Learning Shakespeare: A Layman’s Guide

The  four sections that will be covered with details and suggestions:
Step 1) I always try to see the play first (Step 2 explains why).
Step 2) Read the play after seeing it.
Step 3) Watch the DVD
Step 4) Listen to the audio drama

Maryland Shakespeare Festival - Their "Bare Bards" are a must see!

So what’s this all about anyway?
I’ve decided after talking to a friend to share the steps I’ve taken to learn, and understand Shakespeare’s plays. And to show how I’ve attempted to get a pretty decent layman’s knowledge of each plays plot, character, language.  I have very little college education, and no formal training in Shakespeare, or the English language. Just a passion for some of the most incredible words ever put in print. I came up with this method listed below out of my decision to make Shakespeare a lifetime of enjoyment.

Also’ keep in mind, you don’t have to be rich to enjoy seeing Shakespeare live. Before I saw my first play, I use to think these plays would cost a fortune to see, but that is just not the case. One of the reason’s I started this blog was to find and keep track of all the free and lower priced Shakespeare that I could find in my area. Living around Washington DC, I found that I am fortunate to have at least a couple well produced free plays a year to choose from, and quite a few from $10 to $40 to see in between.

How I study Shakespeare.
My goal is to see each Shakespeare play performed live before I’ll read it. So as you can image, this goal may take several years if not a full decade to accomplish. And if your as impatient as I am, this makes each new play a wonderful and exciting experience, and full of absolute anticipation. So far I’ve seen about 20 separate plays live, several of them more than once, and can’t wait for the next. I’ve listed the steps below because they work for me. And I’ve found that each step adds to the next, by opening different levels of understanding each and every time I dig a little deeper into each play.

Step 1) I always try to see the play first (Step 2 explains why).

If you have never seen a Shakespeare play live, try to find a company that specializes in Shakespeare. If you can find one that uses “original staging practices”, you are in for a treat. To quote  a prior post.

The Maryland Shakespeare Festival

One of my favorite local Companies

“Original staging practices”, which means the lights, stay on, the costuming and staging may be minimal, the players generally play multiple parts, and there’s generally some sort of audience interaction. And by audience interaction this could include a bawd sitting on your lap for half a scene (taunting your wife), to you being pulled onto the stage by Sir John Falstaff as he recruits rouges and wretches to be cannon fodder in his dismal platoon! These plays my friend are generally a lot of fun.”

Finding plays to see live can actually be pretty simple. Just go to Google.com, type in your state or local area, type “Shakespeare”, maybe the word “live”, and cross your fingers! Try checking the entertainment section of your local paper, or check your Library. If you can find someone to make a suggestion, or find an actual  review of a play, even better. Because Shakespeare is like a fine steak, when done right, there’s nothing better, but when done wrong, it’s boring, and tough, and a chore to get though.

For the Maryland, Virginia or Washington dc area you can check the “Web Links” on the Home page for some local theater company’s

Once you find a play to see, don’t worry if you’ll understand what their saying during the play. For the first 15 minutes or so, you’ll do a lot of “Huh”, and “Wha’de say”, but soon your ears will catch up, and your brain will start translating for you. A good Company will clue you into what’s going on just by their stage antics. Let’s face it, if there’s a wild-eyed actor on the stage, waving a knife yelling, “I’m gonna MUR-BUR you!” You probably have a good idea what’s going to happen next. Not to mention most theater company’s will provide you with a program guide that almost always has an act by act synopsis of the play to guide you along.

What play to see? Everyone has their own favorites, and if you ask 5 different people they’ll give you 5 different answers. Everyone wants a list though, so fine, this is my list for this week. Ask me next week and I’m sure it’ll have changed.

Macbeth – Witch’s, ghost, murder and prophecy. A very haunting play

Hamlet – Defines the word Tragedy.

King Lear – If Hamlet doesn’t define “Tragedy” then Lear does.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – One word covers this entire play, Magical.

Twelfth Night. – Everyone’s in love with someone, but that someone’s in love with someone else. And if you happen to be a woman dressed as a man, that get’s really confusing.

