The Bard occupies an unusual place in Western culture. Hailed as the epitome of Western genius, he has gone through history with varying reputations, known first for his poetry and later for his plays, lauded for the naturalness of his characters and the moral soundness of some of his plays, but later appreciated for the complexity of his verse and the moral ambiguity of his characters. To know and love Shakespeare is to mark one’s self among the cultured elite. And yet Shakespeare also graces mugs, T-shirts, and pub signs, like any pop culture character.
Everyone feels like they know Shakespeare, yet Shakespeare is also intimidating. His language is unfamiliar and his plots convoluted. He’s supposedly for the educated yet most people suffer through Romeo and Juliet in high school. That experience is enough to keep many away from Shakespeare for life. And yet, Shakespeare is more accessible than might at first be apparent. And he’s more delightful than might be clear from a high school teacher’s feeble attempts at making the star-crossed loves of thirteen-year-olds sound plausible.
Here are some reasons the Bard isn’t as scary as you might think.
- Shakespeare wrote for money and he wrote for the masses. Yes, his plays were enjoyed by nobles, but they were also patronized by common people who would pay a small fee to stand in the pit and watch the performance. The average Londoner could follow the plays–and so can you!
- Shakespeare filled his plays with bawdy jokes. Some scholars turn up their noses at the low humor or carefully gloss over the many mentions of, um, body parts, but these parts attracted audiences and often provide a bit of levity in otherwise heavy plays. It’s interesting to note how the Bard’s shining reputation of genius allows society to ignore his fondness for indelicate language.
- Shakespeare didn’t write or speak Old English. That was the language of the Anglo-Saxons; you can see it if you look up the original text of Beowulf. Even though Shakespeare’s language might sound archaic to us or stilted, it’s actually modern English.
- Even literary critics find fault with some of Shakespeare’s verse or plays. Some of them have even challenged the authorship of plays, determining them to be so bad that they believe their idol could never have written them. If you think a passage is dense, a verse unclear, or a play horrible, you’re not uncultured but joining many educated individuals who think the same.
So how do you start to approach Shakespeare?
- Shakespeare was meant to be performed. Watching an movie version like Branagh’s or Tennant’s Hamlet can help you understand the plot more fully and enable you to hear how different actors interpret different lines. Maybe you thought a line was serious, but the actor thought it was ironic–now that scene makes more sense!
- You can read the play while listening to an audio version. Keep in mind that some audio versions skip parts, especially the less politically correct verses, so you might be a bit confused when the dialogue doesn’t match up.
- Get a version of the play that’s adequately glossed. You will encounter unfamiliar words and convoluted metaphors. There’s no shame in not knowing them; often it took years of scholarship for people to understand what parts of Shakespeare mean. There are still some verses that baffle scholars.
- Keep in mind that you don’t need to understand every line to understand and appreciate the play. Shakespeare’s theatre was crowded and noisy. Possibly many of the audience couldn’t hear parts of the play. If they missed parts or didn’t understand the sense of the verse, they couldn’t go back to reread them. But they could follow the general action and you can, too.
- Recognize that you don’t need to love every Shakespeare play you read. Some of his earlier works aren’t universally admired and many of his plays aren’t performed very often these days because they’re deemed uninteresting or hard to stage. Try to find a genre that you like, whether it’s comedy or history or tragedy and start there.
- Start off with a retelling. A movie like Ten Things I Hate About You might make you eager to read the original (The Taming of the Shrew, in this case–a play notorious for its misogyny and thus interesting to watch people attempt to adapt).
- Just have fun. Shakespeare was probably a chill guy who would be confused by the way people idolize his work. Ignore his reputation and let his work speak for itself.