How to Read Shakespeare

Start with a Properly Annotated Edition

Annotations are notes that help to explain a text. It may be tempting to read Shakespeare from a free online download or from an inexpensive copy that contains nothing but the text. However, when it comes to older books, sometimes paying more for scholarly notes can really make a difference in understanding the work. Try to find a copy that is glossed–one that has footnotes or end notes explaining what unusual words mean, what allusions Shakespeare may be making, what double meanings or bawdy jokes he is making, etc. Then make sure you read the notes. Having these explanations can really aid your comprehension.

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Read the Introduction

A properly annotated version of Shakespeare will usually be accompanied by an introduction to the text. It may be tempting to skip the introduction to save time. However, the introduction will explain important aspects of Shakespeare’s work: when it was written, the political climate, the cultural context, and more. The introduction will help you understand what Shakespeare’s contemporaries may have been thinking about when they saw his work, as well as the questions that continue to inspire conversation among scholars and lovers of literature today. It may also provide a short summary of the work–really helpful if you are new to Shakespeare and feel a little uncertain about your understanding of his language.

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Read Along with an Audio Version

If you are struggling to understand Shakespeare’s words, try following along with an audio recording. Hearing the actors’ inflections and their emotions can help bring the work to life, and help you understand what is happening in the text.

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Watch a Performance

Shakespeare’s plays were originally meant to be performed. They were only first published after his death. Try watching a live performance or a film version to achieve a better understanding of what is happening in the plot and how the characters are feeling. And don’t worry too much if you don’t follow every single line–Shakespeare’s contemporaries probably didn’t catch every nuance, either.

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Try a Version with Contemporary English

It’s a common misconception that Shakespeare was writing in Old English. He wasn’t. Shakespeare was actually writing early modern English, so readers will be familiar with many of the words he uses, if not all of them. However, Shakespeare’s language can still be tricky, especially because he is fond of inversion–he often writes sentences with the verb preceding the subject, instead of the other way around. If you’re not sure you’re following Shakespeare’s words, try reading his work in tandem with a version that updates his language to contemporary English.

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Practice, Practice, Practice!

Everyone who has read Shakespeare had to start somewhere–usually feeling very lost indeed. However, in time, reading Shakespeare will become easier! Keep at it and you’ll feel like a Shakespeare pro in no time!

What are your tips for reading Shakespeare?

*Read more of our posts about Shakespeare here!

30 thoughts on “How to Read Shakespeare

  1. Mru says:

    Awesome, I am a book lover but always feared reading Shakespeare thinking I was too stupid for it. These pointers will help me begin this journey. Any suggestions on which of his works I should start with ?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I don’t think anyone’s too stupid! I think the first time is really confusing for most people, but the trick is not to let that get us down!

      For comedies, I really like Much Ado About Nothing (and there’s a great film version by Kenneth Branagh). For tragedies, I like King Lear! Hamlet’s also good, of course, but it is one of the longer plays so that’s a consideration.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Georgiana says:

    Reading an annotated edition sounds like a great idea, less scary than just reading text itself. Do you have any recommendations on what are some friendly annotated editions?

    This spring I watched some performances by The Globe – in March/April there was free online streaming for their plays. It was very helpful in terms of understanding the main story line!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I have the Norton collection, which “translates” vocabulary into contemporary English on the side and has other clarifying footnotes on the bottom. I find that very useful. For single editions, I have some of the Arden Shakespeare books; they have excellent footnotes, as well.

      Ooh, that sounds very cool! I know the Folger has been releasing some videos and audio versions free during the pandemic, as well. I just never had time to get around to them. 😦

      Liked by 1 person

  3. mphtheatregirl says:

    I am not the biggest fan of Shakespeare. When I read Shakespeare in high school, we read the No Fear Shakespeare.

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      • mphtheatregirl says:

        I had to study four of Shakespeare in high school- Romeo and Juliet, Taming of the Shrew, Julius Caesar, and Macbeth.

        Well, I was close-minded to both Shakespeare and tragedy. It was easier to like Taming of the Shrew than the other three.

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          • mphtheatregirl says:

            Technically, high school consisted of two tragedies, one comedy, and one history. Julius Caesar, while yes a tragedy, was a history play

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            • Krysta says:

              Though Julius Caesar is about a historical event, most Shakespeare scholars broadly classify it as one of the tragedies. Shakespeare’s history plays are usually considered to be the ones that deal with English history, such as Henry V. 😊 At least that is always how I have seen the play classified. It is possible there is a collection out there that follows a different classification.

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  4. Kim @ Traveling in Books says:

    I think that watching a performance of the play is the most helpful, since you’ll hear the rhythm of the language and actually see how the characters relate to each other, which doesn’t always come through the best when you’re just reading the play in a book.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Linda I PagesandPapers says:

    These are wonderful tips. I’ve tried all of them and I can say they do really help! For annotated versions I recommend the Norton Critical Editions, which do not only have detailed explanatory annotations, but also include selecting extracts from sources, scholars and scriptwriters. For versions with contemporary language I recommend Sparknotes NoFear Shakespeare series. There are also NoFear graphic novels for selected works which are really fun to read. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Nicole @ Nicole's Book Thoughts says:

    I think my only additional piece of advice is to not expect to love Romeo and Juliet. I feel like there is such an expectation to adore it, but in my opinion he has way stronger tragedies. My favorite from him is the tempest though. I think it’s an easier to understand play and interesting enough to keep readers engaged!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. SERIESous Book Reviews says:

    YES to the audio versions! When I took my Shakespeare course in university, I would always read my annotated copy while listening to the audio. I find it really helps to bring the story to (literally) life but helps you understand what is actually happening in the scene.

    And I always recommend seeing the play in person (or watching it online). The actors on the stage make everything seem so natural when it comes to the dialogue that you don’t really notice the old fashion way the speak. It also highlights the comedy and emotions.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Pam Webb says:

    Teaching Shakespeare to high schoolers has its challenges. Your tips are sound, especially watching a play instead of merely reading it. I have discovered the Globe Theater HD videos and they present Shakespeare’s plays on the Globe stage, yet with a modern twist in costumes or actor presentation. Watching the play helps my students understand that Shakespeare had much humor in his plays.

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