Tips for Reading Shakespeare

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Reading Shakespeare can be intimidating. I’ve only gotten back into it myself in the last couple of years, and I was nervous. His writing is so beautiful, but some passages can feel impenetrable. Once I got into it, I realized it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be. To encourage any of you reading this to try as well, here are some tips that might make the way easier.

Context clues. What do I mean by that? I mean that if a phrase or word seems to mean something based on the context it’s said in, then you’re probably right. Pay attention to what the characters are talking about, where they are, the plot, and the meaning of difficult passages usually explain themselves. Once you get the hang of this, it becomes second nature.

Read in a quiet place where you can concentrate. This might seem obvious, but it’s pretty essential. Don’t try to read Shakespeare in a busy waiting room or with kids running around screaming or when you’re generally distracted. Read somewhere and at a time when you can really dig into it and absorb it. Anything else will leave you feeling too easily confused.

Keep Google on hand. If anything is so baffling that you just can’t, Google it. That’s the rule of life these days really, and it works here, too. There have been so many people over the years to give their two cents about his work that you’ll find a plethora of resources online for your needs. Research to your heart’s content. It can only help.

Pay attention to the editions you buy. Some editions have helpful glossaries right there in your hand. The Folger Shakespeare Library editions are especially good for this. They have the play on one side of the page and definitions of difficult parts on the other. You don’t even have to turn the page to get the information you need. Highly recommended.

Watch adaptations. Reading in a poetic language can leave one wondering how the hell someone even begins to talk like that. How that would sound. Luckily, these are plays. All of them have been adapted at one point or another. Watching someone perform the work can be a huge help in understanding how the words should be recited. It will help with the flow of your reading if you can imagine how that line would be delivered.

Read synopses before you read the play. I know. Those are spoilers, and that’s crazy talk. But really if you’re having a hard time keeping characters and subplots straight, spoil yourself. You’ll still want the beautiful writing and the great character development and the exploration of the human soul. You just won’t be as confused about what’s going on. Shakespeare is one of those things where the idea of being spoiled is silly, because it’s so much more than plot.

I hope this helped any of you who are feeling shy about trying him out. He’s not always easy, but he’s always rewarding. You’ll be glad you gave him a chance.

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