Where I saw Macbeth

Macbeth was the PERFECT first play for me to see!  But someone else may suggest a comedy (For good reason). Depending on your area, you may not have a lot of choice. But if you get lucky, and the Company performing the play knocks it out of the ball park, trust me, you’ll be hooked. If you didn’t like that one though, there’s plenty more. Don’t give up.  There’s a reason why he’s remained so popular for so long, so do yourself a favor and try another one.

Step 2) Read the play after seeing it.

Why not read the play first so you’ll understand what’s going on while you’re watching it?  That takes away the surprises. Who wants to spend $10.00 at the movie theater to see a murder mystery if someone tells you before hand the butler did it. Once again, if the play is well acted, trust me, you’ll know what’s going on.

Here's the set I was lucky enough to find on sale for $60.00

Get yourself a nice annotated copy of the play, I personally have the Penguin Hardback collection, and have found the annotations invaluable. But there are many different versions out there, check out the library, or local book stores for examples. Or read the reviews on Amazon.com to get others opinions from around the country.

REMEMBER! Don’t get frustrated as you start to read, go slow, your brain will catch on. If you’ve already seen the play, you know the basic plot. So enjoy the language, notice how the words flow. For example in Richard II, the lower classes speak in prose (normal speaking style), while the upper classes use poetry for their speech, but in such a natural, flowing manner, you may not even notice.

If you think it’s dirty, it probably is! So you have your nice little annotated version, your reading it, and SURPRISE. You may not have noticed it as much seeing the play live, but Shakespeare loved a dirty joke, and very often (please cover Grandma’s eyes) references certain male and female parts of the human anatomy to humorously make his point. I’ll let you in on some secrets. If Shakespeare uses the French in a reference (which he does quite a lot), he’s talking about contracting a sexually transmitted disease. Hair loss? Same thing. Any references to “Horns”, almost ALWAYS means some man’s wife is cheating on him.

People tend to think that to read Shakespeare, you almost have to learn a new language. Not so in the least, you already know the language, it’s more like learning an all the new slang, (Except this slang is really really old slang). But it’s the same thing.  Hang around a new crowd long enough, and you’ll learn their slang pretty quickly. Start reading Shakespeare, and the same thing will happen. What may sound obscure the first time you read it, will become routine after a while.

Step 3) Watch the DVD

Ian McKellen as Richard III

After I’ve read the play, and had a chance to learn some new words and historical facts by reading the annotations, it’s time to find a good DVD version to watch. My first stop is the “Internet Movie Data Base” also known as IMDB. This is movie Mecca, this site lists just about every movie in existence,  (Including, quite possibly, your Aunt Sally’s home videos). Shakespeare alone has 783 movies credited to him on this site


Since Shakespeare has so many to choose from, lets see if I can help narrow down some good choices for the current play you would like to see. Click here for:

The order that they were filmed
List by Ratings

As a general rule I check the “List by ratings”, starting at the top and working down, looking for the highest rated DVD of the play I’m interested in watching.  Just click on the link for the play, and your presented with tons of information to help you select version to watch first. At the bottom of the page is the “User Reviews”, this is where I head to find out two important things.

A) How is the text presented.
There are some versions that use the complete text of the play, such as Kenneth Branagh’s 4 hour version of Hamlet. Then there are versions that edit out text, or create/invent lines, or sometimes just give you the meat of the play with out the underlying subplots. They do this to fit the play into Hollywood’s 2 hour comfort zone such as Mel Gibson and Franco Zeffirelli’s 2 hour version of Hamlet. It’s hard to say what version you might enjoy the most, but for me I’m in it for the Shakespeare, so I want as complete a text as possible, other versions are just icing on the cake. Not that I am against creative license. One of my all time  favorite movies is a Japanese version of Macbeth called “Throne of Blood”.Set in Feudal Japan, the costumes, language and culture might be different, but the spirit and themes of Macbeth are still there, and stunningly presented.

A Witch from "Throne of Blood"

B) How is the play presented?
I love to watch a DVD of a live performance, and am always on the lookout for them. A good example of this is the 1976 version of The Taming of the Shrew, this for me is the must see Shrew. Shakespeare in my book is just meant to be seen in front of a live audience.

