Thursday, 2 August 2012

William Shakespeare: Where to start

If you're British, you literally cannot have legally avoided William Shakespeare.  His work is plastered all over the national English curriculum almost as comprehensively as Nazi Germany is for history, meaning every British teen will have studied at least two of his plays.

In spite of this (or, more likely, because of it) many people view Shakespeare with bafflement, or even loathing.  Why, you might ask, should we still care about a man who died 400 years ago?  The argument that he is simply wonderful doesn't really pull much weight if (to borrow a brilliant Tim Vine joke) your own experience of Macbeth was only once-in-a-lifetime in the sense that you don't ever want to do it again.

Fear not!  Following the success of our Dickens guide last month, we've taken a look at how to begin Shakespeare - not for an exam, but to actually try and see what all the fuss is about...

Which plays?

Shakespeare produced close to 40 plays in his life, and because of his reputation they're all still printed, performed and studied.  Alas, this doesn't mean they're all particularly good.  The histories (the plays named after Kings of England) tend to be the least accessible, although Henry V has some great patriotic speeches and Henry IV has the hilarious Falstaff.

So what are the highlights?  Hamlet is brilliant, with a sense of humour to go with its tragedy, while Romeo and Juliet has some of the most famous lines ever written, and performed well is truly heart-breaking.  To me, Macbeth and Othello are perhaps slightly overrated, while King Lear is only good if you don't mind a treble dose of tragedy

Amongst the comedies, the funniest include A Midsummer Night's Dream and A Comedy of Errors.  If you're looking for a slightly more complicated play, then you might want to try Twelfth Night or Much Ado About Nothing, while The Merchant of Venice is a 'comedy' that packs a tragic punch.  All in all though, the most important advice might be to avoid what you studied at school, just to get away from the classroom memories.

All the world's a stage

The most obvious place to start with Shakespeare (besides an informative and well-written blog such as this, obviously) is in a theatre.  If you're staring at a page of text and struggling to understand what it's all about, then you'll probably enjoy it more in the flesh.

Obviously live performances are a mixed bag, but they have the huge advantage of being able to make the comedies funny and the tragedies sad, even if you can't follow every line.  In the UK you are spoilt for choice with great theatre options - the RSC always have a range of plays being performed (this week alone you can see five different plays), while at The Globe in London you can really get back to basics by watching in an environment designed to mirror Shakespeare's own.  Also, don't be afraid to see a less well-known group, especially in the Summer months - as an example the GB Theatre Company are currently touring the UK with The Tempest and The Taming of the Shrew, which I can certify as excellent.

Bard on the big screen

If you can't (afford to) make it to a theatre, there are plenty of great film adaptations of Shakespeare (and, to be fair, some terrible ones).  The recent BBC filming of the David Tennant Hamlet is excellent - Tennant brings more than just hype, and his mad portrayal of the central role brings the play to life, while Oliver Ford Davies's hilarious Polonius earns many laughs.

As for the comedies, Trevor Nunn's 1996 version of Twelfth Night is still probably unmatched.  Imogen Stubbs and Helena Bonham Carter are both brilliant as the two heroines, and while it's slightly longer and slower than the average film, the humour and pathos are both top class,  even if the voice-over on the trailer is just a tiny bit naff.

Check out the adaptations

If you've tried all this and still getting nowhere, don't feel any shame in watching modern-day remakes of Shakespeare - they're everywhere.  For Hamlet there's The Lion King, for The Taming of the Shrew see Kiss me Kate or Ten Things I Hate About You, for Twelfth Night there's She's the Man - the list could go on.  And if you feel guilty about ignoring the culture and enjoying a contemporary, funny, high-budget romp, then relax - it's probably what Shakespeare would have wanted!

Which is your favourite play?  Which do you hate?  What did we miss?  Let us know in the comments, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter for regular updates!

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