Shakespeare. Just the mention of the name is enough to raise heart rates and make linebackers sweat in terror. It’s also enough to make many actors- and directors, believe it or not- run screaming from the room. But I’m here to tell you that the man is dead, he can’t hurt you, and his stuff is incredible if you can get through the unbelievable web that has been constructed to keep you away.
This web has been painstakingly woven over the centuries since Shakespeare died, by intellectuals, teachers, directors, other actors, people with multiple degrees and people with an intense fear of fairies. You hear it all the time, and probably have come up against it in school- Shakespeare is hard, it’s intense, it’s a whole other language, it’s boring, it’s impossible, it’s amazing but only if you have the intellect to truly understand it. It’s violent, it’s something that only pansy-ass sissies in tights have anything to do with. It’s expensive, highbrow stuff like opera.
OK, not telling you anything you don’t already know. Here’s what you may not know: Most of that is total bull.
Shakespeare was a middle-class man, born into raised by a good family. He had a love of his life, whom he married when he was near your age; he had children, one of whom died very young. He wrote plays (among other things) not just to make money to keep food on the table, but because he was an artist like you. He couldn’t have helped himself.
Even though he had a decent family background, making a living in the arts was not much easier then than it is now (though the government did actually support actors- but that’s a rant for another post), so he had to be sure his stuff was going to sell, and he had to keep production quick and cheap. So. His plays were written for people who were mostly not really actors to perform in front of people who mostly couldn’t even read. He wrote about the subjects that would appeal to the vast majority of the people of the time- love, murder, war, politics, and magic. His plays are mostly written to be able to be performed in one location, minimal sets, usually one costume per character, two maximum.
These are not highbrow, highly intelligent, expensive workings.
Don’t get me wrong- the man was, indeed, a genius. He was able to write amazing stories that reflected the yearnings and fears and hopes and dreams of the most common hearts, and those essences have not changed for centuries, which is why his plays survive in today’s world as deeply and brilliantly as they did when first produced. He also did this really cool thing with sometimes writing in verse and sometimes not. That was very unusual at the time- you either wrote in verse or you didn’t. He mixed it up. Quite avant garde of him. He also did another very cool thing in that he wrote the lines exactly as they should be played.
What I mean by that is that just by reading the lines with the pauses and breaks in rhythm that he places right in the script, you can get a feel for the energy he intended in the scene. When one character’s line does not fill the entire five feet of iambic pentameter (look it up, you do need to know at least that to do Shakespeare) and another character finishes the pattern, you can tell that the second character’s line should be almost an interruption. His plays are full of that kind of inherent directing, which is why they are actually very easy to do right. He also helps you out on memoraization by providing lines that rhyme and are rhythmic. They can be learned like songs.
And speaking of songs, there are LOADS of songs in Shakespeare’s plays- but never any sheet music! Those of you with a talent for composing can really get a good thing going by setting those bits to music.
Here is something else you should know, especially if you are being required to read a Shakespeare play for school. The plays were NEVER meant to be read! They were meant to be performed and seen. The scenes were often given one at a time to the actors as rehearsals progressed, the plays were seldom finished before going into rehearsals. These plays did not get the benefit of table reads and staged readings and workshops- they had to go up, go up fast, and get ready for the next. Therefore, there are all kinds of confusing inconsistencies and scenes that make no sense or that are just mind-numbingly boring. That was not his intention, to have someone be forced to just sit and look at all the words in order. My opinion is, he’d rather stick a fork in his own hand than know that that is happening. Now, all the English teachers in the world are going to scream bloody murder and “Cheating! Cheating!” but I am going to advise you that if you are being asked to read a Shakespeare play, and there is a movie version out there, watch it with the script open on your lap. Follow along, note where the director has made cuts and maybe moved scenes around. Get to understand the story. The language will begin to make sense as it’s being performed, as it was intended to be.
A WORD- Cliff’s Notes are NOT the same, don’t go there, that really is cheating.
The language is a challenge, but it is still English. You do not need to be able to “translate” Shakespeare to understand it, but it does help. There are usually detailed notes in the book to help you with words that just make absolutely no sense. There are Shakespeare scholars who spend many years and thousands of dollars on an education that makes them “experts” on what Shakespeare meant when he wrote, and what was in the “original folios” and such like, but you don’t need all that to get it.Again, this was originally aimed at the illiterate poor in England in the 16th century. It’s just a different slang. There are some great books that teach you how to insult people using Shakespearian phraseology, and others just how to swear using Shakespeare’s words. He was not one to mince words, for sure, and he knew how to get a bawdy laugh.
