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The Best Way to Study Shakespeare

Written by Emily Fischer

The best way to study Shakespeare is to take a two or three-pronged approach—reading, watching the plays, and acting them out, if possible. Omitting one of these “prongs” can keep the young student from a full appreciation, and thereby full enjoyment, of this great work.

Watching Shakespeare performed is often a key ingredient to understanding the text. Watching without reading, however, does not allow the student to adequately ponder some of the deeper ideas to which Shakespeare points. For younger students, Shakespeare is often best learned in a manner opposite of what is normally recommended. Most of the time students should read works before they watch theatrical or cinematic productions. Shakespeare’s plays, however, are meant to be watched. Often, students understand the text more readily when they have first watched the performance. Live performances are to be preferred, so if at all possible find a local theater and combine your reading of a play with a live viewing.

If live performances are not available, there are a number of great performances on video. Be warned, not all performances are equal and some are, particularly for young students, confusing. Here are some of the best:

Hamlet—I tend to prefer the 1990 Mel Gibson version to the Kenneth Branagh version which moves the setting to an 1800’s Victorian venue. There are some parts of the Gibson version that younger viewers might not be ready for, but Gibson is an underappreciated actor who pulls this role off nicely.

Macbeth—The 1971 Roman Polanski directed version is my favorite. This is rated “R” and is going to be too bloody for some.

Othello—The Orson Wells Version (1952) is a classic. The 1995 version with Laurence Fishburne playing the doomed Moor is another favorite, but will be too racy for young viewers. Branagh, who is not my favorite actor, plays Iago quite convincingly.

King Lear—The Masterpiece Theatre version of Lear with Ian Holm is excellent.

Julius Caesar—The 1953 version with Marlon Brando and John Gielgud is the measure for all other versions.

Many good versions of other plays exist, but parents and teachers should always preview any video before showing it to their students.

For older students more experimental versions of Shakespeare are also enjoyable. These versions lift the plays from their original setting and place them in another analogous one. Most of the time this harms the play, but arguing about the legitimacy and helpfulness of this artistic choice makes for an interesting discussion with older students. The 1995 version of Richard III with Ian McKellan playing the monstrous Richard is a good foray in this genre. The setting is World War II. For younger readers, however, this shift can be confusing.

Younger readers will also enjoy some excellent comic book versions of the plays that can convey much of the visual aspect of Shakespeare without the nagging trouble that is presented by watching a Hollywood rendition. There are versions of many of Shakespeare’s plays in comic book format. These versions can help some young readers who might have trouble comprehending the text when it is separated from a visual presentation.

Younger readers might also enjoy the Great Scenes from Shakespeare’s Plays coloring book from Dover Publications. This book introduces some of the most famous scenes in Shakespeare’s works by giving a short snippet of the text with a picture to be colored on the opposite page. What fun!

The Oxford School Shakespeare editions in the Veritas Press catalog are also wonderful. They give students line by line help with some of the antiquated language. They are also filled with neat maps and helpful pictures and sidebars that really bring the plays to life.

Finally, wherever possible, act out the plays or scenes. This can be done at school, or it can also make for an excellent evening of fun for the entire family—and can be an educational experience for those who are not doing the reading.