Many a potential fan has been turned off by being forced to read Shakespeare in school or by being dragged to see a badly staged and acted version of one of Shakespeare's plays. Nearly all of us as school-children were forced to endure turgid study sessions of Shakespeare plays because it was “good for us.”
Admittedly, reading a play by Shakespeare can be puzzling. Many of the words are foreign to us. In Henry IV, Part II we have this tirade: “Away, you scullion! You rampallion.” (Ruffian.) “You fustilarian!” (A made-up word like “fussy.”) “I'll tickle your catastrophe!” (A popular phrase of the time.)
The phrasing can also be confusing. When Juliet calls from the balcony and laments, “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” the reader assumes she means, “Where?” Yet, Juliet is saying, “Why are you Romeo?” In other words, “Why must you be an enemy of my family, which will keep us apart.”
But seeing a play performed, either onstage or as a movie, is a joy. Some producers have staged lavish versions of Shakespeare's plays with great actors who take what seems to be incomprehensible language and make it sing.
Take director Laurence Olivier's Henry V, in which he also starred. Olivier said he designed the film for “people who believed that Shakespeare was not for the likes of them.”
After watching Sir John Gielgud's stage performance in Hamlet, a critic wrote, “The voice of John Gielgud introduced me to classical acting and now I can't read Hamlet without hearing it.”
Of course, there are some performances that go beyond the bounds of good taste, such as James Cagney acting in a 1935 movie version of A Midsummer Night's Dream. He was said to be a “cross between a Chicago Hood and the Ugly Duckling.”
Mickey Rooney, who played Puck at age fifteen in A Midsummer Night's Dream, said later, “I never read Shakespeare before or since.”
Other movie stars have attempted Shakespeare on the screen to less than glowing reviews, such as actor Tony Curtis as the evil Iago in Othello. Walter Matthau was just as ill-cast in the same part. Humphrey Bogart didn't fare any better in a radio adaptation of Henry IV.
No doubt Orson Welles presented the most original performance of Macbeth when he staged the play in Haiti during the nineteenth century and titled it “Voodoo Macbeth.” Although it was a success, one has to wonder what Shakespeare would have thought seeing his play lifted from Scottish heath and dropped on an island.
Even with the vast number of interpretations of the plays, there is no question that studying Shakespeare requires some effort. But it is worth the mental effort. He takes us into a different world, introduces us to deviant people, and makes us listen to them talk in a way that at first seems almost incomprehensible. But his characters are, in fact, remarkable and recognizable. Just pick up the newspaper or turn on the television, and chances are you'll recognize people in the modern world who bear a resemblance to Shakespearean characters.
Shakespeare's genius was to capture, perhaps for the first time in the English language, the deep and troubling complexities and passions that we are all slave to.
Shakespeare also helped to invent the language we now know as English. He wrote at a time when English was evolving from a form called Middle English, which was part Germanic and part French, into the language we recognize today. He invented words and played with the language. Even audiences in his day did not understand everything he wrote any better than we do today. He was a poet with a poet's sensibilities, and his use of speech and his inventiveness reflect that.
So, let's investigate the world of the man who proclaimed in As You Like It: “All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Let's see if he can't teach us a thing or two about ourselves and the world around us.