This book has an ambitious title, but a fairly simple aim. It is meant as a general introduction to Shakespeare for the ordinary reader, the student, or the teacher without the benefit of a university course in English, who feels the need of some direction in presenting Shakespeare to his classes.
It is not easy to claim to understand anything at all. But there is a sense in which Shakespeare can be understood, even by schoolboys whose native language is not English but who have been studying it at school. School levels vary and every teacher knows of cases as desperate as that of the English candidate at G.C.E. (A level) whose town words' for Macbeth's lines were: 'O for tomorrow, tomorrow and tomorrow, these days give me the creeps', and also of work as good as any commended in the published reports of examiners. Between these extremes the plays, as they have been cultivated, have bloomed surprisingly and hopefully. One such flower is in the testimony of a seventeenth-century sea-captain, whose record will be found in Chambers's William Shakespeare. In September 1607 the ships of William Keeling and William Hawkins stood off Sierra Leone. The crew of Keeling's ship, the Dragon, played Shakespeare's Richard II, and later Hamlet, for their own delectation and for the benefit of Hawkins's crew. Keeling permitted these performances, as he said, to 'keep my people from idleness and unlawful games, or sleep'.
If common sailors 350 years ago could, without special training and knowledge, play one of the most difficult of Shakespeare's tragedies, is it too much to believe that any reader today, suitably instructed, can understand and appreciate him too? It is towards the understanding of Shakespeare as a popular dramatist that this book is intended.
A book of this kind is naturally under very considerable debt to the work of numerous scholars. I owe particular indebtedness to . . .