Posted in Of Culturel, Of Life's Dramedies, Of Philosophy, Of Psyche, Of Writingly

Of Reading Shakespeare


Studying Shakespeare in high school is a sore subject for many. You don’t quite understand the point of it all. Studying Shakespeare at the initial level is not about fear, despite that being the emotion Spark Notes banks on. It is incomprehension. Unless you’ve lived in an environment vested with an interest in theatre, especially theatre that is not afraid of doing the classics in the classical tradition, Shakespeare seems like an alien being. And that accounts for most of us. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single introduction to Shakespeare at a young age is important in making a future decent and socially aware human being. What is universally unacknowledged and un-understood is why.

My real introduction to Shakespeare was not as unappetizing as you would imagine. I bought a complete Charles and Mary Lamb edition of their excellent abridged Shakespeare at a book fair when I was 10 or 11. At about the same time, some of these “tales” were also included in the school syllabus. It is interesting that the education board is unafraid to teach stories about horny teenagers (you know which one I’m talking about) in prose form on this level. And yet, in high school, it treats us with such bland, cabbage soupy material (at least, at the time) like Julius Caesar or Richard the Second. These two page summaries of 3-4 hour long plays did not contain all the dazzling speeches or the sometimes bawdy humour (which, in all fairness, would have gone over our heads). At the most, it would be an all important line, like an “All that glitters is not gold.” type of thing. But, what these abridgements did for me is open a bridge to the exciting promise of the actual plays, the real deal. Even if they contained only the plot and a few, rather subjective, descriptions of the characters by the Lambs, my imagination was filled with these visions of an adult and yet magical world that did not insult my intelligence.

And that is the problem with high school Shakespeare. It is all very well to include a text or two for 14 to 17 year olds despite their backgrounds and education. It isn’t very well when the formidable baggage of Shakespeare scholarship is brought along with it by, generally incompetent, teachers. The second step in my introduction to Shakespeare happened at the age of 14. My excitement at finally getting that Lamb promise was about to be fulfilled. Until it was a new teacher who took the task of teaching us Julius Caesar for the next two years. Despite our on-going protestations, I think she managed her stay. It is quite fuzzy now because in those two years, literature ceased to be the only thing that could maintain stasis in my life. Instead, it became an alien world of togas, war and backstabbing that sparked no interest in me. I gave up on Shakespeare.

The reasons for including this text as an introduction to Shakespeare were just as absurd. It is the shortest play Shakespeare has written, and it contains no romance or obscenities. Hurray, way to get teenagers interested in the greatest and most humane writer that ever walked this earth. Most 14 year olds might know about politics, but are unlikely to understand how political intrigue is played out. It doesn’t matter if it is ancient Rome or an ex-British colony in the 21st century. To slightly modify John F. Kennedy, a teacher that is afraid to teach Shakespeare in a way that is relevant to her students is afraid of her students. She would benefit more from a copy of No Fear Shakespeare because, somehow, for her, that barrier to the imaginative world of the Bard was never opened. Therefore, the best she can do is spew some Shakespeare scholarship at students who have long stopped caring.

Of course, there was the business of passing exams, which made Caesar even more of a tyrant than a complicated human being to me. I decided to keep all alien, incomprehensible ideas of the past two years aside and spend 3 days with my text and a dictionary before the exams. It wasn’t a joy ride but, at last, the play spoke to me. The feeling was what is said by the wonderful English teacher in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys:

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.”

It was Shakespeare himself, through his dialogues, characters, setting, that finally bridged the gap. My misery ended and I fared quite well in my exams. Things started looking up because we were prescribed the sparkling The Tempest for our school leaving exams. Even more thankfully, we were taught by an excellent, experienced teacher. I became one of the few young people in the world who did not, after all, let school spoil Shakespeare.

In my teaching career, I am unlikely to get the chance to teach Shakespeare. I intend to teach at the university level, where the colossal barrage of Shakespeare scholarship is unlikely to agree with my not earnest enough constitution. And that is fine by me. For the past one year, I’ve been helping my cousin with her school work, especially The Merchant of Venice. She was much worse hit than I, because she is uninterested in reading in general. Posed with such a challenge, I decided to test out a theory I’ve come up with. If you get a good, solid year to study your first Shakespeare play in a way that is relevant to you, you are set for life. Even if you never read any of his plays again (though this practice makes it a lot easier), you’ll never, ever, forget this one.

