What is so special about Shakespeare? Partly it’s the fact that his plays and poems cover an exceptional range of human experience. They range from the delicate comedies to austere passionate tragedies; from the farcical complications to sensuous eroticism; from the violence and horror and early history to fantasy worlds His plays also engage with the spiritual world. Each of Shakespeare’s plays are unique. This does not make them better in themselves, but does increase our sense of the achievement of the single mind from which they all proceed. And it can be fascinating to look for and to think about links among the plays, as if they all formed one great work of art.

The richness of Shakespeare’s plays is a cause of a great diversity of interpretation. The ASL translation that you see on this website or DVD is one of many different ways to interpret and translate his lines. Shakespeare himself was clearly aware that his actors, and their followers from one generation to another, would interact with what he wrote in creative ways, so that each performance of a role has its own uniqueness. Many of these roles remain among the greatest and most rewarding challenges ever offered to actors. The texts are fluid: none of them exists in a form that was finally approved by Shakespeare; some of them, such as Hamlet and King Lear, have come down to us in more than one version, each with its own claims to authenticity; all of them are subject to change according to the circumstances in which they are performed. They release different energies each time they are acted. And they are collaborative, too, calling on the skills of actors, musicians, directors, designers, dancers, costume designers, and property makers (props). These are among the reasons why we gain pleasure and understanding by continuing to see the plays in varied interpretations, and why they reveal new facets of themselves in repeated re-readings.

There are, however, obstacles to an easy interpretation of Shakespeare which we cannot ignore. To think about this is to face the question again—why study Shakespeare? He wrote for theater companies very different from our own. The fact that he wrote largely using verse and rhyme, classical allusions to ancient mythology, and biblical stories, may act as a deterrent in an age that is not accustomed to heightened language. And since Shakespeare’s time the English language has changed. Some of the words that he uses have become archaic or obsolete; others more deceptively, have shifted in meaning. Word order has changed. Even in modern books we don’t necessarily expect to understand every single word. We get a lot from the context that surrounds it. And in the theater, where the language already has passed through the hands of trained actors who sign or speak it, much of the work of comprehension has already been done for us.

(Adapted from Stanley Wells’ Introduction, “Why Study Shakespeare?” in Shakespeare, an Oxford Guide.; Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004.)

Enjoyment of Shakespeare requires understanding of the dramatic and theatrical conventions with which he worked. Modern playgoers may be disturbed by the use of soliloquy and the aside. A soliloquy is when a character is alone on the stage and speaks (or signs) to his or her self. It is a very useful in drama because it allows a character to convey their innermost intimate thoughts and feelings directly to the audience while the other characters do not see or hear what is said. How can we be expected to believe that Viola in Twelfth Night should not see that the only explanation for what is happening is that her brother has survived the shipwreck? Or that Malvolio does not hear (or in the case of the ASL production, see) the three characters who stand directly behind him? These are conventions that challenge the imagination and may be obstacles that modern audiences must learn in order to fully appreciate Shakespeare.

Once you accept these conventions there should be little difficulty in gaining much enjoyment from most of Shakespeare’s plays, but they offer deeper rewards when studied more intensively. Shakespeare lived at a time when religion held far greater sway over the populace than it does now, when attitudes to superstition and witchcraft, magic and madness, differed greatly from those now prevalent in at least Western culture. His society was more hierarchical than ours, the monarchy and the aristocracy had much power and control, the gap between rich and poor was greater. Social attitudes to love and marriage, friendship, the place of women, race and nationhood, have changed—and an understanding of what Shakespeare’s contemporaries thought about them may help to broaden our own understanding.

(Adapted from Stanley Wells’ Introduction, “Why Study Shakespeare?” in Shakespeare, an Oxford Guide.; Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004.)

It has increasingly been realized that Shakespeare’s plays shift in meaning according to the mental attitudes that people bring to them. Terence Hawkes has said, “Shakespeare does not mean; we mean by Shakespeare.” In other words, his words interact with the preoccupations of those who experience them, and can be appropriated for many different purposes. Peter Hall directed one of the finest productions of the play Troilus and Cressida at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1962, which gained significance because it coincided with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Much modern study attempts not only to illuminate the plays by applying to them a wide range of critical practices and viewpoints, but also to use reactions to the plays as a means of exploring the society of our times and of other times.

We may be made more aware of modern attitudes to religion, economics, and cultural identity if we think about reactions to The Merchant of Venice, with its portrayal of Jews and Christians in a commercial relationship. We may become more aware of class and status, and the role of women as we look closely at Twelfth Night.

During the latter part of the twentieth century, Shakespeare and his works became the object of an industry as never before. Shakespeare continues to appeal to the modern world, to the fact that his plays can go on provoking debate, arousing enjoyment, rewarding intellectual investigation.

(Adapted from Stanley Wells’ Introduction, “Why Study Shakespeare?” in Shakespeare, an Oxford Guide.; Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004.)