Let’s imagine shall we, that you and I are meeting for the first time. We strike up a conversation during in which you learn that I’m a researcher and Shakespeare scholar. I wouldn’t be going out on a limb by guessing you would probably respond by saying, “Shakespeare?! I’ve always wanted to get into Shakespeare (or) learn how to enjoy Shakespeare but don’t know where to start”. Believe it or not, this is the most common thing I hear from new acquaintances whenever Shakespeare is involved. It happens a lot! This is the main reason I started this blog. There is an invisible wall between his work and many people’s presumption of it. His work is too hard to understand, it doesn’t seem accessible (as in there are currently no running plays to see), and or the person fears that the appeal will fail to capture his or her attention, leaving him or her to wonder, “What’s wrong with me, everyone else likes Shakespeare?”
If this is you, please don’t feel alone. This wall is lined with people from all walks of life, who for one reason or another cannot see the doorway leading to the other side. Just the other day I met a woman who is working on her second PhD. She had come into my office for some research material related to a project she is working on and noticed my Shakespeare bobblehead. This led to a conversation in which she asked for my help. Her teenage son had recently told her he wanted to know more about Shakespeare’s work. She admitted that this was a subject in which she felt lost and asked for recommendations on where to begin. I was stunned. I would assume that a woman with a PhD, working on a second would know how to do some research or at least know how to locate the nearest library. I quickly realized that this was another person standing at the wall, closer to the door than most, but still unable to see it.
Before I tell you what I told her, let’s take a step back from the wall for a moment. Let’s first, look at why you are there in the first place. To better understand how to enjoy Shakespeare, let’s first explore why his work matters. In other words, finding the door is easier when you know why you want to find it.
Harold Bloom, one of the curmudgeonliest yet beloved Shakespeare scholar wrote a book with the hyperbolic title, Shakespeare The Invention of the Human. Clearly Bloom didn’t believe evolution started with Shakespeare, but he did argue, rather eloquently, that of all of the writers and poets before and after, Shakespeare alone is responsible for creating our human archetype. Shakespeare holds a mirror up to humanity and says “This is the human condition in all of its glory and failings”. This is why his work is still immensely popular some 400 odd years after his death. We don’t just enjoy his beautiful words or laugh at some of the most ridiculous plots ever conceived; we see ourselves in his words and in his improbable settings. His work is the foundation for most of our modern Hollywood plots and modern philosophy.
Other writers craft caricatures of human emotion. Shakespeare tapped into something deeper and gave us fully formed humans complete with all of the conflicting emotions that each of us have. He gave voice to our inner selves like no other. His plays were character driven. I don’t believe it is hyperbolic to state, that without Shakespeare’s work, we would not recognize human folly as easily as we do now.
If you’ve experienced depression or ever wondered, “What’s the point to all of this?” you’ve already know how Hamlet feels.
If you or someone you know has ever been given more power than you can handle, you will connect with Macbeth.
If you’ve let your passions get the best of you, I suggest sitting down and commiserating with Othello. Or if he is too intense for your taste, Romeo & Juliet may make for better conversation companions.
Beyond the cerebral, there are other reasons why we enjoy Shakespeare. It would take several posts to list them all. In a nutshell, having some exposure to Shakespeare will enrich your experience as an audience member and allow you to fully grasp some of the subtle (and not so subtle) entertainment nods to Shakespeare.
Did you know that in each of the episodes in the first two seasons of the West Wing, one character or another quotes Shakespeare?
Did you know that most of our modern so called, ‘Rom-coms” are based on either a specific play or plot? Ten Things I hate About You is based on The Taming of the Shrew.
Did you know The Lion King is based on Hamlet?
You may be quoting Shakespeare and not even know it. Here are a few common phrases from his work:
“Give the devil his due” — (Henry IV Part I)
“Good riddance” — (Troilus and Cressida)
“Heart of gold” — (Henry V)
“In my mind’s eye” — (Hamlet)
“Love is blind” — (The Merchant of Venice)
“Wear my heart upon my sleeve” — (Othello)
“Wild-goose chase” — (Romeo and Juliet)
“The game is afoot” — (Henry IV Part I) See, even the renowned British Detective Sherlock Holmes quotes Shakespeare.
In case you are wondering what advice I gave to the woman about her son, I told her this:
Find out why your son wants to learn about Shakespeare, and then introduce him to a play that corresponds to that reason. By doing this, he will better understand and respond to Shakespeare. In other words, the why will drive the how.
In our next chat I will show you some of the easier ways to jump into Shakespeare’s world.