Tips for Reading and Understanding Shakespeare (Making Friends with Shakespeare Series)


This hub responds to a question asked here on HubPages - my answer proved too long, so here it is, now with many helpful links and even videos: tips for reading and understanding Shakespeare...

Shakespeare isn't that difficult!

Did you know that only 5% of the words Shakespeare uses are actually obsolete nowadays?

This is very important to understand: 95% of Shakespeare's words are still in use today.

So, yes, the language is structured a bit differently, but it is far more accessible than people tend to believe - don't let a mistaken pre-conceived notion get in your way.

More such helpful tips can be found in Ben Crystal's "Shakespeare on Toast", of which Dame Judi Dench said:

"This is a brilliantly enjoyable, light-hearted look at Shakespeare which dispels the myths and makes him accessible to all. I love it!"

Sonnet 130 - Comparison of Daniel Radcliffe and Alan Rickman

Read Aloud

Reading aloud is very useful and satisfying. Shakespeare uses sound and rhythm to help in his expression, so this can help you to understand what is being said and felt. His words still speak to us today, and can be interpreted in many ways (see video for a comparison of the readings of experience and youth).

While seeing a verse layout may seem daunting at first, Shakespeare's 'blank verse', that is verse that does not rhyme, is actually written in a form that is very close to normal speech. This particular form he uses is known as 'iambic pentameter' and you can find out more about this in the hub Shakespeare's Verse: Iambic Pentameter - It's Easy!

Use notes and glossaries

If you are buying a script, there are many publications that have very useful notes. Take a look at a few so that you can find one that suits your way of reading and understanding. There are ones better for actors, for general reading and for students - see what you find works best for you. There are many stocked in libraries for you to try before you buy.

You can also find helpful glossary books, which will cover the complete works rather than individual plays (though this is not the same as notes on historical context, phrases, etc.) Two worth finding are "A Shakespeare Glossary" by CT Onions and the more modern "Shakespeare's Words" by David and Ben Crystal.

"Shakespeare's Words" is also available - for free! - online at and includes the complete works with notes beside the lines. (David Crystal is an expert on the language of Shakespeare's period and Ben is an actor.)

The Acting Shakespeare Useful Notes on Language

A useful page with help for terminology, pronunciation, pronouns such as thou / thee / thine and more, including a few in-depth examples of working with Shakespeare's language.

Become accustomed to the language

Do the occasional search online for Shakespeare quotes and have fun generating Shakespearean insults - when you get used to seeing his language you become accustomed to the slight differences in sentence structure and familiar with many of his words and phrases.

Also, see 'Twitter' section!

Ask Questions!

As mentioned, this hub began as an answer to a question asked right here on HubPages (link below).

There are many Shakespeare enthusiasts who love to help and I am just one. To contact me at any time, see my profile for my websites, and - of course - you can comment below.

Twitter - yes, it can be brilliant for Shakespeare!

There are a lot of Twitter users who are eager to help anyone interested in Shakespeare. Through tweets, tags and direct messaging you can pick up a lot of information and ask those all important questions.

There was even an international 'Ask Shakespeare' day in 2011, where experts answered questions with the #askshakespeare tag. This is likely to become an annual event, so visit the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust to find out more!

You can also get used to Shakespeare's language by following certain people / organisations on Twitter. You can find me via @DFActing and check out my Shakespeare list of tweeters, as well as ask for help. Also, @IAM_SHAKESPEARE tweets the complete works, so you can receive the language in short bursts and spot anything you want to follow up.

Trailer for Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night

See the plays!

Seeing the plays can be very important for the understanding mentioned in this hub's title.

It is always useful to see the plays live whenever you can, so check out your local theatres - Shakespeare plays are still popular worldwide. Of course, there may not be one right by you exactly when you need it, but there are also many fine films available.

As well as buying or renting, you can check out YouTube, too - it is surprising how much you can see for free there, including Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night. In fact...

