I promised when I began writing this column that it would be about books that you would enjoy reading rather than books you should read. I’ll admit that Shakespeare comes perilously close to breaking that promise. He isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Shakespeare is an acquired taste. But so is beer, and I’ve found both to be worth the effort.
I’ll admit that I first started reading Shakespeare because I thought that I should at least give him a try. At first it was a challenge, and I was pleased with myself when I found I could understand what was going on. The more I read the better I understood, and I was able to pay attention to things such as character and plot in addition to just action. Before long, I found myself actually enjoying the plays, especially some of the really outrageous characters such as Richard III.
Now there are a number of plays, Henry V and Macbeth especially, that I can go to when I need some comfort and fun (if regicide and geopolitical conflict is your idea of a good time).
The meter is the thing
The problem with Shakespeare is that he has to be translated. His 17th century English isn’t exactly a foreign language to 21st century readers, but it isn’t familiar, either. On top of that, he used a lot of slang and idiom, which are notoriously changeable. The slang of 20 years ago is quaint. That of 400 years ago is unintelligible. When you add to this his punning and wordplay with words whose meaning, usage and pronunciation have changed, the result can make for some pretty slow going.
But the real challenge is the meter. Shakespeare didn’t just write dialog, he wrote in iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter isn’t particularly difficult; it’s just a series of words or syllables of alternating stress: daDUM daDUM daDUM . . . . If you read his lines and ignore the meaning you can hear this pattern. But I find it difficult to pay attention to the meter while reading for meaning. When the writer has to maintain this meter it affects word choice and order, which makes for some unnatural phrasing.
But although Shakespeare is obtuse, he is not opaque. Reading him is like looking at an impressionist painting; it’s easier to understand if you look at the whole rather than the details. If you don’t obsess over the meaning of every word or line, you find at the end of a page or a scene that you get what is going on. The more you read, the easier it gets until eventually you find yourself not merely understanding, but enjoying.
At least I hope you will enjoy. As I said, Shakespeare isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. I haven’t read all of the plays, and some I like more than others. I tend toward the tragedies and histories. His comedies, not so much. I guess tragedy translates better than comedy over 400 years.
Henry V goes in and out of favor because of what has been called its war mongering. Not surprisingly it was popular during World War II, but much less so in the 1960s. But you have to admire it has style, right from the first lines of the prologue:
O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention:
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
And Henry’s response to the dauphin’s (the heir to the French throne) insulting gift is absolutely chilling.
Macbeth is great character study. The title character is not really sympathetic, but I can’t hate him completely. His equivocations about killing his king could be just weakness, but I see them as sparks of essential goodness trying to come through. Unfortunately they are not strong enough to withstand Lady Macbeth, who has no qualms at all about murder.
You might prefer a comedy or a romantic tragedy that you already know, such as Romeo and Juliet. There’s a good chance that you already have some Shakespeare around the house, and if not, you can find him easily at your nearest library. Give it a shot, and see if you think it’s worth reading.