Then there’s versions created for Television that are outstanding. These are not generally performed live in front of an audience but “Staged” in a studio. Staying with the “Shrew” theme there is an amazingly fun version of the Taming of the Shrew where someone was both daring, and brilliant enough to cast John Cleese  (Of Monty Python fame) in the lead role.

But let’s not leave Hollywood out of this. There are just some very beautifully filmed versions out there such as the ever popular Romeo and Juliet directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Then there’s a reinterpretation of Richard III that moves the play to World War II that does a great job of capturing the spirit of the play, but in a more modern context.

But to keep it plan and simple, I look for a DVD version that has most of the complete text still intact. How it’s presented is up in the air, based on the rating’s and others suggestion.

Getting your hands on the DVD.
There are several options for finding a DVD of that play. Here are some of my favorites:

Netflix.com: Seems they have dozens of Shakespeare titles in stock. Netflix’s has a $10.00 monthly plan, that allows one movie out at a time. But the cool thing about this plan is that you can stream all the movies you want (Watch instantly) over the internet included in that same $10.00. Since I use a computer running Windows Media Center connected to my TV, this is a great option. Especially when you consider the joys of streaming Shakespeare instantly. Using the same “Shrew” example above, here’s the John Cleese in the BBC version waiting to be instantly watched.

Amazon.com: This is one of the places I go when I want a hard to find a version of a play. I just recently purchased  The Royal Shakespeare Companies 2005 version of the Winter’s Tale, Amazon is usually pretty fast, and I don’t think I have ever had an issue with anything purchased from them.

EBay.com: Another great play to find those hard to find plays, or plays at a great price. This is where I got a copy of the incredibly fun version of the Taming of the Shrew performed live in 1976.

The BBC TV Shakespeare Collection [DVD]. PRICED $130.00! This has EVERY Shakespeare play on DVD. Before you get to excited, this is from AMAZON UK, and ordered from England (Very easy to do). These DVD’s will not play in a standard US DVD Player, but there are simple ways around that too.
In the 70’s the BBC in England set out to perform, and record live in studio, ALL of Shakespeare’s plays using some of the most experienced Shakespearean actor’s at that time. One of their criteria when creating these performances  (If I remember correctly) was to use ALL of the text of a play, and other than a few minor examples I believe they achieved this. Some of the plays are unevenly done, but for the most part this collection contains some of the best version’s you can find of many of Shakespeare’s plays. Here is a link that goes into great detail about this collection, the actors and directors , and how all the plays came to be recorded. I really love this collection and it looks great on my bookcase. I also love the fact I can watch any Shakespeare play anytime I want. For those of you who don’t feel the need to own all the plays (really?), the owner of the wonderful web site orwhatyouwill has pointed out, that Netflix.com appears to have most of these plays available for rent.

Watching the Region 2 (Non-US) BBC DVD Collection: There’s a couple of options here. Since I have a PC connected to my television it’s very easy. There is a free (open-source) Media player called VLC Player that can play DVD’s from any region on any PC. This is how I watch the DVD’s. Another  option is to get a “Multi-region” DVD player. There are many out there, here’s a list of players that can be found at Amazon.com. This collection is worth what ever the effort.

Subtitles: One last tip when watching the DVD. I find it really useful to watch the play with the Subtitle on. I can ignore the subtitles, but when the words start moving outta that actors mouths at warp speed, at least I can understand what their saying.

4) Listen to the audio drama

After I’ve seen, read, and watched a DVD of the play, now it’s time to  listen to the audio version. I know all the characters and settings by heart, so now I can just focus on the joy of the words. Listen to the poetry in the dramatic exchanges, the humor of a fools wisdom, and the sound of loss in the face of triumph.  I can close my eyes and listen, and let the characters act out the play in my mind. Or listen while driving to work in rush hour, where I can focus on a Kings fool, instead of the one in front of me.

Where to find the Audio Drama
The number one cheapest source of Shakespeare audio dramas is the local library. The Montgomery County Library where I live has the complete Arkangel Productions. There are several other productions out there, and I would like to get others opinions on those. But I have thoroughly enjoyed and loved the Arkangel Productions.

