Reading Shakespeare for Fun and Profit

My husband picked up my copy of Measure for Measure a couple of nights ago. This isn’t so bad,” he said. “I think I can read this.” He asked me for some advice about how to read the plays, or he should have, which amounts to the same thing, so I am going to tell you what I told him. I also know that many of you readers, literate men and women that you are, have in fact already read many or most or all of the plays, plus seen the movie, and you don’t need to hear what I told him. But bear with me, or I’ll have to write another two sentence post.

Basically, I’d advise against reading Shakespeare at the rate of one page a night, which is how my husband is doing it. He read Emma this way also. As a result, it took him several years to find out that Emma was going to marry Mr. Knightly. What I find amazing about his reading of Emma is that he really didn’t guess that Emma was going to marry Mr. Knightly until she actually did. Every night, I’d say something innocent like, “So honey, who’s Emma going to marry?” And he’d say, “oh, I don’t know. But not that Mr. Knightly guy. She really hates him.”

So that’s my first piece of advice.  Try to finish the play quickly enough that you can still remember what happened in the beginning.

This brings me to my second piece of advice, which I know will be a little controversial. It’s this: read a summary of the play before you begin. Yes, this will ruin the ending. But you know what? You probably already know that both Romeo and Juliet die and that things don’t go well for Hamlet. How do you know that? Because they are tragedies. And yes, in fact, they all DO get married at the end of the comedies. It isn’t going to ruin a thing if you figure out ahead of time which couples end up together and maybe some of the more complicated stuff about who gives the gold chain to whom. You’ll be more relaxed as you read because you won’t be trying to figure out the plot. You can expend your energy on thinking about why it is that some people speak in verse and some people don’t and considering what tune those songs in the comedies might have been sung to.

My third — and final — piece of advice has to do with where you should read Shakespeare. In fact, it is my main suggestion this morning. That is because I am about to get on the train, and it just occurred to me:

Read Measure for Measure standing up, while commuting to work. Read it while standing over a young man who should have gotten up and given you a seat, seeing as how you are engaged in heavy intellectual lifting and he is reading Gamer’s Weekly. Actually, he is not reading Gamer’s Weekly. He is staring blankly at you, and not doing a thing.

He is also barely out of high school, and perfectly able to stand up and give you his seat. I know this is retro and not cool, but it has begun to bother me quite a bit when men do not offer to give their seats to the women who are teetering over them trying to keep their balance as the train throws them back and forth. The woman I am thinking of is teetering around because she is carrying a lot of stuff and is also trying to read Shakespeare.

It is not mandatory to give up your seat, but it’s such a nice thing to do, and I have come to the decision, after years and years of commuting, that giving up your seat should be part of every man’s repertoire of charming things to do.

There are good reasons to do this. The main reason is that the reward for giving up your seat to the woman who is trying to read Shakespeare and not kill herself trying to hold a book and a really heavy bag full of the computer she doesn’t get to use to write her novel with because the train is so crowded, is that doing so will cause every woman on the train to look at the seat-giver-upper and smile. And if the man is single, maybe this will include a woman who might otherwise not give him the time of day. If he is married, this will remind him that he once won a woman’s heart by being a good guy and so should say something sweet to his wife when he gets home because her heart is still his.

It is good for men to feel like they’ve been helpful. (Yes, it is good for PEOPLE to feel like this. But as it happens it’s always a guy who’s sitting down reading something stupid or staring into space with his mouth open while I’m standing up trying to maintain my dignity and get in some reading. Okay, sometimes I’m staring into space because I forgot to bring a book. But my thoughts have redeeming value.)

One other thing: Be sure to flip the pages of your edition of Shakespeare at a rate of more than one every twenty minutes. Even if you aren’t reading, flip the pages fast. He won’t notice, probably, but it will make you feel better.

So. That was the fun part. Tomorrow (or as it goes in BlogLily time, in a few days) I’ll get to the profit part.


