I have just finished The Merchant of Venice, which I had never read before, and it got me thinking about my Shakespeare experience in general, and what I’ve learned about how to approach his work.
The first play I ever read, as a freshman in high school, was Romeo and Juliet, which I didn’t like at the time and which probably prejudiced me against any of his other works thereafter. I remember once having a conversation with a very good friend when I went on and on about hating Shakespeare, only to discover that she had bought me a Complete Works of William Shakespeare as a gift before I’d gone off to college, which she gave to me later that same day. I felt horrible, as you can imagine, and have since apologized and clarified my assumptions to her on the subject. I didn’t hate all of Shakespeare. In truth, I should have just said, ‘I don’t like Romeo and Juliet, and I’m not a huge fan of Hamlet,’ because that’s what I meant.
I’ve since rethought my first, hasty assessments, although Romeo and Juliet is still not a favorite. I think I just had the disadvantage of starting out on a play that didn’t appeal to me because, as I read more, I’ve discovered what I like. I love Othello and Taming of the Shrew. Those are my favorites.
In conclusion, here’s what I know about reading Shakespeare:
1. Read it more than once: Shakespeare is difficult to read. There is no getting around it. Maybe, no matter what play you start with, you’re going to hate it, like I did. But you have to be open-minded. Like exercise to the body, it will only get easier for your reading “muscles” if you keep at it.
2. Read it aloud: Shakespeare is poetry, after all, and I think this rule applies to all poetry. It’s meant to be read aloud.
3. See it performed: Plays should be seen as well as heard. While studying Romeo and Juliet, my teacher had us divide into groups and perform a scene for the class, and it did help, despite the lack of acting skills. Although I’ve never seen a Shakespeare theatrical production. It’s on my “Things I Do Before I Die” list. For me, this is where the film adaptations are useful because I can watch them, and see them over and over again. This is how I learned Much Ado About Nothing. I’ve seen the Kenneth Branagh version, but I still haven’t read it.
4. Do your research: This is where a classroom setting helped me, I think, because I had a teacher there to guide me and provide information. The Merchant of Venice and As You Like It are the only plays I’ve read completely on my own.
5. Don’t read the footnotes--yet: A lot of Shakespeare comes equipped with footnotes these days. These are distracting. Ignore them. Maybe look at them later. Maybe. This is the very last thing you should do.