Starter Plays

Saw this question on a different board, and thought it might make for good discussion.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that an adult, out of school, decides to start reading Shakespeare.  He asks, “What play should I start with?”

For the sake of discussion let’s take “Don’t read it, see it” off the table.  Given real world constraints this is almost always going to mean, “Get the DVD” which turns this into an entirely different discussion about whose version of which play is acceptable.

Given a willing, educated adult who wishes to start reading Shakespeare plays, where should he start? Make your case.

Do you pick a tragedy, a comedy, a history? Do you go with Midsummer because it’s supposedly so easy?  Personally I don’t think that one is easy at all to fully appreciate, I think that we teach it to young children entirely because of the fairy element and the silly Mechanicals.  But that one’s got some of the deepest poetry Shakespeare was capable of.

The best I could come up with for an answer went something like this:

There’s a moment when children learn to read that they go from “I recognize those letters” to “that group of letters is a word” to “that group of words is a sentence,” and so on.  There comes a moment in understanding Shakespeare that you go from, “Shakespeare wrote the following words on the page” to “I understand why this character said these words because I know what he is feeling at that moment.”  The play changes when that happens. Once that happens, you’ll never read the plays the same way again.

I realize that this doesn’t answer the question, but I think that it’s an important point to make.  If you read the plays as nothing more than words on a page and never escape that feeling that you are “decoding” or “translating” what Shakespeare meant, you’ll always be at a very shallow understanding of what you’re reading.  It won’t really be understanding at all.  It’s like Shakespearean reading comprehension.  Many children, when they learn to read, just go “word word word word word period word word word comma word word word…” in their heads, and nothing ever clicks to make them say, “Oh, ok!  I get what’s happening!”  I think that a very similar thing happens for most people when they try to understand Shakespeare.

If I have to pick a play, I’m going to say Hamlet.  I think that there are easier plays, but there’s more that goes into the question than simply which one is easiest or shortest. Hamlet is “popular” (every other page you’ll be spotting a modern cliche that came directly from the text). Hamlet is fairly easy to understand as far as plot goes. The character relationships (fathers and sons, men and women, brothers and sisters) are realistic.  Most importantly, there’s enough depth that you don’t just read it once and check it off your list.  You read it again and again and again and discover something new every time.

4 thoughts on “Starter Plays

  1. It would depend on the adult? Does this person like modernist drama? If so, I've heard it said that /King Lear/ is the finest modernist play ever written. (/Hamlet/'s up there, too, of course.) A Tarentino fan? Then /Titus Andronicus/ should do it quite nicely, considering it's the Bard's most Marlovian, and Marlowe was the early modern Tarentino (or Tarentino is the contemporary Marlowe). If a romantic, then I'd say /As You Like It/ because I love that play, but I think a beginner might not. Maybe /Twelfth Night/? (I've actually never read it, but from what I hear…) A political junkie? Than /1/ and /2 Henry IV/ and /Henry V/, of course. The addition of Falstaff's humour makes everything better. Though, come to think of it, if the hypothetical adult is sanguine, maybe you'd suggest a slight deferral of /2 Henry IV/. That play is so bleak.

  2. If anybody cares for a 13-year-old drama nerd's opinion, I would say maybe Romeo and Juliet. It's just a really great play, and the constant themes of love and hate are things everyone can enjoy and ponder.
    But if this adult prefers comedy, I do think Midsummer Night's Dream would be good. So much fun in it!

  3. Midsummer Night's Dream just isn't that easy to understand — couldn't recommend it to a novice. I love every line of Lear but a newbie's likely to find it too formidable. All things being equal, I'd recommend Julius Caesar or Othello — both compact, free of puzzling diversions, and intensely dramatic.

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