Suggestions to High-School Students for Reading Shakespeare -- Part 5

04/20/2015 03:31 pm ET | Updated Jun 19, 2015

Reading Shakespeare When Young

As impressed as we may be when reading Shakespeare, we shouldn't think that we've plumbed the depths of his meaning. As we mature, our understanding of his plays will deepen, as time and heartache teach us more about life than we may care to discover.

This school of adversity gives us a Ph.D. in life's three great lessons -- acceptance, endurance, and doing without. As we absorb these lessons, new layers of his meaning will open to us, since the best preparation for understanding his plays is a deeply lived life.

Schopenhauer put it this way: "The first forty years of our life provide the text, the next thirty the commentary." We can't understand what we're going through while we're still going through it. We need time and perspective to make sense of what happened.

It's the same with Shakespeare. The passage of time lets us understand what we couldn't possibly have understood about his plays in high school. So keep reading Shakespeare! He gets better, the older we get.

Books Have Different Fates

At 12, we read Gulliver's Travels as a tale of adventure and, at 30, an attack on small-minded bigotry, or Robinson Crusoe as a survival story and, later, a metaphor on the human condition. The words stay the same, but we keep changing.

"Books have different fates, depending on the reader," goes an old saying. When asking someone about a book, remember that it will affect people differently. Some may be bored with it, while others are overwhelmed by it, and still others may not understand it or be ready for it. Each person's response tells us more about the person than it does the book. Don't judge a book by its reader. A book is a mirror and can only reflect who looks into it. Books aren't responsible for their readers.

Reading Shakespeare entails understanding not only the meaning of words, but also the experiences conveyed by those words. Unless you've undergone those experiences yourself and understand what they can do to a person, you won't understand the passage in question.

Understanding something intellectually and understanding something emotionally are two different things. Intellectual understanding is grasping ideas and concepts; emotional understanding is having undergone an experience and being able to talk about it. Understanding things emotionally is the key to understanding Shakespeare.

Reading Shakespeare at Different Levels

Reading Shakespeare is more than knowing plots and characters, although that's a beginning. Even reading a summary isn't the same as reading the play. It would be like reading a summary of a movie and thinking that this was the same as seeing the film, instead of enjoying the emotional experience of watching it.

There are students who come to Shakespeare from exceptional backgrounds with parents who continually explain the world to them, rich life-experiences, precocious intellectual endowment, wide reading, artistic temperament, or the perception of someone twice their age.

There are also students who read Shakespeare as their Bible, reading his plays again and again, devoutly meditating upon their meaning as others do the Torah, the Gospels, the Koran, or the Vedas. His plays act upon them as a bracing tonic, an elixir, an alchemy, and open-sesame to a wider, deeper, and richer world, one more transfigured and clarified in meaning and purpose.

Personal Epiphanies

You may come to a point in a play where you're suddenly overcome by a flash of insight, an "epiphany," a Damascus experience that affects you deeply or your view of the world. You cannot predict these mysterious moments; they come unbidden, and the more unexpected, the more compelling is their transformative power.

These sorts of breakthroughs are manna from heaven, bringing inspiration and renewal during the dry spells that occur in all of our lives. These experiences may even cause the distinction between our academic and personal lives to blur until the two become one, so that reading and learning are as vital to us as the air we breathe.

Great literature often has this effect on readers, and is one of the reasons why reading has always been cultivated down through the ages but, unfortunately, only by the few who were fortunate enough to be taught to read. Most of mankind was forbidden to learn this art lest they begin to entertain ideas "above their station," thereby posing a threat to the established order.

The Poor Forbidden to Read

Teaching the poor to read was deemed too dangerous, because reading changes people forever. They begin to think for themselves, ask troubling questions, and become angry when they realize that the many have so little and the few so much.

Even more fearful was the possibility that the poor might rise up against their exploiters. No, it just wouldn't do to teach them to read. Better to keep them illiterate in the fields and workshops.

For the few, however, who secretly struggled to teach themselves reading and burned with indignation against social injustice, reading poured into their lap all the treasures of the Orient, becoming their gateway to a better world and deliverance from a tyranny that blighted the mind and extinguished the spirit

The Power of Shakespeare

This was also Shakespeare's liberating effect upon his contemporaries, many of whom couldn't read, but could watch and listen and be caught up in his sublime poetry to find themselves transformed by incandescent language that invited them to enter the collective dream of his plays.

If you thought that life was a prison, "in which there are many confines, wards and dungeons," a place to "turn the other cheek," it could also be a place to "take up the sword" and challenge what was, rather than accepting it.

So much of "reality," that network of bonding beliefs that holds society together, is but a fiction of the imagination, that magical "stuff that dreams are made of."

What passes for "real" is often the propaganda of the powerful who claim that the way things are in society is divinely ordained. If people could be made to believe this, they would be the more easily managed and less apt to question, or even rebel.

Emancipation from such social fairy tales is one of Shakespeare's gifts to mankind of his Promethean fire. It's what people believe to be "real" that is all-too-important, and why so few were allowed to read or be educated, and why kings controlled information, censored books, and forbade "heretical" viewpoints.

"Thou shalt not think" and "Thou shalt not be different" were more important that the Ten Commandments. Indoctrinate the people from birth, and you'll have them for life.

Yet it was difficult for the people to continue believing in the divine right of kings after seeing Shakespeare's history plays and how "God's anointed" kings actually did come to power and to what ends they would go in order to keep it.

Or even more difficult not to blame their kings for failing to care for the weak and vulnerable when audiences were transfixed by those sublimely moving scenes on the heath as King Lear, amidst the raging storm, was shocked to discover what appalling conditions his people had endured for centuries.

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just. (III. iv. 28-36)

Someone at last had understood their plight and was pleading their case by bearing public witness to their misery, so that never again could kings and governments profess ignorance by claiming: "We did not know!"

A cry for humanity, decency, and justice rang from the stage at that moment in England, and from that time onward every nation, which dared to call itself "civilized," has been weighed in the balance and found wanting.