My Problem with Shakespeare | Discussion

Confession: I don’t particularly like Shakespeare.

Usually when I tell people I’m not a huge fan of Shakespeare I receive a piercing glare and a disapproving “Really?” This conversation inevitably results in me trying to defend my opinions while undergoing intense scrutiny from the opposing party. Apathy towards the Bard was the norm when I was in high school, but people’s expectations seemed to change as soon as I entered college. Some people apparently view being an English major and a Shakespeare enthusiast as characteristics that always go hand in hand, as though one cannot be the former without also identifying as the latter.

I hate that this stereotype of English majors exists. Though I love British authors like Charles Dickens and Charlotte Bronte, I’m actually much more interested in American Literature than British literature. Frederick Douglass, Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Willa Cather, Kate Chopin– these are the writers that fascinate me and make my little English major heart beat with bookish excitement. However, whenever I hear Shakespeare mentioned I can’t help but let out a little sigh of indifference.

The core of the problem is that I haven’t connected with Shakespeare’s works emotionally or deeply in any way. None of his plays have ever resonated with me personally like other texts often do. Does this come from my general disinterest in the time period? Or maybe it stems from the way I was taught to read Shakespeare in high school without actually seeing his plays performed? Whatever the reason, I find it difficult to empathize with his characters. For instance, Romeo and Juliet frustrated me endlessly with their impulsive decisions, melodrama, and plain foolishness. (Juliet, girl, you knew him for mere days!!)

Sometimes I feel like I’m missing the point of Shakespeare. I tend to take his works seriously and often literally when they’re probably meant to be comedic, ironic, sarcastic, or satiric. It’s probably safe to say that the Bard didn’t support the rash decision of the star-crossed lovers to give up their lives for one another; instead, he was probably trying to show how dramatic, emotional, and intense young love can be. (Never mind the fact that it makes for a really entertaining story.) I’m just not good at picking up on Shakespeare’s humor, which means that most of his works tend to fall flat for me. I completely recognize that this is an individual preference and I’m certainly not blaming Shakespeare for my inability to understand his intent– I just don’t the process of trying to figure it out!

I don’t mean to say that I hate Shakespeare’s works; rather, I’m sort of indifferent to them. Sometimes they’re enjoyable and entertaining, whereas other times I’m counting down the pages until I can close the play for good. However, I can say that I’ve recently gained a greater appreciation for his skill with language as well as his significant contributions to English literature in general. I still plan to continue reading as many of his plays as possible this summer to expand my Shakespeare horizons– fingers crossed I find one that I love!

Until then, the Bard and I will just have to agree to disagree.

What are your thoughts on Shakespeare? Do you have a favorite Shakespeare play? Have you encountered this English major stereotype before? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

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43 thoughts on “My Problem with Shakespeare | Discussion

  1. I don’t hate his work by any means, but I’m not a huge fan either. I recognise that he’s meant a great deal for the English language and for literature in general, but, like you, I’ve never really connected to his work. For me, it’s mostly due to the time period and the language (it’s hard to get into a play when you’re struggling to understand the meaning of the words–especially as a non-English native speaker)
    And you’re right. Most of his works were not meant to be taken literally, something that’s often forgotten by the “general public” so to speak. I hate it whenever someone says Romeo & Juliet were soooo romantic. No. Just no. That was not what he meant!
    Anyway, Macbeth is probably my favourite play, but I also like his poetry 🙂

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    1. I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels this way! Time period plays a role in it for me as well because I’m just not that interested in learning about the Renaissance. I took a Renaissance Poetry class this past semester and found that I don’t mind his sonnets, but I would still much prefer to read stuff from the nineteenth-early twentieth centuries.

