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The Beginner’s Guide to Shakespeare

The Beginner’s Guide to Shakespeare
Photo Source: Caitlin Watkins

Let’s be frank. It’s impossible for you to avoid Shakespeare. Classical theater aside, he’s made it to screen more often than any other writer and has inspired thousands of other works, from musicals to dance to operas. Shakespeare’s plays are also the best training ground for actors, and performing in one will put your skills to the test as well as plant new ones. He’s got everything from physical comedy and elaborate jokes right the way through to disastrous relationships and tragedy so recognizable that it speaks to us centuries after it was written. His characters also run the gamut of human experience. But, as with any great artist, it can be difficult to know where to begin.

So here’s our beginner’s guide to Shakespeare, running through 11 very different plays that cover the range of his style, characters, and technique. There’s something for every actor, from complex soliloquies to fart jokes. Also listed are some of the best adaptations for the big and small screen, but remember: watching “10 Things I Hate About You” does not replace reading “The Taming of the Shrew.” Make sure you make time for both! 

“Macbeth”

“The Scottish Play” is a bloody thriller about ambition. It’s short but action-packed, and Macbeth himself introduces you to the wonderful complexity of Shakespeare’s characters—both to watch, and to play. This murderous soldier is both headstrong and easily manipulated, brave and cowardly, noble and villainous. It’s also the perfect introduction to power dynamics and relationships in Shakespeare, with the balance shifting between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth over the course of the story.

There are plenty of adaptations to watch, including the full-on Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard experience and two brilliant versions set in restaurants: the BBC’s starring James McAvoy as an ambitious chef and kooky U.S. version “Scotland, Pa.”.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

Probably the most performed, and generally acknowledged as the most accessible Shakespeare play, it’s the perfect example of his comedy, in both senses of the word. “Macbeth” is a tragedy because most people end up dead. “Midsummer” is a comedy because most people end up married. This topsy-turvy tale of fairies, lovers, and amateur dramatics also features a healthy dollop of Shakespearean humor for actors to get their heads around, from double entendre between mismatched lovers to pure slapstick with Bottom and the Mechanicals, as well as that wall gag—“Midsummer” has it all. Screen versions include the classic Peter Hall production with Helen Mirren, Judi Dench, and Ian Holm, as well as the loose high school adaptation “Get Over It”.

“Measure for Measure”

At first, “Measure for Measure” might not seem like the obvious choice for newcomers. It’s got a messed-up plot, an absurd bed trick, and no main character. However, it’s because of the plot holes and silliness that this problem play makes the list. “Measure for Measure” is the best introduction to how actors can make Shakespeare’s plays work—not despite but with their flaws. As a performer, you must use intuition, find motivation, and discover the journey in everything you do, even if it’s the character of the Duke who works in mysterious ways. Or Isabella, who learns to become more flexible as the plot thickens. Or Angelo, who turns on a sixpence between hard-nosed moralist and sweaty-palmed seducer. And then there’s the ending. Is it a comedy or a tragedy? Well, this is the perfect example of Shakespeare leaving it up to you. The BBC’s 1979 version for TV is one of the best out there.

“Richard III”

If you’re liking the mix of comedy and tragedy in the problem plays, there’s a whole other genre full of murders and marriages to enjoy: the history plays. And historical baddies don’t get badder than Richard III, the inspiration for Netflix’s “House of Cards.” Just like Frank Underwood’s direct-to-camera deliveries, Richard chats to the audience and shares his villainous plans for domination, presenting a singular opportunity for performers: being bad but being loved for it. It’s also a great run-through of Shakespeare’s storytelling; there’s Richard’s narration, verbal one-upmanship in the wooing scene, a dream sequence, and, like all history plays, battles.

“Othello”

Another great Shakespearean villain is Iago, the resentful soldier who’ll do anything to bring down his boss, Othello. The tale finishes with a pile of bodies, but it’s how Shakespeare establishes then develops Othello’s jealous rage that makes it a great story. Like Richard III, Iago soliloquizes his hate for “the Moor” and his plans to sow doubt in Othello’s mind about the fidelity of his love, Desdemona. Othello is no fool, and the meat of the play is Iago working hard to convince him that his young bride is having an affair with a soldier named Cassio. Othello’s outsider status and journey make him the perfect introduction to Shakespeare’s flawed heroes. After all, it’s not Iago who brings about the bloodbath, it’s pride.

There are many film versions, including some problematic ones with actors in blackface as Othello. If you can stomach a racist tradition that’s thankfully had its day, then Laurence Olivier’s filmed stage production is worth watching, if only for Frank Finlay as Iago. Kenneth Branagh’s film with Laurence Fishburne is pretty faithful, but if you’re looking for a truly accessible intro then the 2001 film “O,” starring Mekhi Phifer, Julia Stiles, and Josh Hartnett, transfers the action to a high school basketball team.

“The Taming of the Shrew”

Despite the rather dated ideas about marriage and a woman’s place, “The Taming of the Shrew” has been transformed into rom-coms, musicals, and ballets. Its enduring popularity is in part because of the brilliant double act of Petruchio and Katherina, the tamer and the shrew. The comedy is wacky and sometimes downright cruel, but it’s also endearing and genuinely funny—the best introduction to how Shakespeare pairs strong-willed characters against each other. The challenge in roles like these is in working together and, no matter how tempting it is to play the character comedy, not losing sight of the story.

