You Don’t Have To Read Shakespeare To Love Him

Someone asked on Reddit, “What’s the best way to start with Shakespeare?

As expected there’s a bunch of “Don’t try to read him, instead go see a good version of the play” suggestions.  But the particular one upset me in its absolute stance on how bad reading is for you. Quoted briefly, but you should go read the whole thing at the link:

Put down your written copies of the plays. Now. You don’t have to read Shakespeare to love him. Unless you are in a play, or a serious student/scholar, you are not helping yourself or him by attempting to get satisfaction from the words on paper.

I have a big problem with this.  Rather than write it all down again I’ll quote my response.  I’m moving the discussion here because I know my audience better :).

While I appreciate the passion, I agree vehemently with your absolutism on the subject. 

Here’s the problem. Shakespeare’s dead. You will never, not in the next million years, ever see, nor should you want to see, Shakespeare’s plays as he intended them. 400 years have gone by, after all, and you won’t even begin to comprehend the state of mind that his audience was in when they saw them. You will be unable to set your knowledge aside and look at them with the same eyes and listen with the same ears. 

What you get, when you see Shakespeare’s plays today, is the specific interpretation of that director and those actors at that time. Which has nothing at all to do with what Shakespeare intended, other than what they can extract from the text, which is still nothing but interpretation. Again, the man’s dead. We need to stop pretending that we can know for certain what the “right” way to do it is. 

So why then is a certain interpretation of Shakespeare ever better than another? It’s not a question of better it’s a question of different and intriguing. You don’t want to see one, say “Ok, I’ve seen it”, and then check it off your bucket list. You want to see as many Hamlets as you can and then ponder why David Tennant played it a certain way that Kevin Kline did not. Or why Patrick Stewart as Claudius shrugs before drinking the poison. (Why oh why does he shrug?!) 

So, then, what you really want to do is see as many interpretations as you can. What do all those interpretations have in common? THE TEXT. 

How will you ever fully appreciate the Shakespeare that you are watching, unless you know the source material? Or at least the source material as close as we are able to reproduce it? 

Think of it like this. When you go see a play what you’re really saying is “Shakespeare gave this group of people a big block of marble, and what they did is they chipped away everything that, to them, didn’t look like Hamlet.” Wouldn’t you like to see the raw material that Shakespeare started with, and decide for yourself what parts you’d like to chip away? 

I could give a dozen examples. What if you saw 4 productions of Hamlet, all of which cut out Rosencrantz and Guildenstern the way Olivier did? You’d be none the wiser. Then you go and see a fifth version and here come these two guys and you’re all “WTF is the director doing adding these two bozos?!”

See/hear the plays in as wide and frequent a variety as you can find, absolutely. You will learn and understand them by seeing them. I don’t deny that. But to truly internalize them and get rid of all the middle men between you and Shakespeare? Absolutely read them.


The Shakespeare Geek blog has been around since 2005, making it the oldest continually active Shakespeare blog today. Shakespeare is Universal represents our biggest fund-raising effort to date. For almost eight years and almost three thousand posts I’ve tried my best to make a place where everyone can talk about everything related to the subject of Shakespeare. If you’ve found my sites and products useful and interesting, I would greatly appreciate your support so that I can continue to do even more. Thank you.

3 thoughts on “You Don’t Have To Read Shakespeare To Love Him

  1. Patrick Stewart shrugs as the only VISIBLE choice as an actor needing to tell the audience his feelings. Perhaps he looked at Gertrude before he shrugged realizing there is no other choice but death since she's gone. Yes, one should see as many Hamlets (or Midsummer Night's Dream, my favorite) for many interpretations & NOT the way Shakespeare wrote it. Necessarily!

  2. "Patrick Stewart shrugs as the only VISIBLE choice as an actor needing to tell the audience his feelings."

    –He shrugs as the ONLY visible choice? In my opinion,there is no such thing as an ONLY choice, visible or otherwise, of any kind to an actor–especially to a good actor and especially in Shakespeare–which is why his choice was particularly disturbing.
    Even if it were the 'only' choice, one wouldn't have to look as frighteningly reminiscent of Alfred E. Neuman, saying "What, me worry?", as Stewart did in the exercise of the choice.

  3. "Armed with a facsimile of the folio, a simply edited but not-too-punctuated modern text, a glossary of archaic words and those that have changed their meaning, and an understanding of how Shakespeare guides his actors with his form, it is still possible to approach any of his texts with the confidence that they will be understood. Shakespeare's advice to the players is still potent."

    Sir Peter Hall 2003
    "Shakespeare's Advice to the Players"

    It takes a little more work than reading a mystery novel–but in many ways it's strikingly similar.

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