Why would anybody read Shakespeare? This is a question I always ask myself whenever I open one of those world famous plays. Shouldn’t you just see them performed live on stage, or perhaps as a movie adaptation? Does reading those 400 year-old texts give you any pleasure?
For me, the pleasure in reading Shakespeare is the biggest just before I start and directly upon finishing. Between those two moments – that is, during the actual reading – pleasure is sometimes hard to find. To help my imagination a little I usually speak all the lines out loud, which gets pretty exhausting after an hour or two. In order to catch some of the references I try to look at the footnotes on each page, but this makes it almost impossible to pick up any speed whatsoever. Besides, most footnotes explain the intended puns in the character’s wordplay, the humor of which I usually don’t care for. Then, there are these somewhat redundant comic relief scenes, necessary from a structural point of view – because an audience couldn’t stand three hours of non-stop tragedy – but difficult for a reader as they distract from the action and are not all that funny.
So again, why? Why did I read Romeo and Juliet? Because, for me, there is great pleasure afterwards. Despite having seen a few Romeo and Juliet movies (Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet and the Jet Li version Romeo must die), I had never yet read Shakespeare’s original. Now that I have, I feel I appreciate all those other works that followed Romeo and Juliet better. This is still my main reason for reading Shakespeare. Know your classics, see where it all started, and immediately you will recognize more artists that somehow got their inspiration from Shakespeare.
Just keep going, follow the rhythm, skip footnotes, take the inevitable wordplay in your stride, enjoy the ‘purple passages’ (such as the famous ‘To be or not to be’ speech in Hamlet); reading Shakespeare is possible. Possible to do and possible to enjoy. It takes some determination, but you get a lot in return. Nice lines like these, about Romeo in love:
“Alas poor Romeo, he is already dead, stabbed with
a white wench’s black eye, run through the ear with
a love song, the very pin of his heart cleft with the
blind bow-boy’s but-shaft.” (Act II, scene IV, ll. 13-16)
And, of course, Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene, which starts with the often-quoted “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? / It is the east and Juliet is the sun!” (Act II, scene II, ll. 2-3)
There was a lot of memorable material in Romeo and Juliet and the ending, well-known as it is, does take your breath away. I cannot say when will be the next time, but there will always be more Shakespeare for me to read. King Lear seems a good contender.
Arden Shakespeare, 1980
Originally published in 1595