“Hamlet”

Shakespeare’s masterpiece, “Hamlet” is an investigation of what it means to be human. The young prince is on a mission to avenge his father’s murder, but in the course the play must deal with self-doubt, maturity, mortality, and his mother, now married to his father’s killer. Hamlet’s soliloquies, especially “To be or not to be,” are some of the best-known pieces of writing in the English language and can feel worn out by repetition. Yet, in a good production they come alive again. The play is so rich, the characters so complex, that in the right hands it’s possible to keep digging and find something new. 

Kenneth Branagh’s film version is a strong offering, but Laurence Olivier’s 1948 version is more inventive and fun. Ethan Hawke’s turn as Hamlet is also very enjoyable, with the bonus of Bill Murray as Polonius. “The Lion King” takes inspiration from “Hamlet” but is not a straightforward adaptation. For the sideline perspective of other characters in the story, check out the film of Tom Stoppard’s play “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” starring Oscar winner Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, and Iain Glen (now of “Game of Thrones” fame).

“Twelfth Night”

A comedy of disguises and mistaken identities, “Twelfth Night” is also a heartbreaking tale of unrequited love. When Viola says, “I am not what I am,” she might as well be speaking for the play itself. Though there are jokes aplenty, it’s a play that confuses some audiences—and actors. Is the disapproving Malvolio a comic figure or a tragic one? Why do we laugh at the elaborate prank that ultimately sends him to the madhouse? The most interesting part of the play—Orsino falling in love with Viola, who he believes to be a boy called Cesario—is also the most challenging. But, somehow, it all works. The challenge for every company that takes it on is to find their own balance between light and shade in this odd masterpiece.

It doesn’t transfer easily to screen, but the recorded version of Tim Carroll’s masterful all-male production is available online if you’re after a period-perfect rendition. Tracking down the 1988 TV version starring Frances Barber and Richard Briers is difficult but worth it. For a loosely-based, 2006 rom-com version, check out “She’s the Man,” starring Amanda Bynes and Channing Tatum.

“Much Ado About Nothing”

Also known as “Love’s Labour’s Won,” this comedy of romance and plotting isn’t as straightforward as it seems. Benedick and Beatrice aren’t conventional lovers; they are older, more stubborn, and sworn against marriage. Even so, their friends set about to make them fall in love through a game of misinformation. Two of Shakespeare’s most beloved characters, Benedick and Beatrice sparkle with wit and are a gift to actors, if only for their intelligent banter. Behind the main plot, Shakespeare gives us the revengeful Don John and the tale of Claudio, who believes he has killed his fiancée for most of the play. Fascinatingly, Shakespeare puts a murder plot smack bang in the middle of this comedy—as if to prove he can make you think you’re in one kind of play and then pull you into another.

Kenneth Branagh’s film adaptation is great fun, and the opening scenes have stirred many a school student, but it’s Joss Whedon’s brilliantly simple version, shot over 12 days in his own home, that you should start with.

“Julius Caesar”

Poor Julius has only just won the war and arrived back in Rome when his old friends start to suspect he’s got too much sway with the common people. Worried that he’ll throw the delicate Roman system off balance, Cassius plots to kill Caesar, enlisting the support of the well-respected Brutus. At Caesar’s funeral, Shakespeare displays the power of words, with Brutus trying to convince the crowd that killing Caesar was the best option before the superior rhetorician Mark Antony tells them otherwise. The conspirators are forced to flee, eventually killing themselves. Shakespeare’s story of leadership has always found relevance, with many quotes and passages common in the world of politics. But as important as the themes of justice, power, and morality are, the challenge for an actor is to fight through the orations and tell the story moment by moment. “Julius Caesar” is an exercise in finding, gaining, and losing status in the scene.

If you’re looking for a film adaptation then you can do no better than the 1953 version with Marlon Brando as Mark Antony.

“Romeo and Juliet”

The story of star-crossed young lovers who can only be together in death has inspired countless adaptations and retellings, some of which are masterpieces in their own right. There’s an endless war going on between the Capulet and the Montague families, as Romeo Montague sneaks into a Capulet party to try and forget his unrequited love for a girl called Rosaline. It works. When Juliet sets eyes on Romeo, the pair fall in love and agree to be married, despite what their warring parents will say. But after a heated argument in which Juliet’s cousin murders Romeo’s best friend and Romeo takes revenge, the marriage doesn’t look likely. An elaborate plan to drug Juliet and reunite her with Romeo goes wrong and he kills himself. Juliet wakes to find Romeo dead and she kills herself, too, both families bursting in just seconds too late.

There’s no better introduction than Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film, but if you’re after something a little closer to the stage play then Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 version is young love in Technicolor. But the biggest challenge for actors is to forget everything you think you know about “Romeo and Juliet.” For one, the Hollywood version of Juliet is nothing like what you’ll find in the text. Instead of the soft focus picture of innocence she’s become onscreen, Juliet is confident, intelligent, and a lot more complex than many give her credit for. With every part in every play, the challenge for actors is to approach Shakespeare’s words as if for the first time. After that, your job is to make them your own.

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