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How can I Become a Better Reader of Shakespeare?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 01 November 2016
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William Shakespeare is considered by many to be one of the most gifted writers to ever walk this earth. His plays continue to be relevant, inspiring other writers, making up school curricula, and remaining a frequent source of reference in literature, art, film, and a variety of other fields. To some, reading his plays is more a chore than enjoyment. People may simply not understand the archaic language, and have a difficult time enjoying the work. It’s often more difficult to read plays than it is to read a novel, where more information is given about a character, and it is even more challenging to read plays in which references, words, and a large cast of characters can obscure plots.

There are several ways to become a better reader of Shakespeare and to find his work more enjoyable and relevant. First, since Shakespearean language is obscure to many, it’s important to read any Shakespeare play with a good glossary. Most editions contain a glossary that defines words as you go along. Avoid those that will only define a word on its first use. Instead, look for editions that consistently define words and phrases throughout.

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Secondly, some copies of Shakespeare’s plays come with a plot summary at the beginning or end of each scene. This can be helpful if the language still has you a little lost. You can figure out from summaries any important plot details you might have missed. It helps to read full summaries of the play before beginning; even CliffsNotes® will do. While some people don’t want to know plot spoilers, there are few surprises in Shakespearean plays: comedies end in marriage, and tragedies in death. Therefore knowing the end may not lessen your enjoyment of the trip you take to get there.

It can be challenging to keep straight the cast of any play. This can get even worse when characters take on secret identities, as they frequently do. It can help to make a list of the cast of characters to keep handy with you as you read, so you don’t have to keep going back to the original cast list in the book. You can write a few pertinent details about each character and add any aliases that characters assume during a play.

Reading criticism or interpretation of Shakespeare plays makes them more understandable. There are great approachable critiques of Shakespeare’s work that can really help you get more from each play. You can often find introductions in copies of the plays, which offer some interpretation, but don’t stop there. There are many critiques on the Internet, and in general guides to his work as a whole.

Another helpful tool is actually watching Shakespeare plays instead of just reading them. His work is often more understandable in context, when the actors are gesturing and when the action can be seen rather than inferred from reading. Remember that his initial intent was to have his plays seen rather than read, so this is the more natural form in which they can be enjoyed.

Don’t forget the many modern adaptations taken from Shakespeare. For example, the musical Kiss Me Kate and the film Ten Things I Hate About You are both inspired by the play The Taming of the Shrew. Forbidden Planet, a science fiction classic takes on The Tempest. West Side Story reworks Romeo and Juliet.

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