Shakespeare-Phobes, Here’s How To Get The Bard

The Arts


Each year I write a short piece on Mr Billy Shakespeare, and this is today’s.

It’s not enough to be able to decipher the more complex parts of the Bard’s work (would that we all had enough time to do so), we have to discover it through sometimes appallingly modish stage re-inventions (I’ve sat through some of at the worst Midsummer Night’s Dreams of all time). At the root there are the words, and if the director doesn’t make the comprehensible then no number of unicycling drag queens will save the play. Shakespeare is not about staving off boredom by adding distractions, but about stripping back to the language. If you don’t make an audience’s spine tingle when Hamlet visits his repentant mother you’ve failed.

However, there are ways of making your understanding of the bard a bit easier. Why should we bother to do this? Because Shakespeare gives you the world.

The problem for Shakespeare-Phobes is that many were put off him at an early age. At our school we read him aloud, and the worst thing you can do is sit in a stifling classroom listening to Peason Upper 4B stumbling through Prospero’s speech from The Tempest with no zeal, intonation or interest, running the words on in the same manner as Nigel Molesworth reciting Charles Wolfe’s ‘The Burial of Sir John Moore After Corunna’, ie;


shut up Person larfing

As his corse

As his corse

what is a corse sir? gosh is it

to the rampart we carried


So for newbies, the first thing to do is hie yourself to a theatre or watch a play on DVD. First time around you will understand, on my estimation, 40% of what you hear. What you’ll get is the rough shape of the story. This is the precise point when you’ll feel like going back to Game of Thrones (basically, Shakespeare without the wondrous dialogue). And that’s why you shouldn’t abandon hope here. But there are some things you should know;

The jokes are generally dreadful.

The plots are unnecessarily convoluted.

There are always at least two characters who could be dispensed with (literally so in the case of ‘Hamlet’)

The dramas are punctuated with really stupid bits of crowd-pleasing business.

The unicycling drag queens so beloved of new directors really shouldn’t be there.


But ‘Hamlet’ is nearly always fab, and even the ridiculous Kenneth Branagh film version has its moments. Like all great writers Shakespeare built his plays on existing legends and folk stories, so they had a solid base, and although there are longeurs in every play there are always moments that touch the soul. You just need a good director who knows that at the heart of each play, behind the modern dress or elaborate staging, there are characters whose feelings you care about.


So,you’ll need to do some prep. Reading Shakespeare only works if you can see some as well, but the RSC have started doing Shakespeare multi-media apps. I have the one for ‘The Tempest’, and it has performances, history, the text and timelines, plus much more.

Here’s my reading list, depending on how serious you are about getting to grips with the biggest author of them all. Start with the texts from the RSC, conveniently gathered together in one gigantic affordable paperback based on the 1623 First Folio. This is edited by two of the finest Shakey scholars, Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen. It’s unwieldy but the motherlode.


Next, try DK’s ‘The Shakespeare Book – Big Ideas Simply Explained. This is a nicely designed volume with half a dozen contributors explaining what you need to know about each play quickly and succinctly. Also useful is the Oxford Illustrated Shakespeare Dictionary by David & Ben Crystal, names you’ll come across in other volumes. It’s a guide to the tricky words, and is quite fun.

Better still is DK’s Essential Shakespeare Handbook by Leslie Dunton-Downer and Alan Riding. This is the Baedeker of Shakespeare and includes unique features like the prose-to-verse ratios. If you were to buy one volume to guide you, I’d pick this.

There are thousands of Shakespeare analysis books but I like Michael Bogdanov’s ‘Shakespeare: The Director’s Cut’, which gives you a set of essays on the plays and is quite opinionated, and Frank Kermode’s ‘Shakespeare’s Language’, a delightful volume from a master critic.

You’ll find a number of more detailed articles here on this site.


8 comments on “Shakespeare-Phobes, Here’s How To Get The Bard”

  1. Paul Graham says:

    Hearing the plays and sonnets in Original Pronunciation helps too. A bit pirate-y , but at least the rhymes and puns work.