Shakespeare on HubPages

Here is a hub about Twelfth Night which includes The Animated Tales version (the BBC Animated Tales cover a number of Shakespeare's most popular plays) and other entertaining and helpful links.

Other hubs of mine, to do with Shakespeare, linked below, include one that helps with iambic pentameter - the verse form Shakespeare uses - and that have entertainment as well as information, helping to make Shakespeare accessible.

The question that stimulated this hub can be found here, where others have also advised, and, of course, you can search for other Shakespeare-related hubs.

This, too, is the perfect opportunity to:-

Ask and you shall receive!

Ask for what you would most like to see that would help you - in hubs, blogs, etc. (For instance, you might be interested in the pros and cons of reading Shakespeare in modern 'translations'.)

I am an actress and acting coach who specialises in Shakespeare and I want to create helpful content here and in my Acting Shakespeare wordpress blog. I am passionate about this subject and truly want to offer quality content about it.

So - tell me what you want to read!

And remember...

Impressionist Jim Meskimen Does Shakespeare in Celebrity Voices

Shakespeare is fun!

Shakespeare has inspired a great many people over the ages, and as you become familiar with his works and keep an eye out for Shakespeare in life, you will keep finding more and more responses to him, in dramas, musicals, books and their titles (Agatha Christie, anyone?) and also in less obvious areas, such as business training and politics.

Exploring Shakespeare in his works and influences can bring great enjoyment, whether you are revelling in his comedies, experiencing cathartic release through his tragedies or finding his influences in the world around you.

This video is just one little influence for you to enjoy, and in it, impressionist Jim Meskimen actually relates his chosen celebrity to what he is saying (I especially like the Simon Cowell choice).

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Comments 27 comments

kenneth avery profile image

kenneth avery 2 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama


Superb. You hit all the marks. This is an excellent piece of writing. To be totally-honest, it can easily be described as amazing.

I loved every word. Graphics were superb. This hub was helpful, informative and I found it very interesting.

Voted up and all the choices because you deserve it.

You have such a gift for writing. Keep writing no matter what.


Kenneth Avery, Hamilton, Alabama

Huntgoddess profile image

Huntgoddess 3 years ago from Midwest U.S.A.

But, I don't think it IS just a personal attachment. I think the dream actually IS kind of central, really. I've read a critic who agrees with me. I should find more, but I don' t have the time to read cool stuff like critical essays. I wish I did. I'd love that!

But, I also think perhaps the video is mislabeled, because the dream is not really Shakespeare's fun. It's Mr. Meskiman's. There is certainly no scarcity of fun in Shakespeare's actual writings, but this monologue is not an example of that.

The "Rude Mechanicals" are fun. Malvolio is fun. They don't need any celebrity voices. They're already fun, as Shakespeare wrote them.

Danielle Farrow profile image

Danielle Farrow 3 years ago from Scotland, UK Author

Yes, that dream is haunting indeed. I saw a production recently and it stood out for the performer playing Clarence. I guess we all have parts we are personally attached to, so that we are not quite so happy to see them played around with.

Has your grand-daughter revisited the role? I find it can be very interesting to go back to something we have worked before and see it often with some fresh insight.

All the best to you and your also talented family! :)

Huntgoddess profile image

Huntgoddess 3 years ago from Midwest U.S.A.

Hey, no problem, Danielle. I know you're very busy.

Sometimes there ARE tech problems, as well --- freeze-ups, etc., with these comment postings.

I see I accidentally typed, "O for a muse of fire that would ASCENT" --- instead of ASCEND, as in ---- O for a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heavens . (I think that's it? My son used to say it like a jillion times per day, so I should know by now.)

I have to say that I sort of really very much love Clarence's dream. I'm kind of sad that Mr. Meskimen --- obviously very talented --- uses Clarence's dream as a satire piece.

Clarence's dream is powerful, reminiscent and haunting. The dream is really central to the entire play. Clarence was my little grand-daughter's first role, when she was twelve years old.

