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How to Study Shakespeare

Five steps to success reading a Shakespeare play

Many students of English literature dread studying Shakespeare. However, while it is true that Shakespeare's dramas are the most demanding works encountered by high school students (and most college students who do not take courses on Chaucer and Old English literature), with a little perseverance any student can master Shakespeare. Below are five steps to success reading a Shakespeare play. The tips listed can also be applied to the study of Shakespeare's sonnets and non-dramatic poetry, with the exception of tip #4. Good luck!

1) Read a great plot synopsis. There are countless plot summaries available, but many are simply too brief to provide detailed scene-by-scene accounts. Look for a synopsis that incorporates passages from the play directly into the discussion. Although you may not understand the passages completely at first, when you read the play later on you will know exactly what is happening in the story. I recommend Charles Boyce's Shakespeare A to Z, which contains excellent scene-by-scene summaries of all Shakespeare's plays, and the perennial favorite, Stories from Shakespeare by Marchette Chute. For recommended online plot summaries, see below in the links section.

2) Find an annotated copy of the work you would like to read. Even if you already have a copy at home or at school, if it is not properly annotated you should invest in another edition. Look for a copy that has detailed annotations at the bottom of each page or on the page opposite Shakespeare's text. When you find an edition that has annotations, skim over a passage at random and identify any words that you do not understand. If they are not all defined at the bottom of the page, put that edition back on the shelf. Often editors overlook words that might pose a problem to first-time Shakespeare readers. I find that even some of the most popular editions have this flaw, so don't be deceived by well-known names. If you are ordering by mail or online you do not have the luxury of glancing through the glossary. In this case, I would choose an edition from one of the following three series: The Falcon Shakespeare; The Kittredge Shakespeare; and The New Cambridge Shakespeare. The Falcon Shakespeare is the hardest to find, but it is by far the best for high school students.

3) Get comfortable and read once through the play. In this quick preliminary reading you should focus on learning the meanings of difficult words, and, as you read, you should start to become familiar with the personalities of the characters. When you are finished your first reading, you will be ready for step four.

4) Rent, buy, or borrow from your local library the BBC production of the play. The BBC Shakespeare series is an amazing resource which includes the complete text of each drama. Grab your copy of the play and read along with the video. Through the performances of the tremendous actors featured on the BBC productions, the speeches will come to life for you, and passages that were unintelligible before will become clear. If you do not have access to the BBC series, you might have to do a little research to find a good alternative video production that is as close to the original play as possible.

5) It is time to read the play again. By now you should have a solid understanding of the key passages, and hence you can concentrate on larger themes represented in the play. It is time to ask yourself questions like:

What are the main events of importance?
Which characters are involved in the sub-plot and how does the sub-plot relate to the chief plot of the play?
How do the characters relate to one another?
What motivates the central characters?
What does the play tell us about life and our ability to control our own destiny?

Do not be discouraged if you must re-read crucial passages several times. Even professors often need to return to key lines. Each time you read a passage you will gain a deeper understanding of the play as a whole. I would also recommend reading general commentaries on the play, especially if you need more ideas for essay topics.

There is no reason to fear the Bard. Although it takes a little work to master Shakespeare's language, full comprehension is within the grasp of all students.

How to Cite this Article

Mabillard, Amanda. How to Study Shakespeare.Shakespeare Online. 2000. (day/month/year you accessed the information) < >. _________

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