Upon my knees, what doth your speech import?
I understand a fury in your words, but not the words.
-Othello, Act IV, Scene 2
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: On a whim, you and a couple friends decide to take in a local production of Hamlet, Henry V, Romeo and Juliet, or one of the other “immortal” plays of William Shakespeare. Before the curtain rises, you flip nervously through the program, trying to recall what you learned in high school. Iambic pentameter is important—you remember that. Some characters have “tragic flaws,” which are bad. Crossdressing is often involved for some reason. Is this the play with the identical twins? The shipwrecks? The fake deaths? All of the above?
Traumatic memories of AP English boil and bubble to the surface of your psyche. Suddenly, the lights dim as actors in period dress march boldly onto the stage, sawing the air with their hands and loudly mouthing their lines. Your confusion—like Macbeth’s sword strokes upon the rebellious Scots—doubly redoubles. The actors seem to know what they’re saying, but you don’t. It’s much ado about nothing to you. It’s a tale told by an idiot. You catch a smattering of “thees” and “thous,” “wherefores,” “dosts” and “shalts.” There’s mention of bare bodkins, fardels, impeticos. Your heart pounds to the dee-DUM-dee-DUM-dee-DUM cadence of the iambic. A couple behind you erupts in laughter—you obviously missed a joke. Isn’t this supposed to be a tragedy? A wild wave of antitheses, metaphors, mythological references, and a dozen character names begins to swell, threatening to drown you.
Sound familiar? This comedy of errors is repeated thousands of times every year at high schools, colleges, theaters, and the 130 or so Shakespeare festivals around the country. I’ve been in that audience, blinking dumbly at the loud and colorful people strutting and fretting upon the stage. I’ve felt the bemusement, the frustration, the panic. No wonder the two most popular “translations” of Shakespeare’s plays are No Fear Shakespeare and No Sweat Shakespeare. Watching one of his plays can be a frustrating, confusing, and uncomfortable experience.
But take it from me, the chasm between a person who loathes Shakespeare (also known as a Bardophobe) and a person who practically worships Shakespeare (also known as a Bardolator) is not as great as you might think.
Like most people, I first encountered Shakespeare in high school. We read Romeo and Juliet as freshmen and Julius Caesar two years later. We dealt with the plays the way school children have for generations: We analyzed them—discussing plot points, central themes, historical context, and so forth. Then we regurgitated facts in essays and multiple-choice exams. Eventually, we endured a dated movie adaptation that few of us understood or enjoyed.
Needless to say, I left high school as a confirmed Bardophobe.
In college, I avoided Shakespeare altogether. But about a year after graduation, something astounding happened—an event that turned me from a Bardophobe into a full-blown Bardolator, someone with a passionate obsession with Shakespeare. Since that time, I’ve acted in eight plays. I’ve taught his works to students in elementary, middle, and high schools. I’ve given a TED talk on how and why to teach Shakespeare. I perform a pair of one-man shows examining the playwright’s impact on America. Recently, I even wrote an advice book based on various Shakespeare quotations.
The problem isn’t Shakespeare—it’s how he’s been taught.
He is the world’s most famous writer for good reason. No writer in any language—not Homer, Dante, Goethe, or even J.K. Rowling—rivals him in terms of influence or artistic skill. With the exception of the Bible, nobody is even in the same universe. His language and characters are part of our mental landscape. For instance, even if you haven’t read or seen a single play, you probably have a pretty good image in your mind’s eye of Romeo and Juliet. Ditto Julius Caesar, Macbeth, and King Lear.
And what about all those words? Shakespeare used 31,000 different words in his plays and poems. He invented or was the among the first to use around 2,000 of them: eyeball, assassination, cold-blooded, bedroom, swagger, bedazzled. He’s also the most quoted author of all time. If I listed all his famous sayings, we’d be here “forever and a day.” A few of my personal favorites: “To thine own self be true”; “brevity is the soul of wit”; “something wicked this way comes”; “brave new world”; and, of course, the granddaddy of them all—“To be or not to be.”
By the way, in case you didn’t get the memo, that is the question.
Since Shakespeare’s work is “not of an age but for all time,” as Ben Jonson famously put it, I suggest that you get over your Bardophobia and embrace your inner Bardolator. Trust me, it’s worth it.
