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How to Read and Enjoy the Classics

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Shakespeare’s As You Like It: Is Love Real?

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Painting of scene from As You Like It--Jester Touchstone talks to country lass Audrey in Arden forest.

Shakespeare’s As You Like It: Touchstone the Jester romances Audrey, the country lass.

As You Like It: Is Love Real? Learning and Laughing at  this and other Big Questions

How could a very old play about an imaginary forest where shepherds and shepherdesses tend their flocks, sing of love, and write poems on trees have anything to say about our lives in the 21st century?

Plenty, as I and my students repeatedly found—because this play, As You Like It, was written by the magnificent William Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s knowledge of the human heart shows as full and rich today as ever it did when As You Like It was first performed in 1599.

One reason I love this play so much is that it tells us something so many of us modern cynics need to hear today:

Love is real. Yes, it may be complicated, twisted, and strange–but ultimately, love  is good, and can truly be long-lasting.

Here’s another good message in this play:

Simplifying your life, taking it right down to the basics even for a short while, can help you gain self-knowledge and regenerate your soul.

Not that Love, or Anything, is Simple. . .

Of course neither message is presented as just that simple. As You Like It may be high on love, but also illustrates its negative aspects.

For one thing, love is not as nearly so “romantic” as poems and romance novels often describe it. People get mixed up, mistaking obsession, lust, or ambition for love. We call all kinds of relationships “love” that, in truth, really aren’t. And not all loves are going to last.

As You Like It also shows that a “simple” life in the country—living rough and leaving a “small footprint,” as we might call it today–isn’t always that simple, or even very pleasant. However, life in the sophisticated city doesn’t always offer the best life either.

For one thing, civilization isn’t always that civilized. “Civilized” people can treat each other with savagery. The best people struggle to keep their positions in society as the worst people strike out from behind false smiles.

Yet when all is said and done in Shakespeare’s comedy, after many witty dialogues by the characters and much laughter from the audience, As You Like It ends with some clear messages:

  • Though some folk are corrupt and selfish, there are good people in the world.
  • A simple country life, for all its hardships, has valuable lessons to teach.
  • Urban civilization, for all its corruptions, can also enrich people’s characters.
  • And. . . True Love, despite its complexities, is very much worth pursuing.

As You Like It: Part Parody 

It’s doubly fun and interesting that Shakespeare conveys these, and many other themes and ideas, through engaging in a a re-mix of another popular work: Thomas Lodge’s pastoral fiction RosalyndeAccording to Oxford’s Bodleian Library, “Thomas Lodge’s prose romance  Rosalynde: Euphues Golden Legacy  (first published 1590) is best known today as the major source for Shakespeare’s  As You Like It, but its own success is apparent from its numerous reprintings.”   As You Like It, coming along nine years after Rosalynde’s first printing, is both homage to and parody of Lodge’s pastoral fiction.

Shakespeare’s play follows many of the conventions popularized by Lodge’s work and other Renaissance pastoral romances,  in which well-born ladies and gentlemen leave their sophisticated lives at court to wander an idyllic forest and countryside among simple shepherds and shepherdesses.  (“Pastoral” means “country.”) In traditional pastoral, these fictional lads and lasses have little to do but discourse of love and woo one another from morning to night.   Thus,  Lodge’s work is lively and enchanting.    Shakespeare’s version of the pastoral in As You Like It, however, is as gritty, real, and elemental as it is charming and sweet.

Though funny and very entertaining, As You Like It goes well beyond Lodge’s Rosalynde in presenting a balanced view of the elemental questions about life and love.  Let’s take a closer look at As You Like It.

Shakespeare's As You Like It characters painted in forest scene.

Shakespeare’s forest of Arden in As You Like It. 1864 painting by John Edmund Buckley.

 

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My New England Author Home Tour: Common Lives, Uncommon Minds

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Large rambling two-story brown wood-sided farmhouse shows the rough but charming environment Alcott lived in.

Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts, where Louisa May Alcott wrote “Little Women.”

On August 10 this year, I set out with my husband to do something I have dreamed of for a long time: take a driving tour around New England. The goal: to visit as many great authors’ homes as we could manage in our eight-day tour of southern Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts.

We basked in the ever-changing views of the beautiful New England countryside, passing by rolling hills, pine-covered green mountains, marsh, forest, and rocky shoreline, stopping often to visit the old homes and sites where authors wrote some of the most treasured literature in America’s history.

This trip was a lovely and thought-provoking experience. Many of us revere our favorite geniuses, whether writers, artists, athletes, actors, or directors, for the intellectual thrills, pleasure, and meaning they bring to our lives through their excellent productions.

Sitting Room of the home where Longfellow grew up.

But I know for me, this reverence makes it difficult to regard my most admired authors exactly as fellow humans. After seeing where they lived and wrote, where they made their homes, a bit about how they lived, often in humble circumstances, my perspective is changed.

Treading the beautiful old wooden floors we found in almost every home, the very boards my favorite writers trod back and forth when stuck for a word or a phrase, reminded me of something.

These writers were indeed geniuses, but they were also just people–humans a lot like me. They had to figure out where to live, what to eat, what to wear, when and where to write.

