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!

Bright Smoke, Cold Fire by Rosamund Hodge


Goodreads: Bright Smoke, Cold Fire
Series: Untitled #1
Source: Library
Published: September 2016

Official Summary

Sabriel meets Romeo and Juliet in this stunning and atmospheric novel—the first in a duology—from the author of Cruel Beauty and Crimson Bound.

When the mysterious fog of the Ruining crept over the world, the living died and the dead rose. Only the walled city of Viyara was left untouched.

The heirs of the city’s most powerful—and warring—families, Mahyanai Romeo and Juliet Catresou share a love deeper than duty, honor, even life itself. But the magic laid on Juliet at birth compels her to punish the enemies of her clan—and Romeo has just killed her cousin Tybalt. Which means he must die.

Paris Catresou has always wanted to serve his family by guarding Juliet. But when his ward tries to escape her fate, magic goes terribly wrong—killing her and leaving Paris bound to Romeo. If he wants to discover the truth of what happened, Paris must delve deep into the city, ally with his worst enemy . . . and perhaps turn against his own clan.

Mahyanai Runajo just wants to protect her city—but she’s the only one who believes it’s in peril. In her desperate hunt for information, she accidentally pulls Juliet from the mouth of death—and finds herself bound to the bitter, angry girl. Runajo quickly discovers Juliet might be the one person who can help her recover the secret to saving Viyara.

Both pairs will find friendship where they least expect it. Both will find that Viyara holds more secrets and dangers than anyone ever expected. And outside the walls, death is waiting. . .


I loved Cruel Beauty and Crimson Bound, but I have mixed feelings about Bright Smoke, Cold Fire.  While I think the novel may have some of the best world building Hodge has done yet, I was not always invested in the characters and felt as if the plot had not really progressed after 430 pages.  I also was somewhat surprised this book has practically no romance, and the focus is really on the action and the world dealing with necromancy and general impending death.

My one complaint about Hodge’s previous two novels was probably that her world building always felt hazy to me; there was always something I couldn’t quite grasp or envision about it, and it frustrated me.  So I was extremely pleased with how concrete the world building in Bright Smoke, Cold Beauty is. Hodge takes a bit of time laying it all out, partially because there are so many many cultures living together in one city, and Hodge has to do the work of explaining all their customs, religious beliefs, feuds with each other, etc.  However, once the information comes through to the reader, it’s clear that the world is gloriously complex, but that Hodge has put thought into the details.  I loved it.

I wish I loved the characters as much.  Things are a little tricky because the book is supposed to be Romeo and Juliet inspired, but mostly I see that in the fact that the two main characters have families who dislike each others, and there are some other somewhat minor allusions. I think the book could have been written without the Shakespeare influence. However, Hodge does go really hard on portraying Romeo as a love-struck fool, which is accurate, but fairly annoying.  The other characters can’t even take him seriously.  On the other hand, Juliet seems uncharacteristically angry all the time, while the girl who fills the Rosaline role is frequently a jerk, if an admirably determined one.  I don’t always need characters to be “likable,” but it was often hard to find someone to root for here.

The plot is interesting, and I enjoyed the book while I was reading it. I wanted to know what was going to happen next. I am mostly frustrated that the overall plot didn’t seem to head anywhere.  After 400 pages, I felt as if things had progressed very little.  There was a moment I might have labelled a climax, but it was completely glossed over, and then the story kind of just stopped. I understand there’s supposed to be a sequel, but I personally like to feel as if I’ve read a full book, not half of one.  After going through so much effort of reading to get so little, I’m not sure I want to read the sequel.

I like Hodge’s work, and I love the touches of medieval (or, in this case, early modern) literature that goes into her writing. But I struggled with this one a bit.  I’m interested in what she does much; I’m not really interested in what Romeo and Juliet do next.

3 stars Briana

TV Drama Review: To Walk Invisible: The Brontë Sisters


Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë secretly harbor dreams of publishing their stories.  However, writing, they have been told, is not the life for a woman.  Unfortunately, their brother Branwell is slowly descending into a life of degeneracy and madness, and their father is aging and blind.  Faced with the prospect of having to support themselves, the sisters hatch a plan to publish their work under pseudonyms.


Based on Charlotte Brontë’s letters, To Walk Invisible highlights the struggles the Brontë sisters faced as women writing in nineteenth century England.  To publish would be, as Emily notes, to expose their characters–rather than their writing– for public judgment and scrutiny.  They realize that in order to be taken seriously, they must publish under male pseudonyms.  And thus begins two hours’ worth of dramatic whispering and sneaking about their own home.

Some of this sneaking about seems funnily obsessive considering the fact that their brother Branwell is often away or too drunk to be cognizant of anything happening around them and that their father Patrick never shows any desire to stifle his daughters’ creativity.  What exactly are they hiding and from whom?  Maybe the sisters fear one of their two servants will gossip?  At any rate, the show really works to play up the drama of the situation, perhaps realizing that it is difficult to make three sisters living in isolation on the moor a very action-packed story.

