Studying Shakespeare can feel daunting. Especially if you are doing so not out of a love of theater but because your high school English teacher thinks it is part of a well-rounded education (it is). Shakespeare’s speech can be hard to understand, and some of his plots are so convoluted that only a venn diagram or long wall and string will get you through them.
But trust me oh fair Groundling. There is a lighter side to the study of Shakespeare’s work. If you have found your way to this website as a grasp for some kind of study life line rest assured, you’ve come to the right place! Before you panic or give up, take a deep breath and enjoy
Sari’s 37 silly reasons to study Shakespeare
We wouldn’t have anything to compare our lovers to.
He makes us think about the hard questions in life. Does a rose by any other name actually smell as sweet?
The only western playwright to use the wordhonorificabilitudinitatibus correctly in a sentence.
To be or not to be is still the question.
He gave us countless blathering foolish wits and conversely, some loquacious witty fools.
He makes shipwrecks seem like a lot of fun.
He gave us daddy issues way before Freud invented mommy issues.
He left us with some great names. Let’s be honest; we are all a little disappointed that we left college without making friends with cool last names like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
He gave Kenneth Branagh a purpose in life.
He reminds us to always treat a stranger as if he were our brother.
400 years later we still don’t have a better sonnet writer.
400 years later the only people who know the difference between a poem and a sonnet are poets and Shakespeare fanatics.
Three words: Gnome & Juliet.
Best stage direction ever: exit, pursued by a bear.
He gave us teenage angst, extreme teenage angst.
We all now know that when presented with three boxes, always take the least desirable looking one.
He legitimized the breaking of the fourth wall.
Two words: Folger Library.
He gave us some of the world’s best female characters and one of the world’s worst male characters (I’m looking at you Iago).
He gave us the best lines in all of the theater. Oh, we argue over which ones they are, but not over who wrote them.
He taught us that geography really doesn’t matter when writing stories.
He taught us never to give our children their inheritance before we die.
A lot of us wouldn’t know what to do without our Sundays. #ShakespearSunday.
Without him, errors would not be so comical.
Quoting Shakespeare will impress your date, even if they don’t know what the hell you are talking about.
Without him, would anyone really care about the Ides of March?
Hamlet didn’t need eyeliner to be a morose teenager.
Let’s face it, a lot of people went into acting just so they could speak the speech.
Let’s face it, only real Shakespeare fans will get #29.
Without him, Harold Bloom would still be wondering who invented the human.
Without him no amount of explaining would make the skull on your bookshelf any less creepy.
He gave us much ado about everything.
He taught us that it’s best to avoid talking to that small group of women we encounter on the road.
He taught us excessive hand washing might be a sign of more than just OCD.
College students would be agonizing over Chaucer right now.
One word; Dogberry.
He added over 1700 new words to our collective vocabulary and enriched our language. A better speech was never spoke before. Love’s Labour’s Lost.
Studying Shakespeare can tough, but the rewards are many. I hope you stick to it, and I hope to continue to be one of your guides.
Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world. Hamlet Act 3, Scene 2
Happy Halloween to you, my special Groundling. What better day to introduce you to Shakespeare’s ghosts! You might not know it, but Shakespeare changed how we view ghosts in literature, more specifically, how they were viewed in theater first, and that changed interaction between literary figures and the spirit world.
Before Shakespeare, ghosts were mentioned, pointed to, referred to, and used as props, but rarely were they characters in their own right. Occasionally they moaned or wept, but most often than not, were little more than specters in a dark corner. Shakespeare rattled (pun intended) the theater when he introduced the world to spirits with agency. His ghosts had purpose and voiced opinions and warnings. In many of his plays in which ghosts appeared they were the catalyst for action, or harbingers of doom.
As you read the plays keep in mind that this was a time when even the King of England & Scotland James I, believed in witches and evil spirits. James, ever wary of witches wrote a book about witchcraft, Daemonologie. The book describe witches, their practices, and how to spot one. The King goes so far as to warn about wives who dabble in charms for healing purposes.
“I mean by such kind of charms as commonly daft wives use, for healing of forspoken [bewitched] goods, for preserving them from evil eyes, by knitting . . . sundry kinds of herbs to the hair or tails of the goods; by curing the worm, by stemming of blood, by healing of horse-crooks, . . . or doing of such like innumerable things by words, without applying anything meet to the part offended, as mediciners do”.
