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Dorothy W.

I admire your thoroughness here! I think it's absolutely right to read the text first and then read criticism later -- that way you're getting the first impression for yourself. As for watching or reading first, I'm not sure. Probably it's whatever works best for you.


Dorothy--I hadn't really thought about the criticism side of literature, but I do like the idea of forming your own opinions first. Actually I think that is something I need to think about in all my reading! As for whether to read or watch first--both ways have been suggested--and they both make sense, but I guess it is a matter of what will work best for me. I am fudging a bit with Romeo and Juliet as I was already fairly familiar with the story. The true test will come with the next play I read.


Your "project shakespeare" looks like good, serious fun.

i think one of the key things to keep in mind while reading a play is that reading a play is a very different act than reading a novel, play, essay etc. while reading a play, you have to kind of visualize the "stage" that the players are playing upon because it was certainly written with this mind -- particularly shakespeare's plays. and it's also worth noting that shakespeare never intended to have his plays widely read -- nothing was "officially" published until he had died (isn't that anniversary coming up?). he was an actor writing for his theatre troupe, which was trying to earn a living.

i go back and forth with footnotes -- in general. but while reading shakespeare i think it's imperative to take the time to read them, even if it slows you down at first. because after a while, you'll start to internalize somethings and you won't need to check when someone says "sirrah."
the way your edition has footnotes may also affect your use of them. . . make sure you think it's designed in a convenient way.

i love reading criticism, but if you're easily swayed by another's thoughts then it might be best to wait to read criticism until after you've formed your thoughts, but i think if you can keep an eye on how much someone is persuading you then it's pretty helpful to read criticism.
phew, i really went on a roll there.

i enjoyed the post.


You will find much to enjoy, I am sure. I think seeing the play first makes the reading easier to follow. The reading is important, though, because to see and hear it sometimes goes so quickly that one does not have enough time to thoroughly digest and appreciate everything. I love the Zefferelli film. The recent version with Claire Danes is also quite good and true to the text, simply placed in modern settings. I just finished watching The Reduced Shakespeare Company, which is quite funny when one has a good background of Shakespeare. The other film I would highly recommend is Kenneth Branaugh's Hamlet.


Your project sounds like so much fun. Enjoy, enjoy!


Watch, then read something that will help you orient yourself; a synopsis of the play in short story format that includes some quotes from the play itself. Then you can go back a second time to watch the play or read along. Just be aware that film and stage productions will add and drop as necessary for their own production needs. Reading and then expecting a strict adherence to the DVD version you've got in hand is likely to be dissatisfying.

I would worry in your case, that perhaps too many versions of the same play viewed consecutively will cause your interest to wane. If you've watched Romeo and Juliet and read it as well, move along to something new. Perhaps Twelfth Night or Merchant of Venice is more appealing.


So now, just to thoroughly confuse you, I'm going to suggest skipping the footnotes and just go ahead and read the text. Yes, you'll miss some but I find reading footnotes totally slows me down and actually cause me to lose track of what's happening.

And you probably already know the basic story of Romeo and Juliet anyway. Yes, you'll miss the subtleties of the language, but you can pick those up second time around.

So are we all driving you crazy with our conflicting advice?!


In reading Shakespeare, I use the same maxim as in parenting: Do what works. Romeo + Juliet, Baz Luhrman's flick, was fun for me, after I'd read the play a few times and watched some other, more traditional, versions. Definitely check it out, though.


Ha, here I am offering more advice to conflict with others. I would say that footnotes are especially useful in Shakespeare because he does not only use archaic words and phrases but words familiar to us that had completely different meanings back then.

It may help you to be a selective as far as deciding which notes to pay attention to? There are some that are truly unnecessary for the "general reader", usually the ones that go on for lines about textual differences and so on.

Whatever you decide to do, I hope you have a great time reading Romeo & Juliet--I think it's just lovely. The only film version I've ever seen was Baz Luhrman's, which was ten kinds of awesome.


I love the Zefferelli film; it is so gorgeous and the young leads are so lovely. And the wonderful performances by Pat Heywood as the nurse and John McEnery as Mercutio WAY outshine those in the Baz Luhrman version, though there's a lot to enjoy about that movie too.

And don't worry about the dialogue being cut: even if you see one of the plays in a theater, you're rarely going to see the full text of anything. I don't think I've ever seen a full production of anything except maybe "The Tempest", which is (I think?) the shortest play. I may have seen a full "King Lear", I'm not sure.

I believe that Kenneth Branagh's version of "Hamlet" is the only full-text version you'll see, as far as film goes. And as you watch, you come to realize that it's really just fine to leave out all the endless political stuff.

If you do want to see a "Hamlet", don't think me crazy, but Zefferelli's version of "Hamlet" starring Mel Gibson is not half bad. Olivier's is... well, Sir Larry was obviously a genius, but the movie is kind of a chore to sit through.

Last thing: Midsummer Night's Dream is lots of fun. You'll love Bottom and his friends. But for heaven's sake, stay away from the 1999 film starring Michelle Pfeiffer: it's dreadful.

