Understanding Shakespeare

Back in my early adult life (or was it my late childhood) I sat in the rec-room of one of the dorms at the UC and watched a movie version of Macbeth. I remember Maurice Evans using such a heavy Scottish brogue that I initially had a great deal of trouble understanding his words; but eventually my brain got into the right rhythm and what with my familiarity with the play, I was fully engaged in the drama and the acting. Unfortunately, the woman I was sitting with eventually confessed to not understanding a word of Shakespeare and heading out of the room searching for coffee. She was a Fine Arts major so it was understandable.

Macbeth holds a prominent position in my history. When I was in third grade I rummaged through my parents’ bookcase and found several books that looked interesting: one was Treasure Island with the N. C. Wyeth illustrations and another was this story about witches and battles and ghosts … Macbeth. I had never read a play before so I struggled through what turned out to be my first Shakespeare (I don’t remember but I suspect I didn’t know who William Shakespeare was unless he was on a card in my Authors pack … “give me all you Longfellows”). When I brought the book in to school for Show & Tell I was sent home with a note to my parents that I needed to be restricted to reading in my age group. When shall we three meet again … Dick and Jane and Spot.

But my experiences with Shakespeare are probably not typical. After all, I concentrated in English Drama in Graduate School (specifically William Wycherley). In fact, one of my tactics was discussing the difference between the drama on the stage and the play on the page (yes, I actually wrote that in my thesis). I was therefore interested in a weblog entry Tackling Shakespeare which was reprinted in Nation of Change.

Tackling Shakespeare
By Caleb Jacobo

Okay, so you’ve heard all the hullabaloo over Shakespeare through the years from your teachers or maybe your friends. He’s the poet with a funky goatee who wrote all these boring old plays in which you can’t even understand what’s going on. Big deal, right?

It seems like such a mystery why everyone knows who the man was, but have never read, or heard one of his plays performed well or at all. These are the people I’m talking to today. You recognize that there must be some serious worth to Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, but every time you’ve tried, you just can’t seem to get through his work.

So I decided to share with you how I finally tackled Shakespeare, his plays and his sonnets. The following is a step-by-step approach to understanding and enjoying the genius of this enormous poet.

The author discusses five steps to approaching a play by Shakespeare:

  1. Listen to a lecture on the play;
  2. Read the play guided by an audio version of the play;
  3. Read the No Fear Shakespeare on the play you are reading;
  4. Watch a professional performance;
  5. Read the play again, but text only, and get through it in as few sittings as possible.

I agree that four of these suggestions are excellent tactics for starting to gain a deeper understanding of the play and are applicable to plays by other than the Bard. However, I firmly revile anyone who recommends the use of Spark Notes or whatever the current hack-job crutches being touted to avoid the need to think. No Spark Notes; No Monarch Notes; No Cliff Notes. The Venerable Bloom has a nice book out on Shakespeare with his notes to each of the plays but even there I don’t think you should read what Bloom has to say until you have read the play at least three times.

I would recommend basically the same steps, but with a slight modification or two:

  1. Read the play;
  2. Read the play again;
  3. Watch or listen to a professional production of the play;
  4. Read the play yet again;
  5. Read secondary resources about the play; listen to or attend a lecture on the play; discuss the play with friends and other students;
  6. Read the play again.

I’m split over the idea of listening to the play or watching a production live or on DVD. A Shakespeare play will often be fiddled with to meet time constraints, eliminate “dated” words, even to soften the edge on the naughty bits, all of which could easily be distracting if you are reading along at the same time as you are trying to watch the drama. Yet reading the play will reinforce the performance and the performance will hopefully clarify the play. I think I would suggest paying attention to the production of the play.

But I have a much more succinct strategy for understanding Shakespeare:

Read Shakespeare and read Shakespeare often.

2 thoughts on “Understanding Shakespeare

  1. Ah Memory: I happened to take Shakespeare as an undergraduate from my Senior Thesis Advisor, but he was actually a Milton wonk (I took Milton from him also).

    As a side note: I was watching Svenghoolie out of Chicago Saturday night and the movie was The Mole People. As Svenghoolie explained, The Mole people was perhaps best known for the boring, long-winded professorial lecture at the beginning which possibly was added to made the idea of creatures living inside the earth more acceptable.

    Well, the boring Professor happened to be the late, great Frank Baxter, who taught Shakespeare at USC when I was in college. His reputation was that it was impossible to pass Shakespeare in his class because his strategy was to force students to take the class over until they got a passing grade.

    You may remember Dr. Frank Baxter from the excellent Bell Telephone science series on television or for his earlier Shakespeare series. He may have been boring but his subject matter was always interesting … that was good television.


  2. Agreed. I read a lot of good old Will in college. My favorite professor happened to be a Shakespeare nerd and it rubbed off on me. Read it, discuss it, read it again, discuss it some more, and read read and read some more.


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