How to Understand Shakespeare's Language: Strategies for Reading the Bard

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10 Strategies for Reading the Bard

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At first, trying to read Shakespeare's works may seem like learning a foreign language. Performed for audiences over four centuries ago, Shakespeare's plays were written in Early Modern English, so it’s natural to feel confused by word choices and sentence structures that have evolved since then. However, the more you expose yourself to Shakespeare’s language, the more comfortable you’ll feel when reading his works.  

Let’s take a look at 10 reading strategies that will help you better understand the Bard’s language.

1.) Read out loud.

It’s important to note that Shakespeare’s works were intended for the stage. His plays were written to be performed, not silently read. Reading Shakespeare’s work aloud will help you become familiar with the rhythm and language of his verse. It’s also helpful to watch performances and listen to how other people perform his work, because you may pick up on something you missed from your own readings.

2.) Read to the end of the sentence.

When reading verse, you should read from punctuation mark to punctuation mark. This means you shouldn't pause at the end of a line just because there's a break. Punctuation marks dictate complete units of thought. Take a short pause in your reading when you encounter a comma. Take a long pause for a period, colon, semicolon, dash, or question mark.

3.) Look up unfamiliar words.

Shakespeare invented many of his own words and phrases. In fact, he added about 1,700 words to the English language by invention or combination. However, many of the words used throughout his work are not used in today’s colloquial language.

For example, in the opening scenes of Macbeth, you’ll find words like “aroint thee” (begone) and “alarum” (call to arms). If you encounter a word that you do not understand, take the time to research its definition. Alternatively, reading from an annotated text can help readers bridge the gap between Shakespeare’s language and their own. In these digital texts, obscure phrases are annotated with explanation of their origins and meanings. 

4.) Differentiate Thou, Thee, Thy, and Thine. 

Shakespeare uses these words a lot. They are considered “archaic words”, which means they’re no longer used in contemporary English. Thou means “you,” thee means “you,” and thy means “your”. Since these words are so ubiquitous, it’s a crucial to know the difference between them in order to know who or what they’re referring to in the text.

5.) Understand contracted words.

Contracted words are words in which a letter has been left out, which affects appearance and pronunciation. Shakespeare often used contracted words in order to fit his meter and rhyme scheme. If you see that apostrophe mark, it almost always means a letter is missing. So, if you’re having difficulties understanding what a contracted word, you can often use context clues to determine the meaning.

Here are some that frequently appear in Shakespeare’s work:

  • Be’t = be it
  • Do’t = do it
  • Know’st = know it
  • ‘Tis = it is
  • O’er = over

6.) Reword inverted sentences.

Most of the sentences we’re familiar with will start with a subject followed by a verb. Shakespeare’s sentences sometimes do not follow this simple word order. Therefore, rewording Shakespeare’s sentences to place the subject first may help you gain a better understanding of what is being stated.

For example:

“Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimm’d[.]”(5-6) - “Sonnet 18”

We can rearrange the sentence above to the following: “Sometimes the eye of heaven shines too hot, and his gold complexion is often dimmed.”

7.) Follow the action.

Sometimes it's hard to...

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keep track of who does what to whom. Focus on keeping track of the subject, verb, and object. In Shakespeare’s longer dialogues and soliloquies, it can get confusing to follow who is doing what, especially when there are lengthy descriptions and parenthetical comments. It may be helpful to take a couple of breaks during your reading and make notes of the scene.

For example, let’s break down Benvolio's very first sentence when speaking of Romeo:

BENVOLIO: “So early walking did I see your son,” Romeo and Juliet (I.i).

Subject: “I”

Verb: “did see”

Object: “your son”

First, we can change the inverted sentence structure to a more familiar word order, "I did see your son." It’s important to also keep track of the pronouns. In this case, “I” refers to the speaker (Benvolio) and “your” refers to Romeo’s parents, the Montagues.

8.) Identify wordplay.

Shakespeare loved to reconstruct and rearrange words. Be sure to look out for instances where he uses specific wordplay to illustrate the landscape of a scene or to enhance a character’s identity. 

Here are some different types of wordplay often found in Shakespeare’s work:

Puns: a play on words in which two words are used that have the same sound but have different meanings.

For example:

When Lady Capulet asks the Nurse Juliet's age, saying that she is not yet fourteen, the Nurse replies by making a pun out of the word teen in the lines:

I’ll lay fourteen of my teeth--

And yet, to my teen be it spoken, I have but four--

She is not fourteen. Romeo and Juliet (I.iii)

The Nurse is saying that she would bet fourteen of her teeth, but she only has four teeth, making a pun out of the word “teen” to refer to both her disappointment and Juliet as a teenager.

Double entendre: a kind of pun in which a word or phrase has a second, often sexual, meaning.

For example:

In the Twelfth Night, Sir Toby says to Sir Andrew, that if he lets Maria go, he hopes Sir Andrew "mightst never draw sword again" (I.iii). Literally, the line refers to the fact that Sir Andrew is a knight and is trained in sword fighting; however, figuratively, the phrase also has sexual connotations about Sir Andrew's manhood.

Malapropism: occurs when a character mistakenly uses a word that he or she has confused with another word. 

For example:

In The Merchant of Venice, the banter between Gobbo and his son's future master, Bassanio, produces a few malapropisms from the old man.

“He hath a great infection, sir, as one would say, to serve--” (II. ii)

What Gobbo actually wants to say is affection, not infection. He wants to say that Launcelot is keen to work for Bassanio.

9.) Recognize the use of metaphor.

Shakespeare often used metaphors to heighten the emotional and dramatic aspects of his dialogue. In order to identify specific examples of these literary devices, you must understand how they are used.

Metaphor: a comparison between two different things

Allusion: a reference to some event, person, place, or work not directly explained or discussed by the writer

For example:

When Romeo crashes the Capulet family party in act 1, scene 5 of Romeo and Juliet, he uses both a metaphor and allusion when describing Juliet’s beauty.

“It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night

Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope's ear" (I.v).

Romeo uses a metaphor, specifically a simile, to describe Juliet’s appearance to that of a “rich jewel” hanging on the ear of an African queen.

10.) Note stage direction

Stage directions should never be overlooked. They are extremely important to understanding Shakespeare’s plays because avoiding them can result in confusion when reading. They appear in italics, explaining who is involved with a scene and where they are on the stage.

Here are some of the common stage directions used throughout Shakespeare's plays:

  • Aside: when an actor speaks directly to the audience, but the other characters on stage cannot hear them 
  • Exeunt: indicate the departure of a character from the stage
  • Sennett: a signal call on a trumpet or cornet to for entrance or exit from the stage
  • Solus: when a character is alone on the stage