8 Tips for Starting Shakespeare (Part 4)

These last two are just guidelines…

7) Avoid “translation” editions.

This tip might be more of a preference (if not an outright prejudice on my part). If notes are training wheels, “translation” editions like No Fear Shakespeare are training wheels to the training wheels. If possible, don’t give in to the idea that you need someone to “translate” Shakespeare for you. It’s not another language, just a different vocabulary to learn. You do it every time you start a new show on Netflix; you can do it here. If your current class or assignment is a one-time thing with Shakespeare, do your thing. However, if you want to grow into experiencing Shakespeare in a new way,  you should only use such books at greatest need. A couple of practical reasons to shy away from them: save time, and save money. Time because if you’re reading someone else’s account of Shakespeare in addition to his work, you’re reading it twice. Money because you can probably find a cheaper edition and look up interpretations of a difficult passage online. On a more serious note, though “translations”  are admittedly good products, they are, themselves, critical interpretations of what the text means. They are debatable and by no means exhaustive. Though, yes, they can give you an accurate understanding of what’s going on, they can never replace your own ideas and imagination of what’s happening. So, give yourself a pep talk and ditch the secondhand account of the text.

8) Read because he’s fun, not because he’s important.

It would be superfluous to cite anyone important as a reason why you should read Shakespeare. It would undermine the purpose of this tip, and it would be tough to pick anyone out of the multitude. If someone is important (from Jefferson, to Lincoln, from Freud, to Dickinson, to Asimov), they have had something to say about the man.

I’m here to tell you to ignore all that. The reason they all wrote about Shakespeare was because he was good. His writing is complex, broad, and deep enough to still be relevant. Approach him to find this out for yourself, not because anyone else says it. He was, after all, just a man. As with most things, it would be robbing yourself of the experience to approach him as a second-hander. Use your own judgment, and find the right mix of pride in testing your own thoughts and humility in weighing the thoughts of others. This is the best (and, arguably, only) way to legitimately read his work. You don’t want to rent a relationship with it; you want to own one.

I’m sure there are many other tips for starting Shakespeare. These 8 (if you read all 4 posts) are merely the ones I have personally used and that have worked for me. I hope they can help you as you invest time in reading perhaps the greatest writer the world has known. Personally, I still don’t know if I like the man or the metaphysical worldview taken in many of his plays. However, the corpus of his work has, whether I like it or not, become a part of who I am. I would be remiss not to recommend ways others might engage with his work in a similar fashion.

If you’ve read this far, thanks a lot! Feel free to comment below if you know any other tips for reading Shakespeare (or any other intimidating authors)!



8 Tips for Starting Shakespeare (Part 3)

5) Scansion.

Scansion deserves a book all its own. If the phrase “iambic pentameter” turns you off, it shouldn’t. It’s where the magic happens, and it’s all about breaking the rules. During Shakespeare’s life there were a pretty decent amount of rules in theater and poetry, and iambic pentameter was the name of the game. For instance, Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great (1587) is almost exclusively written in i.p. Furthermore, the sonnet form (12 alternately rhyming lines of i.p. followed by a rhyming heroic couplet at the end) was the rage in the Italian-influenced and Platonic-philosophy- filled courtly love tradition.

Shakespeare broke the scaffolding. Nothing was wrong with it, but he found a way to increase drama by manipulating the scansion of the lines (see: form and content). If he breaks i.p., PAY ATTENTION! Either something big just happened or whoever did it is feeling something powerful. Breaking i.p. is how Shakespeare’s characters created or responded to conflict, which is the basis of any plot worth reading. When Henry V says “We are glad the Dauphin is so pleasant with us” (HV 1.2), he’s speaking in trochaic pentameter–which goes against the grain and flow of the entire play. His words say “I’ll show self-control because I’m a king,” but his tone (and subsequent monologue) says…well, think of any unstoppable good guy from your favorite movie who is about to wreck shop on the opposition (*trying my best to keep it PG here). That line starts a war, and the scansion mimics such a purpose.

Anyway, Shakespeare’s plays are built on the paradox of breaking the building mechanics of contemporary plays. If a character switches rhythm (something you’ll start to catch if you know to look/listen for it), look out–and enjoy figuring out how it affects the drama of the scene.

6) Sorry Juliet: It’s all in the name.

Back to the idea that people in the English Renaissance saw language as entertainment. Because people expected so much more from language, things like names had a lot more meaning. This can be used to your advantage. Take a glance at the Dramatis Personae; if two characters have similar names, either they’ll be opposite foils of each other or one will replace the other. E.g. Macbeth has more “M’s” than a McDonalds, and they’re all essential characters. Similarly, Richard III’s two main rivals share a prefix. This is just for starters. Look up the etymology of characters with unusual names–you might be surprised.

