How to read Shakespeare
Paid subscriptions resume today, after a December break, and the book club is moving on to Shakespeare. There’s a new Shakespeare section, where you can find the schedule for the first three meetings. We are reading eight plays, which pair quite nicely: Romeo and Juliet and Love’s Labour’s Lost; As You Like It and Hamlet; Twelfth Night and The Tempest; and Henry IV and Much Ado About Nothing. I will be writing about several other plays, including Othello. (Henry IV has two parts, I recommend both, but we will focus on part I.) If you want to join us, subscribe today.
Some of you may quail at the thought of reading so much Shakespeare. Others will be keen to read more, but want guidance. Some have asked me, how can they get into Shakespeare, not having read him before. Here is my advice on how to get into Shakespeare, and some recommended reading about Shakespeare.
“When I read Shakespeare I become greater, wiser, purer. When I have reached the crest of one of his works I feel that I am high on a mountain: everything disappears, everything appears. I am no longer a man, I am an eye. New horizons loom, perspectives extend to infinity. I forget I have been living like other men in the barely discernible hovels below, that I’ve been drinking from all those distant rivers that appear like brooks, that I’ve participated in all the confusion of the anthill.’”
Flaubert, writing to Louise Colet, 27th September 1846.
How to read Shakespeare
First, let me say, reading Shakespeare isn’t as hard as it looks and it’s incredibly worthwhile. Word for word, there is no better reading experience in English. If you don’t understand something, either read an annotated version or just keep going. When we are young, we just read, unbothered by gaps, able to intuit their meaning or go back later. Adults slowly lose this capacity. But until you have just read the damn thing, worrying about the words you don’t quite get is like losing your kingdom for the want of a nail. Aim for immersion.
There are three ways of engaging with Shakespeare: read, watch, act. I have done all three, though I am less enthusiastic about watching. Frankly, Shakespeare almost never fails on the page, but so often does on the stage. Not because of him, because of the production. But, all three can be excellent, and you must do what works for you.
What matters is that you devote some large portion of your time to him. He is a well that never runs dry.
Few of you will have the opportunity or inclination to act in Shakespeare—but you should. There is nothing like sitting backstage and hearing the music of a play drifting back. And memorising and repeating Shakespeare is the single best way to appreciate him. People talk a lot about the importance of watching, because Shakespeare was written to be performed, but the true logic of that argument is to be the actor. Acting makes you go slowly, puzzle out the implications, pay attention to reactions.
If you cannot take part in a full production, you can do amateur Shakespeare at home with friends or family. And why not? Generations of families used to do this before we all became philistines. Just do one scene—the mechanicals, the murder of Richard II, the balcony scene. I saw exactly that combination of scenes in Shropshire once, done by a very enthusiastic group of players. It was some of the most fun I have had watching Shakespeare. I put on the mechanicals with a group of eight years olds who were deemed to be academically under-par. They excelled.
One piece of advice: don’t be grand. Shakespeare is a genius because of his ability to portray human passions, all of them, high and low, not because he can be read in deep and serious intonations. If nothing else, memorise a few lines, like the opening to Romeo & Juliet, and recite it to yourself. Anthology Shakespeare is a good place to start.
When Shakespeare in the theatre is good, it’s very, very good, but when it is bad it is horrid. I agree with Hazlitt that it’s not often worth it. I have seen some performances that will be with to my dying moments—McKellen as Lear, Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones in Much Ado—but I have also seen performances that bored me to tears. Shakespeare too often attracts the wrong sort of people, who take it too seriously, sawing the air with their hands as Hamlet said. If you find yourself at such a performance, leave in the interval.
So, to start with, watch the films. It can work well to keep the book open on your lap and follow along, if you want to. (Maybe best for second viewing.)
There are many good Shakespeare films.
Between 1978 and 1985, the BBC filmed all of Shakespeare. These films are variable (I haven’t seen them all) but often remarkably good and faithful to the text.
Henry V, Branagh. Not a play we will be reading together but a bloody good film and a nice entry point.
Henry IV, the BBC filmed the entire Henriad (Richard II, Henry IV parts I and II, and Henry V) a few years ago and it was excellent.
The Tempest. I haven’t seen it but Helen Mirren looked good as Prospera.
Another way of getting into Shakespeare is to watch clips on YouTube—the Fluellen scene from Branagh’s Henry V, Patrick Stewart as John of Gaunt, Ian McKellen as Richard III, Judi Dench and Benedict Cumberbatch doing Twelfth Night. If you want one film that will set Shakespeare on fire in your soul the Romeo & Juliet directed by Baz Luhrmann should do it. Or you can listen. I recommend The Essential Shakespeare Live.
