How to Understand a Shakespeare Play

Studying a Shakespeare play is something all students will experience during their schooling. William Shakespeare is one of the most well known poets and playwrights in the English language. He is also credited with being the greatest English writer of all time, so it is only natural that English class involves reading one of his plays.

Reading and understanding a Shakespeare play does not have to be a difficult or intimidating experience. Anyone can come to understand and appreciate Shakepeare with a little effort and enthusiasm. No matter which play your classroom teacher has set, the following tips will help come to understand any Shakespearian play.

Choosing the Right Edition


Not only is Shakespeare one of the most read writers in the English langauge, but he is also one of the most widely published. There are numerous editions of Shakespeare plays available to buy, so choosing the right one can be tricky.

Although each edition contains the same text, it is the extras included by the publisher that determine the quality of the edition. Look for an edition that contains notes and explanations with each scene, as this will help you understand the text. This will also save you time having to look up explanations in other books or online, as they will already be at your fingertips.

Learn Some Shakespearian History


Understanding the context of any text is crucial to understanding the text itself. Before you approach your text, you should have a clear understanding of who wrote it, when it was written and what the world was like during this time. Social and political events of the time have a great impact on most literature.

There are many books and websites dedicated to the life and times of William Shakespeare, so this information is not hard to find. With some pre-play reading, you can pick up your playing feeling more knowledgeable about Shakespeare.

Read a Synopsis of the Play


Before you pick up a copy of your play, read a synopsis. If you approach your play armed with an understanding of what it is about, who the characters are and what is going to happen, it will make understanding it a whole lot easier.


Websites like Sparknotes have a detailed synopsis and analysis of most Shakespeare plays.

Don’t be Afraid to Ask Your Teacher Questions


Sometimes asking questions in class can be a nerve-wracking experience. No one wants to look like they don’t understand something. Just rememember, you are not suppose to know this stuff, the whole purpose of being at school is to learn it.

Also remember that you are not alone, the majority of your class probably have the same questions you do but are too afraid to ask. So be brave and put up your hand, it will make understanding Shakespeare so much easier.

Shakespeare Plays Should be Acted Out


Just as poetry is meant to be read aloud, a play is meant to be acted out. You need to immerse yourself in the play. Your teacher may have you act out the play in class, or you can put together a study group and perform it with your friends. Either way, it is important to put the play into action in order to understand it better.

Make sure you don’t fall into the trap of just reading the play aloud. To act a play out you really need to get into it. Take on the role of your character, wear a costume, have props handy and really put the effort in. Not only will immersing yourself in the plot and the characters help you to understand the play better, but it will be a lot of fun too.

Attend a Live Production the Play


If you have the opportunity, attending a live production of your Shakespeare play is a great idea. Not only is it fun to go to the theatre, but the play will take on a whole new meaning if you see it acted out live. Some production companies also do modern translations of Shakespeare, which are also worth seeing.

Watch the Movie Version of the Play


If you are not lucky enough to see a live production of your play, then a movie version will suffice. Just make sure that you are picking a quality version that has good reviews. There is no point watching an inferior version of the play. Also, only watch the movie adaptation if you have already read the play. Starting with the movie is never a good idea in case there are important differences.

Listen to an Audiobook


If you are having great difficulty paying attention while reading the play, try an audiobook version. Sometimes having a text read to you can make a great difference. Audiobooks can easily be downloaded onto your iPod. This means you can grab your headphones, rid yourself of any distractions and learn your play that way.

No Fear Shakespeare


Sparknotes not only have study notes for Shakespeare plays, but they also have No Fear Shakespeare. Here they present most Shakespeare plays with a modern translation of the text, beside each scene. This is available online or in book format.

Although this is a great way to understand what is happening, since Shakespearian language can be difficult to understand, make sure you only read this version after you have read and studied the original text. There is no point reading this version first, because it is more than likely you won’t bother picking up Shakespeare’s original. Not reading the original text is not a good idea, as you will need to memorise and understand important quotes, which you cannot do with the modern translation.

Be Confident in Your Abilities!


The most important thing you can do when approaching a Shakespeare play is to be confident in your abiltiies. Anyone can learn to understand and appreciate Shakespeare. Just remember, he is writing in English, a language that you already know, so there is no reason to be intimidated. With a little effort and enthusiasm, you will be reading Shakespeare like a pro.

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Author: knowledge herald

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