How to Read a Shakespeare Play on Your Own
If you were fortunate enough to take a university level course on Shakespeare at some point in your life (with a good professor!), you'll understand the necessity in reading Shakespeare's work as a storyteller. However, since so many people tend to experience Shakespeare in high school where they either couldn't appreciate the text or their teacher did not appreciate the text, people often neglect to read Shakespeare's work. They claim he's too "hard" to read, that they lack the skills to understand him or that they think his work to be too "high brow' for them.
But the truth is, Shakespeare wrote for the common folk of his time, and not only is his work still relevant and accessible to all sorts of people today, it is laden with immature sex jokes and puns that keep the work entertaining. High school classes like to skip over this fact and therefore skip over a huge part of what makes up a Shakespeare play, even in his dramas. As a result, storytellers in mediums like video game writing or film often write off the Bard because his impact is less apparent in those forms of storytelling and they are not beguiled into studying his work to the same extent that a novelist or playwright might be.
Why Storytellers Should Read Shakespeare
Excluding his talent, Shakespeare is the oldest English storyteller we can find that remains accessible that also allows us to read his original text (or as close as we can get it). Chaucer, a favorite of mine, writes in Middle English, something that deters most people, and other writers like Christopher Marlowe do not have nearly as much material to read through.
So if you want to be a storyteller - no matter what kind - you owe it to yourself to read the classics because whether you like it or not, the Bard is influencing your storytelling in some way or another. It goes along with the idea that if you know the rules incredibly well, then you can break them. But first you must learn them. And first you must learn Shakespeare - not the creator of the rules as we know them, but as the master of character and drama.
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If it's been awhile since you read Shakespeare - or if you've never read him at all - you'll have to start with baby steps to best understand and appreciate his work. Luckily his plays are incredibly entertaining so that even when you are still trying to learn his language you are having fun. The following methods can all be used in conjunction together, though you likely will only need one or two of them to get a good handle on him.
Read Shakespeare in Translation
If you've never tackled Shakespeare before or believe you need to brush up on your reading before you can read his work without help, pick up something like a No Fear Shakespeare book. Just like with a bilingual book, these books place Shakespeare's original text next to a more contemporary translation. However, instead of reading the English you are more comfortable with, read the Shakespearean side first and then check the translation when you have difficulties. It is tempting to just want to read the side that's easier, but when you do that you're not only missing out on the poetic craft and wordplay of Shakespeare, but you also are not training yourself to read his plays on your own.
Read His Sonnets
At fourteen lines, these shorter pieces will allow you to read Shakespeare's work more slowly and therefore understand his language better. You won't have to worry about figuring out what is happening on a grand scale nor decide who all the poem is speaking to both directly and indirectly. Instead, you just have to focus on these fourteen lines and the one person they are speaking to, since nearly all his sonnets just speak to one person and are written from his perspective. This route is ideal for those who studied Shakespeare in high school and just need a warm up, but also can be used for those who are more obsessed with reading the original language whenever they can. For a more in-depth walkthrough, read my guide to the Shakespearean sonnet which comes with a free worksheet to help you see the story and character in every sonnet.
Pick a Popular Play
If you haven't read much Shakespeare, start with a popular play so that you are guaranteed to find ample amounts of information about said play online should you get confused. Ideally pick something that has been adapted into a movie (I believe nearly all of them have in some form or another). The reason for this is because if you know the story, you won't have to read the play worrying about plot, but instead can focus on the language. There are some adaptations of Shakespeare's work like Hamlet into a Hamlet movie, but then there's also movies like She's the Man (which is an adaptation of Twelfth Knight) that take the play and make it their own. The key is to tackle a play you are already a bit familiar with. It may seem like cheating to watch the movie version first, but it'll make reading his language far easier.
Use my free worksheet next time you read the Bard's work by filling in the form below!
Once you've warmed up to Shakespeare, it's time to tackle a play on your own without any translations or movies to guide you along the way. While of course you can explore such things later or even while you read the play, ideally you want to get to a place where you do not need such supplements to understand Shakespeare. And while of course anyone can pick up a Shakespeare play and sit down and read it, if you can get to a place where you read like one might read in an English class or drama class, you'll find yourself picking out Shakespeare's genius ways of revealing character and plot.
Purchase a Well-Edited Edition
If you are going to be reading Shakespeare outside of a classroom setting, you cannot just buy any old edition. You'll need a well-edited and scholarly edition. My personal favorite choice and often considered the best is the Pelican Shakespeare. In fact, recently Penguin has decided to release an entire collection of beautiful new covers for the Pelican editions, giving you a wonderful excuse to buy Shakespeare's work. My favorites are the Macbeth cover and the Romeo and Juliet one, though there are more to come in the coming year or so!
