{Fireside Fridays} So You Want to Read Shakespeare: Seven Tips on Appreciating Will

this is the first time I realized he had an earring 0.o
this is the first time I realized he had an earring 0.o

William Shakespeare. What images does your mind conjure up at that name? A guy with a frilly collar, puffy pant-things around his hips, and tights? Famous phrases like “all the world’s a stage” and “all’s well that ends well”? Crumbling manuscripts you are forced to wade uncomprehendingly through for a class?

If you can identify with the last one—or if you want to try Shakespeare but you’re daunted by the prospect—you’re not alone. But as tomorrow commemorates the day he died (and probably the day he was born as well), I thought I’d take the time to offer some advice on how to not only understand but actually enjoy Shakespeare. I’m no certified teacher or Shakespeare expert, but these tips have helped me personally while reading his unabridged plays.

Before we start, though, it’s important to note that Shakespeare’s plays are just that: plays. And plays are entertainment. They’re supposed to be fun (among other things, of course). I know it’s hard to remember that when you’re plowing through one for a school assignment, with a deadline flying toward you at light speed and the threat of long paper looming. I also know that appreciating the fun of Shakespeare is a little harder for us twenty-first century-ers because our language and culture have changed dramatically. But hey, no reward comes without a cost, and the genius of Shakespeare is that his works can still delight and resonate with us, despite the gap in years.

Okay, let’s dive in to Shakespeare!

{Seven Tips for Reading Unabridge Shakespeare}

1. Get a copy with good annotations. 

This is the most important thing, folks. I’ve personally never read a poorly-annoted Shakespeare play, but I do know that all the notes in the ones I’ve used saved my life. Or, at least, my sanity. Good editions will define archaic words or describe anything that won’t make sense to modern readers. This is one huge step toward bridging that era gap that can make Shakespeare so tough.

2. Read summaries before you read the real thing. 

Cheating, you say? I think not. You won’t be able to appreciate the beauty and brilliance of Shakespeare’s language—the way he weaves words together—if you can’t even figure out what’s going on. I go one act at a time, and read summaries for all the scenes in that one act. Then I read the actual act and take a break. If I try reading more than one act at a time, my brain turns into mush. There are some good online summaries, though I’m more wary of those. I’d recommend just buying a book with summaries for all his plays, because 1) you can use it for any play and 2) books usually come with other goodies, like character lists and helpful notes.

3. Watch a production of it before or while you read.

What?! Watch it before you’ve finished reading it? Usually I frown upon this mightily. However, remember this: Plays were created to be watched and listened to. When you watch a Shakespeare play, you’re engaging in its best, purest, most entertaining form. You’re connecting with it in the media in which it was meant to be handled.

Why on earth read plays, then? For starters, you might have to for an assignment. Also, most movie versions don’t include everything and stray slightly (or a lot) from the original wording. Choose carefully with version you watch; try to find the one that’s truest to the actual play. Lastly, sometimes you can get so caught up in the visuals that you don’t pay as close attention to the incredible quality of writing. Reading plays forces you to pay attention to the words—and it helps you find good quotes (so important, right?).

So, read the play, but take advantage of watching it too. As with reading summaries, if you’ve watched the play, you already know what happens and so can focus more exclusively on the language once you read it.

4. Read portions (or all) of the play out loud.

This ties into the point above. Reading doesn’t bring the visual element with it, but you’re still hearing the words, which is powerful. Remember, plays are written to be heard (and seen). Shakespeare is also famous for the poems he incorporates into his plays, so those are especially delightful to hear. I personally don’t have stamina to read whole plays out loud (mostly because I have to get through them quickly for school; if you only read a little each day it could certainly work). However, whenever I find myself getting bored or unfocused, I read aloud a few lines. It restores my interest and motivation.

5. Keep a dictionary of some form handy. 

Are you ready for a shocker? I’d actually recommend an online dictionary over a physical one for this. Here’s why: You are probably going to have to look up words quite often when you read an original Shakespeare play. Paging through a dictionary takes time. I’ve found that it’s so choppy, time-consuming, and tedious to look through a dictionary every few lines that it discourages me from doing so all. I end up not learning any new words or benefitting from Shakespeare’s rich vocabulary. Online dictionaries, however, are much faster and more user-friendly. I’m more inclined to look up definitions if I have dictionary.com open.

Of course, there’s the possibility that you’ll get distracted by your digital device and search for things besides words on it. You could remedy that by closing everything but the dictionary page (you can still open other things, obviously, but you’re less likely to). You can also keep a list of words you’re unfamiliar with and look them up later. The only problem with that is that you won’t quite understand them in the context of the story, making your read less rich.

Honestly, it’s up to you. Decide which dictionary form works best and stick with it. When it gets tedious, just remember that all these words will make you sound really smart.

6. Keep a list of characters and/or summaries.

For school, I had to briefly summarize each scene after I read it and list all the characters in it. I could also list quotes that stood out to me in each scene. I dragged my feet about doing it but found that it was extremely helpful—even fun. It made writing the essay on it a breeze because I could quickly discover which scenes the relevant character was in or whether there were any important quotes in that act. Plus, it helped me understand the plot better and nail down who was who.

7. Mark it up. 

Yup. I know I already waxed eloquent on this, but I’ll mention it again: write all over the play. There are basically two categories of things to mark:

a) things that help you understand the play better. Scribble down definitions in the margin; notes about how this line reveals that character’s motivations; questions about the meaning or significance of something; reminders to yourself that this dude is the duke of this and brother of that.

b) things that you like. This is how you can truly find the fun in Shakespeare. Capture great quotes—you know that ones that are funny, poignant, insightful, ones that you can relate with, ones that are famous and oh my goodness I finally read where that came from!. Highlight genius metaphors, rhymes, phrases, alliteration, all that cool stuff that Shakespeare just blows your mind with. Make the play your own.