Note that most of these are high concept productions, which means they pick a setting and “interpret” the play. This is a mixed blessing, at best, a colossal affront at worst, often a gross misreading. But don’t worry about that for now, you just want to hear great actors speak the parts.
If you want an edition with notes, the best are Arden or Cambridge School Shakespeare. Arden will explain every word you do not know and provides lots of critical and historical information in the introduction. Cambridge has good performance history and pictures. The new RSC editions are also good. For a complete Shakespeare in one volume, RSC or Riverside. (Do not get the Oxford Shakespeare. Useless.) My preferred method for first reading is just to read a cheap edition and not worry about notes. Once you have seen the film, a critical edition is probably essential.
Don’t be shy about reading aloud to yourself, even if you are whispering. Nietzsche said that when the eye sees something beautiful the hand wants to draw it. So it is with the voice and great poetry. Let yourself mutter along. If will help with feeling out the sense. If you are really stuck, just watch the film so you know what happens. Remember, these are plays of human passion, that used to be watched by people much less educated than you. They didn’t understand a lot of it on first hearing either, but they knew how to enter the imaginative world of the play. Go with it. The sense will come.
A word of warning. Hamlet exists in more than one version. If you want the traditional “conflation” text that you remember from school, try looking for the Arden second series—but double check! If you read the plays I have listed above beware that Love’s Labour’s Lost is probably the one that is trickiest on first read.
What to read about Shakespeare
Other than the few essential critics (Johnson, Hazlitt, who else?) here are several excellent books that help you understand the context and the general tenor of the plays.
Spirit of the Age, Jonathan Bate.
A marvellous absorbing book about Shakespeare in his own time. If you want to know about things like the authorship controversy read Bate’s The Genius of Shakespeare. (Spoiler alert: Shakespeare was written by Shakespeare. If you ever meet someone who thinks Shakespeare was written by Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford nod politely, excuse yourself to go to the loo, and don’t go back.)
The Language of Shakespeare, G.L. Brook.
Why do some characters speak in prose? Why does Shakespeare mock fine writing? Why does he use adjectives as verbs? These and hundreds of similar questions are answered in this indispensable book. It is an account of things like rhetoric, syntax, metre, word inflections and meanings, and so on. This sounds like a heavy technical book, but it is arranged in brief paragraphs, filled with only essential details, well provided with examples, and makes many complicated topics clear on every page. Keep this book available to refer to in many short visits.
Shakespeare’s Language, Frank Kermode.
It has been common since at least Johnson to see the flaws as well as the merits in Shakespeare. Kermode’s cleareyed analysis of Shakespeare’s language, for better and worse, is one of the best ways to help you understand how the plays are what they are.
Shakespeare the Thinker, A.D. Nuttall.
Discusses almost every play, showing the ideas and the ways Shakespeare was thinking. “It is remarkably hard to think of something Shakespeare has not thought of first,” he says. Essential reading. Nuttall’s earlier (more academic) A New Mimesis, has excellent discussions of Othello and Henry IV, among others, and is a book I truly love for its recalcitrant blending of old and new critical styles.
Rehearsal from Shakespeare to Sheridan, Tiffany Stern. Does what it says on the tin. How could you not want to read this?
Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom. Overstated, but invigorating theory about the emergence of the idea of consciousness. Draws on the work of Owen Barfield for the theory but the individual chapters on the plays are often enlightening.
Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy, C.L. Barber. Old-school theory about the influence of Elizabethan holidays like May Day on the plays. Interesting, readable, informative, even if you don’t buy it wholesale.
1599, James Shapiro.
A close-up history of the pivotal year when Shakespeare produced Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and Hamlet. Full of good detail and context.
For God’s sake, and your own, don’t read Terry Eagleton or Catherine Belsey or Terence Hawkes, or anyone else in that whole gang of miscreants who practise literary-political theory upon texts in which they see no inherent aesthetic value, and who wouldn’t know a work of literature if one bit them on the nose. If you ever see a phrase like “locus of cultural identity” or see someone saying Shakespeare is “a writer of no necessary distinction”(!), put the book down at once and go back to reading the original poetry. (I know, I know, I just told you to be many sided like John Stuart Mill, but Terry Eagleton once said Shakespeare would become as culturally marginal as graffiti and Catherine Belsey didn’t think his work was beautiful and that is just not the way to develop a love of great writing.) If you are interested in the critical debate on these issues, read James Wood’s review of Harold Bloom’s book The Invention of the Human, or try the first chapter of Tom McAlindon’s Shakespeare Without Theory (Highly recommend as an academic read.)