Though the King and population as a whole, believed in evil spirits, they spent far less time thinking about ghosts as we do in the modern age. In fact, many of Shakespeare’s ghost, including his most famous ghost of King Hamlet, are exhibit Catholic, Protestant, and some pagan characteristics. Shakespeare had to pull material from various sources simply because there were no strong ideas about ghosts. This makes Shakespeare’s ghosts all that more interesting to us. So here goes, let’s jump right in and introduce ourselves to some of his more famous ghosts!
Hamlet: Hamlet Senior
Hamlet Speak; I am bound to hear.
Ghost So art thou to revenge, when thou shalt hear.
Ghost I am thy father’s spirit.
We all know Hamlet is a play about a young man whose inability to act leads to tragic consequences. There are countless books about Hamlet’s state of mind and arguments over whether this is a man “who cannot make up his mind”, but forgotten sometimes in all of this noise is why Hamlet cannot bring himself to act.
Hamlet senior, the ghost who wants revenge, may or may not be what he claims to be and this “be or not be” is the very reason Hamlet hesitates to bring his uncle to justice. Is the ghost a wondering spirit who cannot rest until he has his revenge, a demon that seeks to mess with the young prince’s life or is he a figment of Hamlet’s already unstable mind? We could devote an entire post to this question, but for now let’s remember, Hamlet doesn’t decide to act until he is convinced that the ghost is his father and even then hesitates to out his uncle. And because of his hesitation to act the castle of Elsinore may now have more ghostly inhabitants than living ones.
Banquo’s ghost enters the room and sits in Macbeth’s chair
Macbeth The table’s full.
Lennox Here is a place reserved, sir.
Lennox Here, my good lord. What is’t that moves your highness?
Macbeth Which of you have done this?
Lords What, my good lord?
Macbeth Thou canst not say I did it; never shake they gory locks at me.
Though the Ghost of Banquo does not speak out-loud, his presence speaks volumes. Banquo was an invited guest but does not arrive in body. He arrives in spirit just after being killed on the oder of Macbeth. This may be the world’s first Gothic ghost story!
Macbeth is responsible for quite a few deaths, but it is Banquo’s that seemingly pushes him over the edge. If Banquo was modeled on earlier ghostly plot devices he would served as a reminder to the audience that Macbeth is not a sympathetic character, but the audience is already beginning to come to grips with the horrors that Macbeth is willing to inflict on those around him. Shakespeare masterfully uses this ghostly specter to show the audience the effects of said horrors that are having an effect on Macbeth’s mind.
Richard III: Everyone Richard killed or was in some or another responsible for or connected to.
Eleven ghosts cross the stage and speak to Richard the night before the battle of Bosworth. In order they are: Prince Edward; King Henry VI; Clarence; Rivers; Gray; Vaughan; the two young princes; Hastings; Lady Anne, and finally, Buckingham. Each chant “Despair, and die!”
Henry VI’s ghost speaks to Richard
When I was mortal, my anointed body By thee was punched full of deadly holes Think on the Tower and me: despair, and die! Harry the Sixth bids thee despair, and die!
Though they come to Richard in a dream, I include them as ghosts because they will visit Richmond as he sleeps too.; showing us that they are not merely guilty nightmarish constructs. Unlike the ghosts in Hamlet and Macbeth, who act as catalysts for change, these are ghostly prophets; acting more like Shakespearean witches than ghosts. Each foretell of Richard’s doom and Richmond’s success.
Julius Caesar: Caesar
Brutus How ill this taper burns!—Ha, who comes here? I think it is the weakness of mine eyes That shapes this monstrous apparition. It comes upon me.—Art thou any thing? Art thou some god, some angel, or some devil That makest my blood cold and my hair to stare? Speak to me what thou art.
Ghost They evil spirit, Brutus.
Brutus Why comest thou?
Ghost To tell the thou shalt see me at Philippi
Brutus Well, then I shall see thee again?
Ghost Ay, at Philippi.
Brutus Why, I will see thee at Philippi, then.
