8 Tips for Starting Shakespeare (Part 4)

These last two are just guidelines…

7) Avoid “translation” editions.

This tip might be more of a preference (if not an outright prejudice on my part). If notes are training wheels, “translation” editions like No Fear Shakespeare are training wheels to the training wheels. If possible, don’t give in to the idea that you need someone to “translate” Shakespeare for you. It’s not another language, just a different vocabulary to learn. You do it every time you start a new show on Netflix; you can do it here. If your current class or assignment is a one-time thing with Shakespeare, do your thing. However, if you want to grow into experiencing Shakespeare in a new way,  you should only use such books at greatest need. A couple of practical reasons to shy away from them: save time, and save money. Time because if you’re reading someone else’s account of Shakespeare in addition to his work, you’re reading it twice. Money because you can probably find a cheaper edition and look up interpretations of a difficult passage online. On a more serious note, though “translations”  are admittedly good products, they are, themselves, critical interpretations of what the text means. They are debatable and by no means exhaustive. Though, yes, they can give you an accurate understanding of what’s going on, they can never replace your own ideas and imagination of what’s happening. So, give yourself a pep talk and ditch the secondhand account of the text.

8) Read because he’s fun, not because he’s important.

It would be superfluous to cite anyone important as a reason why you should read Shakespeare. It would undermine the purpose of this tip, and it would be tough to pick anyone out of the multitude. If someone is important (from Jefferson, to Lincoln, from Freud, to Dickinson, to Asimov), they have had something to say about the man.

I’m here to tell you to ignore all that. The reason they all wrote about Shakespeare was because he was good. His writing is complex, broad, and deep enough to still be relevant. Approach him to find this out for yourself, not because anyone else says it. He was, after all, just a man. As with most things, it would be robbing yourself of the experience to approach him as a second-hander. Use your own judgment, and find the right mix of pride in testing your own thoughts and humility in weighing the thoughts of others. This is the best (and, arguably, only) way to legitimately read his work. You don’t want to rent a relationship with it; you want to own one.

I’m sure there are many other tips for starting Shakespeare. These 8 (if you read all 4 posts) are merely the ones I have personally used and that have worked for me. I hope they can help you as you invest time in reading perhaps the greatest writer the world has known. Personally, I still don’t know if I like the man or the metaphysical worldview taken in many of his plays. However, the corpus of his work has, whether I like it or not, become a part of who I am. I would be remiss not to recommend ways others might engage with his work in a similar fashion.

If you’ve read this far, thanks a lot! Feel free to comment below if you know any other tips for reading Shakespeare (or any other intimidating authors)!


Author: dustinllovell

Writing professor, literature and US history tutor, previous ESL instructor, and would-be novelist who enjoys/specializes in Shakespeare, 19th century lit, and philosophy (whether in print or via audiobook). Author of the novel Sacred Shadows and Latent Light (Wipf and Stock, Resources Imprint). Member of Heterodox Academy. Columnist for The Mallard.

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