On Reading Shakespeare

Though I was an English major, one of my most memorable college experiences was taking a government class on the political wisdom of Shakespeare. Aside from the remarkable wisdom of the professor himself, the most notable part of the class was the rate at which we read the text. In contrast to the majority of my English classes, which tended to require ingesting whole novels for our weekly discussions, this class allowed not a line of Shakespeare to pass unexamined. The syllabus included only five plays for the semester, and reading assignments were often as short as a single act. Class periods would then be devoted to reading the assigned act and carefully dissecting the language.

I should clarify that my reasons for liking this course did not derive from its having a light reading load. Though the length of reading assignments was relatively short, this did not entail a light workload. On the contrary, the course was one of the most difficult I’d taken in college. This, in part, could be because I was less familiar with the school’s government department curriculum. However, it was primarily because the course challenged me to examine the text at a much closer and deeper level than I had ever done in the past. The professor focused discussions and paper assignments on the philosophical questions and contextual implications surrounding Shakespeare’s words. Single lines would unfurl into multilayered revelations about plot, character, and humanity, requiring hour-long debates and explanations.

Perhaps this course’s approach was appealing to me because it corresponded with my own approach to reading. Despite the years of practice, I have never been a fast reader. My slowness could derive from any number of undiagnosed-but-plausible causes—slow processing ability, high anxiety, ADHD, dyslexia, OCD, to name a few. However, one undisputable cause for my slow reading speed is my unrelenting need to thoroughly comprehend each sentence before proceeding. This is not to say I do comprehend everything I read—or even most of what I read for that matter. But when I come upon a word or phrase I don’t understand, I find it necessary to pause and try to understand. I will usually keep trying until I’ve concluded either that I understand enough, or that—given my intellectual limits—I never will. Depending on the density of the language and my familiarity with the subject matter, this could entail considerable amounts of rereading and outside research. Although this process is not an uncommon one among conscientious readers, it undoubtedly hinders my reading speed more than it does others. This, of course, could be a sign either that I comprehend less than most people, or that I am exceptionally anal about retaining the details. In my opinion, it’s a combination of both.

As I’ve learned from experience, this approach to reading is not always the most practical when given an English major’s workload. Pages needing to be read accumulate, and hours used for sleeping dwindle. However, despite the meager word count of my post-read reservoir, I find that the benefits of reading thoroughly significantly outweigh those of reading quickly.

In school, I always lamented the pressure to swallow books hastily, which—in my case, anyways—came at the expense of chewing them. Class discussions would frequently consist of vague allusions to grand and complex themes—students sporadically voicing half-digested ideas, having had no time to ponder what they’d read in greater depth. Commentary would too-often digress into monologues about the students’ personal impressions of the literature—about the experience of their reading.

In addressing this general tendency I, in no way, mean to belittle the intelligence or capability of these fellow students, or neglect the many insightful and profound ideas voiced in class discussions. My goal, rather, is to consider the consequences of reading too quickly. When one reads with intent to read quickly, one loses touch with the writing’s colorful details. Rather than retaining the richness of a story, hurried readers are more inclined to recall their own scampering journeys through a partially foggy world of remote text.

I have taken a number of Shakespeare classes, and most of them tended to focus on the theatrical element of the plays. Although this element is key to interpreting Shakespeare’s plays, I found that an overemphasis on such in a classroom comes at the expense of appreciating the written artistry. The fact that the plays were intended for the stage should not, in my opinion, be reason to overlook the profound subtleties in each line.

By closely reading and rereading Shakespeare’s plays, my class had the liberty to explore the text in much greater depth. We had time to appreciate not only the beautifully crafted language, but also the expanse of meaning it contained. Far from dissipating into untenable statements and personal opinions, these discussions focused on the text alone—on the significance of wording, on the genius behind the scenes.

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