Why You Should Read Shakespeare + My Favorite Plays
I’m Katie with our very first post on The Inkhorn! Yay! I’m here today with something near and dear to my heart: Shakespeare. Anyone who knows me knows that I love Shakespeare. In fact, he’s one of the few things I talk about. I’ve lost track of how many poorly executed amateur Shakespeare productions I’ve been in, nor how many of his plays I’ve read and seen. It’s safe to say that Will and I are friends- or at least I’d like to think we’d be.
I know that a lot of teenagers brush off the idea of reading his plays because the language is difficult and the stories are boring. If only I could tell them they’re wrong! Okay, I will admit that the language is hard at first but just like with everything else, it gets easier with practice. Trust me. The first Shakespeare play I ever read was A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Was I confused? Extremely. I understood that somebody had a donkey head but that was about it. But now having read and acted a lot of Shakespeare, it’s no longer foreign. In all honesty, it sometimes makes more sense to me than some text abbreviations that I have to look up (It took me four months to figure out what smh and fomo mean). If you don’t believe me, let’s practice with a few quotes:
I’m sure you’ve heard this one before!
“To thine own self be true.” ~ Polonius, Hamlet
Yep, you got it! Shakespeare’s telling us to stay true to ourselves.
Okay, this one’s a little harder:
“Swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon,
That monthly changes in her circled orb,
Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.” ~ Juliet, Romeo and Juliet
You think you got it? Juliet’s asking Romeo to not swear by the moon because it changes as it goes through its phases. She believes a promise made by the moon is prone to change like it.
How about this one?
“Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” ~Cassius, Julius Caesar
I’m not going to give you the answer to this one. I believe that you can figure it out on your own! And no, that does not mean using No Fear Shakespeare. (Also, it bugs me how often this quote is wrongly attributed to John Green.)
Okay, maybe I didn’t bring out the heavy hitting stuff for those quotes, but I still think they’re good examples. The key to reading Shakespeare is breaking it down piece by piece. Maybe you’ll never figure out exactly what he’s trying to say, but that’s okay! The point is that you’re learning a new skill and it’s going to take some time to get good at it. And besides, you’ll usually get the gist of it. For example, let’s take the second quote. First, we have Juliet telling Romeo not to swear by the moon, which she calls inconstant. Why isn’t the moon constant? It goes through phases. If we couldn’t figure that out, we would look at the next line. Monthly changes? Once again, this should signal to you that the moon is not consistent. Now, let’s look at the last line: “Lest thy love prove likewise variable.” What does that mean? Well, we see the word “likewise” so that should signal to us that she’s comparing his love to the moon. Now, we need to put it all together, so we end up with something like “Don’t swear by the inconsistent moon, who goes through phases, or your love will be inconsistent too.” See? That wasn’t that bad. Maybe it took us a while to get to the end, but trust me, give it one or two acts and you’ll won’t need to break down each passage like this anymore.
Let’s move onto the next complaint: it’s boring. I don’t even know if I should address this one because it’s simply not true. However, I do think that this goes back to the language being difficult to understand. I know when it’s hard to read something it can quickly become uninteresting, but give it a try and see what happens! I wouldn’t suggest this play to any beginners, but if you really think that Shakespeare is boring, check out a summary of Titus Andronicus. Yeah, it’s insane.
Now that’s out of the way, let’s get into the main reasons everyone should be reading Shakespeare. If you have anything to add, put it in the comments below!
It’ll Make You Smarter
Okay, this should be enough of a reason alone. When reading difficult texts, you’ll improve your vocabulary and your reading comprehension skills. This won’t just help you pass your English class with flying colors, it’ll also help you on the reading sections of the SAT and ACT. Who doesn’t want to improve their test scores, especially with college scholarships on the line? On top of that, you’ll also become a better writer. Have you ever been told that reading improves your writing? Well, it’s true! When reading, you’re actually studying words and sentence structure. When coupled with your newly enlargened vocabulary, you’ll definitely get an A on your next essay.
Shakespeare’s characters are so incredibly layered and developed that they put any character’s I’ve ever created to shame. There are so many different sides and motivations to each person in his plays that everyone seems three-dimensional- even the side characters who only show up for a moment, like Hecate and the Porter, have their own unmistakable personalities. If you’re a writer, Shakespeare’s works are excellent for studying character development. My personal favorite is Hal’s transition from a fun-loving slacker into a respectable king. There’ll be more on him later!