However, anyone willing to watch a two-hour drama on Masterpiece about the Brontë sisters is probably already invested in the work and will not need the high stakes to be so obviously emphasized.  The show does a nice job recognizing the fan base by bringing in some historical details and nods (such as Charlotte’s awkward future husband) and highlighting the personalities of the three sisters: wild Emily, level-headed Anne, and passionate Charlotte.  The effects of the moor on the sisters’ personalities (especially Emily’s) is also predictably emphasized through a series of long walks throughout, and some readings of Emily’s poetry are brought in at strategic moments.

Unfortunately, Branwell Brontë also makes an extended appearance, but he adds little to the story.  Brontë fans know of the sister’s hapless brother who died before he could fulfill all the great things expected of him.  He certainly has a place in the story of the sisters’ lives.   However, the sisters’ efforts at publication are far more compelling than Branwell’s debauchery.  No one expects Branwell to give up his drink, to become suddenly responsible, or to publish all the great works he says he will.  His wild lifestyle probably is meant to contrast with the sisters’ quiet lives and to add some more action to the story.  However, I don’t think many viewers are particularly interested in Branwell and it’s certainly difficult to be invested in him when it’s obvious from the start (from history or the drama) how he will end.

To Walk Invisible is a compelling story, but one that I suspect will mostly interest viewers who are already fans of the Brontë sisters, though it’s also possible that the drama will introduce new audiences to their works.  (Anne Brontë is, I would argue, still unfortunately overlooked in favor of her sisters.)   It’s an intimate glimpse at the lives of the Brontës full of fun historical nods that fans will love to spot.  I just wish we had seen far less of Branwell.

4 stars

Rethinking the Value of Education

“Why are we doing this?  It’s hard!”  “I tried to do research but didn’t find anything after thirty minutes so I gave up.  This is too difficult.”  “Why are we reading this?  No one can understand it.”  These are the types of complaints regularly raised by students struggling through new ideas or with new types of work.  They find that their old methods for approaching their work are no longer viable. They realize that they thought they knew about a topic, but it is really larger and more complex than they imagined.  They do not understand something they read, so they are tempted to give up.  They have other commitments, other things they want to do.  So why put time into their classwork?  Why struggle when things could be made easy for them?

Sometimes it seems as if we have forgotten what school is all about.  Students sometimes seem to approach classes as if they are opportunities for the students to prove what they know, receive the “A,” and continue on through the school system.  But classes are not supposed to validate an individual’s knowledge.  Classes are supposed to teach things.  Students are assumed to be in the class precisely because they do not know about a topic or how to do certain things, but they are intending to learn.  Indeed, I would suggest that anyone taking a class on something they are already expert in, is potentially wasting their time.

If we consider classes as learning opportunities, it makes sense that students will sometimes struggle.  Learning something new is seldom easy and it often requires some failures along the way.  Good instructors know this.  They are not ignorant of the fact that students find Shakespeare difficult and sometimes indecipherable–that is why they are guiding the students through the process.  If Shakespeare were so easy anyone could read him at home and know everything there was to know, an instructor and a class would not be necessary at all.  Attending the class would again, potentially be a waste of time.

We should also keep in mind that struggle often makes something more valuable.  We should be struggling a little when we learn because that is an indication that we are acquiring specialized skills.  If doing research were as simple as typing a word into a search engine and pulling up the first couple results, anyone with Internet access could do it and students would have a difficult time marketing themselves for potential employers.  How could students be proud of accomplishing something if doing something took no effort?  How could they justify spending their time and money to take courses that did not provide them with anything valuable, either personally or professionally?

Anxiety about the economy and the competition to find jobs or to earn advanced degrees may be causing students to feel stressed out when they cannot do something quickly or when they realize that they are not achieving high grades with the ease that they used to.  However, we need to have a conversation about what education is and how it fits into students’ lives.  Education isn’t just about receiving the “A” so students can continue on to other opportunities.  Education is about earning the “A” through hard work and some failures.  It’s the hard work that makes those years of learning worth it.

Classic Remarks: L.M. Montgomery Recommendations Beyond Anne of Green Gables

Classic Remarks

Classic Remarks is a meme that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation. We look forward to seeing your responses!

Tell us about your favorite L. M. Montgomery work, aside from any of the Anne of Green Gables books.

Pat of Silver Bush and Mistress Pat

I love just about every book L. M. Montgomery has written, but I have always had a special place in my heart for Pat of Silver Bush and its sequel Mistress Pat.

Anne Shirley is famously imaginative and garrulous. Emily Star (from the Emily of New Moon series) has a reputation for being a bit odd; she has “flashes” and borders on interacting with the supernatural.  Pat Gardiner, in comparison, is one of Montgomery’s more “average” heroines–and I love it.   She’s quiet and fond of her home and her cats and somewhat adverse to change.  In short, she sounds like someone I might actually know.  And someone whom I would like if I did.

Montgomery can’t help but add some of her romantic touches, however.  Housekeeper Judy is Irish and firmly believes in fairies and the wee folk, and she’ll probably make you believe a little bit, too.  And then there’s the romance. I talked about why Jingle is one of my favorite Montgomery heroes in a previous Classic Remarks, so I won’t rehash it at length.  However, he’s friendly and earnest and kind and all the great things a strong love interest should be.  And he has an adorable dog.

