Sunday, August 15, 2010

Which Is The Easiest Play?

There’s many reasons why people can claim that Shakespeare is hard to understand.  First, there’s vocabulary. It’s not really as bad as people make it out to be, but some plays certainly make heavier use of archaic/obsolete words than others.  Expressions that no longer have context, on the other hand, are a big problem.  Jokes that would have gone over huge with Shakespeare’s crowd that no longer make sense without a little training.  That’s a problem.

And then there’s all the offstage stuff that happens.  When somebody walks on stage and explains about a war that’s going on, dropping names left and right about who did what to do, it’s easy for a modern user to get lost because they didn’t see it.  They don’t know who those people are.

With that in mind I ask, what’s the easiest play? You can define it however you like (given the rough framework I provided), but I’m not just looking for most popular.  You might think Lear is easy, from certain angles.  It’s deep, absolutely. But hard to follow? I don’t know about that. 

I’m wondering which of the plays have all the action taking place on stage (so there’s no need to exposition about what we can’t see), while relying on relatively simple vocabulary that a modern audience could easily follow.

Motivation : Whenever I make my wife come see Shakespeare with me, and she brings a friend along for company, I typically explain the plot of the show before we go so they’re not lost.  At intermission I refresh the details of the story now that they’ve seen some characters, and answer any questions. Inevitably at the end they’ll say, “I did understand it – but thanks to what you told us in the beginning.  I’m not sure I would have followed it without that.”  I’m wondering what the best candidates are for a play that they would be most likely to follow, without me having to walk them through it.  I think that creates a barrier to truly feeling like you’re enjoying the work, if you need a middle man to translate for you.


Uke Xensen said...

Midsummer Night's Dream is an easy one

Cross said...

Dream is easy, if you have the lovers all straightened out. Besides that - hmm. I suppose it would fall to whichever has the least backstory, because that's often what requires the most explanation. I think I would say Macbeth, then - everything that's central to the action happens onstage. Two exceptions that I can think of, off the top of my head: the murder of Duncan, which is pretty obvious after Macbeth comes on with two bloody daggers in his hand, and the death of Lady M which, again, is pretty obvious that it's happened.

Or - I just thought of this one - how about Much Ado?

Ren du Braque said...

I'm not sure about what I'm about to say, but here it is. I've just gotten through the first act of TNK and it's really difficult because the language is so complicated that the notes accompanying the Folger text often run over to the next page. It was also difficult to understand the motivations of the characters.

I can't tell whether it because I've read it more than twice, but I noticed this time around that Hamlet is fairly easy to read (at least in the first two acts). The text is clear and the notes few.

stewartry said...

My first reaction was MacBeth; if the question is interpreted as "which play is easiest for a Shakespeare novice to watch and enjoy", I'd say the Scottish play is pretty straightforward and filled with action. Witches, prophesy, kill the king to become king, fighting ... To my recollection, most references can be swallowed whole with the rest of the story - it's pretty self-contained.

p-e-s said...

Easy Shakespeare to me rests largely with the language. Example: R&J starts off with so many puns, irrelevant to the modern reader, that I'm amazed high school students don't give up after the first act. Example: Othello, largely devoid of action, its characters constantly lying to us or to themselves, requires of its understanding a vigilant reading of every word and word-behind-the-word. Example: Henry IV's Falstaff, while still speaking to us modern readers as a true freeman, makes one too many jokes about sack, foodstuffs, and syphhilis. You mention this in your post, the haha-funny jokes no longer hit.

So, what play has easy language? Whose action is simple enough that you don't need to constantly be thinking about backstory? (frankly every play makes you think long and hard about what happens off-screen, but some more than others I'd warrant)

For me, it's Twelfth Night. My introduction to Shakespeare was Hamlet, then I did Midsummer's Night Dream, then Macbeth, then the Tempest, and only with Twelfth Night was I able to read without comprehension interruptions, to enjoy every moment, to be enamoured with the characters. It probably helps that it's a comedy (happy ending) about comedy (haha-funny), and that Viola is one of the greatest Shakespeare characters.

My Mom, a native speaker of Romanian for 35-years (we moved to the US 13 years ago), wanted to read Shakespeare after seeing me so enamoured with him, so after explaining a few things, I gave her Twelfth Night and Macbeth. We'll see what she says.

Ren du Braque said...

I just read your whole post. Whoops. My wife and I go to Folgers theatre and the Shakespeare Theatre in DC. She is not in any way going to crack open a book or try to get through the text. On the other hand, even though she doesn't "get" it literally, the thrill of watching theater is always there. As a musician, who has never been attracted to words, she still gets that some productions are better than others, because interpretations can be confusing and loud or clear and subtle. She understands that it's not necessarily the words that matter. It's a sum of the parts that is greater than the whole.

We go to anything we can find. If she has questions, I answer them, if not, I leave it be.

The appreciation of a play does not require absolute understanding... That requirement is really a problem, and it is drilled into people's brains. If they don't get it, they're too nonplussed to enjoy it. That's a shame.

Duane said...

True, Ren, but I think there is a tipping point where you have to understand a significant portion before enjoyment is possible. You can't spend all your time saying "Wait now, who's that guy? Why is he mad at him?" It's one thing to go moment-to-moment and watch the drama unfold, but it's even better to understand the motivation behind who is doing what, and sometimes that's hard when the vocabulary goes beyond the modern ear, or important plot points happen offstage.

Foreign Films Frenzy said...

Pretty much any of the comedies

Uke Xensen said...

Julius Caesar is another that's not too hard.

usefultruth0408 said...

I would tend to agree with others and say Midsummer Night's Dream and Macbeth are the easiest (for a history I would choose Henry IV, part I). Most Shakespeare plays, however, are easily understood when they are experienced in the form they were intended to be - as a play (or film). Reading material that was intended to be seen is always going to leave something to be desired.

p-e-s said...

I'm not sure about 1 Henry IV. Too much of Falstaff's humour has sadly been lost to us. God forbid you get an edition which doesn't gloss "sack," "capon," or "red nose." I still adore that play but just how R&J is difficult for a beginner what with the myriad of puns (in full force at the start), so is Falstaff in both Henry IV.

Haley said...

My HS Shakespeare class starts with reading all of Titus out loud. They love it, and many of them have already read Caesar and R&J by the time they get to my class. Often I hear they "get" Titus better.

I've seen seniors struggle with Macbeth though.

And H4 Pt. 1 is the easiest of alll the histories I think

p-e-s said...

@Haley & Titus: Titus Andronicus was my fifth or sixth play overall, and the first which I was able to read without looking at any notes, at great speed, and be entranced the entire time. As a tragicomedy about family, it's pretty damn awesome for someone's first play.

@Haley & 1 Henry IV: easiest of all histories? Maybe, I can only speak for 1,2 Henry IV and Richard II (the latter is NOT a beginner play). Isn't Richard III really accessible, what with a villain so evil it probably borders the ludicrous?