Shutting up now.


It is wild that just today I have started reading Shakespeare's Antony & Cleopatra, having no idea of what the story involves. In the case of Shakespeare, I like to read introductory stuff first. For instance, prior to reading this current A & C, I read Harold Bloom's synoptic chapter in The Invention of The Human.
Plus, I read my Signet paperback edition's introductory notes.
Now, with a normal novel, sometimes this is real bad. It is a spoiler, revealing too much of the plot and all. But with Shakespeare... I don't even read Shakespeare to be surprised about anything. I read him to marvel over the beautiful way he tells the story.
But, I find it so inaccessible if I merely read, without any preparatory stuff. I will just be lost.
This is why I personally do not fear the helps, the commentaries. I severely need them.
I prefer the Signet Classics when I read Shakespeare because the way the footnotes are set up seems very non-intrusive.
I LOVE the Zefferelli film of R & J.
Plus, the Branagh Hamlet that Quillhill mentions? It is WORD-FOR-WORD, verbatim, and just EXCELLENT!
I am dying for it to come out in DVD..... it's been like half a century and is STILL not available in DVD format.
Happy Reading to you, Danielle.
Whichever methods we use, I think all of us need to approach Shakespeare in whatever way is going to work best for us.



Since the age of 18 or 19 I have made it a point to read Shakespeare 15 to 30 minutes before bedtime every night and I am now 61. The more one tries to analyze the man the more difficult it be comes. Me, I just enjoy the flow of the words and the magic behind them. Understanding can come much later as in Romeo and Juliet his most famous play followed by all of Shakespeare’s great works. My only regret is that at this particular point in my life memory is slowly eroding on a dear, dear friend.


I'd heard that the Branagh Hamlet was coming out on dvd last year. . . and then it didn't. That was a bummer.

The Mel Gibson Hamlet is much better than I expected, and turned out to be my son's favorite. I also like the Ethan Hawke version.

Must reacquaint myself with Romeo and Juliet. . . it's been many years.


I count myself among those who love the Zefferelli film. Shakespeare is fantastic to read but even better to see performed live. So if you have a chance, go to a performance.

James W

We immerse ourselves all in our own way. Understanding Shakespeare is an entirely subjective, but nonetheless, organic process. Now that you've taken the plunge (good for you!), you're on your way to your own particular understanding of the canon. At best we kibbitzers can help you to avoid pitfalls, but you have to do the heavy lifting of comprehension yourself, and only you know what has worked for you in the past. If your well-tended prose is any indication, you have a well-ordered mind, so follow your instincts (which obviously serve you well). Over time you will hit upon the sequence of watching and reading or reading and watching which serves YOU best. But the important thing to remember, as the Nike advertising campaign famously entreated, is just to DO IT. There is no substitute for watching and reading the plays.

As Stephen rightly says, the difficulty of Shakespeare's language is "appalling" for the 21st century non-specialist. Minimizing this difficulty by striking the proper balance between glossing each and every unfamiliar term or usage and understanding unknown language through context alone is a complex but ultimately idiosyncratic task. So to start with, if I may make a prescriptive suggestion, you probably will want to acquire an edition of the Complete Works that is both generously and USEFULLY glossed and footnoted like the Norton, which is arranged in such a way as is least likely to interrupt your flow as you read along. The Riverside, an otherwise magisterial edition, suffers not so much from a dearth of glosses as from an infuriating system of glossing. To wit, upon coming across an unfamiliar word, usage, or allusion, you must figure out the exact number of the line in which the term appears (which more often than not means counting up or down from the numbered lines), drop down to the bottom of the page in hope of finding a footnote for the line in question, and further hope that the footnote refers to the specific language which you seek to gloss and not some other part of the very same line. This method is especially frustrating both because of its inherent uncertainty and (all too frequently) the complete waste of time it turns out to be when the reader discovers there is no relevant footnote. A moment's glance is all that is necessary to determine, with certainty, if the Norton provides the information you seek. I would further suggest, and I believe you know this instinctively, that you refer to the glosses and footnotes only where you feel the need to do so. If you are satisfied that you understand an obscure word or passage simply based upon context, keep reading and ignore the acompanying explanation to which you can always return later. In this manner you will establish your own comfort level for reading and watching Shakespeare.

As for the "correct" order in which to watch and read Romeo and Juliet, I would suggest, considering in isolation the opening scene for instance, that one whose primary encounter with the play is through the medium of performance would come away with a vivid appreciation for the portentous and insolent behavior which passes between the Capulet and Montague camps. The performance, even though the auditor may fail to grasp every word of dialogue, appeals to the spectator's emotional intelligence. From a variety of cues, the audience member would recognize the dialogue in the first scene as the language of machismo and insolence. But just exactly how this language is bragging and contemptuous in all its particulars can only be discovered through the close reading of a well-glossed edition of the play. And I may be wrong here, but I think actors and directors find every bit as much nuance from reading as they do from their interactions on the stage.

Shakespeare is the king of infinite space. You'll go mad if you try to absorb everything everyone has to say about him (I'm more than half-way around the bend myself). You are best served by bringing your thirsty mind right to the fount and imbibing deeply.