First, you need to relax. You’re not stupid. You’re not a philistine. Shakespeare didn’t write in “olde English” (a common misconception), but his “early modern English” still causes problems for audiences. Shakespeare’s language is about 90 percent the same as the English we speak today, but that ten percent can be irritating. For instance, certain words have different meanings than they used to (“high-pitched,” “still,” “housekeeper,” to name a few). He uses hundreds of archaic words (“wherefore,” “betimes,” “blench,” for example). There are even two obsolete personal pronouns (“thou” and “ye”) and their attendant grammatical rules.
However, I think that the real obstacle to our understanding is the fact that Shakespeare is a poet. And poets—from Sappho to W.B. Yeats to Ed Sheeran—rarely put comprehension high on their to-do lists. As a poet, Shakespeare’s primary goal is to “make it new”—to compress, to electrify, to push language in ways that ordinary writing cannot. This “amplified” language presents challenges for actors and audience alike. If directors and actors aren’t keenly aware of the pitfalls and possibilities of his language, that production of Twelfth Night you’re watching will feel as long as, well, 12 nights. So, while certain aspects of watching a play are out of your control, there are ways to make your next encounter with the Bard more rewarding.
Here some practical tips to improve your chances of enjoying your next trip to the theater:
01. Attend a play in person.
This is critical. While there are many wonderful movie adaptations of Shakespeare (see my favorites below), there is no substitute for a live performance. Most of Shakespeare’s plays were written to be performed in front of the boisterous crowds at Blackfriars and the Globe. Today, theater still possesses some of its original, sacred origins. Like life, it can be messy and unpredictable—and quite magical. You are forced to confront real people sweating, crying, spitting, committing good or evil acts on stage directly in front of you. Even when it’s mediocre, live Shakespeare can be more powerful and authentic than any film.
02. Don’t read the play.
Unless you’ve seen it at least once, trying to slog your way through Hamlet or King Lear is a surefire way to resurrect all that repressed Bardophobia. While scholars and other hard-core literary nerds like myself constantly reread our favorite plays (as well as the endless analyses of them), I don’t recommend this for most casual playgoers. If you insist on reading, you’d be better served going over certain pivotal scenes or speeches.
03. Do read a synopsis.
Review a summary of the play. Get as familiar with the story as possible. The less confused you are about plot, the more attention you can pay to what really matters: language, character, and performance. Get over your need to “be surprised” by plot twists or endings. Plots were not the Bard’s strong suit. Of his 37 plays, only around four are original. If you’re looking for great stories, perhaps you should stay home and fire up Netflix.
04. Get to know the characters.
Figure out the main characters and their relationships. Look up detailed descriptions online; they all seem to have their own Wikipedia pages. The glory of Shakespeare’s characters is that they’re usually complex enough to be interpreted differently by different actors and directors. Juliet is not necessarily a ditzy teen; Polonius is not always a clown; Shylock is often not villainous.
05. Don’t cheap out on tickets.
Especially with larger venues, get the best seats you can afford. If you attend only one or two Shakespeare plays a year, make them count. Sit as close to the stage as possible—right in the “splash zone.” Bring a jacket, blanket, or cushion if it’s outdoors. Take food and drink if permitted. Bring a friend so you can debrief at intermission and at the end.
06. Memorize a speech.
I know this one is pushing it, but believe me—the best way to appreciate Shakespeare’s fertile genius is to inhabit a few of his characters. If you discover a particular speech that moves you, commit it to memory. It will be a source of satisfaction to you for years to come.
Five Must-See Film Adaptations – and One Bonus
Picking only five of the many incredible film adaptations of Shakespeare is nearly impossible, but here are five of my favorites:
Bonus: Romeo + Juliet (1996) – A guilty pleasure
Five Must-Read Books – and One Bonus
Don’t get me wrong—I firmly believe that the best way to enjoy Shakespeare is by watching a performance. But there are many popular books about the Bard that would add to your enjoyment and knowledge. Here are five of my favorites:
Thinking Shakespeare by Barry Edelstein – If you only read one book, this is it.
Bonus: Shakespeare’s Book of Wisdom by Rob Crisell – Not the smartest choice, but the wisest!