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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?