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  2. This was such an interesting read! Sadly we didn’t study Shakespeare much in secondary school, so I haven’t read much of his work. I did enjoy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but I can’t say much for his other work as I haven’t read them. I’m always put off a bit because of the language – I’m afraid I won’t understand it and it will give me a headache haha. I had no problem with A Midsummer Night’s Dream as I was already familiar with the story since I had seen a movie adaptation of it. I’m curious to hear whether or not you’ll find a work of his that you can call a favourite! 🙂

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    1. Me too! I keep reading his plays hoping to stumble across one I LOVE but that just hasn’t happened yet… maybe I need to watch more adaptations/see them performed more often? Fingers crossed I’ll become more of a Shakespeare fan at some point! 🙂

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  3. I agree with Lauren. His sonnets are the best. 🙂

    When I was a freshman, I worked as a tutor in the English Department, & my prof {boss at the tutor place} told me that as an English major I either had to love Shakespeare or coffee. So I decided to get to know Shakespeare. 🙂 He was joking of course, but YET HE WAS SERIOUS. I love that you’re pulled to American authors. I don’t see anything in the world strange about that, I feel the same. Frederick Douglass — absolutely. Also, your love of Faulkner? I THINK THAT IS AWESOME. x

    I’m not sure which Shakespeares you’ve read, so I hesitate to suggest that “you’ll find your play.” Possibly you won’t. Instead, I’ll just mention a few of my thoughts:

    So, for example, Richard III. Evil guy who stole the throne, we must hate him, was the basic rhetoric everyone believed in Shakespeare’s day. He wrote the play for an audience who believed they knew Richard’s story: evil hump-backed guy tries to destroy the current royal line, he is awful, we hate him, all very black and white. Shakespeare imbues Richard with humanity — as in, folks, this could be you. He knows what he wants, he is intelligent, a leader, a conniver. He even feels guilt late in the play {the dream}. He’s just ambitious and bitter.

    Within the play itself, Shakespeare is basically saying, you don’t REALLY know history, folks. You know the version you’ve been told. There’s a scene near the end where Richard III says “A horse, my kingdom for a horse!” and the guy he’s talking to thinks that means he wants to flee and is a coward. Richard corrects him: “No, man. Give me a horse so I can get in there and fight to the end.” Two completely different interpretations of the exact same sentence, which wholly alter our picture of Richard III.

    So it’s the story the 17th century audience {and the reigning royal} expected {eveil Richard III steals the throne and murders people}, but throughout the play, Shakespeare is saying, “THIS STORY ABOUT RICHARD III COULD BE COMPLETELY FALSE. YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHETHER YOU HAVE INTERPRETED HISTORY CORRECTLY.” As in, this episode in history where a guy tries to take the throne could have happened SO MANY WAYS, and be fueled by all sorts of different relatively valid intention, but here is your story about a hump-backed guy who is pure evil because that’s clearly what happened. People had to believe that was what happened or else the reigning royals {who had stolen Richard III’s throne} would look rather evil and even ridiculous, as in, you don’t have a valid claim on the throne folks, please leave.

    Shakespeare is basically suggesting that history is a story told to make the other side look better. DANGEROUS SUGGESTION. He couldn’t come out and challenge the reigning vision of Richard III directly because the reigning royal was the descendant of the guy who beats Richard III at the end THEREFORE THE VERSION OF HISTORY THAT SAYS RICHARD III IS EVIL AND THE OTHER GUY PRISTINE must be true.

    However, isn’t the guy at the end doing the same thing Richard did? Stealing the throne? THAT’s the point. Shakespeare is Shakeing 🙂 up the audience’s definition of history, and trying to teach them to see through rhetoric and realize that history is crazy hard to pin down into a palatable story, and MAYBE the current royals dressed up history to make Richard look awful because they stole the rightful throne and didn’t actually belong there. AND YOU MUST THINK FOR YOURSELVES AND LEARN TO SEE BEYOND THE STORY THEY TELL YOU.

    I’ve come to find Shakespeare extremely clever and revolutionary and MOST RELEVANT IN OUR OWN ERA, not just with language, but with people & politics. What he was basically doing was trying to get his {middle and lower class} audience to think beyond rhetoric {of the higher and royal classes}. Because rhetoric is power {a theme that’s ENORMOUSLY relevant in his play The Tempest.} But he had to write challenging things in a way he could slip past the censors, because challenging things like divine right to the throne could mean being beheaded.