They had family, friends, enemies, and fellow townspeople. They had other passions besides writing—perhaps a garden, a fondness for hiking, a favorite grandchild, a well-loved chair, a treasured view. Their homes were decorated with pretty wallpaper and draperies, bright paint colors, beloved art, and above all, books, books, books!

Drawing of Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

The minds of the great authors whose homes we visited might tower above most of ours, but they lived their lives on a human scale. Experiencing that humanness viscerally gives me even more affection for their works. It’s so much clearer that these writers speak to me, and to all their readers, not as gods issuing proclamations from the clouds, but as fellows sharing their thoughts at our elbow, as friends writing us letters from their desks, just down the street.

Not that these writers were just like average folk in every respect. Seeing their homes all together in this way made it plain that there are certain things they had more in common with each other than with the non-writing public. In a moment, I’ll talk about what these great writers seemed to have in common, and how knowing about these similarities enhances how I read their literature.

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Four Themes in Milton’s Paradise Lost

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Freize Détail of the Sainte Chapelle (Boulevard du Palais Paris, France), yet another view of Adam and Eve tempted by the serpent.

Freize Détail of the Sainte Chapelle (Boulevard du Palais Paris, France), yet another view of Adam and Eve tempted by the serpent.

Milton’s Paradise Lost is one of the most splendid and influential works ever written in English. What is it about, how did it come to be, and how can today’s readers approach this wonderful work? And in the end, why would a modern reader want to read it? In a two-post series, our guest writer David E. Miller tells us all about Paradise Lost, and makes the case for plunging in to this magnificent work.

Miss Part I? Click here to start at the beginning.

Paradise Lost Part II

As discussed in the post “Milton’s Many Voices in Paradise Lost,” this magnificent epic tale tells the story of how Satan tempts Adam and Eve to disobey God and lose their place in paradise. In that post, you can read about the historical background behind the great poem, and how each major character helps Milton make his case for the existence of individual liberty.

Here, I will take up that theme in more detail, along with three other ideas that Milton promotes throughout the poem. It’s not surprising that such a vast work expresses more than just one big idea. Let’s take a look at four major themes I see in Paradise Lost.

And then, some words about why you would want to read it.

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Milton’s Many Voices in Paradise Lost

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Paradise Lost depicts the same episode from Genesis as this painting, showing God rebuking Adam and Eve for eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

The Rebuke of Adam and Eve. Painting by Charles Joseph Natoire, 1740.

Milton’s Paradise Lost is one of the most splendid and influential works ever written in English. What is it about, how did it come to be, and how can today’s readers approach this wonderful work? In a two-post series, our guest writer David E. Miller tells us all about Paradise Lost.

Paradise Lost Part I

Part II HERE

Voices in Paradise Lost

Some authors become their characters. Charles Dickens is a conspicuous example. Reading a Dickens novel is like watching a one-man play. It’s as if, in the mind’s eye, Dickens himself does all of the voices and each antic and somber gesture.

But not all authors become their characters. Sometimes it’s more like the characters become their author, by becoming spokespersons for his different points of view. In the case of John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost (1667/1674), the characters we meet—Adam, Eve, even Satan–are various adaptations of Milton the man. Like Milton, they all have rich intellects and strong reasoning skills. They all are persuasive and utterly committed to their causes.

But more than that, just as did Milton the English citizen, all the major characters place great importance on individual freedom.

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Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge: Book Club, Meet Classic!

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Book Club, Meet Classic

Book Club, Meet Classic

My neighborhood book club has read many contemporary works, but what happened when they agreed to read a classic, Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge?

It was the night of my neighborhood book club meeting, and I was nervous.

The club usually reads and discusses contemporary genre fiction and bestselling nonfiction. In recent months we had discussed Backman’s A Man Called Ove, Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow, McCullough’s The Wright Brothers, Lansing’s Endurance, Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad,  Bohjalian’s Sandcastle Girls (a love story set in Syria at the time of the Armenian Genocide), Benjamin’s The Aviator’s Wife (based on the Anne Morrow Lindbergh story), Mundy’s Code Girls (on the role women played in codebreaking in WW II), and more.

But this time was different. This time I had persuaded them to read a classic. Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, published in 1886, was to be the one.

The club members are smart people with rich career backgrounds who love to read, and they read a lot; but no one was in the habit of reading older works. Great works from earlier times often differ enough from current writing to make the reading experience significantly different.

How would they respond to a work written not just about an earlier time, but in an earlier time?

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Reading Middle Ages English Literature from our List

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Middle Ages Tapestry depicting many folk in period dress with dogs and spears ready to hunt bear and boar.

Boar and Bear Hunt, from Devonshire Hunting Tapestries in V & A Museum, late 1420s.

Now available on Read Great Literature: an annotated listing of the best literature from the English Middle Ages.

Click here to take a look at the best and most famous works from the Middle Ages. Pick out something new to read, or just enjoy learning something about the major works and authors from the very beginnings of literature written in English!

Before you click, however, take a minute to read this post for some great background on Middle Ages English Literature.

First, this!