  2. Ken Mann says:

    The RSC has a series of books about performing Shakespeare each dedicated to one particular play and covering how every RSC production over the years attempted to address staging issues for that play. I have the one for The Tempest in which it is clear that the Masque defeats everybody. I was lucky enough to be taken to some very good productions in my early teens so I am also unicycling drag queen averse. The BBC’s recent Hollow Crown series showed both sides of Shakespeare on TV as some directors were better than others. You would think that directors would know by now that when you have twelve soldiers you film the battle scene in close-up, but this has to be learned anew every few years.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    Costumes and/or sets should not distract from the play. I saw a Macbeth where all the nobles wore gigantic ravens on their helmets. They hadn’t tested them well enough because they didn’t balance well and you could see actors bracing themselves – to say nothing of the fact that they looked silly. A Hamlet done in Edwardian dress, on the other hand was great because those elaborate uniforms and medals etc. really pointed up characters and the civilians just faded to black as it were.

    Chris: Please note that your puzzle envelope goes into the air mail today. I’m hoping it gets to London by the 26th, but who knows how long it will take to get to you. Keep your eye out. Or eyes. Or telescope. Whatever.

  4. jeanette says:

    I agree with Chris. Totally turned off Shakespeare at school Dixon House Ally Pally School London 1969. Try and watch some DVD’s, it does not take long to tune in with old english.

    I watch Shakespeare plays at Tolethorpe Hall in Stamford. They run June to August. Two Shakespeare plays and one of their own choice, last year it was ‘Hobson’s Choice’.

    They run Midsummer Night’s Dream every 4 years. They have an open stage, (audience are covered), and use the woods as background. It is magical.

  5. Denise Treadwell says:

    I disliked Shakespeare at school, but I found seeing the plays much more exciting. I think Kenneth Branagh helped with his film Henry V. I became a subscriber to California Shakespeare at Orinda. It has a beautiful setting among the hills in an amphitheater. As long as the weather holds up. I perfer more traditional scenery and costumes. I like the clothing and words to go together. The most memorable play was Macbeth, it had been raining for days, and on our evening they were trying to fit in people from the rained out performances. The misfortune of the play continued with the special effects failing and the play being disrupted with people trying to get the machinery to work.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    The Vancouver theatre had the disadvantage of trains running underneath. You learned to ignore it. Theatre Under the Stars in Stanley Park is definitely an experience. Runs from July to Sept with two plays. The damp sets in even on good nights so people take blankets to wrap their legs. Mosquito repellent is essential and you have to ignore the peacock screams all through as well as the nine o’clock gun going off. At least that comes at a specified time so you can wiggle lines around it. My son broke his ankle going too quickly down the steep back stage stairs and had to wait after the performance for traffic to clear from a fireworks display before he could be taken to hospital. Fortunately there were a couple of nurses in the cast. From being a young man his character turned into an old man with a cane for the rest of the run. They were doing Annie Oakley.

  7. Peter Medley says:

    We have attended American Players Theater in Spring Green, Wisconsin, an outdoor theatre, for 30+ years. They perform Shakespeare and other playwrights, very well. We’ve had the occasional bat or flying squirrel enliven the action, and King Lear once summoned a good thunderstorm.
    Attending Shakespeare is expensive, but worth it. I agree with others’ comments on the language learning curve, but good actors convey the emotions and meaning even if I miss the odd word here and there.

  8. Wayne Mook says:

    I guess I’m one of the few who enjoyed Shakespeare in school, but when in reading in class I played one of the witches in Macbeth and fully went for it with my best screeching hag voice, it didn’t half wreck my throat, as only a young teenage boy can. I went to an all boys school, until it amalgamated with the girls school at the start of 6 form. The rest of my class fully went for it too, we 3 witches gave our all, sadly we never finished the play. I don’t think the English teacher thought we were serious but I enjoyed it and Macbeth is still a firm favourite.


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