    So you have to realize he is saying bold things in a slippery away {as in, could he possibly be more courageous?}, to begin to “get” him. Once you do — wow.

    My favorite comedy is The Taming of the Shrew. He appears at the surface to be saying women should obey their man. But once you realize the frame story is saying something completely different, you realize he’s actually saying that people who believe that women should obey their men have clearly underestimated women. In As You Like It, he’s basically saying, “Hm, it seems the only difference between men and women is the clothes they wear, and the expectation {gender role} that comes with those clothes.” That’s the kind of thing that makes me want to shake his hand. He wanted his audience to see beyond what they’d been told was true — to pick up on it, and to begin to learn to listen for the facts beneath the surface of performance and words. As in, he was trying to make a difference. And more notable, he trusted a large percentage of these tomato-throwing underclasses to be intelligent enough to see it.

    Watching the plays completely transforms them. Romeo and Juliet? Feminist play, my friend. He puts Juliet on a stage and has her boldly tell Romeo she loves him. This was HUGE and had not been done on the English stage before. My professor told me that this actually transformed English drama and literature — this one moment. Juliet is portrayed as intelligent throughout, and speaks her mind. I LOVE THAT. And yes, they fall in love too quickly. It’s completely unbelievable. I think that was probably his point — when you react on pure passion, spontaneity and emotion, terrible things can happen. He was pairing that with the family feud, which could be then raised to a higher political level: let’s use our minds, let’s be level-headed. Don’t be hasty and act without thinking. I think often he was speaking ideas beyond the frame of the story.

    Well, if this is no use, ignore it all and read Frederick Douglass. A worthy goal! However, I am guessing Douglass read Shakespeare, as did A LOT of people in literature and history {Lincoln!}. Reading what they read gets you closer to them. And seeing how he spoke revolutionary thoughts through story can change the way you see other works of literature that appear at the surface to be saying one thing, but in the subtext say something else. 🙂

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    1. I actually just read Richard III, and you points about it make me like it SO MUCH more. I feel like that’s a big part of the problem I have with Shakespeare’s works: I would love them if I read them in a group setting or with at least one other person, but so much is lost when I read them on my own.

      You point out something else that I should probably be doing: watching the plays being performed. I really enjoyed my school’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream back in the day, though I haven’t read that play yet (it’s on my list for this summer!).

      I feel like I could warm up to Shakespeare eventually, though part of me knows that it’s just not absolutely my cup of tea. It’s sort of how I feel about coffee– I’ll tolerate it and drink it if I must, but I wouldn’t order it if given the choice between coffee and tea. (Maybe in this analogy tea is Frederick Douglass? 🙂 )

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  4. I get where this is coming from, fellow Lit major here, and totally understand it. I am not a huge fan of Shakespeare, I like it, but I have never been one of those die hard fans. Don’t get me wrong, I have my faves, Twelfth Night and King Lear, but those have been mostly because of the conditions I read them/saw them in. For example, my first intro to Shakespeare was watching a puppet movie of Twelfth night as a child, I can’t be the only one. That made me love that play.

    Similarly, I loved King lear because of my HS english teacher. And the Tempest because of a re-imagined in future space version I saw in HS.

    SO I think it depends a lot on the situation you’ve seen it it. I also feel like watching it is so much better than reading it. And in the right circumstances.

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    1. I completely agree! I think part of the problem is that I haven’t really had any teachers who were that into Shakespeare plays, either. I did enjoy reading his sonnets with my Renaissance Poetry class this past semester, though.

      It’s good to hear that Twelfth Night is one of your faves– I just checked it out from the library the other day! 🙂

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  5. I completely agree with you! I feel like all that I’ve read of Shakespeare has failed to get to me or move me in any capacity. Whenever I try to read Shakespeare on my own (without the interpretations and explanations) I get kind of bored. The only Shakespeare play I like is Hamlet, and that’s because we studied it in depth in high school and that’s the only time I felt like I truly understood a Shakespeare play. Great post!

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    1. It’s good to know I’m not the only one who feels this way!! I think having a teacher who loves Shakespeare can make huge difference in how you feel about his plays. I enjoyed the Shakespeare sonnets I read in my Renaissance Poetry class this past semester, but I haven’t had that experience with his plays.

