Words, words words! How to read Shakespeare

O let my books be then the eloquence. And dumb presagers of my speaking breast, Sonnet 23

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.

Shared Lines

When reading Shakespeare you will notice that some lines begin halfway across the page like this from Macbeth:

First Witch

Where the place?

Second Witch 

                        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.


Mark Me


               I will!

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).



O Wall, O sweet, O lovely Wall

“O Wall, O sweet, O lovely Wall” is a line from A Midsummer’s Night Dream

Let’s imagine shall we, that you and I are meeting for the first time. We strike up a conversation during in which you learn that I’m a researcher and Shakespeare scholar. I wouldn’t be going out on a limb by guessing you would probably respond by saying, “Shakespeare?! I’ve always wanted to get into Shakespeare (or) learn how to enjoy Shakespeare but don’t know where to start”. Believe it or not, this is the most common thing I hear from new acquaintances whenever Shakespeare is involved. It happens a lot! This is the main reason I started this blog. There is an invisible wall between his work and many people’s presumption of it. His work is too hard to understand, it doesn’t seem accessible (as in there are currently no running plays to see), and or the person fears that the appeal will fail to capture his or her attention, leaving him or her to wonder, “What’s wrong with me, everyone else likes Shakespeare?”

If this is you, please don’t feel alone. This wall is lined with people from all walks of life, who for one reason or another cannot see the doorway leading to the other side. Just the other day I met a woman who is working on her second PhD. She had come into my office for some research material related to a project she is working on and noticed my Shakespeare bobblehead. This led to a conversation in which she asked for my help. Her teenage son had recently told her he wanted to know more about Shakespeare’s work. She admitted that this was a subject in which she felt lost and asked for recommendations on where to begin. I was stunned. I would assume that a woman with a PhD, working on a second would know how to do some research or at least know how to locate the nearest library. I quickly realized that this was another person standing at the wall, closer to the door than most, but still unable to see it.

Before I tell you what I told her, let’s take a step back from the wall for a moment. Let’s first, look at why you are there in the first place. To better understand how to enjoy Shakespeare, let’s first explore why his work matters. In other words, finding the door is easier when you know why you want to find it.

Harold Bloom, one of the curmudgeonliest yet beloved Shakespeare scholar wrote a book with the hyperbolic title, Shakespeare The Invention of the Human. Clearly Bloom didn’t believe evolution started with Shakespeare, but he did argue, rather eloquently, that of all of the writers and poets before and after, Shakespeare alone is responsible for creating our human archetype. Shakespeare holds a mirror up to humanity and says “This is the human condition in all of its glory and failings”. This is why his work is still immensely popular some 400 odd years after his death. We don’t just enjoy his beautiful words or laugh at some of the most ridiculous plots ever conceived; we see ourselves in his words and in his improbable settings. His work is the foundation for most of our modern Hollywood plots and modern philosophy.

Other writers craft caricatures of human emotion. Shakespeare tapped into something deeper and gave us fully formed humans complete with all of the conflicting emotions that each of us have. He gave voice to our inner selves like no other. His plays were character driven. I don’t believe it is hyperbolic to state, that without Shakespeare’s work, we would not recognize human folly as easily as we do now.

If you’ve experienced depression or ever wondered, “What’s the point to all of this?” you’ve already know how Hamlet feels.

If you or someone you know has ever been given more power than you can handle, you will connect with Macbeth.

If you’ve let your passions get the best of you, I suggest sitting down and commiserating with Othello. Or if he is too intense for your taste, Romeo & Juliet may make for better conversation companions.

Beyond the cerebral, there are other reasons why we enjoy Shakespeare. It would take several posts to list them all. In a nutshell, having some exposure to Shakespeare will enrich your experience as an audience member and allow you to fully grasp some of the subtle (and not so subtle) entertainment nods to Shakespeare.

Did you know that in each of the episodes in the first two seasons of the West Wing, one character or another quotes Shakespeare?

Did you know that most of our modern so called, ‘Rom-coms” are based on either a specific play or plot? Ten Things I hate About You is based on The Taming of the Shrew.

Did you know The Lion King is based on Hamlet?

You may be quoting Shakespeare and not even know it. Here are a few common phrases from his work:

“Give the devil his due” — (Henry IV Part I)

“Good riddance” — (Troilus and Cressida)

“Heart of gold” — (Henry V)

“In my mind’s eye” — (Hamlet)

“Love is blind” — (The Merchant of Venice)

“Wear my heart upon my sleeve” — (Othello)

“Wild-goose chase” — (Romeo and Juliet)

“The game is afoot” — (Henry IV Part I) See, even the renowned British Detective Sherlock Holmes quotes Shakespeare.

In case you are wondering what advice I gave to the woman about her son, I told her this:

Find out why your son wants to learn about Shakespeare, and then introduce him to a play that corresponds to that reason. By doing this, he will better understand and respond to Shakespeare. In other words, the why will drive the how.

In our next chat I will show you some of the easier ways to jump into Shakespeare’s world.