Taken out of context, this scene could be played for laughs. It is as if Caesar’s ghost walked into Brutus’ tent and says “Boo”. Brutus, busy reading looks up and says, “Boo to you too”. The ghost then turns and walks away mumbling, “That didn’t go as planned”. It is one of those rare clunky scenes of Shakespeare that does nothing to advance the play or inform the audience of a character’s state of mind. It does however provide some context as to why Brutus decides to commit suicide later in the play. The guilt of Caesar’s death and the ghostly visit finally take their toll on the traitor as he realizes he is about to lose everything.
Cymbeline: Pothumus’s deceased father, Sicilius Leonatus, mother and brothers visit him in a dream.
Mother: S ince Jupiter, our son is good take off his miseries.
Sicilius Leonatus: Peep through thy marble mansion; help; Or we poor ghosts will cry to the shining synod of the rest against thy deity.
First and Second Brother: Help, Jupiter; or we appeal, and from thy justice fly!
Once again we have “ghosts” who show up in a dream. The jailed Pothumus has a dream in which his deceased relatives implore the God Jupiter to take pity on the hero. In the dream Jupiter descends on an eagle and admonishes the “petty spirits of region low” for daring to accuse the god of turning his back on Pothumus. As well that ends well, for Jupiter assures the ghosts that Pothumus will be freed and live happily ever after.
These are Shakespeare’s strangest and most annoying ghosts. After lecturing the ghosts about Pothumus’ fate, Jupiter commands them to be gone; “Away: no further with your din express impatience, lest you stir up mine”. Yet they keep talking! The play is long and weird enough without these chatty ghosts. I doubt the audience paid much attention to them as they watched in awe as Jupiter ascended back into the heavens on an eagle!
From an uninvited dinner guest, to ghostly apparition who don’t know when to shut up, Shakespeare has given us some of the stages’ most talked about ghosts. Because of Shakespeare we now have fully fleshed out ghosts (pun intended). Apparitions are no longer just plot devices, mutely hovering over the stage. They now have agency to scare or annoy us.
The Complete Works of Williams Shakespeare, Yale University Press
“When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?”
Do we have free will? This is one of mankind’s most loaded questions because the answer depends on the one’s worldview and how we perceive and react to circumstances beyond our control.
The question of free will becomes a theological argument for those who seek to find meaning in tragedy or everyday disappointments. “Yes,” they may argue, “we have some free will but ultimately God is in control.” For others who do not ascribe to divine intervention the question is viewed as an exercise of rational philosophy (though first they argue over the term “free will”). Some feel that those who are not enslaved have absolute free will, while others argue that agents of free will can only act upon their own will as long as circumstances allow, therefor no one has absolute free will. For example, you may want to go outside but if a snowstorm blocks your door then you cannot act upon your will.
Of course no well-rounded debate over free will would be complete without the argument for moral constraints; and this too is a very loaded question and must remain in the shadows least this post becomes a ten page essay on ethics and free will. The point to all of this is simple, most arguments for and against free will come from a position of arguing over the role that outside forces play as impediments to absolute free will. But, what about internal forces?
Psychologists might argue that there are some free agents who absolutely do not have free will (in fact we may not want to call them free agents); that the ability to act as they wish is hampered by the mind that drives their behavior. We would never say of the mentally ill that they will themselves into depression or delusions nor can we (or should never) say that they have the ability to will themselves well. The point is, while most of use want to be happy, chemical reactions in the brain play a large role in our ability to do so.
But what about those who are not mentally ill, but find themselves driven to certain behaviors through either the will of others or through their own inability to do little more than react to each moment without the much inner reflection? Do these people possess free will or is their internal hard wiring such that they cannot act on anything but impulse?
A classic example of someone who seems driven, not by will, but by impulse and external forces is Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Shakespeare asks us to consider free will in one of his shortest but most powerful plays. Shakespeare is cagey with his answer on the subject. He presents us with a man who may or may not be acting on his own will, and asks us to come up with the answer.
As I see it, Macbeth was a man who never stops to consider his actions and is continually pushed to action by either wild imagined impulse or the will of those around him. His own will, or call to action stems from his fears of what may come next and this fear stems from what had just happened.
