How to read a Shakespeare Play

Why is reading a Shakespeare so difficult?

ShakespeareFirst and foremost, one of the reasons why reading a Shakespearean play challenges students is because these texts were not really meant to be read – they were meant to be performed. Unlike reading a novel or a short story, reading a play requires us to stage the play in our mind. All Shakespeare provides is the dialogue; we have to clothe the words in how the character might speak the lines, what gestures they might make, or even how they would dress. To read a play means that you take on the job of the actor, director, costume designer, and set designer.

Now to read a Shakespearean play we must also deal with his language, a version of English that is over 400 years old. (Shakespeare began his writing career in 1588 and retires in 1612, which spans the end of Elizabeth I’s reign and the beginning of James I’s.) Not only does he use words that are no longer extant, but Shakespeare even invented some words himself. (Click this hyperlink for a list words that Shakespeare coined.)

Moreover, some the jokes or cultural references that Shakespeare’s contemporary audience would have been familiar with, are lost on us. Here’s an example from Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act I, sc. 2, 69-73):

Bottom: I will discharge it in either your straw-color beard…or your French-crown-color beard, your perfect yellow.

Quince: Some of your French crowns have no hair at all, and they you will play barefac’d.

The joke here is a play on words: when Bottom suggests he will play his part wearing a fake beard the color of a French crown, Quince jokes that he would have no beard then since most French, according to the English, had no hair because of they all had syphilis, which was known in England as the “French disease.” (The English and French hated each other at this point in their history.)

Lastly, most of Shakespeare’s dialogue is in verse, generally following an iambic meter. (Take a look back at my blog post on the sonnet form to refresh your memory.) So compounding the difficulties of reading a play written in 1594-5, there’s also the challenge of interpreting the poetic language that Shakespeare uses. Let’s look at another example from Midsummer. Here’s Helena’s response to Hermia’s calling her “fair”:

Helena: Call you me fair? That fair again unsay.

Demetrius loves your fair. O happy fair!

Your eyes are lodestars, and your tongue’s sweet air

More tuneable than lark to shepherd’s ear

When wheat is green. (Act I, sc. 1, 181-185)

Allow me to translate: You are calling me fair? Take that back because Demetrius loves your beauty. Your eyes are like guiding stars and your voice has a more pleasing tune than that of lark singing to a shepherd in springtime. Now, you may ask, “Well, why doesn’t Shakespeare just have Helena say that?” My response, as pitiful as it may be, is that Shakespeare is not read for plot but for the beauty of his language. As Twenty-first Century readers, we generally read for plot, what Margaret Atwood would call, “a what and a what and a what.” The plots of Shakespeare’s plays are not what he is revered for. (In fact, Shakespeare stole his plots from other authors. Only for four of his plays does he come up with his own plots. Can you guess one of them? [Click on this hyperlink for the answer.]) Not too sound pretentious, but it is the beauty of his poetic language that made him immortal.

So how do you go about reading a Shakespeare play?

Start by accepting the fact that you will have to read a line, a speech, a scene, an act, or the entire play more than once. If you rush through reading Midsummer, you will end up more confused about what is going on in the play than not. I recommend that the first time reading through the play should be for plot – figure out what happens in each scene. You might even want to outline the plot for yourself scene by scene.

(Here’s a website that provides a decent overview of the plot. Also, I have no objections about your taking a look at the online SparkNotes summary of the play. For the sake of your blog posts, however, I hope you don’t just read these summaries!)

Midsummer has 18 speaking parts. To complicate matters the two pairs of lovers (Hermia, Lysander, Helena and Demetrius) form the central plot are easily confused. In Act III, thanks to Puck’s mischievousness, which man is in love with which woman is switch.  In addition to outlining the plot of the play, you may find it helpful to map out the characters as well – what is his/her relation to others in the play.

Lastly, watch a performance of the play. I cannot stress this enough – these plays were meant to be watched not read. Listening to Shakespeare’s verse actually spoken and seeing his characters brought to life on the stage will help you to understand what is happening in each scene. Here’s a YouTube video of a 2007 Harvard-Radcliffe Summer  Theater production. (The play actually begins at 6:28 minutes.)

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About Anthony Funari

Hi, thanks for taking time to stop by my blog, Renaissnace Matters. So here's a little bit about me . . . I am student, scholar, reader, writer, teacher, and general enthusiast about the European Renaissance, a.k.a the Early Modern period. In May 2010, I graduated with my doctorate in English Literature from Lehigh University, focusing my dissertation on the literary reaction to the Scientific Revolution. I currently have an article in the recent issue of Early English Studies (EES). Also, keep an eye out for my forthcoming book through Palgrave MacMillan, Francis Bacon and the 17th-Century Intellectual Discourse.
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