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How to Understand Shakespeare's Plays: What you need to do to enjoy drama

Updated on September 23, 2012

"Give every man thy ear but few thy voice."

What do you think of Shakespeare's Plays?

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The Basics

If you are unfamiliar with Shakespeare's plays, the lofty language and complicated metaphors may seem daunting, but don't despair. Shakespeare's plays are accessible to modern readers and can be understood with a little time and effort. Whether you are taking a class in Shakespeare or you just want to get to know the bard a bit better, there are a few things you may find useful to know.

It's Easier Than You Thought

Shakespeare's plays are not written in Old English. Though they may seem cryptic, they are actually written in Early Modern English, an antiquated form of the English you and I speak today. So, even if some of the passages seem ancient, you may be surprised to see a number of modern phrases spoken and used just as they are today. Shakespeare also coined a number phrases and words that have now entered everyday speech so, when you're trying to understand all those "forsooth's" just remember Shakespeare's contemporaries were probably baffled by some of his vocabulary.

Where to begin?

To understand any play by Shakespeare, the following steps will be useful.

1) Read the play in its entirety

2) Watch a filmed version of the play or see it performed on stage

3) Reread the play

Read the Play

When reading, try to make a mental picture of what is going on, who is present on stage, and what the general setting is. Reading a play is a bit harder than reading a novel or short story because a play lacks a lot of descriptive details that help you visualize the action and thus requires the reader to use more imagination.

As you read, try to translate the play's text into modern language. You may have to consult the play's footnotes and take the reading slowly, working line-by-line or even word-by-word at first but the result will be worth the effort. As you progress, understanding Shakespeare's language will become easier.

If you cannot understand every word or every line right away, do not worry. Trying to hard will only wear you out and discourage you from finishing the play. Push on to the end, then you can go back and try to decipher anything that did not make sense. Or watch the play and see if you understand it better.

Watch the Play

Watching Shakespeare performed on film or on stage is a wonderful experience and is a great way to become more familiar with a play. One of the many benefits of seeing a play performed is that you will find it easier to follow. Not only will you be able to understand the action of the play better but the lines will also be easier to understand with actors putting emotion behind them.

When watching a play, it is important to bear a few things in mind:

1) Most productions of Shakespeare's plays cut or edit the play's text in some way, either to fit time constraints or to emphasize the director's interpretation of that play.

2) Every production of a Shakespeare play is an interpretation of the text. Shakespeare's plays are so rich and nuanced that they may be interpreted in a great many ways. Just because an actor speaks a line a certain way or emphasizes a certain aspect of his character does not mean this is the right way to interpret that character or the way in which Shakespeare wanted that character presented. It is just the way that actor and the production's director wanted to interpret the text.

Try to see if you can answer the following questions about the play after you have seen it: What themes or concerns of the play did the production emphasize? What aspects or readings of the play did the production overlook? What in the production differed from the play as you had imagined it? Why do you think the director and actors made the choices they did?

Reread or Re-watch the Play

One of the beauties of Shakespeare's plays is that they always reveal something new with each rereading, even to the most seasoned scholar. Now that you have read the play and possibly seen a version of the play. You will benefit greatly by re-reading it or seeing another production. While this step is by no means necessary, it will help you in your study of Shakespeare and, quite likely, heighten your enjoyment of the play. This step will help you to pick up things that you missed the first time you read or saw the play.

When rereading the play or re-watching it, push yourself harder than you did the first time reading it or seeing it. Try harder to understand the passages you found troubling and try to observe the various interpretations possible from the text.

Helpful Terms

Soliloquy - A soliloquy is a speech made by one character.The speech does not actually represent spoken words but the thoughts and feelings of the character speaking. Hamlet's "To be or not to be" speech from Hamlet is a soliloquy.

Monologue - In a monologue, them speaker addresses an audience that does not interject or offer comments (Anthony's Speech from Julius Caesarand Henry V's speeches to his troops in Henry V are examples of monologues.)

Aside - An aside, like a soliloquy, represents words that a character speaks that are "heard" only by the audience and represent that character's thoughts or feelings. Unlike a soliloquy, an aside is a brief statement, usually uttered in the midst of dialogue. Also, asides are usually denoted by stage directions while soliloquies are not.

Exit - The character or characters listed leave the stage

Exeunt - Unless otherwise noted, all characters on stage leave stage


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    • donnah75 profile image

      Donna Hilbrandt 5 years ago from Upstate New York

      I find that people are afraid of Shakespeare until they start reading. It is this "it's too hard" myth that many people are battling. I teach Shakespeare to high school students, and I ask them to give it a try before they make the claim that it is too hard. Often, they really get it. I don't allow negative Shakespeare talk in my classroom, and I think that helps. Nice article.

    • Adam Vera profile image

      Adam Kullman 5 years ago from Texas


      Thank you so much for the comments. This is my first hub so I am glad to have the comments/criticism. I will try to incorporate the importance of reading him into either this hub or a related one. Thanks

    • SeanEdwardArmie profile image

      SeanEdwardArmie 5 years ago

      Nice work. I think you've provided a great strategy catering to individuals hesitant to tackle Shakespeare. Although, I think it would be helpful to explain the progressiveness of his work and the importance of reading him. For myself at least, understanding his radical portrayal of gender and class as performative roles in a play like "Twelfth Night" really turned me on to Shakespeare. For many people, the struggle of Shakespeare is not just unpacking the language, but finding a compelling reason for reading him in the first place. While the artistry of his language is unparalleled, his examination of the human condition and progressive understanding of gender and politics have made him just as relevant as when he began writing. I think if the common reader was made more aware of this, they would probably be less hesitant to put in the work required for enjoying his plays.