Shakespeare’s plays contain some of the most wonderful language and ideas ever put to the page. Wherever we go in the world of Literature we find him—sometimes distinct references to his work, sometimes only echoes—but Shakespeare is a thread that runs through not only Literature, but also through history, politics, psychology, and art.
To seek wisdom, perspective, intellectual stimulation, self-knowledge, adventure, or simply to enrich your own inner world are all valid reasons to take up reading Shakespeare. Whether your goal is to be able to read the complete works or conquer just one play, Shakespeare can change your life.
Reading Shakespeare is both a pleasure and a skill. With help, and the desire to learn, anyone can acquire these attributes for themselves. My instructional videos on Shakespeare are available for free on youtube. To work together privately, contact me for details.
Many of us read Shakespeare as early as middle school, and some as late as high school – but Shakespeare is the one author that all public schools must teach according to federally imposed English standards. Some people are lucky enough to have had a wonderful teacher that left them with positive feelings about Shakespeare. But many people (me included) did not have that fabulous first experience.
Most teachers skip over vital parts of learning to read Shakespeare, pretending as if there’s no gap between reading a novel like The Catcher in the Rye, and reading a play written over 400 years ago. If you ask a middle school student who has just completed a unit on Macbeth to tell you all about the play, they will probably be able to tell you the plot and perhaps converse about the major themes and happenings in the play. However, if you hand the same student a copy of a different Shakespeare play, Hamlet, or Othello and ask him to read a paragraph and tell you what it means, they likely won’t have a clue. This tells you two things: one, the student knows how to use Spark Notes. And two, the student has not learned to read Shakespeare.
Because the student has received information without any foundation to build upon, the learning will always be shaky, and soon it will be forgotten. To avoid this kind of falling off and others, I teach using a three stage process eliminating the major gaps that are so easy to fall into.
I believe a good introduction can make or break your success in any subject. This step can include knowledge and background information to provide context for what you’ll read in Shakespeare. However, this is not the most important part of an introduction. More important than any background information is the appropriate mindset for learning Shakespeare. To me, this step is indispensable.
Many people start off thinking they have to understand every word of what they read in Shakespeare, just like they would if they were reading a contemporary novel, and they realize pretty quickly that they can’t. So they then go through each word and line of Shakespeare as a tedious, joyless translation exercise. This experience can make people feel stupid, and go on to despise the name of Shakespeare for the rest of their lives. But it’s because of this terrible, completely unreasonable mindset that so many people become discouraged and disenchanted so quickly. It takes practice, and time to learn to read Shakespeare on your own, and you must, you must enjoy the ride.
Shakespeare’s audience in his own day had no idea what he was talking about sometimes. This is some of the most densely packed, highly metaphorical language ever put on stage/page. Nobody got everything right away. You’re not supposed to get everything right away. When I finally had a brilliant Shakespeare professor in college, she told me to read a play all the way through without stopping – whether I understood it or not – and then, only after I had let that wave crash over me, to look for the markings in the sand.