We see this from the very start. After winning a battle and saving the Kingdom of Duncan, Macbeth is confronted by three witches who offer a prophetic greeting.
“All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, thane of Glamis! All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee, thane of Cawdor! All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter”!
Macbeth is rightly confused. He is no Thane of Cawdor, as far as he knows Cawdor still lives! As for being King, he at first seems hesitant to consider the possibility but as the Witches fade from view, he seems bewitched and is quietly contemplating the idea when his companion, Banquo comments on Macbeth’s demeanor. As they talk a herald approaches calling Macbeth thane of Cawdor. This tile is given by King Duncan in thanks for Macbeth’s victory. Macbeth begins to consider the witches prophecy and goes so far as to write a letter to his wife telling her of the strange encounter.
The play is driven by Macbeth’s actions; how he “earns” his title of King and what he will do to hold on to power. Through out the play we are asked to consider whether this man would have eventually usurped the throne or if it he is acting on internal impulse and external encouragement. At one point he hesitates to go through with the plan to kill Duncan but his wife scolds him and questions his manhood prompting Macbeth to go ahead with the plan (or does he use her words as an excuse?). One bloody deed leads to another as the body count adds up. Macbeth is not satisfied to just kill the King, he gets rid of anyone and everyone who he considers to be a threat to his throne.
His actions can be seen as being driven by thoughts of previous actions and of the thoughts of what is to come. This is not a man who spends much time contemplating how his bloody deeds are affecting his free will. He could have just as easily been content to be the good King he first envisioned but it is Macbeth’s over active imagination not his will that compels him to only consider the present moment and even then he is unsure how to act rationally. His thoughts are driven purely by his impulsive imagination. One has to wonder if the witches cast a spell or if the power of suggestion is just as powerful.
The is a good example of the many layers Shakespeare gave to each play. Some just focus on Macbeth as a personification of the saying, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” A deeper reading of the play is an opportunity to see that Shakespeare had more to say about the human condition and what drives our behavior.
Shakespeare is asking us to look at what happens when we don’t stop to analyze our behavior. He seems to offer impulse as the dark side of free will. Some times exercising our free will means we don’t act on impulse and instead contemplate our possible actions their rippling effects they may have on others.
William Hazlitt, a noted 17th century Shakespeare scholar agrees:
Macbeth himself appears driven along by the violence of his fate like a vessel drifting before a storm: he reels to and fro like a drunken man; he staggers under the weight of his own purposes and the suggestions of others; he stands at bay with his situation; and from the superstitious awe and breathless suspense into which the communications of the Weird Sisters throw him, is hurried on with daring impatience to verify their predictions, and with impious and bloody hand to tear aside the veil which hides the uncertainty of the future. He is not equal to the struggle with fate and conscience. He now “bends up each corporal instrument to the terrible feat.
Before you read or watch the play (I suggest both) ask yourself, how many times your own free will is acted upon by external forces. As consumers we bend to peer pressure and well crafted ads. How many times have you worn a new color only to be told, “You look great!” Do you then start wearing it more? How about the opposite? You may like how you look but one word from a friend or family member may have you throwing out a beloved garment. Negative thoughts can be just, if not more, damaging.
We like to think we have free will but Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a good example of easily it bends to internal and external forces.
Hello and welcome back. I hope it is a beautiful day wherever you are. We have had extreme heat and sadly, extreme fires. This is this first day in weeks that I am able to sit here and view the mountains through an open window. I love days like this. I can breath and think again.
One of the things I love more than a warm and breezy summer day is spreading the gospel of Shakespeare. It warms my heart to see someone’s eyes light up when they read or hear a quote and say, “Wow, Shakespeare said that?”
This happened a couple of weeks ago when a group of my co-workers and I were treated to tickets to see Lake Tahoe Shakespeare’s premier of Macbeth, the famous play that encapsulates the phrase, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely”. I am seeing the production again next Sunday, so I will hold off talking about Lake Tahoe Shakespeare’s production and the play in general until then. I don’t think it is fair to review a play before the cast and crew have had the opportunity to figure out what and what doesn’t work. Spoiler alert for those who have access to this particular production; most everything works!
