Okay, show of hands … who has read Shakespeare OUTSIDE of school required reading? Do you watch the plays? How about movies? Do you love him? Think he’s overrated?
I first read Shakespeare in 8th grade. We were assigned A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and that was a smart move on the part of whomever made that decision. Thirteen-year-old me was ripe for a play about fairies and lovers. It was one of those interlinear versions with the original text on the left and a “translation” on the right. I loved it, though I frequently found myself thinking the “translation” was dumb.
In 9th grade, I was assigned Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar. Again, genius job, people who decide 9th graders should read R&J. Because developmentally speaking, they are supremely relatable characters when you’re that age. JC wasn’t so great - I’ve never been big on the histories, and it just didn’t grab me. I think that while the language is what makes Shakespeare remarkable, it’s the stories that have to be the gateway for somebody new to Shakespeare. If you can get them with the stories, then they’ll get over the challenges of the language, and maybe even find the beauty. My senior year, we read Othello, another one that didn’t grab me, again because I couldn’t relate.
In college, I chose to take a Shakespeare class to fulfill my English requirement. I hated the class because it was mostly the professor reading aloud to us, and he had a gravelly, expressionless voice. I think the most important thing to know about Shakespeare’s plays is that they weren’t designed as great literature. They were intended to serve as popular entertainment. This is why I think the very best way to experience Shakespeare is to see it performed - either live or in a movie. I am lucky enough to have the means and opportunity to see Shakespeare regularly performed at Playmakers Repertory Company.
If you can’t get to a theater, movies are the next best thing. Here are my top 5 Shakespeare adaptations:
- Hamlet, directed by Kenneth Branagh
- Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Joss Whedon
- Love's Labour's Lost, directed by Kenneth Branagh (not artistically brilliant, but a very fun time)
- Titus, directed by Julie Taymor
- The Merchant of Venice, directed by Michael Radford
And three honorable mentions:
- A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Michael Hoffman
- Twelfth Night, directed by Trevor Nunn
Plus there’s a great recorded stage performance of Twelfth Night directed by Nicholas Hytner.
If you think you don’t like Shakespeare, try the Whedon Much Ado. It’s probably the most accessible Shakespeare adaptation on film. It grew out of Shakespeare readings that Joss Whedon used to have in his backyard. Inspired by him, I hosted two of these myself, gathering friends, assigning roles, and just reading aloud. It’s so much better that way than trying to imagine it all in your head. Not everybody there was a Shakespeare expert, but you don’t need to be. Try hosting your own reading and see how it goes.
tl;dr: I haven’t done much extracurricular Shakespeare reading, but I do love him; watch Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing.
Edited to add: One more thing! I forgot to mention that if you can neither get to a theatre nor find a film adaptation, you should totally check out Manga Shakespeare. Having the plays illustrated in a cool manga style with the original text is the next best thing to actually getting to see actors perform it. Romeo and Juliet on the streets of Tokyo with katana fights? Yes please!
Edited to add, 2: I failed to mention Branagh’s Much Ado, which is what first set me in love with Beatrice. Because Emma Thompson is INCREDIBLE. Consider it to be #1.5 on my list of top 5 adaptations.