02 December 2009

Shakespeare Is Not Trying To Drive You Insane

I still remember my first encounter with the Bard. I was a tender seventh grader staring down Othello. To be frank, I was expecting to be confused and bored out of my mind, but once I figured out what was going on, I fell in love with Shakespeare and became quite addicted to his dramatic plots, epic language, and remarkable characters.

However, I know that the biggest barrier with Shakespeare for many people is the language. And, as lovely as I think Shakespeare's work is, I'd be lying if I said reading Elizabethan English is easy. It isn't - on the first try. It's a mistake to try to bulldoze through Shakespeare's work. If you want to appreciate Shakespeare's work, you must understand it. And if you want to understand it, you're going to need to do more than just battle your way blindly through the play. I believe the best way to approach Hamlet (or any Shakespearean play) is the way Shakespeare's original audience did, a form of method reading, if you will.

Shakespeare's audiences were familiar with these stories before he ever wrote them (Yep. Shakespeare's ideas were all adaptations. He'd win Best Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars, not Best Original.) Therefore, before you try to dive into Shakespeare, you need to be familiar with the story behind Hamlet, or whichever play it is you're reading. I usually object to reading summaries before reading a book, but with Shakespeare it is essential. Read a good thorough summary of the plot and use a side-by-side modern translation (No Fear Shakespeare) as a supplement (but not as a substitute! Sorry, you really need to read both the original and the translation. Do not just read the modern version and skim the original text) to help you figure out what's going on.

In Shakespeare's time, people didn't ask if you wanted to see a play. They asked if you wanted to hear a play. And hearing Shakespeare's work performed is vital - you'll pick up nuances and intonations you can't pick up by reading. Once you know the story and characters, you need to either see or hear Shakespeare performed. If you're like me and live nowhere near a good theater (let alone Shakespeare repertory company), you're going to have to rely on films or audio recordings. I've heard the best Hamlet film is the Kenneth Branagh version. (Alas! I hath never lain mine eyes upon it, but I have watched the Laurence Olivier and Mel Gibson versions. Both are well-acted, but cut out essential subplots.) One thing though: if you watch a film adaptation, you're not going to do yourself much good if you watch one of the modern ones with modern dialogue. You want to hear the dialogue in its original; otherwise, you're defeating the purpose of watching the movie. (Don't get me wrong. I am not saying do not watch the modernized versions, just do not think that that will help you appreciate the dialogue. Besides, Hamlet is not Hamlet, to me, unless he's wearing tights and emoting, "Fie on 't," but that's just a personal opinion.)

A good alternative is listening to unabridged audio books of Hamlet and following along with the text. (I love the one performed by Frank Muller. He gives each character a distinct voice, especially the pompous windbag Polonius. I also couldn't believe how moving some of the scenes were and I wasn't even watching anything. I, ahem, got teary-eyed during Hamlet's first soliloquy) Whichever route you choose, the main thing is listening to Shakespearean dialogue performed by someone who knows what they're doing. You will not believe what a difference listening to a talented, well-trained actor delivering a properly intoned monologue is over listening to one of your classmates mumbling through (and utterly butchering) a monologue. In skilled hands, Shakespeare's dialogue (and that mysterious iambic pentameter) jumps off the page and comes to life, as Shakespeare intended.

Then after you know the story and have heard Shakespeare from capable hands, then (and only then) read the play. I think you'll find your experience much more enjoyable and much less frustrating. Good luck!


  1. Screw some of Shakespeares adapitions! He was a bitch to the real MacBeth!
    Sorry, bout that. It just bothers me. Although it wasn't really Shakespeares fault. The historian he based the work off hated the Scotts. And Shakespeare was trying to appeal to King James.
    Anyways, getting over that little outburst, I recently read Julius Caesar in school, which was awesome, but just to get the hang of it I first read the No Fear Shakespeare and then read it properly.
    If you have trouble with the Shakespearian language this is a great way to get into it.
    I'm not great when it comes to understanding Shakespeare, but I do enjoy him. But the best way to see Shakespeare's plays it to see them acted, like they're supposed to be. Expecially by the Bell-Shakespeare company. They're awesome. I wonder what play is touring next year...

  2. Oh, and I should clear something up. I do actually love Macbeth, despite my criticism

  3. Reading them out loud helped me. Whenever our class did a Shakespearian play (Julius Caesar this year), we would spend a goodly number of lessons reading it out loud, with each person plating a particular character. (I got to be Caesar and Casca, so I got to stab myself. Fun times, fun times.)

  4. No Fear Shakespeare is also really good. Once you get the gist of what is going on, the Elizibethan is easier to understand.

  5. Oh that truly *is* the best movie version...watched it twice... : ) I never really liked Hamlet till I watched it, (ironically, watching it, not reading it, was my homework)but after that I rank it high with Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" LOVE THE MUFFIN SCENE, and older plays like these have so much more honest depth and emotion than most modern movies/plays/random things.

  6. Penguins Quack, I completely understand your take on Macbeth. (We history buffs pick up on these things that nobody else cares about. Tis a sad commentary on life...) No Fear Shakespeare is awesome. That's helped me understand the language of his plays, which allows me to go back and say, "Oh, how neat!"

    The Chairman, I envy your class. How fun would that be to stab oneself! *cough* You're definitely right about No Fear Shakespeare: Once you know what's going on, it is so much easier to understand what they're saying, since you know the context.

    Rebecca, I do think older plays have so much more depth. I think they weren't trying to impress people, so they end up being more impressive than other plays that try too hard.

    Thanks to all of you for commenting! :)

  7. You might take a look at my Shakespeare Translation Project for an alternative approach to appreciating Shakespeare. My line-by-line translations maintain the verse structure and complexity of each line. To see a sample of what I am doing, go to www.csulb.edu/~richmond/Shakespeare.html or www.fullmeasurepress.com.

    Kent Richmond

  8. Kent,

    Thank you so much for those links. The excerpts on your website are excellent! I shall have to read your full translations!

    Thank you so much for commetning!