Why are so many people intimidated by Shakespeare's play, Hamlet?

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In the introduction to Shakespeare's plays, eNotes presents a section entitled, "Strategies For Understanding Shakespeare's Language." In that this advisory piece is present prior to the text of each of Shakespeare's plays, one could infer then that this is a very important aspect of understanding Shakespearean English. The language is very different than that which we speak today. 

In that the language is challenging, tips about Shakespeare's writing is helpful in grasping the meaning of some of the most brilliantly written and entertaining plays in the history of the English language—but this is not often how one feels when first reading Shakespeare.

One difficulty is the form that the Bard used. Some of the play is written in iambic pentameter. This refers to the number of beats per line ("tapping" on every other syllable). This gives the writing a poetic or musical sound. However, another thing that readers struggle with (which is also present in poetry) is the belief that one must automatically stop at the end of each line. 


Before my God, I might not this believe

Without the sensible and true avouch

Of mine own eyes. (68-70)

In Act One, scene one, Horatio speaks and it is formatted in writing as shown above. However, it is not read aloud this way: the speaker would not stop at the end of each line. He would simply say:

Before my God, I might not this believe without the sensible and true avouch [assurance] of mine own eyes.

At the same time, understanding comes first in learning to use the author's punctuation. These symbols are like road signs, telling the reader when to stop or pause. Unless there is punctuation present to end a thought or offer a pause, the reader should read from one line to the next (as translated above). Clarity comes in this way. Reading to find the rhyme at the end of many lines is pleasurable to the ear, but one must be led by punctuation to follow what the author has written, as a first step.

Another difficulty is order of the words (syntax) used, where sentences are often "inverted." Simply rearrange the order of the words so they make sense—this can be done easily...until the reader begins to develop an ear for this sentence structure.

Switching the order of the words in the quotation above makes the writing sound more familiar:

Before my God, without the sensible and true [assurance] of mine own eyes, I might not believe.

Also, it is important, as well, to reread a sentence or paragraph more than once until it makes sense. To continue without clear understanding can leave the reader completely lost and frustrated. eNotes offers many side-by-side translations: these make it much easier to follow what is being said. Again, when the reader develops a sense for the writing, translations are needed less often.

One should consider the beauty of Shakespeare's writing as written. When Hamlet speaks about the Ghost, he hopes he does not offend Horatio—who insists there is no offence; but Hamlet then turns the notion around, saying (that for other reasons) there is offence:


Yes, by Saint Patrick, but there is, Horatio,

And much offence too. (I.v.150-151

Horatio says he is not offended, but Hamlet turns the argument around and insisters there should be offence in light of his father's murder. Shakespeare creates imagery with language. The words are powerful and clever. Hamlet is worth the effort; filled with famous quotes, he is a hero with whom one can sympathize.


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