This one is for the people who don’t “get” Shakespeare because it’s “hard” and not “good.” And more importantly, this is for whomever told you to believe those things.
I Get It. I’m a Shakespeare academic — no, wait! Come back! I won’t say the word “academic” again if you just hear me out. I was once like you, actually. In fact, I am sometimes still like you when I just don’t have the time to deal with the Bard’s bullshit (though it’s rare these days). Reading a play that’s meant to be watched on a stage, learning verse and the implications of using and breaking its standards, connecting characters and plot arcs with historical context from several lifetimes ago – it all can (and did for me) seem like a lot of work for just a bit stage business that someone told you was “brilliant” and “fun” and maybe even “cool.”Though I have come to enjoy these aspects of studying early modern theatre, I am here to tell you that you can still enjoy good ol’ Billy Shakes even if you’re not in it for the long grueling task of tracking the significance and frequency of the number of times money exchanges hands in Comedy of Errors (it’s a lot, btw).
You Want Your Entertainment to Be Relatable and Powerful? The one significant attribute of early modern plays, but Shakespeare’s plays in particular because he did it best, is that Shakespeare wrote for all – from common folk to the Queen herself. Shakespeare wrote for everyone; this is most evident in his ability to create scenes both in rowdy debauched pubs as well as royal ceremony in noble households and courts (for example, 1 Henry IV). Everyone has something to gain and enjoy, even the people who feel like they’re supposed to be intimidated by his plays. His characters are drunkards and teenagers, villains and madmen, badass women and romantic fools. If you think you won’t find someone to relate to, feel sorry for, hate, love, want to choke, then you’d be wrong. Unfortunately, there are few minority characters, marginalized characters, and people of color, and those that exist are not treated kindly. But those are still discussions even to be had now. Above all, Shakespeare wrote contention – destructive, divisive, grueling contention.
Plays Are Meant to be Seen. Shakespeare is about the experience. In 2013, I saw Tempest at the Globe theatre in London as a groundling – which means I stood for a solid two and a half hours, in the rain, getting spit on by Caliban, and having fake fish flung at me. And I’ve never had that much fun at a theatrical experience in my life. In 2014, I sat on stage in the Blackfriars theatre during the American Shakespeare Center production of Comedy of Errors, and I only narrowly escaped giving Dromio a back massage because of my close proximity. The stools were (and are) pretty uncomfortable, but I hardly noticed because I was quite literally entrenched in the on-stage action. In 2016, I saw one of my graduate school professors as Shylock in Merchant of Venice, the play that never quite nails it for me, and was blown away by his performance because he was able to create something new for me that I hadn’t seen before – even though I had seen two other productions and the 2004 movie. And when you watch a play instead of reading it, your engaged with the life of the characters. Our novels are steeped in description and setting, and reading dialogue with few lines of direction can be a daunting new task. My advice to overcome it? Watch first, read later. It’s the gift that keeps on giving the more you engage with it.
It doesn’t have to be a struggle. The thing is, Shakespeare should be seen, but his plays can be read without ripping out your hair, I promise. The thrill of the experience, the love of the characters and the words, they’re things in which anyone can find joy, even when reading. And do us all a favor, don’t start with Romeo and Juliet. Start with King Lear or Titus Andronicus because otherwise you’re letting the influence of the entire world tell you how to feel about otherwise excellent plays.
If you already love Shakespeare, or want recommendations, let me know.
Be excellent unto thy brethren,