How to Read Shakespeare (and enjoy it)

by WiseFool

Reading Shakespeare can be the stuff of schoolchildren’s nightmares. Is it possible to read, understand and love Shakespeare?

For many people, Shakespeare is ruined beyond repair while at school. Now, whether you’re still at school and having Shakespeare forced upon you or you’re an adult who would like to give the Bard another crack, there are ways to understand and enjoy Shakespeare.

If you’ve found reading Shakespeare confusing and/or frustrating in the past, I urge you to give him another whirl, but keeping the following five steps in mind. Read on, Macduff!

Step One: Remember, it’s a Play

It was never meant to be read

A lot of people become annoyed reading Shakespeare and, I suppose, it’s little wonder, given that was never the intended purpose.

You wouldn’t sit down to read the screenplay of The Dark Knight Rises, would you? Well, you might, but I’m guessing you’d rather see the movie, because there would be a lot you’d be missing out on by just reading the script.

And the same applies to Shakespeare’s plays. So, if you want to read a Shakespeare and, more importantly, understand and enjoy it, I believe, your first port of call should be to watch whichever play it is you have to (or want to) read.

That doesn’t necessarily mean having to go to the theater though, because there are many, very good, screen adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays available on DVD.

Experience Shakespeare as Will Intended...

Step Two: Don’t Assume There’s Nothing to Relate to

It’s over four hundred years old, right? So, what’s in it for you?

It’s a huge mistake to believe that Shakespeare’s plays are irrelevant, simply because they are hundreds of years old. Yes, there may be some archaic words and turns of phrase in them, but the crux of the plays; the meat, the innards, the themes if you like, are all very much timeless. And, by finding the things that speak to you, you’ll be well on the way to enjoying Shakespeare’s work.

For example, Hamlet is about grief, conspiracy, a strained relationship between mother and child, a young man who feels misunderstood, revenge, questions regarding the meaning of life and much more.

Shakespeare’s plays are more popular, and more widely performed, now than they were during the playwright’s lifetime. What is it about his work that transcends the centuries?

Step Three: Find a Good Edition of The Text

They’re not all the same…

Typically, differences in the actual text of the scripts will be small. However, the editions vary greatly in how the plays are presented and how much additional information is supplied. If you’re finding the play particularly difficult to understand, you may prefer a version with a modern ‘translation’.

Step Four: Find a Good Synopsis of The Play

Know what it’s about before you start reading

If you haven’t managed to watch a version of the play, then it’s a great idea to read a synopsis before picking up the script.

In most cases, it won’t be spoiling the surprise to learn that Romeo and Juliet don’t survive or that Julius Caesar is brutally murdered by his best friend.

More importantly, though, if you have a grip on the main events and actions of the play, then you’ll find it easier to follow.

Step Five: Read Aloud

Don’t worry about looking foolish

As mentioned above, Shakespeare never meant for you to sit alone reading his work. And, when it comes to understanding the words of the play, it is much more difficult to do so by internalizing them.

Reading aloud will help give life to the words and allow you to get a feel for the sound of them, because the beauty of Shakespeare; the thing that sets him apart from his contemporaries and has ensured his continued popularity, is the poetry of the dialogue.

And one final tip, if you come across a word that you don't understand, don't let it faze you - just keep reading. Rather than obsess over one archaic word, allow yourself to understand the speech or scene as a whole. Once you've got the gist of what's going on, you can make an educated guess as to the approximate meaning of those more unusual words, and they won't seem quite as intimidating.

Remember, reading Shakespeare can, and should, be fun!

Updated: 06/12/2012, WiseFool
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WiseFool on 07/09/2012

Thanks, Brenda. Glad you enjoyed it. Reading a play while listening to a recording of it is a fabulous idea. I'm pleased to read that that system worked well for you while studying Shakespeare.

BrendaReeves on 07/09/2012

When I was getting my English degree, I would listen to the audio while I read. That helped me to focus to understand much better. Great article.

Jasmine on 06/29/2012

Although many Shakespearean words are a bit obscure and not commonly used in everyday speech, Shakespeare has invented hundreds of words which eventually stayed in English language and are being used even today! And, the idioms - that's where Shakespeare left the greatest influence on present day English. People aren't even aware that the idioms they use in everyday speech actually come from Shakespeare. I should write a wizz or two on Shakespeare myself because I could go on and on about his work lol

P.S. You bet I still remember many Shakespeare quotes, and I even use some of them in common speech. For example, instead of saying "something's wrong" you'll hear me saying: "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark!"

WiseFool on 06/29/2012

Hello Jasmine, it's always a great pleasure to hear from Shakespeare lovers. You bring up a good point, actually, another secret to reading Shakespeare is to read it more than once, because you can't expect to get it all first time around - there's just too much in his plays; so many layers and little nuggets, that cannot be absorbed in one sitting. Glad you enjoyed him, and I'll bet you can still remember many of those quotes!

Jasmine on 06/28/2012

I love Shakespeare's plays and tend to read them more than once! At university (I studied English and Italian language and literature) we had a subject called "Shakespeare" all year long and we had to know more than a 100 quotes from his works by heart for the written exam. It was a difficult exam, but one of the rare ones that were actually fun!

WiseFool on 06/19/2012

Hello, Tolovaj. Thanks for your comment. Yes, the Charles Lamb versions, I'd forgotten about those, that's a very good point. I agree, there's no 'right' or 'wrong' way to approach Shakespeare - just as long as you give him a go! Thanks again.

Tolovaj on 06/19/2012

Shakespeare is not called the greatest for nothing. His plays are endless source of inspiration for generations of great, good and not so good authors. My official profession at the moment is dramatist and from that point it is almost my duty to know at least some of his plays.

I can say I had hard times reading his scripts although they were translated by our greatest translators. Then I found a book where his plays are presented in form of tales. I believe it was written by Charles Lamb.

I think this is one of options: know the story first and after that read the script. Don't worry if you already know 'who done it' (after all, we all should know how Romeo and Juliet ends, right?), because at great stories we will always find new angles, nuances and points and of course reflections of today's issues.
And there is another way to introduce Shakespeare in our reading repertoire: with numerous parodies, some of them really good and inspiring.

I guess everybody should find his way and nobody should not at least try to read The Bard:)

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