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Suggestions to High School Students for Reading Shakespeare -- Part 1

02/16/2015 04:55 pm ET | Updated Apr 18, 2015

Avoid Editor's Introduction

All paths lead to the mountaintop, and every teacher of Shakespeare has his or her way of teaching his plays. This is the first in a series of articles that explore one teacher's suggestions to high-school students for reading his plays. These articles are addressed to students, but teachers also may find them of interest, as may the general reader. This series is different from the previous set of articles on Teaching the Bible as Literature, which were addressed to teachers with a professional interest in teaching such a course.

The best way to read a play by Shakespeare is to bypass the editor's introduction and start reading the play itself. Don't let the editor or anyone else tell you what the play is about, but find out for yourself. "Trust your own judgment and think for yourself!" Let this be your Declaration of Independence. Anything else is building on sand in a world that tells you what to think, or to follow the crowd by not thinking at all.

It's important to be your own person when young, because if you routinely rely on the judgment of others, you'll undermine your belief in yourself and cease to be a person at all. Don't be dependent on the opinions of others, some of whom will be only too happy to take over your life. When you believe in yourself, you become transformed as a person, take control of your life, and your grades will begin to take care of themselves.

Some Themes of Shakespeare

Shakespeare's plays take you out of the comfort zone of a 21st-century American world and set you down in different places and times, where different problems, values, and worldviews prevail. This exposure gives you a broader sense of life's possibilities and of various ways of being human, in addition to the accustomed American way. It also provides you with a more cosmopolitan frame of reference within which to evaluate the world and the human drama that takes place within it.

Facing one's demons, the healing power of art, insight through suffering, the redemptive and destructive power of love, meaninglessness and alienation as ways to finding yourself, the danger of fame, the loneliness of power, ambition and collateral damage, compassion and becoming human, the fragility of human existence, and life without morals are a few of the themes that make up the complex yet fascinating world of Shakespeare as his characters struggle to become who they are despite the setbacks that stand in their way.

His plays are a series of meditations upon the human condition that teach a nuanced understanding of human nature, its emotional depths, its psychological complexity, its philosophical diversity, and its moral dilemmas that broaden your humanity and appreciation of the different motives of a vast array of dissimilar characters in widely divergent conditions and circumstances -- an education of the mind and spirit in its profoundest sense.

Ask General Questions about the Play

When you've finished reading the play, ask yourself what you think Shakespeare is saying? Do you agree with him? Did the play teach you anything new about yourself or the world? Were there any lines or passages that were speaking to you? Were any interesting questions raised and resolved, or left for you to answer? Should a play only raise questions or also resolve them?

Is Shakespeare supporting or challenging the beliefs and values expressed in the play? Does he identify with any one character, none of them, or all of them? Is he judging them, or asking you to understand them? How does a moralist look at the world as opposed to a psychologist? Should a playwright be one or the other, or both? These are some of the many questions you might consider when reading the play, but the most important ones are those that you yourself ask.

Find Your Own Meaning in the Play

A play may have many meanings, but it's the meaning that you yourself find in the play that matters, that will help you to grow as a person, and will mean more to you in the long run than the editor's meaning, which may get in the way of your finding yours. Let the play speak to you personally, and take pains to listen to what it is saying. Be attentive while reading, as though Shakespeare were speaking only to you. The search for your own meaning will bring you closer to yourself. His plays are mirrors in which are reflected what you are and aspire to be.

Jason in his search for the Golden Fleece and Galahad for the Holy Grail are mythological depictions of this same inward journey toward self-clarification as they struggle to find their life's meaning, only to find themselves transformed in the process.

Read Introduction Last

After you've considered the issues raised in the play, then you're ready to read the introduction with profit, because now you can judge for yourself whether it is true to the play, rather than your simply accepting its views as you might have done if you hadn't first read the play.

There are three basic reasons for reading the introduction last. First of all, it's possible that the editor misunderstood the play, and that the introduction wouldn't reflect Shakespeare's intentions at all, but merely those of the editor, who unknowingly read them into the play.

If you read the introduction first, you would then proceed to read the play, but be influenced by the editor's unwitting misrepresentation of the play. Had you read the play first, however, you would have already formed your own opinion and be more likely to dismiss the introduction's bias for what it was.

Secondly, the editor might be espousing a subjective, idiosyncratic, or ideological view of the play, thereby giving the false impression that this was the traditional opinion about the play's meaning. Again, by first reading the introduction, you would then read the play through the filter of the editor's bias. Reading the play first, however, would lessen the degree of this likelihood. Whenever problems like this arise, you can naturally ask your teacher for clarification.

Thirdly, if that same editor, on the other hand, had made it clear at the outset that what he was doing was offering his own interpretation after having reviewed some of the play's traditional interpretations, then that would be a justifiable way of proceeding. You would have been given an overall context within which to understand the editor's theory, rather than being misled to assume that this was the accepted view.

But even this would be a problem, because you would have been distracted from the play by theories and interpretations, instead of focusing on the play itself. It's important to simply live with these plays and understand them on the basis of your own humanity and life experience, and then, if you wish, to move on to introductions and theories.

Entire generations grew up with these plays, reading and rereading them over a lifetime, without having others telling them what these plays meant. The older these readers became, the more deeply they understood them. The only commentary they needed was the maturing process of life itself. This was how they formed a personal bond with these plays - by living with and thinking about them.

If you want to read introductions to Shakespeare's plays or to any book for that matter, it's always better to read them last or, better still, not at all for one simple reason. They subtly convey the impression that you shouldn't take your own views seriously, but listen to authorities, and once you accept this view, the poison has already entered your system. You begin to devalue your own opinions, distrust your own judgment, and no longer dare to think for yourself.