However, besides pretty covers, the great thing about a great edition of a Shakespeare play is that it won't hold your hand. And that's exactly what you want once you start to read his work on your own. While it may seem like the questions and summaries you were provided in a literary guidebook in high school might be helpful, the more you read Shakespeare the less you'll need that. As you read you'll find yourself wondering more and asking questions that prompt deeper questions than the leading questions of a guidebook. However, should you feel like you haven't trained yourself to question literature and plays to such an extent, looking up discussion questions for your Shakespeare play can prove to be a helpful way to start developing an analytical mind not only for Shakespeare, but for storytelling.
Read the Play Twice
Start off by reading the play through once, just for fun. Treat it like anything else you'd read, following the plot and character arcs and focusing on nothing else. At this point, you should be able to read the play fairly well, though don't be dissuaded if you feel you are missing something - that's where the second reading comes in. One you're done with your first read through, see how you feel. Maybe you just wanted to read the play for pure enjoyment. If that's the case, there's really no need to read the play a second time, at least for now, especially if you feel you're well aware of the nuances he uses in his language. However, by reading it a second time you can slow down the process and help you really dig deep into the nuances of Shakespeare's plays, especially if you employ the tactics from my sonnet exercise, use the OED or take the time to do a close reading. It's the same notion as earlier with warming up: now that you know the story, you can focus on the details, moving from big picture to small picture.
Use the OED
If you see a word that troubles you, don't grab a dictionary, grab the OED, the Oxford English Dictionary. This dictionary lists definitions like any other dictionary would, but also lists the meanings of words based on their time period. While it would be exhausting to do this for every word, if you ever get the sense that you are missing out on a joke or something a character is trying to say, try looking up the word in the OED (Don't forget to look at the year the play was written when you do this) and see what you find. You might be surprised!
Gain Historical Context
Though Shakespeare remains a mystery in many ways, the more you know about why he was writing a certain play the better. This will not only help inform the tone of the piece but it also may help you understand what bigger issue Shakespeare might be talking about. A great example of this is that many people didn't know Shakespeare had a son named Hamnet who passed away. While you may be thinking Hamlet must have been written about his son shortly after his death, a search in history will tell you that Shakespeare wrote four comedies after Hamnet's death and that Hamnet had a twin sister. After looking at his work you'll stop at Twelfth Knight, whereyou'll notice the play is about twins who both think the other twin is dead, tying in tragically into Shakespeare's personal history. That certainly makes this comedy a little less light-hearted now, doesn't it?
Read it Out Loud
It seems tedious to read the entire work out loud, but if you have the time I recommend it. Poetry is meant to be heard out loud, and doing so will help you slow down and understand the story, but also appreciate the rhythm of the language more. If that still sounds like too much, read only the passages that trouble you out loud or find an audiobook or recording of a performance to help. Of course, if you can somehow manage to see Shakespeare performed, I highly recommend that more than reading him. It might be surprising (*wink*), but Shakespeare was meant to be seen on stage, not read, and the experience is unlike any other!
Find a Friend
A major benefit of being in an English class is the discussion. If you can find someone to read a play of his with you, perhaps even out loud together (the best option!), you'll have someone to talk out the plot and characters with and ask questions you might not have stumbled upon were you alone. Talking out these problems not only enhances your analytical skills, but will teach you an immense amount about storytelling.
I've Read the Play. Now what?
Now that you've read a Shakespeare play, you might be wondering how you should incorporate this into your own work. Lucky for you, I've created a worksheet to use while you read Shakespeare's plays. Use it to take notes on on plot and character in addition to the play itself. For everything you jot down, try and see how you can implement the same practices in your own work.
The key here is to develop strong analytical skills in storytelling, and studying something challenging actually makes it easier to develop these skills. If you look at contemporary works these days, you'll find answers easily and have less room for speculation. With older works, and especially with mysteries like Shakespeare, the less we know the better. Because if you want to be a storyteller, you'll need to know what mechanics work in a story and studying ones that have stood the test of time will only further ingrain said mechanics in your mind. Sure there are guidebooks out there to storytelling format, but to see the formats in practice only solidify your knowledge as to how character and plot work. By using my worksheet, you'll take notes on the plot and characters to help you actively examine the story and learn things no blog post of mine could do justice!
Need more help? Fill out the form below to get a free worksheet on reading your next Shakespeare play!
What about you? Are you a fan of Shakespeare? What are your favorite works? If you don't like him, what turned you off? Do you think you'll change your mind with another read?