      Thanks! 🙂

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  6. I share your frustration about Romeo and Juliet. I don’t understand why people consider it as a romance. It’s a tragedy, true. But it’s a tragedy about two rebellious teenagers and not a romance. I don’t have an issue with Shakespeare but I’m not a huge fan either.

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  7. What an intriguing topic, Holly! I’ve studied only his plays (theatre class), and I agree — I can’t really relate with the characters. I do think that he was one of the greatest writers, though! I think if I read more of his poems and less of his plays, I would enjoy his work better? I remember one writig summer camp where we took one of his sonnets (forgot which one!) and analyzed it. It was hard, but when we got the message — I was shocked, because it was so deep and thoughtful and it was hidden in those words. So, I don’t really know how to feel about Shakespeare? He was an amazing writer though. 🙂

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    1. I definitely like his poetry more than his plays! I read SO MANY of his sonnets in my Renaissance Poetry course last semester and a lot of them really resonated with me. I particularly liked the sonnets about how writing can “immortalize” people because I think it’s a really interesting concept. Does writing about someone or something make it eternal? TELL ME, SHAKESPEARE 🙂

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  8. I think a lot depends on when and how you’re exposed to Shakespeare. If he’s presented as The Literary Genius We All Must Worship, then it’s easy to resent that and go in the opposite direction. I was lucky enough to be exposed to Shakespeare very early. I saw a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream when I was about 7 and at the time I had no real understanding of who he was or why he was important. All I saw was a play that was really fun and funny. Granted a lot of the humor went over my head at the time, but it made me look kindly on the Bard.

    It’s great that you’re continuing to expose yourself to Shakespeare. After all, personal taste aside, his influence was undeniable. But I would suggest seeking out productions of his plays rather than reading them. They weren’t written to be read in a book. They were written to be performed. Even if you don’t have access to live theater, there is some great stuff online and on DVD.

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    1. OMG I love that title– that’s definitely how Shakespeare was first presented to me! That’s a good point about watching them performed instead of reading them. I think I’ll try to do that more this summer!

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  9. A great post! I haven’t actually read much Shakespeare — and when I have, I didn’t really like my teacher so I had a hard time concentrating — but I do really enjoy seeing different Shakespeare productions in theatre and on screen. I think the way the actors choose to portray their characters really makes it more interesting for me! I’m not very good at reading plays and kind of *getting* what it’s supposed to be like, I don’t know.

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    1. Thank you!

      I feel the same way– I think I’ll be able to connect more with his stories and characters when I watch performances of the plays. Hopefully I’ll be able to find some good adaptations online!

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  10. I’m not a huge fan of Shakespeare either! For me, it’s mostly because I struggle with the language so much! English isn’t my first language so it’s harder for me to understand it and my whole focus lies on trying to understand what this word and that phrase means instead of acknowledging like the deeper meaning! 😂

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    1. Ahhh the language can be so tricky!! I always look for editions of his plays that have glosses that “translate” some of the especially weird words. It’s hard not to get caught up in the details instead of looking at the bigger picture.

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  11. This is such an interesting post, Holly! I’m not a huge fan of Shakespeare either – mostly because, like others said above in the comments, English isn’t my mother tongue and if I can understand it clearly with any piece of writing for the most part, Shakespeare’s English just…well, it’s not for me ahah 🙂

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  12. So I read this and cried a little inside, because I love Shakespeare and I connect deeply and emotionally with his work. I get that I can’t make everyone feel the same, and that’s OK 🙂 (Most of) his characters seem so real to me, and I think he has a lot to say about the human condition and how we relate to each other. I agree that Romeo and Juliet are irritating, but the play is more of a commentary on young love and the futility of the families’ feud–it’s not supposed to be glorifying their rash decisions. And “As You Like It,” “Much Ado about Nothing,” and “Macbeth” (among others) are SO good!

    Out of curiosity, which plays particularly did you have a hard time connecting with?

