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Why Read Shakespeare?

by Miriam Downey 10. January 2014 08:36

It is pretty hard to escape knowing about William Shakespeare in western culture. His works are everywhere; from Shakespeare festivals, to movie adaptations of his plays, to community theater, to required reading for coursework. Why do we read Shakespeare?

First, Shakespeare's characters have a universality to them that transcend the language. When we see one of Shakespeare's characters, we recognize them despite the costume they may be wearing. We know about conniving businessmen, star-crossed lovers, people pretending to be something they are not, soldiers, politicians, and on and on and on. The plays of Shakespeare point out human characteristics that we understand.

Then, we hear phrases from Shakespeare as part of our common English language. Here are some phrases that we hear frequently that we may not know come from Shakespeare's plays.

  • vanished into thin air
  • refused to budge an inch
  • green-eyed jealousy
  • played fast and loose
  • tongue-tied
  • a tower of strength
  •  in a pickle
  • knitted your brow
  • fair play
  • slept not one wink
  • too much of a good thing

Finally, there are illusions to Shakespeare's plays over and over in the movies that we watch. I remember how thrilled I was when I first saw the musical West Side Story and  realized that it was the story of Romeo and Juliet. Did you realize that The Lion King is based on the play Hamlet? Forbidden Planet from 1956 is a science fiction retelling of The Tempest. 10 Things I Hate About You is based on The Taming of the Shrew. Watching any of these movies would be a great follow-up to reading the plays. Of course, there are movie versions of the original plays as well. When I checked YouTube, I realized that full length Shakespeare plays can be found there. Sometimes watching the movie after reading the play helps to understand the play better.

One final note, reading Shakespeare's plays is often a bit difficult for most students when they are first exposed to them. It helps to read the play out loud, especially if you have a couple of people to take the different parts. However, the very best way to understand Shakespeare is to go and see a live production. Many colleges and universities stage Shakespeare plays on a yearly basis as do community theaters. It also helps to read a synopsis of the play before you begin. A great source of the stories is Charles and Mary Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare. Although written for children, the stories are great for any age.

All the plays of Shakespeare can be found online at the website The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Here's a plan: read a synopsis of the story in Tales from Shakespeare, then read the play and follow it up with a movie version on YouTube. Look for phrases you recognize and find characters that you can identify with. The experience of reading Shakespeare will be better if you do it with purpose.

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