For the common people

Always remember: Shakespeare wrote for the common people. They enjoyed it. So can you.

Words from a cheap book of ‘crib’ notes on a play we were studying for A level, back in the late Sixties. They acted as a powerful antidote to the bookish analysis demanded by academic study, but hard to believe when you were sitting in a class, working through page after page of words without pictures – intricate poetry and even more obscure prose to unwrap, with jokes that (even when you understood them) didn’t exactly have you all rolling on the floor. In the end I don’t think I came off any the worse for being led through that kind of study but I know some of my school friends never really recovered.


Believe me: it’s a bit of a waste of time trying to nail every word and every phrase Shakespeare wrote. Harmless fun I suppose, if you’re that way inclined, but you really can appreciate anything he wrote without understanding every word.

Always remember: Shakespeare wrote for the common people. They enjoyed it. So can you.

Bit of a year for anniversaries, isn’t it? With Shakespeare and Her Maj in the same week the BBC is already blowing a gasket – before they’ve even started on the Somme (one of the great war crimes), Pearl Harbour, the Norman Conquest and the Great Fire of London. Oh, and David Attenborough, national treasure. At least the Easter Uprising’s out of the way, for a few weeks perhaps.

This week’s anniversary gives me an excuse to write a few words about this man of highest genius, whose work for me contains all human life and all its wisdom. Theories, mostly daft, about who else might have written Shakespeare’s plays and poems drive me nuts so let’s apply Ockham’s Razor and agree that by far the most likely story is that the works of William Shakespeare were written by William Shakespeare. There. Not so difficult, is it?

Other ideas are usually based on the bizarre theory that a stupid, non-graduate grammar school boy like him could not possibly have been clever or sophisticated enough to write at such a level. Well, I am a stupid grammar school boy and I know how stupid grammar school boys can be. But I get beside myself with rage at the suggestion that writing of this sort belongs only to posh university aristocrats. Their experience in the late 16th Century might well have been distinctly more sheltered, and maybe not much more scholarly, than that of a boy attending day school in a respectable provincial town before being thrust out to earn a jobbing living in the university of London life. At Oxford or Cambridge, in those days, there was plenty of Latin and Greek, a cartload of pre-scientific tribal theology, and not much else.

That’s got that off my chest. Demonstrably, Shakespeare was a regular person who had to make a living. To do that he had to write for other regular people, including many with less formal education than his, some with none at all. Theatres had to make money and there weren’t that many posh people around. Writing for the widest possible audience was a straight business need. Hence the bit about the common people.

Shakespeare’s language is rich and needs working at, there’s no doubt about that. Most of it is poetry, so the order of the words might be a bit different. Sometimes he was clearly writing at huge speed – words go missing, phrases get contorted, words get invented on the run, gaps appear in the timeline, key scenes are not shown directly but described by others.  To get everything out of it, you do have to work hard. But Shakespeare’s original audiences, and every generation since, loved the plays, which are now perhaps as popular as they have ever been.

Why? Because like all great art they work on many levels. I first read some of the stories in Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare (still easy to find on Amazon). I just liked stories, and these are re-tellings that even children can understand. Reading the stories introduces you to the themes: if you don’t get it, you can still enjoy the story – powerful enough in itself but somehow Shakespeare just draws you in, you get used to it and then the language follows naturally.

Ah yes, the language. If you’re going to worry about not getting every word, then that’s not a terribly good start. After a lifetime with these plays I will, in a three hour drama, still be struggling with some lines, even some whole speeches. The flip side of this is that there are always new things to find – and that’s half the fun. Consider this: one of the most popular films there has ever been of a Shakespeare play is Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet with Leonardo di Caprio and Claire Danes. It’s set in modern America, in a district called Verona Beach (geddit?), with a cast of young people behaving the way young people do today. So he updated the language, right? Wrong – he made the brave decision to use exactly the words Shakespeare wrote. And of course it works – not only doesn’t it seem odd to hear Elizabethan English in such a modern setting, but it doesn’t seem to faze the huge audiences the film has attracted.


If you think Shakespeare daunts you, you could do a lot worse than have a go with this film: easy to find on DVD. Look at the picture: even 12 year olds can manage it.

Or, just as good, get along to London’s fabulous Globe Theatre (@The_Globe), where over the long summer season you can see a range of Shakespeare plays, performed in something like the style in which they were originally seen. For £5 or so you stand pretty well next to the stage, enjoy the banter between actors and audience, maybe get picked on yourself, but most of all experience the story absolutely at first hand – seeing it unfold in front of you makes it vastly easier to follow than grappling with the text in a book.

Lord, what fools these mortals be, Shakespeare has a mischievous fairy say in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and even he never spoke a truer word. Somewhere or other he is there, shaking his head in sadness that there are people around who, just for want of trying, miss out on stuff they could hardly fail to enjoy.

Always remember: Shakespeare wrote for the common people. They enjoyed it. So can you.



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