It is practically impossible to say or write anything about literature without at one point running into Shakespeare. He is (mis)quoted by everyone, his characters are a much-used point of reference, and his plays continue to inspire other works of art to this day. The Bard is everywhere, to both the delight and horror of literature students all over the world. These days, the name Shakespeare has become synonymous with high culture, complex works that can only be deciphered by the scholarly elite… And yet most highschool students are expected to read at least one of his plays in school and make sense of it.
I think the #1 thing that keeps some people from getting into Shakespeare is the language: it’s a whole different vocabulary to get used to. When you’re not familiar with early modern writing, his plays can look quite daunting on paper and when you try to read the opening monologue, you instantly start to panick (“oh God, I don’t know what any of these words mean and here I thought I was pretty good at English what is happening“).
So what is the best way to tackle a Shakespeare play?
1. Don’t be intimidated.
In Shakespeare’s day, theatre was not an art form aimed at a cultured elite, but a quite low-level form of entertainment. The Globe theatre was in an area outside of the city where people could go to drink, visit prostitutes, and put money on who would win the fight between a bear and a dog. If early modern peasants looking for a fun night out could understand it, then surely so can you!
2. Look up a summary of the plot before going in.
I find that knowing the basic story going in can really help, because then you can focus on the words instead of having to piece together who these characters are first. Personally, I would recommend starting either with one of the big tragedies (Hamlet, Macbeth) or a light comedy like Much Ado About Nothing. Maybe you’re already familiar with the plot, maybe you’ll recognise some famous quotes along the way, every bit helps. Look up the stories and pick the one that most appeals to you.
3. Watch the plays being performed by actors who know what they’re doing.
Not only were plays not written to be read, but I also find that early modern English makes a lot more sense when you hear the words spoken out loud by people who put just the right emphasis on just the right words. Watch a play (try reading along with the text, if you’re a multitasker), then read the words again and see if you understand it now. For me, David Tennant’s Hamlet (2009) was a real revelation that single-handedly got me into Shakespeare. The wiliamshakespearethings Tumblr has a great list of filmed plays and movie adaptations with links here, and if you want any advice on which ones you should watch, you can always leave a message here or on my Facebook page.
4. Read the words out loud to yourself.
If you’re new to Shakespeare or ye olde English in general you might still not understand what you’re actually reading, but speaking the lines can really help. Not only does it force you to slow down and take in every word, but figuring out how a line should be said can also reveal things to you that you never would have noticed by just reading it on the page.
5. Don’t get stuck on details.
If you don’t really understand what’s going on, don’t let that stop you and just keep watching and/or reading (that’s a general piece of advice applicable to any book or play or poem that’s not very accessible at first: just keep reading). The New Cambridge Shakespeare editions have a ton of footnotes that explain absolutely everything, from historical context to metre, but at times these pages are 80% footnote. If this is your first time reading the work, don’t bother working your way through all of the additional information, but focus on keeping track of the plot instead. You can read up on the other stuff later, one thing at a time.
I hope this helps and that you’ll have fun exploring Shakespeare’s work. You’ll be cracking Elizabethan dick jokes before you know it, I promise.
(No really, there are a lot of dick jokes.)