Pat is sometimes overlooked because she’s quieter than Anne, but she is definitely worth knowing.

If you are participating this week, please leave us your link in the comments!


The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black

darkest part of the forestINFORMATION

Goodreads: The Darkest Part of the Forest
Series:  None
Source: Gift
Published: 2015


Hazel Evans and her brother Ben live in the town of Fairfold, where the locals know that Fae inhabit the forest and that if you are smart you leave out milk to appease them and go indoors after dark.  Tourists come each year to view the prince in the glass coffin, the boy with horns on his head.  And Hazel and Ben dream that he is their prince and they can set him free.  But when he finally awakes, he is  not the prince they were expecting.


The Darkest Part of the Forest achieves that rare feat of making the girl who kisses all the boys not the snotty “popular” girl but the protagonist.  Even when she admits she breaks hearts by making some of the guys think they have a chance, she doesn’t seem like the type of character you want to hate, but the type of character you want to save from herself.  But perhaps it helps that we see very little of her high school life and much more of secret woodland life–the one where she hunts the magical creatures who harm others.

Without making a big deal out of it, Holly Black casts Hazel as the sword-wielding hunter/champion and Hazel’s brother Ben as the cautious one, and the one who possesses a magical gift for music.  We don’t have to read any justifications for this or read any “girl power” manifestos.  This is just the way it is.  A teenage girl can pick up a weapon and her brother can prefer not to fight.  Now let’s jump into the action.

The story itself is perhaps not novel or groundbreaking.  Indeed, as I sit here writing a review, I struggle to remember just what I thought of it.  It was interesting.  It kept me reading through the night.  I liked it.  I just don’t have much to say about it.  If you like fantasy or fairies or paranormal romance, you will probably like this.  It’s not particularly mysterious or romantic or thrilling, but it tells a story and it does it without feeling like it’s using all the YA cliches.  Sometimes that’s enough.

3 starsKrysta 64

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

The Maltese FalconInformation

Goodreads: The Maltese Falcon
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1930

Official Summary

A treasure worth killing for. Sam Spade, a slightly shopworn private eye with his own solitary code of ethics. A perfumed grafter named Joel Cairo, a fat man name Gutman, and Brigid O’Shaughnessy, a beautiful and treacherous woman whose loyalties shift at the drop of a dime. These are the ingredients of Dashiell Hammett’s coolly glittering gem of detective fiction, a novel that has haunted three generations of readers.


The Maltese Falcon is known for introducing readers to Sam Spade, the epitome of the hardboiled detective.  But the book is a classic for many other reasons, ranging from the engaging mystery to the vividly defined characters to the sharp prose.  I don’t generally read detective novels, but this one kept me turning page after page.

Admittedly, Sam Spade is kind of a jerk.  He plays by his own rules, never minces words, and routinely plays around with women.  (Seriously, he’s always cozying up with his secretary and with clients and apparently previously made some passes at his business partner’s wife.) This did not deter me from enjoying the book.  I think, like the police who constantly hound Spade to fill them in on what he knows, the reader can acknowledge that he is obnoxious while still respecting that he’s very good at his job, and while still being invested in his story.  He’s infuriating but extremely competent.

The plot kept me on my toes, as Spade meets a various of characters who tell him a variety of stories, and it’s on the reader to figure out how they’re all connected and who is telling him the truth.  There’s a fair bit of action and danger, as well, and it’s clear that being a private investigator can be extremely demanding.  It’s mostly about brains, but brawn doesn’t hurt.  (Though people also pull a lot of guns in the novel.)  I also enjoyed that, at least once, the book casually mentions that Spade takes on a smaller, more routine case while all of this is going on, so it’s not as if the world has just stopped for the one case.

All this is told in engaging prose.  My copy of the book quotes a New York Times review that states: “Hammett’s prose [is] clean and entirely unique.  His characters [are] as sharply and economically defined as any in American fiction.”  I agree with this statement in general.  However, Hammett does has a penchant for describing in-depth what people look like and what they are wearing.  The first paragraph of the book is just a detailed description of Spade’s face.  I get it in the sense that detectives should notice details, so maybe the book should mention details–even ones that are not directly related to solving the mystery–but I found some of the description tedious and do not think that “economical” is always the right term.

What I love most about the book, however, is that Hammett just straight narrates the action.  He describes what Spade says and does, but rarely what he thinks; there’s no pontificating or narrator’s explanation for the reader.  Rather, the reader has to interpret the text.  Why is Spade doing what he’s doing? How will it help him solve the case?  Is what he said to another character true or a lie?  What are his motivations?  Maybe it’s because I read a lot of YA, but I found this utterly refreshing.  YA books are almost overwhelmingly written in first person, present tense, so the reader has a continuous run-down of the character’s thoughts and motivations. Everything is explained, and there’s little to guess at.  I liked being left to my own devices while reading The Maltese Falcon.