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The BroadwayWorld Beginner's Guide to: Shakespeare

Where to start with the Bard

The BroadwayWorld Beginner's Guide to: Shakespeare

One of the few positives that has come out of the pandemic is that there has never been more opportunity to experience something new. Theatre, ballet and opera companies have quickly realised that their reach is now potentially world-wide and a new audience awaits online.

For many, their introduction to Shakespeare came at school and this experience probably set up your opinion of his work until this day. You may have fallen in love with him, but often people's memories are of dry, tedious and impenetrable text. BroadwayWorld would like to try and change that with this beginner's guide.

Shakespeare is not for me.

Experiencing Shakespeare should not be seen as some kind of literary IQ test. In essence, his works touch on all elements of the human condition. Laughter, fear, anger, love, betrayal, envy, greed, pride, lust: they are all as relevant to us now as the day they were first written. There is an inventiveness, beauty and imagination contained in his works that is like no other author.

I don't know anything about Shakespeare.

Even if you do not think Shakespeare is for you, you probably know more Shakespeare than you think. Here are a few films based on works of the Bard with which you will probably be familiar:

  1. The Lion King is based on Hamlet. Despite having a happy ending and being located in the African savannah, this Disney classic is very much based on Hamlet. Wicked uncle Scar kills king Mufasa, and prince and rightful heir Simba brings the truth to light.
  2. West Side Story is based on Romeo and Juliet. Montagues and Capulets become 1950s Jets and Sharks in this brilliant update of the perennial love story.
  3. 10 Things I Hate About You is based on The Taming Of The Shrew. American high school angst about getting a date for prom owes its storyline entirely to the Bard.

I don't understand the language

The greatest stumbling block for many as regards Shakespeare is the language. However, you do not need to understand every word or phrase to enjoy it; a good actor will bring the language to life whether it is on stage or on a screen. Don't be concerned with understanding iambic pentameter or blank verse.

Over 90% of the language Shakespeare used is still used today and you will unwittingly quote Shakespeare all the time. Here are just a few phrases you will almost certainly have used yourself.

  1. "Green-eyed monster". First used in Othello.
  2. "Wild goose chase". First used in Romeo and Juliet.
  3. "It's Greek to me". First used in Julius Caesar.
  4. "Break the ice". First used in The Taming of the Shrew.
  5. "Wear my heart upon my sleeve". First used in Othello.
  6. "A heart of gold". First seen in Henry V.
  7. "All that glitters is not gold". First written in The Merchant of Venice.
  8. "Send him packing". Henry IV: Part I

I don't know where to start

You already know if you like comedies, dramas, histories or tragic stories, so go with that as a starting point.

Tragedy

Romeo and Juliet

Even though it's now 25 years old, Baz Luhrmann's incredible modern-day film version is probably the best introduction to the play. It is the world's most famous love story for a reason.

Comedy

Much Ado About Nothing

The equivalent of an Elizabethan rom-com, this play has masquerade balls, flirting, antiquated gender roles, and someone faking their own death to teach someone else a lesson. Kenneth Branagh's 1993 film is a brilliant and faithful version backlit by some glorious Tuscan sunshine and co-starring his then-wife, Emma Thompson.

History

An accessible and incredibly enjoyable introduction to a number of Shakespeare's history play is the BBC's The Hollow Crown. Richard II, Henry VI Parts 1 & 2 and Henry V. Now available on BritBox, the cast is extraordinary, the stories epic and yet the whole production feels intimate.

Where can I watch Shakespeare?

At home

National Theatre At Home is a subscription service, streaming some its best productions, such as a superlative Othello starring Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear.

The BroadwayWorld Beginner's Guide to: Shakespeare
National Theatre's Othello
Photo Credit: Johan Persson

Digital Theatre has some brilliant Shakespearean productions to stream, including Maxine Peake's mesmerising performance in Hamlet from the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre.

Marquee TV has a great free trial before you commit to subscription and features Phylida Lloyd's compelling all-female Shakespeare Trilogy of; The Tempest, Julius Caesar and Henry IV. There's also an incredible collection of the RSC's finest, including David Tennant in Richard II.

Globe Player is a superb collection of plays from the iconic Globe theatre. The filming gives a real sense of the unique atmosphere of the theatre.

Barn Theatre has their excellent, modern-day version of Henry IV streaming free on YouTube, shown through the lens of a nation at war.

BBC Radio 3 has a truly wonderful podcast called The Shakespeare Sessions which features all-star audio versions of the plays, along with insightful and highly entertaining documentaries on his life and work.

Radio 3's Free Thinking podcast also contains a vast series of episodes about Shakespeare; from Shakespeare's influence in cartoons to his impact on Indian literature.

The Play's The Thing podcast is a brilliant way of really immersing yourself in every work. With six episodes dedicated to each play, the podcast explore the themes, language and characters in wonderful depth.

Shakespeare Unlimited is a highly entertaining and interesting podcast from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC. Contents range from Elizabethan street fighting to in-depth interviews with Shakespearean actors.

Shakespeare's Globe runs a brilliant podcast exploring his transformative impact on the world around us and asking questions about programming, gender, race, social justice and their relationship to Shakespeare.

The Royal Shakespeare Company has an essential section on their website called the Shakespeare Learning Zone to introduce to you each play with sections entitled Story, Character, Language and Staging.

Live Performances

According to the World Shakespeare Bibliography, between 1959 and 2016, there were an average of 410 professional productions of Shakespeare's plays put on around the world. This means that when theatres are allowed to reopen, there should be no lack of opportunity to see something from the Bard live on stage.

Shakespeare's Globe. Shakespeare's original theatre, albeit rebuilt, is an incredible place to witness his work. If you want to brave the weather, you can get tickets in the original standing area, open to the elements.

The Royal Shakespeare Company is based in Stratford-upon-Avon, northwest of London, but tours around the world. Founded in 1961 by the legendary Peter Hall, their productions are world-renowned experiences that over time have offered platforms for many of our finest actors, from Ian McKellen to Judi Dench and many, many more.

There are a million versions of Shakespeare in guises from rap to mime to traditional. There really is a Shakespeare for everyone and if you genuinely do think he's not for you, it might be time to have another look.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons


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