For more information about the Arkangle Shakespeare collection with details and reviews:
Amazon.com link on the Complete Arkangel collection

So where does that leave me.
I really love digging into Shakespeare this way, and at every step I feel a deeper and deeper understanding. I know I could take a Shakespeare class first and learn everything they think I should know. But this way I’m learning by listening and watching, and thus able to form my own opinions. I remember reading that the Winter’s Tale is considered one of Shakespeare’s lesser works. Really? I love that play. I’m glad I read that opinion after seeing the play.

Maybe this is me being defiant, taking Shakespeare back from the scholars. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, “Shakespeare didn’t set out to write some high art to be viewed at a distance in some museum. He was writing “Three’s Company” for the masses.”

This meant to be a work in progress, since I am always in the hopes of continuing to learn how to learn. And one way I learn is by your suggestions – Thanks Jamie

12 Responses

  1. […] Learning Shakespeare: A Layman’s Guide […]

  2. LOL I watch nearly all DVDs with the subtitles on!! It definitely helps whenever there is quick talking or accents. I must read much faster than I hear (some odd brain quirk of mine!) so I turn the subtitles on even with regular, modern American movies! 🙂

    A little secret of mine… if I want to watch something a second time, but don’t want to put the time in, I run it on fast forward with the subtitles on. I can read the subtitles and see the whole movie in half the time. 🙂

    Interesting about the BBC productions. I think Netflix has the DVDs and they don’t mention anything about compatibility…. I haven’t gotten to any of them yet, but they’re in my queue. Here’s the Shrew (if the link works): http://www.netflix.com/Movie/Shakespeare_Comedies_The_Taming_of_the_Shrew/70015613?strackid=6b671fec6b783f5d_17_srl&strkid=1338265540_17_1&trkid=496833

    • Hi – I have added this “For those of you who don’t feel the need to own all the plays (really?), the owner of the wonderful web site orwhatyouwill has pointed out, that Netflix.com appears to have most of these plays available for rent.”


  3. “I know I could take a Shakespeare class first and learn everything they think I should know. But this way I’m learning by listening and watching, and thus able to form my own opinions.”

    Jamie, don’t sell yourself short. What you’re doing is way beyond what you’d get out of taking some classes. You’ve found a way to immerse yourself in something you love. That’s the big thing.

    I don’t look at Cliff’s notes and am not planning on doing any reading about the plays (except the notes in the front of the Penguin books) before I blog about them. At this point, I’m where you are… I want to mull the plays over by myself and reach my own conclusions and talk to my blog readers about the plays.

    Maybe down the road when I have more familiarity I will want to look at some scholarly stuff.

    All that to say, I think you’re doing the right thing for you!

    • Yeah… I am enjoying the way I have chosen to look a the plays. The only “Scholarly stuff” I have picked up on is not Shakespeare related in the manner of the plays, but documentaries, and some readings about the time period that Shakespeare wrote. It’s bazaar to think that these prim and proper Shakespeare’s plays were first being performed, just down the road was another popular (and maybe more respected) type of entertainment. “Bear Baiting” (Live bears fighting real dogs). Shakespeare alludes to bear-baiting in Macbeth: “But, bear-like, I must fight the course”.

  4. What a labour of love! Well, I started by reading all of the plays slowly and with the notes. As soon as I realized that the meaning of the text was right there with a little help from the notes I had a similar experience as you. I discovered “the most incredible words ever put in print.” About the time I was going to run out of plays to read I started going to the shows and once again I was blown away by Shakespeare. The theater renews the gift of the words. Shakespeare just gives and gives and gives.

    My method runs against the grain of yours. Knowing how the play is written beforehand has turned me into a critical theatergoer, but that never ruins the performance, because no one can ruin Shakespeare as long as the actors read the text.

    While I’m at it, I’ll just say that reading the plays has really helped me understand literature in general. Shakespeare has such gravity that all authors pay him homage in their works. The more you know Shakespeare the more you pick up the references dropped in every book. Catcher in the Rye and Crime and Punishment are just two. Even more interesting is that you can start to see why Shakespeare and classical literature in general is so much better than the tidal wave of garbage that is passed off is ‘just as good.’ Of course, defending this position must be as imprecise as can be, but I believe Shakespeare is able to do so much with so few words, metrically, thematically, dramatically, poetically, historically, etc. that we are left with the impression of something divine and magical.

    Thank you for sharing.

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