Reading Comprehension - Literature: How to Read Shakespeare

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Incomprehensibility is a common obstacle, particularly for many youths, among those who have taken a genuine interest in exploring the Shakespearean world, given his literary genius and his works were published initially in Elizabethan English. This course will help students resolve that same problem.
1. How to Read Shakespeare
by Dawn Walts, Ph.D.
©Getting Literature
Words, Words, Words
It is estimated that most people today have, on average, a vocabulary of about 15,000 words they use
throughout their lifetimes. It is estimated that William Shakespeare had a vocabulary of around 20-
30,000 words. I’m no math professor, but even I can see that Shakespeare’s vocabulary almost doubles
our own. Elizabethan England (1558-1603) was a hotbed of radical experimentation with the English
language. Shakespeare's influence on the language we use today is immense. He converted nouns into
verbs and verbs into adjectives. He used words in ways to suit his purpose. For instance, Shakespeare
was “friending” people long before Facebook:
“And what so poor a man as Hamlet is
May do, to express his love and friending to you.” Hamlet, Act 1, scene 5, lines 184-185
A short list of some of the words Shakespeare invented include:
BEDAZZLED The Taming of the Shrew
BELONGINGS Measure for Measure
EYEBALL The Tempest
INAUDIBLE All Well That Ends Well
MANAGER A Midsummer Night’s Dream
SCUFFLE Antony and Cleopatra
UNCOMFORTABLE Romeo and Juliet
Alongside those now familiar words are words that would have been familiar to Shakespeare’s
audience but make little sense to us today.
THOU = you (subject, singular, informal)
THEE = you (object, singular)
THINE or THY = your (possessive, singular)
ART = are
DOST = do
DOTH = does
HAST = have
WAST = were
WHENCE = from where
HENCE = from here
OFT = often
NAY = no
AY = yes
HIE = hurry
ANON = in a moment
©Getting Literature
2. Page Two How to Read Shakespeare by Dawn Walts, Ph.D.
If we were to use these words, it would look something like this:
Dost thou know whence Jane kicked thy ball? Thou art the keeper of the ball.
Ay. I dost. Jane kicked it hence.
Beyond the confusing vocabulary, here are a few other points of confusion when reading Shakespeare
along with some tips about how best to overcome them.
Who’s Whom? Chart the Characters
Hand copy or photocopy the “Cast of Characters” at the beginning of the play. Use this as your
bookmark as you read. This list includes the names and roles of all the characters in the play. Make a
chart with the names of characters listed and use the chart to jot down notes about them as you read.
This will help you keep track of who is whose father or brother or servant. Titles such as Duke and
King will help you determine who is in charge, or, at least, who is supposed to be in charge of things.
Word Order Confusing Sometimes Is
Shakespeare’s plays are written in blank verse, meaning that he is trying to fit his language into a
specific meter or rhythm. This rhythm sometimes makes the syntax (word order) twisted and slippery.
Proceed with caution. Locate the subject of the sentence. Locate the verb. Look for objects. The
more you do this, the better you get at it. Some students find it helpful to think about Yoda: “Powerful
you have become. The dark side I sense in you.” We can pretty easily figure out that Yoda means
Luke has become powerful and that Yoda senses the dark side in him. Sometimes reading a
particularly confusing line aloud helps to figure out the meaning.
Wait, What Does That Mean?
Read footnotes and sidenotes! Editors write these to help readers understand what is being said and
what is going on. Use them! Remember, these plays were written for people living in late-sixteenth
and early-seventeenth century England, not twenty-first century America. If vocabulary is a problem,
keep a list and look up some of the more important words in the dictionary. This is a great opportunity
for you to build your vocabulary and strengthen your use of the English language.
I Still Don’t Know What’s Going On
If you are totally unsure what is going on in a scene, just put a "?" next to the confusing section and
push through. Sometimes things become clearer a few lines later on in the next scene. Sometimes the
scene is intentionally confusing because Shakespeare is trying to make a point and you need to work
for it; other times, it's just confusing because of the syntax (see Word order confusing sometimes is).
Usually, these passages become clear as the action unfolds.
Remember, this is tough stuff, but it’s worth it. The more you read Shakespeare, the better you get at
reading Shakespeare. And the better you are at reading Shakespeare, the easier all the rest of your
reading will seem.
©Getting Literature