Anyone who has found themselves baffled by Shakespeare take heart: even the director of the Royal Shakespeare Company struggles to understand him sometimes.
Gregory Doran, artistic director of the RSC, said it takes him “five or ten minutes” to get into the swing of Shakespeare’s language each time he hears it, as he reassured others not to give up.
I see a lot of Shakespeare plays, living just a few miles from Stratford-upon-Avon, where Doran’s RSC performs. And, yes, most times when I see a play, it takes me a few minutes to get into the rhythm. But that’s not a reason to avoid Shakespeare; once you do get into the tone of the language, everything flows.
I think it’s up to the actors – and director – to make sure that those first minutes are performed a bit more slowly, a bit more carefully, before getting into the meat of a play. Some of the plays start with a great deal of important information – take King Lear, for example, where we learn about the king’s likes and dislikes, his hesitations, and about his bastard son, Edmund in the brief opening scene:
I thought the king had more affected the Duke of
Albany than Cornwall.
It did always seem so to us: but now, in the
division of the kingdom, it appears not which of
the dukes he values most; for equalities are so
weighed, that curiosity in neither can make choice
of either’s moiety.
Is not this your son, my lord?
His breeding, sir, hath been at my charge: I have
so often blushed to acknowledge him, that now I am
brazed to it.
I find it best to just relax when going to see a Shakespeare play, and not worry about understanding everything. Don’t get hung up on the language; in a good production, the actors will ensure that you understand what matters.