William Shakespeare is one of the world’s most famous playwrights and his plays are still enjoyed as much today as when they were first performed. Many of us will be familiar with some of the more popular and arguably ‘easier’ plays, such as Romeo and Juliet, mainly because this classic love story has been retold in so many different guises that we know the plot inside out and many of us will have studied this text at school. However, reading Shakespeare at school is often the very reason why so many of us are put off reading it in our adult lives. Sitting in a dull classroom, reciting lines from a play that seem mixed up, unfamiliar and lack visual clues is enough to put anyone off and it’s certainly not how Shakespeare would have wanted his plays to be received. One key thing we must all remember is that these are plays, which means they are meant to be performed, not read. So is it any wonder that we find it so difficult when faced with the challenge of trying to read it?
Shakespeare wrote his plays in Modern English, which means any of the words we read in his plays are in precisely the same language we use today and are therefore entirely familiar to us. What we find difficult is the structure of sentences and the placement of certain words. Shakespeare used very poetic language and had great fun playing with words to indicate personality traits, tone and setting. In speech and writing today we put the subject of a sentence before the verb, however Shakespeare would often do the complete opposite in order to change the poetic rhythm and meter. Words we use today may also have had double meanings or slightly different meanings during the Elizabethan Age, which again confuses matter for us and we often give up reading when we reach the first hurdle. What a shame, though, to miss out on some of the finest, most poetic and rich writings around, when all we really need is a very rough, general understanding of what’s happening and who is speaking. Which is why we feel it is important to help people understand that reading Shakespeare can be pleasurable, you just need to be patient, willing and have a bit of a plan.
Here are our top tips on how to read Shakespeare…and enjoy it:
Taking the time to watch Shakespeare’s plays performed on stage by professional actors is without doubt one of the easiest and most enjoyable ways to understand and appreciate Shakespeare. Having the visual representation of a character, the setting of the stage and hearing the words read with rhythm, tone and clarity makes everything slot into place. Even if you don’t understand absolutely everything, you will certainly get the main idea and it will mean next time you attempt to read the play at home you will do so armed with a knowledge and understanding before you’ve even opened the book. If, for whatever reason, you are unable to see a theatre production of a play, there are plenty of good quality film adaptions available of most of Shakespeare’s plays. Make sure you check the film uses the original script before you watch it, as this could end up confusing you further. Good examples include: Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Henry V and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to name but a few.
Another alternative to reading Shakespeare, or certainly something you could do before attempting to read it, is to listen to audio versions of the plays. Simply by hearing the rhythm of the words, the breaks and pauses, the tone and the difference in voices will really help you to not only distinguish between characters; a problem in itself, but also to get a real sense of the action. Many audio versions also include a transcript that you can use to follow along with.
Get over the fact you may feel a bit silly doing this and try reading the play aloud. Feel the richness of the words on your tongue and the variation in tone and rhythm of the language. It’s amazing how certain words become much more understandable and almost come alive when they are read aloud. If you feel like it you could even attempt to act out the play yourself, by adopting different voices for different characters, in order to create a sense of setting and drama that is almost impossible to achieve when you read in your head.
As with anything you read, it always helps to know roughly what type of story you are about to read, which is why understanding the genre of a play can help immensely with your overall understanding. Shakespeare wrote Tragedy, Comedy, History and Romance and sometimes even combined two together, for example Tragicomedy. In Shakespearean plays the genres tend to follow these patterns:
Comedy – lighthearted, laughter; often at another characters expense, usually ends in marriage.
Tragedy – darker, more serious and often ends in one or more deaths.
History – the plot revolves around a historical event that usually takes place in England.
Romance – is about love that is often problematic, although tends to end happily.
There is always a long list of characters in Shakespeare and trying to keep track of who’s who, who’s doing what, who’s friends with someone and who’s trying to kill someone else is really, really tricky. This is made worse by the fact that Shakespeare would often use characters with the same name or who would appear right at the very beginning, disappear for ages and then reappear out of nowhere with no real explanation as to where they’ve been. One thing you can do that will help you keep track of characters is to make a list of names as they appear in the play and write a couple of words next to it about who they are, what they’re social standing is and what relationships they have with the other characters. You then refer back to this if you need to at any point throughout the rest of the play. You will notice a huge difference between lower class characters and upper class characters, mainly through the language they use. Upper class characters and the nobility talk in a much more poetic form, whereas the lower classes speak in simple, often naturalistic prose and once you recognise this difference it can really help you with your overall understanding of the play.
There is absolutely no shame in using summary guides, such as Spark Notes, to help you understand the play. You don’t want anything that is going to completely give the plot away, but having a bit of a synopsis certainly helps. Spark Notes works by breaking the text into small sections and then summarising it. With a bit of prior knowledge you can pay closer attention to how Shakespeare is telling the story, rather than concentrating on working out what’s going on.
There are literally tons of different editions of Shakespeare’s plays out there and although all of them are telling the same story, they are all presented in slightly different ways. Some will keep it very basic, some will include annotated notes and some may even provide modernised accounts of the play. You need to spend some time deciding which type you are likely to get on the best with, as this decision could be enough to determine your enjoyment of reading Shakespeare. The No Fear Shakespeare versions offer two accounts; the original script and a modern, common day language interpretation, set out one line after the other to make understanding slightly easier. Or the Barnes and Noble and the Oxford Shakespeare editions offer excellent annotations that help make sense of references to Elizabethan culture. There are also plenty of versions that have been adapted for child readers of Shakespeare and sometimes this can be a great starting point for an adult as well.
We appreciate that it’s difficult to enjoy reading something when you have to stop every 5 minutes to look a word up in the dictionary, but trust us it is a practice well worth trying, because in the long run it will help develop your love of reading Shakespeare. Alternatively, if you read on an iPad, Kindle or other electronic device, you are able to tap on a word you don’t understand and it will immediately give you the definition.
Apparently you need to read or watch at least 17 of Shakespeare’s plays before you begin to master an understanding of them. So, remind yourself of this if you’re starting to lose motivation and are close to giving up on your 4th, 5th or even 15th attempt at reading his work. Try sticking with just one play to begin with and if you feel your frustration building, put the book down and have a break from it for a couple of days; just remember to go back to it! You won’t understand every word at first, but what you can hope to achieve after a few readings is to build up an understanding of the larger significance of the play.
To read a Shakespeare play properly and with enjoyment you need to pick the right moment. It’s no good convincing yourself to take it in holiday, with a view to reading it on the sun lounger, because it’s really not going to happen. But, pick that absolute optimum moment and we can promise you will experience Shakespeare like you never have before. For example, how about reading Macbeth by candlelight on a stormy winters night, in the comfort of your living room, in front of a roaring fire? Straight away you have created an atmosphere that emulates the setting of the play and will help immerse you within the plot.
Most importantly of all, allow yourself to enjoy and have fun with Shakespeare. William Shakespeare was a comic genius and many of his more lighthearted plays are riddled with puns, metaphors and jokes that he wanted his audience to enjoy and share in his laughter.
We hope this has inspired you to give Shakespeare another go and to understand the richness of language that this famous playwright has left for the world over to enjoy