How to Understand Shakespeare
The Works of Shakespeare
The legacy of William Shakespeare has endured for over four centuries and his works remain popular both within the educational system and amongst the general public. His sonnets and plays, which fall into the categories of comedy, tragedy or history contain themes which are still relevant today and his works have inspired generations of authors, playwrights and film-makers.
However, there is a certain trepidation with which many people approach his works. When teaching students about Shakespeare, I try to remove the anxieties about studying his texts so that everyone can enjoy work which was created, after all, to entertain.
The greatest stumbling block for many people when it comes to understanding Shakespeare is the language. A lot of people perceive it as an entirely different language – it isn’t. Over 90% of the words that were used in Shakespeare’s works are still in use today. It’s interesting to note, in fact, that many words and phrases we use today originated with Shakespeare. Have you ever said that someone would ‘eat you out of house and home’? Well, that particular phrase (actually – ‘He hath eaten me out of house and home’) came from Henry IV, Part II (Act II, Scene I).
There are, of course, many words in Shakespeare that a modern reader will not recognise instantly. Language is a living, breathing entity and over 400 years there have been significant changes in the way we write and speak English. Getting to grips with the archaic language is one of the keys to success in understanding Shakespeare. There are many useful educational sites on the Internet that will help you to do this. It is possible to find modern versions of the plays and sonnets, but these may give only a superficial interpretation of the words and you are better advised to use glossaries instead and to determine the meaning of the text for yourself. If you look at the context of a word, you may be able to work out what it means for yourself.
The more you read the works of Shakespeare, the more familiar you will become with the words. Another great way to get an understanding of the language is to go to see the plays at the theater or to watch DVDs of performances. A good actor can really make the language come to life and help you to understand the meaning.
Something you must remember with Shakespeare is that he uses a great deal of ‘heightened language’. This is a formal, complex way of using words. A common misconception is that Shakespeare’s writing reflects the way that people in Elizabethan England actually spoke. While this is true of some of Shakespeare’s more naturalistic writing, much of the embellished language would not have been used in everyday conversation. Imagine trying to talk to someone using only rhyming couplets – it would be exhausting!
The heightened language used in the plays and sonnets serves several different purposes. It can draw the attention of an audience to certain key elements of the play and allow them to get a sense of the emotions of the characters. It can also be used in the place of elaborate scenery or special effects. Remember, Elizabethan theater was very basic and it was important to create images through clever use of words. There are many literary techniques used by Shakespeare, but here are five examples that are commonly used:
1. Alliteration – this is where a series of words which start with the same consonant sound is used e.g. murthering ministers; Love’s Labours Lost
2. Antithesis –two contrasting ideas that are played off each other e.g. ‘Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more’ – Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene II
3. Metaphor – a figure of speech that describes something by saying that it is another in order to make a comparison e.g. ‘it is the east and Juliet is the sun’ – Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II
4. Onomatopoeia - where the word sounds like the thing it is referring to e.g. buzz, squeal, squeak, hiss, thud.
5. Oxymoron – a figure of speech which contains seemingly contradictory words e.g. parting is such sweet sorrow – Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II
You also need to understand the form of Shakespeare’s writing. At times, he writes in prose, which is all writing that is not verse. It is often used in Shakespeare by low status characters or in intimate conversation. Prose is also used at points in a play where madness is being portrayed e.g. at the end of Macbeth when Lady Macbeth is driven mad with guilt, her speech is in rambling prose.
Shakespeare also uses poetic verse which rhymes. Often a scene ends with a two lines which rhyme – a rhyming couplet. An example of rhyming verse from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act I, Scene I) would be when Helena says:
‘Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,
And therefore is winged cupid blind.’
The form which seems to have people scratching their heads the most is iambic pentameter. This is a type of blank verse which does not rhyme. Iambic pentameter consists of lines containing 10 syllables which have an alternating stress pattern that is actually fairly close to the rhythm of natural speech.
An example of this is:
If MU-sic BE the FOOD of LOVE play ON.
The vocal stress falls on the syllables which are capitalized.
Much of Shakespeare’s verse is written in Iambic Pentameter and an easy way to think about its rhythm is to imagine the beating of a heart:
de-DUM de-DUM de-DUM de-DUM de-DUM
Speeches in Shakespeare
Three of the major types of speech that can be found in Shakespeare’s plays are prologue, monologue and soliloquy. A prologue introduces the play or an act within the play. Usually a prologue tells the audience what to expect – a bit like spoilers let a modern audience know what an episode of a TV program will be about. These set the scene and were intended to capture the attention of the audience.
Monologues are extended speeches by a single character which may be part of a conversation with one or more of the other characters.
Soliloquies are extended speeches where a character is speaking by themselves and not directly to another character. A soliloquy often reveals the character’s innermost thoughts, their desires and fears. At times, the character will seem to want to share something with their audience or reader and at others, it may seem as though they are speaking only to themselves.
Themes and Characters in Shakespearean Plays
It is important to understand the themes in a Shakespearean play or sonnet as this will help you to follow the text more closely. You can get an overview of what a play or poem by reading study notes or reviews. This will help you to know what to look for in the text.
Understanding the personality traits of the characters will, likewise, help you to get to grips with the content of the plays as you will begin to see where a particular aspect of that character is being communicated in the language used. Again, reviews and study notes on the plays will help you with this.
The Queen in Hamlet
Advice On Understanding Shakespeare
- Expose yourself to a variety of Shakespeare’s works to become more familiar with the language
- Read aloud if possible – the words were intended to be spoken
- Do some research – if you don’t understand a word, look it up.
- Consider the context – does understanding one part of a speech help you to understand the rest?
- Watch Shakespeare’s works in performance. Good actors will bring the language to life and make it easier to follow
- Put aside your fears and enjoy the texts.
Shakespeare’s work has endured for more than four centuries for a reason. The plays contain interesting themes and great explorations of characters. Get to know his texts and don’t beat yourself up about not understanding parts of them. Everyone finds something about Shakespeare challenging and overcoming initial difficulties in understanding the texts is part of the fun.