Seasons Change but People Don’t
Excuse the Fall Out Boy reference, I couldn’t help myself. All of Shakespeare’s characters are incredibly human, which means that his plays find the heart of human nature. The stories that he was telling in the 1600s still relate today. In the tragedies, people meet their downfalls because of their greed, ambition, and sinful natures, while in the comedies, he often exalts the power of love and friendship. This is why his plays are classic. They don’t focus on the setting, but instead the existence of humans, which makes them still relevant today. For years, people have been taking the plays out of their original settings and setting them in different time periods. I’m dreaming of one day directing 1920s versions of Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night and a Revolutionary War-era Macbeth. The only reason this can happen is that Shakespeare’s plays transcend time and are relatable in every era, not just the one in which they were written.
You’ll Impress Your English (and History) Teacher
I can honestly say that I’ve had more conversations about Shakespeare with my teachers than it’s cool to admit. In fact, the teacher who first introduced to Shakespeare and I talk all the time about different productions and adaptations we’ve seen recently. Are you reading Shakespeare in class? A great way to get into your teacher’s good graces is to talk about it outside of class with them. They’ll see that you’re engaged in what they’re teaching and maybe they’ll make you some recommendations for what to read next! I also promised you could impress your history teacher. How? Well, the obvious answer is the history plays, which were the reason I once had the order of English monarchs memorized. However, a lot of Shakespeare’s other plays tell us about the period he was living in too. Take Macbeth for example. Macbeth was actually a real person and a pretty good king (I’m considering posting an in-depth study on Macbeth soon, almost like a dramaturgy packet. Let me know what you think!), but Shakespeare twisted the story because James I was on the throne of England. If you’ve read the play, you know that it was prophesized by the witches that Banquo’s sons will be kings. Well, what you may not know is that James I was rumored to be a descendant of Banquo, so by writing Macbeth, Shakespeare validates James I’s claim to the throne. Also through Macbeth, we can see how the period viewed magic and witches. To further talk about politics in Shakespeare’s work, there is a theory that Caliban in The Tempest is actually not a monster, but a representation of the Irish. At the time, the Irish were under British rule (and would remain that way until 1922, but that’s another blog post) and were viewed as lesser than the English and sometimes were not even considered white. There’s a lot of sides to the history between the Irish and the English, which I’m not going to get mixed up in now (If you’re really interested, you can read up on theories about the Potato Famine and Oliver Cromwell to get started), but considering Caliban as an anti-Irish caricature definitely adds another interesting historical layer to the text. Another historical element to The Tempest is that many believe it to be inspired by the shipwreck of the Sea Venture in Bermuda. The ship was traveling to Jamestown carrying supplies when it was caught in a hurricane and was wrecked in the Carribean. William Strachey wrote a first-hand account of the wreck, which is generally believed to be the inspiration for Shakespeare’s play.
This may be the simplest reason and perhaps also the most overlooked one too. Shakespeare is funny! Read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example. Titania falls in love with a man who has a donkey for a head. Shakespeare makes fun of his own play Romeo and Juliet with the Mechanical’s production of Pyramus and Thisbe, which is hilarious in itself. Or, read Henry IV. There’s a scene where Hal stages a robbery of his friend, Falstaff, just to listen to him lie about it. The scene gets funnier as Falstaff’s lies get more and more incredulous. Or check out the scene where Hal and Falstaff spew insults at each other. Maybe it still isn’t making you laugh. The sad truth about Shakespeare is that is was meant to be watched and not read, so go find a production nearby. I know that there is usually a lot of outdoor Shakespeare happening in the summer and even better, it’s sometimes free. If you can’t go see a play, then at least memorize a few of The Bard’s insults to use on your friends. One of my personal favorites is “he has not so much brain as ear wax” from Troilus and Cressida.
My Favorite Plays
To finish up this post, I’m going to share with you a list of my favorite Shakespeare plays that I think anyone can enjoy! I hope you at least consider reading them, especially after everything I just shared with you.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
As I said above this play is hilarious, but there are also darker themes at play. Read it for love potion discourse and the Mechanicals, who have a special place in my heart, since I was once Robin Starveling in a production of this play.
Romeo and Juliet
This play’s a high school classic, which means that almost everybody’s read it. Even if it’s a cliche now, the language is beautiful and fairly easy to understand. Read it for Mercutio, a good laugh at Romeo’s whining, and a reminder that problems should be resolved by conversation and not faking your own death. Also, the Baz Luhrmann adaptation is pretty good (bonus points for a young Leo DiCaprio!)
