Why Should We Read William Shakespeare? Four Animated Videos Make the Case

Soon­er or lat­er, we all encounter the plays of William Shake­speare: whether on the page, the stage, or—maybe most fre­quent­ly these days—the screen. Over four hun­dred years after his death, Shake­speare is still very much rel­e­vant, not only as the most rec­og­niz­able name in Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture, but also per­haps as its most famous sto­ry­teller, even if we don’t rec­og­nize his hand in mod­ern adap­ta­tions that bare­ly resem­ble their orig­i­nals.

But if we can turn Shakespeare’s plays into oth­er kinds of enter­tain­ment that don’t require us to read foot­notes or sit flum­moxed in the audi­ence while actors make archa­ic jokes, why should we read Shake­speare at all? He can be pro­found­ly dif­fi­cult to under­stand, an issue even his first audi­ences encoun­tered, since he stuffed his speech­es not only with hun­dreds of loan words, but hun­dreds of his own coinages as well.

The crit­i­cism of Shakespeare’s dif­fi­cul­ty goes back to his ear­li­est crit­ics. Sev­en­teenth-cen­tu­ry Eng­lish poet John Dry­den declared that the play­wright “had undoubt­ed­ly a larg­er soul of poesy than every any of our nation.” In the plays, we find “all arts and sci­ences, all moral and nat­ur­al phi­los­o­phy.” And yet, even Dry­den could write, in 1664, that Shake­speare’s lan­guage was “a lit­tle obso­lete,” and that “in every page [there is] either some sole­cism of speech, or some noto­ri­ous flaw in sense.” (These issues are some­times, but not always, attrib­ut­able to scrib­al error.)

“Many of his words,” wrote Dry­den, “and more of his phras­es, are scarce intel­li­gi­ble. And of those which we under­stand, some are ungram­mat­i­cal, oth­ers coarse; and his whole style is so pestered with fig­u­ra­tive expres­sions, that it is as affect­ed as it is obscure.” Seems harsh. How could such a writer not only sur­vive but become an almost god­like fig­ure in lit­er­ary his­to­ry?

Maybe it’s all that “poesy.” Shake­speare is sure­ly one of the most musi­cal writ­ers in the lan­guage. Read his speech­es to children—they will lis­ten with rapt atten­tion with­out under­stand­ing a sin­gle word. It is bet­ter that we encounter Shake­speare ear­ly on, and learn to hear the music before we’re buf­fet­ed by exag­ger­at­ed ideas about how hard he is to under­stand.

Writ­ten in a time when Eng­lish was under­go­ing one of most rapid and rad­i­cal shifts of any lan­guage in his­to­ry, Shakespeare’s inge­nious plays pre­serve a riot of bor­rowed, invent­ed, and stolen words, of fig­ures of speech both old- and new-fash­ioned, and of schol­ar­ly and pop­u­lar ideas trav­el­ing through Eng­land on their way to and from a glob­al­iz­ing world. The tor­rents of verse that pour from his char­ac­ters’ mouths give us the lan­guage at its most flu­id, dynam­ic, and demot­ic, full of unpar­al­leled poet­ic fugues crammed next to the rough­ness Dry­den dis­liked.

This is the essence of the modern—of lat­er Shake­spearen suc­ces­sors like Samuel Beck­ett and James Joyce who freely mixed high and low and invent­ed new ways of speak­ing. Why should we read Shake­speare? I can think of no more per­sua­sive argu­ment than Shakespeare’s lan­guage itself, which daz­zles even as it con­founds, and whose strange­ness gives it such endur­ing appeal. But which plays should we read and why? The TED-Ed videos above from Iseult Gille­spie, and below from Bren­dan Pel­sue, make the case for four of Shake­speare great­est works: The Tem­pest, Ham­let, A Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream, and Mac­beth.

Learn new facts about the plays, and why their tragedy and humor, and their copi­ous amounts of mur­der, still speak to us across the gulf of hun­dreds of years. But most of all, so too does Shakespeare’s glo­ri­ous­ly ornate poetry—even when we can bare­ly under­stand it.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear 55 Hours of Shakespeare’s Plays: The Tragedies, Come­dies & His­to­ries Per­formed by Vanes­sa Red­grave, Sir John Giel­gud, Ralph Fiennes & Many More

Hear What Shake­speare Sound­ed Like in the Orig­i­nal Pro­nun­ci­a­tion

Take a Vir­tu­al Tour of Shakespeare’s Globe The­atre in Lon­don

The 1,700+ Words Invent­ed by Shake­speare*

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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Comments (4)
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  • Ian Burns says:

    Fan­tas­tic idea of how to try and make Shake­speare worth read­ing and enjoy­ing today. I hope many teach­ers, stu­dents, actors, direc­tors and peo­ple take advan­tage.
    All best,

  • Yip leaf says:

    After see­ing these 4 videos, I real­ize that I know too lit­tle about the works of Shake­speare although I have read all four of the plays. Far too more for me to learn from his plays.

  • Maria Raysses-Whipple says:

    You brought tears to my eyes as I remem­ber fond­ly my cher­ished time in the Bard’s pres­ence and with the hon­or of teach­ing some of his works to my high school­ers. I have many plans/projects afoot through the Amer­i­can elec­tions includ­ing wed­ding my daugh­ter on our Greek fam­i­ly island, Sum­mer of 2020, etc., and fol­low­ing our elec­tions, would love to spend much, much more time in the ele­vat­ed embrace of your site.

    Many thanks,
    Maria Raysses-Whip­ple

  • poopoo says:

    did it have you shack­ing like a leaf?

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