5 Tips for Reading Shakespeare

William Shakespeare's King Lear One of my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays, my copy of King Lear dates from 1922. 

On April 23rd, 1616, William Shakespeare died. If you’re any good at math, which I’m not, you’ll know that that was 400 years ago. This milestone is a terrific excuse for Bard lovers to produce even more material about good old Will.

I happen to be one of those Shakespeare enthusiasts, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know the frustration his work often elicits. His position in the Western canon means that he is frequently assigned to high school or college students, many of whom suffer through “thee” and “thou,” and leave Shakespeare 101 with a decided bias against the Bard.

Now I, as I’ve said, happen to love Shakespeare. Perhaps this is because I had a series of excellent high school teachers and college professors who taught his works in ways that were exhilarating, provocative, and memorable.

Whatever the reason, from these happy experiences I’ve gained a few suggestions on how to make your own Shakespeare experience a fulfilling one. Here they are, and I hope they help you!

William Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra Another one of my favourites, this beautifully coloured edition of Antony and Cleopatra dates from 1941.

Lesson 1: Shakespeare is hard. Few people have opened up (or watched) one of his plays and grasped every nuance, allusion, metaphor, or pun right away. Before you unbox that fresh Hamlet, accept that you will struggle (although I hope that my suggestions will make Shakespeare less painful and more enjoyable). Everyone does to some extent; hard work is part of the Shakespeare experience.

Lesson 2: Forget the footnotes. Now that we’ve accepted that Shakespeare can be difficult, let’s set about making him less so. To begin with, don’t use footnotes on your first reading. But I need to understand what a “bumbaily” is you’re wailing. Well hold up. I didn’t say don’t ever use the footnotes. Just don’t use them on your first, second, or even third reading.

Imagine you’re running. You’ve mellowed into a steady pace when your shoelace becomes untied. You stop, pull over to the edge, and re-tie your laces. You continue on, trying to pick up your rhythm. A block in, and your shoelace becomes untied again. I think you understand my metaphor: looking down at the footnotes is like having to fix your laces every 100 feet.

Just read. Keep running along through the loose shoelaces, the stones on the path, the cyclist in your way. Your first few readings should be less conscious and more immersive; read without too much thought. Let the words in, and don’t worry if they don’t all make sense.

Lesson 3: Read each play at least three times. You’ve probably gleaned this advice from Lesson 2. The best way to grasp Shakespeare is to read him over and over again. (Fortunately, none of his plays are very long!) Reading multiple times accomplishes a few things: you’ll become accustomed to Shakespeare’s language; you’ll understand the plot; you’ll even be able to define some words or phrases that you thought were only understandable through those footnotes.

Lesson 4: Watch the movie. Sacrilege, you say! To watch mere people speaking when you could be reading hallowed words on a page. Pish posh, I say. Shakespeare didn’t sit down and write with the intent that we sequester ourselves in a quiet corner with Romeo and Juliet’s passion locked down on the page. They are meant to be seen and heard. If you’re having a hard time getting into MacBeth, go watch Patrick Stewart, and don’t feel guilty about it.

Lesson 5: Have fun. That’s useful, thank you. Having fun will certainly earn me an A on my paper. Well, perhaps it will. I don’t think that Shakespeare should be relegated to the cobwebs of pretentious literature. His works are far too lively, bawdy, and violent for anything so staid. Just as I suggest watching the movie if you can’t get into the written play on your first go, don’t hesitate to enjoy some of the humorous offshoots the richness of Shakespeare’s world engenders. There’s a Shakespeare pun generator (“Your bum is the greatest thing about you”), there’s Shakespeare in celebrity voices, there’s Shakespeare summarised as short comics. Have a laugh! Once you’ve loosened up, charge back into Twelfth Night realizing that there must be some good stuff in Mr. Shakespeare if he can inspire so much fun.

I hope these five tips will help you on your Shakespearean journey!


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