After seeing "Much Ado about Nothing" a bit over a week ago, I pulled my copy off the shelf and started reading the play. It had been a while since I read any Shakespeare, after starting "A Winter's Tale" and kind of giving up on it (technically it is a comedy, but it's not a very funny comedy).
I do think the best way to experience Shakespeare is to see a production of the play (either in person or a recording of it), and THEN read the play. Really, Shakespeare is meant to be seen and heard - most plays are. (I'm sure, literature being what it is, there have been plays written that were never intended for production.)
One thing I'm struck by, despite my complaint about the poor audio in the theater, and the students who didn't project all that well (and, I might as well add, the 9 year old boy a few seats down who kept asking his dad, "What's happening now?"), is how much I really did pick up, both of the action and the jokes. (A few of the bawdy jokes did sail over my head, since I didn't know the Elizabethan terminology - in fact, one of the editors of the edition of the play I have argues that the word "nothing" is actually slang of that era for the sex act. Uh huh huh huh huh huh huh.)
I use the Folger editions, by the way. I highly recommend them if you want to learn Shakespeare as an adult - they have the text of the play on the right-hand pages, and a helpful gloss/references on the facing page. And they have "longer notes" in the back, where they can discuss things in more detail. I find I don't need the gloss QUITE as much (having a large vocabulary, and also having a *scientific* vocabulary, helps - one of the editors notes that a lot more of the words of Shakespeare's day are Latin-derived words not so much used any more). But it's nice to know some of the cultural bits of the times (and also to get the double entendres, which I think I would largely miss).
I enjoy reading Shakespeare. And Shakespeare has persisted in our culture in a way that few things have. (I suppose the Bible is comparable in its influence, but of course the Old Testament is a main text of two major world religions, and the New Testament is a main text of one.)
I think there are a couple of reasons why Shakespeare is still read and experienced:
1. The plots of the plays, the ideas behind them, really do capture some of the universals of human history or human experience - misplaced ambition, family resentments, wishing someone you loved loved you....There's an old saying somewhere that there are really only twelve (or whatever number) different types of stories, and they just get retold in different ways. And Shakespeare tells those stories so well, and so compellingly - and even at a remove of nearly 400 years, there are still so many things we understand and relate to.
2. The plays, or snippets from them, have become so insinuated in Western culture....there are a lot of Shakespeare plays that I would argue an "educated" person could recount the basic plot of, regardless of whether he or she had ever seen or read the play. And there are so many quotations from or parodies of lines from Shakespeare. (Even in MLP: "Et tu, Gabby Gums?").
3. The language. The language and its usage is so wonderful. I even think the syntax - which is sometimes twisted around a bit (I presume, to keep the proper rhythm of the blank verse) - is wonderful. There are some great words (like "welkin," for sky) that are archaic but that I wish would come back.
And I will admit it: I'm a word and language geek. I worry over what I see as a potential impoverishment of language (for example, students thinking that it's perfectly appropriate to use "text speak" to write a paper in. The problem with that kind of telegraphic language - it's great for sending a quick note to someone over your phone - but it lacks adverbs and adjectives and long descriptions and....well, I admit I'm a bit of a Luddite but in my darker moments of contemplating it I wonder if maybe it's a path back to the grunts that our ancient ancestors allegedly used (though there is now a hypothesis out there that Neanderthals sang, which I think is wonderful*). And I realize there's the whole descriptive vs. prescriptive debate in linguistics, and that languages evolve and such....but in biological evolution, a major loss of diversity is usually seen as a negative thing, and the loss of linguistic diversity (in the sense of decline of vocabulary) does concern me. (And yes, I'm aware of the comment someone once made, that a certain word of four letters and an Anglo-Saxon derivation could be modified to be used as almost any part of speech....but I really don't want it to be. Because again, that seems not that far off from grunting to me.)
(*And yes, technically speaking, Neanderthals are not on the main path
of human development. Though there is some evidence that they may have
interbred with early modern humans, so some of us may carry Neanderthal
There's also a rhythm to Shakespeare's writing. Most of his plays are in unrhymed blank verse, which is iambic pentameter ("da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM"), though often that's broken across several short lines by different people. But you can HEAR it in a good production of the play, and I can kind-of sort-of "hear" it in my head when I read.
Apparently it's not clear if the plays were written specifically to that meter, and the meter was stressed in their performance, or if iambic pentameter was such a common rhythm of speech back then that it came naturally. Hm. That would make an interesting linguistic study, to record the speech of modern-day people - casual speech, things like sermons, people lecturing in classrooms - and analyze it to see what, if any, meter it possesses. But there is something I find almost comforting about that rhythm (very likely it's also the rhythm of common nursery rhymes; most English poetry since Shakespeare has been iambic pentameter). I also think I like it because there is an underlying structure. I like structure; I do not like chaos.
And beyond that, meter and rhythm of speech interest me. It's something I think I notice more now that I play the piano - I've figured out the metrical markings given under hymns (though I've known that for a while, and that also you can substitute tunes of the same meter....sometimes even in parlor-trick fashion; someone I know said they used to sing the Doxology to the tune of "Hernando's Hideaway" at her church camp).
But anyway. I am enjoying reading "Much Ado About Nothing" (I'm about 1/3 of the way through the second act).