Monday, February 24, 2014

Decoding Shakespeare

Since my last post was a synopsis of three Shakespeare plays (four if you count Henry IV parts one and two as separate plays) I figured this was as good a time as any to address the question so many people have concerning the playwright and his work: how on Earth do you read Shakespeare and get anything out of it? I mean, his works are considered the pinnacle of English playwriting, and yet, most people moan is abject pain or quake in their boots when it actually comes down to reading something by him, especially if they don't already have a grasp of what the story is about. I'll admit, it can be a bit daunting to tackle Ole' Will's works, but there a few tricks to use and a lot you can learn.

Problems with reading Shakespeare

1. The Elizabethan language is hard to understand. I mean, did they REALLY talk like that?
2. It's written in play format. 
3. The culture, customs, and history are completely foreign to most people, especially Americans. 
4. The stories are really long.
5. The stories don't make any sense.

These are the five most common complaints I've heard from people when the subject of Shakespeare comes up. The solutions below may help the most fearful reader delve into the world of the Bard without worrying about losing their sanity.

1. Don't start out with something that's too hard or heavy

When most people decide to give Shakespeare a try they go for some of his best known works: Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, and so on. The problem is these all fall in the same category - the tragedies. The tragedies are some of the hardest works to understand. The dialogue is wordier and the plots are more complex. If you're a Shakepeare newbie start with something lighter like the comedies or the sonnets. I started out with "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and then read "Much Ado About Nothing". These have lighthearted plot lines, more humorous dialogue, and are easier to follow. The advantage of the sonnets is that you can read a little at a time without worrying about a plot thereby allowing you to tackle the language and wording bit by bit. 

2: Read it in parallel

Most of Shakespeare's works are available in parallel versions. These versions have two columns on a page. The original script is in one column and a modern translation is in the other column. This allows the reader to read what Shakespeare wrote in his dialect and vernacular, then read it in our modern way of speaking. I started out reading Shakepeare in parallel. The advantage here is that by going back and forth between versions is that you will quickly pick up what phrases and words mean, thereby allowing you to learn how to decode the material on your own and at a much faster pace. The following is an excerpt from "Much Ado About Nothing". Beatrice is talking to Benedick after her cousin Hero has been spurned at her own wedding by her fiancĂ©e Claudio, who had been lead to believe she was having an affair with another man. 

Original text:

Isn't it obvious that he is the epitome of evil? He completely embarrassed and disrespected my cousin! He waited until they were at the altar, hand-in-hand, ready to take vows and then he publically exposes her in front of everyone! Not only that he did it maliciously and with complete contempt without being willing to hear her side or find out if it's true! If I were a man I would tear his heart out in front of God and everyone!

3: Read an annotated version or one with a commentary

Annotated versions have notes on the page that explain confusing parts or give extra information about a scene or setting. A commentary is similar, but some commentaries will comment on things like the author's intent, word usage, etc. If you read a commentary version, make sure the commentary is just on the story itself or is giving background information that would aid in understanding the story.

4: Watch a movie of the story

Ok, so the question here would be, "I watched the movie, why read the story?" Answer: there is far more in the plays that can ever be put into a movie. Most movies are between two to two and a half hours long. Most Shakespeare plays would hit at around four hours or longer if they were done in their entirety. Even so, watching the movies can give you an idea of the story flow, characters, and action, even if you don't understand every word. The BBC has a plethora of outstanding movie versions of Shakespeare's plays. These are acted by some of the greatest Shakespearean actors in the business - Sir Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh, Sir Ian McKellen, Sir Patrick Stewart, Dame Maggie Smith, Emma Thompson, Sir Ian Holm, the list goes on...most of them are available to stream from Netflix and Amazon.

