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Thou art difficult to understand

by Rachel

Let’s talk Shakespeare. Going back ten years to my senior year of high school, I can still remember the huge effort my English teacher put into educating us on Shakespeare. As a senior project, my class read Twelfth Night together. Back then I didn’t know why my teacher insisted we actually understand the language used in Shakespeare’s plays since it seemed to go right over my head. So, it was interesting to read Joseph Smigelski’s article on Huffington Post. He writes about being “distressed” by his friend who struggled through Shakespeare also. The word “distressed” seemed a little melodramatic, but then I recalled the Shakespearean addicts I befriended in college; this would likely distress them also!

To prevent further ignorance and distress, we’re given a quick lesson on how to read Shakespeare. The lesson is easy–all you have to do is put in a lot of hard work. If you’re wanting to appreciate the material, says Smigelski, you’ve got to remember that “nothing worth having comes easily”. Get a Shakespeare paperback, he suggests–the one with that neverending glossary–become “attuned to a few archaic anomalies”, and then, he says, you’ll start to “get it” and the enjoyment will kick in. Sounds like it’s going to take some time before enjoyment kicks in for the people who struggle to read Shakespeare, but I’ve got to admit that once I “get” Shakespeare, I do enjoy reading his material.

Are we among diehard Shakespeare fans here? Did it take you a while to “get” Shakespeare like so many other people out there?

15 Responses to Thou art difficult to understand

  1. annegreenwoodbrown says:

    Back when I taught 9th grade English, we studied R & J. The kids understood it best when they were acting it out, hacking each other to bits, and then tracing their fallen comrades' bodies on the floor with crime scene tape.

  2. Don says:

    Kenneth Brannagh made a very good point in an interview on Fresh Air back when his Hamlet came out. Shakespeare is not meant to be read, it's meant to be seen. There's a reason Anne's kids understood it best when acting it out. It's not a book, it's a play.

  3. Emily White says:

    We studied Shakespeare during one of my semesters in college (theater class). I was absolutely amazed at how beautiful and thought out his plays were when I really began to understand them. He wrote all of the lines in rhythm–times of stress were off-beat. He would actually change the way a word was written with a dash to achieve this (e.g. hallow-ed).

  4. J. Andersen says:

    You're right. Studying the Bard does take hard work, but after a semester of Shakespeare reading a different play for each class, it became second nature. One gets used to the language and then it's easy. However, it has been since I taught high school a few years back that I've read any of his works. I'm sure I'm a little rusty.

  5. Tracy says:

    In high school I HATED having to read Great Expectations, The Great Gatsby and Moby Dick. The only time I truly paid attention to an english assignment was when we were reviewing Shakespeare. It isn't an easy read, but once you get into the flow of Olde English he tells some of the most compelling stories.

    As as Don pointed out. I think people tend to forget that his works were plays, not books. It's a different feel entirely.

  6. Peggy says:

    I was in graduate school when I overcame the language barrier and finally understood why Shakespeare is such a big deal. His themes are timeless and the words are beautiful. And how in the world did he manage to make so much of it rhyme? It's all I can do to write a decent haiku, much less fit my thoughts into such strict constraints. Iambic pentameter, indeed.

  7. CS says:

    the best way to enjoy and understand shakespeare is to see the play. i'm a theatre grad and i have been bored to tears reading shakespeare but once you see a good production it all just clicks into place

  8. Carole Chidester says:

    Love this post! So true that seeing the play is the best route to loving Shakespeare. I've found that if you can't see the play, reading Shakespeare aloud can help with understanding. It also helps you appreciate the beauty of his iambic pentameter.

    The long prose sections, usually silly conversations featuring the comic relief characters (like the Fool in Lear) can be tiresome to the modern ear, but when I reread one of the plays I find myself skimming those if my attention wanders.

    I took a year-long course in college in which we read and studied every play. A few years ago I found myself missing them, and have made it a point to reread one play a year. If possible, I try to read one that will be performed by our local Shakespeare in the Park troupe, so that I can enjoy the production once I'm done.

  9. GK says:

    At my elementary school, each 6th grade class had to perform a Shakespeare play every year, and all the other grades had to watch it. I remember in 3rd grade falling absolutely in love with Midsummer Night's Dream. Of course, I found out much later that the 6th grade versions were heavily edited and rewritten, but for me, the point remained: you have to see it to understand it. I had very little trouble with Shakespeare (or, later, Chaucer) because I could see the humor playing behind the nearly-foreign language.

    Same with Beckett in college. When I first read Waiting For Godot, I was completely lost. Then a couple people from my class acted out a scene, and it clicked; I'd had no idea before that moment that it was supposed to be funny.

    It's all about perspective and understanding. Some people will "get" a work right away, whereas others need to view it from a different angle, and it make take the guidance of others to help them see that.

  10. michael gavaghen says:

    It has everything to do with the teacher or professor who helped get you there. I had one at NYU who would "cast" each play before we read it (Pacino, Harry Dean Stanton, even Donny Most from "Happy Days"), and then again, with us, after we'd read it (DeNiro, Harvey Keitel, Bruce Davison from the Willard movies). He would fall down and play dead in the front of the classroom when reading a scene which called for it. It was impossible NOT to get Shakespeare in his course.

    I am still in his debt.

  11. Tricia says:

    As a junior my English teacher helped me fall in love with Shakespeare. He told us the history, what life was like for the people, what the stage looked like… It made it all real. We also read four or five plays. That summer after a two day workshop at the local college he took a bus load of us to a three day festival.

  12. David F. Weisman says:

    I read and enjoyed some of them, but never got to the point where the language seemed natural. It's always fascinating how he manages to please so many opposing audiences.

  13. Sarah N Fisk says:

    I'm with CS above. Reading Shakespeare is nothing compared to seeing talented actors perform it. Reading it kinda bores me, except for some small pieces.

    I know there are people who disagree with me but I thought Mel Gibson's Hamlet was genius. There are so many jibes and jokes you would never get while reading that he really brings to life.

  14. DGLM says:

    GK, I had the same experience with Waiting For Godot.

    Michael Gavaghen – sounds like you had an amazing teacher, and I agree it depends on who helps you get there as to whether or not you enjoy or "get" Shakespeare.

    Excellent comments, everyone!

    ~ Rachel

  15. Clix says:

    We've actually just started our unit on Julius Caesar. Today – in about five minutes! eek! – we'll be doing a performance workshop with a condensed version of the play. I've got my fingers crossed…

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