Shakespeare Family Home, in Stratford-upon-Avon
This is not an admonition to read Shakespeare. It's a guide to falling in love with him.
In love with his language,
In love with his characters,
In love with the rhythm and beat of his dialogue,
In love with his stories.
I first started loving Shakespeare when I was 21 years old. I’d studied Hamlet, Macbeth, Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, and Julius Caesar in school, and every time it was a wrestle to keep my head in the game. Who knew what any of that Elizabethan English meant. Who could keep the complicated love triangles straight. Who cared what a rose smelled like if called by a different name.
Then one tired October afternoon I wandered into a showing of Kenneth Branagh's As You Like It. I was admittedly threadbare when it came to joie de vivre just then. In the throes of finals, breakups, and the suffocating tenuousness of an undecided life path, I went to this movie for one reason: extra credit in my Brit Lit class.
I came out two hours later quite changed. Watching the Rosalind's bright-eyed sighs, Orlando's earnestness, Celia’s warm-hearted loyalty to her cousin Rosalind… I walked out of the theatre floating. Somewhere in those two hours, Shakespeare’s words and the talent of the actors and director reminded me how good life can feel: that it can feel like wonder, like joy, that it lifts your sights and propels you forward. I walked in from a world of bleak greyness, and walked out to a world of color.
I set my relationships right. I followed my curiosities, my inklings, my hunches. I began falling in love with the world around me.
And I began turning to Shakespeare as a source of light, wisdom, and the companionship of human experience. His plays have made good companions, wise companions. Each time I return to a play, it is a new story, reflecting my own present experiences and giving me fresh insight for navigating them.
I ended up pursuing Shakespeare studies as my graduate degree, which really just means I look for him everywhere I go. I find him in modern music, in Shakespeare-themed gardens, and in art all around the world. I attend Shakespeare productions any chance I get. Many of his words have gotten themselves stuck in my mind, and surprise me every time they surface, unexpectedly but always at just the right moments.
Over these years, I've composed something of a guide for those who want to learn to love Shakespeare. I suppose at some point I'll have to create an argument for why loving Shakespeare matters, but for today, we'll just do it because loving Shakespeare is pure fun!
Step 1: Unbury yourself from years of bad experiences with the bard.
We were all forced to read Shakespeare in a stuffy high school classroom, all forced to sit in an amphitheatre in the blazing sun at 2pm on a school fieldtrip. Just take all these bad experiences and stick them in a box and write on it "Not True Shakespeare."
This includes ditching the idea that his language is too hard. You don't have to understand the play word for word. You don't even have to understand most of the words. In good renditions of Shakespeare, the actors do all that work for you, making the meaning of his words clear by their good acting.
You can also think of his language like watching a foreign film with subtitles: at first you’re annoyed at having to read the words and you’re tempted to throw in the towel. But then you get pulled into the storyline and characters, and by the end, you’re so engrossed in the language you don’t even notice it's in a "different" language.
Step 2: When you are first starting out, for heaven's sake, DO NOT READ SHAKESPEARE.
Regrettably, most of our first encounters with Shakespeare were sitting in a classroom, reading his words line by line. This is not how they were intended to be experienced. In fact, most of his plays didn’t exist as printed works (let alone a complete collection) until years after his death. He didn't sit down and say, "Yes, William, I believe I will write a book that people can read in bed, keep in their purse for long waits at the dentist, and take to the beach on summer holiday." No, he wrote a play, a play, meaning it was meant to be played, meant to be playful, meant to be play in and of itself. The plays were jotted on slips of paper, a line here, a line there, but chiefly stored in the brains and hearts of his acting troupe. Playhouses had little incentive to publish scripts of his plays, as they could too easily get into the hands of other acting troupes, who would steal away their audience. So during his lifetime, most of his plays never made it to press.
Seven years after his death, his close friends compiled the plays as they knew them and printed the first collection.
Which is why now, gratefully, we have complete collections of his works, like the Norton Shakespeare, weighing in at three pounds and nearly two thousand pages. These sorts of collections are excellent references for academics and dramaturgs, but aren't books you'd sit down and read by the fire, not books that would get the love of Shakespeare down deep in your heart.
So if you are just starting out experiencing Shakespeare, please please, leave the books behind, and first experience the plays in the way he meant them to be experienced. Which leads to...
Step 3: Understand what the theater experience was like back then.
Theater was Elizabethan England's Netflix. All people, rich and poor, would come to the theater to lose themselves in love stories, comedies, the deepest deceptions, the closest of calls, treason, redemption, all played out right in front of them.
They'd see fantastical stories: rousing accounts of teams conquering insurmountable odds (our Remember the Titans was their Henry V); of rightful heirship being reclaimed (our Lion King was their Hamlet); cautionary tales of the danger of ideas being planted in our minds (our Inception was their Othello); hilarious and heartwarming stories of rivals turned lovers (our You've Got Mail was their Much Ado About Nothing); and the tragedies of hasty love gone terribly wrong (our Romeo and Juliet was, well, their Romeo and Juliet). Going to the theatre was getting to step into someone else's story, with all its drama, hope, and heartbreak.