5: Familiarize yourself with the background of the story

One of the hardest parts about reading Shakespeare is that the culture and customs are lost on us, especially if you're an American. The English have no problem because it's their history. They know this solid. It's the same as writing a story about something culturally relevant to America, like the Revolutionary War or the Founding Fathers. We know and understand it and we know the importance of events, places, and people, but someone from another country, say Japan, would be lost. Most of Shakespeare's plays took place in England, but a few were out of the country. Macbeth took place in Scotland, Hamlet in Denmark, A Midsummer Night's Dream in Greece, Much Ado About Nothing and Romeo and Juliet in Italy. We live in a culture where information is at our fingertips any time of night or day. We see something interesting on tv or an actor catches our eye and before the scene is over we have all the vital statistics in the palm of our hand. Use that with reading Shakespeare. The setting is usually given at the beginning of the play along with a list of the characters. Just quickly read over what  the culture would have been like at the time or what the city was like. The histories are the easier to do this for. Just look up the person it's about and voila! Instant biography! Another thing that helps a lot is on many e-readers all you have to do is highlight a word or phrase and you can get a definition or description. It's like having a dictionary, encyclopedia, and annotations all without leaving the text itself. 

6: Use your imagination

Shakespeare's works can be hard to read because they're in play format. There is no emotive language to let you know what the character is thinking or feeling. There is nothing that tells you what is going on as far as action or movement in the scene. As a result, you can end up reading in a monotone to yourself. On the other hand, this can also allow you to interpret the scene however you want, just like a director or actor would. Sometimes our imaginations are stunted because every scene in a story is so well laid out and every character is so developed that all we have to do is gloss over the story. I'll give you an example of how you can do this and have fun with it. Remember that excerpt from "Much Ado About Nothing"? Is Beatrice shouting, is she seething, is she crying, is she pacing, is she stitting stunned, is she shouting at Benedick or just using him as a whipping post? You could play it any way you choose. Another thing that can be fun is to read a play with another person. Choose parts and read it out loud. You will always read things differently to yourself. When you have to speak it, you have to put thought and emotions into it. 

7: Stuff to remember

Yes, Elizabethan language sounds odd to us. But, yes, they did talk that way. Shakespeare used the slang and colloquialisms of his day. He even invented new words and phrases that are still with us today. It's like learning a new language while using words we already know; a little effort and it becomes easy. 

Yes, the stories are long. When people payed to see a play back then they were paying good money to be entertained for a good long time. It was hard to take off enough time from work, chores, raising crops, taking care of children and homes, running the country, just to see a play. They wanted an escape and Shakespeare gave it to them. Slow down and enjoy the stories, just like our ancestors did.

Yes, the stories seem strange to us. But that is usually a result of not understanding dialogue or settings. Once you have a grasp on those, you'll realize that there really is nothing new under the sun. Same story, different setting. You'll catch the humor, wit, sarcasm, sorrow, pain, grief, and anger. Soon, you'll find yourself rooting for this underdog, hating that character, and cheering for another. 

So now that you know what to do, sit back, brew a cup of Earl Grey, and grab something Shakespeare!


  1. But I don't really care for Earl Grey! Can I have chamomile instead?


    One thing a lit prof had us do that was especially helpful when reading a new-to-me play was to stop after every scene and summarize in a sentence or two what happened in it. If you write them down, you'll have an easier time of remembering the whole story too.

    I also find it helpful to a "cast" a play with actors you like before you start reading, write them all down, and then refer back to that cast list if you get characters confused. That helped me a lot with the histories.

    1. By all means, choose a a tea that better suits your tastes!

      I agree, a scene by scene summary can be so helpful, especially since natural breaks and changes can get lost in a straight through reading.

      I always did the cast list too! Especially if there were several characters with the same name , like in the Henriad...Henry IV, Prince Henry (Hal), Henry Percy Sr., and Henry Percy Jr. (Hotspur). Confusion will abound if you can't keep them straight.

    2. I read Henry IV in a Shakespeare in college, and my professor kept calling Hotspur "Hapsburg" by mistake -- cracked us up to no end!

    3. Wow...that would be the entirely wrong royal family...

      My next post is going to be on Kenneth Branagh's "Much Ado About Nothing". Thank God there are no name repeats in that one!

    4. Yes, and she would catch herself once in a while and get so annoyed with herself.

      Mmmmmmm, "Much Ado." My second-favorite!

  2. By the way, I nominated you for the Sunflower Blogger Award. Read my post here to learn more. Play if you want to!


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