I love history, I love literature, and I love phrases like “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; / For he to-day that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother.” I desperately want to read and understand the context behind these lines; I would love to know something of the king who, after stepping off his high horse down into the mud with his men, considered them more his brothers than the other politicians sniveling their way through the courts of the time. I would love to understand the essence of Walt Whitman’s experiences in the Civil War, but the language can seem to stereotypically “poetic” and far beyond the reaches of a regular reader like me. As such, sometimes I wonder if classic literature is beyond my grasp.

I open up a Shakespeare play or John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” and I feel like I might as well be reading a foreign language. For someone who loves Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” some of the first lines read like this: “In the beginning, how the heav’ns and earth / Rose out of chaos. Or if Sion hill / Delight thee more and Siloa’s brook that flowed / Fast by the oracle of God…” I can’t realistically expect the average person to read and really absorb or understand this stuff. Being an average person myself, I certainly didn’t understand or absorb any of this the first time I read through it. Or the second time.

What I’m about to tell you is probably sacrilege in literary circles — but being a literature person myself, I don’t care. I don’t care because the end result is more people embracing great, classic literature, and I cannot argue with that.

Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” is one of the greats for a reason. | Vincenzo Camuccini, “Morte di Cesare”, 1798.

The old method goes as follows: you read the book or play and you decipher it at your own pace. Well, I hate to say it, but when it comes to Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, Homer, Milton or many others … I don’t measure up. I don’t know what the hell they’re talking about on my first read; all I see is ancient language that, while eloquently put, might as well be Russian to me.

Thank God we live in the age of the internet. Here’s my method:

I glance over the text to get some of my own initial impressions. Any time you read through someone else’s interpretation, you automatically tend to default to seeing it through their lens. However, I don’t get stuck in the weeds of trying to decipher the language too much here. More often than not, I am mostly just picking out lines that make sense to me or are individually compelling. Shakespeare has a lot of those; as does Milton. Some of the old Greek plays can get difficult.

Pages of War: The origins of 'We happy few, we band of brothers'

Read Next: Pages of War: The origins of 'We happy few, we band of brothers'

Here’s the sacrilegious part: then I go to an online summary resource like SparkNotes; my favorite is definitely Shmoop. There, I read the summary for the first chapter, part, book or scene (depending on how the text is broken up).

Then I read the coinciding text. It could be a book from “The Odyssey” or a scene from the old Greek play, “Thyestes.” The words will come alive before you, and you’ll realize that the writing really is some of the best writing you have ever seen — all you needed was a little context and overall understanding of what’s happening. I haven’t liked all the plays and books I’ve read, but I’ve been awestruck at the beauty of every one of them. There is a reason why they stood the test of time, but I had never before realized exactly why.

I repeat this method for each act, chapter or whatever portions the text has. Reading each chapter summary straight through, back to back would take some time, and it can be a bit difficult to keep track of what’s happening when you’re two and a half acts deep into a Shakespeare play. I simply switch back and forth — read a detailed summary on Shmoop, read the text myself, read a detailed summary, back to the text … etc. I continue until the book is finished.

Like anyone who respects the sanctity of a story, this can sort of ruin the suspense and drama since it’s like reading the summary of a movie before watching it. However, it’s the only way I can realistically comprehend these stories without spending a good portion of my month legitimately studying them — which I don’t have time to do. And while themes and ideas can be universal, stories weren’t constructed the same ways back then. There was less of an emphasis on suspense and “not knowing” what would happen next, a mechanism that drives a lot of modern storytelling. Using this method, I have found that I still quite enjoyed a text like “Paradise Lost,” even on an entertainment level, so that is not entirely lost — and it is certainly better than never having read it at all.

If there are any methods I can learn and share that encourage people to revisit these texts, I will. They hold such value in their pages, and once you can get past the barrier of time and language, you realize that there is a definitive reason why these are considered some of the greatest hits of all time.

“Paradise Lost” by John Milton is fascinating, and where we get a lot of our ideas about Christianity that surprisingly aren’t found in the Bible.

 

All images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.