Shakespeare plays are also free to produce, in terms of the scripts. You don’t have to pay any royalties on them, you can just do them. That’s why you’ll see so much free Shakespeare in the parks of major cities and on the grounds of universities every summer- the space is free, the plays are free, all the companies need to pay for are the costumes and props, maybe a set piece or two. But they can be set in any time and any place. I’ve seen Othello and Twelfth Night and Love’s Labor’s Lost and Hamlet all done with the same one bench and two chairs. It’s simply storytelling in it’s purest form. And you really should go and see as much of it as you can- it can be SO funny, and heartwarming, and terrifying, and exciting. When it’s free, outdoors, how great is that? (Also a super date idea. Shakespeare. And it’s free. Outdoors. Romantic. Do it. But I’d stay away from Othello.)
Anyone who thinks Shakespeare is for sissies in tights (whatever that means) has obviously never rehearsed the fights from Romeo and Juliet or Macbeth or Henry V. Brute strength and athleticism are definitely important for many of the plays. He did write mostly male characters, partly because it was illegal at the time for women to act, so the female parts were played by young men. And partly because femininity meant something different then. But some of the greatest female bucket-list roles are Shakespeare’s- among them Lady Macbeth, Kate, Juliet, Ophelia. These are strong, passionate women who go through incredible struggles. (Only one of those four survives, by the way. Watch the plays to find out which.) Not for sissies (whatever that means), but definitely for the adventurous, sensitive, risk-taking young actor.
If you ever do Shakespeare at a higher level than school, or if you have a particularly Shakespeare-savvy director, there will be many cuts and changes made. That does not in any way sully the purity of the play, though there are Shakespeare purists who say otherwise. Some stuff just doesn’t make any sense to us anymore. For instance, in The Merry Wives of Windsor, there is a scene that no one does anymore. It’s a Latin lesson, full of dirty jokes- in Latin. Since we, as a culture, don’t study Latin anymore, it isn’t funny, stops the storytelling cold, and basically wastes time. So it gets cut. Shakespeare would probably approve. Don’t be afraid to experiment, move stuff around, cut lines and scenes if they don’t work.
I have worked with kids as young as kindergarten on Shakespeare, and they were able to get it. I’ve had kids in middle school put on Macbeth and totally rock it. Convicts, the mentally ill, and Alzheimer’s patients all are able to access Shakespeare and enjoy it, both as actors and as audience members.
Bottom line: Shakespeare is not scary. He was a man. He wrote plays that are accessible, simple, malleable (look it up), inexpensive, and can be very, very enjoyable. You probably won’t love all his plays- anyone who says they do is probably hedging a bit. But watch the film versions, see them live whenever you can. Do read them if you’d like to start to understand how the language works, but don’t force yourself to read a whole play straight through. Read the parts that are interesting to you, and start there. Below is a list of great documentaries and series and resources that may be interesting to you. I hope that this helps a little bit.
Movies About Shakespeare and his plays (fiction):
- Shakespeare in Love- both Netflix and Hulu carry it. Also on Amazon.
- Stage Beauty– Only on Amazon.
Series/Documentaries on Shakespeare and his plays:
- Playing Shakespeare– I HIGHLY RECOMMEND THIS. The Royal Shakespeare Company released this amazing thing series in the 80’s, when the company included Sir Patrick Stewart, Dame Judi Densch, David Suchet, Ben Kingsley and Ian McKellen. They are basically master classes in acting Shakespeare. . Ask for it for Hannukkah, your birthday, graduation, Arbor Day, whatever. Or just save your babysitting money and buy it yourself. It’s breathtaking. Buy it if you can, but you may be able to find clips on YouTube.
- Shakespeare Uncovered– A great PBS mini-series more on the life and times of William Shakespeare and how that life and times informed his plays. Some really spectacular interviews with the acting company at the Globe Theatre. Another one worth the money if you can get a used copy. Again, if you can’t afford to buy it outright (and therefore support the artists who made it), try YouTube.
- Shakespeare-A Legacy – On Netflix, again a life-and-times documentary. A bit dry, but some really interesting information.
Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard– I LOVE this book. True account of a woman who taught and discussed Shakespeare with violent and dangerous criminals in solitary confinement. Really, if they can do it, you can do it- and their perspective is amazing.
- Shakespeare for Dummies
Translating Shakespeare, A Guidebook for Young Actors– A must-have. In paper form. So you can carry it with you.
And, Of Course, The Plays On Film:
- Really? No. I’m not listing them all here. Go onto Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, or Amazon, and type “Shakespeare” into the search block and you’ll find whatever you need/want/whatever. Watch what you want. I’m going to highly recommend the David Tennant Much Ado About Nothing directed by Joss Wheedon; the Benedict Cumberbatch Hamlet; and the 2008 A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Kevin Kline and Michelle Pfeiffer. But really, just dive in. watch what interests you. Find something to get excited about.