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How do you study Shakespeare?

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Scott Locklear | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

Posted August 16, 2013 at 5:19 PM via web

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How do you study Shakespeare?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted August 16, 2013 at 9:15 PM (Answer #2)

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In an individual study ("you"?) of William Shakespeare and his works, there are many factors that contribute to the gleaning of comprehension, perspective and insight. Here are some ways to learn from Shakespeare:

1. Become familiar of Shakespeare's personal history. In order to understand his sonnets and plays, his biography is important.

2. Become familiar with the Elizabethan Age and its political climate and culture and beliefs such as The Chain of Being. Truly, Shakespeare's cultural background profoundly contributes to the meanings and themes of his dramas. One Shakespearean critic writes,

This Chain of Being constitutes the plot structure of Shakespeare's plays, the psychology of his characters, the imagery that informs their speeches, and their fates they must confront.

As an example of how essential it is to know about the Chain of Being and other cultural beliefs as well as the politics of the Elizabethan Age, consider Macbeth. As a semi-divine monarch, the king plays an important role of the Elizabethan World Order. Therefore, regicide is regarded as a heinous offense and one that upsets the order of life, allowing preternatural forces more influence, as well as other forms of disorder. Also, when Shakespeare first wrote Macbeth, King James I was ruler of England and represented the union of Scotland and England since he had previously been James VI of Scotland and had inherited the throne from Banquo and Fleance. So, for political correctness, Shakespeare modified his plot, creating Macbeth as the villain when in real life he was a very humane king who promoted Christianity. Also, Shakespeare included witchcraft in his play knowing that James I was fascinated with it.

3. Read Shakespeare with the Modern English translations next to it. Here at Enotes, the text of the plays is presented in this manner; by reading the original text with reference to the modern English affords meaning. Yet, this arrangement allows students to learn to appreciate the beauty of Shakespeare's language as they gather the meaning at the same time.

4. Viewing Shakespeare's plays is absolutely invaluable to learning about them. After all, they are primarily dramas and viewing a great actor's interpretation of a character while seeing the action does much for the student's comprehension as the content comes alive on stage. [In tragedies, often humorous passages are lost on readers, but when the actors perform their lines as comedy, awareness of the comic relief, etc. is inevitable.)

5. Reading professional criticisms on the play that is being studied is essential to learning.  In these criticisms there are explications, interpretations, and critiques which assist the student in gleaning knowledge and insights. Of course, Harold Bloom is the "doyen" of American literary critics, and his Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human is an indispensable source. In a review, the Houston Chronicle called it "Part guidebook, part encomium, part history and criticism" as well as "provocative."

6. After reading professional criticisms, it is advantageous to return to the plays and read them again and again as there are so many levels on which to enjoy them. Clearly, as Bloom writes, 

Shakespeare informs the language we speak, his principal characters have become our mythology, and he, rather than his involuntary follower Freud, is our psychologist.

Indeed, there is much to glean from the study of Shakespeare and the personal reward is in this wondrous gathering.

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wordprof | College Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

Posted August 16, 2013 at 5:42 PM (Answer #1)

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Judging from the asker, you are seeking a discussion of ways to approach Shakespeare as an individual or in the classroom. My contribution is to first study the life of the texts themselves, the actual editions, clean and corrupted, of one play, probably a comedy, to understand how the work of Shakespeare is a “recipe” to “bake” onstage, not simply a piece of pure literature made to be read. Of course, I was a student of Fredson Bowers, so that would be my slant on it.

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