Ways to Meet Shakespeare: A Beginner’s List of Do’s and Don’ts
First, do not be intimidated by Shakespearean snobs. Who are they, anyway? Most of them don’t even know that “Shakspere” actually couldn’t spell ( no Elizabethan could, for that matter!).
Then determine to enjoy Shakespeare for your own benefit. Believe me, you will find at least one thing you like about his works…and that could very well be something that no one else you have met likes about it. It’s OK to be original.
Once you have determined to enjoy Shakespeare solely for your own pleasure, you must determine to not let his language get in your way. People seem to make a needless hoopla about the “Old English” style that he is said to have used. You may have heard something like, “You’ll never understand what Shakespeare wrote – Thou mightest just as welle give up thy ghoste.”
However, if sufficiently armed with a non-annotated text of Shakespeare’s works, a dictionary, a small understanding of standard English grammar both of the 21st century and the 17th, and a slight sense of humor, you will certainly conquer Will’s words. Some helpful sites for learning basic information about Elizabethan language include: Early English Grammar Sheets, Shakespeare’s Language, and Pronunciation. (If the language still seems bad, just remember that it actually is considered “Modern English,” Old English is almost completely Germanic, and unreadable unless you are an advanced German scholar.) Annotated texts are helpful once you have become familiar with the basic plot lines and characters, but they are not fun to use the first time you read Shakespeare. All the textual notes and historical info will just make you feel like a dummy, and there’s no need for that until you are actually starting to get smart.
Once you’ve brushed up on your basic grammar knowledge, choose a comedy and start the fun! I would recommend either Much Ado About Nothing or A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Tragedies have their place and are, of course, important, but Shakespeare’s lighter comedies are just so much more fun! Funny fairies seem more appealing than dreadful ghosts, in my humble opinion.
The first few minutes of reading will be a shock. You probably will never have heard or seen so many thee‘s, thou‘s, or thither‘s in your life, not to mention the How now‘s. If, after the first few pages, you just cannot focus, start reading out loud. Add your own personality.
And if that doesn’t wake you up a bit, I don’t know what will.
Never, I repeat, NEVER begin reading Shakespeare because you are forced to. Never Spark Note a play, either. Shakespeare is only boring when you do not give him a chance. Decide to initially read a play because you want to, not because you have to. Reading Hamlet because you do not want to be in high school for the rest of your life, and reading Hamlet because you want to figure out the Ghost’s identity once and for all, will provide you with very different experiences. Again, that is why you should start your reading adventure with a comedy, not a tragedy: tragedies are usually assigned (think Romeo and Juliet) for academic pursuits, while comedies (although equally worthy of academic study) are often overlooked in the classroom.
If you are a kinetic learner, you may want to watch a film version or a live performance of a play before you read it. This may help introduce you to the play, as well as make it slightly more interesting than your reading would be. This simply depends upon your personality. However, be warned that performers always take liberties in interpretations, and their interpretation may influence your view of a character or scene for the rest of your life if their performance is your first experience with a play. I always prefer to read the plays before I view them, but that is merely a matter of personal preference.
Finally, “To thine own self be true.” Have fun, laugh, cry, scream. Whatever you do, get into it. And do it because you want to, not because you have to!