Do you remember the first time you read Shakespeare? I remember it well. It was at my German high school and we read Othello. I don’t know about you, but for me it was a rather unpleasant experience. I didn’t understand the language (made it not easier that English isn’t my first language), so I grasped only half of the plot and had no idea what this old white man living over 400 years ago wanted to tell me. I thought he was boring, incomprehensible, strange, confusing. Long story short, I was quite happy when we moved on to the next topic.
I recently asked people on twitter how they’d describe their first reading experience of Shakespeare and got replies that were similar to mine: “obscure and difficult but felt so good,” “lovely but confusing,” “like a foreign language,” “confusing and boring.”
Yet, there has to be a reason why millions of school and university students have to fight their way through Shakespeare’s language every year — And I think I am closer to an answer now.
Throughout my studies, I’ve come to see Shakespeare in a new light. Yes, his language is still difficult to understand, but his plays are obviously more than their language (after all, this is just how people talked back then). The great thing about Shakespeare is that the themes he explores in his plays are universal: Essentially, Romeo and Juliet is about love and youth, Othello about jealousy and hate, Macbeth about fear, ambition and power. You’ll also find plenty of comic elements, such as in-jokes and slapstick comedy. Think about Bottom and the mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the love triangle of Twelfth Night, or Beatrice and Benedick’s witty encounters in Much Ado About Nothing. If you read his plays this way, you’ll see that they are far from boring, they’re insightful, thought-provoking, critical, but also funny and enjoyable (yes, even the tragedies can be funny at times, it’s called comic relief).
This is a classic example of Shakespeare’s humour. Benedick’s friends have made him believe that Beatrice is secretly in love with him. In this scene, she simply summons him to dinner, yet he imagines that everything she says has a double meaning that actually proves her love.
Maybe teachers should move away from their traditional ways of teaching the plays. Ask students to direct a scene, watch a Globe production, or even introduce Shakespeare adaptations produced for the teenage market, such as Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, Tim Blake Nelson’s O (Othello), Andy Fickman’s She’s the Man (Twelfth Night) or Gil Junger’s 10 Things I Hate About You (The Taming of the Shrew). I’m sure these are more interesting ways to teach Shakespeare and make him more accessible to a young audience. I’m sure it would have helped me and made my first Shakespeare impression a bit more positive.
Still, it’s never to late to learn and I’m glad that I’ve had the chance to revise my opinion about this “old white man living over 400 years ago.”
Do you enjoy reading Shakespeare? How do you think teaching him could be made more fun? Let me know your thoughts in the comment section below!