When you read Middle Ages English literature, you will encounter a lot of firsts:

  • First major poem written in the English language (The Canterbury Tales)
  • First autobiography written in English (The Book of Marjory Kempe)
  • The oldest book known to have been written in English by a woman (Revelations of Divine Love).

You will also encounter many kinds of writing:

  • Compendiums of tales and stories
  • Chivalric romances recounting Knightly adventures
  • Tales of courtly love and love laments
  • Devotional writing
  • Mystery and Morality plays, some serious but more often funny
  • Philosophical and social critique
Beautiful stained glass in shades of brown and blue depicting author William Langland, reclining in contemplation near a brook.

Author William Langland depicted in stained glass, Church of St Mary the Virgin in Cleobury Mortimer, Shropshire.

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Dickens Talk: A Fun Conversation on Social Media

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Color photo up close: smartphone screen showing social media icons, Facebook in center.

Classic literature comes to Social Media

If you are a Facebook member, you may have seen this challenge going around on people’s Timelines: a friend nominates you to post the cover of a book that is significant for you, one book cover for each of seven days—just the cover, with (I quote) “No Explanation.” With my reputation for loving books, it’s not surprising that this challenge came around to me. With my penchant for talking about books, it’s also not surprising that I couldn’t keep my mouth shut (or my keyboard silent) to follow the “No Explanation” rule.

In short, I explained.

I commented briefly on why I chose David Copperfield as one of my “significant to me” book selections. I’m glad I did, because the comment gave rise to a fun and interesting conversation about Dickens with several of my friends.

This was so much fun, I wanted to share it with my blog readers as well. My friends kindly gave me permission to post our Dickens chat here, just to show how much fun it can be to have shared experience and love of a classic author. Several different topics come up, as you can see, the usual case when readers discuss an author of sufficient depth and accomplishment to be valued as classic.

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How to Read American Modernist Literature from Our New Reading List

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Kandinsky's abstract image in bright pinks, yellow, whites, and greens is a good parallel to the freer written forms of American Modernist literature.

Kandinsky’s 27-Garden of Love. This image was printed on the postcard commemorating the Armory Show of 1913, the art show that introduced Modern Art to the American public.

What is American Literary Modernism?

When most people hear the term “Modern Art,” certain styles and images spring to mind: Cubism and the lyrical fundamental forms of Picasso, abstract lines and child-like bright colors of Kandinsky or Miro, the raw emotional expressionism of Munch in “The Scream.”

But how do the tenets of Modernism translate to literature? In honor of the unveiling of our new American Modernist Literature Reading List, covering American literature from 1915 – 1945, let’s touch on some of the qualities we’ll find in the works on that list—things like rejection of older forms of literature, invention and experimentation with new forms, minimalism and pastiche, streams of consciousness in narrative, impressionism and subjectivism, a new interest in primitive art and forms of belief, and a drive to make reality appear “new” and “strange.”

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How to Find Great Literature Online for Free

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Young woman in fuchsia dress sitting at table in restaurant with laptop before her looking at smartphone.

Find Free Literature Online!

Certainly, as we’ve been discussing on Readgreatliterature.com, classic literature from the Western tradition can offer thrilling stories, amazing characters, complex themes, and aesthetic wonders. But there’s another great benefit to reading the classics: you can access most of the great works for free, to read online or on your computer, or even to download to your favorite reading device.

Because so many great works from the past are now in the public domain, many websites have made it their mission to offer a multitude of great texts without charge. Yearning for some Shakespeare? No problem. Get access in five minutes. Moby Dick? A click away. Fiction by Zora Neale Hurston or poetry by Langston Hughes? Easy to find and enjoy. Today I’m going to share some of my favorite websites where you can read great literature online for free, and sometimes even find resources to help you enjoy it more.

Note: If you want ideas for great things to read from the sources listed below, check out these pages:

Literary Classics Timelines and Reading Lists

Is Now the Time to Read that 19th Century Classic?

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News! New Reading List on America’s Gilded Age Literature

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Wide-angle photograph showing entire elevation of Biltmore mansion, near Asheville, NC. In the style of a French chateau.

From America’s Gilded Age: The Biltmore Mansion was built by George Washington Vanderbilt II between 1889 and 1895. It is the largest privately owned house in the United States, at 178,926 square feet.

Special Announcement! Now available on Readgreatliterature.com: a new reading list covering American literature from the “Gilded Age,” the period from the end of the Civil War in 1865 to the beginning of WW I in 1914. Click HERE to see the new reading list—but before you click, you might want to take a moment to read in this post about three important literary trends that happened during these years: Regionalism, Realism, and American Naturalism.

What is the Gilded Age?

First, what is the Gilded Age? These years between the ending of the Civil War in 1865 and the beginning of WW I in 1914 ushered sweeping changes into American life and culture: rapid industrialization, large numbers of people moving from the country into cities, an explosion in immigration numbers (over 20 million immigrants between 1880 and 1920), increasing wealth, and pursuit of material success shown through conspicuous consumption. The era got its name from The Gilded Age, a novel published in 1873 by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner. The novel satirized greed and political corruption that suddenly seemed more common in American life than it had before.

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