As we walked past the vendors one of my co-workers, a groundling herself, stopped in amazement. I paused to see what had her so transfixed. To be sure, there were many items to look at; everything from blankets to lotions, all adorned with famous quotes taken from Shakespeare’s plays. She turned to me and asked, “Are these all from Shakespeare?” I assured her that yes every line was from him. “Oh man, I really have to read his work” came her breathless response.
Sometimes this is all it takes. A few impactful lines can do more to draw a person to Shakespeare than any lecture or blog post. It seems once someone realizes just how relatable his words are, the fear of Shakespeare’s language melts away. So, without saying more, I give you a few of my favorite quotes from Shakespeare.
The Merchant of Venice
“You speak an infinite deal of nothing.”
“With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come.”
“Better a witty fool, than a foolish wit.”
“Love sought is good, but giv’n unsought is better.”
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
“Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.”
“Though she be but little, she is fierce!”
“The course of true love never did run smooth.”
“Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
“What’s done cannot be undone.”
“The love that follows us sometime is our trouble, which still we thank as love.”
And lastly, my favorite quote from Macbeth which sets the plot in motion:
“By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.”
See? Shakespeare is for the most part, easy to understand. His words stand the test of time as does his ideas and themes. We will now move on from our discussions about his words to more specific topics of the plays, and themes. We will explore just what it is about Shakespeare’s plays that set him apart from other writers, and why the critic Harold Bloom believed that Shakespeare invented the human personality as we know it.
Happy Sunday. I hope after last week’s post inspired you to read a play. One of the many fun aspects of getting familiar with Shakespeare is learning how he has inspired modern culture. As you dive deeper into Shakespeare’s world you will find many surprising discoveries about your favorite moves and music. For instance, did you know Disney’s The Lion King is based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet? It’s true! Though thankfully for children, Disney rewrote the ending.
Not too long ago I decided to try listening to audio versions of Shakespeare’s plays. This is not my favorite way to enjoy Shakespeare, as it can be hard to follow who is who if unfamiliar with the play in general, but does allow one to think about different aspects of the play.
As I listened to A Winter’s Tale, one of Shakespeare’s last plays, written in 1609, I found myself thinking of another Disney movie and Shakespeare’s possible influence on it so I did some research. Learning about the history of story of Sleeping Beauty, I think we can agree, Disney made the right choice.
The origin story of the fairy-tale we know as Sleeping Beauty is the stuff of nightmares. This early modern horror-story account follows decades of older oral tradition. God only knows what people must have thought of the French troubadours who recounted this gruesome tale.
If you’ve never encountered Giambattista Basile’s 1634 story, Sun, Moon, and Talia, consider yourself lucky. His is so far removed from the one we know today, it’s hardly surprising Basile’s name is lost to the ages.
In Basile’s story, the young sleeping princess is found not by a young prince, but by a married king who rapes the comatose girl and then returns home as if nothing out of ordinary had just happened. Unfortunately for the king, he is married to a heartless shrew and he begins to think about the girl who just lay there. In fact, the more he thinks about her, the more convinced he is in love with her. And the story only gets worse from there! Let’s consider what happens to the maiden when she awakens from her coma:
The young princess gives birth to twins one of whom suckles her finger causing the enchanted splinter to fall out, which in turns causes the princess to wake up and see that she inexplicably has two babies at her breast.
The king comes back, tells her what he has done, and promises to find a way to bring her to his castle, because for reasons that defy explanation, the two fall in love.
The story only gets worse from there! The queen finds out about the princess and her children. She is furious and demands to have the babies brought to her so that she can have them cooked and feed them to the king. The cook (the only decent person in the story) decides against cooking the children and instead tells the king of his wife’s plan. That is the end of the Queen. In the end the king, the princess, and children all live happily ever after.
Thankfully, by the time the Grimm brothers recounted the tale as “Brier-Rose” in 1812, all mention of rape and cannibalism was gone. Their story is one in which the young princess sleeps for “many long years” until a passing prince, upon hearing about the beautiful girl, decides to find her and behold her beauty for himself. He awakens her with a kiss and they live happily ever after.
Disney could have easily used the Grimm version of the tale, yet they chose to have their prince be the very person who would have married the princess had she not been cursed. As you may recall, the two were betrothed right after she was born. This version did not have the grieving parents die childless; rather, everyone lived happily ever after. But only after some very Winter Tale like mishaps.
