Understanding Shakespeare.

I’m not going to get into the whole debate about who actually wrote the works credited to William Shakespeare. I don’t care if he even really existed or not. My connections with the works are with the work. For ease of use I’ll just assume for the sake of this blog post that Shakespeare was actually the man who wrote the plays and poems we know as his and today is his 405th birthday.

Years ago I thought it was necessary for some reason to own a copy of the complete works of William Shakespeare. I’m not a theater buff. Nor was I a great fan of the work. I have studied a couple of plays in high school, so I got why he’s highly respected as a writer. I do think that “Hamlet” is one of the finest pieces of writing in English history. All in all, however, while I respected him myself I was never a big fan. I just thought that reading the works of Shakespeare was something that one just did. Like all of the great literature out there that gets pushed on is as “must-reads” Shakespeare is peddled to all of us English-speakers since an early age as something to be revered. I know have the suspicion that the “greats” are really just the intellectual books that people in the media happen to have heard of. I’m an avid reader, anyway, so it’s not like I regret getting the book.

I started reading it for a while and then put it down for a few years. I didn’t fall in love with it like I thought I would. Then, sometime around 2003, I decided to go through my library and finish all of the books that I haven’t finished or in some cases, started. This went on for a few years. I finally got around to the Shakespeare book and read most of it in one go. I understood the dramatic arcs of most of the plays but to be honest, I didn’t understand all of the language.

This bothered me but I never really wanted to admit it to myself. I was so relieved that I got through it that I didn’t want to admit that I should have taken my time. I probably would understand it better now but the fact remains that if I was to read the plays now I would slow down and try to understand all that I wasn’t getting.

I find that when I see and hear the plays performed I can understand better not only what is happening but what the difficult lines mean. If the actors are portraying the characters properly we can tell by the tone of voice and facial expressions what lines evoke what emotion. This helps me understand the meaning a lot more clearly. The same is true of poetry. I would rather hear a poet than read a poem. This isn’t the way it is all of the time, but in both cases it helps.

I recommend that you check out the 2009 BBC film of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of “Hamlet” starring David Tennant as the title role and Sir Patrick Stewart as Claudius and the ghost of Hamlet’s father. As to be expected the performance is superb. Overall the production is adequate for what it is. The only downside is a recurring security camera motif that gets annoying after a while. It’s sporadic and doesn’t happen throughout the whole of the film so it’s easy to forget. It’s upstaged by the content, anyway. I remember liking Kenneth Branagh’s version from the mid-nineties although it’s been years since I’ve seen it.

Finally, I couldn’t leave this without recommending one more film. “Theater of Blood” isn’t a Shakespeare play but is related enough that I have to include it here. Vincent Price stars as a failed actor that murders his harshest critics one by one, each time using a method that was featured in a Shakespeare play. He recruits (possibly demented) homeless people who to help him with his nefarious deeds. I don’t know how much more I need to say to convince you to watch it. Let me just end with this: beheaded poodles.


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