I’ve always loved words, but it wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I encountered the unsettling assumption that all word people love William Shakespeare. Sure, I felt that it was a good thing to read Shakespeare and I really did enjoy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but you wouldn’t find me standing on my bed in a thunderstorm reciting The Tempest or joining Team Love or Team Infatuation in heated lunchroom debates over Romeo and Juliet. I knew all the important quotations: “To be or not to be,” “Alas, poor Yorrick,” “Beware the ides of March,” “All the world’s a stage”…You know. The essentials.
Here I was, about to become an English major in college, and I could only quote Marc Antony’s speech from Julius Caesar and the entirety of Prairie Home Companion’s hilarious “Six-Minute Hamlet.” Sooner or later, they’d find out I was an imposter.
In the spring semester, however, I met the Bard.
My English class began reading Hamlet, and though I felt I had a pretty good grasp on the plot, it was difficult for me to see what the parade and marching band was for. The scenes were well-written, but without the help of narrative, adjectives, or adverbs that accompany other forms of fiction, it was easy to skim over the longer monologues that didn’t make it into the “Six-Minute Hamlet.”
Then, we got the unexpected news: a fieldtrip! But where would an English class go?
One sunny day, all of us reading Hamlet at the time were shuttled to a local theater for a performance. Settling into a squeaky seat, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It was my first time seeing Shakespeare staged.
From the beginning, the entire play came to life. Even the exchanges between the guards on the wall were dynamic, the soliloquys charged with emotion, and Hamlet teasing Polonius made me laugh out loud. I would have never thought Hamlet was a jokester. There was wit! There was agony! There was sarcasm! In the end, everyone still died, but it was such a good play.
And it was then I began to understand.
After this, my relationship with Shakespeare bloomed. For several of my birthdays, I took my friends to see whatever Shakespeare was playing in town. A Midsummer Night’s Dream was just as enchanting in person, and at As You Like It, I was convinced I’d never breathe again I was laughing so hard. On vacation in England, I got to see King Lear at the Royal Shakespeare Theater in Stratford-upon-Avon. As an undergraduate, I took a class on Shakespeare, studying the histories and comedies under a professor whose lectures and personal love for the Bard converted even the stodgiest of students into believers.
She pointed out the lines that might have been delivered to the expensive seats, the characters that would have been the groundlings’ heroes and the clever metaphors. She wasn’t afraid to show us where Shakespeare’s writing wasn’t at its best or admit that some plays were tighter than others on a technical level. Above all, like that performance of Hamlet, she taught us to see how the writing was meant to come to life.
Since then, I’ve seen many of his plays and read even more. I added more quotations to my mental library and now correct movies when they take license (It’s “Lay on, MacDuff,” as in “Come at me, bro”— not “Lead on.”). I took my love of words with me into a master’s degree, and during that time, I took another class on Shakespeare, this time going to his home country to study him on the page and the stage. There are few things more exciting than leaning on the stage at the Globe Theater and forgetting to worry about Macbeth stepping on your fingers because the monologue is so riveting. A friend and I read Richard III in a laundromat at midnight using funny voices. We, too, like to read dangerously.
Now when I read a play, I see how it’s meant to leave the page, how it’s meant to be heard and seen, how gestures, blocking, and costume change perception and reception. Delivery, and all the other actor’s tools, are just as much a part of Shakespeare as the sonnets and heroic couplets.
So for all of you who might not understand what all the fanfare is about, I urge you to meet Shakespeare in person. Hear how it’s supposed to sound from people who have studied old diction and know how those lines should arrive at your ear. Afterwards, when you read Shakespeare, read with a full cast of players in mind. Picture the stage and you might get a better sense of why the Bard’s words have lasted so long.
These stories were written for people.