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Suggestions to High-School Students for Reading Shakespeare -- Part 2

02/28/2015 07:48 pm ET | Updated Apr 30, 2015

Preparing to Read Shakespeare

Just as athletes briefly commune with themselves before an event, so we should also compose ourselves for a moment before reading Shakespeare. Take leave of the world for a while and have it fend for itself. It got on without us before we were born, and will doubtless continue long after we're gone.

There's an old saying that the best preparation for life is reading three books - the Greeks, the Bible, and Shakespeare, not for the answers they give, but for the questions they raise. Shakespeare won't give us answers -- he's too honest for that, but he will give us questions, so many, in fact, that we become different persons.

Now if you feel that becoming a different person is bad, I'd suggest you not read him. However, if you're someone who wants more out of life than "official answers" and vocational training, you might want not only to read his plays, but also to make them your own.

If you do that, you'll mature both as a student and person. You might even begin to adopt the longer and broader view about everything, keeping the Big Picture always in mind.

I should qualify something I just said, however. Shakespeare does offer a kind of vocational training. In fact, it's the best in the world for those who want a vocation that is second to none, one that will take up all of your time, as well as engaging all of their powers, and that may even contribute to changing the world -- the vocation of becoming a full human being.

Read for the Main Ideas

Reading an Act from one of his plays is like playing a new piece of music on a piano. It's simply a run-through to learn the shape and mood of the score. Sometimes, it can be a lesson in humility, but it's important to gather initial impressions and then move beyond them.

Always read for the main ideas, using only your humanity to figure things out. That's really all you need when learning something new. We never understand anything completely the first time around. We do things first and only later understand what happened.

The more questions you have, the better it is because it shows you were alert to the difficulties. Something new always takes time to come into focus. Then read it a second time, only this time more carefully. You'll fare much better because you already have a sense of the whole.

Knowing the Meaning of Words Not Enough

Reading Shakespeare entails understanding not only the meaning of words, but also the life-experiences conveyed by those words. You may know a word's meaning, but still be unable to grasp the point of the passage. A classic example is Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy (III. i. 56-88). Its lines are honeycombed with the anguish of deeply-lived life, expressed with examples of suffering, especially in lines 68-76:

There's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life:
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th' oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th' unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin?

Most high-school seniors don't understand these lines. Although they may understand the individual words, they don't understand the entire passage because of the highly-compressed language. Teachers will usually talk students through the entire soliloquy, line-by-line, and especially the nine lines above.

They'll give a running commentary on this passage and explain the examples, as well as on the rest of the soliloquy's 33 lines, and how all the parts relate to each other. This takes about 10 minutes, and students will then have a wide-ranging discussion on the implications of the entire soliloquy.

In elegant shorthand, Hamlet distills the essence of one of life's archetypal dilemmas. As philosophy, the soliloquy is incomparable in its rhetorical sweep; as rhetoric, breathtaking in its philosophical power, as it captures everything that could possibly be said on the psychology of someone in this position. Lingering with Hamlet as he gazes into this abyss is an unforgettable experience.

The Chameleon Reader

Don't read with your eyes, but read with your soul. Become what you read - all of the characters: commoners and nobles, heroes and villains, soldiers and merchants, kings and queens. Enter into their views of the world, their interests, and loyalties.

Keats in one of his letters speaks of "the chameleon poet," who has no self or individual identity, but can identify with all of creation -- a state of being also suited to "the chameleon reader," who also strives to inhabit all of the characters, even the repellant, to understand who they are.

Seeing the world through their eyes lets us become who they are, sharing their outlooks, motives, and views of the world -- all of which may be far from our own. Empathy is the soul of a real education and, if we let it, empathy will deepen our humanity by teaching us to understand others who may see the world differently.

This ability is the stock-in-trade of every drama student, who must learn to understand others better than those others understand themselves. If you want rare psychological insight, go to the actors. They interpret the world for us, and so must have a profound understanding of human nature. As the old Latin proverb says: "Totum mundum agit histrio" or "The actor portrays the entire world."

This ability to understand the inner life of others is a gift of the gods and lets us see ourselves as others see us - the surest cure for the delusion that we are the measure of all things and center of the universe.

Slowly, we begin to see ourselves with a newfound sense of our own insignificance, here today and gone tomorrow; and that we and our generation will one day retire from this stage to make room for the next cast of characters.

The Play Needs a Reader to Bring it to Life

Take any play of Shakespeare's, and whatever's on the page, no matter how interesting, will lie irretrievably dead unless we can make it our own by imagining the characters speaking their verse, hear the cadence of their voices, visualize their gestures and the glint in their eyes, and sense the mood of the moment.

It is this empathic response that will open up for us the heart of the play. The play needs a reader who can breathe into its characters the life that will make them live. We must reach out to these characters to be worthy of receiving what they give us. We must co-create them, no matter who they may be, of whatever age or gender, be they rich or poor, high-born or lowly, for in giving them life, we become more alive.

All of life is in Shakespeare -- those devoured by envy, tangled in deceit, unhinged by ambition, wasted by madness, plotting the downfall of others, suffering from love's delirium, or by whatever passion may afflict the human heart. We give all of them life, and they return that life a hundredfold. Within his plays there is enough to sustain us a lifetime, as we return to this grand feast again and again, never surfeited or satisfied.

A Book is a Mirror

A book is a mirror that will reflect what we bring to it. If we are much, we'll see much. The more insight we have, the more Shakespeare will give us. We only see what we're ready to see - even when it's staring us right in the face.

The secret of reading is outgrowing our limitations, and the wish to outgrow them is half of life's battle. If we're struggling for insight, we'll hear it spoken to us by one of the characters. Art never reveals what we don't already sense.

No author, no matter how brilliant in pouring forth the riches of creative vision on to the page will impart these gifts unless the reader sees them. It takes a wise man to know a wise man. Even Shakespeare is helpless when someone isn't ready for him. But those who are struggling for insight in their lives are always ready for Shakespeare.

This is why reading nourishes only those who are hungry for life and want to find its meaning in reading. Many students already have an intuitive understanding of the secrets of life far beyond their years, and fall in love with reading in order to have those intuitions confirmed.

Reading is their sanctuary, their Holy of Holies, and when they are reading, they are on holy ground. Reading is their inspiration, their sacrament, their solace, their strength, and blessed are they who have discovered their bliss.