When I Learned to Love Shakespeare


Image Credit: TheLongelyHearts Etsy store (It’s actually totally awesome wedding confetti)

Contrary to what I would like my former classmates to believe, I haven’t always enjoyed reading Shakespeare. I was excited when I saw Shakespeare on my 6th grade syllabus, because I liked the story of Romeo and Juliet (I learned about their tragic ending later the hard way)…and that was about it. Needless to say, my first year studying the great playwright was an unhappy one. I didn’t fall head over heels for Shakespeare the first time I read one of his plays. I’d like to know if anyone has.

Most of my classmates seemed to be enjoying the Shakespeare plays that we read in class. I didn’t have a harder time understanding them. I just didn’t enjoy them, and that crushed my heart. I read the assigned plays at home. I researched the history of Shakespeare and the early theater. I practiced vocabulary and watched filmed performances.

I even had to memorize passages from one of his plays and perform them out loud for everyone to score. That was, perhaps, the hardest part for little middle school me. I still hadn’t fallen in love with Shakespeare’s plays, which meant that it didn’t matter if I understood what I was saying. I just couldn’t get through the performance. (Not that I didn’t try.)

No, it wasn’t until many years later, after I’d struggled through English Shakespeare in middle school, did everything finally fall into place. Sadly, that’s where I started to leave my classmates behind. I owe a lot to my ninth grade reading teacher. She allowed me more freedom than I had ever been allowed to before. I wrote stories for credit. I got to choose which projects to complete. And I got to read out loud in class.

I don’t mean just a few popcorn reading sessions or oral reports. My ninth grade teacher (whose name I should probably remember) didn’t believe in reading Shakespeare silently at all. The first time I heard her perform a monologue from Julius Caesar, I could feel the wheels grinding in my head. My vague appreciation for Shakespeare grew into a love in that classroom. The truth is, I took every opportunity to read books out loud when I was home alone. They just seem to come alive in a new way when the words jump off the pages. How could I ever have expected to learn to love a play that is meant to be read out loud on a stage if I didn’t hear it?

It took some practice to be able to read Shakespeare out loud as confidently as my 9th grade teacher did, but it was entirely worth it. I look at my memory of 6th grade me quaking in my shoes while I tried to read a passage out loud for my classmates and my memory of reading that same scene out loud while everyone joined along with me, and I smile. 

Me, the girl who usually sits in the back of the classroom and doesn’t answer any questions. My classmates used to ask me if I was deaf or mute. I actually remember enjoying reading out loud in class. 🙂

Remember I said this was about the time that I started to leave my English classmates behind. I believe I can sum up their big mistake in one word: SparkNotes.

I was in 12th grade and my English teacher was still telling me that I should invest in a copy of Shakespeare SpartNotes. I understand that language is the biggest barrier that makes Shakespeare hard for students to understand, but no matter how many times a teacher says, “Don’t use it as a crutch. Just reference it when you don’t understand something,” 90% of young students are going to use it as a crutch.

I borrowed a copy of my study partners SparkNotes one time because I forgot my book at home, and I was just floored. Why? Why did my 12th grade teacher tell her to buy Sparknotes? Why is that the one she always brings to class?

I don’t want to go on a long rant. Maybe it’s just me. I’m sure these study materials are really helpful for young readers, but I’m so glad that I didn’t follow my teachers’ advice when they told me that I would need to buy Shakespeare SparkNotes if I wanted to make an A in English class. And I’m soooo grateful for a teacher who took the time to show me how Shakespeare is meant to be appreciated.

If I hadn’t found my way without SparkNotes, I might have been the student who was thrown out of class in college because I pulled out a SparkNotes copy of our first play. My college Shakespeare teacher was so upset! Thank you Mrs. 9th grade teacher!

So, in conclusion, here are my some tips that I would give to students, or anyone really, who have always had a hard time connecting with Shakespeare’s plays:

-If you never have, try reading some scenes out loud. It makes all the difference!

-Start out with an “easy” well-known play, like Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet.

-Do not depend on SparkNotes. They have some useful tools, but they are no substitute to the real plays.

-Research the history behind the plays, but expect that not everything will be accurate.

-Read the play through more than once. The second time around you will be able to focus on the foreshadowing and little asides that you might not have noticed at first.

-Don’t read Shakespeare passively. Don’t trust any character just because they seem trustworthy/loyal/comical/amorous or whatever. These plays are filled with unexpected twists and turns.

-Don’t worry so much about the language difference at the expense of getting into the story. Vocabulary can be practiced.

-On that note, go ahead and familiarize yourself with some common Shakespearean vocabulary before beginning to read.

When did y’all first learn to love Shakespeare? Do you share my opinion about SparkNotes? Do you have any more tips?


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