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How to Enjoy Shakespeare

I found this passage while rereading Hardin Craig’s The Complete Works of Shakespeare and found the words immensely agreeable to anyone who might wonder how on earth to completely enjoy reading or watching the plays of Shakespeare.

There are so many I have heard through the years who roll their eyes and sigh with disgust at the very thought of attempting to read or watch anything Shakespearean. I am not of that opinion, nor have I ever been, but I can see if one is intimidated by the wordage or form or style of his plays and sonnets, how they might shrug off any attempt to give them a try.

The passage reads like this and after meditating on the idea Craig offers, maybe if you are not a Shakespearean fan, maybe this will give you the impetus to give him another chance.

Craig says, “All of this repeats from another point of view an age-old criticism of Shakespeare; namely, that he is an exuberant artist, that he is not restrained and classical. But this exuberance has been his chief source of power; we merely cite the facts in order to control, in the interest of a true and vivid appreciation of Shakespeare, idel and unintelligent speculation on the interpretation of Shakespearean characters and plots. We should learn to surrender ourselves so completely and so intelligently to Shakespeare’s artistic appeal that we, like the audiences for whom he wrote, can enjoy his art in spite of its conventions. In doing this we shall not need commentators who insist forever on doing the work over in needless paraphrases of plot and endless discussions of characters. We should put ourselves, if we can, into a sufficiently receptive mood to enjoy Shakespeare’s appeal to simple emotions,, though in doing so it may be necessary for us to suspend our demand for naturalism and philosophy. We should recognize that what we have is a story, told usually marvelously well, with the somewhat crude device of the Elizabethan stage; and that it is a story which, however replete with originality, was usually already familiar to the audience for which it was written.”

Here, here, I say… bravo!! Shakespeare was the Lin Manuel-Miranda of his day. For those Hamilton fans of the Broadway stage, Shakespeare used the devices common to his day to tell the audiences stories of history, of love, of hate, of violence, of jealousy, of joy, of lust, of betrayal, of innocence, of arrogance, of passion, of the travails of the ordinary man as well as noble. The invention of the human, as we all know is still happening on the Broadway stage and lesser stages around the world. The genius of Shakespeare is seen clearly today in our modern versions of Manuel-Miranda and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Craig also points out: “…the more nearly we can see as Shakespeare meant us to see, the more adequate will be our vision and the keener our enjoyment. Neither the Elizabethan writer nor the Elizabethan audience had a body of ideas like ours, knew what we know or in the way we know it, wanted the same things from life that we want, or thought of drama or life as we think of them… Since Shakespeare did not and could not think and talk in terms of such ideas, he should not be made to do so.”

Shakespeare was and is an artist, a writer, and for most of us who aspire to write even one percent of a tenth as Shakespeare wrote, we can understand the significance of allowing Shakespeare to simply be Shakespeare, the artist, and writer. As writers, we all make allowances for artistic expression and for the most part, seek to align ourselves with our audiences for the sake of commercialization. Five hundred years from now will audiences of that future look back on George R. R. Martin’s book series of Game of Thrones or Ken Follet’s Pillars of the Earth and think, “No, I will pass because the wordage and the style are just too complex or too hard for me to tackle.”

The thought should give us a moment to reflect. Shakespearean plays and sonnets are well worth the time and effort anyone might take to sit back and enjoy, whether by reading or watching. We have enough adaptations on BBC and movies to fill our bellies full of quality Shakespearean meat for any who wish to delve into the buffet without actually sitting down with a book. I have to admit, sitting down with an entire folio of his plays and sonnets is rather daunting, so I have listed a few of my favorite movies, and the links to buy, based on his plays for any who wish to give them him a try (in order from my favorite to least favorite):

Henry V – Kenneth Branaugh
Hamlet – Mel Gibson, Helena Bonham-Carter

Richard III – Benedict Cumberbatch (The Hollow Crown, The War of the Roses)
Henry VI, part 1 and 2 – Hugh Bonneville (The Hollow Crown, The War of the Roses)
Richard II – Ben Whishaw (The Hollow Crown)
Henry IV – Jeremy Irons (The Hollow Crown)
Henry V – Tom Hiddleston (The Hollow Crown)
Hamlet – David Tennant
Romeo and Juliet – Olivia Hussey
Romeo and Juliet – Leonardo di Caprio
The Taming of the Shrew – Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton
The Merchant of Venice – Al Pacino
Richard III – Lawrence Olivier
Hamlet – Kenneth Branaugh, Kate Winslet
Othello – Kenneth Branaugh, Lawrence Fishburne
Much Ado About Nothing – Kenneth Branaugh, Emma Thompson
Twelfth Night – Helena Bonham-Carter
A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Kevin Kline, Michelle Pfieffer
Titus Andronicus – Anthony Hopkins

I have yet to see an adaptation of Macbeth that I truly enjoyed, save for the possible one made years ago by Roman Polanski, but since it has been awhile since I saw that one, I left it off the list. These are my favorites. (addendum to this post: The newest Macbeth with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard was, in my opinion, visually and intellectually fulfilling!)

So, my advice is to give Shakespeare a try again; who knows, perhaps with these words in your mind, the beauty of his verse may find its way into your mind and heart.

Thanks for reading! Please share and comment if you wish!!

D. K. Marley