Clarence's dream monologue always give me goose bumps --- except when the actor tries to "upstage" Shakespeare's language --- as Mr. Meskiman does here.

Danielle Farrow profile image

Danielle Farrow 4 years ago from Scotland, UK Author

You still can, Austinstar! :)

Thank you very much for your response, and should looking at Shakespeare have some appeal for you now, please don't hesitate to get in touch with any thoughts or questions.

Austinstar profile image

Austinstar 4 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

Excellent hub and I wish I had read this in college. I might have learned to like Shakespear!

Danielle Farrow profile image

Danielle Farrow 4 years ago from Scotland, UK Author

That's fantastic, Huntgoddess - congrats to your son! And apologies for such a delayed response! I felt sure I had written before, but it doesn't appear here. Sorry!

Huntgoddess profile image

Huntgoddess 4 years ago from Midwest U.S.A.

Yes, it is --- the logo, I mean. Thanks --- not that I had anything to do with it :-)

-- And, yes, thanks for the reminder. I get choked up every time I see the St. Crispin's Day speech on stage. [Getting that way now :-)) -- just from reading it!] Thanks, dear Danielle.

Hey, your play sounds really great. I didn't know who Imogen Stubbs was. Looked her up, and see she was married to Trevor Nunn. I would love to see or read this play. It sounds wonderful!

Actually --- that has sort of traditionally been one of YSP's issues. Most of the male roles are played by girls, because there have been so few boys. So, your play is especially relevant for YSP --- in many ways. We should definitely see that. (I would suggest that YSP should perform it, but they are all about public domain.)

Of course, YSP is all amateurs, and you guys are professionals. Shakespeare is our hobby, not our job.

Our director has written a book entitled _The Actor's and Intelligent Reader's Guide to the Language of Shakespeare_ --- with reference to what you say here:

~~"Exploring the meaning of words and how he plays with them, tapping into the energy and directorial information of the rhythm of his verse, really working the musculature of his language - words and syntax - and getting to grips with his long thoughts and ideas could all come under academic headings, but are intrinsic to working with Shakespeare and also aspects available to anyone whose attention has been caught.~~"

And, yes, you are quite correct. Studying Shakespeare's language could be considered academic, but not when you're already "hooked" or "in love" --- whatever to call it?

A set curriculum IS definitely a drawback, yes, I agree. Teachers can do some damage to the kids' joy and appreciation.

Another Shakespeare story: You've probably heard about the folks in Madison demonstrating against the governor's bill, and occupying the Capitol building last year? Well, the public hearing went on for a week or two --- not sure. Folks were sitting testifying all night long. My son's turn came to testify, and he recited the Prologue from Henry V: "O for a Muse of fire that would ascent . . . "

He's especially good at that soliloquy, because he says it all the time. Of course, it didn't have much to do with the hearing, or the bill, or the occupation, but still --- he got a rousing round of applause, and cheers!! I think he woke them up, at least !

Danielle Farrow profile image

Danielle Farrow 4 years ago from Scotland, UK Author

Funny - I'm currently appearing in a play by Imogen Stubbs called 'We Happy Few'! It is about an all-female troupe of players bringing Shakespeare and other greats to all areas of Britain during WWII.

The quote is from Henry V, the St Crispin's Day speech that ends with:

"This story shall the good man teach his son;

And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be remember'd;

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition:

And gentlemen in England now a-bed

Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day."

Fantastic logo!

Danielle Farrow profile image

Danielle Farrow 4 years ago from Scotland, UK Author

Looking forward to checking YSP out - thanks for the info! :)

Huntgoddess profile image

Huntgoddess 4 years ago from Midwest U.S.A.

You not only captured my thought, but said it much better than I could have.

Thanks, and definitely check out the YSP website. They have a You Tube channel as well.

Huntgoddess profile image

Huntgoddess 4 years ago from Midwest U.S.A.

Dear Danielle, Thanks for your very nice response. Yes, you are quite right, of course.

Here is the website for the Young Shakespeare Players:

Indeed, acting IS the best way to connect. Shakespeare was an actor.