27 thoughts on “Reading Shakespeare for Fun and Profit

  1. A man who will give up his seat to a woman reading Shakespeare on a train will never lack for love. Same for the man who will hold the elevator for a woman trying to fasten her earring, or the man who will stop and help a woman repair a punctured bicycle tire. I wonder, is it indifference or fear that has replaced chivalry?

  2. Maybe, twenty years ago, it was fear of being stabbed with the earring by a woman who felt condescended to. Having been one of those stabbers at one time, I’d like to say to those men I made to feel bad because they were just trying to be kind and do what their mothers told them to do, and not trying to be all patriarchal on me, I’M SO SORRY! Can I have a seat on the train now?

    Now, unfortunately, it’s indifference.

  3. Having been stabbed once or twice, I decided long ago to hold the elevator for both men and women trying to get their earrings in while running late to work and to offer my seat to anyone reading Elizabethan literature on the train regardless of gender. This applies to both Elizabeths, by the way–I’m sympathetic to modern literature as well. Please. Take my seat.

    I have a foster daughter who is a refugee from Burma. She comes from a minority ethnic group living in the mountains of Western Burma. There are no books published in her mother tongue, and very few published in the slightly larger dialect she also speaks. There were no books in her village, and her schooling ended in the fourth grade.

    When she started the ninth grade a few months ago, the first thing they assigned her was Romeo and Juliet. It was surreal journey, getting through that play together. (How do you explain “hark, what light trough yonder window breaks” to someone who doesn’t speak English?)

    She rides the city bus to school every morning. I hope someone gave up a seat for her in deference to her reading!

  4. i would never give up my seat to a woman reading shakespeare. now, if they were reading ibsen, that’s another matter altogether.

    i’ve never had gallantry lead to a date. the other women are thinking, “oh, what a nice fellow for giving up his seat to someone reading shakespeare! how lovely!” but being being a heel/bad boy works wonders. “that jerk won’t give up his seat to the lady reading shakespeare. he’s totally hot. and i’ll bet he rides a motorcycle.”

    for goodness sake, don’t read the bard’s plays, go see them! i command thee.

    sorry to be so contrarian, but i’m at the end of a long, exhausting business trip in which i didn’t have to give up my seat for anybody.

  5. Here, BookFraud, come sit down. And while I’m at it, would you like a beer? You poor guy. As for the performing/reading thing: I like both. But it’s much more fun to be at a performance if I have read the play — it’s easier to follow. The bad boy motorcycle thing? That is a myth all men tell themselves to justify their bad behavior. (Okay, that is a big fat lie. But I thought I’d try it out to justify my long history with such men. I did not, however, marry such a man. I married the one who jump started my car and continues to perform such acts of kindness, without complaint, to this day.)

    Ben, my first exposure to Shakespeare was around your daughter’s age — I watched Franco Zeffirelli’s soft core porn version of Romeo and Juliet six and a half times (I had to go home and babysit my little brother, which accounts for the half…). I loved Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey for a very, very long time. I cannot now actually believe that someone named Leonard Whiting could be so beautiful, but he really was, at least in my eyes. This ties in to Bookfraud’s comment, by the way — sometimes seeing is better than reading, or at least a better way in to reading.

  6. I’ve inserted the italics here, since i can so clearly hear them ….

    “Okay, sometimes I’m staring into space because I forgot to bring a book. But MY thoughts have redeeming value.”

    And who else but BL would write this delightful post?

  7. This was fun, from start:

    “He asked me for some advice about how to read the plays, or he should have, which amounts to the same thing”

    to finish. If you hadn’t mentioned it, I would’ve completely forgotten about the profit portion of your promise!

    And I agree, on all points. Esp reading the play before you see it — knowing the plot keeps you from getting bogged down in trying to figure out who is who, and lets you ease into the language and performances. There are no plot surprises in Shakespeare, no O.Henry A-Ha’s!

    And I can’t believe it took your husband that long to read Emma — I suppose I’m glad he persevered, but part of me is like, if you’re not propelled by the absolute love of the book to read more than a page a day, um, why bother?

