Sarah Morgan

Healthcare Geek.
Professional Communicator.


Ew, Shakespeare?

When I say Shakespeare is my favorite author, I think people think I’m being pretentious, and that’s too bad. Partly it hurts my feelings. But also, they’re missing out.

Imagine you’re interested in a sport – but your only options are to read a binder of rules, or to sit with one of those bores who rattle off statistics about how many times Ducky LeFarge scored in 1976. Would you fall in love with that sport? Unlikely.

And yet that’s how Shakespeare is taught. No kidding people hate it.

If you wanted to learn a game, you’d go to the field. A fan would take you to a great match and explain the best bits. You’d hear stories. You’d try it yourself. You’d feel of the love of the game and learn what makes it special. You’d fall in love yourself.

Yet we plop a Penguin copy in a kid’s backpack and tell him to read the first act of Hamlet.

What Shakespeare wrote is amazing. But what he was up against – that’s what makes it really amazing.

The city was as rowdy and exciting as any big city today, except more so. London was younger, smaller, smellier, busier, scarier. The tempo was high.

Entertainment was hard to come by. There weren’t movies, there wasn’t TV, there was no internet. Books were rare and so was literacy.

The theatre was a racy spectacle just this side of respectable. People flocked across the river to the bad part of town, over and over, all year round – and they wanted their money’s worth.

The general-admission seats were full of illiterate groundlings. They didn’t care about classical allusions or masterful reworkings of tales from ancient lands. (Thought they got both.) They saw a bear-baiting yesterday, a public branding last week, and heads on spikes on their way in, and they loved it all. They wanted dirty jokes and bloody deaths, and they didn’t stay quiet if they were bored. Shakespeare had to write crowd-pleasers.

But he also had to entertain the paranoid vain old queen, or the paranoid witch-hunting new king, with the same show. He had to figure out a way to weave in delicate compliments to their noble lineage, without any political missteps that could get him up on one of those spikes. There were plenty of very real coup attempts, regularly. Massive changes in policy came every generation, and a lot of executions with each one. Freedom of speech was not a thing. An aside in a pub could very literally get you killed. Your place in society, down to the colors and fabrics you could wear, was set, and woe betide anybody who did the slightest thing to upset that precarious balance. Entertainers had to tread very carefully.

The troupe put on a dozen plays at once. And this isn’t a multiplex – the same couple dozen guys memorize all those lines. Plague sometimes breaks out and closes public events in the city, forcing them to go on the road to make money. So their shows had to work both in their theatre or in a small suburban venue – even a house.

That’s the environment. And Shakespeare wasn’t in an ivory tower looking down at all this. He rented an upstairs apartment on a noisy street, writing several plays at once while acting in a few and helping to run the business of the theatre.

How he managed to write anything at all – let alone so much, so well – is stunning. But he did. And the words he put together were so gloriously freaking perfect that four hundred years later, we use his expressions every day. You know the phrases you overuse because they say something so neatly? Hundreds of his have worked for hundreds of years. That’s how good he was.

And the plots? If you liked Lion King, My Own Private Idaho, Strange Brew, Ten Things I Hate About You, West Side Story, Forbidden Planet, She’s the Man, Big Business, O… you like Shakespeare. If you like young people in love against all the odds – if you like when people mistake each other for the wrong people and hilarity ensues – if you like war epics – if you like when heroes struggle between love and responsibility – if you like bickering couples who everyone but them knows will end up together… you like Shakespeare.

But trying to understand a play by reading it alone – that’s like reading the screenplay of a movie. It’s not the same. It’s not even close.

To understand a play, reading it aloud is much easier. You don’t have to go all drama-club. Just each take a few parts. It makes it a million times easier to understand who’s talking to who and what’s happening.

To get you started on a plot, there are amazing authors like Edith Nesbit and Charles Lamb – classics in their own right – who wrote children’s storybooks a century ago which tell the tales beautifully in just a few pages each. And which are now all public-domain.

Then go see that play, or get a good movie adaptation. The storyline really does carry you through the unfamiliar words (you know how you can watch a soap opera in another language and figure out who’s in love with who? It’s like that) and if you allow a few minutes for your ears to relax into it, you’ll understand more than you expect. Then, then you pick up an annotated version and get stuck into the glorious mess of his actual words. It’s like anything else – enjoy the basics and then go for the detail. Nobody would try to make you memorize grape varietals if you didn’t know the difference between red and white wine. Just find one that interests you and see if you enjoy the taste. Lear is good if you want sad – tragic, without a really confusing cast list. Much Ado if you want happy – the plot is easy, Benedick and Beatrice are the proto-rom-com couple, and the Branagh film is fun. (Bonus, evil Keanu Reeves.)

If you do get stuck in, Isaac Asimov’s Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare is awesome, and about the closest you’ll get in a book to the experience of a good Shakespeare teacher: explaining why things are happening, what the characters are thinking, what the odd phrases mean. It’s conversational but thorough. Classic sources like this, Nesbit and Lamb are much more legit and much nicer to read than boring things like Wikipedia and SparkNotes.

Also, Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt, A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare by James Shapiro, and Elizabeth’s London by Liza Picard are full of anecdotes that help you see his world.

But for starters? Just give him a chance.




I admit Shakespeare has always been pretty confusing to me but this post makes me want to dive in.

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