Yes, you read that right. I think Shakespeare was one of the greatest writers of all time. And I have read every single one of his published works – check out the post where I read all of Shakespeare’s plays and ranked them. I’ll be honest, I do love Shakespeare. But the reason I decided to do that was mostly for the clout – who else can say they have read all of Shakespeare? – and the blog post that turned out to be the most popular thing I have ever published. (Seriously, it literally gets more hits than my homepage at this point.)

Do I regret reading all of Shakespeare? Nope. It definitely gave me a greater appreciation for the bard. But it also made me realize one very important thing:

Shakespeare Wasn’t Meant to Be Read

I know this is going to blow your mind, but Shakespeare wrote plays (yes, that was sarcasm). And plays are meant to be seen, not read. Insane, I know. So much of early literature that we all sit and read (or are assigned in high school) was never meant to be read. The Odyssey? Oral storytelling that just happened to get written down at some point. And just picture Beowulf being told in a great hall lit by fire as you’re drinking a nice mead. Those stories do not have quite the same effect on paper. And neither does Shakespeare.

If you have ever read a Shakespeare play and then seen it performed, you will understand how different it is. And, if you haven’t, good news! You can watch them at the actual Globe theatre online (two of my favorites are available for free – The Tempest and A Midsummer’s Night Dream)!

Reading is Different Than Seeing

I am a strong believer that the book is almost always better than the movie. But watching the movie is almost always better than reading the script. Which is kind of what you’re doing when you’re reading a play.

Reading Shakespeare’s plays without seeing and hearing them means you can miss a lot of the emotion behind them. Tybalt’s death scene in Romeo & Juliet is not nearly as impactful on the page as it is on the stage or screen. (Not my favorite play, but I do like the Bazz Luhrmann version.) And the donkey joke in Midsummer isn’t quite as funny if you’re not looking at someone with a donkey’s head. It’s just honestly not the same.

I think reading plays, especially Shakespeare’s, requires more imagination than we’re used to using when we read novels. It’s not impossible, but it isn’t really something most people do automatically. In a novel, it is the author’s job to create imagery for the reader to enjoy. With a play, it is the job of the actors and the costume designer and the set designer and the technical director. All of whom are missing when you pick up the written version. It’s something I don’t think a lot of people really think about.

Shakespeare Isn’t Easy to Read

I have heard a lot of people complain that Shakespeare is hard to read. My sister once got kicked out of a high school class for laughing so much because “Shakespeare sounds funny” (true story). It is not the language we’re used to. And for a lot of people, it can be kind of difficult to read. (I always tell people to try reading The Canterbury Tales and they’ll feel better about Shakespeare.)

Sure, Shakespeare wrote in English. But it wasn’t the English we know. Shakespeare himself invented a lot of the worlds we’re familiar with today. They literally did not exist and were unfamiliar to people back then. The English language is constantly evolving (for better or for worse). While it’s largely the same, it still isn’t totally familiar. So, to expect a modern reader to pick up something written over four hundred years ago and not have any trouble reading it is kind of laughable (which is a word that Shakespeare invented).

Add that to the fact that most people generally aren’t familiar with reading plays. Or stage directions. Or how theater worked back then (which is different than most plays you’d see performed now). All things you kind of need to know to appreciate a play. Or imagine it as it was meant to be experienced. It’s no wonder so many people dislike Shakespeare after being forced to read his plays with no historical or theatrical context.

Yes, I am a lover of Shakespeare. I have been to his house and his gravesite and the (rebuilt) Globe theatre. But I don’t think I fully fell in love with his work until I had spent a year studying medieval literature (which inspired Shakespeare a lot) and then taking an entire Shakespeare course in grad school. Because I genuinely don’t think you can fully appreciate Shakespeare without having some sort of background or understanding.

One of the Greatest Playwrights of All Time

Shakespeare was no doubt a brilliant writer and comedic genius. But he wrote plays, not novels. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, I feel like so many people treat his work as if they’re reading Jonathan Swift. Still a challenging read from centuries ago, but really not the same material. Shakespeare was a playwright and poet. You cannot read his work the same way you would a Jane Austen novel. It doesn’t work that way.

