A few days ago I read a blog asking readers their opinion of Shakespeare as a part of academic requirements: “Is Shakespeare still relevant?” There are probably not many readers lacking an opinion on the subject of Shakespeare. Many young people seem to find Shakespeare a bit dated and unnecessary. One of the big reasons why many young students have difficulty in studying his plays is because the way they are written and were published. The younger the student, the more awkward and unconventional these plays might appear; they don’t read like a book or story. Thus students, understandably so, prefer to focus on the current and popular authors.
Never Meant to Be Read
Whenever I address the value of Shakespeare it has always been necessary to start by reminding students, and anyone studying literature, that Shakespeare's plays were not created to be read as you would a book. In fact, he never intended for his plays to be published. It was only after several of his plays received rave reviews that someone he was associated with, started to reproduce the scripts in quarto format and selling the copies. Some of the plays did not see publication until after Shakespeare’s death (in 1616). His former colleagues eventually assembled the plays into a folio and published it in 1623. Modern students should look at his plays in the same way you would read a film or stage performance script. Think of them as modern screen plays, not books or novelette. Let’s face it, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are easier to read and follow than Shakespeare’s Henry the VI and Henry IV.
As for their literary value in scholarly studies, students don’t always recognize the influence of the old masters on the new masters. Shakespeare’s plays are still valid from the fact that many modern writers borrow from his and other early writers (i.e. Christopher Marlowe). His subject matter and how he openly ridiculed monarchies, lessons in morality, good and evil, deceit, foolishness, the pursuit of power, and his desire to emphasize the role of women in his plays have made his work relevant from a historical perspective, personal development, as well as literary styling and techniques. His sonnets are often the source of mystery in meaning. The sheer volume of quoted lines repeated by many people of all walks of life through the centuries makes these sonnets, as well as plays, timeless.
Businesses, organizations and the senior level military schools have found value in the works of Shakespeare. Business leaders have found leadership lessons and topics for panel discussion on corporate leadership skills in the 21st century. Popular plays used in these "professional settings" include: Coriolanus, Titus Andronicus, Richard II, Henry V, and King John. Plays such as these offer examples of leaders manipulated and how leaders influence the actions of subordinates.
Suggested Performances Available Online
I thought I would suggest some great performances of his work. You will not find Macbeth and Hamlet on the list below; that would be too obvious, so I have ten others to suggest and not all performed in the original contexts. The play versions I’m suggesting with YouTube links can also be found as DVDs in most public and academic libraries.
This first one is my all-time favorite performance of The Tempest. Instead of Prospero, the male lead character of the original play, this version has a woman in the lead role (named - Prospera) and superbly portrayed by Dame Hellen Mirren. You might want to watch it soon. I’m surprised that it’s available on YouTube. I would have thought the copyright was still enforced. If it's pulled when you read this; type the name of the play in the YouTube search box and you will find other performances. Or, you should be able to find it at a university library or a public library. I've seen several performances of The Tempest and the version with Mirren is unquestionably the best.
1. The Tempest
3. Henry V (This is a series of short videos that make up the full play.)
4. Pericles, Prince of Tyre (This is a series of short videos that make up the full play.)
Video quality is a little weak so feel free to search for a better visual version.
5. Twelfth Night: Or What You Will
6. As You Like It
7. Midsummer Night's Dream
8. The Merchant of Venice
This is another version I’m surprised is still available on YouTube, so watch it soon. If it’s not visible on YouTube is your area, you should be able to order it from your local library.
9. The Tragedy of Richard II
This is not my favorite performance, but I find Richard II a must see or read in studies of Shakespeare and this is one of the few free online versions available.
10. Titus Andronicus
All the versions I have suggested above just happened, fortunately, to be available on YouTube when I searched for the plays I wanted to recommend to you. However, if you find some the video links broken, search the title name in YouTube or Vimeo(dot)com and you should find either the version I've recommended or another available version. In any case, when all else fails, search for BBC's (British Broadcasting Corporation) Shakespeare company performances. Many of the dramas and comedies in the 1980s. Personally, I found all these and more from our local library. Any plays they did not have, they were kind enough to order for me. I think it helps that I donate money to them from time to time.
In any case, consider checking in with the local universities’ drama departments or college of the arts to see if they have any plans to perform Shakespeare plays. Take advantage of any live performances to see the plays as they were intended to be enjoyed: in person, by viewing it performed. Also, don’t forget to consider alternative sources such as, any of the streaming-audio-book options through sites like archive(dot)org, librivox(dot)org, and podgallery(dot)org.