Reading Shakespeare Is Easier Than You Might Think!

It’s a complaint that you can hear throughout the halls of high schools and colleges, an aggrieved sigh you can find throughout the Internet: “Why do we have to read Shakespeare?  It’s too hard to understand Old English!”  The irony, of course, is that Shakespeare was writing in modern English.  Early modern English if you want to make fine distinctions.  But the fact is, the words Shakespeare uses are typically not very different from the words we use today.  Some have gone out of style, some have changed or accrued meanings, and some have changed pronunciations.  But, with a little work, you can understand Shakespeare.  If anything is really tricky about his language, it’s often that his need to maintain the meter of his lines calls for him to write in inverted sentences, and students often struggle when the word order is not what they expect.

What many do not realize is that Old English is not simply English that is old–that is, from the past.  Old English refers to a very specific language, the language that Beowulf is written in, the language also known as Anglo-Saxon.  The language that was spoken in England until around 1150.  The average person cannot read the original manuscript of Beowulf.   It’s like reading a foreign language.  You have to learn Old English in order to understand it, just as you might learn Spanish or French.  See the first lines of Beowulf below:

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.

 

After Old English came Middle English, which lasted until about 1500 (if you accept the OED’s timeline).   You can read an example of Middle English in Chaucer’s works.  Here’s the beginning of The Canterbury Tales:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour….

You can see that these words are more recognizable than the words of Old English, though still difficult to decipher.  Reading aloud can help.  “Flour” might be…”flower!”

Now consider Shakespeare, who lived from 1564 to 1616.  He is writing early modern English.  Here are the opening lines of his famous Sonnet 18:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;

It’s true that you would not likely hear someone talk like this today.  Words like “temperate” may be unfamiliar to some students and phrases such as “summer’s lease” may initially be confusing.   The inversion in “Rough winds do shake” also may prove troublesome.  However, all these words are clearly recognizable and generally still in use (We don’t say “thou” or “art” anymore, but the meaning is clear). Shakespeare’s language is very different from the language of Beowulf!

So next time you find yourself puzzled by Shakespeare, take a deep breath and remember that learning Shakespeare is actually far easier than learning Old English!

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23 thoughts on “Reading Shakespeare Is Easier Than You Might Think!

    • Krysta says:

      I actually didn’t enjoy Shakespeare too much in high school. My teacher wasn’t very good. But afterwards in college with a better teacher I realized Shakespeare wasn’t as boring as I originally thought. The teacher makes a lot of difference.

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    • Krysta says:

      Strangely enough, I never did, either, but all my high school teacher did was talk about how hard Shakespeare was to read. I thought it was a strange pedagogy, like the object was to convince the students the work was awful and far too challenging??

      Liked by 1 person

      • booksandreaders says:

        Hmm ..every teacher likes their students to think that their teacher knows something that’s “hard ” . My math teacher was like that , he would say ‘everything in math is hard ‘ all the time even though everything seemed easy enough

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        • Krysta says:

          That’s funny! Maybe they are trying to build a comradeship with the students by saying they’re all suffering together or the teacher gets it. Except the students are fully aware that teachers aren’t being graded on the content. 😉

          Liked by 1 person

  1. Ravenclaw Book Club says:

    I love Old English! It looks and sounds super epic and makes me think of Dragons 😂
    I think you’re right that Shakespeare isn’t that difficult. The reason I struggle with his texts is that I find him boring. 😛

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    • Krysta says:

      Right? I feel epic just LISTENING to Old English! Like, let us go forth to adventure and, uh, comradeship!

      I always found Shakespeare boring and thought he was overrated until I had a really great professor teach me Shakespeare. For me at least the instructor made all the difference! However, I think it’s certainly valid not to like Shakespeare!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. suzannedavis11 says:

    When I was teaching the plays of Shakespeare(in our school, each grade 8-12 read at least one play), my students and I had to take a cleansing breath at the beginning of each unit. Our initial worries over the unfamiliarity of the language gradually fell away as we were taken up by the characters and plot. Acting out the scenes, paying detailed attention to the metaphors and symbols, and making sure that we watched a performance– all helped us accommodate our modern ears to the Bard’s language and style. Websites such as “No Fear Shakespeare” and contemporary graphic novel versions also dispelled insecurities. By the end of our study, most of us had sense of accomplishment and appreciation for the great artist. The teacher is an important guide in the journey, but for students who were willing, there were great rewards.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yes, I think that teachers are very good about teaching Shakespeare through many avenues! Now it’s rather expected that students will view some sort of performance along with the plays. I think that’s a great strategy. It’s easier, I think, to follow the plot and to get a feel for the language when you see and hear it being performed! And I totally agree that a great teacher makes all the difference!

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  3. Sydney @ Fire and Rain Books says:

    This is so interesting! I’ve always been kind of interested in linguistics and the origin of language so I liked seeing the progression of English. And even though Shakespeare is more difficult than what I read for pleasure, comparatively its definitely easier than the other English generation books!

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  4. SERIESous Book Reviews says:

    I’m good at interpreting Shakespeare but Chaucer was a hard sell. I had no idea what was happening there at all :s

    I thing Shakespeare’s plays are hard to read but super easy to listen to. I used to listen to audiobooks when I had to read the plays for classes because the words flow better and the emotion of the actor’s really helps you understand what is supposed to be happening.

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  5. kris says:

    I remember just wanting more than ANYTHING to get what the heck Shakespeare was trying to say when I was in high school reading Romeo and Juliet for the first time at age 14. Honestly, I feel that I was trying so hard to understand that I was confusing myself! Oh, the irony. I never realized the fact that the reason why I found a lot of his stuff confusing is due to the inversion!! Thank you for enlightening me to this because now that I’ve recognized it, I get it. IGET SHAKESPEARE. I’m a happy potato. Also, English is soooo weird. Like what why. Why homophones???? WHY.

    Like

  6. Paula Vince says:

    That’s very true. I did complain about reading Shakespeare at High School, and then moved on to authors such as Chaucer at Uni. They are all interesting, from a linguistic perspective.

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    • Krysta says:

      When I was in high school, I thought Shakespeare was boring and overrated. But then I had a great professor in college and now I love Shakespeare! So I do sympathize with the Shakespeare haters!

      Like

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