Ah, the Bard. Willy Shakes, as I like to call him (blasphemous, I know). Lauded as a genius, hated by thousands of high school English literature students, his best-known works misunderstood due to erroneous pop-culture references the world over (Taylor Swift, I’m looking at you). I love Shakespeare. This should not be surprising: I have a B.A. in Dramatic Arts with a minor in English. I do not, however, view Shakespeare as the be-all end-all of great plays. I do not even think that he is the greatest. He’s got good stuff, and he’s done a lot of work that still rings true and affects people today. So I do think that it’s still important to at least be familiar with his more popular plays.
I know that Shakespeare’s plays can be overwhelming. The language sounds fancy and can be hard to muddle through. It’s supposed to be difficult to understand, right? Also, there are so many plays. Are you supposed to read all of them? Is there a greatest hits album? Don’t worry, I’m giving you a noob’s guide to Shakespeare, so that you can impress all your friends when they find out that you read a Shakespeare play just because you wanted to. It wasn’t for an assignment, or anything!
Tip No. 1: Get thee to a theatre! (Or a television!)
(If you’re unfamiliar with Hamlet, that was a Hamlet joke. Don’t worry, you’ll get it later.) But in all seriousness, when a person writes a play, they have made a conscious choice to write a play, not a book. This is because they are writing the story with the express intention that it will be seen and heard, not read quietly. Shakespeare wanted you to see the physical comedy of Benedick hiding while he overhears Don Pedro and Claudio talking about him, wanting him to overhear. He wants you to see the look of horror on Tamora’s face when she realises that the pie she’s been eating was made with the flesh of her sons. Reading a play script can be difficult to follow and fully grasp even if you’re used to reading scripts. Watching a Shakespeare production is honestly the best way to understand it. Plus, Kenneth Brannagh has adapted a lot of Shakespeare’s plays for film, and he’s done it pretty well.
Tip No. 2: Don’t start with a history play.
Shakespeare wrote some of his plays for the masses, and some for the monarchy. While the history plays have lots of good stuff in them, the primary purpose was to show the history that led up to the reigning monarch’s rule, and to show that the monarch’s reign was good and just. The plays that were written for the masses, were written as entertainment. If you’re already going to be tasked with learning how the language works, and how the different stage conventions work in print, it’s going to be a lot easier if you don’t have to sift through all of the political content as well. My suggestions for starters? Well, if you enjoy more light-hearted fare, you could try Much Ado About Nothing or A Midsummer Night’s Dream. If you like darker and more violent stories, try Othello or Macbeth.
Tip No. 3: Don’t give yourself a hard time.
Look. Not everybody has to enjoy everything. If you gave it an good, honest try, and you still really hate Shakespeare, that’s ok. Shakespeare wrote in a wide variety of styles and themes, so people who love Shakespeare will tell you that there is a play that you will love. And they’re probably right. But I’m not going to tell you that you have to sift through the entire First Folio so that you can finally find a Shakespearean play that you like. That’s a little excessive. Life’s too short. Wikipedia exists. Go read something you really, truly like. Do you need permission? I grant it.