This summer I took a course on Shakespeare, and it was one of my favorite English classes so far! Shakespeare’s work can be intimidating, so I thought I’d compile a post with suggestions on how best to approach this subject based on what worked for me. (This is a scheduled post. I wrote it over the summer while I was still taking the course but decided to save it and publish it during the school year because I thought a wider range of people might need it then.)
As I just said, the following suggestions are what worked FOR ME. Some of them may not work for you. Hopefully at least ONE will, because I’d feel pretty bad if I wrote a post that wasn’t at all helpful to those of you who are struggling with Shakespeare.
Anyway, my point is that my tactic for studying Shakespeare – or any subject, really – is to surround myself both figuratively and literally with tons of resources to help me learn. Having a desk and bookshelf covered with study materials motivates me to be productive, but I also recognize that not everyone likes to dabble in a bit of everything in order to study. I like to try a little bit of every kind of resource in order to gain a really thorough understanding of the material, but that approach overwhelms some people.
And that’s OK. Pick and choose from this list to find something that works for you! I promise, Shakespeare isn’t nearly as difficult to understand as you may think – and if you have any questions or are really struggling, I’m happy to help! I’ve mostly studied his plays and am less familiar with his poetry, but I’ll do my best to answer any questions you may have or even give you a pep talk if you’re like ENGIE PLEASE HELP I CAN’T TELL THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN HERMIA AND HELENA.
For the sake of clarity and convenience, I will refer to his works as “plays” here in order to avoid constantly switching between “plays” and “poetry.” Enjoy, and happy studying!
1. Watch a film adaptation
On the very first day of class my professor pointed out that students of Shakespeare have a massive advantage over those studying the works of his contemporaries, such as Marlowe or Jonson: There are SO many movie adaptations available, and you’re more likely to catch a live performance of one of his plays, too. Search Netflix or your local library!
2. See the play performed onstage
This may be a little trickier and/or more expensive, depending on where you live, but if you have the opportunity to see a performance then I STRONGLY recommend it. My class saw Pericles at an outdoor theater and it really helped to cement the story and its characters in my mind.
I find that movies and plays bring out the humor that is otherwise easily missed. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve overlooked a pun while reading a play only to finally notice it when I see the story performed! Also, it’s fun to look for and laugh at the asides – the moments when an actor breaks character and addresses the audience directly!
3. Read the play aloud or act it out
Shakespeare’s plays weren’t meant to be read silently to oneself, so why do we so often approach them in that way?! My class took a break from our discussions at least once a week to go outside and act out a scene from whatever we were currently reading.
This doesn’t need to turn into an elaborate production with, like, costumes and a real stage: You could grab some friends and sit in a circle with your copies of the play (and some snacks too, of course!), or you could get up on your feet and get moving. It’s up to you, really. In class we figured out some basic blocking before each scene so that everyone knew when to enter the scene, fight another character, fall down to the ground dead, et cetera. We used sticks for swords.
4. Use CliffsNotes or similar study guides
CliffsNotes, in particular, has a reputation as the resource of choice for C students, but it shouldn’t be! All of my English professors so far have actually encouraged us to use it, as long as it doesn’t replace doing the assigned reading. It’s super helpful when it comes time to write essays, because there are detailed descriptions of the characters, themes, symbolism, and so on and so forth.
Here are some links to study guides you may find helpful:
All of these guides are also available as apps for both iPhone and Android! I haven’t actually used the app versions, though, so I can’t verify how easy or expensive they are to use, but it’s worth a try if you’re interested.
5. Find a modern English “translation”
I have fond memories of using No Fear Shakespeare and Shakespeare on the Double! in high school: I don’t think I would have made it through the plays otherwise. Most of his stories aren’t all that complex, it’s just… well, we don’t talk like the Elizabethans, so oftentimes the language leaves us going “?????”
Personally, I prefer to do most of my reading from a non-translated edition and then refer to the modernized version only when I’m really stumped, because I like to stretch my brain that way. You do you, though.
Other resources that I’ve heard of, but haven’t yet used, include Shakespeare Made Easy and SwipeSpeare. The last is an app for both iPhone and Android that functions as a translator, just as the books mentioned above do, although I believe that if you want to use it for anything other than Romeo and Juliet you have to purchase each additional play individually.
6. Read a graphic novel or picture book adaptation
This is a great option if you’re a visual learner, especially if you don’t have access to a movie or live performance. It also really helps with – you guessed it – writing essays, because the plot has been condensed to only the most important details. There’s no need to feel overwhelmed! Bruce Coville’s picture book retellings of Shakespeare’s plays are an excellent place to start, and I can recommend plenty of others if you need me to!
7. Use printables to keep track of characters, themes, et cetera
I got involved in the studyblr community this summer, and it’s full of wonderful people who are always happy to help! I found this novel notes printable from @ennui-for-me and now use it regularly. I hated this type of worksheet during middle school and high school because it always felt like busywork, but now that I have a more intense academic workload I find that I need to keep track of everything that goes on in anything I have to read for school or else I forget important plot details and the stories begin to blur together.
8. Remember to keep things in perspective
More than anything, try not to become overwhelmed. Whatever study method or resources you decide to use, you should remember that:
- Shakespeare wrote stories that were designed to appeal to the masses
- He wanted to be a commercial success just as much as he wanted to be a writer
- He borrowed from or even straight up ripped off of the plots of pre-existing stories, which means he would have fit right in in this trend of YA retellings
- HE LOVED PUNS SO MUCH OH MY GOD
- If you get the feeling that something is supposed to be funny but you don’t quite understand why, chances are it’s probably an Elizabethan-style dick joke and you should google it to find out what it is
I know that all of those facts are repeated quite often, to the point where you might be tired of hearing them, but I still think it’s important to bear in mind. It’s easy to lose track of who Shakespeare is and what his plays are when it’s half past three in the morning and you have an eight-page essay on a soliloquy due in five hours and you haven’t even started because you don’t know where to start. Study hard, and seek out all the help you can get, but don’t lose sight of how fun and surprisingly down-to-earth reading Shakespeare’s works can be.
Whether you’re studying Shakespeare and his works for school or you’ve decided to learn a little something on your own just for fun, I hope that this list helps you in some way. I’d love to get feedback on my advice, so feel free to let me know how your Shakespeare-studying endeavors go!