Shakespeare for Scaredycats

I once studied English literature at university, from Beowulf over Shakespeare to contemporary works. Somehow along the line, I managed to forget everything. A shame, because a little bit of Shakespeare would have come in handy every now and then.

So I decided to catch up.

I own the complete works in one big hard cover bound volume but that intimidates me. I’m not a native English speaker and I have the time nor the desire to translate the works before I can savor them.

Because I had no idea where to start, I first went looking for an expert on the matter.  That’s how I landed on the website of Duane Morin, a.k.a. Shakespeare Geek.

I was home. Give me a year or so and I will read every single article on this blog – and every play by the Bard.

I explained my predicament to Duane and insisted that my journey of discovery had to be quick, easy and fun.  My preference would be to learn via iPhone apps. I half expected that he would be insulted on the Bard’s behalf and never get back to me.

But no.

Duane’s response was so generous, so well-considered and it made so much sense that I am sharing it with all of you who want to know everything about Shakespeare but are afraid to ask:

“Never too late to join in the fun! :)

The people at put out an iPhone application with the complete works, which might be what you already have.  I’m not sure that they have any plans to do a “modern translation” version.

A company called Omnitoons did a graphic adaptation of Midsummer Night’s Dream which was interesting because they did exactly that, providing both the original and modern translated versions in a single application.  However, that’s the only play they’ve done that I know of .

The No Fear Shakespeare company has an iPhone app as well, where you pay for each play you want.  There are also many places on the web where you can find traditional summaries of the plays, where in a couple of pages you get the general idea of characters and plot.

If the answer doesn’t have to be in electronic form, there are numerous graphic novel versions of the stories that are typically done in that quick text / “modern translation” form.  Which plays and how much they cost depends on a large number of factors.  There’s Manga Shakespeare, Classical Comics, etc…

Keep in mind that most people, in their entire lives, will never read the complete works.  Even those who do (and I count myself among this group) will end up where some are very well understood and appreciated, while others are vague memories.

Most people, in their entire lives,
will never read the complete works.

Shakespeare is wonderful, but Timon of Athens is no King Lear.  You’re far better off picking a couple of plays to truly study and understand.  “Depth first” rather than “breadth first”, as we computer geeks might say.  You can always branch out later, once your confidence in understanding Shakespeare’s language has grown.

Shakespeare is wonderful,
but Timon of Athens is no King Lear.

Having said that, here’s my suggestion.  Start with a list of plays you wish to tackle, in order.  When in doubt go with popularity first — Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and so on.  They are popular for a reason — they are easier to understand.  Using a site like No Fear (or just googling “Shakespeare summaries”), read the plot of the story.  You’ll get character names and general structure of what happens.

Now, here comes the fun part — head over to Google video and search for your play.  Look for sources that say “Download to iPhone”.  Download a bunch, watch them on the go.   There’s lots to choose from on YouTube as well, if you don’t mind streaming them.  I much prefer this method to the “modern translation” method.  In my suggested version, you see people acting something out while talking and it helps you understand what they meant and why they said it.  In the modern translation version, someone else has stepped between you and Shakespeare and said “Ok, listen, let me tell you what Shakespeare meant.”

You see people acting something out while talking
and it helps you understand what they meant
and why they said it.

If you have the time and resources, rent movies and watch the whole play.  Not all of the plays have modern movie versions, but the most popular plays have several versions to choose from.
If you have access to a service like Netflix then all the better, you can use their “watch instantly” queue to browse through all of their Shakespeare at will.  I’ve been doing that lately, and it’s better than committing yourself to having a DVD mailed to you.

Hope that helps!

Welcome to Shakespeare.”


My name is Duane, and I’m a geek. I say that proudly – I am a hacker, a cruncher of code, a software engineer not only by trade but by passion.

I’m also a big Shakespeare fan. Weird combination, huh? Wish I could explain it.  I think that my life is better for experiencing Shakespeare, and I wish to share it with those around me.

Thumbnail illustration at top by Steven Noble

1 thought on “Shakespeare for Scaredycats”

  1. I love the crazy Simpsons Shakespeare!

    I’ve seen so many traditional and modern adaptations of Shakespeare I can’t even keep track of them all anymore. My favorites though would the Ethan Hawke Hamlet, the Christian Bale/Kevin Kline/etc A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Joe Fiennes/Al Pacino Merchant of Venice and the Leo/Claire Romeo + Juliet. I also 10 Things I Hate About You, which is quasi-based on The Taming of the Shrew.

    The worst Shakespeares on film I’ve seen are O – which was supposed to be Othello and the Shakespeare Unbound version of MacBeth with James McAvoy.


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