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Aster's avatar

Can a person with average intelligence understand a book of Shakespeare?

Asked by Aster (19949points) June 12th, 2016

I’ve been thinking about buying yet another book when I’ve not finished four other ones yet. I’d like to get to know Shakespeare but I’m concerned I won’t understand it or it’ll be too boring . I’m no genius but I’m not stupid either. Should I take a whack at it? Your opinions mean a lot to me. I don’t take your answers for granted at all. Thanks so much for helping me out with this.

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18 Answers

Call_Me_Jay's avatar

I would get the CliffsNotes or somesuch to help. The language is a bit antiquated and poetic, and you’ll run into sentences that don’t make any sense without a little translation.

And when I googled them I see they’re free online. Cliffs Notes Free Shakespeare Literature Notes

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

Yes, you can understand it. Look for a book that has notes in it that define the arcane words and explain some of the arcane phrases.

I suggest you start with a comedy like A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s quite entertaining.

stanleybmanly's avatar

When you say “book” do you mean the sonnets and poems?

elbanditoroso's avatar

Yes, absolutely. Start with the well known plays – Julius Caesar and/or Romeo & Juliet, and branch out from there.

Pachy's avatar

Lots of good suggestions above, especially starting with plays with which you’re at least somewhat familiar from other media. That will make it easier to associate unfamiliar words and phrases with actions, which then will make other plays easier to follow.

You may be tempted to watch movie versions but that may deter you from reading. I suggest you read first, hard as it may be at first, then watch the movies.

stanleybmanly's avatar

If you’re talking about the plays, I can’t urge you strongly enough to get videos of good productions. Start with a play that interests you and read a synopsis to quickly decide if the play is for you. Then get a video of the play, and watch it. Keep a dictionary handy, but don’t worry so much about obtuse vocabulary, because believe me, the plot speaks for itself. This is the path I took when I more or less tricked my kids into chasing Richard III. Please oh please if possible get old films with guys like Olivier and that crowd of now dead English giants. Take a particular play and if you enjoy it, grab a more recent production of the same play and watch it. You’ll be amazed. THEN read the play. I envy you for the fun ahead of you.

Dutchess_III's avatar

The thing about the kinds of stories that writers, like Shakespeare, write is that you have to sit down and just start reading, with no interruptions. After the first couple of chapters you’ll begin to think like the people of that period, you’ll start to really pick up on the nuances of the time, and that’s when you start appreciating the brilliant depth of his writing.

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

Interesting. I would say it must be read first with annotations that define the arcane vocabulary and phrases. Then it can be watched, and then reread for maximum understanding. The problem with the movies including the old ones is that they edited the text. All of them did it. I can’t stand Olivier’s Hamlet, because he reordered the sequence of some events. Thus, it’s vital to begin with the authentic text.

Aster's avatar

Thank you so much for helping me, guys. I will re-read each reply . @stanleybmanly , why the envy? You can do the same thing!
Love, Aster

Jeruba's avatar

Short answer: yes.

A few years ago, as a new retiree, I took a class in dramatic literature at a local community college. I was probably the only person in the class who was old enough to drink, and certainly the only one with a four-year college degree and a completed English major behind me. I took it just for fun.

Some of the kids were fairly bright, but I wouldn’t say there were any shining lights. In general these were pretty average youngsters going to a two-year college that anyone could get into by paying the modest fees.

The instructor started off pretty easy, with some very short contemporary plays, and worked up to Shakespeare. His choice was The Taming of the Shrew.

As background he included an in-class showing of a scene or two from the Burton-Taylor film version (1967). He also referred us to the movie 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), which is a modern teen-oriented adaptation.

One feature of the class was that the instructor used online media as well as traditional materials. Everyone had to post responses to readings online and then respond to others’ posts. I got to see many young people’s comments on the plays.

And I was frankly amazed at how much these young and inexperienced readers got out of this well-known Shakespearean comedy. Even granting that some of them may have had help with their essays, I heard their in-class comments. They got it, they got into it, they enjoyed it, and they were able to discuss it.

Remember that Shakespeare was written for a common audience in the pits and not just the swells in the boxes. The language is old—English has changed a lot in these few centuries—but not inherently too fancy for ordinary folks.

Rarebear's avatar

Don’t read it. Go see a play.

filmfann's avatar

Get an annotated version.

Seek's avatar

It was popular media at the time it came out. It’s full of violence, romance, and dick jokes.

See it performed live if you can. It’s a play, not a novel.

Strauss's avatar

See a play, you might be able to infer the meaning of some of the antiquated terms. As plays, they were written to be spoken, not necessarily read.

Short of that, I would suggest an annotated version. Check out No Fear Shakespeare (aka “Spark Notes”)

Here’s an example. They have a side-by-side original and modern interpretation:

Original:
To be, or not to be? That is the question—
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And, by opposing, end them?

Modern:
The question is: is it better to be alive or dead? Is it nobler to put up with all the nasty things that luck throws your way, or to fight against all those troubles by simply putting an end to them once and for all?

cazzie's avatar

Get some good cliff notes and stream/download the movies that Kenneth Branagh made. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0116477/ (Hamlet is just one of almost a dozen he’s done) They aren’t meant to be read, they are meant to be watched by us as very talented actors breathe life and motion into the words. I love Midsummer’s Night Dream. It is funny and silly and magical.

Remember that these plays, when they were first written, were for the mass public. Most people couldn’t read. They were considered very common and rude and base by some, (but not as bad as some playwrights from the day). He brought storytelling and entertainment to the masses. They weren’t performed at the court for the high-born ladies and gents. The opening act was probably something along the lines of the early Punch and Judy puppet shows that were either copied from or were from Italy. If an uneducated street waif in 1595 can understand it, I’m sure anyone now a days, showing a bit of interest in the subject can quickly learn enough to enjoy it. I really hope you do. I think it is so worth the effort.

ibstubro's avatar

I cannot read and understand Shakespeare.
I don’t sweat it.
I got an A in a senior level college Shakespeare course without reading a single play.

Do what pleases you.

rojo's avatar

Yes, you can read and understand it. As others have pointed out having something to refer to when you hit upon something that cannot be understood in context is helpful but I also find it distracting having to repeatedly look for clarifications.

I did find this No Fear Shakespeare puts Shakespeare’s language side-by-side with a facing-page translation into modern English—the kind of English people actually speak today. that sounds very intriguing.

I have also found it helpful to watch a movie that uses Shakespearean dialog prior to reading the play; that way I have a visual clue to what is being described.

Dutchess_III's avatar

In my experience, I was able to put together the antiquated terms by myself, as I was immersed further and further into it. It’s what kids have to do when they’re first learning to read. You put the terms and words into the context of the situation and you can figure it out. As you go along, it gets easier. By the end you’ll be speaking and dreaming in antiquated terms!
But you have to stick with it. It’s hard at first, gets easier as you go along.

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