Shakespeare and Shame
Should I feel ashamed if Shakespeare is difficult for me?
Language arts teachers often use shame as a motivator to get students to improve communication skills. The message is that a fully educated person must be able to read difficult materials, speak and write clearly, have a large vocabulary, and be comfortable in the standard language. If students cannot do these things, they will operate at some deficit. Few would argue with the empirical observation that encourages this approach: People with good communication skills will tend to be more successful than those without them.
This teaching strategy influences how we react to difficult material. Effective language arts materials are designed to be one step ahead of our abilities and thus challenge us. We are trained to assume that our inability to grasp something results from either a lack of effort on our part or a gap in our education. In either case, we may feel deficient and a bit ashamed. We work to remove the shame by paying attention and studying hard to overcome these deficiencies. It feels good when shame turns to pride, and that is why shame and the fear of appearing ignorant can be powerful motivators.
For most of us, our first detailed exposure to Shakespeare comes in school as we are exposed to increasingly demanding material. To succeed we must give this material much of our attention. Later in life when we approach Shakespeare, perhaps decades after last reading one of his plays, we may fall back into our schoolboy/schoolgirl thinking—the feeling that we have forgotten to do our homework. We the audience feel ashamed that we have failed Shakespeare by not understanding him.
The foolishness of this sense of shame becomes apparent when we consider how little exposure to Shakespeare’s language we have actually had. Shakespeare wrote 37 difficult plays in a 400-year-old dialect of English. About one-third of them are not very good, of interest only to the most dedicated aficionados. Another third are good but not essential enough to earn a spot in a high school or college curriculum. Another third are masterpieces that have had a profound effect on audiences for hundreds of years and have influenced practically every major writer since. An educated person will be familiar with many of these dozen or so masterpieces, though probably not all of them.
But even if we study all the masterpieces, we still lack enough experience to become proficient in Shakespeare’s now exotic dialect. Let's assume that in secondary school you read Romeo and Juliet, Midsummer Night's Dream, Julius Caesar, and Macbeth. In college, you took a class where you picked up Othello, Hamlet, King Lear, Twelfth Night, Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, Richard III, Henry IV Part 1, Henry V, and the Tempest. If so, you had a rather impressive exposure to Shakespeare, much more than most people get. But all those plays add up to little more than a long novel in terms of language exposure, about 41,000 lines of 10 syllables or less, perhaps 320,000 words. For comparison purposes, that is less than the length of two Jane Austen novels. Dickens Bleak House is half again as long.
Your school-based exposure is far below what it takes to become comfortable in a distant dialect, especially when the subject matter is complicated. But where would you get additional exposure? By reading the lesser plays? By reading the same plays over and over? By reading other less interesting dramatists from that era? By reading the King James Bible?
No, you should not feel ashamed. You are simply rational. Developing a sharp ear for Shakespeare’s language requires effort far beyond the payoff and cannot be a goal of our schools. It does not provide entry to a golden age of literature since few of us find other works from Shakespeare’s time and the century that followed interesting. The golden age of English literature would come much later. When examined in this light, the ability to comprehend Shakespeare fully could be the sign of a misspent youth.
If you want to revisit Shakespeare's plays with increased comprehension, try one of my Enjoy Shakespeare translations. They include all the lines from the original play and maintain the exact verse structure that Shakespeare used. They are every bit as complex as the original and read like serious literature. They are available from Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.