  8. If I brought my huge Riverside edition of all of Shakespeare’s plays on the bus, I’d a) throw my back out, b) hit someone else by accident with it when I accidentally fell because the bus lurched and no one would give me a seat even though I now look old enough to be a Grandma with my grey hair and i was carrying this big book, thus resulting in a lawsuit (and we don’t have any money), blood (from the wound on the other person), lots of people shouting and falling on me because the bus was so crowded, and my bad back. I could get Workman’s comp and sue the bus company and stay home then while I recovered and read Shakespeare while my kind husband runs to buy me chocolate. H-m-m, thank you, Bloglily!! Great idea!! 🙂
    side note to bad boys: bad boys can always give their seats up to women (and not just to skinny blondes in their 20s, the rest of us women have feelings too!), this is so currently uncool that it could start a trend again, and bad boys like nothing better than a trend to start!!!
    side note to bloglily: so men don’t give their seats in California either? I thought it was just Ottawa. Our buses are so crowded that someone fainted one summer morning (that was scary). And I no longer have redeeming thoughts on the bus. I usually fall asleep and have on occasion drooled. This does occasionally leave me with my own seat, though!!!

  9. Oh, shucks, why did you do that? Romeo and Juliet really die?
    But seriously, I agree completely. And it really isn’t that hard to read Shakespeare with a bit of speed. Once you get used to the language (which isn’t that hard I think, just treat like a kind of dialect) it’s no problem.
    May I add one piece of advice? Once you notice that most of it rhymes, immediately ignore that. Don’t try to read it as if it were a poem, because it isn’t. I’d give the same advice to readers of epic poetry. “Pan Tadeusz” becomes a great story as soon as you forget about the rhyme (and only when you get the right translation).
    In fact, I even read poetry as if it weren’t poetry, but that’s another story…
    Oh, and I’d get up for a lady reading Shakespeare any time!

  10. I couldn’t stop laughing at your internal dialog with un-chivalrous male train passenger. Last week a (female) friend and I were walking towards the last table in the sunny spot at our corner cafe. We arrived at the same time as two fellows. Instead of graciously offering us the table, one fellow jokingly says we can play stone-paper-scissors for the right to sit at the table. Which he and I did; to the acute amusement to the rest of the cafe guests.

    The fellow shot in “well”, which I didn’t know from my grade school stone-paper-scissors. So, the fellows triumphantly sat down. Since my friend and I aren’t ones to hold a grudge, we then asked the fellows if we could join them (there were still two unoccupied seats).

  11. Reading standing up on a bus or a train is a skill that one learns. Being polite and offering your seat to someone who needs it more is also learned. Why aren’t mothers teaching their young men to do this? Also on the list of things no longer taught: wearing hats in buildings.

    That said, I always had people (men and women) give up a seat for me when I was in a walking cast. Maybe politeness is not dead! But I hope nobody gives up a seat to you because they see reading Shakespeare as a handicap! That would be so sad.

  12. Bwaaaahaahaaaa.

    I would have given up my seat.

    I find the best way to read Shakespeare is all alone in a house so you can say everything out loud. People could be in the house if you are not easily embarrassed. I can’t even have the dog watch me.

  13. In England when I went to school, Shakespeare in every form was a must.I am very grateful to my teacher of English Literatur. We spent more time studying the play than we did reading it,and only then were we allowed to see one.I still love Shakespeare and if I were washed up on a deserted island and could have only one book I would have a hard time choosing between his complete works and the Bible.
    Have women brought it upon themselves that the days of chivalry towards us have gone.I seem to get by quite well by playing helpless,men can’t resist having the upper hand. Shakespeare was definately the wrong book to be reading.

  14. Let’s see – I’m so with you on the summary reading! Essential, especially if you’re off to actually see a production.

    Jane Austen at one page a day!? That’s so endearing. It must be love – true love (sorry – Dudelet has a passion for Enchanted at the moment which is charming in a 4yo boy otherwise devoted to Spiderman).

