Shakespeare: Don’t Be Afraid

We always laugh when my husband notices a mistake in a text before I do.  But he noticed an inconsistency with the BBC book list when I didn’t.  The Complete Works of Shakespeare is listed as number 14, and Hamlet (obviously one of Shakespeare’s “complete works”) is listed as number 98.  As an editor, I should have noticed this error, but he did and I didn’t.

As to my reading of the The Complete Works of Shakespeare, I count having seen plays because Shakespeare’s canon is best seen performed.  However, I have read my fair share as well.  During my senior year of college, I took a Shakespeare seminar.  I still remember entering the classroom for the first time, my hands shaking and my brain whirring.  Either Shakespeare or Milton was required to graduate.  I chose Shakespeare (although I have since read Milton), but they both terrified me.  Would I be able to pass this class?  Would I enjoy any of it?

Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons

My earliest experience with Shakespeare was reading Cymbeline with my mom and sisters.  My mom thought it would be fun to have us each take on certain roles and read the play out loud together.  This was boring.  As a fourteen-year-old, I did not understand most of what we read.

In high school, I attended a performance of As You Like It because a few of my friends were playing main roles.  I remember enjoying it a little more than I had Cymbeline, but I did not quite understand everything.  While the audience roared with laughter, I looked about myself bewildered and then pretended to laugh, too.  I didn’t want anybody to know that I hadn’t understood dear William’s jokes.

My ignorance and fear of Shakespeare all disappeared with that senior seminar in college.  Professor Duerden taught with skill and ease.  He directed lively discussions and opened my mind to the beauty of Shakespeare.  I attribute this to his excellent teaching skills, but also to his class requirements for the reading.  For each play, we were required to read it twice.  After this reading had been accomplished, we were then required to watch a performance of it, whether in person or on tape.  I obviously spent many long, quiet hours reading the plays, but watching them performed proved truly fantastic.  I would find tapes of the plays at the city library or campus library, depending on where the films were available.  Then, because my husband and I were newlyweds, we would watch them together on a Friday night, cuddling, snacking, and laughing at the characters’ antics.  To this day, my husband loves Shakespeare almost as much as I do because of that time spent watching the plays.

I had a conversation about boring Shakespeare with a neighbor a few weeks ago.  This neighbor perused my bookshelf and commented on my collection, noting that he would never like or understand or even try Shakespeare.  As I began to try to convert him to my love of Shakespeare, my husband joined in, telling him that the plays must be watched and that they are great fun.  I don’t think we convinced him.

My favorite Shakespeare play is The Winter’s Tale.  The plot is essentially this: King Leontes is convinced that his wife Hermione is cheating on him.  An oracle tells him that his wife is innocent, but he refuses to believe and as a result, his son and wife die.  He is obviously crushed, but admits his culpability in the deaths.  In the end, a beautiful statue of Hermione returns to life.  Her resurrection and Leontes’s repentence bring them together again.  (And because of the queen’s name, guess who knew how to pronounce Hermione when the Harry Potter books were published?)

I am also a fan of the more obvious plays: Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The film adaptations of these plays do The Bard justice.  My favorite version of Romeo and Juliet is Baz Luhrmann’s with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes.  I know it includes rock music and modern scenery, but it keeps the original language and is the magnificent play, all the same.  (However, I’m a sucker for anything done by Baz Luhrmann.  He’s brilliant.)

Public domain image; Ford Madox Brown’s painting of Romeo and Juliet

As to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I first saw this with my favorite college roommate Jenn.  I will always consider her to be one of my best friends, although life and circumstances have kept us apart for the last decade.  She is seven years older than me, but I think that’s why I feel so close to her.  She is the big sister I never had.  I could go on about Jenn and what a special person she is, but back to the story.  One evening, we decided to attend the movie, starring Kevin Kline, Michelle Pfeiffer, Rupert Everett, and Calista Flockhart.  But first, we loaded a gigantic bag Jenn had brought with Wendy’s baked potatoes, chili, fries, chicken sandwiches, salads, and drinks.  After sneaking the food into the theater, we sat in the back, munching heartily and noisily on our aromatic and delicious dinners.  I’ll never forget that time spent with her, and it all happened because of Shakespeare.

So, if you haven’t given Shakespeare a try, start with the movies or a local play.  Maybe stick to the comedies and tragedies.  (The histories are a bit dry, but Kenneth Branagh, known for directing and starring in many Shakespeare movies, has a nice version of Henry V.)  You’ll find humor, the secrets of life, and pure enjoyment.  Shakespeare is an acquired taste, one more easily developed in adulthood.  You’ll like him.  I promise.