Another great example of the name game is “Othello.” People who saw the first playbills for the production only needed to see the name to know 1) it’s a tragedy, 2) the main character dies of his own volition (see: “Shakespearean tragedy”),  3) his death would have divine and infernal undertones, and 4) he’d cry and curse the whole time. How did they know these things? The name is also a phrase: “O, t’hell, O!” They knew somebody would not only die, but that they would die in anguish, almost welcoming the death. The undertones of hell and heaven pulling at Othello’s soul can be respectively seen in the man’s oscillation between Iago and Desdemona. His confusion is exacerbated by her name meaning “the demons.” Seriously, her father and mother hated her. As for the “O’s,” whenever Shakespeare writes “Oh,” or “Ah,” or any other vowel unconstrained by the mind through consonants, his character is projecting raw emotion. All those one or two syllable words Othello keeps yelling at the end? Yeah. Cussing up a storm, that one. (Original credit for seeing how the title “Othello” would make a play attractive to contemporary audiences goes to professor David Tolley at Oxford, who mentioned it as an example while discussing the general topic of names in Shakespeare).

The names Shakespeare uses can give you a great prep when starting a play. The subject becomes even more interesting when one realizes Shakespeare was not writing in a cultural or political vacuum. If he references someone in a name, it’s probably intentional (e.g. “Iago” is Italian for “Jacob”–the Scottish/English king of the time, after whom the KJV Bible is named. Significance?).

8 Tips for Starting Shakespeare (Part 2)

Back for more? Now we’re getting to the good stuff.

3) Don’t let the notes hold you back.

This is similar to the previous tip in aiming for longevity in your comprehension. Publisher notes (either at the bottom of the page or back of the edition) are like training wheels–and I used them heavily as such. However, halfway through my first semester I realized I was coming to class with a thorough understanding of the first two acts, but no idea how the plays ended! To best use my time, I intentionally stopped looking at the notes. I began to see the meaning of new phrases or words in the surrounding context, and since I wasn’t interrupting my reading to look elsewhere I found the scenes became much more vivid. After a few semesters I purchased a personal (i.e. not required by syllabus) copy of the complete works with virtually no footnotes (which, serendipitously, made it CHEAPER!!). This–the 1996 Wordsworth Edition–is still the copy I use today, with all my own notes, scuffs, and Scotch tape holding it together.

4) Take the stage directions loosely.

Like the notes, the stage directions are…open to interpretation. At times I would argue they are dead wrong (*non-professional that I am). (*Cough* Still finished the degrees). In any case, most of what we have of Shakespeare’s work was not physically written by him. Instead, it was published posthumously by friends and people who had performed in and seen his plays. During an acting clinic in college I was privileged to hear a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company digress on the subject. He told us that the actors in Shakespeare’s company never received a full copy of the play: they only received their lines, preceded by a cue line. Allegedly, not until opening night did the actors know what the play was about!

Like the notes, I’ve found a lot more can be done with a scene (on stage or during an essay) if one looks to the lines as context for things such as character entrances and exits, or reactions. For instance, how might we read Edmund’s first soliloquy in Lear 1.2 if we consider him to have been onstage in the background throughout Scene 1? His monologue would then be a reaction to witnessing Cordelia’s renouncing her royal privileges (which he’s never had), rather than to his general lot in life as a bastard. There would be a new focus in his monologue.

As with anything, have fun with it–and use the malleability of stage directions to your advantage when writing essays.

Halfway through!

8 Tips for Starting Shakespeare (Part 1)

If Shakespeare intimidates you (0r sounds boring), here are some tips I learned to make it easier in the long run!

I first experienced Shakespeare like many did, as a high school freshmen with Romeo and Juliet and, later during senior year, Hamlet. Continuing my study of him in college–both in southern California and at Oxford, I needed to learn how to read him successfully. Here are 8 things I found that made approaching the plays easier. I hope they can help you too!


1) Remember: it’s just a change of wardrobe. Er, for your ears and tongue.

The initial hurtle I encountered when first reading Shakespeare in high school was learning the ins and outs of his contemporary language. He wasn’t trying to sound verbose for its own sake–that kind of writing came a couple of centuries later. When Shakespeare lived, people saw language the way we see digital media today: something that is simultaneously the way to communicate entertainment, and the entertainment itself. Just as no news or social media site will succeed in conveying something if it’s not presenting it in an interesting way, people in the English Renaissance wanted to make the telling as attractive as the told. In literary theory we sometimes call this the form and the content.

