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Since none of the unread novels in my collection fit well with this month’s book salon topic, Royals and Rulers, I decided to take up a purchase that I had never gotten around to in my teaching days.

Shakespeare: The Tragedies, by Nicholas Marsh, is part of Macmillan’s “Analysing Texts” series on British literature, which also includes three other volumes on Shakespeare. Sadly, this volume, which examines Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, and Othello, and therefore one might think would be the most popular and relevant for students, is apparently now out of print.

I bought this and two other volumes in the series at the annual conference of the Modern Language Association, one of the largest academic conferences in the country and where first-round interviews for almost all tenure-track jobs in English and other language departments are held. One of my favorite things about having to attend the MLA was going to the book sale on the last day while publishers were packing up their booths and selling their stock at steep discounts. Really, it’s amazing I don’t have more of a “book problem.”

The MLA is also where I picked up my May challenge book, Brighton Rock, part of Penguin’s six-volume “Deluxe Edition” Graham Greene centennial series, which included, as one might expect, The End of the Affair, The Heart of the Matter, and The Quiet American, but also, inexplicably, Orient Express and Travels with My Aunt. (Really, Penguin, how do you not include The Power and the Glory in that collection? Or, if you are looking to add something comic, Our Man in Havana?)

Anyway, back to Shakespeare. The Tragedies was definitely a “challenge” book, despite its short length. I’m not really sure why I kept it this long, when I have gotten rid of almost everything academic not related to either France or film, but it was probably because, like many people, I always intend to read more Shakespeare. And, after reading The Daughter of Time for my Royals and Rulers book salon, I had thought of reading Richard III for this month’s challenge, but ultimately decided against it. (Since I have the complete works of Shakespeare in a three-volume boxed set—purchased at an English bookstore near my apartment in Paris with the credit from trading in all the paperbacks I had accumulated while living there—almost any play could count as a challenge book for me.)

The Tragedies was an interesting approach to analyzing the texts, doing a close read of very specific extracts rather than discussing the plays as a whole, more in the style of the French “explication de texte” than much of the analysis I’ve read in English. Each chapter looked at one brief extract from each play, focusing on the openings, endings, heroes, heroines, society, humor, and imagery. Even though this meant that only a very small percentage of the text of each play was discussed, the author did manage to tease out larger meanings that helped me understand the works better. One benefit of the close read is that it made sense even for plays that I hadn’t read in a long time, such as King Lear. This leads me to actually want to attempt the other volume I purchased (Shakespeare: The Comedies, natch), even though I haven’t yet read most of the plays.

I hope everyone is making good progress on this challenge. I’d love to hear about what you’ve been reading. As stated above, my challenge read for May will be Brighton Rock by Graham Greene, one of my favorite authors. A new adaptation, with Helen Mirren, premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September, and will hopefully be released soon in the U.S., although I’ve seen no sign of it.

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