How Not to Hate Shakespeare

The problem isn’t Shakespeare—it’s how he’s been taught.


Since Shakespeare’s work is “not of an age but for all time,” as Ben Jonson famously put it, I suggest that you get over your Bardophobia and embrace your inner Bardolator. Trust me, it’s worth it.

First, you need to relax. You’re not stupid. You’re not a philistine. Shakespeare didn’t write in “olde English” (a common misconception), but his “early modern English” still causes problems for audiences. Shakespeare’s language is about 90 percent the same as the English we speak today, but that ten percent can be irritating. For instance, certain words have different meanings than they used to (“high-pitched,” “still,” “housekeeper,” to name a few). He uses hundreds of archaic words (“wherefore,” “betimes,” “blench,” for example). There are even two obsolete personal pronouns (“thou” and “ye”) and their attendant grammatical rules.

However, I think that the real obstacle to our understanding is the fact that Shakespeare is a poet. And poets—from Sappho to W.B. Yeats to Ed Sheeran—rarely put comprehension high on their to-do lists. As a poet, Shakespeare’s primary goal is to “make it new”—to compress, to electrify, to push language in ways that ordinary writing cannot. This “amplified” language presents challenges for actors and audience alike. If directors and actors aren’t keenly aware of the pitfalls and possibilities of his language, that production of Twelfth Night you’re watching will feel as long as, well, 12 nights. So, while certain aspects of watching a play are out of your control, there are ways to make your next encounter with the Bard more rewarding. —