To Like or Not to Like?
October 15, 2008 2:33 PM   Subscribe

What will help me appreciate Shakespeare?

All throughout school I never enjoyed Shakespeare. Sonnets, plays, what have you, I felt his stuff was a bit over the top and I could never connect with any of the characters. Also all the obscure references made my head ache, trying to look them up.

Given how much people love his stuff however, I feel like I've been missing out. Do I have the wrong attitude towards Shakespeare? Am I not "experiencing" his plays in the correct way? Do I need to change my expectations of what his plays should be?

Would especially like to hear from people who used to feel lukewarm about him until they saw X or, read X, and then they were sold. I would love to know what that X happened to be. Tell me what to check out (I'm cool with adaptations).

So far I've read a couple of his plays (way back in HS), seen the film versions of Macbeth and Hamlet, seen the 12th Night performed, and seen that Romeo+Juliet adaptation with DiCaprio (which I admittedly liked--but I think only because I like the director).

Tell me what could help me appreciate this guy, short of having the "I love Shakespeare" gene that so many others seem to have.

*also apologies in advanced--I don't know if this is chatfilter...I feel enough people are in my shoes to make this a compelling question...I hope
posted by uxo to Media & Arts (51 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I wasn't wild about the guy until I saw Henry V performed in a tiny little theatre. The production was unremarkable, which might have been what made me pay attention to the language. It doesn't matter if you don't get every reference or archaic turn of phrase; what is beautiful is the way the words flow and build on themselves. Shakespeare was meant to be heard. Read it aloud to yourself, and don't be afraid to crescendo above a murmur.
posted by coppermoss at 2:44 PM on October 15, 2008

It's okay to not like Shakespeare, you know. My personal opinion is that he was essentially the Michael Bay of his day, only more eloquent. Disliking Shakespeare makes for good conversation with English majors, too.
posted by joshrholloway at 2:50 PM on October 15, 2008

I couldn't stand it all through school, but that all changed when I fell in love with an actress who works mostly with Shakespeare. Seeing her passion for it, having her explain what she loved about it (and having genuine interest in hearing those explanations) opened it all up to me.

Of course, that's a slightly tricky path to follow.

One thing that definitely stands out is a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. It's such a fun play- full of magic and trickery and changing allegiances and hilarious characters. The one I saw was a high school production, and they expected to get about half the normal numbers for it (how many high schoolers like Shakespeare, right?) but ended up selling more seats than they ever had before. It wasn't about fancy language and serious, sombre Art, it was just about fun. Which is what it was originally meant to be, anyway.

Where are you? If you're anywhere near London, the 5 quid shows at the Globe are spectacular- I saw The Merchant of Venice there last year and when it ended there was about ten minutes of the kind of applause you'd expect at a rock concert. From young people, travellers, everyone you wouldn't normally associate with highbrow theatre. Because it wasn't highbrow! It, again, was fun and engaging and real. If you're in the US and anywhere near Virginia, try and see a production by the American Shakespeare Centre. They also aim for the plays to be as they were originally intended, and do a pretty good job of it.

Okay, that's kind of a long answer. The short version, I think, would be: see it live. And if you can see it live with someone who's a fan, that's even better.
posted by twirlypen at 2:53 PM on October 15, 2008

Go see a play or three. Alternatively, rent a few movies based closely on the plays.
posted by Pants! at 2:59 PM on October 15, 2008

Thanks for the input, guys.

twirlypen: I live in the boonies, USA. I envy the fact you can see a performance at the Globe! How amazing that must be!

joshrholloway: LOL. So it sounds like in 200 years someone will ask the metafilter question: "What will help me appreciate the works of Michael Bay?"
posted by uxo at 3:00 PM on October 15, 2008

Seeing good productions or movies can be a big help; also, some of the minor plays are (in my opinion, anyway),. better than the major plays - I find Macbeth pretty underwhelming as a tragedy, for example, because I think Macbeth is a cock who got what he deserves[1][2]. On the other hand, I love Titus Andronicus, which I was introduced to through a BBC series of productions.

[1] And yes, I'm aware it wouldn't have looked quite that way to a contemporary audience, but I am not them.
[2] The Polanski film of it is pretty good fun, though.
posted by rodgerd at 3:02 PM on October 15, 2008

Also all the obscure references made my head ache, trying to look them up.

Having a really good annotated guide would be nice. Some are better than others - the best ones make it very easy to read, with outdated word definitions in the margin and cultural notes on the opposite page.

