Now's The Time To Start Reading Shakespeare

by Charlotte Ahlin

So I'm going to go ahead and assume that you've heard of this guy, William Shakespeare. Maybe you remember him as that dead guy who bored you stiff in high school English. Maybe you still have flashbacks to your cousin's community theater production of Timon of Athens. Maybe you actually enjoy watching William Shakespeare plays, but are a little nervous to take the reading plunge. Whatever you might think about the Bard of Avon, here are few solid reasons why you (yes, you) should try reading Shakespeare today.

If you haven't already hurled your laptop/phone out the window at the thought of being forced to read Shakespeare again, then you must be at least a little bit curious. I mean, there must be something to this Shakespeare dude, right? If he's been dead for 400 years and we still have to read his historical fan fiction in schools? How many of his contemporary writers are we still reading? When was the last time you saw a Ben Johnson play? I know that Shakespeare's plays are meant to be performed and not read, and that you're probably tired of caring about old, dead male writers from England. But if you give Shakespeare a chance, he just might surprise you:


You already quote Shakespeare all the time

You quote Shakespeare constantly. He coined thousands of words, and quite a few phrases. If you've ever claimed that "love is blind," or engaged in "fair play," or tried to "break the ice" with a stranger, you're quoting Shakespeare. If you've ever used the words "elbow," "assassination," or "bedazzled," you're also quoting Shakespeare.


You’ll understand more references

People reference Shakespeare a lot. More than you might realize. Even reading just one of the "big" plays, like Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet will open you up to so many new literary discussions, in-jokes, and, most importantly, puns. You'll finally understand what that whole skull thing is about, too.


Shakespeare is still relevant

If you can get past the "thees" and "thous," Shakespeare is still incredibly relevant. I don't just mean that he writes about universal themes, like love and war and fart jokes (although he does). Plays like Othello and The Merchant of Venice address privilege and internalized racism. Almost all of his comedies explore gender as a social construct through complex relationships and cross-dressing women. And Richard III has more than a few uncomfortable parallels to the 2016 election.


It’s not as hard as you think

Shakespeare has a reputation for being highly academic these days... but in his own time, Will was considered pop culture. He wrote for ordinary people, and his plays were watched by peasants and royalty alike (usually over a cold beer). It takes a few tries to get used to the old fashioned grammar, but once you do, Shakespeare is not so hard to read. It can actually be easier to read verse, because you fall into a simple rhythm. And if it helps, just remember that words like "doth" and "hath" are just our modern "does" and "has" pronounced with a lisp.


Reading Shakespeare makes you smarter, nicer, and more handsome

Well, OK, I can't vouch for the handsome part. But research shows that reading Shakespeare does boost brain activity and memory. It's also been shown to relax readers, and we already know that reading literature can make you more empathetic. So basically, throw out all your vitamins and replace them with a copy of the Complete Works.


It’s fun

Reading Shakespeare shouldn't feel like homework — it's too bad that so many people have a negative experience with the bard in high school, because most of his plays are absolute angsty nonsense (and I mean that in the best way). Shakespeare's plays are full of passionate love affairs, grotesque beheadings, fairies, magic, interesting female characters, and a whole lot of dick jokes.


You’ll understand history better

I mean, Shakespeare's history plays aren't great for learning history, because Shakespeare was not too particular about historical research. He put working clocks in Ancient Rome. Cleopatra plays pool. But if you're looking for a sense of what all the clever pop culture references were 400 years ago, then Shakespeare is the guy for you. His plays are timeless, but they're also a window into life and language several centuries ago.


You know the stories already

It's like with those strange, sad people who've never read Harry Potter before: you know the vague premise, and you know that a lot of people love it. Doesn't that make you want to find out what all the fuss is about? Pick up a play that you think you already know, and then you can be that annoying friend who explains that Romeo and Juliet is not actually about "dumb teenagers," but rather about the destructive power of internalized prejudice and how friars shouldn't deliver the mail.


You'll have help

As a card carrying theater nerd, I'm always a fan of seeing Shakespeare live onstage, or at least quoted by an actor on a science fiction TV show from the '80s. But one of the benefits of reading Will's stuff is that you have all the help you could possibly want: footnotes, online dictionaries, English major friends, and time to go at your own pace. A lot of the difficulty in reading Shakespeare comes from archaic vocabulary and obscure references, but most print editions of Shakespeare plays will happily explain all of them in footnotes (hint: most of them turn out to be dick jokes).


Shakespeare invented the human

Well, OK, to be fair, human beings existed long before Shakespeare. But many scholars credit Shakespeare with being one of the first writers in English literature to write human characters with a nuanced inner life. His characters have conflicting feelings and thoughts, which sounds obvious to us now, but was not terribly common at the time. They don't just exist to go through the motions of the plot. They can be both angsty and goofy. His characters had psychological issues long before psychology was a thing. As a result, most of our modern literature owes something to Shakespeare. So, if you've ever enjoyed reading anything, you might want to head back to the source and pick ups a Shakespeare play.