To Read or not to Read? Shakespeare Unwrapped
So I’ll admit it. I’ll hold my hands up and confess: I am a bit of a geek. Let’s rephrase that. I am a lot of a geek. I have an undying love for literature, and that coupled with the fact that I am an aspiring actor gives me two standpoints into the world of Shakespeare. I have loved getting stuck into Shakespeare’s language and characters from both a desk and a rehearsal room. I really love him! I am well aware that I am in the minority of people my age, which I think is really sad. Shakespeare has gone from being a literary treasure to being a tedious exercise for GCSE students, and most people choose to leave Shakespeare in the classroom after leaving school. Understandably so, most people don’t have a reason to read or see Shakespeare after they have finished their studies. A common perception is that Shakespeare is a waste of time in modern society. However, I would argue that Shakespeare still has a lot to offer us, even 400 or so years after his death. These are just some of the things
1. The Stories
The first present I ever remember receiving was when I was about 6 or 7 years old. It was a beautifully illustrated copy of introductory Shakespeare tales, told in prose, designed for children to read. Now when I say designed for children, I don’t mean the subplots cut and the language dumbed down into the region of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” I just mean the stories told as they are, with none of the archaic language. To this day this is the gift I am most grateful for. I remember being transfixed by the fairies in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and giggling at the name Sir Toby Belch in “Twelfth Night.” At that age, I didn’t have any preconceived notions of whether or not I would enjoy Shakespeare, I just loved the stories. I still do. Now there is a lot of critical speculation as to the origins of a lot of Shakespeare’s tales, but the fact still remains that whether it’s a tragedy, comedy, or history, you’re going to get a well-crafted and engaging story out of a Shakespeare play.
I am a big fan of the way that Shakespeare presents people. Even if a character has very little to do in the text, they are usually fully formed believable people, (unless they are fairies, but you get my point.) For anyone that has studied “Macbeth”, you will know that the only action that the porter has is to open the door in one scene, and yet his preceding speech and his dialogue with Macduff reveals an awful lot about his class and his attitude to his job (among the scenes services to the play as a whole.) I love the way that Shakespeare presents his characters as real people, and I have even more love for the way he deals with female characters. As an actress, there are plenty of Shakespearean roles that I have dreamed of playing one day: Lady Macbeth, Juliet, Beatrice in “Much Ado About Nothing,” and the list goes on. And on. And on. Ad infinitum. Even though the parts would have originally been played by men, I think that Shakespeare wrote his female characters very sensitively, and with as much care as he wrote the male ones with. Even though they often end up as the object of a man’s desire, the women often hold a power and are people in their own right, which I think is astonishing when you consider the time period, and the feminist in me loves it.
3. The Poetry
I think the Sonnets speak for themselves. For me, they are the unsung heroes of Shakespeare, and he uses poetry in his plays to beautiful effect. There are many instances in Shakespeare where one character attempts to woo another, or talks about their love for another character. In this day and age, it might not work for you to go up to someone in a club and say “The very instant that I saw you, did my heart fly to your service,” (Ferdinand, “The Tempest”) but there is something incredibly beautiful about the way that Shakespeare deals with emotive and poetic language. This is one of his more famous Sonnets.
4. The Insults
As much as I love his beautiful poetic language, Shakespeare was also the king of insults. I personally think it’s a hell of a lot more fun to call someone an idle-headed codpiece than it is to call them a dickhead.
You can find a really good Shakespeare insult kit here.
5. The Universality
Shakespeare discusses issues that have always been (and in some cases, will always be) relevant. Most of us at some point will know a form of unrequited love like that felt by Orsino in “Twelfth Night” , or jealousy similar to that of Othello. Politically, Shakespeare has discussed the role of women (“The Taming of the Shrew”), religious and racial discrimination (“Two Gentlemen of Verona”), and people’s thirst for power (“Macbeth”.) These are issues we still know and understand today, so although Shakespeare might feel like unfamiliar territory, there is actually a lot for us to recognize within it.
So if you’ve got to the end of this article and are feeling lost with regards to Shakespeare, don’t panic. I understand that it’s not for everyone and that I have been very fortunate to grow a love for it so young. But maybe you have to study Shakespeare at school or university, or maybe you’d just like to be a little bit more equipped to enter that world. There are some things you can do:
Read synopses or shortened adaptations: Doing this before watching or reading a full-blown Shakespeare will be a shortcut into you understanding the story, rather than feeling lost.
Read some sonnets: So this might seem like a tedious task, but if you are struggling to study Shakespeare, it might be worth tackling a sonnet a day, or a week. They are short and more digestible, so read it slowly, try to understand as much as you can without reading a synopsis, and test yourself on how much you’ve managed to absorb. This will help you into the world of Shakespeare’s language, and the more you read, I promise the better you get.
Go and see some: The national theatre have a great discount scheme called entry pass for those between the ages of 16-25, and the RSC also offer some discounts for students. Failing that, there are some really good amateur dramatics societies and fringe theatre companies. Shakespeare is often a popular choice with them as you do not have to pay for the rights. Seeing it brought to life can really help. A couple of my favorite productions have been the recent “Othello” at the National, and “Much Ado About Nothing” starring David Tennant and Catherine Tate.
Watch some modern adaptation films: These are often really easy to understand and digest. Here are three of my favourites.
• “Ten Things I Hate About You,” based on “The Taming of the Shrew.”
• “She’s the Man,” based on “Twelfth Night.”
• “Romeo + Juliet,” starring Claire Danes and Leonardo Di Caprio. I love this one as it manages to keep the original text while remaining super clear.
Chill Out! At the end of the day, it’s just words. Shakespeare can seem intimidating, but it’s not impenetrable. Calm down, and don’t stress yourself out over it.
Feeling inspired by this article? Let us know what you think about Shakespeare in the comments section below!