And, in my experience, I really don’t think it’s taught very thoroughly. And that makes people, understandably, dislike it. My background in both medieval literature and theater (I used to be a stage manager) really helped me love it. But, before that, I was just a fourteen-year-old freshman forced to read Romeo & Juliet with absolutely no context. And I didn’t enjoy it at all. Unfortunately, I think that’s the experience a lot of people have.

Shakespeare was a playwright, not a novelist. And I think that is essential to understand if you are ever going to appreciate his work. By reading his plays, you’re not experiencing them the way he meant for you to experience them.

What if You Really Want to Read Shakespeare?

This post wasn’t meant to discourage you from reading Shakespeare. You should definitely be open to it. But, first, you should watch one of his plays. In any form. If you want to start with Ten Things I Hate About You and work your way up to The Taming of the Shrew, do it! (I actually highly recommend that.) But don’t jump head first into Macbeth. Because you won’t really enjoy it and you won’t get much out of it.

If you want to read Shakespeare, know what you’re getting into. This is the time for online summaries and notated versions! It’s also the time to slow down. Maybe watch the movie first. And accept that Shakespeare isn’t something you can fall right into without a little bit of work. I struggle with it and I’ve had years of practice.

But, once you get there, it’s worth it.

I hope you enjoyed this post! Honestly, this was one of those random ideas that ended up turning into something. I hope it turned out well.

What you do think about Shakespeare? Have you read any of his plays? Do you think people should learn more context before reading them?

13 thoughts

  1. I agree – Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be performed. Fortunately it’s not hard to find some good performances to watch. Once you have a sense of them from that it’s fine to read them as well. I think it was a great project of yours to read all of them.

    Just wanted to point out, Swift’s major works were a century later than Shakespeare’s…i don’t think many would consider them in the “same century” in terms of literary history.

  2. When I first saw this title I was ready to fight you 😜 but you’re totally right! In my very first Shakespeare lecture at university we were told to watch our assigned plays rather than read them for the exact reasons that you said!

    1. Mission accomplished! 😂

      Sounds like you had one of the few great Shakespeare teachers. I think it’s rarely taught well, and so many people end up disliking his plays.

  3. This…makes me feel better. I think I’m just not used to, or probably I just don’t really prefer, reading plays. And reading this perspective kind of comforts me? That it’s not that I lack something, but there’s just a difference in context. I don’t think I’ve explained it well, but the point is, I really appreciate this. Thanks for sharing!

    1. I’m glad! Yeah, I think the way plays are taught now, especially in high school, isn’t great. I was lucky enough to be involved in theater, so I had some sort of background that helped. But I don’t think we should be assigning plays in school the way they are now. They’re not meant to be read. I bet if you watched one of the plays you struggled with, you might love it.

  4. I think, as you point out, reading plays requires a different skill set than reading a novel. You have to have some idea in your head of where the characters might be standing, what they’re doing, what they’re wearing, etc. In Shakespeare’s plays, this is mostly only implied through the dialogue and not written out in stage directions. This makes it hard for some people if they aren’t used to reading plays. For that reason, and because most people aren’t familiar with early modern English, I do recommend that people try to see Shakespeare in performance. It really makes the works come alive! And, even if you don’t understand all the words, you can still follow the action. (Since Shakespeare coined so many words, his original audience probably didn’t always know what he was saying, either!)

    However, for myself, I still like to read the plays. It gives me time to reflect on what’s happening, to go back and reread, to sit still and think about the work. You can’t really do with that with a performance because the actors aren’t going to stop for you to think about a scene or a word choice for awhile. For me, reading and watching both have value, but in different ways.

    1. I definitely agree. I just think way too many people try (or are forced) to read Shakespeare without any sort of context or background of how plays differ. Too many people end up hating Shakespeare for that reason.

      1. We tend to think of his plays first, yet I remember reading he thought himself more poet than playwright. His plays do work in quite a bit of poetry.

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