Walk into any high school English class in the country and you’ll find students toiling over words like “forsooth” and “asquint.” Shakespeare’s plays are widely taught, but are they beloved? Out of all of those high school students currently reading Julius Caesar, are they doing it because of their desire to interpret the beautiful language of one of the world’s most famous playwrights or because they’ll fail if they don’t? Forget about high school students for a minute—what about adults? How many adults do you know who spend their free time reading the soliloquies of Hamlet or Macbeth?
Next month it will have been 400 years since William Shakespeare died. Four centuries of literary success is not a feat many can boast of. Shakespeare’s plays have stood the test of time, being adapted for film and the stage in too many ways to count, but I fear his time in the spotlight is running out. Students resort to tools like “No Fear Shakespeare” as the only way to understand his writing, and many make no effort to understand the plays in their original text once outside of the classroom. This treachery is similar to surviving off of meal replacement bars. Sure, they’ll keep you alive, but are you really living?
Admittedly, I did not see the appeal of Shakespeare at first. Freshman year of high school we read Romeo and Juliet, and I thought, “The Notebook is better than this garbage!” (I know. I know. I’m ashamed.) However, I then went and saw the play. To hear the language spoken by actors and to see the fight scenes and the love scenes take place before my eyes was magical. It remains one of my favorite experiences with theater. I realized then how universal Shakespeare was. I realized there was a wealth of emotion and human experience beyond the veil of big words, and I wanted to tap into it. I worked harder at understanding the plays when we read them for class. I spoke the words out loud, which helped me to slow down and better grasp their meaning. I rented the movie adaptations of the plays and watched them as I read, marrying the visual imagery with the language in my head.
Now, like anything, there are going to be people who don’t like Shakespeare. People who find him entirely overrated and a bit of a bore. That’s fine. I’m not here to convert you. I, myself, can’t stand Charles Dickens, but that doesn’t stop people from telling me how amazing he is and how I should give him another chance. (I gave him three separate chances, but that is beside the point.) I’m here to convince those of you who have never given Shakespeare a chance, those of you who have written him off as a long dead writer whose works have nothing to say about modern day life. If you are one of those people, I would argue that William Shakespeare, much like Shrek, is an onion. There are multiple layers to every line he wrote and you often have to read and reread to grasp the full meaning. However, if you are up for the challenge, there is a joy in it. He writes about life and death, betrayal and jealousy, hope and justice. You can read his plays over and over and discover something new on every page. John Keats once said,” I have good reason to be content, for thank God I can read and perhaps understand Shakespeare to his depths.”
Rather than quote a few lines of Shakespeare’s language and make you read even more, I’m going to share with you some of my favorite clips from recent adaptations. You may be inclined to check out here, but I implore you to spend a few minutes watching these clips. See Shakespeare in action, with great lighting and costumes and picture quality. See his work in the modern age and forget for a few minutes that he is 400 years dead.
The Tempest was Shakespeare's last play, so it seems fitting it would be my last ditch effort to convince you Shakespeare is worth your time. This adaptation is groundbreaking because the role of the sorcerer and father, Prospero, is gender swapped to become the role of the sorceress and mother, Prospera. This play is full of suspense, humor, and supernatural thrills, perfect for people who think Shakespeare is too uptight!
Have I changed your mind even a little bit? If so, let me know in the comments! If you are already a lover of the Bard, share your favorite play, quote, or adaptation in the comments below!