Reading a 300 page romance novel is not the same as reading a 300 page document on the history of the Phillips screwdriver; just as reading a 700 page novel by Charles Dickens is not the same as reading a 700 page Harry Potter novel. Just because a book is longer does not mean it is automatically more difficult to read. Instead, it’s about the content and the time period of the piece that determines the difficulty of the reading.
For a more personal example, I stayed up all night and read the last Harry Potter book in one sitting the night it came out. It took me roughly 7 ½ hours to get through it. And I know for a FACT that it would take at least twice that to read through a novel by Dostoevsky simply because of difficulty. Since many of the books on this classics list are written in a completely different time period, they require much more concentration than if I were to pick up the latest Nora Roberts book (which my mom surely has). I am sure that you can all relate to an experience in high school where a certain book or piece just took forever to get through because of the complexities of language.
This brings me to Shakespeare and plays in general. Obviously, reading a play is far different that reading a novel. In a novel, the author gives the read cues as to emotion, etc. In a play, all you really have to go by is dialogue and the few stage directions.
Here is an example:
“Why are you always leaving me?” she cried, stomping her feet like the immature teenager she is whilst tears streamed down her cheeks, “Am I not enough for you? Just tell me now so I don’t have to pretend anymore.”
In this first example, you, the reader, have some clear clues to go by. First, you know that the speaker is a she and she is undoubtedly crying. She also seems to be speaking to a partner of some sort who is “leaving her.” You can also tell that she feels inadequate and insecure by how and what she is saying to the unknown speaker. These feelings might be an indication of her age, which is that of a teenager. These are clear clues that paint a picture in your head of the scene taking place.
Now, here is another example:
“I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap, and be buried
in thy eyes—and, moreover, I will go with thee to thy uncle’s,” (v.ii. 87-88).
First, the language is completely different (this is from “Much Ado About Nothing”) and that has to be first deciphered like this:
“I will live in your heart, die in your lap, and be buried in your eyes—and, moreover, I will go back with you to your uncle’s.”
Well, that seems a little better now that I got rid of the “thy” and “thees.” But from these lines, who is speaking? Just looking at the dialogue you can’t tell if it’s a man or a woman, how old they are, or to whom they are speaking. It’s slightly trickier than the scene above. The playwright is counting on the performance to deliver these words in the manner they deserve. On a simple read through, it is hard for the read to find the passion in the words alone. They reader, or viewer, is meant to see and feel the passion through a performance.
I say and explain all this in hopes of making a few points.
First, that a play is meant to be performed rather than read.
Second, that Shakespeare’s plays are truly difficult to understand and read because of the language.
Third, anyone who can read a Shakespeare play straight through and understand all the nuances and emotions of the characters and tells you so, is most likely lying (and you can tell them I said so).
Luckily for people who want to read Shakespeare (not so much for other plays), many publishing companies are finding ways to help the reader. I own a complete set of his plays, which are all just straight versions of the dialogue, but there are editions that have the play on one page in its original text and “modern speech” on the opposite side to decipher the meaning. I own an edition that has footnotes to explain puns and out of date slang so that I can fully understand what is being said.
I’m not going to lie, reading Shakespeare is hard. Not only are you forced with the basic challenges of trying to ascertain emotion and passion from only dialogue, you are also contending with a different kind of English than what you speak today.
I think that is the main reason why people find Shakespeare difficult. When I taught “Romeo and Juliet” to ninth graders, I had to explain everything because of the language gap. To many, it just seems like another language entirely and even words like “you” seem to complex to comprehend.
So, if you are looking to broaden your horizons and read some Shakespeare, try one of the new versions of the play of your choice that has a breakdown of outdated words and modern translations. While some “book snobs” might tell you that’s cheating, its not. It simply makes a very difficult text more attainable.
Have at it!