Just as an aside, I was in high school when the Zeffirelli version of *Romeo and Juliet* was first released and the great concern at that time was the notion that the movie would promote promiscuity and teen-age suicide because of the activities of the two young people in the film.

Now I must ask you, did any of that cross your mind as you were watching Shakespeare?


If I may offer more conflicting advice... Don't try to understand the play on the first reading. Read it once to get the general idea, and then go back and read it again more carefully, with all the footnotes. Then read it a third time to get the flow. If you take the pressure off yourself to understand R&J the first time around you will probably enjoy reading it more.

Carl V.

That is one of the versions of Romeo and Juliet that I have on Netflix and really want to see. It looks entertaining. Loved the Baz Luhrman interpretation.

When you get around to reading Twelfth Night make sure to watch the Ben Kingsley/Helena Bonham Carter version, its great.


Zach--I am trying to keep in mind the action as I read. It has helped to see the movie first as I have an idea of what happens when. I am finding that with a few words anyway--they are repeated and I am getting better at remembering--an's are ifs--that sort of thing. I am sure there will be things that get easier as I go--and yes, this is a fun project so far. As for criticism--I am beginning to appreciate it far more than I used to!!
Quillhill--I am glad now that I did watch the film first--that visual image helps as I read. I think this will be a multiple step process! And I do plan on reading/watching Hamlet!
Robin--I am enjoying it so far. I wish I wouldn't have waited so long to start reading Shakespeare!
Jill--I was wondering if I would get Romeo'd and Juliet'd out. I am not watching the films back to back, though and am taking it slowly, so I hope I won't get too tired of it. I think in the future I probably won't have so many versions to watch at my fingertips! Thanks for the idea--I do think I will read Twelfth Night next!
Susan--I don't mind the advice at all!! It is good to try different things! And I have decided to read the footnotes sparingly as it was simply taking too long and I was losing any sort of reading rhythm. I am marking passages that are confusing though, and will go back later and read more carefully.
Stefanie--I would love to see a live performance. I hope to go to our Shakespeare on the Green this summer--if I can find someone to drag along with me!!


Adrienne--I am saving the Luhrmann version until last! I am trying a variety of things, and keeping what works and trying other things for what isn't working!
Imani--Yes, those footnotes are great! I am being very selective at the moment for what I am stopping for and then will go back later and try to make more sense of what was over my head. I'm looking forward to watching the Luhrmann version of the play!
Kitty--Yes, the Zeffirelli version is very lovely. I may have to buy it eventually. At first I was surprised that they left sections out, but I suppose it makes sense that they would do so. I'll definitely look for a different version of MND to watch (rather than the Michelle Pfeiffer one!).
Cipriano--Usually I hate knowing what happens in a book before hand, but in this case I think the more information I have the better! My library has that Branagh version in VHS by the way--I will definitely watch it when I get to Hamlet! Enjoy Antony and Cleopatra!
Edd--I can see why you like to read Shakespeare daily! I am enjoying dipping in a little each day myself.
Susan--I think my library has most of the Hamlet versions that are out there. I'm surprised the Branagh version is not yet in DVD considering how popular it seems to be. That's cool your son like Shakespeare!


James--I think sometimes I spend too much time thinking about the right way to approach something and it is best sometimes to just jump in and read it. I think that is why I have put off Shakespeare (in the recent past anyway) so long. I keep thinking I need to prepare. It feels good now to just be reading and watching. It does make me feel better to know others who have far more experience with Shakespeare's plays still find him challenging. I think I definitely need to look for better editions to read from and am very curious about this famous Norton edition I have heard so many people suggest. My smaller paperback with footnotes at the bottom is maybe not the best setup for me. I will keep looking--and I have plenty of other plays to keep working through. And you are right that it is impossible to absorb everything--so much has been written about him--especially as I am just beginning. I am enjoying that feeling of immersion, though. I tend to really like losing myself in literature--and I am certainly doing a good job of it here! :)
Jill--How funny that people thought that. Why does it not surprise me, though. People always think that young people are going to be ruined by art and literature!!
Sylvia--Good advice!! I am finding that it is not possible to get everything right at first. It actually slows me down to a point where I am not getting much at all. Instead I am just trying to read the play without getting bogged down on all the footnotes. I am sure with each exposure I will understand more and more--and it is better not to try to tackle it all at once!
Carl--You will enjoy the Zeffirelli version!! I like Helena Bonham Carter and will look for her in Twelfth Night! Thanks for the heads up.


I remember watching the Zeffirelli movie in school and how we all cried at it! I should think it would be the perfect introduction to the play as it doesnt cut that much out, not like the Luhrman (although that is good too). I think watching first is a very good idea - it was intended to be experienced as a performance. Reading the text just gives you a deeper understanding of its themes.


Litlove--I have a vague recollection of watching the movie (or my mom had it on and was watching it) when I was little. The only scenes that I remembered were the balcony scene and the end when Romeo takes the poison. I think I will probably try and watch the plays first before reading them in the future as well.

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