Whether you find his work torturous or inspiring, love him or hate him, it’s impossible to deny that Shakespeare’s lingering influence is everywhere. Seriously!! Even hundreds of years after his death in 1616, his plays are still being performed and adapted to fit modern society. When you watch ‘She’s the Man’, ‘Ten Things I Hate About You’ or ‘Westside Story’, you’re actually watching adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays!! And you can thank Shakespeare when your best friend exclaims that her new boyfriend is the ‘be all and end all’ or a mother informs her child that they’re ‘eating her out of house and home’. Maybe it’s my bias as an English major, but I truly believe that the brilliant man that is William Shakespeare has so much to share with a contemporary audience, and if you give him a chance, everyone has something to gain from his plays.
So I decided to share my Shakespeare do’s, don’ts and interesting facts that I have gathered throughout my studies.
- Do: Experience a performance of one of the plays: Shakespeare was a playwright – as in he wrote plays – plays which he wrote to be performed within the theatre. When people exclaim that the words they are reading are difficult and boring they are often correct!! Shakespeare didn’t want people to read his words, he wanted people to see and experience them. Trust me, when you see and hear the play come to life on the stage and screen it makes so much more sense.
- Do: Approach the plays with an open mind: Obviously there is much stigma and stereotype surrounding Shakespeare and his works. Even if you have never read the plays, chances are you will know that Romeo and Juliet are a young couple, and don’t even try to claim you’ve never heard the phrase ‘to be or not to be’!! However, there is so much more to these famous tales than a well-known tagline, and what we think we know often clouds our vision to what is there. Seriously, before I actually read ‘Hamlet’ I just assumed the ‘to be’ speech was referring to some young guy trying to find out what he wanted to do with his life…those who have read the play will know that I was a little off track.
- Do: take a Shakespeare course/do further research into the plays: If, like me you find you honestly enjoy Shakespeare’s work then I would highly recommend exploring it further. The university subject I’ve just completed provided me with intriguing background information to the man and his plays and exposed me to little facts and observations I never would have even considered on my own (see the section below on interesting facts). Then there’s the whole authorship debate …
- Don’t: start your Shakespearean adventures with King Lear. Just a personal suggestion, I mean there’s nothing wrong with the play, and it’s a great story, but IT IS SO LONG!! There are so many characters with similar sounding names (take the brothers Edgar and Edmund for example), couple this with two interconnecting plots and King Lear’s gradual dissent into madness and you’ve got yourself one complex play. The complexity is quite off-putting, especially for Shakespeare newbies (like myself), and I would definitely suggest working your way up to this one. Perhaps start with an easier to follow play such as ‘Much Ado About Nothing’
- Don’t: be discouraged if you don’t understand part of the plot. It sounds odd I know, but I find the Elizabethan language and iambic pentameter (the poetic way of writing) to wring meaning out of in some cases, specifically in the more complicated plays. Most editions of Shakespeare plays come with editorial footnotes, which I have found immeasurably helpful to deciphering the more obscure phrases. Also, I know its not particularly academic, but Sparknotes and similar sites provide exceptionally helpful breakdowns and analysis of the plays.
- Don’t: assume that all Shakespeare plays are depressing/end badly. Not all Shakespearean plays are tragedies. This may sound like I’m pointing out the obvious, but before I really began to explore Shakespeare, I didn’t know this … I though the bard was some depressed old man who spent his life writing about death. Alas, it is not so!! In fact, now that I am enlightened, I have found that Shakespeare’s comedies are just as dramatic, enjoyable and full of theatricality as his better-known tragedies. If you’re looking for a bit of Shakespearean romance to brighten up your day I would recommend my favourite comedy, ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ – an ultimately light tale of two couples and their road to love, which is inevitably hampered by deception and misinterpretation, or perhaps ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, upon which the popular (and enjoyable) 1999 film ’10 Things I Hate About You is Based’.
(a selection of well-known Shakespearean quotations still in use today).
All ‘of a sudden’
A poetic version of the word ‘suddenly’ – first appearing in ‘Taming of the Shrew’, and still widely used today, in my experience to dramatically imply an unforeseen occurrence.
‘All that glitters is not gold’
A wise saying which roughly equates to the modern notion that ‘beauty is only skin deep’, this saying originated in the Merchant of Venice
‘Eaten me out of house and home’
A phrase fondly employed by mother’s all over the world to describe the cost of raising their growing children. We have Shakespeare’s ‘Henry IV Part II’ to thank for this gem.
‘The be all and end all’
Can refer to the last word, however in my own experience it is generally used to refer to something/someone (supposedly) so perfect that an alternative will never be required. This phrase was coined by Shakespeare in Macbeth.
‘I will wear my heart upon my sleeve’
The phrase which appears in ‘Othello’ is still used to refer to an unguarded display of emotion.
‘What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’
Possibly my favourite Shakespearean quotation, it comes from my favourite play – ‘Romeo and Juliet’, and refers to the age old moral lesson, that we should make judgements not upon superficial elements such as outside appearances or names, but take the time to discover what something or someone really represents. In other words, ‘you should never judge a book by its cover’.
WARNING: The following section contains interesting information I have gathered upon my studies of Shakespeare’s plays. Therefore the information below may contain plot spoilers.
- MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING: In Shakespeare’s day, the word ‘nothing’ was pronounced similarly to ‘noting’, therefore the title could be interpreted as ‘Much Ado About Noting’, this is fitting when considering the fuss or ‘ado’ which occurs in the play as a result of observing (or noting) and misinterpreting the actions and intentions of characters.
- ACTORS: When the plays were first performed, all roles were played by males, with young boys taking the female roles. This perhaps explains the generally lower percentage of female roles within the plays (For example, there is no mother figure in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ or ‘King Lear’, and in Hamlet, the only female roles are ‘Gertrude’ and ‘Ophelia’)
- THE CURSE OF THE SCOTTISH PLAY: It is believed that saying the word ‘Macbeth’ during the production and performance of the play invokes a curse. Apparently use of the word results in bad luck for the cast and crew, with reports of death and injury dating back to the 1600s.
- THE CHORUS: The use of a chorus in Shakespearean tragedy is unique to Romeo and Juliet and is based upon classical Greek theatre where the chorus figure was commonly present.
- PROSPERO: The view exists that the character of Prospero in the Tempest is partly autobiographical, because the Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s latest plays, it can be viewed as Shakespeare’s way of reminiscing on his career and farewelling the theatre.
THE AUTHORSHIP DEBATE
- Before studying Shakespeare at university, I didn’t even know there was a debate!! But apparently scepticism about William Shakespeare’s ability to write the plays accredited to him dates back to the 19th century.
- Those who argue that Shakespeare is not the playwright believe that, as a man from a middle class background, he wouldn’t have had access to the university education required to have the extensive knowledge of languages, literature, history and philosophy evident within the plays.
- Alternative candidates for authorship include: Sir Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, The Earl of Oxford and Sir Thomas North
- There is not sufficient proof to credit any of these alternatives – therefore I, along with the majority of the academic community, believe that Shakespeare was in fact the playwright
- Further evidence for Shakespeare’s authorship include the printing of Shakespeare’s name on the title pages of the plays, including addresses and poems to Shakespeare in the post-humorous collection of his plays into a Folio copy and the fact that there was no recorded debate of authorship until over 150years after Shakespeare’s death.
- If you are interested, you can find more information about the authorship debate at the sites below. The 2011 movie ‘Anonymous’ also explores this debate, looking at the argument for authorship by the Earl of Oxford.