By the standards of his day, Shakespeare wrote for entertainment. He did this by playing with how his content interacted with the form of how it was said. There are a lot of writing tropes that can seem to get in the way of the main story–things like banter, puns, and conversational power politics. Hang in there when just starting out–your internal ears just need time to adjust to the new phrases, vocabulary, and ways of enjoying the language he’s using. Don’t look at the new words as an obstacle. Just like with anything new, persevere, and try to enjoy the language as he did.

2) Aim for 60-70% understanding.

Something my mom (another English major and teacher) told me about judging Shakespeare performances has always stuck: if you can understand what’s generally going on, the performers are doing it right. Since it’s meant to be understood, it’s accessible to everybody. Unlike an essay or certain novels, you don’t need to understand every sentence. If you get the gist of what just happened, keep going. In the beginning I aimed for about 70% page understanding, with most of that being main plot. After a while I figured out how to separate the entertaining banter from the major plot events. Basic rule: if you have no idea what just happened, but you know something did, reread the scene. If you do, keep going. The minutiae of the language is amazing, but it’s not essential for a first read. Eventually you will find yourself seeing the scenes happen as you read, especially if you come to apply the next two tips.

See Part 2 for more!


Where I’m Coming From (and LOTR)

First blog post, in which I get into the blog’s purpose, Tolkien, and a bit of politics. Hope you enjoy!


Welcome to my blog. Originally meaning it to be a casual Shakespeare study resource, I have decided to expand it into speaking about other literature-related topics: specifically, philosophy and politics. No work of literature is separate from the author’s perspective, which can often be judged as interacting with or against what he or she considers to be their surroundings.

In The Art of Fiction and The Romantic Manifesto (both of which I’ve found somewhat useful when approaching a new work), Ayn Rand claims that whatever drives them to create, every writer (indeed, every artist in general) reveals at least two things through their work: a metaphysical position and an epistemological method pertaining to that position. In other words, they have a view of what the world is like (i.e. as it pertains to humans), and they recreate that view with a style showing how that world is to be understood. While I’ve moved beyond Rand in recent years, this perspective still affects how I approach books. There’s always an abstract theme to be found, and it’s not disconnected from the form used to present it. Thus, my blog’s tagline is “That book has an idea behind it; I’m here to talk about it.”

The Lord of the Rings

Let’s use an example. Like many people, I love The Lord of the Rings. I also loved studying the perspective Tolkien brought to writing the book. Last I counted, I had read it five times between the start of high school and the end of college (with the last time being in three days). That’s not even counting the other books and languages (yup. Learned ’em). Trust me when I say I loved that book and all the lore surrounding it.

Now to the possibly sacrilegious part. Born near the turn of the 20th century, Tolkien wrote most of his works throughout the shift that occurred during and after the two World Wars. Tolkien’s metaphysics were of a largely late-Victorian persuasion, and The Lord of the Rings contains his fight to reestablish the pre-World War I way of experiencing the world. This can be seen in what he values as the good (de-urbanization, the environment, martial men who chivalrously ride in front of the charge), and what he presents as denigrating, if not unambiguously evil (technology, industry, deforestation, gunpowder, wealth-creation). He presents these things in a style that favors knowledge from the past, such as songs and invented languages, and that flows in longer sentences reminiscent of the oral traditions of Anglo-Saxxon England and Finland.

After college I entered the workforce, and I started to explicitly develop some of the convictions I’d held through college. I found that many things I’d heard were bad are actually very good, such as technology and wealth-creation (perhaps to my credit, I can’t remember ever agreeing with the presentation of those as bad). People didn’t create industry to destroy the world (vis. Orcs) but to improve theirs and others’ lives (I encourage everyone reading this to research the invaluable role industry and free markets have had in raising people out of poverty; it’s an amazing, ongoing history). I also learned that not everyone who says they love the environment really does–not like Tolkien. Too often people can use environmentalism as a palatable mask for resentment of industry’s achievements, as well as other destructive–though publicly sweet-sounding –movements.

Now, I’m not comparing the LOTR to, say, Sinclair’s The Jungle, but the propaganda of the latter has made me hesitate in blindly lauding the former. It’s not that I don’t value Tolkien’s work or its role in my life; indeed, I think my learning more about him and the values that preceded and followed him has enabled me to appreciate him more deeply. I don’t know what he would have thought of the modern environmentalist movement, but for some reason I doubt he would be any less pessimistic and implicitly critical of it than he is of twentieth century mechanization. They need the eagles as much as the rest of us.

Of course, there’s so much more to say about Tolkien and his impetus for writing LOTR. However, this is one of the many ideas behind his book, and I’m here to talk about it.