When watching the recent Hollow Crown series, broadcast by the BBC, I was struck by a rather odd and yet somehow very empowering thought. The Hollow Crown was an excellent series of adaptations of William Shakespeare’s Henriad plays (Richard II to Henry V respectively) and is worthy of a watch by anyone seriously interested in both history and English Literature while it’s still on iPlayer.
The thought I had was a simple one, and yet is also influenced by things I feel I must explain, and it is this, if you start on the first day of any given month you could read/watch the complete works of Shakespeare in just over a month if you devote a night to one play, and within one, two, three, or four nights for the complete poems. Let us be fair and allow some off-days, and say reading/watching the entire works of Shakespeare could take no more than a month and a half, which is in no way a great expenditure of time.
This relates to The Hollow Crown in an interesting way. Over the course of watching The Hollow Crown I recorded them on my parents Sky box and starting with Richard II gave basic background information to parents as they watched it about the subjects in the play themselves. This was nothing extensive, just explaining about The Great Chain of being that often recurs in Shakespeare’s work, and explaining more difficult passages, nothing that could not also be answered with a quick Google search. I found with Richard II a few questions were asked during the play, but not as many as expected. Over the course of Henry IV part 1 no questions where asked. What I guess the lesson of this is: with enough exposure to the old-fashioned style of English the sense of strangeness that can so easily put people off the plays quickly disappears. In fact I often find that the more someone is exposed to Shakespeare’s language the easier it becomes to understand.
So then, why do not more people try it? I suspect that it is because Shakespeare has the reputation of being ‘boring’, or perhaps worse, being difficult. The charge of Shakespeare being difficult is worse than being boring is because Shakespeare is very funny and very eventful, but it can be a struggle for some getting used to the language and the way it is spoken. Also, it must be said, Shakespeare is taught so poorly in schools that it is no wonder a large number of people are turned off him. Here are three ways which are, in my eyes, good at introducing Shakespeare to someone:
1) Explain some of the background to the plays briefly. Simply the nature of the Great Chain of being and the Divine Right of Kings (both recurring themes in Shakespeare) and the nature of Tragedy and Comedy. The nature of Tragedy and Comedy can be best explained in a single sentence, and is phrased for us by Lord Byron: ‘All tragedies are finish'd by a death,’ and ‘All comedies are ended by a marriage’.
2) Start with a beginner friendly play, not something like King Lear or The Tempest, but something simpler, and yet still dramatic such as Macbeth. It might be best to start with the Henriad, as it introduces some of Shakespeare’s best plays, and are generally simple in both language and story.
3) Shut up! At first, not understanding a scene can leave you lost, and a scene by scene retread might be required before viewing a production for those who do get lost. But other than this, nothing is more off-putting than being asked the typical school questions of ‘What do you think this means?’ or ‘What does that make you feel?’
With these three rules (let us call them rules for sake of clarity) it would still be difficult to completely turn someone in favour of Shakespeare without the full effort of the person you are trying to introduce Shakespeare too. This seems obvious, but with the atmosphere around Shakespeare of being ‘difficult’ and ‘boring’ and with both of these being widespread and easy to believe that it must be stated. How, then, is the best way to deal with this?
Unfortunately, this is an impression that might be too strong to properly introduce Shakespeare to everyone who might enjoy him, and very difficult to combat without a restructuring in the way Shakespeare is taught. The problem has a lot to do with the way Shakespeare is taught in schools. In this case my three rules might also be of use. It might also be best to introduce him earlier to children – since I grew up in an area with the three-tier education system my introduction to Shakespeare was in high school (around twelve to school-leaver) and at this point I already thought I would not like Shakespeare, thinking him ‘difficult’ and ‘boring’ and that affected the amount of interest I had in those classes. What also did not help was that the play we did, Romeo and Juliet, seemed to us boys too feminine at the time, something the girls would like and not us.
I had known of Shakespeare before, obviously, and actually I rather enjoyed as a child reading a collection of Shakespeare’s stories, mostly the Tragedies if memory serves me right, translated for children into simple modern prose, called something like ‘Tales from Shakespeare'. However, while I was aware of the stories, and I knew I liked the stories, I thought I would loathe the plays themselves, and thus I sat through lesions not engaging fully with the subject. It actually took university, and doing a module on Shakespeare for me to change my mind on him and his plays, and I, I suppose, am lucky in this respect because I was given a second chance to engage with the subject – and this time around, and without prejudice, I found it a much more enjoyable experience.
I had to do Shakespeare at university because, with my doing an English degree, many people, especially employers, we were told, do not consider a degree full if you do not know Shakespeare. I was able to engage with Shakespeare a second time around because I generally did not care about my own past prejudice against him.
The Hollow Crown series would probably not have seen a fantastic number of viewers, but what is good about it is that the series could have been recording on a good number of Sky boxes, and it got people talking about Shakespeare again in ways they have not done for some years. It also provided excellent, modern adaptations of the Henriad, perhaps Shakespeare’s easiest plays to be introduced to, and if they introduced someone to Shakespeare, who previously did not appreciate him (maybe a previously disinterested boyfriend of an English Student perhaps, or a disinterested wife of a husband who always had an interest, but was too scared to tackle the full thing) then the series can be said to have done something excellent. Even if this did not happen, and it was only people already fans of Shakespeare who watched it, then the series still has considerable merit by any standard. However, no one ever said that Shakespeare did not take some getting used to.
Returning to my original thought. If one were to read the complete works of Shakespeare over the course of a month and a half, the entire prejudice against Shakespeare could very well be demolished. Enough exposure to Shakespeare does, and I have seen this numerous times, make the whole language barrier less and less intimidating, and less and less of a barrier. If everyone did this, who knows, maybe something magical could happen. Shakespeare was, and is, exceptional at bringing people together and creating joy. This is the primary reason why his works have survived four-hundred years.
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