Shakespeare has been revered as one of the greatest writers of the English language for nigh on three and a half centuries.
But he can also seem utterly boring, stuffy and unintelligible.
Various people have told me, that Shakespeare is an author that they would like to have read. Without actually going through the trouble of reading his plays.
For many, their first and only encounter with his work is a distant memory from high school or college English classes, haunting like the ghost of Hamlet’s dad, and tainted with the bitter taste of late-night midterm study sessions and homework assignments.
It doesn’t have to be like that.
It’s very much possible to actually enjoy Shakespeare without being a die-hard intellectual. What I’m setting out to prove here is that with a few basic pieces of advice, anyone can glory in the rich language and ingenious plots of the Bard’s plays.
So , once more unto the breach, dear friends!
1 - Throw out those preconceptions.
Shakespeare’s been around for more than four centuries — and by now he has acquired a veneer of the elite. Often, when people think of Shakespeare, they also tend to think of his plays as something requiring an incredible amount of intellectual engagement to enjoy. Far out of the sphere of any ordinary mortal.
But Shakespeare doesn’t have to be high-brow. He certainly wasn’t in his time.
When he was putting quill to paper, Shakespeare wasn’t writing for courtiers or scholars. He was writing for an audience at the Globe theatre, which consisted of people from all walks of life.
During those days, theatre was the entertainment of the masses. The theatres of the time could fit thousands of people, and while there were seats for the better-off sorts in the galleries, the standing-room in the “pit”, the ground floor of the huge circular wooden theatres, was filled by ordinary day-labourers who could afford to go see a performance on a fraction of their wages. Going to see the world premiere of Hamlet would have cost less in today’s money than going to catch Avengers: Endgame.
Theatre was not exactly a respectable profession, and while Shakespeare’s company of players did have aristocratic patrons, and did perform at court occasionally, the majority of their income still came from ticket sales. That means that when the man himself was coming up with jokes and puns, it was with regular people in mind — not just those elites educated in the Classics and the Arts.
2 - Context matters
Before you move on to the actual plays, learning about the context of Shakespeare’s work and the time in which he lived can be incredibly helpful.
You don’t have to go and get a BA in English Renaissance History before you can enjoy Shakespeare. But knowing the framework of his life and times, the fundamental set-up of his society can be a big help.
Luckily, there are plenty of YouTube videos and blogs out there that can give you a basic run-down of everything that mattered in late 16th and early 17th century England. It may take an hour or two, but it’s worth it.
Also: with the plays being the popular entertainment of the time, there are plenty of references and jokes that would make little sense to an audience without the context.
Take that famous line from Romeo and Juliet — A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. On the face of it, this is exquisite, romantic poetry. But underneath lurks a jab at a rival. The Rose was a competing theatre near the Globe — and they had an infamous sewage problem. Not so sweet-smelling after all.
Jokes like that are short-lived. I often don’t get references from 90s shows, never mind plays written four centuries ago. Some context helps with that.
Pro-tip: Look into euphemisms for anything sexual in the English of the time. Shakespeare loved his innuendo.
3 - Don’t read the plays!
Yes, I actually just said that. One of my top pieces of advice on how to love Shakespeare. Don’t read the plays — watch them instead!
Shakespeare was never meant to be read. He wrote for the stage. His plays were always meant to be enjoyed in performance either at one of London’s theatres or at court.
Confession time — I love Shakespeare (big shocker from the author of an article like this, I know). But I stopped reading his plays in 2011 — at least the ones I didn’t know already.
That year, I went to London to the Globe theatre for the first time. I loved Shakespeare dearly already and had studied many of his plays before ever going to see one, reading in-depth analyses and memorising passages. When I got to the Globe, I was left disappointed — the program that day only included plays that I hadn’t read before, that I didn’t even know the plot of. Worried as I was that I was going to be totally lost, I waited in line for standing tickets.
It was one of the most rewarding and exciting experiences I’ve ever had.
To not know what was coming, to be as surprised and enchanted by the characters and plot twists as the original audience four hundred years ago was utterly breathtaking. Quite literally — I got dizzy because I was holding my breath for too long during certain scenes.
The beauty of Shakespeare in performance is that his language, so cumbersome on the page, comes to life on the lips of well-trained actors. Hearing the verses spoken, you often forget that it is poetry at all.