I started with showing her the movie. Many purists will disagree, but any 14 year old is unlikely to find his or her first Shakespeare a page-turner. This 2004 adaptation is brilliant in having both a realistic setting and actors giving naturalistic performances, rather than something stiff and classical. Studying in a secular school and being neither Christian or Jewish herself, she also had little or no idea at all of the central themes of the play. With her curiosity sufficiently aroused , we dove right into the play, taking each line piece by piece while going back and forth with the events we both knew about now. Instead of an impenetrable wall that is often created between the teacher and students when it comes to Shakespeare, ours became an on-going conversation. Of course, this was possible because there are only two of us and not me and a class of students. But, it wasn’t the cinematic presentation or the indulgence of detailed study – two luxuries that are often missing from monetary and temporal school budgets. It was connecting these themes of religion, prejudice, love, friendship, judicial intrigue to the world we live in now. What a story written hundreds of years ago and set in Venice could say about us in the present.

The purpose of reading is not to be clever. It is all very well to show off when you are young, but the only stories that are going to stay with you are the ones that mattered to you.

Of course, as the phenomenon of teachers spoiling Shakespeare in high schools continues, my cousin also has a teacher who has, most unoriginally, taught Shylock as a villain, her only justification being the redundant and politically incorrect view of him being a Jew. This is not only insulting the intelligence of students, but that of Shakespeare as well. Because, the universally acknowledged truth of why Shakespeare is important to us is this – this was a man who, through the entire length and breadth of his writing, had no other agenda except to show human beings as they are.


Writer, Blogger, Kate Bush Fanatic

11 thoughts on “Of Reading Shakespeare

  1. What a grasp of Shakespeare you have. How I wish I could understand anything Shakespeare wrote. My first exposure to him was an old book “Tales from Shakespeare” (I forget the author) which I read when I was about 13. That I enjoyed. But when it came to reading “Hamlet” in Shakespeare’s old English, I struggled. In fact, though “Hamlet” was compulsory reading in my final year of high school (in Canada) and I was required to write an essay about the play, I refused to do so considering it a waste of time and instead used that time to study for my final exams. Good thing there were no questions on Hamlet on the English exam!

    1. Thank you, Marion! I started with Tales from Shakespeare too. It was by Charles Lamb, a Romantic era essayist and his sister Mary. I am hoping to start a podcast series on Shakespeare, discussing certain speeches and sections, in jargon-free language of course, to lessen the fear and intimidation a number of people have towards Shakespeare’s work. His work is worth every bit of the centuries-old hype, and he should be read beyond classrooms. Hamlet can be heavy reading at the school level. I would suggest starting with the comedies, or the tragicomedies. It can get a little difficult at first, so I thoroughly suggest watching the films first. There is an excellent 2004 adaptation of The Merchant of Venice. Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado about Nothing, as well as his other film adaptations of the tragedies and history plays are also excellent. The BBC’s “The Hollow Crown” series are also relatively easy to follow for those who may not have read the plays. Don’t give up hope! Reading Shakespeare is truly a rewarding experience!

      1. Thank you for the information. I’ve bought a couple of Shakespeare’s plays in plain English from Amazon. I’m reading “The Merchant of Venice” and the other is “Much Ado About Nothing”.

      2. Great! I hope you do give the original plays a shot after reading them. The language takes a bit of a getting used to, but its not as hard as it seems.

  2. I had the wonderful experience in my mid-30s of attending an adult education class in English Literature for 4 years. The teacher was in his 70s and was a poet, actor, former flight attendant and cowboy. He took us through several of Shakespeare’s plays. It was wonderful to study them with him as a teacher and a class of retirees! Such life experience and depth of understanding.

    1. That sounds much more interesting than a school or uni class! Poet, actor, flight attendant, cowboy, that’s almost like having Clint Eastwood teaching you Shakespeare! Studying literature does get better with age. Even if your brain is sharp and you are much more creative when you’re younger, as you get older, it starts to “matter” to you, more than it ever did before. Joni Mitchell said she never understood what she meant when she wrote “Both Sides Now” at age 21, until she got much older and actually lived through the experiences she described. The English teacher in the play/film “The History Boys” also instructs the boys to learn their poetry when they are young, so as to help them when they are older. And I personally feel that all great literature has the potential to make you feel different things at different times in your life. Because there is no one way of interpreting them, it is almost as if they become part of your own history, of your own experience and understanding.

  3. I know I have already discussed Shakespeare with you a lot in the past few minutes! But I have to tell you at what an incredible piece of writing this is. It is so amazing and important. Everybody needs to read this post.

      1. Yes, please! That would be so amazing although not as many younger people read Shakespeare today your voice could maybe reach that younger generation and tell them of the importance of learning Shakespeare correctly and if it didn’t there are still many people who love Shakespeare regardless. I know I do! Seriously I am loving your blog right now!

      2. It is interesting how it is the older readers who talk to me more about it. Young people often don’t see it, life is too long for them at that age, after all! But, I’ve had quite a few conversations with older, 35+ men and women, regretting that they never got to read Shakespeare. I knew someone who passionately listened to audio books of the plays, even dressed up in Renaissance fairs, but was still afraid to read the text! The fear of it all can affect people so deeply.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s