How to Read Shakespeare

“What? What did he say? This man was English?”

Yeah, that’s pretty much how I reacted the first time I picked up Shakespeare. Nobody ever said Shakespeare is easy. And if somebody did, he’s lying. So if you don’t get a word of it at first, don’t be surprised. I was once in the same boat as you. But with a little work, I’ve reached a point where I can read Shakespeare fluently. (Yes, I’m that much of a nerd.)

So, how do you do it? How can you understand writing so archaic? That’s what this guide is for. It’s a set of steps and ideas that will make Shakespeare’s language at least a bit more comprehensible. But first:

“The moon, I care not”

Why, you may ask, should you care enough to put such work into this? Because Shakespeare was a genius. Yes, you’ve heard that over and over and over again, but it’s true. It isn’t just something that people repeat to look smart. (No, seriously, it’s not.) For hundreds of years, readers have praised Shakespeare as the greatest poetic genius who ever lived. If you’re ever looking for a good recommendation, that’s it.

Shakespeare’s drama is exciting and compelling. The plays are not just about finding “deeper meanings.” Let’s try this: A man stands with his dagger drawn sneaking up behind his uncle. He is looking for revenge against the man who murdered his father. The tension is thick as the audience wonders if this is the moment when we will see bloodshed. Is this some cheesy soap opera? NopeâÂ?¦.it’s Hamlet.

You may be here reading this only because you are a student, and you have a teacher who’s forcing you to trudge through Twelfth Night. Well, why not try to enjoy it while you read it?

Anyway, let’s get on to the system.

“How to cheat the devil”

In spite of what your teachers have told you, SparkNotes are not cheating. Quite the opposite, they’re a very valuable resource. Before you read the play, it’s actually a great idea to read the plot summary first. What does this do for you? Well, it gives you context. This way, when you encounter a line you don’t understand, you at least have a frame of reference. You know what’s happening in this scene, so you can easily piece together what’s being said.

You may also want to keep the cast of characters handy. Many of the plays – especially the histories – have many characters with complex relationships. Take, for example, Henry IV, part 1. Thomas Percy has a brother named Henry Percy who has a son whose name is also Henry Percy but goes by Hotspur who is married to Kate whose brother is Edmund MortimerâÂ?¦.not surprisingly, this family is slightly dysfunctional. Make a copy of the cast of characters, or even draw a family tree. It seems like an unnecessary effort, but believe me, it helps.

Of course, don’t read the SparkNotes instead of the play. That would be cheating.

“I read it in the grammar long ago”

Perhaps the hardest thing about Shakespeare is his grammar. The Bard was more than comfortable altering his sentence structure so as to fit his rhythm. One of the most common things he did was to reverse the location of two words. For example, rather than writing, “He goes,” Shakespeare wrote, “Goes he.” This is simple enough to solve: switch the words around. Words may also be left off. “So” could mean “so long as.” “As” could mean “as though.” How can you tell when it does or doesn’t mean that? Unfortunately, there’s no simple way. All I can tell you is: context, context, context.

One concept that is slightly tougher is unusual word tense. “Had” often means “would have.” Once again, context is key in determing this. Just think what would make sense in the particular situation. For example, Lady Macbeth considers killing her king herself, but rather than doing so, she convinces her husband to do the deed. She tells us: “Had he not resembled / My father as he slept, I had done’t.” (Macbeth, II.ii.15) In this case, it’s clear that Lady Macbeth is telling us that she would have killed the king had he not looked like her father. With word tense in the back of your mind, that’s not so hard, right?

One last thing to keep your eyes out for is the way Shakespeare will often use a masculine or feminine pronoun in reference to a genderless object. Lorenzo says: “And never dare misfortune cross her foot, / Unless she do it under this excuse.” (The Merchant of Venice, II.iv.35-36) In this line, “her” and “she” both refer to misfortune. This particular oddity might give you a great degree of trouble, but in any good edition, the notes will take care of that.

Speaking of which�.

“Very notes of admiration”

If you want good news, here it is: approximately 90% of the words in Shakespeare’s plays are still in use today. The bad news, of course, is that 10% of his words are ones you’ve never heard. This is why you should, without exception, use an annotated version of the play. In these versions, there will be notes at the bottom of the page or on the facing page which defines the confusing word. All you have to do, then, is mentally replace the archaic word with the new one.

Example:
“Slubber not business for my sake.” (The Merchant of Venice, II.viii.39)

“Slubber” is an archaic word, and leaves the meaning of this line confusing. But your notes will tell you that “slubber” means “botch.” So let’s try this:

“Botch not business for my sake.”

Almost there, right? Let’s just add our word reversal trick we just learned.

“Don’t botch business for my sake.”

There, now it’s perfectly logical.

“I’ll tear her all to pieces”

Sometimes, the language of Shakespeare can seem overwhelming. He often writes in long sentences and extensive speeches, and it’s hard to gather all of that information at once. When you come upon a sentence or speech that you read over and over and still can’t get, stop trying to get it all at once. Break it down into segments and handle each one individually. Then, reconnect them. Let’s try this line, spoken by Othello shortly after being informed that his wife has cheated on him:

“I had been happy if the general camp, pioneers and all, had tasted her sweet body, so I had nothing known.” (Othello, III.iii.345-347)

This is a pretty tough line, so let’s cut it up, shall we? Start with the first few words:

“I had been happyâÂ?¦” We know that “had” could be “would have,” and that’s the most sensible idea here. It’s probably, “I would have been happy.”

“âÂ?¦if the general camp, pioneers and allâÂ?¦” Your notes should tell you that “the general camp” is all regular people, and that “pioneers” are lower-class laborers.

“âÂ?¦had tasted her sweet bodyâÂ?¦” Had slept with her.

“âÂ?¦so I had nothing known.” We’ll have to apply a couple of our previous concepts here. “So” probably means “so long as.” And “nothing known” is one of those awkward word switches. It’s probably, “known nothing.”

Now, we reconstruct the sentence: “I would have been happy if everybody, even laborers, had slept with her, so long as I knew nothing.” How’s that for a rewrite?

“Speak the speech”

We all know that Shakespeare meant for his lines to be heard and spoken, not read. It usually helps to understand the words if you read them aloud. Sure, you’ll feel silly at first, but you’ll be surprised how much this can clarify the language. Why does it do that? Because you begin to see what’s being emphasized. The words imply emotions, actions, ideas, etc. that are difficult to notice from the text on paper. Speaking out loud can also make it clear who is speaking to whom. If you have somebody else, try reading the text aloud with him/her.

“It is concluded”

The suggestions here will probably make Shakespeare’s language a lot easier for you, but unfortunately, there’s nothing that can make it simple. Even with these in mind, it will still be a struggle the first time you pick up a new play. At times, you may be tempted to pick up one of the editions that entirely translates the play into modern English. This will be easy, but it will also ruin the experience. Shakespeare’s words are a bath, and rather than fight against them, let them wash over you and soak you. The reason the Bard has been so highly praised is the thickness and beauty of his language. It’s a labor, but trust me, it’s worth it.

Good luck!

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