Yes, we are very lucky to have YSP. The YSP logo says: "We few. We happy few." From . . . is it Henry VIII?

~~~"How people come into contact with Shakespeare is crucial, though, as sometimes his work is not allowed to live and breathe." ~~~ Ah, yes, you captured my thought exactly!! Thanks.

I still have to wonder about editing, though. It can make a big difference. The unedited plays are very long, though.

Danielle Farrow profile image

Danielle Farrow 4 years ago from Scotland, UK Author

I love the sound of the Shakespeare organisation you are involved with - what is it, please, Huntgoddess? And congrats on your family and your involvement, sounds brilliant!

And yes, 'Shakespeare teaches' - allowed to live and breathe, that is exactly what Shakespeare does, teaching about people, life, humanity, the ills and the glories. How people come into contact with Shakespeare is crucial, though, as sometimes his work is not allowed to live and breathe.

This can happen with an academic approach (though if someone is interested in this avenue, the rest is likely to come) and it can happen where those introducing him are uncertain in their own ability to let his words live.

Trusting the words, especially when trying to teach within a set curriculum, can be difficult. Acting is probably the best way to connect. Some of what is called academic work, though, is part and parcel of connecting to Shakespeare and should not be viewed as separate from the joy of his works, but rather as research and understanding that can be both educational and entertaining.

Exploring the meaning of words and how he plays with them, tapping into the energy and directorial information of the rhythm of his verse, really working the musculature of his language - words and syntax - and getting to grips with his long thoughts and ideas could all come under academic headings, but are intrinsic to working with Shakespeare and also aspects available to anyone whose attention has been caught.

Catch that attention, and the rest will follow! So, fantastic that you and your family have such a group to feed your Shakespeare passion. :D

As you can tell, my access here is intermittent as well. All the best!

Danielle Farrow profile image

Danielle Farrow 4 years ago from Scotland, UK Author

Apologies for delayed response, prairieprincess! Thank you for your comment and appreciation of my enthusiasm - I think the latter is especially important when wanting to communicate.

And thank you for the articles to which I was happy to link!

Huntgoddess profile image

Huntgoddess 4 years ago from Midwest U.S.A.

Danielle, Please forgive my poor manners. I'm so sorry I never got back to see your reply until now. I'm almost always in a hurry, as I have no Internet of my own, and always have to share with others, so am always on a "time crunch".

Thanks for the compliment on the name, "Huntgoddess".

Hero - from Much Ado About Nothing; Juliet, from Romeo and Juliet; Viola from Twelfth Night; Lysander and Oberon, Midsummer Night Dream.

I have not yet been in anything except a brief scene --- during a "Shakespeare's birthday open house". (Always wanted to play one of the weird sisters, though. Perhaps someday.)

My son has played Cassius, Brutus and Caesar (not all in the same production, of course LOL) Buckingham, Iago, MacDuff, Bottom and Leontes, plus many other tiny roles. My granddaughter has played George, Duke of Clarence, Casca, the Porter and Michael Cassio. She started when she was twelve.

We belong to an organization where it's all Shakespeare all the time, all year long, and the actors range in age from seven to eighteen years old. Usually there are four plays each year. But, there are other, smaller events --- workshops, anthologies.

There's also an adult group --- but they started with kids. The parents had to beg to be allowed to join also :-)

We do not cut anything from the plays. They're all full-length, so ---- very long. Cutting something out really changes the story. Our director says, "We don't think we're smart enough to change Shakespeare."

No, the plays are not modernized, either. They don't believe in "kiddy Shakespeare" --- whether done by kids or adults.

Well --- other than bragging about my family ! --- I wanted to suggest that Shakespeare is neither about reading nor about understanding.

It's about doing, speaking and listening.

I used to think there was a "correct" way to act in a play by Shakespeare, but I was wrong. In our troupe, we get to watch the same play several times ---- each time with a different cast. Each actor brings something different to Shakespeare's words. And, it is the words and their sounds that are most important. It's not only meaning. (If that were so, paraphrasing would be fine.)