You could check out some more film versions of Shakespeare, though I would recommend either reading the play or a synopsis of it first so you kind of know what's going on. Here are some film recommendations along the same lines of the recent Roemo+Juliet:

-Titus is fantastic and very neat (done by Julie Taymor, who directed/did costume-puppet-etc design for The Lion King musical and the recent film Across the Universe.) It's a version of Titus Andronicus, which is incredibly and absurdly violent.
-Scotland, PA is a funny modern-day version of MacBeth. Little Shakespearean language, but it might make you like the play more nonetheless. Even if not, it's a good movie on it's own terms.
-The recent Ian McKellen film version of Richard III is very good.

I also really enjoy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, by Tom Stoppard. It's a reworking of the characters/ideas/some scenes from Hamlet. There's a decent film version but I would just read the play - it's pretty quick. It might give you a greater appreciation for Hamlet.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 3:10 PM on October 15, 2008

Watch it, don't read it.
posted by turgid dahlia at 3:11 PM on October 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

Major apologies for some terrible misspellings above. Roemo?!
posted by Solon and Thanks at 3:12 PM on October 15, 2008

As a pretentious pre-teen, I really tried hard to like Shakespeare, but I didn't really "get" it until I sat down one Sunday morning and started reading Hamlet. I find that his most accessible play.

But I agree that Shakespeare is better read aloud. Do you have any friends who like the plays? Why not buy some wine and pizza and invite them over to do a group reading? I've done this before, and had a surprisingly awesome time. I also discovered some unexpected acting talent among a few of my quieter associates!

Also, even if you're out in the boonies, as you say, and far away from any professional companies, you might want to keep your eyes peeled for amateur productions. I've seen A Midsummer Night's Dream three times: at the Oregon Shakespeare Fest (arguably the momma of all Shakespeare companies in the USA), at California Shakespeare Festival, and finally, at a university. First two -- bleh, mildly engaging. Had you asked me before seeing the college kids' production, I would have told you, "I guess a lot of the humor is inaccessible nowadays due to the language changes." Not so! The college students were BRILLIANT. Astonishingly hilarious. I laughed harder at the jokes and pratfalls in that production than I did at the first Austin Powers film.
posted by artemisia at 3:15 PM on October 15, 2008

Agreed that it's all about Shakespeare live, or at least spoken. I can't give you any examples of mind-changing works, but I just want to say that even in the boonies, you can find somewhere near by that will put on a show of Shakespeare every now and again.

Part of what intrigues me is how others interpret the work. You can see the same play performed in wholly different ways, with different sets and get a different feeling. And being in the boonies doesn't necessarily disqualify you from having some group put on a decent show near you. Though far from being a neighborhood event, Wikipedia does have a handy Shakespeare festival listing.

And if you still can't get into it, it's not your thing. Not that these are any way connected, but just because enough people like The Big Lebowski to create a bunch of fests doesn't mean you have to like the movie, too.

* full disclosure: I like both Shakespeare and The Big Lebowski, and have only been to a Shakespeare fest in high school.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:20 PM on October 15, 2008

Choose a play. I wouldn't worry about reading an annotated version until you have read the entirety once.
Rent a good version of the play (or get it from the library). The BBC has done just about every single one of his plays 15 or 20 times, each with good actors.
Sit down, close to the TV with the book open on a table in front of you and read along.
Stop and rewind if you need to do so.

The text will help you understand parts of the live action and dialogue that you missed and the actors will help you understand the written word.

If you do this a couple times, you will find it a lot easier to create characters in your head (instead of a monotone recitation of the words devoid of emotion or meaning). Another bonus is that reading the play no longer takes three days. You're done in three hours.

This is the way I went from having your attitude to being able to pass my Shakespeare classes in school to actually enjoying reading his works. I don't think he is the greatest writer ever to have graced the planet with his presence, but at least his works are now enjoyable.

However, this takes effort.
It might not be worth your time.
There is no shame in that.
I personally hate Faulkner.
And it makes for great conversation with other English majors (and everyone I work with is an English major).
posted by Seamus at 3:21 PM on October 15, 2008

To appreciate Shakespeare is to appreciate everything. Someone once said that WS created the human being, and that's not too far off...

So what's needed for you is to find a way to get through the archaic language and appreciate the drama, the pathos, the joy, the tragedy and, perhaps above all, the statements about the human condition contained in his works. For the language, you'll need to get used to the meter and learn certain Shakespearean vocab words (like "anon" means "right away" or "soon").

To appreciate the actual content of the plays, a lot will depend on your interests and tastes. Thankfully, Shakespeare wrote his plays for everyone, so you can pick and choose the stuff that you'll like the most. If I were showing a film to a young man who likes action movies, I'd probably start with Kenneth Branagh's "Henry V" and Julie Taymor's "Titus".

