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!

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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