I thought the best place to start would be a discussion on how to read Shakespeare. Shakespeare, as my college Shakespeare professor would say, is not meant to be read. His works are plays, and were performed in front of live, and often testy, audiences. So how can we hope to simply read his plays and understand them?
It is definitely a tricky thing to navigate! As a reader, we already know to give individual voices to characters in our heads. When we read regular novels, the author knows to give us description in the narration as well as the dialogue tags. When reading Shakespeare, a reader doesn't have that liberty. Instead, the reader has to infer everything from what the characters say and what others say about them. We don't get to see them in action. And while there may be cues after a piece of dialogue, such as, "he dies," that doesn't tell us how the character dies. Does he simply fall over? Does he flop around like a fish? Does he take five minutes to finally succumb to whatever killed him?
This is where reading Shakespeare can be a blast. Because the READER gets to fill in all those glorious details. We can add our own interpretation into the play, since we aren't seeing it being interpreted for us by the actors and director.
I think we all need to keep that in mind as we begin reading plays this month! These were never read on a regular basis, but performed. As readers, we have to work a little more to get the same sense of setting, place, voice, and drama that we get from reading novels.
In addition to all of that discussion, I have also thought a lot about what I have been told about reading Shakespeare from being a student in a college Shakespeare class, to reading "Romeo and Juliet" with my ninth graders as a student teacher. Because on top of the lack of narration and straight-forward description, a reader also has to tackle the language. I've put together a list of things that have worked for me or my students in the past. I hope that they help you as you begin to dive into the Bard's work. :)
(And if you think of another tip, leave it in the comments and I'll add it to this list!)
- Choose an edition that works for you: This is probably the most important thing you can do for yourself. If you are just beginning to dive into Shakespeare, don't try to read a straight version of the play. Shakespeare was notorious for making up words on the fly, and those annotations in current editions help explain all of that! Shakespeare also makes a lot of references to things that were common knowledge in his day, but aren't any more. A good edition will explain all of that! I own many of the Barnes and Noble Shakespeare line as well as Folger's. I also read the Oxford editions in college (Stupidly, I sold them after the class was over. I regret that!). All are wonderful! (I have also recommended the No Fear Shakespeare line to my students-it tells the play once in common-day language, then the actual text of the play is given).
- Don't expect to understand every word on the first read: Again, Shakespeare is known for convoluted structures and random words. While a good edition will explain many of the archaic words, don't get caught up on knowing every word. You'll end up frustrated. Instead, try and soak in the larger ideas. It is more important to understand the larger significance of the play, not what the random word in Act II means.
- Bookmark the character list: Shakespearean plays have a LOT of characters. And sometimes characters disappear for a few scenes and pop up again out of no where. I always mark the character list before diving in as a good reference. Whenever I don't recognize a name, I flip back for an easy guide as to who they are! This also helps when characters switch identities (very common in Shakespeare), or have similar names (also very common).
- Read summaries: One of the biggest tips my college professor gave us was to go and read summaries of the plays. I thought it was a kind of cheating, but he made a great point. If you already know the story going into reading the play, you can pay closer attention to HOW Shakespeare tells that story, instead of trying to figure out what it going on.
- Pay attention to the class of Shakespearean characters: There is often a great different between the lower classes and upper classes in his plays. Shakespeare notes this difference in the way the characters talk. Upper class and nobility talk in poetic form, while lower classes speak in simple prose. That can help you understand how the characters relate to each other.
- Listen to scenes on audio: This is a definite must, especially for those of you who have never seen a play live. Hearing the play and following the words in your edition can really help you distinguish between the characters, and hear the flow of Shakespeare's language.
- Read out loud: Again, this is a great way to get the feeling of the language out. I happen to read out loud a lot (especially when reading Greek works) because it helps me understand how the story should sound. It is the same with a Shakespeare play! If there is a tough scene, read it out loud! You'll be amazed how "performing" it will help your understanding!
- Watch the play: This doesn't mean you need to go and see a live performance. Instead, rent or borrow a copy of the play you're reading and watch it. There are a lot of great movies of Shakespearean plays. And while some are amazing (Much Ado About Nothing), some can offer a laugh or two (I found the movie Hamlet with Mel Gibson a little ridiculous). Watching a play helps your brain connect the action to the words! And no, it isn't cheating!
- Pay attention to punctuation: I hate that when teachers teach poetry, they often harp on ending at the end of the poet's line. Sometimes the thought doesn't end until the next line! When you are reading, make sure to read from punctuation mark to punctuation mark-don't pause at the end of lines! If you do that, you will end up more confused!
- Have Fun! Remember, the goal is to ENJOY Shakespeare's language and passion. He was a funny man and filled his plays with lots of wonderful puns, metaphors, and even dirty jokes. ;) His plays were meant to entertain the masses, so if you find yourself getting frustrated, step back for a while!