Don’t let the famous bard intimidate you.
William Shakespeare’s influence and impact on English literature can’t go unnoticed. Many people even believe that he was the greatest English writer who ever lived. Whether you agree with such high acclaim or not, his work is a big deal. With such high praise also comes the misapprehension that his work is impossible to read, that you need an extensive background in literature even to attempt to understand his plays.
But it’s not true — anyone can read and enjoy Shakespeare if they go about it the right way.
Shakespeare wrote his plays to be performed for everyone, and people enjoyed these stories no matter what educational background they had. Behind every seemingly complex soliloquy lies a dramatic plot or even just a sexual innuendo. Just because you didn’t enjoy studying Hamlet at school doesn’t mean that all hope is lost.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy to dive right in. These plays were written 400 years ago, and the language is obviously different from what we see and hear today. But it’s certainly possible.
So if you don’t know where to start, check out these five plays to find the perfect starting point, no matter what you’re looking for in a story.
For the Story: Romeo And Juliet
This is a great place to get started if you don’t want to lose track of the plot amidst the initially complex language. Romeo and Juliet is, without a doubt, the most famously tragic love story in the world. From West Side Story to Taylor Swifts ‘Love Story’, it’s been adapted too many times to count, and everyone knows the plot. Boy meets girl; they begin a forbidden romance, they die in a serious of tragic misunderstandings.
Speaking of adaptations, check out Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 adaptation Romeo + Juliet if you aren’t ready to dive headfirst into the text just yet.
Line for line, it’s one of the most accurate versions of the story, but the modern setting and cultural references make it the perfect adaptation for the modern audience. Once you’re ready to start reading, you can get used to the old language without worrying about missing key points of the plot.
For the Setting: A Midsummers Night’s Dream
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is not only one of the more performed plays, but it is widely regarded as the most accessible. This play has it all: romance, comedy, and fairies in an enchanted forest. What’s not to love?
If you find yourself getting lost in the plot, don’t be afraid to look up a synopsis or explainer video before you start reading — in my experience, it’s beneficial to get an idea of the plot before you start the text. The fairy-tale setting gives this whole work an irresistible, magical quality that translates perfectly on stage.
So let yourself get lost in the mysterious world — A Midsummer Night’s Dream doesn’t take itself too seriously, so why should you be intimidated?
For the Language: Julius Caesar
The unique thing about Julius Caesar is that the titular character is actually dead for most of the play, but his influence is felt from beginning to end. Telling the story of Caesar’s death’s lead-up and aftermath, this play is all about politics, conspiracy, and pure psychological drama. But what stands out the most is the beautiful language.
Shakespeare was really on top of his game with the iambic pentameter in this one, as every scene has a flawless rhythm and poetic sound. It would be easy for such a psychological and politically based play to be dry, but Shakespeare’s use of language brings it to life and makes it one of his finest works. Again, a quick look on Wikipedia to get the context of the play will go a long way.
For the Comedy: As You Like It
It’s easy to assume that a comedy written so many centuries ago wouldn’t hold up to today’s comedy standards. But As You Like It proves that some things never change. The plot is a little unrealistic — no one generally runs off to live in the forest or encounters quite so many disguises in their everyday life, but some scenes could easily have been written today.
When our protagonist Rosalind learns that Celia has seen her love Orlando, she exclaims:
“What did he when thou sawest him? What said he? How looked he? Wherein went he? What makes him here? Did he ask for me? Where remains he? How parted he with thee? and when shalt thou see him again? Answer me in one word.”
The Elizabethan equivalent of “oh my God, tell me everything”. Time has passed, but we really haven’t changed at all.
For the Dramatic Speeches: Macbeth
The original thriller. It’s not the longest play, but it is the most action-packed. It’s a story of ambition, of complex, morally questionable characters who push boundaries to make it to the top.
Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are two of the most fascinating characters in literary history, and you can be sure that there are some fabulous speeches as they consider prophecy and free will. This is another one that has plenty of exciting adaptations to check out.
There are plenty of ways to read Shakespeare, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t take to him straight away. Plot summaries, explainer videos and annotated versions are your friend, and finding the right adaptation to get you into the story is a valuable tool to getting into Shakespeare. So enjoy yourself!
Please note, this was originally published on Medium.com