SHAKEFEAR? –Tips for studying Shakespeare

‘If you cannot understand my argument and declare its Greek to me you are quoting Shakespeare.’ –Bernard Levin

Tips for studying Shakespeare

Both International Boards like CIE and Indian boards like ICSE and CBSE have few things in common. One of them is the study of Shakespeare’s plays in English Literature. Since the language used in these pieces of writing is not colloquial, this can be a trial for many students. Nevertheless, even this mountain can be climbed with fervor and some fun. Here are some simple yet effective tips or studying these incredible dramas.

Read an abridged version of the text in story form 

Before diving into the contents of the play, read the story of the drama you will be studying. Charles and Mary Lamb have written a series of books called Tales from Shakespeare which have a concise rendition of the plays like Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice and so on written in modern-day English. This will help familiarize the story and thus allows more focus on language when actually studying the original text.

When reading the play, read according to punctuation.

Although Shakespeare’s plays are written in verse which may not necessarily follow right end at a full stop or pause with a comma. This is why reading the line by line will only promote misunderstanding. Instead one can practice a simple exercise of rewriting the text of some part of the script with the punctuation. For example take the following excerpt from the Merchant of Venice in the opening scene

 Believe me, sir, had I such venture forth,

The better part of my affections would

Be with my hopes abroad. I should be still

Plucking the grass, to know where sits the wind,

Peering in maps for ports and piers and roads;

And every object that might make me fear

Misfortune to my ventures, out of doubt

Would make me sad.

One could rewrite the text sentence by sentence in the following way:

Believe me, sir, had I such venture forth the better part of my affections would be my hopes abroad.

I should still be plucking the grass, to know where sits the wind, peering in maps for ports and piers and roads; 

And every object that might make me fear misfortune to my ventures, out of doubt would make me sad.

The more this is practiced, the more the text will be understood and soon it will be done without directly without being rewritten. 

Watch the plays either live or on video

Now here’s an excuse to switch the television or surf YouTube. Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be watched not read. The props used and the tonality of the character’s dialogue will provide more clarity of the message and essence of the play. There are a number of adaptations of the play that can be found online including ones done by schools and theatre companies. The Globe Theatre in London, which is famous for re-creating Shakespeare’s work as he used to perform them in a round structure with no artificial lighting hence only performed in daylight sells DVDs of its plays. The Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford Upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s hometown, also has recording available of their editions of Shakespeare’s work. 

Recommended: Turning a phrase with an antimetabole

Do the play as a class or group

One of the most effective ways of studying Shakespeare is fulfilling the purpose of his work. Shakespeare enjoyed acting himself and crafted his plays to be spoken with emotion and movement. By bringing to life the script, students will be able to memorize lines, remember the plot and recognize themes. In a bigger class, students can split into groups, each being given one act or scene to prepare. At the end, they may be asked to present their work to the class providing an enactment of most of the play.

Enjoy it!

Believe it or not, trying to enjoy the study of Shakespeare does make the topic easier. Find something in Shakespeare you enjoy. It may be the horror of Macbeth, the romance of Twelfth Night, the wit of the Merchant of Venice, the Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, the fantasy of a Midsummer Night’s Dream or the history of Henry the fifth. Find parallels between instances in the play and your own life which will improve character analysis. 

Once you begin to understand Shakespeare using these tips, you will be able to study it with more enthusiasm. Just remember Shakespeare is more than jumbled, confusing words and that is the long and short of it.

Sarah Samuel

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