Shakespeare: Decoded


Photo by Katie Jones

Emma Jones and Ben Lyons

Among the major crippling fears of high school students, there are three that reign supreme: the possibility of picking a career that will lead to a life of misery, lifelong debt for college tuition, and Shakespeare.

If you’re looking for a resolution to the first two, read another article, but if your goal is to make sense of the four-hour ramble known as Hamlet, then look no further.

Recently the director of the Utah Shakespeare Festival, Michael Bahr, taught a Saturday class for Bingham students about how to not only understand but appreciate Shakespeare, giving his students the following advice.

Shakespeare was never meant to be read. If you can internalize that, the process of understanding his works will be much easier. They are plays, after all, intended to be performed by actors that can bring his words to life. This becomes apparent when you take a step back to examine Shakespeare’s deliberate use of language, punctuation, and syllables.

The second thought that goes through a person’s head when hearing “Shakespeare” is his use of iambic pentameter, the first thought being “oh please no, not today”. Most of the dialogue in his plays is broken into lines with ten syllables, in an off-on rhythm. This beat-focused phrasing style is all iambic pentameter is. In Shakespeare’s day, before microphones, this acted as a natural aid for voice projection, as the most important syllables for understanding the story are placed on the ‘on’ beat, meaning that you could get a gist of the plot by only hearing half the words. There are deliberate instances of dialogue not being written in iambic pentameter. For example, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of the fairy’s parts is written in lines of eight syllables rather than ten. This was done to indicate that those lines were to be sung, not spoken.

Shakespeare’s plays tackle difficult subjects such as mercy, forgiveness, revenge, and love. His plays have caused controversy and discussion for centuries. Scholars debate the true meaning of his words even today. However, no one can say with certainty what Shakespeare wanted us to take away from his plays because he purposefully leaves the moral up to the reader. Shakespeare never tells us his opinion. His text lacks the in-text direction that most other plays contain. His script is the bare minimum, intentionally leaving most of the action up to the reader. Shakespeare wants his readers to be able to take his plays however they want to. This is one of the reasons Shakespeare is still so applicable to today.

Darrin Burnett, a senior at Bingham High School who attended the Shakespeare workshop taught by Michael Bahr, spoke about his experience. “I had no previous experience with Shakespeare. I’d read A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a sophomore but that was it. I still love his stories. They have withstood the test of time and are still well-known. I’m glad his style is still being taught in schools.” Burnett recounted how he has come to see Shakespeare in a new light and learn to appreciate it. He gives this advice to fellow classmates struggling to understand Shakespeare- practice, “You’re not alone. Be more familiar with Shakespeare and you will understand.”

We can’t take Shakespeare out of the curriculum, but we can make it less of a headache. Everything Shakespeare does is deliberate and thought out. Yes, even the long, repetitive monologues. You can’t truly get the full experience with the text alone. Shakespeare simply sparks the imagination and guides us to experience our own journey in his world.