In both tales, a young princess is brought up believing that she is a shepherdess. In both tales a young prince falls in love with the shepherdess due of her beauty and singing voice. In both tales the two would have been wed (had mishaps not occurred) because their fathers were good friends. In both tales the prince is forbidden to see the shepherdess again, but because both end on happy notes, it is assumed both pairs marry. And to add more fuel to the speculation fire, Florizell (the prince in Shakespeare’s play) calls Perdita (the princess) “Flora”. “No shepherdess, but Flora peering in April’s front”. Act 4 scene 4. Flora is the name of one of the three fairies tasked with keeping Aurora (the Disney princess) safe. In case you forgot, they are: Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather.
I recommend reading A Winter’s Tale for its fairy-tale like quality. If nothing else, read it because it contains the most often (or only quoted) stage direction in theater history; Exit, pursued by a bear.
When you discover references to culture by Shakespeare do let me know in the comment section below. It is always a treat to find Shakespeare’s influence in our modern world.
D. L. Ashliman’s Folktexts, University of Pittsburgh.
Hello and welcome back friend, to the Groundling’s Guide to Shakespeare. It’s been a few weeks since we last met. Sorry about that. My day job has been keeping me rather busy of late. As much as I would like to say blogging and guest lecturing is my livelihood, it is not. Someday! I do rather love my current day job though it does take me away from my passion now and then. As we move on and get into the heart of Shakespeare’s work I promise to post on a regular basis and let you know when there will be a gap as I travel out of town.
It is summer here in the States, and the temperatures are climbing for us in the west. If you are anything like me, this is a good time to stay indoor and read; ceiling fans and water at the ready. Now is a great time to talk about reading Shakespeare more specifically, how to read Shakespeare.
Being new but interested in Shakespeare you may have an introduction to Shakespeare book or two in your collection. If so, no doubt the advice given tells that the ideal way to immerse yourself is by attending a Shakespeare play. Some say this is the only way! Sound advice for sure if, A: Shakespeare plays are routinely running in your area, and B: the plays are performed by well-trained actors. There is nothing worse than seeing a performance of let’s say, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, acted by performers who rushed through the performance as if they were on stage because they lost a bet. Sadly this did happen to me one summer . You can find my review of it here. https://wp.me/p28tJt-nf
There are as many poor performances of Shakespeare as there are good ones. It would be a shame if a first time audience member were to be put-off due to bad acting. Better to recognize a bad performance than think this is how Shakespeare is supposed to be. You can only do this if you have some basic understanding of what you are about to see. This is when reading comes in handy.
The beauty of reading Shakespeare is that the experience allows time for you to go slow and savory the lines. Shakespeare wrote some of the best lines/thoughts in the English language. Reading them for the first time allows the reader to appreciate them for their beauty and composition. An example comes from Romeo and Juliet.
My bounty is as boundless as the sea, My love as deep. The more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.
Beautiful, right? The first time I read these lines, I made notes and quickly memorized them. Now, imagine hearing these lines for the first time by an actor who whispers them is a rushed tone; as if they were disposable and unimportant. Yes, this happened once in a live production. Later I repeated the lines to my theater companion, and asked if she remembered hearing them. She had not. A couple of days later she found herself reading the play just to catch all of the beautiful lines that had been missed in the performance.
Reading Shakespeare can be a rich and rewarding experience if you know how to read the text. It is not, as a lot of goundlings assume, all that difficult a skill to master. Don’t let some of the archaic language stop you from this enjoyable hobby. Less than 10% of Shakespeare’s words are outdated. The meaning of many of his words may have changed but, set in context it is easy to understand his use of them.
The modern reader of Shakespeare has a variety of editions to pick from. I go back and forth between Folger’s and Arden editions. Each contains useful guides at the beginning of each scene that offers tips on some of the lesser known words and phrases. Despite what your high school English teacher tried to tell you, reading Shakespeare is not like trying to decipher a foreign language. But there are a few things you need to know before picking up that book. Here are some useful tips I learned from Professor Mark Williams in his class Painting on the Page.
