Reading Shakespeare



When you first approach reading Shakespeare, it can be a daunting experience.  Even though I grew up reading the King James version of the Bible with similar language, I still found Shakespeare a difficult read unless I had a teacher holding my hand throughout the play.  I could understand the basic plot line and even some of the language, but many of the jokes, the history, and the language went over my head.

When I first started planning to teach Shakespeare to my children, I knew I was going to need some help.  Three things especially have made an enormous difference in our Shakespeare studies.

First, whenever I could find them, we would use the Oxford School Shakespeare editions of the plays.  Each volume contains a synopsis, commentary, and extensive line by line notes on the language, jokes, people, places, and history.  There are also discussion questions and a book list in the back for more information.  Throughout each book, there are black and white photographs of the play being performed.  I have grown a lot in my understanding of each of the plays for which I’ve had this version.

Second, we listen to the play while we read.  The Complete Arkangel Shakespeare recordings are the best approach to the play, in my opinion.  While many people say that everyone should take parts and read it aloud, I did not feel confident to do so and neither did my children.  Now we can listen to Shakespearean actors act out the play on audio while we follow along.  These recordings are brilliant and make all of the difference in bringing Shakespeare alive.

Third, I read commentaries on the play for myself before, during, and after I read the play.  The two books I read most often are Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human and  Brightest Heaven of Invention: A Christian Guide to Six Shakespeare Plays by Peter Leithart.  Both of these books have been a great help in understanding what Shakespeare is doing.  I may not always agree with the author but at least it gives me a starting place in my thinking about the play.

Just recently I heard about Shakespeare After All by Marjorie Garber.  I just picked it up at the library today and am hoping to dip into it for my reading of Hamlet.  Another resource that has been a great help is Peter Saccio’s lectures on Shakespeare, two of The Great Courses lecture series.  My library carries these series and Dr. Saccio is an engaging teacher who “unpacks” each play thoroughly and winsomely.  I recommend them.

Of course, many teachers recommend watching Shakespeare whenever possible and we do that, too.  I will write about some of our experiences another day.

I hope these helps in reading Shakespeare will make a difference in your reading, whether you are reading on your own, for a class, or with your family.

3 thoughts on “Reading Shakespeare

  1. I’m so pleased that you included watching the plays. MANY years ago when I was an undergraduate studying Shakespeare, my professors (to a man) stressed that plays are meant to be watched (and that only reading them is a relatively new concept). I completely agree. A tremendous amount is lost when we do not watch the performance and last night I experience a (rather unequal) illustration of this.

    My very favorite Austen novel is Persuasion. I own two versions of it on DVD and I’m a complete sucker for Persuasion-related novels. Anyway, Iast night the daughters and I are watching and Iseult comments to me how funny it is that Anne’s sister curtsied when she (Anne) entered the room, and that her father actually executed a small bow. I conveyed that this would be considered polite manners of the time even among family members. And it occurred to me that the little nuances of behavior, the décor, the behavior of the servants, those things, are not drawn out in the novels (and of course, they wouldn’t be, because Austen’s contemporary readers would know this as their own behavior; but it’s not ours). And actually seeing these behaviors, etc., actually adds to the pleasure (and understanding) of the novel.

    Anyway, roundabout way of adding that, IMHO, there is no substitute for actually seeing the play performed. I debate with myself (all the time) whether one should read it first and then view, or the other way around. Still no final answer. But I just may indulge myself in a little Midsummer Night’s Dream tonight. 🙂


  2. Oh, I agree with you 100%! Seeing these done well is such a help in understanding the plays (or novel). Seeing them done badly is a whole ‘nother animal. 😉

    I am planning a “Shakespeare plays I have watched” post so stay tuned.

    Btw, I started Hamlet this week. I do love this play. It’s funny, too, because when I picture it, I don’t visualize the movies I have seen but the play I saw done at the Shakespeare theater in Stratford, CT when I was 17 years old. It was seeing that play that first caused me to fall in love with Shakespeare.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In Stratford? How fun – I moved from Westport to SC. And would you believe all that time never once got to that theatre! Positively criminal, I tell you.

      A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream was my first Shakespeare. Still love it to this day. Julie Kagawa has written some very fun novels (YA, actually – first one called The Iron King) which draw heavily from the characters and I’m of the firm belief that they can’t really be appreciated it one has not first read the play, LOL.


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