Shakespeare: Which have you read?

Hannah ThompsonYouGovLabs and UK Public Opinion Website Editor
May 23, 2012, 3:52 PM GMT+0

20% of Britons have never seen or read Shakespeare plays; majority exposed to Romeo and Juliet

One in five Britons says they have never read or seen any of Shakespeare’s plays, our poll in light of the current World Shakespeare Festival shows.

More men than women appear to have shied away from the playwright, while older generations are also less likely to say they've seen at least one of the bard's works.

Our poll didn't differentiate between versions of the famous plays, however, so someone who says they have 'read or seen' Romeo and Juliet may equally well be talking about the authentic text played out on stage, a Royal Shakespeare Company recording, or even, for example, the famous 1997 Baz Luhrmann film adaptation.

Our results measure exposure to the bard's most well-known works, of which the three most read or seen were Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

  • 20% of Britons say they have not read of watched any of William Shakespeare’s plays
  • 23% of men say they haven't seen or read any Shakespeare plays, next to 16% of women
  • A quarter of 40-59 year olds (24%) admit to never having read or seen any Shakespeare plays, compared to 19% of people over 60, and another 19% of people aged 25-39 years
  • Only 10% of those aged between 18 and 24 say they have never seen or read a Shakespeare play

The World Shakespeare Festival, launched by the Royal Shakespeare Company, is being celebrated from April to November this year in conjunction with the London 2012 Festival, and coincides with The Globe Theatre's international Globe 2 Globe festival.

Which plays have you read or seen?

The most prevalent Shakespeare plays, i.e. those read and/or seen most were Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and a Midsummer Night’s Dream, while a third had read Hamlet and the Merchant of Venice.

  • Three fifths of Britons (57%) have seen or read tragic romance Romeo and Juliet
  • Just under half have read or seen Macbeth (49%) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (46%)
  • About a third has read or seen Hamlet (33%) and The Merchant of Venice (31%)
  • Around a quarter has read or seen Twelfth Night (27%), The Taming of the Shrew (27%), Much Ado About Nothing (26%) and The Tempest (23%)
  • Around one fifth has read or seen Julius Caesar (22%), Othello (21%) and Anthony and Cleopatra (20%)
  • While The Two Noble Kinsmen is the only play that no respondents at all had seen or read

The importance of engaging in Shakespeare plays is emphasized by many experts who hail the playwright as one of the most influential writers ever to have lived, with his work transcending time and culture.

Shakespeare’s work is also responsible for many of the common expressions heard in everyday language today, including (to name but a few) 'vanishing into thin air', 'the wish being father to the thought', and, perhaps ironically, 'there's method in my madness' and 'it's all Greek to me'.

However, that Shakespeare can be difficult to understand, and therefore seen as boring by schoolchildren and adults alike, is often cited as a major reason why more people don't 'get into' the works – especially if their first exposure was in English lessons at school, while before the 1990s, Shakespeare wasn't a compulsory part of the curriculum in many schools, which could explain the lack of exposure to Shakespeare among older generations.

Often, the famous plays are hailed as being more enjoyable and accessible if people experience them as they were meant to be: performed on stage rather than read in a book.

As the Globe Theatre Education website itself states, 'We think that the best way to learn to about the work of Shakespeare is by enjoying it'.

See the survey details and full results here