Hello and welcome to the blog! If you’ve been around here awhile, you’ll know that I love the works of William Shakespeare: watching them, reading them, and occasionally even performing in them. But they’re not always the most accessible for new readers. Language has changed a lot since they were written, much of their context no longer exists, and even with some schooling behind you, these plays can be demanding reading.
So, today, whether you’re picking up Henry IV because you miss your English class, using Macbeth to fill the If We Were Villains-sized hole in your heart, or trying your hand at Much Ado About Nothing because you’ve heard Beatrice and Benedick are the original idiots-to-lovers (it’s true; they’re legends), I hope I can help you find some joy in my favorite plays of all time. My amateur advice is as follows:
1. Get Some Background
If you were studying your play of choice in a literature class, your professor would give you the low-down: here’s the basic premise, here’s who the characters are, here are some lines from the play, here are a few important scenes. So do the same for yourself! Read the introduction included in your edition if it’s there, watch videos about the play, or otherwise know your characters and your places apart so that Act I, Scene 1 doesn’t throw you into the deep end. There is also no shame in taking notes, which I am known to do! Whatever helps you get what’s happening and when is worth a little extra time.
If you’re looking for some resources, my favorites include:
- The Folger Shakespeare Library
- Crash Course Lit for Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth
- Summary Videos from English teacher Tim Nance
2. Watch It First!
When it comes to enjoyment, I find Shakespeare is the reverse of most books: always go straight for the movie. (Or, if you’re lucky and have some actual stage productions nearby: go see them, go see them, go see them, go see them!) There are so often depths to these plays that only directors and actors can really convey. For the darker tragedy and history plays, these are the speeches, the fights, the death scenes. For the comedies (my favorites!), this is the physicality and comedic timing that will have you doubling over in your seat if you see them live. Also, if you watch the plays first, you get some faces and voices to put to the character names, which will help you out if you like to visualize scenes while you’re reading. All the plays have at least one version that’s been taped and put on YouTube, but you can also try:
- The Hollow Crown series from 2012
- My favorite film versions: Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing
- Taped stage productions like Julie Taymor’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream!
3. Act It Out!
Curling up with a paperback is a lovely way to spend an evening, but I find Shakespeare to reward a reading experience that’s a little more boisterous: there’s nothing like staging a one-man production of King John in your kitchen. If you can get up on your feet and pretend you’re playing one of the characters on stage, I highly recommend it! If you’re only comfortable with whispering the lines to yourself, that’s equally as good. Plays, whether they’re Shakespeare, Hansberry, Gunderson, or Wilde, are meant to be staged, and because of that leave a great deal of interpretation up to you as you read them. This can be as limiting as it is liberating. The difference between the two often lies in how much like an actor you’re willing to think––solo production in your kitchen or no.
4. One Line At A Time
I got this trick from Thinking Shakespeare by Barry Edelstein, a book about how to confront the Bard as an actor. All you need is a bookmark or index card, and whatever text you’re reading. Whatever line you’re on, cover up everything immediately below it, and only move the paper down once you’ve read and more-or-less understood it. Rinse and repeat many hundred times.
By going one line at a time, you force yourself to concentrate on the piece of the task in front of you, instead of seeing the block of text still ahead. It’s a great way to avoid getting overwhelmed, but it also helps you use the line breaks as natural stopping points in a character’s thought process. Take this bit from a soliloquy in Richard II, where the now-deposed king is reflecting on his rule from prison:
Thus play I in one person many people,
[Line break; he thinks about it for a second, spurring on the next line.]
And none contented […]Act V, Scene 5
Instead of hitting you all at once, these thoughts build upon each other in manageable pieces, and they’re much easier to enjoy one line at a time.
5. You Know More Than You Think
If you like books––scratch that, if you like stories, period––you know Shakespeare. A litany of his plots have been repurposed in books and movies you know like the back of your hand, and you’ve heard the writing quoted hundreds of times, maybe without even registering some of them. Even if you’ve never read or watched one of the plays, their subject matter (life, power, friendship, responsibility, love, mortality!) can speak to you. As unapproachable as the Bard may seem, his plays, along with everything in the storytelling tradition, no matter how distant, belong to all of us. If you want to read the plays, you are absolutely “smart” enough to read the plays.
Never, ever let anyone tell you they’re beyond you.
Thank you so much for reading! As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below, and––if you want to start reading the plays but don’t know where to go first, I made a quiz that will give you a personal recommendation of one of my favorites 💚 Happy reading!