Shakespeare's all over iPlayer - but where to start? Here’s our handy guide for newbies (and sceptics)

A wealth of great Shakespeare plays is now available on BBC iPlayer. Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet and Othello are presented from Stratford-upon-Avon by the Royal Shakepeare Company, while Shakespeare’s Globe in London presents The Tempest. But a lot of people think Shakespeare is not for them. Here, Peter Ormerod - who has reviewed various productions at the RSC - offers his personal guide to watching Shakespeare ...

1 Take a quick look at a synopsis of the story beforehand

Watching a Shakespeare play can be a tad bewildering at first. The RSC website has snappy summaries of the stories, without giving too much away.

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2 If you don’t understand a Shakespeare play after ten minutes, don’t give up

It can take a while to get into the rhythm of the speech and the feel of the work. Even if the opening scenes feel wordy and you’re worried you’re missing important plot points, chances are you’re missing less than you might fear and you’ll be able to catch up with what’s going on.

3 If you still don’t understand it after 30 minutes, there’s probably a problem with the production

it can be easy to blame yourself for failing to understand what’s going on. But, in my experience, the best productions are those that are the easiest to follow. If the actors are getting the words out clearly and the director is doing all they can to tell the story, you shouldn’t have any difficulties.

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4 There is however a possibility that the fault *does* lie with Shakespeare

He was obviously a genius without peer. But some of his plays have characters, scenes and stories that don’t work. It’s OK to be critical – if it’s not working, you might like to think about why that is, and how it might have been done better.

5 If the audience is laughing hysterically and you have no idea why, it’s probably because a fair bit of this laughter is for show

Audiences love making loud, hooty demonstrations of their own cleverness. That said, Shakespeare can genuinely be very funny. Honestly.

Christopher Ecclestone in the RSC's latest production of Macbeth, now streaming on iPlayer. Picture: The Other RichardChristopher Ecclestone in the RSC's latest production of Macbeth, now streaming on iPlayer. Picture: The Other Richard
Christopher Ecclestone in the RSC's latest production of Macbeth, now streaming on iPlayer. Picture: The Other Richard

6 Try not to get too perturbed by the language

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It often sounds more intimidating than it really is. You’ll be familiar with the vast majority of the words; Shakespeare just makes them do extraordinary things. A little attentive listening will go a long way.

7 You may well be able to enjoy the play even if you don’t get a lot of the language

The best thing I’ve seen in a theatre was a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It used various languages from the Indian subcontinent. But the meaning was entirely clear.

8 There is some law by which theatre directors have to make every sexual innuendo embarrassingly explicit

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Anything even vaguely risque is invariably accompanied by a grab of the crotch, a thrust of the hips, etc. I have no idea why they always do this; it’s exasperating.

9 But there’s something even worse. How can you tell if a character is supposed to be stupid or funny? Because they speak in a regional accent!

Most directors seem to think the only characters who can sound Cornish, Brummie, Geordie etc are the idiotic/strange ones. Infuriating.

10 The best production to start with on iPlayer? I’d say Romeo and Juliet.

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It’s bracing, invigorating and endearingly rough around the edges.

11 Not all Shakespeare plays are great and a quite a few productions are mediocre

But a great production of a great Shakespeare play is as good as theatre gets. If you haven’t already done so, it’s worth trying - you may be pleasantly surprised. Of course, you may decide his work is not for you after all. But you may discover something that enriches your life and changes how you see the world.

Visit to watch all the Shakespeare productions on BBC iPlayer.

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