What I'm reading - March 2021

I've not read much this month. After reading a lot for the past few books I was feeling that I'd not taken enough time over each book. I didn't seem to have much to say in these notes. Instead this month I wanted to read a few books deeply and write more extensively about them.

That hasn't happened. Instead I've been dedicating a lot of the time I would have spent reading to instead trying to learn German. I'd struggled to motivate myself to really trying to learn it before, I think because I lacked any real idea of how to improve. I'd taken German classes provided by an employer and found them to be demotivating. I had little idea what else to try. Anyway, thanks to Peter suggesting refold to me, I've now got an approach to try, so I've spent a lot of time when I would have otherwise read instead watching mediocre German television. I've got no real reason to believe in their program other than Peter's testimonial, but I'm choosing to trust it because I suspect that consistently trying to learn the language over a long period is the only way to succeed, and maintaining such consistency is only possible if you believe in your learning method.

## What I did read

What Happens in Hamlet - John Dover Wilson

This seems to be a classic of the maligned genre of literary criticism. The book simply tries to explain Hamlet. Why certain scenes, characters, and subplots that seem peculiar to a modern reader are included.

It appears that at the time this book was written Hamlet was generally considered to be a beautiful poetic work, but somewhat incoherent as a play. For example Hamlet's bizzare conduct towards Ophelia, the dumb show / play scene, Hamlet's inaction in the first half of the play were thought of as mistakes, evidence of Shakespeare's imperfect adaption of his source material.

Wilson aims to show that all these points and more are necessary parts the play, and would have seemed natural and coherent to an elizabethan audience. To give one example he shows that Hamlet's inaction is prompted by fears about the ghost, whether it is a true spirit or a wicked devil sowing disorder. And that these fears would have seemed entirely reasonable to the audience. Hamlet cannot act without verifying the ghosts claim's, hence his melancholic inaction.

I found Wilson's arguments generally convincing, though his confidence is some of his more specific claims did not seem justified by the evidence presented in the book. Having quickly purused his wikipedia page, it appears that this is a common criticism of his work. Nonetheless, I found this book to be extremely enlightening on the topic of Hamlet, and Shakespeare more generally. I now feel that I essentially 'get' the play and am excited to engage with adaptions of it in future. I'm particularly keen to see it performed once theatres are open again.

Mythos - Stephen Fry

This book is a simple introduction to Greek/Roman myths. It's gathering up a lot of the stories you might find in Ovid's Metamorphoses and the Theogony and presenting them in a quick accessible format. Being able to quickly read these stories in fairly plain language makes this a good entry point to learning about Greek myths.

While it's nice for these stories to be so accessible, I think they lose something in this telling. Fry writes like an overgrown school boy - probably he wrote this book for school boys. The tone is sometimes bit too satisfied, a bit too plummy. And this tone, I think does a disservice to some of the stories.

It's a lovely book anyway. Read it if you want to know about Greek myths. And then read Ted Hughes' version.