The 1968 version of "Romeo & Juliet" with Olivia Hussey is filled with yearning and heartache, so that's not bad to start with for those who are into those sorts of things.

To really enjoy "Hamlet" or "King Lear," see a first rate live production (or watch Laurence Olivier as Hamlet). Second, it helps to have had a good English teacher who can help you appreciate the philosophical depth of the plays. Failing that, it would be good to spend some time with the texts, maybe read some good criticisms of it to get a sense of the depth of the play.

Howard Bloom's Hamlet: Poem Unlimited is a good piece of Hamlet crit.
posted by BobbyVan at 3:22 PM on October 15, 2008

A lot of people seem to get more out of seeing a production than reading the plays, but I've found that almost no live production can live up to the versions that happen in my head when I read them, so let me put in a vote for that.

My absolute favorite Shakespeare tragedy is King Lear, partly because it's the most unbearably bleak. But you say that you're not so much into the fact that he's "over the top", so you might like something more subtle. Which means that Shakespeare might be the wrong tree for you to bark up altogether. He does get hella dramatic, and there's no shame in disliking that kind of storytelling (though he's worlds apart from Michael Bay, who tries to be equally dramatic but fails miserably).

One potential way for you to get into the dude's writing might be through modern secondary sources. Sure, you could read Harold Bloom's Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, but if you can put up with Canadian accents, you might have more fun with Slings and Arrows, a TV comedy-drama about a theatre troupe that puts on Hamlet, Macbeth, and Lear in Seasons 1, 2, and 3, respectively.

I don't know that you want to invest this much time into your exploration, but you might consider reading some of the other Early Modern playwrights from around the same time, to give you a sense of how Shakespeare differed from other folk in his day. (Disclaimer: this may just be a trasparent attempt on my part to get to you to read Tamburlaine the Great, Part 1, which is BAD ASSSSSSS and way more over the top than anything Auld Wimbleshakes ever wrote.) Steven Greenblatt talks a bit about how Shakespeare differed from his contemporaries in his biography Will in the World, and I found it to be an interesting way to approach the guy's work.

I will say, in terms of connecting with the characters, that it may just be a matter of exposure to more and more plays. You can get through play after play of bungling rustics or hand-wringing royalty without much sense of a connection, but then find the one character who says one thing in the one play that strikes you as so unbearably touching that the whole rest of the play kind of opens up epiphanically; personally, I never really dug the Tempest until I was struck by the single sad and furiously impotent moment in which Caliban says, "You taught me language, and my profit on it is: I know how to curse." From there, from one tiny entry point, the rest of the play just started to fall into place around it.
posted by Greg Nog at 3:31 PM on October 15, 2008

I've only ever gotten into Shakespeare by seeing it performed, and even there I think you need to see a really good performance for it to be really affecting. I think the performance that most blew me away was this performance of As You Like It - it really brought the language to life and in fact parts of it seemed so natural and spontaneous that I had a hard time believing they were in the original - so much so that I went home and looked through the play to verify that those lines were in fact written by Shakespeare.

The only movie production I've really liked was Ian McKellen's Richard III which I think is fantastic.

That said, I'm not an ardent Shakespeare fan by any stretch of the imagination, and I think there's no shame in deciding that Shakespeare's just not your cup of tea.
posted by pombe at 3:36 PM on October 15, 2008

In high school I stumbled through Romeo and Juliet and, uh, one of the ones with Falstaff. I hated, hated, hated it. Then in college I had to read Hamlet. I was set to despise Shakespeare all over again but we worked from a fantastic annotated version that took all of the pain out of the vocabulary, which turned out to be my biggest stumbling block. Even if I had known what all of the words meant, a lot of the puns and 16th century humor would have evaded me.
posted by indyz at 3:44 PM on October 15, 2008

Perhaps I'm "enjoying it wrong", but for me when it really clicked was reading the very footnoted The Arden Shakespeare edition of King Lear. Watching movies or live productions never did much for me, partially because I can really understand so little of what's said because of vocabulary, sentence structure, and the sheer rapidness of a performance. But, I also can't ever tell what anybody's saying in a Guy Ritchie film, so maybe that's just me.

Nevertheless, I can't imagine being able to listen and process fast enough to really *enjoy* the writing in the same way that I enjoy reading Shakespeare. In other ways, sure, but not the same way, and not the way that really "grabbed" me.
posted by BaxterG4 at 3:50 PM on October 15, 2008

Yes, indyz, I should have mentioned the very good humor and idiom that wouldn't be "gotten" by most in a thousand times of seeing or reading it without footnotes.
posted by BaxterG4 at 3:52 PM on October 15, 2008

Okay -- someone upthread said "to appreciate Shakespeare is to appreciate everything." Well -- personally, I think that's pushing it. I think it's just fine if you don't go crazy over shakespeare -- and I work in THEATER, so hey.

