the times in which he wrote, and large holes in my understanding of the vocabulary he used. It is easy to misunderstand or misinterpret his work.

All the same, as a modern reader of a classic work, I have a voice and an opinion. I hope readers of my reviews understand that they are personal and only as informed as those of most readers who also write.

So, to The Narrative Poems: this volume contains, Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, and The Phoenix and Turtle. I read the Penguin Shakespeare edition, so there are some notes, an introduction and an epilogue to guide readers.

There is no doubt that Shakespeare was a superb poet. But these are works very much of their time, in spite of their reputation as classics. Classics, because they use language in an evocative and engaging way. Of their time, because they are rather more wordy than a modern reader would generally prefer. Although it takes the author several verses to say what modern writers would say in one, the manner of the exposition is so brilliant that wordiness is more easily forgiven. That said, there were short passages I skipped because they seemed superfluous.

Pierre-Paul Prud'hon's Venus and Adonis, Walla...
Pierre-Paul Prud'hon's Venus and Adonis, Wallace Collection, London (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Venus and Adonis retells an ancient myth in the typical style of the poet and does so very well, of course. The Rape of Lucrece again tackles an old story, but what is most noticeable about this one is its extremely moral stance. At the time of the Bard, women were routinely ‘owned’ and abused, yet the language of this work expresses such disgust over the actions of the rapist, Tarquin, and such empathy with the victim, Lucrece, that it might have been written by a modern man. The Phoenix and Turtle, however, is all but incomprehensible without a translation or some reference to the original work from which it is undoubtedly derived.

Did I enjoy the read? Yes. Was some of it hard work? Yes. Did it put me off reading more of Shakespeare? No. Scholars and those acquainted with his works, will need no input from me. Those less familiar with the work of the Bard should find this slim volume worth their time. I suggest you have a read.
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