How to Read a Shakespeare Play
How to Read a Shakespeare Play in 9 Easy Steps
Admit it. You’re a little bit scared of Shakespeare. It’s a completely understandable response because his plays, after all, are the Mount Everest of English-language literature: beautiful, mysterious…and far too big to handle without some preparation. The following 9 steps may not cure your Bard-ophobia completely, but they will provide a solid foundation for you to appreciate and enjoy the plays of Will of Stratford.
1) Go slow. Reading Shakespeare is not the same as reading T.V. Guide. Acknowledge that the language is poetic and challenging. If you try to race through it, the complexity of the words and phrasing will frustrate you, and all of its beauty will be lost.
2) Get annotated. Like most of us, you probably have no idea what Hamlet means by a “bare bodkin.” There is a very good reason for that: Shakespeare’s plays are approximately 400 years old. One way to bridge the gap between Elizabethan speak and your own is to get a well-annotated edition of the play you are studying. In these versions, obscure phrases are footnoted with explanations of their origins and meanings. This way, you can be in on Shakespeare’s jokes in his comedies and understand historical references in his tragedies and histories. (And by the way, a “bare bodkin” is a dagger.)
3) Don’t get hung up on the details…at first. Although annotated editions are extremely useful, you should use them only as a reference. Otherwise you will spend all your time reading the notes instead of enjoying the play itself. An ideal compromise is to read the play first without the notes to get an uninterrupted first impression. Then go through it again and fill in the gaps provided by the annotations.
4) Start with the classics. Few critics would rank King John or Cymbeline among Shakespeare’s best plays, so don’t start there. Begin your Shakespeare reading with Romeo and Juliet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In addition to being two of his best plays, they are also two of his most accessible.
5) Don’t skip the soliloquies. When you see a big block of text coming from one character, it might be tempting to skim or skip it altogether. After all, these speeches are just poetic wheel-spinning, right? Wrong. The soliloquies in Shakespeare’s works are not interruptions to the action of the play: they are the action. Remove the soliloquies from Hamlet, and the title character’s entire journey from grief to indecision to potential madness to death is utterly lost.
6) Ask questions. One of the reasons Shakespeare’s plays are so brilliant is that they are full of ambiguities. Does Lady Macbeth go mad from guilt or grief? Does Isabella accept the marriage proposal and forgo her plans to become a nun at the end of Measure for Measure? For many of these questions, there are no “right” answers, but that does not mean you should not wrestle with them.
7) Look for the contrasts. Nothing is as it seems in Shakespeare, and some of the most interesting aspects of his plays come from seeming inconsistencies. Where is the humor in the tragedies? What serious moments stand out in the comedies? Are there indications that evil characters show signs of redemption? Look for the moments when Shakespeare upends conventions and character traits he has so carefully set up.
8) Read the Bard’s contemporaries. Shakespeare did not exist in a vacuum. As much as his genius is celebrated, Shakespeare learned, borrowed, and flat out stole from many other great thinkers and writers. Reading the plays of a contemporary like Christopher Marlowe will help you appreciate what Shakespeare learned from his peers and how he improved on their ideas.
9) See it after you read it. While there is much to be gained from reading a play, it is ultimately an incomplete experience. Shakespeare’s poetry is even more striking and radiant when delivered by able actors during a well-made production. Ultimately, you cannot decide if you like a particular Shakespeare play until you have seen it live and breathe on the stage.