I’m not going to lie. I didn’t understand absolutely everything that was going on during that play. There were many nuances I only understood later on when reading an annotated edition. But there was something magical in first experiencing a play just like the audience would have back in the early 1600s.
Years later, I went back to the Globe with my cousin, who didn’t speak English very well. It took some convincing to get him there, but in the end we went to see Henry V. He loved it. Not so much the soliloquies and philosophising on justifications for war, perhaps, but the sword fights and the courting scene, the inspirational speeches and the basic story of bravery and determination.
It just goes to show that you don’t even have to fully understand what Shakespeare is saying in order to enjoy it. The Bard knows how to entertain even if you don’t.
Now, I know that not everyone can catch a plane to London and nip off to the Globe. Or even to go see a performance at a local theatre. Luckily, there are some excellent film versions of Shakespeare — many of them starring wildly popular actors. Personally, I love David Tennant in Hamlet, Emma Thompson in Much Ado About Nothing and Leonardo DiCaprio in Romeo and Juliet. There’s also The Hollow Crown series — a BBC adaptation of the history plays starring Ben Whishaw, Jeremy Irons and Tom Hiddleston. Absolutely stunning.
4 - When you do read them, read them in the original.
Once you do get around to reading the plays, for the love of god read them in the original.
This can seem especially daunting to non-native speakers, but it is so much more rewarding. Too much of Shakespeare gets lost in translation. Especially since many of those translations are far out of date. I know for a fact that many of the current German-language translations of Shakespeare date back to the time of the Romantic poets in the early 19th century. In performance, you can hear the dust that has gathered on them, smothering any trace of humour.
And even for English-speakers, “stick to the original” is good advice. There’s a number of modernised editions out there — none of which, to my knowledge, are particularly good.
And talking about editions — make sure to pick a great one. When reading Shakespeare, it can be extremely helpful to have good annotations and a solid introduction. It’s up to you whether you read them as you go or wait for the end of a scene or an act to go back to review what you missed (which is what I do). The point is that there’s a lot that’s hard for a modern-day reader to catch that makes the plays ever so much more enjoyable. And the really good editions also include all sorts of hilarious anecdotes that will have you laughing in their own right. Personally, I love The Arden Shakespeare.
5 - Enjoy the culture around Shakespeare
So now you know how to enjoy Shakespeare’s plays — but there’s more to the Bard than that!
Shakespeare’s been incredibly popular for four hundred years. That being the case, he’s endured a fair deal of parody, references and homages throughout the years.
For one thing, there are the films about Shakespeare — whether they’re about his actual life, like the academy-award winning Shakespeare in Love, or speculations about his supposed secret identity, like Anonymous. Even the popular TV show Doctor Who has the main characters time-travel to Elizabethan England to catch a performance at the Globe, and to save the world from aliens while they’re at it.
Then, there are modern films completely or partially based on the plot of Shakespeare’s plays — such as 10 Things I Hate About You (The Taming of the Shrew), or She’s The Man (Twelfth Night.) These films are good in their own right, but the Shakespearean context is what gives them proper hilarity and even actual depth.
My personal favourite in the realm of modern Shakespeare tributes is the 2007 novel Interred with their Bones by J.L.L Carrel. The main plot revolves around a young woman who’s busy directing Hamlet at the Globe. Before she gets hauled off by one of her old professors to search for Shakespeare play that was lost centuries ago, that is. Also: her quest would be far easier if there weren’t also a serial killer with a flair for drama out hunting for the exact same thing. It’s basically like The Da Vinci Code — only well-written and historically correct, with the author being a Harvard-educated Shakespeare scholar.
Once you’re actually enjoying Shakespeare, you’ll see his influence pretty much everywhere — be it in The Lion King, or in the way Kenneth Branagh directed the MCU’s Thor (don’t get me started on that). Not to mention the influence he’s had on the modern English language.
And you’ll be able to share a laugh with Rowan Atkinson and Hugh Laurie, who once did a whole sketch based on the idea of Shakespeare being a high-flying intellectual too enamoured with his own art to care that it was basically gibberish.
So there you go. Five pieces of pretty straightforward advice.
And all you need to actually enjoy Shakespeare.