And the play wasn't the only thing the audience was watching. The theater was one of the best places to go to celebrity-watch. The rich would sit in the gallery seats (think box seats at a football game), the poor as groundlings on the floor (think general admission concert tickets). And everyone would watch everyone else watching the play.
Step 4: Watch period films to endear yourself to the 1500s and 1600s.
While films like Shakespeare in Love, Ever After, Anonymous, Elizabeth, and All Is True are largely fiction works based in history, they do a good job of making that time period more familiar to a modern audience. They help us relate to and feel for the characters and goings-on of that century.
Step 5: Watch a handful of modern film versions of the plays.
These will get you familiar with the language and storylines. Plus, they have actors you know and love: Emma Thompson, Michelle Pfeiffer, Denzel Washington, Bryce Dallas Howard, Kenneth Branagh, Keanu Reeves, Leonardo DiCaprio... Here are three of my favorite filmed versions for anyone starting out:
- As You Like It (2006): Absolutely endearing. Captivating performance by the bright-eyed
- Romeo + Juliet (1996): Shakespeare's words with director Baz Luhrmann's talent creates a truly moving tragedy. The true magic of this version is that every time, even knowing how the story ends, there is a moment when you truly think maybe this time Juliet will come back, maybe this time they'll live happily ever after, so much it folds you into its story.
- Much Ado About Nothing (1993): All-star cast makes this story of the foibles of love a delight to watch. Funny and heartwarming.
- A Winter's Tale, staged at the Barbican in 2005: Hands down my favorite of all of Shakespeare's plays, this is the story of total ruin and total restoration. This is the play I return to to believe that awaking one's faith heals all loss, and that time sets all things right. As yet, no one has made a stand-out feature film of it (Kenneth Branagh, I'm looking at you. Please make this your next project), but there is a truly moving filmed version of a staging of it at London's Barbican Theater.
Step 6: See a play on stage!
The most important thing here is that you get as close to the stage as possible! If you’re lucky enough to see a play in London at the Globe, by all means do not buy seats. Be a groundling. There, you can get right up by the stage, and the actors look at you and makes jokes to you and pull you into the action of the play. The experience is completely different.
The Globe Theatre, London
Another tip: it doesn't hurt to read a synopsis before the play. Just don't feel too much pressure to remember all the characters and how they connect to each other. Your chief aim in going to the play is just to soak up as much as you can, find some tidbit you can love, some line you connect to your own life, some moment you feel in your heart.
Favorite venues to see Shakespeare on stage:
- The Globe in London
- Shakespeare in the Park (New York's Central Park)
- Utah Shakespeare Festival (Cedar City, Utah)
- Your local university or playhouse!
Step 7: Memorize a line or two.
Here's where it is fun to have print versions of his plays. (Our Macmillan Shakespeare set is a beautiful one to collect, if you go that route.) You'll hear a line in the movie, or on stage, or quoted in a lecture and then get to flip to the passage and run it through your mind a few more times. Do read them outloud, because there is real magic in the rhythm of his language!
Here are some of my favorite lines and passages:
Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.
(All's Well That Ends Well)
When he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
(Romeo and Juliet)
With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come.
(The Merchant of Venice)
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o'er wrought heart and bids it break.
How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world.
(The Merchant of Venice)
Present fears are less than horrible imaginings.
The true key to loving literature is being able to imagine yourself in the story, to make connections between the action on the stage and the action in your own life. This is a muscle that must be exercised, a hoop shot that must be practiced over and over and over again. We get too few chances in today’s tech world to practice this skill of imagination.
Where today we have CGI and special effects, Shakespeare had only the craftiness of his words to create a world. And so, with Shakespeare, you get to do the work of imagining. You get to be the special effects editor, the stunt choreographer, the set painter, the foley artist.
If the stage design, the special effects are poor, it is only your own imagination you can blame. This is the real magic of Shakespeare. He hands us the richest of language, and with it the opportunity (one we are rarely offered these days in our highly saturated, highly edited, highly curated interactions) to craft a world. We get to create the play with him.
Each encounter and he becomes more familiar, more close to your heart, more beloved. So practice. For all the world's a stage, and here with Shakespeare, we get to play.
BONUS: Just for fun, some modern-day music references that come right from our man William:
- Mumford & Sons “Sigh No More” is more or less straight out of Much Ado About Nothing. Have this song memorized? You have Shakespeare memorized. And their song "Roll Away Your Stone" was inspired by Macbeth.
- The band A Fine Frenzy took their name right from A Midsummer Night's Dream.
- Lumineers “Ophelia” (Hamlet)
- Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” (Romeo and Juliet)
- Dire Straits “Romeo and Juliet"
- Adam Cohen's "Cry Ophelia" (Hamlet)
- Nick Lowe's "Cruel to be Kind" (Hamlet)
You can shop all our favorite Shakespeare products here: William Shakespeare Collection.