But if you want to give it a shot -- some extraneous works may help you find a way "in."

If you ever get to see a production of "the complete works of william shakespeare (abridged)", it's a fun three-man riff on Shakespeare in general that can help introduce you to the basic plots, so at least you know what the hell is going on. As for Shakespeare productions -- definitely try to see them done. Another weird "in" for one work in particular would be "My Own Private Idaho" -- some parts of the plot with Keanu Reeves mirror the plot of Shakespeare's HENRY IV, and when the director realized that he even took entire sections of dialogue and used them in the movie (if you notice the archaic language all the homeless guys uses, that's why it sounds archaic -- because Shakespeare wrote it).

Neil Gaiman's SANDMAN comic did a strip that was inspired by portions of MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM that may be fun to look at.

As for productions to see -- You said you saw "Hamlet" -- which one? There have been three in recent memory; i personally prefer the one starring Mel Gibson; I never saw the one with Ethan Hawke, but that was also supposed to be good, if a bit weird. Kenneth Branagh was the go-to guy for Shakespeare on film for a while in the 90's -- I'd recommend his "Much Ado About Nothing" over his "Hamlet," though (he does the ENTIRE play for HAMLET, and not even most theaters do that).

Finally, I'd think about what it is you're not "getting", if that makes sense. Is it that the language is so dense you can't follow it, or is it that you understand what people are saying but you don't get why it's such a big deal? If it's the former, maybe a quick review of a "Cliff's Notes" guide to a play would help you find a way in, so at the very least you know what's going on and don't miss entire bits of language trying to find out what's happening. But if you just don't get "so, what's the big deal with Laertes, why is he bent out of shape that Ophelia's dead?" then it's a matter of knowing the history of the period; that's also easily fixed.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:03 PM on October 15, 2008

You might need to change your approach a little: you don't have to "get" everything. It's ok, you know. It's not school; there is no test. Read an annotated version and ignore some of the notes. See what you think of it first and what you get out of the story. Then where you find one you like, go back and read it for more depth; let the notes enrich your experience, not dictate it. There doesn't have to be some Official Shakespeare Understanding.

Also, notice how everyone here is suggesting different plays? Screw around, experiment, read synopses to find a plot you like and then try again. Personally? Detest the comedies, especially Midsummers. Love Macbeth.
posted by dame at 4:15 PM on October 15, 2008

Much Ado About Nothing

I liked this play and this movie version of it. And then a friend of mine said something interesting -- in Shakespeare's time, the audience wasn't stupid. They knew that you (minor spoiler) couldn't literally die of a broken heart, as Hero pretends to do. And Shakespeare knew that, too.

So the comedy is really this weird fantasy piece, as much a dippy romantic comedy as any movie with Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey.

And for some reason, that made Shakespeare feel more real and down to earth for me. Like, Spielberg directed great works like Schindler's List. But he also directed stuff like Hook and 1941. Shakespeare was just a guy, you know? Not some locked-in-an-ivory-tower literary god.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:29 PM on October 15, 2008

Oh, another thing- if you do go to see a live play, it helps me to either read a synopsis or a basic plot beforehand, so you don't have to spend so much time trying to figure out the exact details (since you already know them) and can just enjoy the language and the characters.
posted by twirlypen at 4:35 PM on October 15, 2008

To help understanding the text , I lurv my cheap Dover 2-volume Shakespeare Lexicon and Quotation Dictionary, a concordance giving the words' meanings in Elizabethan English (and, specifically, in context of their uses in Shakespeare's plays.)

You might like to check out Al Pacino's Looking for Richard, which is half documentary about Shakespeare's relevance and popularity, and half dramatization of Richard III.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 4:40 PM on October 15, 2008

David Ball's book Backwards & Forwards: A Technical Manual for Reading Plays is fun to read and uses Hamlet as an example throughout, which gives a good idea of why it great (and why many common misreadings make it seem dull).
posted by winston at 4:45 PM on October 15, 2008

As an embarrassingly devoted Shakespeare fan (and former actress trained in Elizabethan drama), I heartily second the recommendation for the Slings and Arrows DVDs. This provides the elements that most people are agreeing you'll need to find the Bard accessible: modern actors, breaks from the thick and archaic dialogue and commentary from the director to his actors that will explain what's going on in a particular scene or why a particular character is acting a particular way.

