Don't know your Hamlet from your Horatio? Ruth Johns-Bishop lists her top tips to enjoy Shakespeare as a complete beginner.
For many of us, Shakespeare conjures up dull memories of school literature lessons. Spending hours a week wading through an old copy of Macbeth or writing an essay on Act I, Scene II of Romeo and Juliet just wasn’t all that inspiring. Hence, it comes as no surprise that after exams are done and forgotten, students are often keen to drop studies of Shakespeare and never look at his work again. However, there are multiple ways to enjoy this notoriously divisive playwright outside of an academic setting.
From personal experience, the key thing to do if you’re trying to enjoy Shakespeare’s plays is to watch them! Of course, they’re plays, so if you’re trying to wade through one of his works as if it were a novel it might not always work. On paper, you read the stage directions and the dialogue, yet on stage, you can see the actors’ mannerisms, their body language, and hear the sound of a specific tone. Despite Shakespeare’s comedies being hundreds of years old, they can still be quite funny.
There are plenty of opportunities to watch Shakespeare’s plays live. During the summer, local parks and outdoor venues host live performances, such as Bard in the Botanics, an event where you can enjoy a play whilst snacking on a picnic and some drinks. Local theatres like the Theatre Royal also put on performances of his plays, which help bring these works of art to life. Additionally, the Glasgow University Shakespeare Society hosts events like pub quizzes and performance nights, especially for students.
Another great way of watching Shakespeare is the National Theatre Live. This organisation livestreams theatre performances to cinemas all over the country, and the ticket prices often won’t break the bank. Some other great performances are broadcast from the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in Stratford-upon-Avon to cinemas in most parts of the UK. These live events make for a fun little evening out: you can dress up, have some drinks, and they don’t finish super late, either!
You don’t have to attend live performances to enjoy Shakespeare… you don’t even have to leave your bed! There are hundreds of film adaptations online, some very loosely following the original plots (we all remember watching 10 Things I Hate About You, right?). There are also many recordings of plays on platforms like YouTube, allowing the general public to see the plays performed anywhere and at any time.
When watching Shakespeare, it’s important to not listen too hard. Because the language used in his plays is rather outdated, it’s impossible to understand it all word for word. It helps to just let the language “flow” over you whilst taking in the tone, mannerisms, and acting. By listening to the rhythm of the dialogue, you appreciate more the poetics of Shakespeare’s language.
A general tip for watching Shakespeare live is to roughly know the plot beforehand. That way, you’re not trying to understand what’s going on while keeping track of the dialogue as well. There are plenty of online resources to read synopses of his plays, and you can even buy books that summarise all of them into a few pages. Just look over the plot of the play you’re about to see before leaving the house, and it will be much easier to follow.
Academically speaking, if you’re studying Shakespeare, reading physical copies of his works is key. In this case, it’s often most enjoyable to combine all these suggestions in a particular order: read the synopsis, watch the play, then read the printed version. This helps you acquire a general understanding of the story, and it allows you to see it live as it was intended to be, before concentrating on the reading itself. It’s also handy to not expect Shakespeare to be a quick read. When studying a play, it’s helpful to work through it slowly, making annotations, and looking up some translations of the most dated phrases. That way, it will be more understandable and, therefore, more enjoyable.
Perhaps it’s not worth hiding away from Shakespeare entirely?