11 Strategies for Understanding Shakespeare's Language
When reading verse, note the appropriate phrasing and intonation.
DO NOT PAUSE AT THE END OF A LINE unless there is a mark of punctuation. Shakespearean verse has a rhythm of its own, and once a reader gets used to it, the rhythm becomes very natural to speak in and read. Beginning readers often find it helpful to read a short pause at a comma and a long pause for a period, colon, semicolon, dash, or question mark.
Here's an example from The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene i:
The quality of mercy is not strain'd, (short pause)
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: (long pause) it is twice blest; (long pause)
It blesseth him that gives, (short pause) and him that takes; (long pause)
‘Tis mightiest in the mighties; (long pause) it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown; (long pause)
Read from punctuation mark to punctuation mark for meaning.
In addition to helping you read aloud, punctuation marks define units of thought. Try to understand each unit as you read, keeping in mind that periods, colons, semicolons, and question marks signal the end of a thought. Here's an example from The Taming of the Shrew:
LUC. Tranio, I saw her coral lips to move,
And with her breath she did perfume the air;
Sacred, and sweet, was all I saw in her.
TRA. Nay, then, 't is time to stir him from his
I pray, awake, sir: if you love the maid,
Bend thoughts and wits to achieve her. (I,i)
The first unit of thought is from “Tranio” to “air”:
He saw her lips move, and her breath perfumed the air.
The second thought (“Sacred, and sweet…”) re-emphasizes the first.
Tranio replies that Lucentio needs to awaken from his trance and try to win “the maid.” These two sentences can be considered one unit of thought.
In an inverted sentence, the verb comes before the subject.
Some lines will be easier to understand if you put the subject first and reword the sentence. For example, look at the line below:
“Never was seen so black a day as this:” (Romeo and Juliet, IV, v)
You can change its inverted pattern so it is more easily understood:
“A day as black as this was never seen:”
An ellipsis occurs when a word or phrase is left out.
In Romeo and Juliet, Benvolio asks Romeo's father and mother if they know the problem that is bothering their son. Romeo's father answers:
“I neither know it nor can learn of him” (Romeo and Juliet I,i).
This sentence can easily be understood to mean,
“I neither know [the cause of] it,
nor can [I] learn [about it from] him.”
As you read longer speeches, keep track of the subject, verb, and object: who did what to whom.
In the clauses below, note the subject, verbs, and objects.
ROSS: The king hath happily received, Macbeth,
The news of thy success: and when he reads
Thy personal venture in the rebel's fight… (Macbeth I, iii)
1st clause: The king hath happily received, Macbeth,/The news of thy success:
SUBJECT – The king
VERB – has received
OBJECT – the news [of Macbeth's success]
2nd clause: and when he reads/thy personal venture in the rebel's fight,
SUBJECT – he [the king]
VERB – reads
OBJECT – [about] your venture
In addition to following the subject, verb, and object of a clause, you also need to track pronoun references. In the following soliloquy Romeo, who is madly in love with Juliet, secretly observes her as she steps out on her balcony. To help you keep track of the pronoun references, we've made margin notes. (Note that the feminine pronoun sometimes refers to Juliet, but sometimes does not.)
But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who* is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her* maid art more fair than she:*
“Who” refers to the moon.
“thou her maid” refers to Juliet, the sun.
“she” and “her” refer to the moon.
In tracking the line of action in a passage, it is useful to identify the main thoughts that are being expressed and paraphrase them. Note the following passage in which Hamlet expresses his feelings about the death of his father and the remarriage of his mother:
O God! a beast that wants discourse of reason
Would have mourn'd longer – married with my uncle,
My father's brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules. (I,ii)
Paraphrasing the three main points, we find that Hamlet is saying:
a mindless beast would have mourned the death of its mate longer than my mother did
she married my uncle, my father's brother
my uncle is not at all like my father
If you are having trouble understanding Shakespeare, the first rule is to read it out loud, just as an actor rehearsing would have to do. That will help you understand how one thought is connected to another.
Shakespeare frequently uses metaphor to illustrate an idea in a unique way.
Pay careful attention to the two dissimilar objects or ideas being compared. In Macbeth, Duncan, the king says:
I have begun to plant thee, and will labour
To make thee full of growing. (I,v)
The king compares Macbeth to a tree he can plant and watch grow.
An allusion is a reference to some event, person, place, or artistic work not directly explained or discussed by the writer.
It relies on the reader's familiarity with the item referred to. Allusion is a quick way of conveying information or presenting an image. In the following lines, Romeo alludes to Diana, goddess of the hunt and of chastity, and to Cupid's arrow (love).
ROMEO: Well, in that hit you miss: she'll not be hit
with Cupid's arrow, she hath Dian's wit;
and in strong proof of chastity well arm'd (I,i)
Contracted words are words in which a letter has been left out.
Some that frequently appear:
be't on't wi' do't t' 'sblood 'gainst ta'en i' 'tis e'en 'bout know'st 'twill ne'er o' o'er
Archaic, obsolete, and familiar words with unfamiliar definitions may also cause problems.
Archaic Words. Some archaic words, like thee, thou, thy, and thine, are instantly understandable, while others, like betwixt, cause a momentary pause.
Obsolete Words. If it were not for the notes in a Shakespeare text, obsolete words could be a problem; words like “beteem” are usually not found in student dictionaries. In these situations, however, a quick glance at the book's notes will solve the problem.
Familiar Words with Unfamiliar Definitions. Another problem is those familiar words whose definitions have changed. Because readers think they know the word, they do not check the notes. For example, in this comment from Much Ado About Nothing, the word an means if:
Beatrice: Scratching could not make it worse, an 'twere such a face as yours were. (I,i)
For this kind of word, we have included margin notes.
Get ready for wordplay: puns, double entendres, and malapropisms.
- A pun is a literary device that achieves humor or emphasis by playing on ambiguities. Two distinct meanings are suggested either by the same word or by two similar-sounding words.
- A double entendre is a kind of pun in which a word or phrase has a second, usually sexual, meaning.
- A malapropism occurs when a character mistakenly uses a word that he or she has confused with another word. In Romeo and Juliet, the Nurse tells Romeo that she needs to have a “confidence” with him, when she should have said “conference.” Mockingly, Benvolio then says she probably will “indite” (rather than “invite”) Romeo to dinner.
Understand the purpose behind Shakespeare's language.
Our final word on Shakespeare's language is adapted by special permission from Ralph Alan Cohen's forthcoming book Shakesfear and How to Cure It—A Guide to Teaching Shakespeare.
What's so hard about Shakespeare's language? Many students come to Shakespeare's language assuming that the language of his period is substantially different from ours. In fact 98% of the words in Shakespeare are current-usage English words. So why does it sometimes seem hard to read Shakespeare? There are three main reasons:
Originally, Shakespeare wrote the words for an actor to illustrate them as he spoke. In short, the play you have at hand was meant for the stage, not for the page.
Shakespeare had the same love of reforming and rearranging words in such places as hip-hop and sportscasting today. His plays reflect an excitement about language and an inventiveness that becomes enjoyable once the reader gets into the spirit of it.
Since Shakespeare puts all types of people on stage, those characters will include some who are pompous, some who are devious, some who are boring, and some who are crazy, and all of these will speak in ways that are sometimes trying. Modern playwrights creating similar characters have them speak in similarly challenging ways.