I'd say that's the closest you could get to imitating the conditions under which I fell in love with Shakespeare (as part of a summer-long intensive acting seminar).

If you find that enjoyable, for the next steps I'd recommend just going to the library and nosing around the Shakespeare section until you've found an annotated version that you like (there are many different levels of annotating Shakespeare, from a one-word definition to a several-paragraphs explanation of a joke and what it meant in the context of the time). I would pick up a biography on the man, too--there isn't much known about Shakespeare the person, so most of his biographies focus on what we might infer about him from what he wrote about--so it's also an annotation of his text, in a way.

I hope you do come to like him, if not love him--it's been a wonderful addition to my life these 15 or so years.

The first play I read was Romeo and Juliet, around 4th grade, and it was okay, but I didn't love it. I don't remember the first play I read as a teen, but I do remember how deeply and quickly I fell for King Lear. I hate Midsummer Night's Dream. Everyone else seems to like it. So if you try Midsummer and want to give up--there's hope yet.
posted by tyrantkitty at 4:49 PM on October 15, 2008

Shakespeare builds on himself. Once you know one or two plays, you start to see the rest of them weaving in and out of the canon, things that they have in common. For example, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Romeo & Juliet both build on the ancient story of Pyramus and Thisbe. Having a depth of knowledge about the shows makes everything more rich - so if you start to see and learn more than just one or two plays, you will start to develop that.

As for how to start liking it - I know some "serious" people might view Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet as some kind of a travesty, but I love it. It has faces you probably know, like Billy Kristol and Kate Winslet - so it's not intimidating like OH MY GOD I AM WATCHING THE ROYAL SHAKESPEARE COMPANY. If you want to do more than that, even middle of nowhere USA has a Shakespeare Festival, or a community or regional theater doing a show. I personally prefer shows that are not set in what I refer to as "nebulous Shakespeare time" - often houses that are trying to do a more modern take will put on shows that are more accessible -- and because it looks like the 80s, it feels more accessible.

Good luck with this! If you manage to get into it, it's quite rewarding. I deal with Shakespeare all year long - we do community theater that only performs Shakespeare - so I've got a close relationship with the Bard . . .I love seeing other people take the opportunity to develop one.
posted by Medieval Maven at 4:49 PM on October 15, 2008

See it. Seriously. It is meant to be watched, not read. It generally takes a scene or two to get into the language, but you do eventually.

And it can be watched in movie form. Much Ado About Nothing is a particularly charming movie, in my opinion.

And if watching the stuff directly doesn't sound like fun, there are some great indirect ways to get into the material. I absolutely adore Slings and Arrows, a Canadian TV show about a non-profit Shakespeare company. While it doesn't present a realistic picture of how a non-profit theatre is run, it does show a bunch of lovable characters and their love of Shakespeare.

Also, try different plays. There are all sorts of stories and different ones speak to different people. I really don't like A Midsummer Night's Dream or Macbeth. However, I really enjoy Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing. Try to find a story that speaks to you.

(And avoid Cymbeline. It's not worth it.)
posted by JustKeepSwimming at 4:52 PM on October 15, 2008

I grew to like Shakespeare like this: Riverside Shakespeare book with good annotated explanations and the BBC productions of the plays. I would watch and read along at the same time, and I watched and read each play four or five times. Once I understood them after the first reading, I really grew to love them with each subsequent reading. Personally, I began with The Taming of the Shrew. John Cleese is in the BBC version. That pretty much did it for me.
posted by luckypozzo at 5:49 PM on October 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

While I agree that seeing a play performed will really help you appreciate the written version, Shakespeare wasn't only a playwright, and his sonnets, in my mind, are much more accessible than his plays. You don't get as bogged down with all those references you mentioned. Instead, they're all about feelings, and we all have them and can understand, say, being in love much better than the politics behind Henry IV or even Richard III (though I love Richard III). In addition, you don't have to keep track of all the characters, etc.

There's something for everyone, too; some are written to a man and others to a "dark woman". You can read a couple sonnets at a time and really begin to appreciate the rhythm and cadence of the writing, the imagery and the sentiment.

My very favorite sonnet is #130, "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun," in which he pokes fun at all over-the-top analogies the other poets of the time were dishing out in their works--I don't know of anyone who has read it who doesn't like it (but this being Mefi, someone will come along in a moment). It's a great sonnet to start out with because it is fun even to read aloud.

I also like his poems about aging, like That Time of Year Thou Mayst in Me Behold because the very first line,
"That time of year thou mayst in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang..."

speaks to me of someone trying very hard to explain what it is like to grow older to someone young, and it's so evocative, the empty bare branches...anyway, don't get me started, because I'll go on and on!

