How to read… Shakespeare
The next time your teacher pulls out Romeo and Juliet or Julius Caesar, don’t groan in agony! Sure, Shakespeare is definitely tough to understand, but with a little extra effort, his plays can be incredibly rewarding—funny, sad, exciting, and everything in between. Check out these tips, and the next time your classmates complain that Shakespeare is too “old-timey” to be cool, you can tell them, “Thine ‘horrid image doth unfix my hair.’” (Meaning: you are so ugly that looking at you is making me uncomfortable). Just kidding, definitely don’t tell them that, but see, Shakespeare can be fun! (That insult is a line from Macbeth, I promise!)
- Read a summary. “What, but that’s cheating!” you cry. Nope, the thing is, people in Shakespeare’s time were often already familiar with the stories his plays were based on. Yep, most of Shakespeare’s plays are not his own, made up stories, but old stories or real historical events that he adapted. So reading a summary brings you up to speed and allows you to focus on the language since you will be familiar with the plot. I think the online “Shmoop” summaries are pretty funny for an overall picture, but sites like Shakespeare-online.com offer more thorough scene by scene summaries which are helpful to read as you go. Skip sites like “No Fear Shakespeare” that change an entire play into prose. These are useless because you miss out on what makes Shakespeare so engaging: his creative wordplay—his use of rhetorical devices, changing sentence structure to add meaning, and colourful vocabulary.
- Find an annotated edition of the play you are reading. Again, this is not cheating! Shakespeare is tough, so you want a version that defines words that are unfamiliar, (Shakespeare wrote in early modern English), explains cultural practices that make certain jokes or insults funny, and gives background information about any historical events that are referenced. Here’s a good test of whether an edition is thorough enough for you: read any random passage and note any words you don’t understand. Then look at the annotations. Do they define most of the words you didn’t know? If not, try another edition.
- Read aloud. These are plays, not books. Plus, putting on your own show is more fun! Try giving each character a different voice, or getting a group of your friends to each play a character. What’s cool about Shakespeare’s plays is that he gives the actor everything he needs, meaning that the text itself actually tells the actor how to say the lines! Much of Shakespearian dialogue is in verse, which gives it a rhythm that is surprisingly easy and natural to read. When dialogue is not in verse (it is in prose), this means something too: often the person is of low class, or two characters are having an argument, or in some heightened situation that causes them to change their pacing. Additionally, Shakespeare’s punctuation tells you exactly where to pause: commas show a slight shift in a character’s thought process while periods begin a new thought. Don’t add other pauses of your own! Shakespearean actors said their lines quickly, without dramatic pauses. Modern plays and films have a lot of subtext (the character does not say what he or she is thinking), but this had not become popular yet in Shakespeare’s time, so everything that is written includes what the character is actually thinking! That is why there are many soliloquys (a character saying his thoughts by himself onstage). This makes Shakespearian text more straightforward to perform because there is no “inner dialogue.”
- Think about what performing the play would have been like in Shakespeare’s time. An acting troupe would perform outdoors, with no lighting (except the afternoon sun), with few set pieces, and with minimal rehearsals. There were no female actresses, so younger boys played all women characters! The audience ranged from wealthy socialites sitting above and behind the stage to low-class hecklers who paid a very cheap admission and stood in the “pit” on all three sides of the stage, jeering and even eating and drinking noisily! Shakespeare’s dialogue is written to work with these conditions. For example, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck describes the fairy forest in flowery terms, but the audience would be looking at a nearly empty stage!
- Watch it performed. The Royal Shakespeare Company has many performances available online you can pay to watch. PBS “Great Performances” has free adaptations of some plays, including Ian McKellen in King Lear (I dare you to not cry while watching this one!). You may have to sleuth around the web for other free performances, if you find one that seems good, follow along in the book at first. Almost all performances will make slight changes to the script, but you want to watch one that doesn’t cut too much out.
- Keep a running list of characters, even the small ones. Each play has quite a lot! Also note (especially in the history plays) when characters talk about something that happened in the past, before the play began. Family histories can get complicated. Remember that Shakespeare’s audience would be more familiar with the history or story off which his plays were based.
- The language is the toughest part. In his plays, Shakespeare used a vocabulary of over 25,000 words! The average English speaker works with ~5,000 but knows many more than that. The annotations will help with defining words that you don’t know, but you should also look out for words that meant something different. For example, “an”= if and “doubt”=fear. Shakespeare also uses lots of contractions (in order to make his verse flow smoothly), like “oft”=often and “e’er”= ever.
- Take it slow. You may have to read key passages multiple times and even read the play a second time. You’ll be surprised how you understand something new each time!
May “fair thoughts an happy hours attend you.” (Merchant of Venice)
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