“Who needs Shakespeare? I’ve gotten along just fine until now without him, and suddenly, at 18, I’m supposed to care about some English guy who wrote about a Scottish guy who wants to be king?” Of course I’d heard of William Shakespeare before then, but somehow I’d escaped having to read any of his work until my AP Literature class in high school. ‘Macbeth’ may not have been the best avenue of approach to the Bard, because it did him no favors in gaining him any standing in my adolescent world.
A few months ago, I got to teach Hamlet for the first time—it was glorious. What happened in the intervening 12 years? For one, I performed in a number of his plays–‘The Tempest’ & ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’–and I co-directed ‘The Comedy of Errors’ with my college roommate. I’ve taught six of his plays and took a class entirely dedicated to Shakespeare. And now I love Shakespeare and hopefully have a few students each year that I can infect at least a bit with love for that iconic playwright.
In that vein, I’d like to consider some of the misunderstandings that I often hear about Shakespeare. In truth, they were many of the same ones that I initially held.
The plays weren’t actually written by Shakespeare
The theory that the plays attributed to William Shakespeare were not actually written by him has been around for a very long time. It’s gained a lot of traction among authors, celebrities, actors, etc. And yet, it’s really just an elaborate, long-standing conspiracy theory.
The plays were supposedly written by Francis Bacon, or the Earl of Oxford, or Christopher Marlowe, or even Queen Elizabeth. There’s a romance to the idea of some other well-known, well-educated person having written such brilliant work and then trying to keep it hidden. But it comes with the assumption that a nobody, a poor boy from Stratford upon Avon, the son of a glover, couldn’t have had the education, the wit, the genius to write what he did.
For the most part, Shakespeare scholars don’t make much of these theories. Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.
But it’s written in Old English
No. No, it’s not. Old English, also called Anglo Saxon, was spoken until the year 1066 when William the Conquerer won the Battle of Hastings, defeating the last of the actual Anglo Saxon kings. Old English is a different language from what we speak today; it’s the language that Beowulf is written in.
The English language was then somewhat Frenchified and for a time became what is called Middle English–see Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’. A studious reader can learn to read Middle English fairly fluently with about three weeks of study.
Shakespeare’s English is early modern English—the same language we now speak. Yes, it is older and sounds different, but all languages evolve over time. A little over 400 years have passed since his death and while there are changes to English, they are fewer than in the 400-600 years before Shakespeare was born.
Too difficult/too high-brow
But the language is still too hard to access and it’s just hoity-toity literature for snobs and professors.
In fact, the opposite is true. Theater was entertainment for the masses, for those that could not read a book. The theater was accessible to anyone; it was not expensive for the more common people to get a standing place in front of the stage, while those that could afford it, could sit in the stands of the Globe theater. It was a place where those from different classes could enjoy the same entertainment because it was presented such that all could access it. It was meant to appeal to a wide audience.
The language is not hard to access. True, the early modern English in which Shakespeare wrote is not the same as today’s, which accounts for much of the difficulty today’s audience might initially have, but it does not take too much exposure for most readers/viewers to forget about the language and become immersed in the story.
The other issue is that too many people are only exposed to the text, are forced to read it in a classroom, and have not had the pleasure of seeing a play performed. Shakespeare did not write his plays to be read but to be performed, on a stage, by professional actors. The true accessibility of Shakespeare is through the medium of a stage.
Shakespeare is too depressing
I’m not a big fan of labeling a story that doesn’t have a happy ending as ‘depressing’, but I hear it very often. And, unfortunately, a lot of the Shakespeare plays that are used to introduce students to the Bard are his tragedies. Some of these tragedies are well worth studying such as ‘Hamlet’ and ‘King Lear’ while others should perhaps not be used as prime examples of Shakespeare’s work (why, oh why, do we insist on making 15yr olds read ‘Romeo and Juliet’?) Too many students complete high school having only been exposed to the tragedies and come away with a skewed perspective.
Likewise, just because a lot of characters die, does not mean it is a sad and ‘depressing’ story. Take the aforementioned ‘Macbeth’. Do we really want Macbeth to survive after what he has done? His death is foreshadowed from so far away that any other ending would have been unfitting. Also, the very fabric of death is discussed, dissected, and displayed over and over in Hamlet—the climax in Act V does not work without copious amounts of killing, sacrifice, and underhanded betrayal.
That said, students need to be exposed to his comedies (and yes, the history plays as well). I often hear that students won’t get the humor, but that’s just patently untrue. Shakespeare was hilarious, very inappropriately so. A lot of it is innuendo, gutter humor, cheap shots, and sarcasm. It doesn’t go out of style and particularly when students see it performed, they get the humor. Who doesn’t laugh at Puck’s antics, Beatrice and Benedick’s verbal sparring, or the many cases of mistaken identity?
Shakespeare, perhaps more than any other writer, understood the range of emotions that humans are capable of and exploited these to arouse feelings, empathy, and resonance with his audience. There are so many reasons his works continue to be read, adapted for stage and film adaptations, and draw new fans in every generation.
His work, as with all the best literature, is timeless. It contains characters that we recognize, situations we have found ourselves in, dilemmas that strike close to home, and themes that never die. His work is accessible, brilliant, meaningful, and always relevant.