How to Read Shakespeare: A Beginner’s Guide

By Richie Bowman 

Recently at the store, a customer ordered a book teaching children how to read Shakespeare. I think it’s an admirable goal! There’s so much to learn and dig into with his works; I’ve been studying him for well over a decade and still feel like a beginner. But, (and I do hate to admit this) I’d read the book the customer ordered, and it’s awful. It’s nothing but baseless claims that don’t help with actual understanding, and appear to only exist to make you seem smart if you say them– not to enlighten you. I have yet to find a how-to book on Shakespeare that prioritizes anything other than rote memorization, and I just don’t think it’s the way! So I’m here to throw my hat in the ring and maybe help someone out, someone who doesn’t want to remember the entirety of “To be or not to be” before they’ve read Hamlet. In the future I hope to write about some specific plays, but for now, here’s a how-to from a “real Shakespearean actor” (ha ha) on how you can manage the Bard like a pro.

 

General Advice

Listen, I’ll admit that I come from a privileged background in understanding Shakespeare. When you grow up with both parents as Christian ministers who familiarize you with the King James English of the Bible, you start with a nice base understanding of Old English, and it really doesn’t take long to get. But for those of you in the world who don’t have that, here’s my top four general tips to reading Shakespeare well:

 

  1. No one sight reads Shakespeare. The people who know the shows know them intimately. It takes years of training to be able to halfway get what they’re saying. Shakespearean monologues, like any other monologues, require context, and while the whole show may seem intimidating, it’s necessary to get what the hell you’re saying or reading. A perfect example of this is Viola’s infamous “I left no ring with her” monologue from Twelfth Night. How many times have I seen someone pull a physical ring from their pocket?? How many times have I seen someone do this monologue in a dress? How many times will I be forced to suffer a fourteen year old brunette getting handed this monologue when she’s never read the show??? A million each, I’m sure. But don’t feel bad about not reading Shakespeare perfectly!!!! No one does.

 

  1. Thee/thou seems fancy, while you/your seems really basic, but it’s actually the opposite. Many languages have these differences in second person (familiar vs formal) but thee and thou are actually your familiar second person, which is just to say that you’d say “thee” to your buddy and “you” to your professor. When someone uses “thee” to a noble, that’s a slight. When someone uses “you” to a commoner, they’re saying they respect them. See: “Villain, I have done thy mother” vs “I love you with so much of my heart that none is left to protest.”

 

  1. Don’t feel bad for needing a dictionary! I use online Old English dictionaries every time I read a Shakespeare show, and if I come across a word I don’t know, I plug it in. The internet is your friend.

 

  1. Shakespeare is written in two forms: verse and prose. To describe the difference between verse and prose, I turn to a lovely director I had named Chris Canfield, who once said “Verse is poetry… Prose, on the other hand, is just… not poetry.” To know which you’re encountering, he helpfully adds that “you will see [prose] as a block rather than the traditional lines of poetry… An easy trick to recognize Verse is that there will be capital letters at the beginning of each line.”
    1. There are two types of verse as well: rhyming and blank. Which he chooses to use is typically important, a great example being his use of rhyme to express love in Romeo and Juliet. If it’s blank verse, it probably means the person is either high society or at the least pretending to be!

 

Verse, Prose, and Scansion

 

To dive into the specifics, when Shakespeare is writing in Verse, he will use Pentameter. This means there will be ten syllables per line, broken into groups of two syllables each (the group of two syllables is called a poetic foot.) He specifically uses the Iambic Pentameter. 

 

  • The iamb in iambic means that the “stress” (essentially, the emphasis) falls on the second syllable of each foot. A perfect example of this is in Richard III, with the line “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”
    • The stress on this naturally falls into iambic pentameter: a HORSE,| a HORSE,| my KING|dom FOR| a HORSE.

 

If you’re studying the emphasis of Shakespeare’s verse, it’s called scansion. Scansion uses a few different keywords. We’ve discussed iamb, which is the traditional go-to. But sometimes a line isn’t regular, and it requires analysis as to why it’s weird. Go in with the base level assumption that Shakespeare did everything on purpose. So here’s some irregularities you can examine.

 

  • The opposite of iamb is called a trochee-- where the emphasis falls on the first syllable of the foot, not the second. Trochee is traditionally only used on the first or third foot in a pentameter, and never used on the second foot-- I honestly don’t know why, I just know it’s true. Another example from Richard III: “Now is the winter of our discontent.”
    • Now, we could force this into iambic: now IS| the WIN|ter OF| our DIS|conTENT. But that sounds a little messed up when you say it aloud. So, we add a trochee-- NOW is| the WIN|ter OF| our DIS|conTENT. 

 

  • There’s also anapest: When your pentameter has 11 syllables, you can group the first three together with two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable. It sounds a little bit like a rimshot. I couldn’t find an anapestic foot from memory, so I wrote one of my own: “In a blink, I’ll be there like a lightning bolt.”
    • If you try to cram this into iambic, it gets all kinds of screwy: “in A| blink I’LL| be THERE| like A| lightNING| bolt.” Gross. 
    • But if you add an anapest, you get the very pretty and easy to say: in a BLINK| i’ll BE| there LIKE| a LIGHT|ning BOLT. Much better.

 

  • Feminine endings are also fairly common, when your pentameter has 11 syllables and you simply throw the last one into its own foot, unstressed, at the end. An example from Julius Caesar, said by Portia: “Not for yours neither. You’ve ungently, Brutus.” I’m just going to write the correct scansion below:
    • not FOR| yours NEI|ther. YOU’VE| unGENT|ly BRUT|us

 

  • Illision and expansion are the last two you need to regularly know. Basically it’s adding an extra syllable or erasing one to fit the scansion. Hence the use of “tis” for “it is'' or saying “receiv-ed” instead of just “received.” It allows the music of the poetry to work.

 

Typically, a feminine ending or a trochee represents some discord within the character. Anapests, illision, and expansion are used to convey the opposite, which is why every actor can choose to say a line differently. If I think my character is in a bad mood, I will leave the feminine ending intact. But if I think it’s the character is doing fine, I might play around with the illision to try and fit it into ten syllables.

 

You can have this all written beautifully on the page, but if it sounds bad when you say it, dump it. Shakespeare’s verse is meant to sound like a heartbeat-- soothing and repetitious. If there’s a misstep, there’s dissonance in the character. But Shakespeare writes that in for you-- he opens Richard III with a trochee, to tell us the main character is messed up and doing badly.

 

Ultimately, Old English is the same as any other language-- you’re gonna be texting like an amateur until you familiarize yourself with a native speaker. Talk to people who know Shakespeare. Talk to academics. Talk to a friend who reads too much Shakespeare. It’s a lot to take in, but there’s no shame in relearning this stuff. I have my own Shakespeare cheat sheet I still pull out when I get cast. So go forth and give it a shot, and I’ll be back shortly with articles on each of his most popular plays to give you another rundown.