Getting to Know Shakespeare

Dear ______________,

I couldn’t help but notice the new one-volume Oxford Shakespeare on your shelves. This meaty 1300+ page tome is a useful reference, but it is quite unfriendly for what I am guessing is your purpose: to get to know Shakespeare. So I take the liberty of offering a few suggestions.

First, as mentioned earlier, the way to get to know Shakespeare, as with all other playwrights, is not to read the script but to see the play. That’s what it was written for, that’s how the author intended it to be encountered; that’s how it does what it does. Shakespeare’s plays weren’t even published in his lifetime. The script is useful for study, once you have seen the play; but to read the play without seeing it is like studying flowers in a botany book. You need to see a real flower to understand the book. (This is true of all plays and all playwrights.)

Another thing – see a Shakespeare play whenever it is offered, even if you have just seen another production of it. The plays are so rich that every production can be different.  Sometimes it adds to your pleasure and understanding to see two productions in a row. I once saw two Tempests in a row – they were both superb, but so completely different they seemed to be about quite different things, and it was a stretch to realize that the language was exactly the same. The plays can be staged and acted in as many ways as a person can think of. This doesn’t work for every play of Shakespeare’s – he wrote some clunkers, and its hard for anyone to make a good show out of Titus Andronicus or Timon of Athens.  But even such a frivolity as A Comedy of Errors can be a delight in the hands of a skilled or inspired director.

Fortunately Shakespeare is easy to find. At the moment there are three Shakespeare plays in the local entertainment listings. As they close, others open. Shakespeare is always on, and tickets usually run no more than $25. Go see some. Don’t worry too much about what play is on (although you might start with the crème-de-la-crème, see below).

  • This works for other playwrights too – if you’re interested in Chekhov, check the listings every week to see if any of his plays are in production, and if you find one, go see it. O’Neill, Miller, Albee, Williams, Mamet, Kushner. Chekhov, O’Casey, Brecht, Molière, Pirandello, Fo, Strindberg, Shaw, Pinter.

Sometimes these productions work, and sometimes they don’t, usually because of the fault of the director in not making his actors understand the words they’re saying and speak clearly enough. Shakespeare’s language is magnificent, and his clowns are funny, but he died in 1616 and the words are hard for modern people. It’s the director’s job to get us over this problem, and sometimes he doesn’t. Oh, well – leave at half-time if that happens, but don’t give up – it isn’t Shakespeare’s fault.

The other way to get to know Shakespeare is on video. There is a huge selection of Shakespeare on video. English productions are usually preferable to American ones because they have a tradition over there of how to do it, but some American versions are terrific too – I think especially of R&J, a modern Romeo and Juliet with Leonardo di Caprio and Claire Danes, which I have seen at least six times. Sign up with Netflix – a great service, they send you DVDs by mail and you can keep them as long as you like without late fees. Watch them when you feel like it, then put them back in the post-paid envelope they came in and drop them in a mailbox, and they’ll send you the next one on your list. I have the service which gives me two disks at a time, for I think $14 a month. You could have a year of Netflix for what you paid for the play collections on your shelves. Take the advice of a fan and try it out (much better selection on DVD than by streaming).

Netflix also has a series called Playing Shakespeare, done in the 1980s by the famous director John Burton, with actors like Judi Dench and Ben Kingsley, in which he explains how to do it. It is riveting. But see a few plays first. On film, Kenneth Branagh did a terrific Hamlet; a modern setting called Hamlet 2000 is good too. Branagh also did a fine Much Ado About Nothing and a wonderful Henry V. Olivier’s overheated wartime Henry V is hard to watch today, and his Richard III is over the top, but Ian McKellan’s Richard III is very good, even though the ending is screwed up and the film doesn’t match his superb stage version. Branagh also did an Othello (with Laurence Fishburne) and a Love’s Labour’s Lost which I have not seen. A terrific new Much Ado About Nothing, by Joss Whedon, just opened this year (2013). Franco Zeffirelli did a Romeo and Juliet so popular that when it was shown at the enormous Castro Theatre in San Francisco 40 years later both shows were sold out and I couldn’t even get in. There’s lots and lots and lots available – a good independent video store will have plenty that Netflix doesn’t have. You’ll have enough on Netflix to keep you busy, though – but avoid older productions, where the style of acting (especially for the women) ruins the effect for modern viewers.

