I made a mistake last summer. I took a good friend to his first Shakespearience ever. That wasn’t the mistake part. The mistake was taking him to Hamlet–which may be the Bard’s greatest play, but is probably not the best introduction to the canon.
So what advice would I give to someone who is new to Shakespeare?
- First, choose a play to see. Remember, Shakespeare’s plays were written as–brace yourself–plays. In fact, Shakespeare may not even have imagined that they would someday be read (let alone studied!). For your first play, I suggest one of these: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Comedy of Errors, As You Like It, or Twelfth Night (pictured above).
- If possible, see one of those plays live–that is, at a theater. Or even in a “Shakespeare in the Park” performance, which are available for free during the summer in many cities (“live” Shakespeare performances are often more accessible and engaging than film versions).
- If you can’t make it to a live performance, don’t give up. Online services (like Netflix) and public libraries offer many options; some full-length plays are even available on YouTube. I recommend the Royal Shakespeare Company or Stratford Shakespeare Festival filmed versions of the stage plays.
- Before watching the play, read a short summary (such as might appear in a playbill or online). Or even the prose stories of Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare or Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare.
- If possible, keep the play’s printed text open on your lap or smartphone as the drama unfolds (obviously, this is not recommended in a darkened theater; that would be rude, now, wouldn’t it?). Having the text handy allows you to follow along, remind yourself of characters’ names, check any words or lines you didn’t catch, etc.
- Don’t expect to catch everything. I don’t, and I have read and seen every one of Shakespeare’s plays, multiple times.
- After the performance, whether you saw it on stage, television, or movie screen, then read the play (some can be read from beginning to end in a couple hours). Feel free to use a version of the play (such as SparkNotes’s No Fear Shakespeare) that offers the Bard’s text on one side and a modern-language “translation” on the facing page.
It seems like a lot. But it all boils down to this basic advice: see the play, then read the play. Lather, rinse, repeat.
(photo: Twelfth Night at Lincoln College, Oxford, by Danny Chapman)