Stealing Back the Bard
December 19, 2013
When I was in 9th grade, I had my first formal introduction to the world of William Shakespeare. It was an unmitigated disaster. I was assigned to read Romeo and Juliet for my English class, and every moment felt like torture. My teacher wanted us to analyze all the characters and their motivations. And then there was the language. I was forced to translate every single, difficult word and phrase in order to properly interpret their meaning. Having to stop at every other line and try to figure out exactly what had been said completely took me out of the emotion of the play. Even seeing the film version did nothing to lessen the unpleasantness of the entire experience. I hated it.
Today, one of things that I like doing for fun is reading Shakespeare’s plays. Wait a minute. Didn’t I just say that I hated Shakespeare? Okay, I know what you are thinking. She has somehow been brainwashed by all the literary experts who continue to insist that "good old William" is the best thing to ever happen to the printed word. Or she is just trying to show how smart she is. After all, it is only those high-brow intellectuals perched in their ivory towers that actually enjoy "The Bard." However, I finally discovered something that those academics don’t want you to know. Shakespeare didn’t write for them, he wrote for us.
Shocking, I know. The idea that Shakespeare intended his plays to be enjoyed by the common man seems ludicrous nowadays. But the fact is, in Shakespeare’s time, his plays were considered mass entertainment. Everyone from the Queen to the illiterate man on the street was welcome at The Globe Theatre, where many of his plays were performed. And the stories themselves were easy for everyone to understand and enjoy. A son dealing with the murder of his father at the hands of his uncle (Hamlet); a banished nobleman turning to magic to take revenge for his exile (The Tempest); magical creatures causing comic mischief among humans (A Midsummer Night’s Dream); or a man plotting his way, along with his scheming wife, to the throne (Macbeth). These are the kind of stories that have been entertaining the human race almost since we began sitting around our cooking fires.
As you can see, Shakespeare is just plain exciting. His tales feel just as contemporary as today’s novels. In fact, many themes and storylines we find in novels today were borrowed directly from Shakespeare, who himself borrowed them from previous sources. Murders, sex, betrayal, fantasy, comedy, revenge, and the supernatural, all permeate his plays. And the wonderful twists and turns are reminiscent of the best dramas on television. They are just the kind of tales that we all can enjoy. Once you can get over the fear of it being, well, Shakespeare.
So, why are so many still afraid of Shakespeare? Well, the most prominent reason is the language. The words and phrases that Shakespeare uses may have been common in Elizabethan England, but today they sound like a foreign language. Reading Shakespeare can be difficult, that is a fact. I can even have trouble understanding everything at times. But today there are wonderful editions published with a modern English translation right on the opposite page, like the No Fear Shakespeare series. In fact, if you are afraid of not understanding the story in the original words, try reading the plays first with the modern translations. Just make sure you go back and read them again in the beautiful prose in which they were first composed.
Now there is still the problem of how to deal with those who insist reading William should be a serious academic pursuit. Even Julian Fellowes, the creator of the ever popular Downton Abbey, recently insinuated that only people with a high level of education could ever really understand "The Bard." (There are now even those who think that Shakespeare could not have written his own works because "good old Will" was just not educated enough to create these masterpieces. Ironic isn’t it. They are trying to steal Shakespeare from Shakespeare.) But we must always remember that Shakespeare didn’t write his great plays to be studied, he wrote them to be seen and enjoyed.
One result of my negative first experience with Shakespeare is that, to this day, I dislike Romeo and Juliet. Even after reading it again, without worrying about what each and every word meant, I still couldn’t get into it. I don’t know if this is because of what happened back in 9th grade or simply because the story just doesn’t appeal to me. Maybe a little bit of both. But I am so glad that I went back and took another look at his works. It makes me sad that there are those out there who first encountered Shakespeare in a similar way and now will have nothing to do with him.
If you have had a bad experience with Shakespeare in the past, l I urge you to give him another chance. His plays have endured for so long because they are as relatable today as they were several hundred years ago. Don’t let fear keep you from these great adventures. And don’t let those academics insist that you can’t understand Shakespeare unless you, like Mr. Fellowes, had the benefit of a Cambridge education. "The Bard" truly is for everybody, and it’s time we took him back.