The first Shakespearean play that I had to read in school was A Midsummer Night’s Dream; I was in eighth grade. I found the kooky language insurmountable, and, truthfully, thought the plays were pretty boring. These challenges continued year after year, as we moved on to Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet, and more. In short, I hated Shakespeare—all of it. I dreaded receiving my standard-issue copies of a different play each year, the books torn and mildewed from decades in student backpacks and English department closets.
Now, though, I love it. I’m an actor pursuing an MFA in Theatre Acting, and I attribute my desire to be an actor to my all-out obsession with Shakespeare. I didn’t fall in love with Shakespeare in English class, though. It happened later, through acting classes, as I learned about these plays by performing them.
The tips that follow are ones that I’ve gathered from many an excellent teacher, and I hope that they’ll make your experience with Shakespeare more pleasant...and maybe even exciting!
Remember, it’s just a play.
We tend to set Shakespeare up on a pedestal, regarding his plays as something that we must work to understand. Yes, the language is archaic. And reading a play, as opposed to speaking it aloud or performing it, makes it hard to understand. But we must remember that these stories were written to be understood and enjoyed. Shakespeare couldn’t make a living unless theatre-goers of all backgrounds liked his work. These plays are simply guides written for vagabond actors written so that they know what to say when they get up on stage, pretend to be people they’re not, and tell us stories to make us think, laugh, and cry. The whole affair is, simultaneously, both serious and incredibly un-serious.
Don’t sweat the words that you don’t recognize and ignore the footnotes (at first).
You should read the play twice. The first time around, you should read at a clip to develop a broad understanding. The second time, you’ll go in-depth.
The first step toward speaking knowledgeably or writing a paper on a Shakespearean play is understanding who the characters are, what they’re saying, and what happens in the play. This won’t happen on a first read if you stop to look up every unfamiliar word. Doing so will only take you out of the story and make the process unnecessarily stressful. Imagine pausing a TV show and going to Google every time a character makes a reference to something that you’re not familiar with—tedium! Instead, on your first read-through, breeze by words that you don’t know and ignore the footnotes. You’ll find that you understand much more than you expected to.
Next, you’ll have to read it again. This time, start to consult the footnotes and figure out what those Elizabethan words mean (a lot of them are funny!). The Arden editions of the plays, in my experience, have the most helpful explanations, but if there’s ever a word that you’re not sure about, and it’s not covered in the footnotes, I recommend checking out Shakespeare’s Words. Re-reading sucks, but you’ll find that it sucks much less if you’re going in equipped with a general familiarity with the play.
Make sure you’re reading aloud.
Plays are written to be spoken aloud. Dialogue makes sense on the page, but only comes to life when you send it into air. And, especially with heightened text like Shakespeare’s, you’ll find that the language will seem clearer, and you’ll find a better understanding of the characters’ intentions, when you read the lines out loud.
That said, reading aloud can be vulnerable and tiring. Start small and read just a line or two, here and there, aloud. Do this in a space in which you feel safe and un-judged. Don’t worry about sounding beautiful or being a good actor. I promise that your delivery will improve, quickly, with practice. And you’ll get much more out of the play. Also, don’t take it too seriously! Let yourself stumble. Try again. Be silly. It’s only in the spirit of the theatre.
The verse meter is your friend.
Shakespeare writes in both verse and prose, and when he writes in verse, he does so in iambic pentameter. For an accessible run-down of what verse, prose, and iambic pentameter mean, check out this resource by Shakespeare’s Globe.
When reading aloud, remember that the iambic pentameter exists to drive you forward through the line. The de-DUMs will propel you, and their forward thrust can also help to keep you engaged. The rhythm works best when you speak it with some speed—let yourself feel the beat and enjoy how it feels to say these words.
The rhythm imparts insight on the character’s main ideas and arguments. Just as we emphasize words in our everyday speech to get our point across (e.g. “I’m not the problem, you’re the problem!”), Shakespeare chooses his words carefully so that such emphases come across naturally through the iambic.
The iambic pentameter also imbues meaning when its rules are broken. Shakespeare, like a jazz musician, imposes structure on his verse, but also knows when to stray from that structure—and when he does, there’s usually something exciting happening. As you begin to feel his rhythms, you’ll also notice when he doesn’t adhere to the rules and the rhythm breaks down. This is an indicator that the character is experiencing something new or intense. That’s your cue to pay attention!
Shakespeare's plays will be there for you throughout your life.
I hope that, with these tips, you’re able to engage more enjoyably and productively with Shakespeare. That said, even if you’re not enjoying the plays at all, and are just trying to get through this semester of English, I hope you won’t write him off entirely. Shakespeare is a fundamental figure in the Western canon, and you’ll likely encounter his plays time and time again, as a reader or audience member, throughout your life. So, if you’re not getting it, or not enjoying it, give it time. Your relationship with these works will, I hope, evolve. They will always be there.
I also hope that you’ll find an opportunity to see these plays performed. It’s in performance that these plays are at their most understandable and fun, and a good Shakespeare production can be life changing. If seeing a production in-person isn’t accessible to you, there’s countless great recorded performances available online for cheap or free. I especially recommend this 1979 film of Macbeth, starring Ian McKellen and Judi Dench, Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 Henry V, and this 2018 King Lear, starring Anthony Hopkins.
I wish you happy reading (aloud), and remember—don’t take any of it too seriously!