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    1. I’m glad to hear that you love Shakespeare! To be honest I’ve had a hard time connecting with most of the Shakespeare plays I’ve read (R&J, Othello, Hamlet, King Lear, Richard III…) although I did actually like Julius Caesar. I connect a lot more with his poetry, especially his sonnets about writing and time.

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  13. I’m going to make a confession. I’ve never read something by Shakespeare. I do intend to somewhere in the future, but I haven’t yet and I know what you mean with the English Major stereotype. I’m not an English Major, but I have experienced the same thing being a bookworm.

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    1. Don’t worry! I don’t think there’s anything wrong with not having read Shakespeare… if it wasn’t for preparing for future studies in English I probably wouldn’t read much Shakespeare at all, to be honest 🙂

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  14. I was surprised to hear you hate Shakespeare since you blogged about him before but I guess for an English major, he’s unavoidable. I’ve only read two. I HATED R&J, but I loved some parts in Hamlet, with the “Alas, poor Yorick!” a funny name and a skull, a genius combination.
    Hamlet aside, R&J is illogical, to put it mildly. Marriages in the old days were different than now, but they were kissing during their first dance! Did they no nothing of predators!?!

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    1. Yup, I’m pretty much forced to read something by Shakespeare at least once a year. I had to read SO MANY of his sonnets in my Renaissance Poetry class last semester, but I actually enjoyed this poetry a lot more than his plays.

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  15. I like Shakespeare, but I really don’t like reading his plays like books. After being an English major in college and reading SO MANY of his plays in school, I’ve become very much of the opinion that plays should be watched, not read, kind of like you were saying. I don’t think it hurts to read them as well, but Shakespeare didn’t write them to be read, he wrote them to be watched! And when I watch them I find I enjoy them 10000% more. I think I resent being forced to read them all in college without watching them, lol.

    My favorite Shakespeare play I love because I had an amazing teacher teach it to me, though. It’s Romeo & Juliet, and people are usually super unimpressed that it’s my favorite (because of English Major stereotypes aka why isn’t your favorite a more complex or obscure Shakespeare play??), but my teacher was AMAZING and he taught it to us basically by acting out in a one man show, and he was just so passionate about it and getting us into the characters, I loved it. So I’d definitely say so much depends on the teacher/method of teaching and making it relatable, because my teacher definitely did. Just reading it from a book and connecting to it is super difficult for me, and the ones I never watched I barely remember the plot of. But it can bug me how people assume I’m some Shakespeare expert because I studied English. For the most part I like a few of his plays but am no crazed fan!

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    1. That’s so awesome that you had such an enthusiastic teacher like that!! I think that’s part of why I don’t love Shakespeare now– none of my teachers have really been passionate about his work, either. The stereotype of English majors is so pervasive for some reason!!

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  16. Um… I’m so glad I’m not the only one who doesn’t love Shakespeare! This is a really interesting discussion. I think my problem is that I read Romeo and Juliet first and instead of recognizing how it’s not supposed to be taken seriously I HATED how overdramatic it was. I really should read more and see if my opinion changes, though. Fantastic post!

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    1. The same thing happened to me!! I had to read Romeo and Juliet in my freshman English class in high school and I’m convinced that it ruined Shakespeare for me haha

      Thank you!!

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  17. Honestly, I don’t enjoy Shakespeare either and I hate when people give me “that look” when I admit it. I seriously just don’t think he was that good of a writer. His plays were rather pathetic and had boring themes

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  18. This was such a great post! Even as someone who absolutely adores Shakespeare, I enjoyed and understood your point of view.

    My first exposure to Shakespeare was preparing to audition for a part in Romeo and Juliet. I had been happy enough with my fantasy and sci fi books at that point and had not even thought about picking up a Shakespeare play. However, I was also a lover of performance and theatre so I feel like it was only a matter of time before Shakespeare found me. I was in love right away.

    But in saying that, I don’t know how I would feel if I had never had his work actually tied to performance, as well as simply reading them for pleasure. I go and see Shakespeare works performed as I often as I can.

    I would definitely suggest seeing them performed more! That is what they were made for!

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