You might think I’m biased towards Shakespeare because I’m a former English major, but I’ll tell you a secret: I was not a fan when I was in high school. In fact, I dreaded reading his works, mainly because they were blown over with little care given to biographical context, honoring students’ individual interpretations, or explaining Shakespeare’s frequent use of double and triple-meanings.
Thankfully, my love for history led me to take a class on Renaissance Literature and Culture in my first semester of college. My experience was infinitely different: the professor patiently worked through the texts with us, encouraged us to come up with multiple interpretations, and spent a good amount of time on biographical and historical context. Thanks to her, I declared a major in English and went on to become a major Milton nerd. (Tip: if you still think Shakespeare is scary after reading this article, try to get through The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates and I promise Romeo & Juliet won’t seem so bad afterwards.)
My point is: if you’re scared of Shakespeare, or any topic in literature that seems even remotely archaic to you, don’t worry! Presentation is everything, and with the right resources you might learn to enjoy the very pieces you once found incomprehensible.
Using Library Resources
If you go to our website (nileslibrary.org), you’ll notice there’s a menu option labeled “Research”. Clicking that will present a comprehensive list of all our online resources, which you can further refine using the panel on the left-hand side. For your purposes, “For Students” is best.
There’s a variety of resources you can take advantage of to demystify Shakespearean works. You might start on the biographical route, selecting something like Biography in Context (which, I’ll warn you, is a little dense compared to other items on the list), or you might check out Explora, which provides articles at various age and comprehension levels. More advanced readers might enjoy Literary Criticism Online or the Gale Virtual Reference Library. There are multiple avenues of learning!
For Visual Learners
Some of us are terrified by pages upon pages of dense paragraphs (myself included; that’s why I like poetry). In this case, documentaries are a great remedy. Niles-Maine cardholders can access thousands of movies and documentaries through Kanopy. You can learn about Early Modern politics, see how society shaped Shakespeare’s stage, and even watch productions of his plays! In school, I often watched videos online with the text in front of me. Seeing the lines acted out helped me to understand what was going on.
I’ll tell you another secret: English majors use Sparknotes. Even though I can speak “Shakespearean”, I’ll still sometimes use it to get another take on his words or get the literal meaning of his text more quickly. The analyses aren’t bad either! (Students: remember to cite properly if you use ideas presented on this website.)
On the ever-famous Encyclopedia Britannica you can find a comprehensive bio as well as countless linked articles on topics connected to him, his works, and theories on his private life and relationships which may have influenced his writing.
Bonus: there’s a similar “in plain English” side-by-side version of my absolute favorite thing ever written on paper, Paradise Lost, if you want to go there. Although be forewarned that Milton is very into the “double/triple/quadruple meanings” thing, so I’d recommend reading about Puritanism and the English Civil War first.
Enough Study – Go See It Live!
These works were most often written not to be read, but to be seen!
In order to get the full effect of Shakespeare (or works by any playwright!), you need to see it in action. Staging, costumes, body language, and voice tone change everything. This is especially true for comedy—it’s often difficult to tell exactly where the jokes are in writing, but all the laughs are sure to come to life onstage!
This is why the Library loves to partner with the Shakespeare Project of Chicago, which frequently turns our Commons Meeting Room into a lively theatre with its productions. Next up is original production The Californian Incident, written by James Richard Goeser, and it’s happening on Friday, September 20 at 7 p.m.! It’s 100% free and there are still a good number of seats left. Click here to learn more and reserve a spot!
When it comes to learning something new, how it’s presented is critical. Coming from someone who used to dread the mere mention of Shakespeare’s name, I’ve grown to love not only his work, but theatre of all kinds. (I’m going to see The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie later this month—a bit different, but theatre all the same.) Thankfully, there are many ways to learn and the Library is here to help you find what works best for you. So give the Bard a chance, and maybe we’ll see you in the audience next month!