Henry IV: Part 1
This may just be my favorite Shakespeare play ever. Hal is just so relatable. First of all, his cousin Hotspur is better at everything. So naturally, Hal’s dad wishes Hotspur was his son instead of Hal. He literally says this in the very first scene; the man wastes no time. Don’t believe me?
“O that it could be proved
That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged
In cradle-clothes our children where they lay,
And call’d mine Percy, his Plantagenet!
Then would I have his Harry, and he mine.” (1.1.85-9)
Ouch, right? It’s like at Thanksgiving Dinner when your overachieving cousin has just finished telling the entire family about their summer internship at the White House where they cured cancer and built rockets. You’re busy shoving mashed potatoes in your face when your grandmother asks you what you’ve been up to and you have to lie and pretend that you were busy when the only thing you’ve done for the last four months is binge Game of Thrones and be a disappointment. At least my parents have never said they wanted to trade me for my cousin… well, I don’t think they’ve ever said anything like that to my face, at least. If Hal couldn’t get anymore relatable, he also pretends to be lazy and incompetent to shirk his duties and lower everyone’s expectations of him, so when he actually does become king he can surprise everyone with how awesome he is. Read it for Hal and Falstaff, and the epic showdown at the Battle of Shrewsbury (“Thou art dust, Percy, and food for-“). Fun fact, I actually wrote my college essay about this play, so yeah, it’s that good.
This play is the next logical one to read after Henry IV: Part 1. You can read the second part, but you’re not really missing much besides Kate’s awesome monologue (It’s a great one, actors! I’ve done it before!), and Henry V is just so much better. Here we see Hal all grown up as King Henry and this is just another example of Shakespeare’s fabulous character development. Read it for the “Once more unto the breach” speech, sword-wielding Henry, discussion about the ethics of war, and the fact that Tom Hiddleston plays Henry in the Hollow Crown, one of my favorite adaptations of the play (sorry Kenneth Branagh (even if he had Emma Thompson!)and Laurence Olivier).
Ahh, Richard III. To be quite honest, I’m not even sure where to begin with this play. There are some awesome queens in this play, so if you felt like there was a lacking female presence in the last few, this one isn’t great in terms of representation, but it’s better. Richard is also another one of Shakespeare’s super interesting characters. Read it for “a horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse,” and lots of murder.
Another lighthearted play, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but this play also has dark undertones (Are Shakespeare’s comedies really comedies if Malvolio gets locked in the dungeon? Just asking.) We’ve got some girl power in this one (go Viola!) and a hilarious mix up due to cross dressing. Why is there always cross dressing in Shakespearean comedies? I’m not sure, but Rosalind and Viola would have a great time swapping stories. Also, She’s the Man is an adaptation of this play. Remember what I was saying about Shakespeare being timeless? Read it for Malvolio’s yellow stockings, Feste the fool, and the most convenient double wedding ever.
Like Romeo and Juliet, this is also classic high school fare, so I’m guessing that most of you have already read it. This play is so chock full of imagery and metaphors, it’s almost hard to keep track (underline every bird metaphor. I dare you). Lady Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most famous characters for a reason, so give it a read and decide whether or not Lady Macbeth is the villain for yourself. Read it for “what, you egg,” Lady’s Macbeth sleepwalking scene, Macbeth’s “sound and fury” speech (my favorite!), and lots of murder.
Okay, these last two plays weren’t actually written by Shakespeare, but they’re in the spirit of The Bard. Something Rotten is a musical about Nick Bottom, Shakespeare’s rival, who has difficulty coming up with his next great idea. I saw the touring cast and it was amazing! Watch it for Shakespeare in leather pants, songs about the plague and omelets, and a ton of musical references. Half the fun is just trying to catch them all (spoiler alert: it’s nearly impossible). The other show I highly suggest seeing is The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). I saw this live as well, but there are lots of videos of it on Youtube. Remember when Shakespeare said, “Brevity is the soul of wit?” These guys take that pretty seriously. It’s every single Shakespeare play condensed into about an hour and a half and it does not disappoint. Watch it for a lot of laughs, the football version of the histories, and Hamlet.
I hope this post inspired you to go read or watch some Shakespeare! When I first began reading Shakespeare I didn’t understand why he was so popular but now I get it- he manages to capture the human condition in each of his plays. There’s a reason he’s considered one of the best writers in the English language. Give him a try and see if you fall in love too. Let me know in the comments what your favorite Shakespeare play is; I’d love to hear from everybody!