In middle school I was handed Macbeth and told to read it. Like everyone else in my class I sort of attempted to read it, but mostly I spark noted it, passed the test, and couldn't forget about it fast enough. I didn't go near anything by Shakespeare again in middle or high school. Unless I was forced.
There's a big problem (actually there are many) with being handed Macbeth in middle school, and what I'm about to say is starkly simple but perhaps not that obvious of a problem until someone tells you: It’s not a book.
Macbeth, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet— these are plays. Living, breathing works of art with real actors saying the words and playing their parts. So when someone hands you a play in book form and says “read this” you are being fundamentally denied the experience you were meant to have. In my own experience, I remember that at the end of our Macbeth unit, after we had passed the test, we were actually allowed— permitted!— to see a production of the play. I didn’t think anything of it then, but I realize now that this approach was totally backward.
If you’re experiencing Shakespeare for the first time, I think you can’t make a bigger mistake than trying to read a play as if it’s a book. So I’ve put together a step-by-step alternative (and I think far more authentic) introduction to reading Shakespeare. The plan is simple, actionable and it’s for literally anyone who wants to start loving Shakespeare right now, and studying his work in a fruitful, authentic way.
1. Wiki the plays.
You don't have to use Wikipedia— there are lots of places online to read about the plays, but Wikipedia is generally a good place to read the play summaries all in one spot, or you can follow the links below. Some starter plays to look up are:
- Romeo and Juliet
- The Taming of the Shrew
- Henry IV Part 1
- Richard III
- King Lear
- Antony and Cleopatra
**Don’t get distracted reading the texts of any actual plays. Only read about them. Keep reading summaries/wikis until you’ve read around eight of them.
2. Choose your play.
Once you’ve read enough summaries you’re going to pick one play as your play.
Shakespeare’s plays literally run the gamut of human experience, so odds are that at least one of the stories is going to interest you intensely. Pick the one that interests you the most. You may find one relatable to your own life and interests, or identify with a main character.
((p.s. Which was the play you chose and why? Let me know in the blog comments.))
3. Master your play.
Once you’ve figured out which play is your play, you’re going to become an absolute master of it. Start by watching every movie adaptation of your play that you can get your hands on. Check to see if any productions of your play are in town, or in a nearby city. Check arthouse theaters and the huge free movie sections at your local library. If you have Amazon Prime or Netflix you already have access to a lot of extremely cheap or even free Shakespeare. USE SUBTITLES, ALWAYS. Some of the language will go right over your head when you’re watching the movies. Don’t let it bother you. At this point, you probably know more about your chosen play than anyone you know.
Now for the final step…
4. Read Shakespeare.
Now that you feel you have some legit expert status on this story/play and could tell it in your sleep from start to finish, now you can go to the library, or go online and purchase your play in book form. It will probably be more obvious to you now that the book-thing you’re holding in your hands is actually a script, written by Shakespeare, who was an actor, to be memorized and played by actors.
When you read Shakespeare for the first time the purpose should be to get a closer look at his amazing lines. When you're watching the play they pass by so fast, and you don’t notice everything that’s amazing, intricate and genius about them. This is where the case for reading Shakespeare comes in. So have your book lying by as a reference when you rewatch your favorite movie, or start by looking up your favorite scenes and lines.
Wa-laa. Suddenly you’re reading Shakespeare, and understanding him too. And if you’ve been using subtitles on all your movies, you’ve already been reading Shakespeare for some time. The only difference is that when you’re reading the book you’ll get to see the lines in their verse form. I have a guide on which book editions to use here.
Once you’ve truly mastered just one play, know that you’ll be able to master any Shakespeare play— that’s a fact. And honestly, it’s a pretty great feeling just to have mastered one. Reading Shakespeare will get easier and easier— exponentially easier!— as you continue and repeat this process with each new play you wish to learn.
Let me know how it’s going in the blog comments.