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How to Read Shakespeare

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Tricia Ebarvia

on 21 November 2013

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Transcript of How to Read Shakespeare

How to Read Shakespeare
and understand!
After all, he invented so many words....

Henry V, Act 2, Scene 4
"Hang him, swaggering rascal!"
First, some misconceptions...
Shakespeare wrote in Old English or Middle English.

Shakespeare wrote in Modern English

baet hine on ylde eft gewunigen
wilgesibas, bonne wig cume,
leode gelaesten; lofdaedum sceal
in maegba gehwaere man gebeon.
MIDDLE ENGLISH (Canterbury Tales)

Whilom, as olde stories tellen us,
Ther was a duc that highte theseus;
Of atthenes he was lord and governour,
And in his tyme swich a conquerour,
That gretter was ther noon under the sonne.
Much Ado

No, no; we will hold it as a dream till it appear
itself: but I will acquaint my daughter withal,
that she may be the better prepared for an answer,
if peradventure this be true. Go you and tell her of it.
not true!
Act 1, Scene 2
more than 90% of Shakespeare's words are still in use today
Why is Shakespeare so hard to read?
Meaning can change over time
I feel really sick today.
Dude, that's so
Much Ado
I see, lady, the gentleman is not in your books.

Romeo & Juliet
Do you bite your thumb at me, sir?
Tip #1 Be sure to read the notes on the side of the page !
to feel uncertain
to fear something
I doubt your love, sir!
Some words are also abbreviated
Either to fit a poetic pattern
OR to reflect speech

“Goin’ to class?”

“Already been.”



Are you going to class?

I have already been to class.

And how was it? OR And did you enjoy it? OR And what happened in class? Etc.

What business is it of yours? OR It was a most enjoyable class, perhaps the best one of my academic career. Etc.
Tip #2

Review some common
abbreviations on your bookmark.
and read the notes on the side of the page!
'tis = it is
ope = open
o'er = over
gi' = give
ne'er = never
i' = in
e'er = ever
ere = before
oft = often
a' = he
e'en = even
an = if
Unusual Word Order
But still...
How Shakespeare = Yoda
Unusual Word Order
Strong is the force in you.
Darkness I sense.
Never was seen a day as black as this.
Romeo & Juliet
The force is strong in you.
I sense darkness.
A day as black as this was never seen.
inverted syntax
(turned around) (word order)
not in your favor
a cursing gesture
TIP #3

Identify the subject and verb.
Try rearranging the words until the line(s) make sense.
The more you read Shakespeare, the more you'll recognize his words.
Entertainment =
Highly Visual
In Elizabethan times, Shakespeare relied on the audience's
to entertain them
highly poetic language
and imagery
"I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swears he loves me."

"I had rather be a canker in a hedge than a rose in his grace."
Think ShakespEARe
Tip #4

Don't take everything too literally
(since much of the text is figurative)

Instead, try to get the "gist" of it, using other context clues
and don't forget the notes on the side!
Shakespeare wrote in both
anything in poetic form
(Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter)
anything written "normally"
(not poetry but paragraphs)
Tip #5

Pay attention to when verse or prose is used
(and by whom)
often by the "lower class"
typically used in informal situations
used by "upper class"
or to highlight a significant or important moment
Don't expect to understand every word at first.

Finally, another reason Shakespeare can be difficult to read:

Very few stage directions!
If it's a play, how can you tell what the actors are doing if there are no directions?
Shakespeare used
In novels, you have a narrator:

from Great Expectations
"You young dog," said the man, licking his lips, "what fat cheeks you ha' got."

"Darn me if I couldn't eat em," said the man, with a threatening shake of his head, "and if I han't half a mind to't!"
In Shakespeare's day, actors typically only had 4 to 5 days for rehearsals before a performance. Shakespeare included the "stage directions" within the dialogue.
Here are lines from Act 1 of
Much Ado:
Note how the actor playing Don John gets his cue from these lines.
What the goodyear, my lord! Why are you thus out of measure sad?
Tip #6

Try to visualize what's happening (it is a play, after all!)
by paying attention to the implicit stage directions within the dialogue.
There is no magic fix to "figuring out" Shakespeare.
Use a combination of strategies.
Keep a character list close by.

Read the text aloud (even if you just whisper it yourself).
Try reading it different ways (change words around).
Find something you DO understand and work backward and sideways.
If you are desperate...

Read a summary of the scene online...


to the text to see HOW the lines
say that.
Otherwise, you really haven't learned anything.
Reading Shakespeare is work.
But it can also be rewarding and fun.
does this look like Shakespeare?
What is said
What could be meant
(and some words you just have to get used to... thou, thine, etc.)
Follow the sentence until you get to the period.
And important!

READ USING THE PUNCTUATION (not the line breaks)
Full transcript