How To Read Shakespeare For The First Time

Do you find Shakespeare’s language difficult? Are you having problems reading his plays? Don’t fret, this guide is here to give you some useful Shakespeare-reading tips to get you through your first experience with Shakespeare.

Read the play more than once. I know, you’re busy. We’re all busy. The good news is that Shakespeare’s plays are pretty short. They can be read in an hour. You don’t need to read the play eight times to gain all of their meanings, but reading the plays at least two or three times will vastly improve your understanding.

Annotate the text. Are you one of those people whom don’t like to write in their books? Did you rent the text? Buy the plays so that you own them, or, even better, invest just once in the Riverside Shakespeare, and take notes in the margins of your page. This way once something becomes clear to you in the text, you have your notes right there next to the text to help you remember. You can also write questions you have about the text in the margins and once you have the answer, either from a study session, further reading, or from the teacher clarifying, you can jot it down and remember what the answer is.

Read the lines out loud. I mean, it is a play after all. Plays are not meant to be read like a novel or a poem (although they can be and can also be enjoyed in such a way), but instead as pieces that are meant for oration and reception by an audience. Sometimes the lines are difficult to understand on the page but, when spoken out loud, the play comes to life. Other considerations, such as to whom the line is spoken and the intonation, volume, and blocking, come into play when the lines are spoken out loud too. All of these considerations that happen during vocalization can help you understand a section of the play that was previously baffling.

Use the context to figure out an unknown word. Language evolves, and it’s been almost 400 years since Shakespeare’s death. The language he uses isn’t the same language we use today, but much of his vocabulary is similar to our own, and it’s really only a few words that have shifted in meaning or dropped from modern use all together. If you’re confronted with a word you are unfamiliar with, use the context of the sentence to figure it out – is he using this word in a positive or negative way? Are there any synonyms or antonyms in the line to help clarify the unknown word? How the other characters react to the statement with the unknown word in it can be a great clue to the meaning of the unknown word.

Create a word-bank. If there’s an unknown word you can’t clarify using context clues, or you’d just like to know the dictionary definition of the word, write it down in a word bank you have out while you read Shakespeare’s plays. This also works well for words you are familiar with that seem to be misused or make a sentence confusing. Chances are, the meaning of that word has changed in modern context. The OED—Oxford English Dictionary—is your best bet for not only getting the meaning of these words in Shakespeare’s time, but also tracking the evolution of the meaning of the word.

Form a study group when possible. You’re not the only one of your classmates struggling with Shakespeare, so why not all work together? You might get parts of the text that other classmates are struggling with, and by working together, you’ll be able to teach and learn from one another. This also works really well when it comes to reading the play out loud. This way, each study partner can read one or multiple parts and the group can discuss to whom the line is spoken and the intonation, volume, and blocking of a scene to aid in your understanding of the text.

Visit your teacher’s office hours if you’re reading Shakespeare for a class. Professors are there to help. They teach Shakespeare because they enjoy it and they enjoy talking to their students about it.

Don’t just read a synopsis and think that’s enough to get you through the plays. These synopses are often lacking in depth and merely recount the plot of the play and basic character attributes. This will not be enough to get you through an upper-division English course in college. It doesn’t hurt to have a basic understanding of these elements and synopses are fine to use in addition to reading the play, but they are not enough to replace reading the play.

Don’t rely on the film version of the play instead of reading the play. For one, films are often not true to the script and even when they do stick to the play, the choices the directors and actors make are just one interpretation of Shakespeare’s works. Shakespeare’s plays have no stage directions, so all of those choices, along with gaps left open within the text of the play itself, gets interpreted and locked in film in one such manner when there are really multiple choices and interpretations that can be made. Watching two or three films is better than watching one, but still cannot represent the full range of choices available to a reader.

Don’t be intimidated or think that Shakespeare is boring. Shakespeare gets a bad rep for being difficult to read or stiff and boring. Neither of those rumors are true. Shakespeare’s language was not the elevated language of his time, and once you’ve read one or two of his plays, his language becomes clear and easier to interpret. And Shakespeare’s plays are definitely not stiff nor boring – they are filled with jokes about prostitutes, STDs, flatulence, and so many sex puns that you’ll be questioning why school districts allow junior high students to read Shakespeare public schools.

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