Back to Basics: How to Read Shakespeare

Today is Shakespeare’s birthday, so to celebrate I thought I’d share another post in my Back to Basics series. Last time our focus was on reading and understanding poetry, and today we’re taking things one step farther by focusing on the man, the myth, the legend: William Shakespeare.

Today’s post starts with some overall tips for better understanding the Bard, and I’ll close things out by offering you my very own patent-pending Shakespeare 101 curriculum–five plays to read to increase your overall understanding of Shakespeare and his influence on culture. I hope that this post will give you an easy, stress-free way to enjoy some of the best that English literature has to offer. Let’s get started!

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Shakespeare Basics

In order to read and understand Shakespeare, there are four basic things you need to know.

1. Shakespeare’s English is modern English: This sounds insane, because today we don’t speak like Shakespeare did, but his language isn’t as old-fashioned as you might think. Elizabethan English was actually a huge turning point for the English language, and even though it’s old-fashioned sounding to us, it could be a lot worse. Old English and even Middle English don’t look anything like what we speak today.

2. Much of Shakespeare’s work is written in blank verse: What does that mean? Simply that Shakespeare often wrote in unrhymed iambic pentameter. Still confused? “Iambic pentameter” just means that each line of Shakespeare’s poetry usually has around ten syllables, and those ten syllables are broken down into five feet (penta-meter). Each foot can then be broken down into two syllables–the first is unstressed and the second is stressed. Here’s an example from Romeo and Juliet:

But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?

We can break it up into its five feet easily:

But soft,|what light|through yon-|der win-| -dow breaks?|

And when we add the stresses, we can hear the rhythm:

But soft,|what light|through yon-|der win-| -dow breaks?|

If you can’t hear it, try reading the lines out loud and tapping your fingers, being sure to tap slightly harder on the orange syllables. It’s a ta-TUM, ta-TUM, ta-TUM, ta-TUM, ta-TUM rhythm that Shakespeare manipulates perfectly. Here are a few more lines from that speech:

But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the East, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou her maid art far more fair than she.

A casual reader of Shakespeare doesn’t really need to scan every line to see if it’s perfectly iambic. It’s enough to know that the rhythm matters. Iambic pentameter is the rhythm of the human heart, and it’s also just about the number of syllables we can say on one breath. Blank verse helped actors memorize their lines, and it helps us hear the emotion hidden in the language–does a character break the pattern? Something emotional is probably happening. Does a character speak in prose instead of poetry? He or she might be poor or insane. Shakespeare uses every part of the play to tell us about the characters–it’s just all a matter of how far down the rabbit hole you want to go!

3. Contrary to popular opinion, Shakespeare is not trying to confuse you: Believe it or not, Shakespeare was writing in the vernacular of his day–in the language of the common people. He’s not trying to be dense or difficult to understand. What kind of playwright wants his audience members to be in the dark for five acts? Shakespeare wants his characters’ words and actions to be understood, so if you find yourself getting lost, just look for the characters and their thoughts–that’s where the genius of his work is found.

That being said, there are a few common places where confusion occurs:

  • The words Shakespeare used might have changed meaning since the 1600s. I’d recommend buying an edition that has notes to the side.
  • Shakespeare uses a lot of inverted sentences, so instead of reading “I ate the sandwich,” you might read “The sandwich ate I” or “I the sandwich ate.” This can get pretty confusing pretty fast.
  • Little words like “a” and “an” can trip you up. Often “A” means “he,” and “an” means “if.” Watch out for those sneaky differences!

4. Shakespeare’s plays are meant to be performed: If you’re struggling with a passage of Shakespeare, it always helps to read it out loud. That’s where the magic of the rhythm and the sound devices come in to play. Try it–it really works!

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So those are my four top tips for reading and understanding Shakespeare. It’s totally possible! And now, if you’re looking for an easy way to break into the world of Shakespeare or refresh all that high school knowledge you used to possess, here’s how I’d recommend going about it:

Sarah’s Five-Play Introduction to Shakespeare

I’ve created a tiny pdf guide that lists the five main plays I think are great introductions–these happen to be the plays that are taught most in schools, but they’re taught there for a reason. If this guide is successful, I’d love to write some others here for different plays, but these five are a good start. You can download the guide here (Shakespeare 101) or on the revamped Shakespeare Resources page at the top of the menu.

Let me know in the comments why you love Shakespeare or if you plan to start reading more of his plays this year!

Keep Reading,

Sarah

4 comments

  1. You really took me back to basics, I did literature in high school and recalled loving it a lot, so much that I did excellent in the subject. I will be downloading the links you provided in the post to refresh my memories. And of course it would be nice to do more blogs like these.

    Like

  2. I also wrote a few poems it would be nice if you can check it out, also I will like us to remains connected, as I love literature a lot, just like you.

    Like

  3. Reblogged this on suzannebowditch and commented:
    Happy belated birthday to the Bard this week…and great post here, thank you Book Fifty! 🙂

    Like

  4. I taught Shakespeare for a lot of years and one of the things I taught my students was that in Shakespeare’s time people went to hear a play, not see it as we might today. In hearing the play you can always know where the action is occurring. For example, there’s a scene in Othello where Othello tells Iago, I think it is, that he will meet him at the inn/tavern/pub. The audience then knows that when we see the characters next they are at that location.
    For me, A Mid Summer Nights Dream is an important play because it contains a lot of clues as to how the plays were performed.
    So sorry if I aired my knowledge, I loved my years teaching the plays and finding out how they worked. Great post, enjoyed reading it and remembering.

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