Most of us, for better or worse, first encounter Shakespeare in the classroom. We are assigned Romeo and Juliet or Macbeth, for instance, and then perhaps we grumble and go home and put off the reading until the very last moment, and then read through the requisite scenes as quickly as we can to make the process of imbibing essential culture as painless as possible. That the initiation of an adolescent to Shakespeare should be conducted in such a rude and unpalatable manner is a great loss.
If Shakespeare must first be encountered read, then it is a shame that the reading should be so dry. Reading can be just as exciting as attending a play or a film when undertaken by a reader with an active imagination. With your own powers of invention you can imagine Shakespeare just as you want him, and so he can become, in that way, entirely yours and yours alone. You can have your own Hamlet, your own Twelfth Night, your own Henry IV. You can be the director, and the lead actor, and the other actors too, as well as the scenery, and the costumes and the lighting, and the audience. It is self-indulgent, never mind solipsistic, but it is entirely possible, and can be not only quite sufficient but hugely thrilling.
–Susannah Carson in her introduction to Living with Shakespeare: Essays by Writers, Actors, and Directors
My earliest memory of Shakespeare was at a performance of Macbeth staged at a community college. The actors drank margaritas and lounged on lawn chairs in various stages of undress. I remember the rubbery bristles of the fake grass and a few pink flamingos posted around the stage. Actually, I can’t be sure if it was Macbeth. No one in the audience could understand a word spoken (the acoustics were that bad and the actors whipped through every line of dialogue). I “got” that this was a highly ironic rendering of a classic that I was supposed to be very much in awe of. Boy, was it dull.
It wasn’t until freshman year of high school that I took out my eager yellow marker and illuminated The Merchant of Venice that Shakespeare began to take form. Was Shylock a purely anti-Semitic invention or someone who could arouse compassion in the audience? My English teacher argued in favor of the latter option and spurred a debate among us.
Summer vacations in Massachusetts in the late eighties meant a few great amateur performances of Shakespeare that took place in a clearing in the woods, with actors who would run screaming out of the trees and fight one another with cardboard swords.
There must have been other early performances. But my all-time favorite? Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 film version of Henry V. I don’t remember having felt so much excitement and taken so much relish in a Shakespeare performance before. Each line was so natural and so powerful that I could feel the blood pounding in my head. It was like understanding a foreign language all of a sudden and realizing that it speaks to your heart. (Also, Kenneth Branagh was really cute.) Anyway, at the age of nineteen, it felt like I had finally “gotten it.”