I’ve read articles claiming that reading Shakespeare excites your brain more than reading a novel, but I’m not so sure. I read three Shakespeare plays in high school and I hated all of them. Okay, maybe I didn’t despise Othello, but I read as little of it as possible. Instead of reading Macbeth, I stole my brother’s exam from the year before and studied that. Got an A! I avoided Shakespeare in university, choosing instead to meet my English requirement with poetry because it involved ‘less reading’.
Many years later I went back to school to start an English degree. I only declared my major after combing through the course list along with my credit requirements and figuring out with certainty that I could finish my degree without Shakespeare. As I finished my second and final first year English course, I emailed my tutor to ask him what I should take next. He replied: “Shakespeare Tragedies”. I said no. Again he replied: “Shakespeare Tragedies”. He told me Shakespeare was necessary to read, and he was a brilliant man, and no one else compares, and so on. Blah, blah, blah. So, kicking and screaming, I signed up for the course last summer.
It was an online course, and my books came in the mail: A big stack of seven (seven!) Shakespeare plays for me to read and understand in four months. I had a panic attack. And then I had another one. I didn’t even cut the plastic wrap around them for days. It couldn’t be done, there was no way I could read that much Shakespeare and live to tell about it. But by not wanting to waste $100 by dropping the course, I decided to start. The course began with Richard II, a play I had never heard of until I saw it in my stack. And it was good! Richard was so pathetic but he was also hilarious. Why didn’t we get to read histories in high school? This was not the Shakespeare I remember. I could look up real events! These were actual people!
Next was Henry IV, Part One. Loved it! Again I could look up the people and the history but it was less necessary to my understanding than it had been with Richard II. I fell in love with Hal and Percy and Falstaff’s nonsense. How did I graduate from high school and university without knowing these people? While searching online for help with particular passages, I came across The Hollow Crown and of course had to write a paper about Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal. It was glorious. I’d never enjoyed writing a paper more. After that came five tragedies, without Romeo and Juliet, and I enjoyed them all.
Our local Shakespeare Company put on a brilliant production of Othello a few weeks after I finished. The best part of it all was having my sixteen year old enjoy Shakespeare too (he still talks about that production of Othello), and that was a big deal considering how much he hated reading Romeo and Juliet for school just a few months earlier. He has fallen in love with Hamlet, which he gets to study for school starting next week. We will watch David Tennant’s portrayal of the tragic hero for the third time and maybe I’ll grab a copy of Kenneth Branaugh’s version as well. I am now reading Shakespeare for fun – finishing the King Henry plays and then onto the next histories because The Hollow Crown is doing a second series. I emailed my tutor to say thanks, and to say that I loved the course that I never would have taken without his push. Of course he knew that would happen. As for my brain, it is enjoying reading Shakespeare almost as much as it enjoys watching Tom Hiddleston play one of his characters.