Prose vs. Verse
Shakespeare wrote i several forms, though two are vital to our understanding. Prose is a theatrical reflection of our common language. When a character speaks in prose it is our cue to understand that he or she is not of the court. Though there are times when a seemingly “low born” uses poetry. This is seen as highly emotional speech and is used to convey intelligence beyond the character’s station.
Verse is poetry. Shakespeare arranges highborn characters’ speech patterns into poetry, or rhythmical lines. When we hear verse it is our cue to know that someone of importance or nobility is speaking. It is also why Shakespeare continues to enthrall audiences worldwide. His use of verse is unequaled in the theater.
The form of poetry that was popular in Shakespeare’s time was iambic pentameter. It is one of the forms of poetry that closely mimics English-speaking speech patterns. This form of rhyming consists of a line of ten syllables, made up of five strong beats (penta) and five weaker beats. The first syllable (beat) is weak, followed by the stronger syllable. It looks like this:
da DUM | da DUM | da DUM | da DUM | da DUM
a HORSE a HORSE my King Dom for A horse!
to BE or NOT to Be that IS the quesTION
The length of an iambic pentameter line can be said in one breath and follows in a heartbeat-like pattern of rhythm. Try it for yourself but try not to get carried away by the strong beat or you will end up sounding less like Kenneth Branagh and more like William Shatner.
Heightened speech (or verse) is often employed as blank verse. This is verse that does not rhyme but follows the syllable pattern of iambic pentameter. You can usually identify it by the use of a capital letter in each line.
The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest, it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown.
(The Merchant of Venice )
As you read Shakespeare you may wonder at some of the “misplaced” punctuation marks. Remember this; not all thoughts end in a line. All thoughts stop at a period, question mark, or exclamation mark. Often the written form of the line is to show which of the words actors are to pause on before continuing without breaking up a thought.
When reading Shakespeare you will notice that some lines begin halfway across the page like this from Macbeth:
Where the place?
Upon the Heath
This is form of pattern is known as shared lines. It refers to verse lines shared or split between two or more speakers, a frequent device for composing fast-paced dramatic dialogue. Think of it as the second person finishing the first’s sentence. The lines are shared as if they were one line.
That’s all. It’s that simple. This is all you really need to know to start your reading journey into Shakespeare’s world. Start with any of the plays you like. I always refer new readers to Julius Caesar. The play is short and one that easy to follow. Midsummer’s Night Dream is a lot of fun. The play with-in the play should not be missed. Once read I do recommend seeing it live, or if that is not an option, rent Peter Hull’s 1968 version.
Above all, have fun with the texts. After all they are just “Words, words, words” (Hamlet).
Greetings and well wishes to you my friend! Thank you for following me and taking the time to read this blog. It’s an honor to have you here. Let’s you and I talk about the various ways in which you can jump in and start enjoying Shakespeare.
Oh, you are starting at exciting times. Luckily for you, technology is bringing Shakespeare’s works to life in new and clever ways. Take apps for instance; how wonderful it is to live in a time when the complete works of Shakespeare can appear as if by magic at our fingertips. Sure you can carry a play with you, or download one to your mobile phone or reading tablet, and I recommend you do, but there are two apps that do more than just allow you access to Shakespeare’s world.
The first app is called Shakespeare at Play. While this one does not contain the complete works (at least not yet) it does hold 7 of his more famous works. The beauty and magic of this particular app is that it also contains video content! It is designed to allow viewers to see the play while reading. This is one of the best ways in which a person unfamiliar with Shakespeare can become well acquainted with his patterns of speech. My only complaint is that the players are not always great actors, and do not give stellar performances. Please do not think this is how Shakespeare is presented on the stage; use the live action to assist your understanding of his work.
The second app that everyone, from novices to theater aficionados, should immediately download is the Shakespeare Pro app. Don’t let the name fool you. The reason pro is in the name is because the makers of this app are pros at making everyone feel comfortable with the plays. Each play contains scene breakdowns and notes on the characters (Dramatis Personae). The app has a glossary of terms, portraits (even the forged ones) of Shakespeare, and random quote generator, a study guide on the plays, Elizabethan theaters, statistics and much, much more. I cannot praise this app enough. If you are studying Shakespeare in school or want to learn more about his work and lifetime, this is a must have.