Don’t let fear or intimidation stop you from reading Shakespeare. Don’t let confusion and boredom stop you from enjoying him. His plays are too rewarding for that.

Time to talk, readers! Do you agree with these tips or have any to add? Which Shakespeare plays have you read? Thoughts on them? 

17 responses to “{Fireside Fridays} So You Want to Read Shakespeare: Seven Tips on Appreciating Will”

  1. Completely awesome post! I love to read Shakespeare in the Old English, but everything you pointed out is so true. Summaries, movies, notes, dictionaries, reading aloud. All of it helps so much. I’ve read Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing, Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, and The Merchant of Venice. I’ve watched Hamlet with David Tennant (which is almost line for line, but modern clothing) and Macbeth with Sean Connery. This last one about put me to sleep, but Macbeth just didn’t speak to me that much. Much Ado About Nothing is excellent to read and watch. I’ve seen the Kenneth Branaugh movie and it’s hilarious (though there’s a spot at the beginning to be avoided) and my parents liked the new one (but I only saw a scene before we returned it). And then there’s Henry V with Kenneth Branaugh again. It’s just makes me sad and satisfied all at the same time. *sigh*

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Wow, you’ve read quite the bunch. You’ve made me want to check out Much Ado About Nothing and that movie of Henry V. They sound marvelous.


  2. Thanks for sharing this tips, Abby! I’ve found that having an annotated edition is especially helpful–I love the Folger edition of his plays. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re welcome, Sarah! Yes, so true. Other people mentioned liking that edition, so I’ll have to look into it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great tips! I admit I haven’t actually read one of his full-length novels yet because of the challenges. But learning about said story first through other forms of media would really help when I do read his novels.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Mhm, I totally understand. Yes, it really will. I hope you enjoy them when you do read them!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Awesome tips. =D I was one of those people who actually ended up liking him the first time I read him, but I understand if not everyone finds him enthralling, so these tips are really useful (and watching the play DOES so enhance the book; I mean, you’re reading a script!). I actually didn’t do most of these when I initially read Shakespeare, but I did have the Folger’s edition (the annotations are awesome) and usually read the play in one or two sittings, which gave me a sense of continuity. Also, YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE AN ADULT TO UNDERSTAND SHAKESPEARE. Understanding is overrrated. My Mom is going through “How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare” by Ken Ludwig (who coincidentally shares our last name ;)) with my younger sibilngs, and they love it. My six-year old brother was so excited the first time he got his copy of the (unabridged and everything) Twelfth Night. 😀
    I can’t believe that I still haven’t read Hamlet, but I shall get to it. XD

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Yes, I did too. I think that’s partly because I just like that sort of thing and I like language and classics, but I also think it’s because I used some of these tips. =P Yes, exactly, about watching it.
      YES. I completely agree. That’s so great that your younger siblings are enjoying him. I feel like with true classics, you still learn from them and can appreciate them, even to a limited extent, even if you can’t fully understand them. They’re just so powerful. Like, when I first read The Great Gatsby I didn’t understand (or really like) it at all, but it still made a huge impression on me, and I could still tell it was a masterpiece. If that makes sense. =P
      So which of his plays have you read?


  5. Great tips! I especially agree with what you said about annotations- both the Shakespeare plays I’ve read have been for school, and the annotations and such were really, really helpful in understanding all that was going on.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I’ve had the same experience, and I totally agree. Which plays have you read?


      1. I’ve read Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth. I’m hoping to get to Hamlet soon as well, but I’m not sure if our copy has good annotations or not. 😛

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Awesome. Macbeth is one of my favorites. I actually haven’t read R & J yet (even though I acted in a highly abridged version of it). Ah, I see. Those annotations are important. =D

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I enjoyed R & J, though I honestly didn’t think it was quite as amazing as everyone claimed it was. That’s just me, though.


  6. Victoria NightSky Avatar
    Victoria NightSky

    It was the scene summaries which preserved my sanity when I read Hamlet recently.
    Also when I had to read Macbeth, my teacher recommended watching and reading along as best as I could, and that worked pretty well. I watched a super old version with Ian McKellen which was fab. XD

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, me too. 0.o
      Oh, that sounds amazing. *grins at the thought*

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Great post! I love Shakespeare 🙂 I read Hamlet a long time ago for fun, and one thing my mom told me that probably saved me from putting the book down forever was to “just read it” – I didn’t (and probably still don’t) have patience to look up every note in a long annotated edition (although those can be very helpful, like you said). I think just reading straight through it helped me get the flavor of the language, even though I didn’t necessarily understand everything going on. Also, having read a summary beforehand helped a lot! I had to read Macbeth and Measure for Measure recently for school, and although I didn’t get to watch a film adaptation, I found some audio books and listening to those while I read was extremely helpful. And your tip about reading it aloud is so true – in the end, Shakespeare was meant to be heard and seen. My mom is an English major, and I’m sure she’ll be delighted to hear there are still people who appreciate him 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Mmm, yes, that is a very good point. Annotations are helpful, but sometimes they can hinder instead of help. I definitely agree, and I’ve often trashed the notes in favor of just reading through smoothly. Thanks for pointing that out!
      Ah, audio books are a great idea too. Did you like Macbeth? It’s one of my favorites. =)
      Yay, I’m glad. My mom’s an English major, too, and she loves Shakespeare. I probably owe much of my appreciation of him to her.


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