In our local organization, there are no rejections or auditions. Everybody who shows up gets a part. The director says they believe, as Hamlet says, "The readiness is all."

I have not yet seen the above video, (I'm on a computer with no video) but I feel a little sad that anyone would ridicule George's powerful dream monologue. One critic said that this monologue is central to the whole play.

I believe it's a mistake to say that Shakespeare is only for scholars and academicians, or that Shakespeare must be taught.

Shakespeare teaches.

prairieprincess profile image

prairieprincess 4 years ago from Canada

Wow, first of all, thank you so much for adding my hubs to your article. I am sorry I did not see this sooner. And second of all, bravo! This is excellent advice for reading Shakespeare. I agree: it isn't as hard as people think. I love your enthusiasm for your subject area: very well done.

Danielle Farrow profile image

Danielle Farrow 5 years ago from Scotland, UK Author

For those of you who have already read the hub:- just letting you know that an additional section, with video, has been added under the heading 'Shakespeare is Fun!' A colleague brought this grand piece to my attention - a mimic doing Clarence's speech from Richard III in different celebrity voices. Enjoy!

Website Examiner 5 years ago

You are very welcome.

Danielle Farrow profile image

Danielle Farrow 5 years ago from Scotland, UK Author

Many thanks, Website Examiner!

Website Examiner 5 years ago


Danielle Farrow profile image

Danielle Farrow 5 years ago from Scotland, UK Author

Please could someone help me - for some technical reason I have yet to fathom, I cannot submit an answer on the question that started this hub. If someone could post for me there, linking this hub, that would be fantastic! The question can be found here:

Danielle Farrow profile image

Danielle Farrow 5 years ago from Scotland, UK Author

rebekahELLE - lovely to see you again (I've been away too long)!

Thank you for showing such appreciation - 'well written and informative' is exactly what I hope to achieve (with some entertainment in there too).

I think that experience does make a difference when writing on a subject. Though if one is immersed in something, coming back to the basics / phrasing things in an accessible manner can be a bit difficult.

That is why I really appreciate feedback and thank you again for yours!

Really glad you've enjoyed this, and, absolutely - Rickman's voice is just fantastic. I always think of the magic duel between his and Branagh's characters in the second Potter duel as the war of the voices. ;)

Enjoy the Shakespeare series!

Danielle Farrow profile image

Danielle Farrow 5 years ago from Scotland, UK Author

Hi Huntgoddess - love the name!

I work for different companies, mostly in the UK, with a visit to Italy last year, which was grand.

Re. Shakespeare, as well as roles I have explored in training and workshop situations, I have played roles in modern plays that use scenes from Shakespeare, plays like Dogg's Hamlet (Laertes) and Get Me Out of Here! (Lady Macbeth).

Of 'full' Shakespeare productions, while the plays I have been in have been faithful to the text (not modernised), they tend to be slightly cut down for duration purposes. In these, my roles include Hero, Juliet, Viola, Lysander and Oberon.

How about you, Huntgoddess?

Danielle Farrow profile image

Danielle Farrow 5 years ago from Scotland, UK Author

Yes, Website Examiner, HubPages questions and answers can provide not only information, but also great stimuli. Thank you for your continued interest in my work!

rebekahELLE profile image

rebekahELLE 5 years ago from Tampa Bay

Danielle, it's so nice to have a Shakespearean expert/actress on HubPages. These hubs are so well written and informative.

There's such a difference when reading a hub written by an experienced professional and someone who simply researched the topic. I'm going to follow your Shakespeare series. Thanks also for the videos. WOW, hearing Alan Rickman recite Sonnet 130 is so satisfying. Superb!

Huntgoddess profile image

Huntgoddess 5 years ago from Midwest U.S.A.

What company do you act in? What roles have you played? Does your company perform the entire plays, or edited versions?

Website Examiner 5 years ago

What an excellent idea!

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