Miss Georgianna Penn left me this note on my last post:
Dear Miss Jane.
I have tried several times to get into Shakespeare and have failed miserably. You seem to (aside from when you have to write and essay on it) enjoy his works. How in heavens name do you suggest one to get into Shakespeare, and do you think that for some people it's just best not to?
The Want to be Shakespeare Lover ;)
Well Georgie, to tell you the truth, Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet are the only works of Shakespeare that I have read so far.
It is very difficult to get used to the language of Shakespeare, but once you get a grasp of how people talk and what some of the words mean it gets so much easier. I suggest first of all that you find a version of the play that has footnotes. The copy of Hamlet that I'm reading has notes at the bottom of the page when there is a word that is archaic, or when there is a reference to events that the audience in the 1600's would have known about. It is extremely helpful in understanding what they are saying.
You can also find the text online with a modern interpretation of each line next to it. Here is one called No Fear Shakespeare.
As an example of what this looks like, here is the beginning of the king's speech in Act 1, scene 2 of Hamlet. This was taken from the original text.
Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother’s death
The memory be green, and that it us befitted
To bear our hearts in grief and our whole kingdom
To be contracted in one brow of woe,
Yet so far hath discretion fought with nature
That we with wisest sorrow think on him
Together with remembrance of ourselves.
To anyone unfamiliar with Shakespearean language, this sentence is convoluted and confusing.
Here is the side-by-side modern text of this section from No Fear Shakespeare:
Although I still have fresh memories of my brother the elder Hamlet’s death, and though it was proper to mourn him throughout our kingdom, life still goes on—I think it’s wise to mourn him while also thinking about my own well being.
If you look at the original text after reading this, it makes it a lot more clear what the king is saying.
As to the last part of your question, I do think that if you are just not interested in Shakespeare, it is not going to hurt you to skip it. Shakespeare was an amazing playwright, and he contributed a lot to the English language, but reading his plays is (in my opinion) not as valuable as reading other classic works.
If someone had to choose, I would direct them to read Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Silas Marner by George Eliot, Freckles by Gene Stratton-Porter and An Old Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott over anything by Shakespeare. These are some of the books that have really had an influence over me.
On the other hand, a familiarity with the works of Shakespeare can add richness to the reading of other books. There are allusions to Shakespeare in many classic works.
For example, in Emma by Jane Austen, Emma remarks, "The course of true love never did run smooth." This is a direct quote from A Midsummer Night's Dream.
When you have read the play (or are at least familiar with the plot) you start to understand the irony of Emma quoting this passage in reference to a match between Harriet and Mr. Elton. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, this line is in a conversation between Lysander and Hermia, who are deeply in love. Lysander has been deemed unworthy by Hermia's father, and he is trying to split them up by engaging Hermia to another man. Isn't that an ironic parallel to what Emma is doing to Harriet and Mr. Martin? She is trying to split Harriet up from a man she has deemed unworthy by pairing her up with Mr. Elton.
This not only adds a richness to the reading of Emma, it shows us an example of something we already know about Emma's character. She always tries to read the classics and never gets very far. The line quoted is from Act 1, scene 1 of the play, and she doesn't even understand the situation of the characters enough to see that it was a bad comparison to use.
So if you can, I would recommend having at least a basic familiarity with Shakespeare's plays, but not if it's going to make you so tired of classic language that you won't read other classic books. I hope that answers your question Georgie!
Sorry for such a long post!