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How to Understand Shakespeare

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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 that are still relevant today. His works have inspired generations of authors, playwrights and filmmakers.

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.

Shakespeare's Language

When it comes to understanding Shakespeare, the greatest stumbling block for many people 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. Over the course of 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 understand the meaning.

Shakespeare's Language

Heightened Language

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 something else 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 their fears. At times, the character will seem to want to share something with their audience or reader, and at other times, 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 follow the text more closely. You can get an overview of what a play or poem is about by reading study notes or reviews. This will help you know what to look for in the text.

Understanding the personality traits of the characters will, likewise, help you 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

  1. Expose yourself to a variety of Shakespeare’s works to become more familiar with the language.
  2. Read aloud if possible – the words were intended to be spoken.
  3. Do some research – if you don’t understand a word, look it up.
  4. Consider the context – does understanding one part of a speech help you to understand the rest?
  5. Watch Shakespeare’s works in performance. Good actors will bring the language to life and make it easier to follow.
  6. 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.


Sam from Melbourne on January 12, 2013:

An interesting hub. Your passion and understanding of Shakespeare is evident, which, as a student and admirer of the great Bard myself, I love to see. You've presented a large amount of important information succinctly and coherently in a manner that is bound to aid a vast number of people and hopefully remove the fear that is often a standard response to encounters with Shakespeare's work.

Well done.

alliemacb (author) from Scotland on October 04, 2012:

The Fine Ylung Cannibals doing Shakespeare? I can't even imagine! Thanks for sharing.

Graham Gifford from New Hamphire on October 04, 2012:

Indeed, a wonderful primer. I am a big fan and enjoyed Shakespearean studies at Cambridge University years ago. I even saw a production of Romeo and Juliet which starred the lead vocalists from the then-popular Fine Young Cannibals (it was awful).

alliemacb (author) from Scotland on June 11, 2012:

Thanks, wayseeker. That's very good of you.

wayseeker from Colorado on June 11, 2012:

I pinned this on Pinterest (just now getting started with that) and it's the first thing I've thrown up that is getting attention. A worthy piece for that.



wayseeker from Colorado on June 01, 2012:

What a great primer on Shakespeare! I've loved him for quite some time, and, after all the training I had to get through to teach English, I knew much of what was in here, but I've never seen it so succinctly and clearly put. I am particularly fond of the closing summary of what to do--I think I'll consider adding this kind of closure to some of my work.

Should I find myself in a place where I get to teach some original Shakespeare, I'll definitely be coming back to this and referring others here as well.

Nice work!


alliemacb (author) from Scotland on April 20, 2012:

Thank you. I think that would be a great idea for a hub. I loved the one on Socrates so will look forward to seeing your life of Shakespeare one when it is published.

Richard J ONeill from Bangkok, Thailand on April 20, 2012:

Brilliant hub!

Voted up and Interesting.

I really admire you for your excellent writing and presenting skills. Certainly a hubber I could learn a lot from!

Very well done, indeed!

I'll write a hub on Shakespeare in much the same way as I did with Socrates, an overview of his life and a short lesson on what we can learn from him. You have set a very high standard in regards to Shakespeare though!

Take care.

Rosy on April 09, 2012:

Wish i had found thz earlier,merchant of venice was one of my lit. Books.i feared it just lyk everyone else and still had a thirst but after the hub my desire to understand it is stronger.thankyou. that's a piece i must say

alliemacb (author) from Scotland on April 08, 2012:

Thank you. It's such a huge subject area - I'm glad you think this was useful.

Joan Veronica Robertson from Concepcion, Chile on April 08, 2012:

I totally agree with poowool5. This article on Shakespeare could have really helped me when I was struggling to read his work on my own. Congratulations yet again!

poowool5 from here in my house on April 07, 2012:

Wow, when I read the title of your hub, I thought I might be in for a couple hours reading! What a behemoth of a topic! And how well you succeeded in synthesizing it into a readable, user-friendly hub...nice job!

I covered a lot of Shakespeare in an Eng Lit BA degree years ago but I would still have found this hub title very daunting to tackle. You did a great job, especially in the way you attempt to allay fears of reading Shakespeare, and make it accessible to the ordinary person. This was, after all, who Shakespeare was originally writing for.

Voted up and interesting!

Crystal Tatum from Georgia on April 06, 2012:

This is a fantastic hub. You did a wonderful job explaining the complexities of Shakespeare in a succinct and understandable manner. Reading this, I realized I have been confused about monologues vs. soliloquies - thanks for setting me straight. Voted up and interesting.

veggie-mom on April 06, 2012:

Hi Allie, this is a very informative and well laid out resource. I am passing it a long to a few people I know who will find it incredibly useful. Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

alliemacb (author) from Scotland on April 06, 2012:

Thank you, both. I love the challenge of Shakespeare and only wish people weren't so afraid of his works. Your comments are very encouraging,

Hawaiian Odysseus from Southeast Washington state on April 06, 2012:

It's obvious that you have a certain passion for William Shakespeare and his works. Even so, it is still a challenging subject to write about. Kudos to you for tackling this task head-on and for doing a remarkable job of presenting this subject to your readers in a manner that's easy to comprehend.

Voted up, useful, and interesting!

Keep up the great work, alliemacb!

Joan Veronica Robertson from Concepcion, Chile on April 06, 2012:

Hi, congratulations on another excellent Hub! So interesting, and it reminded me of my long ago teenage days, when out of curiosity, and prompted by my grandmother (a teacher) I started reading Shakespeare. It was a challenge, but I enjoyed it! I have not done any more reading of his works since, because life intervened! I do remember Sir Laurence Olivier's renditions with pleasure. Thank for sharing! Voted up, of course.