“And nothing is, but what is not.” – William Shakespeare, “Macbeth”
Doth you knoweth the phrase above? Perhaps you have an idea… or maybe you’ve completely given up on the English language entirely.
Don’t worry, I get it. Shakespeare is definitely a man of many talents (one of those talents, being a great confusion to all humans of the 21st century). But no matter how you feel about the guy in tights, chances are that you’ll have to someday face his writing head on. And even better, you’ll be tested on it.
So, how the **** do you understand the dude?
In the grand scheme of things, reading Shakespeare isn’t all that bad. He is considered to be one of the most innovated writers of all time, after all. Trust me, once you grasp the right strategy that works for you, you’ll be laughing at the same witty jokes your ancestors were back in the day.
There are useful sites out there like No Fear Shakespeare and Wikipedia to help guide you along with the text. These resources are nice because they help summarize and translate the story into modern English. However, sometimes it’s still hard to get the exact visual of what Shakespeare is trying to showcase.
William Shakespeare was a playwright, meaning most of his works are made for the stage. Because of this, most of the symbolism of his stories are done visually for the audience. When reading the play in the silence of your school/home, you are missing a crucial piece of what the story is trying to show. You are unable to draw a clear picture of the character’s facial expression, as you would be able to with a novel. And you can’t hear the mood of the background music as you could with a film or video game.
To fix this? Simple. Watch the plays.
Shakespeare is in the Public Domain, which means that none of his works are copyrighted. This is why there are SO many productions of each of his plays. And because there are so many, that means that there are a number to choose from online.
YouTube, of course, is the first place I would recommend checking out. Just search for the play you are studying–“Othello” perhaps–and find the best-sounding/acted production to watch for free.
If you want something a little more film-like, the BBC Television Shakespeare collection is the way to go. This series actually saved my life during junior year of college. What’s great about these films is that they are true to the language, for they rarely change/skip over any lines from the original text.
When browsing YouTube, you’ll find that many productions do this in order to clarify scenes and decrease run time. Although this may be practical from an entertainment aspect, it’s important to have something as true to the text as possible to guide you through Shakespeare’s unique dialect. What’s great about the BBC series is that it does not skip/change much of the original play; and it has a good selection of casts, so you won’t feel the cringe of watching a high school student awkwardly say sexual innuendos.
Unfortunately, many of the episodes are hard to come by for free online, but I’ve managed to find a few: Macbeth, The Tempest, and Julius Caesar. Otherwise, almost all of them can either be purchased or streamed online on Amazon. Or, if you’re lucky, you can access all the videos for free through either your school library or sites such as Illumira, where you just have to log in with your school ID and you’re good to go (enjoy, fellow Rutgers students).
Lastly, if you want the full-blown Hollywood film-feel, definitely check out some of the modern installments of Shakespeare’s classics.
Michael Fassbender as Macbeth? Yes please, and thank you.
Although newer adaptions–like Macbeth, Romeo + Juliet, and The Merchant of Venice–have all the Hollywood action and glam, you must approach these films with caution. Like modern produced plays, these movies tend to cut out a variety of lines and scenes. But if you are someone who is more interested in a summary/tone of the story, then these are for you.
Besides, I recommend anyone to watch these films just for fun. It truly shows how timeless Shakespeare’s work can be.
At the end of the day, any of these visual guides can help make Shakespeare more understandable. That being said, always remember to read along with the play. Don’t just throw your book to the side and watch a 2 hour production without actually following along with the text. Remember, you need to be able to say what happened during which scene on the test… and they won’t tell you that on stage, I promise you that.
Nevertheless, Shakespeare’s stories are worth all the trouble they may cause. Once you start to get a feel for his writing style, it’ll be easy to pick up on his crude jokes and dagger-piercing insults (literally). Who knows, maybe you’ll want to read some more Shake n’ Bake in the summertime. That, or just admire the good ol’ stories from afar.