The last time I “read” Shakespeare I spent half my time and energy printing out Sparknotes and wondering how I could write in detail about Desdemona as a submissive recipient of Othello’s brutality without sounding like I had read the Sparknotes analysis. Certainly this is not how the Bard imagined his works would be consumed; skimmed through to be boiled down into a trite four-page essay derived from an online summary. Before attending the King’s Crown Shakespeare Troupe Dionysian rendition (the cast led the audience around campus for three hours until the final resolution on the Lowell steps) of Cymbeline I had seen American Repertoire Theater’s performance of Romeo and Juliette and Columbia University’s Fall 2012 show of The Winter’s Tale, but not until Cymbeline did things I enjoy watching the drama unfold. These tips may by no means help you ace that English test (enter Sparknotes), but hopefully they will make English class a little less dry and not make you want to fall upon thy sword.
1. Comedy or tragedy? I recommend comedy, but either way, see it on stage. It’s difficult to make iambic pentameter sound natural. Can we be expected to remember the motives of all of the revolving characters and feel their conviction? No, that would be like acting out a three-hour drama and watching it at the same time in your head. It’s a play; it was written to be performed. You wouldn’t be expected to enjoy a Broadway musical with just script and lyrics but without the music and dancing, would you?
2. Forget the little details. Do I remember what is going on half the time? No, and you won’t either but it’s okay. Most of the opening scenes just set the stage by introducing characters and giving back-story. Cymbeline was a bit slow, if you can stick it out for the climax and denouement you will be golden. This isn’t Lost, it will all make sense in the end.
3. Who doesn’t appreciate a good heckle? I’m all for respecting the performance, but Shakespeare would roll over in his grave if the audience didn’t jeer at his characters— so screw you, Cloten, you supercilious ass!
4. Don’t get hung up on archaic language. You won’t hear “strumpet” thrown around much these days, but you don’t need to understand Shakespeare verbatim to “get it”. Tune into cues from the actors or even the hecklers to know when things are heating up, when somebody is getting sassy or when someone has just been salted Shakespearean style.
Above all, remember— it’s just Shakespeare, which ensures ye a good olde soap opera. There will be jealousy, political power plays, treachery, misogynist pigs, a good fight scene, hints of incest, death, and just the right amount of skin. And plenty of innuendos, but what did you expect from the man who wrote “If you can penetrate her with your fingering, so: we’ll try with tongue too?” (Cymbeline, Act II, scene iii). Oh Shakespeare, you cunning linguist.