If you have a passionate instructor, that also really helps. I had a fantastic professor in college, and we used to get into debates about various verses. To this day, one of my biggest regrets in life was when, once the course was over, the professor asked me out and I turned him down. Idiot.
posted by misha at 6:47 PM on October 15, 2008

Oh, and if you do want to stick the the plays, the Taming of the Shrew with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor is a great movie. Though now I really want to see the John Cleese version!
posted by misha at 6:50 PM on October 15, 2008

Some folks have mentioned that good annotations are important, and I agree. The editions with the best annotations are the Arden Shakespeare and the Oxford Shakespeare. (I think Arden is maybe a little better.)

Live productions are great if you luck out and see a good one; film's not bad although there are a lot fewer really great Shakespeare productions out there on film than you might think. Some of the best film productions are Macbeth (1979), Richard III (1995), Twelfth Night (1996), and the histories cycle done by the English Theatre Company.
posted by phoenixy at 6:53 PM on October 15, 2008

I freely admit Shakespeare is not the easiest thing in the world to read -- I still find it difficult sometimes to parse the language and I'm doing a PhD in Shakespeare (and others) right now! When I was a teenager, I did what luckypozzo did and read plays along with the film on TV. One of my favourite editions, then and now, is the Folger Shakespeare Library ones -- they have clear and v. useful facing-page notes so that you easily track the footnotes.

If you have a bunch of friends also interested in Shakespeare, you can get together and do a reading of a play. You don't have to act it - though it's fun if you do - just pick up parts as you go along if you don't have enough people. I've done this many times and it's a blast. It also helps you pick up on the nuances of the language and understand the emotional content of the scenes.
posted by pised at 7:03 PM on October 15, 2008

I'll throw something a little different out there. I didn't like Shakespeare at first because I found the plots so contrived, the characters exaggerated, and that entire plays sometimes relied heavily on chance and circumstance. It was unrealistic to the point of disbelief and I couldn't understand why actual people would act like that.

But I also enjoy science fiction and things like that. And science fiction is usually contrived, exaggerated, and unrealistic too. But oftentimes science fiction is more about an idea or concept, at the expense of reality. I started to think about Shakespeare in that way. I started to focus on the philosophical idea that Shakespeare was developing and saw the characters and story as a means to expound that idea.

Needless to say, I enjoy the tragedies more than the comedies.
posted by Wayman Tisdale at 8:11 PM on October 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

I second twirlypen's suggestion: Shakespeare's basic plots were familiar to the audiences, cribbed from history or popular romances. Knowing the plot will help you get into the language, feel the characters. Do you like fantasy, putting yourself into the world of the author? Try putting yourself into the Elizabethan world for the language. Don't let the language roll past you, grab it and wrestle with it, engage with it. Try to catch the dirty jokes.

And, like pised above, I recommend the Folger editions. Back when I was picking them up, they were tiny, easy to slip into your pocket. Facing notes are much better than foot- and end-notes.
posted by gentilknight at 8:18 PM on October 15, 2008

Watch it, don't read it.

I totally disagree. There are so many fascinating - if not outright contradictory - nuances that are erased when you watch a particular director's adaptation of a Shakespeare script rather than read a good annotated version. In a previous thread, I recommended the Arden Shakespeare editions; they're full of wonderful historical and linguistic detail. Twelfth Night is fun live, I'm sure, but annotations make for a much richer experience overall.

Honestly, I also found being a bit older helped enormously in appreciating Shakespeare; I got almost nothing out of him in high school and college English class, but have been completely captivated reading him over the past few years of middle age. Not sure how old you are, but if you're young, maybe make a deal with yourself to try him again later, too.

I'd also second getting a good plot synopsis before diving into a play. Before reading, I'd find the relevant prose retelling from Charles Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare, which are as useful for adults as they are for children. Knowing the basic outline of the plot in advance was a major assist in freeing me to better appreciate the language and emotional depth as I read.
posted by mediareport at 8:53 PM on October 15, 2008

Nthing the Slings and Arrows tv show recommendations, especially season 1.

Also, do watch the Broadway Theater Archive version of King Lear with James Earl Jones. It is excellent. It was recorded in 1974 for PBS Great Performances and was filmed live at a New York Shakespeare Festival production on Joseph Papp's outdoor stage in Manhattan's Central Park with a live audience. This was the production that made me love King Lear.
posted by gudrun at 9:00 PM on October 15, 2008

Er...Charles and Mary Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare
posted by mediareport at 9:44 PM on October 15, 2008

I think The Merchant of Venice turned me on to Shakespeare. I saw it before I read it, and I think that's important.

