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!


Author: dustinllovell

Writing professor, literature and US history tutor, previous ESL instructor, and would-be novelist who enjoys/specializes in Shakespeare, 19th century lit, and philosophy (whether in print or via audiobook). Author of the novel Sacred Shadows and Latent Light (Wipf and Stock, Resources Imprint). Member of Heterodox Academy. Columnist for The Mallard.

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