Tips and Tricks for Getting Through Shakespeare

You might have seen my post from a few weeks ago (entitled “Shakespeare is Killing Me“) in which I complained about the class I am currently taking – Graduate Studies in Shakespeare. And while I do still sort of regret signing up for this class, it seemed like one of those things I just had to do; my masters degree in English would have felt incomplete if I’d made it this far without really studying the Bard. And despite the fact that I’m halfway through my graduate program with almost straight As, reading Shakespeare isn’t really that much easier than it was in high school. Fortunately, I’ve learned one or two tricks to help my brain better process the 16th Century language (which is still easier than deciphering handwritten 16th century pirate trial records – just saying). And while its entirely possible that these solutions only work for my strange brain, I thought I’d share them with you. So here we go!

1. Read in a British accent. I am aware this sounds fairly insane. But I swear it works! You don’t have to read out loud – this trick works just as well without moving your lips. But if you read a little bit slower, focusing on the words, and imagine them in a British accent, somehow they are easier to understand. I made my sister – who thinks all Shakespeare “sounds funny” – try it, and she said it works, too (although she still hates Shakespeare). I made it through Richard III in two days and understood pretty much all of it using this trick (in conjunction with a few others).

Bonus Tip: letting your cat sit on your book makes it much harder to read.
Bonus Tip: letting your cat sit on your book makes it much harder to read.

2. Watch the movie. I’m not here to tell you to watch the movie instead of reading the book. But I found watching the play extremely helpful. You can even pick any version you want – it may be a loose adaptation, but watching 10 Things I Hate About You will give you a pretty good understanding of The Taming of the Shrew. So go ahead and pick up a copy of She’s the Man or West Side Story and don’t feel bad about it. Then maybe you can graduate to a more faithful film version. I just watched the film version of Richard III with Ian McKellen and am about halfway through Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V. Shakespeare is meant to be seen, so it’s obviously helpful to ingest it that way in addition to reading it.

3. Use Sparknotes. I feel like I’m telling you to do everything teachers hate. But – newsflash – sources like Sparknotes or are meant to be used in conjunction with reading the actual text. Not instead of reading it. What I’ve been doing is reading the summary of each scene before reading the actual scene, and I feel like that is really helping me understand what’s going on. Plus, the summary tends to point out what’s important, so you can focus on those bits.

4. Get an annotated version. Notes are helpful. Because unless you’re a Shakespearean scholar, you might not know that “giddy” meant “mad” (as in insane) or “marvelous” was a synonym for “very.” So get the notes. Read the notes. And don’t take words you know for granted.

5. And finally… just take it slow. It’s tempting to race through something you don’t really want to read or is a bit challenging. I know; I found myself skimming a bit too much of Richard III and had to force myself to go back and actually read the words. Don’t get discouraged if it takes you longer than usual to read Shakespeare; the language is onerous. But there’s a reason we’re still reading Shakespeare’s work – it’s worth it. Plus, once you get the hang of the language, you will learn that the bard was the ultimate master of sass.

I am nowhere near an expert on Shakespeare, but I have studied several of his plays at various educational levels, so I do have a bit of experience with forcing myself to read them. These are just my tips at getting through his plays and maybe comprehending a bit more than you would otherwise. I know some of them are obvious – like using Sparknotes – but I swear by tip #1.

Let me know if you try any of these tips and if they worked for you! And feel free to share any of your Shakespeare tips and tricks in the comments below.

4 thoughts on “Tips and Tricks for Getting Through Shakespeare

  1. 6: Read to the punctuation!

    So many students read to the end of a line of Iambic Pentameter and then pause and look for the sense in what they’ve just read. That’s like trying to make sense of a long list of subordinate clauses.

    7: Look for patterns and disruptions of patterns.

    Especially in monologues or soliloquies – the lines where the iambic pentameter breaks down are always significant.

    Liked by 1 person

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