Happy birthday Shakespeare! If you were, like me, fortunate enough to study his plays with a good uni professor, you probably understand why he’s such a revered writer still today. If you read his plays for the first and last time in high school with a teacher who was more than happy to move on to the next topic, you’re probably still traumatized by his dense language, weird characters and complex themes.

Admittedly, reading Shakespeare is more difficult than reading a contemporary novel. Because the English language has evolved and changed over time, it can often be daunting to read Shakespeare’s plays. Luckily though, there are many ways of ‘reading’ Shakespeare today. With a few tips and the right edition, you’ll be well-prepared and ready to enjoy reading a play in no time!

Read Aloud or Listen to an Audio Version

Reading Shakespeare means reading slowly. If you’re only reading the plays for the plot, you’re missing a large part of Shakespeare’s artistry. To understand the full meaning of Shakespeare’s plays, it’s thus important to take in one line at a time. Reading the play aloud or listening to an audio version not only helps you pay close attention to the text, but it’ll also make you appreciate the rhythm of the language much more.

Buy an Annotated Edition

Shakespeare is undoubtedly an author for all time, but he certainly also is an author of his time. That is to say, some of the themes and jokes in the plays can only be understood if you know a bit about their Early Modern context. Annotated editions not only provide definitions for obsolete words but also contain explanations of allusions or in-jokes, which will make it easier to understand the full meaning of the text.

Annotated editions also usually include an introduction and some secondary material. This can help you get an overview of not only the play itself but also of how it has been interpreted over the years. The most well-known editions are probably the Arden and Oxford ones. Alternatively, I recommend the Norton Critical Editions or The New Cambridge Shakespeare.

Make Use of a Glossary

Because Early Modern English has many vocabularies that either no longer exist or have gained a different meaning in Modern English, you’re bound to come across words you’re not familiar with. If you can’t deduce the meaning of a word from the context have a look at an online Shakespeare glossary. There you’ll find definitions for almost every word or expression unknown to modern readers.

Read Modern Translations

If you’re still having a hard time understanding Shakespeare’s language, I recommend checking out the SparkNotes NoFear Shakespeare series (most of the plays are available online for free). These versions provide a contemporary translation of Shakespeare’s plays right next to the original script. If you don’t understand a line, you can just look at the modern translation.

Remember, however, that the modernized text can’t and shouldn’t replace the original. Make sure to read the Shakespearean side first and then check the translation. I know that it’s tempting to only read the ‘easier’ side, but you’re missing out on a lot of the poetic craft of Shakespeare if you’re doing so.

Watch the Play in Performance

What most people often tend to forget is that Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be performed, not read. So the best way to actually understand these plays is by watching performances of them. This will definitely make it easier to understand who’s speaking, what’s being said and how it’s being said. Seeing and listening to the actors performing their lines will also make it easier to pick up on jokes or witticisms. If you can’t or simply don’t want to go to the theatre, you can stream the Globe productions from home.

Watch an Adaptation

In contrast to theatre performances, Shakespeare adaptations translate the original script more loosely. One particularly engaging genre into which Shakespeare’s plays have been adapted is the teen film. Movies such as 10 Things I Hate About You or She’s the Man merely borrow the characters and themes from the play and embed them into the conventions of the teen film genre.

Although, or precisely because, these movies are rather unfaithful to the original script, they allow you to see Shakespeare’s plays in new lights. You’ll quickly come to see that his plays are far from boring, but insightful, thought-provoking and even enjoyable.

Lastly, I’d like to say: Don’t be afraid of reading Shakespeare. Even if we’ve come to think of him as super sophisticated, Shakespeare clearly also pursued the cheap laugh. If you read his plays, imagine reading the scripts of a Hollywood director-this might take a bit of the pressure and allow you to truly enjoy what you’re reading.

Do you enjoy reading Shakespeare? If so, what’s your favourite play? Let me know in the comment section below!

14 thoughts on “How to Read Shakespeare

  1. I absolutely love Shakespeare! In high school, I liked our library books which had the original on the right page, and the modern translation/definitions/context on the left page. It helped me both with my English (I was still learning English at the time) and with understanding Shakespeare 🙂

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  2. These are all great recommendations, especially for new Shakespeare readers who are really thrown off by his writing! When I was a teenager just getting into Shakespeare, I would find a full performance on DVD at my library. I would watch it once on its own, then read the play as I watched it the second time. Then I read it on it’s own. Lol, looking back, that does seem like a lot of work, but I really felt that by the third time, I understood most everything.

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  3. I love Shakespeare and was lucky to study a full module on his amazing work during my English Literature Undergrad! I definitely agree that Shakespeare is meant for the stage and to be performed which can be a reason why people find it difficult to read at times! But your tips are great 🙂

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  4. I completely agree with everything you said here! Sparknotes was my savior when I first started reading Shakespeare, and every time I watch an adaptation of his plays, I feel like I discover so much more about them 🥰 I’m really looking forward to theaters reopening some time soon, because I’ve only seen a handful of the plays live and would love to change that… Especially my favorite, Othello. I still haven’t seen it on stage!

    Liked by 1 person

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