How To Easily Read Shakespeare

Bogged Down in Middle English? Here's Help!

I think that if a poll was taken of high school students asking, 'Who would you most wish to see tortured?', William Shakespeare would top the list. English teachers love the Bard in all his wonderful, bawdy 16th century dialogue and prose; English students hate him for the same reason. If you need or want to read a comedy, tragedy or sonnet of Shakespeare's and don't know how to begin, here are some tips to get you started.

  1. Keep a Shakespeare lexicon handy. A lexicon is a reference guide similar to a dictionary, except that it defines and explains word usage from different time periods or regions. It will translate terms from Middle to Modern English. Check below for links to lexicons to e-read or buy.
  2. Choose a book version with built-in lexicon help. Many publishers include a lexicon in the form of referenced footnotes at the bottom of each page. Penguin and Dover are two publishers that provide a lexicon.
  3. Explore online study guides. Many sites offer free study guides to the works of William Shakespeare. These websites will include a character analysis, character web, plot timeline, major themes and chapter or verse breakdown, as well as an explanation of unfamiliar terms. I regularly use Cliffnotes, Sparknotes, Bookrags, E-Notes and Pink Monkey for literary help.
  4. Read the story itself in a narrative or children's version to get the main plot. Charles and Mary Lamb and Evelyn Nesbit have written beautiful story versions that are very readable for all ages. If you read it as a story without the dialogue or unfamiliar dialect and language, you will get a feel for the plot and characters. You will understand the story better. I found these versions at Barnes and Noble.
  5. Read an expository writing or essay on the work. "Shakespeare without Tears" by Margaret Webster, and Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead", are useful in helping you put the Middle English into a modern perspective.
  6. Speak the dialogue aloud. Shakespeare is first and foremost a playwright. His works were written for actors in a theater. His sonnets were written to be read aloud as well. As funny as it may sound, say the lines aloud. Try to add the correct emotion (which the play will tell you in parenthesis). Try to feel the character. Reading aloud will also help you to understand the flow and meaning of the dialogue.
  7. Visualize the similes and metaphors. One of Shakespeare's greatest gifts was his facility with metaphor. He made excellent comparisons. As you explore his metaphors you will better understand his phraseology.
  8. Listen to the Bard's literal words. What is he really saying? To understand the dialogue in Shakespeare, it helps to know that if it sounds like he is saying something he probably is. If a line sounds like an insult in Modern English, it probably is in Middle as well. If it sounds complimentary, it probably is.
  9. Use the dialogue cues written by each line of dialogue. These are cues to the actors to help them to understand their character and speak their part appropriately. These cues will help you translate the odd phrases and determine what is meant by a particular line. The emotion associated with each line will help with comprehension. The movement or blocking called for by the actor provides insight also.
  10. Watch a theater or movie version of the play. You can access some versions of the plays on as a teacher. Several Shakespearean plays have been made into movies recently and retain much of the dialogue ("Much Ado About Nothing", "Hamlet", "A Midsummer Night's Dream", "Othello", "Henry V", "Twelfth Night"). As a student, look on the Internet Movie Database for a comprehensive list of productions. Listen to the way that the actors say the lines.

Shakespeare is fun and eminently quotable! Make friends with the cadence and rhythm of this most engaging reading! Use this handy guide and soon you'll have formed a 'Dead Poet's Society' dedicated to the Bard. You'll be 'quothing' Shakespeare in no time!


Share this article!

Follow us!

Find more helpful articles:



Interesting article...could have used this when I was in school.

By Tom Mungovan