It’s my tradition to spend the month of April focused on the works of William Shakespeare, though this usually means just watching various movie adaptations of the plays. Why April? Mostly because this was the month that the Bard was born and later died. I find it helpful to have specific times during the year to focus on little traditions like this. Otherwise, it can be easy to put things off, saying that you will get to them some time in the amorphous future. But this way, even if I don’t read or watch any Shakespeare the entire rest of the year, I always make time for him at least one month out of the year.
I was lucky enough to grow up with a very positive exposure to Shakespeare before I ever intentionally studied his work. As home schoolers, my mother was great about trying to take us to live theater productions that were available, and we always saw whatever movie adaptations of the plays came out. And so I grew up with many of Shakespeare’s stories being fairly common and familiar in the milieu of my life.
However, it was in college that I really fell in love. I had several opportunities to work on actual stage productions of some of the plays, and even worked as the Costume Designer for a production of Cymbeline. There is something about working on a play, being immersed in it day after day, that gives you an appreciation that is almost impossible to get from the outside. Cymbeline is certainly not one of Shakespeare’s finest, and I think it is actually one of the least performed of all of his plays, but I spent weeks and months studying the characters and trying to get their costumes to reflect their personalities and that creates a bond. As a writer, I spend a lot time in my own head trying to create my own stories from the inside out, and it’s a very similar experience when you are working on a play and trying to bring someone else’s vision to life. My love for was further deepened when I took a course on Shakespeare during my final semester. The professor who taught the course had actually performed in many of the plays that I had worked on and brought his own love and enthusiasm in a way that was truly infectious. I still think about my final project for that course, which was a re-telling of The Tempest from the perspective of Ariel, who is a spirit in the service of the sorcerer Prospero. I don’t remember what inspired me to choose that play in particular, as it was not one I was very familiar with beforehand, but it has since become one of my favorites.
This year for Shakespeare Fest, I’m diving into some of the Histories. Though I’ve only watched a few of them previously, The Hollow Crown series are wonderful adaptations, with stellar casts and excellent production quality.
The Histories have always been hard for me to get into, even when I’ve seen them performed live. There are so many characters, and a lot of the plots rely on you already knowing a decent bit about English history. And while I do actually know a decent bit about English history, I still find it helpful to watch the plays with my Wikipedia app open. One of the reasons I have enjoyed The Hollow Crown series is that they are cast with actors who are classically trained with previous Shakespeare experience while also being film actors who know how to work with the camera. The cinematography and editing work is also excellent, cuing you into the more important speeches and moments that you should be paying close attention to.
If you have struggled to really get into Shakespeare’s plays, even the lighter comedies, here are some of my suggestions. 1) Read a summary. Don’t read the whole play, plays are meant to be performed and not read alone like a book, but look up a few summaries of the plot at least. This will make it easier to track what’s going on if the language gets too confusing. If you can identify the different characters and know the basic plot, it’s a lot easier take everything else in. 2) Put down your device and give the show your full attention. Don’t try and multi-task by checking Facebook, texting your friends, etc. while watching. You will get lost in what is happening. Shakespeare is all about dialogue, so if you are not giving the words your full attention then you should probably just be doing something else anyway. 3) Remember that you are not going to be graded for comprehension. I blame the current education system for ruining classic literature for so many people. Not everyone is going to get into it at first, and when you force it on people and the judge them on whether they understand it or not, that just creates a negative experience and association. Literature is meant to be enjoyed. Shakespeare’s plays are meant to be entertainment. If there is something that you don’t get right now, that’s fine. Come back to it later, look up some commentaries on the internet, or just let it go and move on with your life. No one is keeping points. Sometimes it’s not the right time. For example, it was really only post-college that I finally learned to appreciate two of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, Hamlet and Macbeth. I was never really able to get into either of these plays; I didn’t understand or see their value. But then finally I found productions of each one that I really enjoyed and they suddenly made sense to me. So, if you find yourself really struggling with a play, maybe try tracking down a different production of it, or just give yourself a break and move on to something else.
Have you struggled with Shakespeare in the past? Is there something that you have found helpful in tackling the “Classics”? Do you have a favorite play or one that you find more accessible than others?
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