Not everyone is fond of reading. You may be one of these people. Rest assured there is no right or wrong way to enter the world of Shakespeare. Not everyone starts out by reading Shakespeare (though in our next post I will make an argument for it). Many, many people leave a live production of Shakespeare wanting more.
Ahh, but let’s be honest, it is not every day that you have the opportunity to enjoy a live performance. And, it’s not likely that a troop of hungry artists will knock on your door asking if they can perform on your porch (maybe if you own a tavern they might). Again, thanks to technology you can sit down right after reading this and enjoy any number of performances, provided you have a screen and Internet access.
Viewing Shakespeare can be a thrilling way to be introduced to his work, if and only if, the production is worthy of his words. A great actor can breathe life into Shakespeare’s poetry, bombast, and bawdy word play. Seeing a great performance of Shakespeare’s work for the first time is a thrilling event and can leave an audience member wanting more.
Let’s look at some of Shakespeare’s plays that you can enjoy right now.
The Hollow Crown Series
This is must see TV! Thanks to the BBC, there is a series based on Shakespeare’s history plays about the War of the Roses, starting with Richard II, through the three Henrys and ending with Richard III. The production is nothing short of stunning; it is hard to believe the series was made for TV and not the big screen. Admittedly some of the language will be hard to follow for beginners, but stick with it as it is well worth a little confusion from time to time. Tom Hiddleston as Henry V will make you forget that he is now best known as Loki. Richard Whishaw is such an amazing Richard II that I cannot imagine anyone else playing him. The series ends with Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III. If you watch anything based on Shakespeare this is it.
This series is not currently streaming. Check your local library to see if they have the DVDs. Or, do what I did and purchase them through the PBS website.
Much ado about nothing
This one is for the ladies. Any time a woman tells me she can’t get into Shakespeare I ask her to watch Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing. Oh to see him and Emma Thompson’ characters fall in love despite their shared distain of such deep emotion is pure perfection. The play is both hilarious and heartbreaking. The setting is beautiful and ensemble cast is marvelous. How can you say no to young Kenneth Branagh, Keanu Reeves, and Denzel Washington?
And then there is the over the top performance of Michael Keaton as Dogberry.
This can be found on Amazon Prime.
Hamlet is a must for any introduction to Shakespeare. If you can’t see it live, I suggest starting with Mel Gibson in the Zeffirelli film. I really wanted to like David Tennant as Hamlet, but I don’t think he was able to capture the agony and frustration as well as Gibson did. There are several adaptations of Hamlet; Branagh directed himself in one, but this is my personal favorite.
A really fun treat is to find Mystery Science Theater 3000’s riff on an old black and white German adaptation on Hamlet. But don’t let this be your introduction to Shakespeare.
This is offered on several streaming services, including Google Play and iTunes.
As you like it
This is a very fun play (and one that seems to be produced often enough that it should be easy to find locally). Rosalind is a strong female character and is arguably one of Shakespeare’s strongest characters. She takes charge of her circumstance as best she can while trying to navigate her way through the unknown. She is banished to the forest of Arden just as she is coming of age. College students can identify with her plight and marvel at her hesitation to fall for the first man who shows her some interest.
The play contains some of Shakespeare’s most well known quotes included the”7 ages of man” speech. Yes, all the world’s a stage, and in this play Shakespeare shows us how at times we all play different parts. It’s a feel good play that ends as we like it; with love and laughter.
I suggest renting the 1978, BBC adaptation of the play staring a very young Helen Mirren.
This is offered on Amazon
A midsummer’s night dream
I’ve seen good productions and bad productions, but yet even the bad productions can be a life-changing event. This play like no other invites the audience to enter into a fantasy world in which fairies meddle in the affairs of men. Love and lust, we learn can and often overlap. We are forced to ask ourselves if we can really tell the difference between the two.
My favorite is Peter Hall’s 1968 adaptation. You can find it on Amazon.
One of the best things about a live production of AMSND is the ending, when Puck makes the final speech to the audience. I can think of no better ending.
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.
Thanks to the magic of technology you can chose to read, study, or watch it performed, all in the comfort of your own home. Exciting times indeed!