After (or even before) seeing a play you might want to read it. But don’t try to read it in the massive Oxford volume. Get a one-play paperback you can slip in your pocket – it is easier to use and much less of a mental hazard. The best of these is an old series by Washington Square books, out of print now but available on Bookfinder and in second-hand shops. It was the best because the explanations of unfamiliar words and phrases were on the page facing the text. If you can’t find your play in that series, get the Pelican Shakespeare volume – that’s the one actors use to learn their parts. Also the plots can be difficult, especially in the history plays but in the comedies too. The best cure for this is Marchette (pronounced Marketta) Chute’s Stories from Shakespeare, available from bookfinder as a used Signet paperback. For each play, Chute gives a well-written four- or five-page summary. It is not cheating to read this first, so you know going in who is the good duke and who is the bad one. Sadly, plays (especially verse plays like Shakespeare’s) don’t read well on a Kindle.1

When you see a play by Shakespeare, especially one you haven’t seen before, you are not going to get everything. Don’t worry about that. You will miss some of the words, or not know what they mean, and they go by very fast; and the plot may be confusing even after reading Chute. Relax – there is no quiz. Get what you can. Let yourself be swept up by the action and the language, and get what you get. You’ll get more the next time. The main things in the comedies are the language and the fun; the main things in the histories are the language and the characters; the main things in the tragedies are the language, the characters, and the emotions of pity and terror which Aristotle taught were the basis of tragedy. Let yourself go. And even if you get lost, focus on the language, and appreciate the words as they whiz by even if you don’t quite get all their context.

Shakespeare, especially but not exclusively in the comedies, writes two kinds of characters – high and low. Henry V is a high character; his friend Sir John Falstaff and Falstaff’s tavern companions are low characters (part of what that play is about is Henry’s turning away from the low toward the high when he becomes king, and part is about seeing the core humanity of the low Falstaff). The high characters usually speak in verse, the low usually not, but this varies. The clowns and rubes are supposed to be funny, and they still are if the director has the skill to make them so. Get into the spirit of the low characters and don’t look for high language there, although there is some.

Also there is a lot of verbal sparring, plays on definitions and logic and contradictions – Touchstone in As You Like It is a good example. This is Elizabethan and Jacobean wit, and it doesn’t usually work for us anymore. If a skillful director can salvage some of this, it is a bonus; otherwise don’t worry about it. And the plot devices can be hard to swallow, especially in the comedies. In As You Like It Orlando loves Rosalind, but when she disguises herself as a boy he does not recognize her, even as he takes daily lessons from her on how to fall out of love with her. Accustomed as our modern ears are to a theatre rooted in realism, we may find it difficult to suspend our disbelief (Aristotle again) about this kind of thing. But can you believe that Zero Mostel really turned into a rhinoceros, as I saw him do on Broadway, or that an angel crashed through the ceiling of Prior’s room in Angels in America, or that Ethel Rosenberg said kaddish for Roy Cohn in his hospital room? Be flexible; be Elizabethan. And if you can’t do that, listen to the language.

Not all of Shakespeare is great stuff. There are something like 36 plays in the canon and even the best Will in the world couldn’t get it right every time. Even Anthony Hopkins couldn’t save Titus Andronicus. But if you’re getting to know Shakespeare, start with these.


Romeo & Juliet (my favorite of all Shakespeare’s plays)
Hamlet (Shakespeare’s longest play by a full third)


Richard III
Richard II
Julius Caesar (nominally a tragedy but really a history)
Henry V


The Tempest (my second-favorite of all the plays)
As You Like It
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The Merchant of Venice (nominally a comedy but not entirely so)
Much Ado About Nothing

There are of course a million books about Shakespeare and his plays. Most of those are not for now – get to know the best plays first. But there is a fine, very accessible modern biography called (my pun above reminded me) Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, by Stephen Greenblatt, a fascinating look at the man and the context in which he lived and worked. It might help you get a clearer view of the plays. Also very good is James Shapiro’s 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare.  And Anthony Burgess wrote a novel about Shakespeare called Nothing Like the Sun (a line from the sonnets).


May 2010

  1. Or a phone. But they work OK on a decent-sized tablet like an Android Nexus.