    Train etiquette – now that’s a complex matter in London. Basically, if you’re pregnant (and generally being ignored by the healthy young woman you’re standing directly in front of), you’ve got my seat. Even if I have to yell the length of the carriage. In fact, you’ve militantly got my seat. No-one stands up for people who are pregnant on the Tube and I won’t have it! Likewise if you’re old and unsteady, in a cast, with a small child…Where I start to get uneasy is who else I do and don’t offer my seat. Women my own age? Younger women in trainers carrying gym bags? Not likely! And worse – the occasions when <I’ve been offered an empty seat by someone younger who’s got there first. It’s wonderful that manners exist but…Seriously, I agonize about this…

    Oh it’s complicated…

  15. I just found this blog by chance, when logging into my WordPress account, and I’m amazed by your writing. Your sense of humor is great and the content of your posts, quite interesting. 🙂 I’m gonna try to make some time to read more of your posts and to continue to visit your blog from now on, cause I think it’s really worth it. 🙂

    As for Shakespeare, I agree with all of your points, even though I haven’t tried reading it while commuting to work/school. xD Mainly, because I work from my home, so I don’t really have to go anywhere anymore. ^_^U

    Anyway, thanks for posting such interesting stuff. 🙂 I’ll be sure to come back some other day. 🙂 I added you to my blogroll. 😉

    Best regards and nice to meet you~

  16. Oh, you just reminded me that ages ago I wanted to write a whole post over on What We Said about “being gentlemanly.” Although, you’ve done such a nice job here, maybe I don’t need to do it.

  17. Nice post. I’ve read so many works with my kids and husband from Coleridge, their favorite, to Shakespeare. Good times.

    I just did my first post on sonnet 130 at paisleyandplaid. It brought back a lot of memories of introducing Shakespeare to English students.

  18. Hilarious! I love the bit about reading fast enough that you don’t forget what happened at the beginning. Husbands have extraordinary capacities sometimes, and I say husbands because you have to be married to someone a while before they start creeping out of the woodwork. Mine used to have a talent for preceding me through swing doors and letting them slap back in my face (actually this became clear quite early on). He was not brought up in a chivalrous environment when young. He does much better now and I wholeheartedly agree that men with manners are utterly irresistible. If you happen to be in the vicinity of the young male seat hogger again, drop the book on his head.

  19. Oh, move to Pittsburgh! I’ve been given a seat by so many charming young college students it’s almost making me feel old, or perhaps that I look pregnant. Seriously, the manners on some of the young men are astounding.

    I have another piece of advice on reading shakespeare – read it aloud! Even if you are by yourself (of course, perhaps not on the train) – I love reading shakespeare aloud. My dad once told me to follow the grammatical structure like I would any book and not get tripped up by the stanzas and verse, so for instance to pause when there is a comma, stop when there is a period, etc – read them as sentences. This was advice for me when I was very young but it might be applicable to any new reader of Shakespeare.

  20. LOL, I sound like my grandmother, I know, but “what’s up with this generation?” I’m of the female persuasion and I give up my seat whenever I see someone who obviously needs the seat more than I do. And I love to read Shakespeare aloud. My strategy is usually to try to see a play before reading it, if at all possible, even if that means renting a movie version of it. Gotta hear it aloud!

  21. This makes me feel like reading more Shakespeare and riding more trains. I hope the reading woman, and the charming young man make it into a novel.

  22. I think you’re going to need to lock your sons up and never let them out of the house. Girls will be chasing them, because they’re learning how to be polite, considerate and – yeowza! – chivalrous. The situation will be made worse when the girls’ parents will find out what charmers live in the casa de Bloglily.

  23. Hello! Your site was highly recommended by a very good friend. I have poured over many of your recent posts and I can see why she loved coming here! I see I am late to respond to this post which was very fun to read. I look forward to part 2 (and I am trying to guess where you will go with the “for profit” part). Happy Shakespeare’s birthday to you! TJ

  24. Pingback: The Promised Profit Post: Measure for Measure « BlogLily

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