Equally important, for me at least, was reading a bunch of his stuff and realizing that his plots, often very simple, set the standard for so many other stories/myths/plays/etc. in the world of literature. I'm sure somebody would dispute the assertion that "he created the archetype," but I feel like it's partially true. Or at least he popularized it.

But I also agree that Shakespeare isn't for everyone. Some people just love plays on words and analyzing language. Others find it tedious. One isn't better than the other. What literature and plays DO you enjoy?
posted by prior at 9:52 PM on October 15, 2008

It's OK not to like Shakespeare. Heck, I dunno, I probably like Tennessee Williams or Chekhov better. But you should, as an educated adult, have some sense of why he has become the preeminent English language author. (He wasn't always, you know. There were a couple of centuries when he was seriously unfashionable.) It's not just the mastery of rhyme (including the difficult half-rhyme and so forth) and meter, the endlessly inventive (sometimes literally) vocabulary, and the preservation of pragmatic conversational tone. It's the humanist insight into character, the often strikingly modern psychology, and the biting satirical eye. Many authors have one or more of these qualities but very rarely all of them at once.

If you're having a hard time, I agree you can't beat a good live performance. I tend to prefer traditional interpretations versus a fashionable vamp, say in 20th century street clothes or Mussolini's Italy, but the latter can be interesting in their own right. A production of a play is a creative work in its own right. But for understanding the man and his work, one that highlights the plays as Elizabethans may have seen them is probably very helpful.

This quote isn't directly a response to your question, but it's stayed with me for a long time. I forget who tells it, but it was a parlor game about who in history one would invite to dinner. Shakespeare seemed to be a common answer. But one person said he might not actually be a great conversationalist: "Was there ever a better listener in the history of the English language?" I just imagine that stopping the room cold, because I think it is probably true.
posted by dhartung at 10:34 PM on October 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

In high school, my dad made a point of taking us on a trip to Ashland, Oregon and the Shakespeare Festival there. I was bummed, I mean why in the hell did we have to sit through The Merry Wives of Windsor?

It turns out that the performance was awesome, I laughed all the way through and loved it. Find a well repudiated Shakespeare performance in your general area and see it live. You won't regret it, and your appreciation will skyrocket.
posted by clearly at 10:37 PM on October 15, 2008

Thanks for the recommendations. Some of them sound very doable. I do appreciate it!

I will try to catch a live performance, at some point. Sounds like I need to get the gist of the story beforehand, and possibly read it too, just to get a grip on the plot and some of the references.

And to answer Prior: I guess my tastes in plays are pretty uninformed, since I've barely read/seen any. I've thoroughly enjoyed every play I've read from Oscar Wilde (aside from Salome, which just made me scratch my head). I've read The Wild Duck from Ibsen, which I thought was amazing, and I enjoyed Streetcar.
posted by uxo at 12:48 AM on October 16, 2008

This isn't likely a good option for you, but what really got me liking as opposed to tolerating Shakespeare was a great teacher in college. I took a class called "Shakespeare." It was in-depth reading and talking over it, and focusing on critical interpretation of the characters, with someone there who knew more about it than I did.

However, I think an important thing to note is that, in the years between reading these plays in high school and college, I became more mature and better at interpretation, analysis, and critical thinking. I think most people do, thinking back on the different requirements (I remember a 5 page paper in high school seemed a lot more difficult than the 10-20 page papers in college).

Have you tried just reading them again? Certainly get an annotated version, and someone to talk with about the plays, but I think your Improved More Awesome than High School Brain brain may be able to get through these plays better nowadays.

I am a fan of King Lear, mostly on the merit of the second time reading it, certainly not the first.
posted by that girl at 5:21 AM on October 16, 2008

I will try to catch a live performance, at some point. Sounds like I need to get the gist of the story beforehand, and possibly read it too, just to get a grip on the plot and some of the references.

Knowing a little something about theater in Shakespeare's time itself may also help -- sometimes if he was writing something that was really heavy, Shakespeare would throw in an occasional comic-relief scene for the guys in the cheap seats, that was just a throwaway thing to keep them happy. There's a quick exchange in Romeo and Juliet where, right after an intense scene with Juliet vowing to her father that she's going to kill herself or something, there's this random conversation between a servant and three musicians about where the expression "music hath a silvery sound" came from. In MacBeth, the night watchman has this whole speech about how wine sucks because it gives you a limp dick and makes you have to pee too much.

My point being: if you're watching a play and you run into one of these out-of-nowhere vaguely comedic moments and are wondering what they have to do with anything, instead of trying to do too much mental gymnastics to fit it in, you could just shrug, figure "oh, wait, this must be a thing for the cheap seats," and move on.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:39 AM on October 16, 2008

Interesting point via my friend, a theater director, regarding whether Shakespeare, in his day, was high art or not:

Alyson: sort of
some of his work he wrote for kings and queens and some he wrote for the people
Alyson: eg the difference btwn Henry V and Merry Wives of Windsor
posted by namesarehard at 9:44 AM on October 16, 2008

Re-reading is really the key to getting Shakespeare. I haven't read all of his plays. But the ones I really enjoy are the ones I've read multiple times. Once you have the plot and the characters in hand, your mind is free to focus on nuances that are simply distractions on the first read.

It's a perfectly good idea to read it with some support. There's a pretty wide gulf between Shakespeare's language and the language of the day. Sparknotes makes these nice, fairly good, very cheap, side-by-side editions of each play in (one of its) original versions alongside a modern translation. The series is called No Fear Shakespeare. That link is to the free, web-based version, but I recommend a paper copy, so you can easily annotate it. I'd start with Hamlet, as that's my favorite, and the modern angst in Hamlet's character is a good foothold. Standard caveats about all acts of translation also being acts of interpretation apply, which is why the side-by-side format is so desirable. If you want a light, but readable introduction, their 1-Hour Guidebook series outlines the major characters, themes, and some important historical contexts in an easy-to-follow, highly visual style.

Seeing productions and film adaptations of the same play is also incredibly helpful, in that you'll notice the ways different directors and producers change or emphasize certain things to shift the play in different directions. I particularly like this audio edition of Hamlet from Arkangel Shakespeare (they have one for every one of his plays).

Historical background is essential. I've found the introductory essays in this edition of Hamlet very helpful. They are scholarly, but also accessible.
posted by wheat at 12:05 PM on October 16, 2008

I was lukewarm on Shakespeare until I saw Taymore's "Titus" with closed captioning. It wasn't the play itself, but the fact that I could watch the actors and follow with the text made a world of difference. Puns and double-meanings and injokes are flying by so fast it helps to have the words in front of you.
posted by The Whelk at 12:34 PM on October 16, 2008

also "Titus" is , if nothing else, an engaging WTF production of increasing absurdity.
posted by The Whelk at 12:37 PM on October 16, 2008

I would love to know what that X happened to be.

As far as William "more than just plays, dammit" Shakespeare's sonnets, I had a minor epiphany after reading no. 29 ('tis here). My personal account (and your cue to stop reading if you got what you came for):

I was supposed to read Twelfth Night for class, but only got as far as the introduction before putting my anthology down and wondering whether I was going to miss the point completely. The introduction informed me that Shakespeare writes about what's at the heart of the human condition, which had me worried; what would it mean if I couldn't understand that?

That day I happened to be stuck on a car trip after a weekend with my parents, and was feeling very negative and down on myself. You can imagine what I felt when I opened my book to the page containing sonnet 29, and saw the first two verses: "When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes, / I all alone beweep my outcast state." If you can't imagine, it was very much an "omg! He is so old, but he is conveying my precise feelings in 14 perfectly understandable lines of verse!" moment. With the knowledge that Shakespeare and I at least had the occasional bad day in common, everything else I read seemed less daunting. Incidentally, I didn't care much for Twelfth Night.
posted by boy detective at 3:43 AM on October 17, 2008

also "Titus" is , if nothing else, an engaging WTF production of increasing absurdity.

I don't know it well -- is it Titus or Corialanus that's got the multiple murders for revenge and such?

Whichever play it was -- I can't remember who I heard describe that particular play as "Shakespeare's Tarantino period", but I giggled forever.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:34 AM on October 17, 2008

What I've done that has really worked for me is listening to podcasts about Shakespeare. My absolute favorite are the podcasts done by the American Shakespeare Company, typically done by Dr. Ralph Cohen. I also downloaded extra mp3s from their website. You have to delete the Weekly Updates and listen to the hour-long mini seminars on the various Shakespeare play they're doing. I've listened to other podcasts, but Cohen's excitement about the plays is very contagious. Also try looking into podcasts from various universities or just searching for 'Shakespeare' in iTunes.
posted by stoneegg21 at 10:07 AM on October 17, 2008

Titus has the revenge murders and cannibalism and comic arguing over who gets to chop off their hands. It is kind of awesome.
posted by The Whelk at 12:49 PM on October 17, 2008

« Older Schooling Alternatives for an ADD 8th grader   |   Mentor/Mentee situation didn't quite work out as... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.