How to Read Shakespeare?
First of all, what centuries of readers have admired most about Shakespeare is his ability to develop whole, well-rounded characters: living, breathing PEOPLE, not stereotypes. He is careful to present them as having BOTH sympathetic AND un-likeable features. Even his most cruel villain has a soft, sympathetic side, and even the most noble of his lovesick woman can have a shrewish temper.
In presenting such well-rounded characters, Shakespeare lets us see their desires and goals—in soliloquies or intimate conversations with trusted servants. Pay special attention to these moments!
In addition, I urge you to compare the scene in which you FIRST meet a character with the FINAL scene in which he or she appears. Such a comparison will allow you to best judge any CHANGES that Shakespeare has them go through. Pay special attention to their changes in PERSPECTIVE—that is, how they carry themselves, how they react to situations. Is he less proud? Is she more forgiving? Are they less quick to judge harshly?
And finally, notice how they express themselves—is their LANGUAGE different? (Think of Romeo’s artificial love-talk in the opening scene and his lyrical praise of Juliet at the end).
SECOND: Shakespeare is also greatly admired for the ways in which he tells a story—especially how he adapts and changes his story from the original. In most cases, he shortens the overall time span, making things happen more rapidly, and focusing our attention on the TURNING POINTS, or places where major shifts in the action take place: moments of decision, or times someone dies, for example. These TURNING POINTS are great times to "test" a character, so make sure you pay some attention to how they react to each of these special situations.
Shakespeare was also famous for introducing VARIETY into his stories. If he is presenting a tragedy, he inserts comic moments, or the other way around: tragic moments in the midst of comedy. Sometimes he will invent or draw in an entire extra story line just to add variety. Take the "Pyramus and Thisbe" tragedy brought in at the end of the comic Midsummer Night’s Dream. Or the poor, crazy Tom moments in King Lear. Keep your eyes open for such other story lines. They are not there solely for variety; Shakespeare can use comedy and tragedy to comment on each other. So once you notice these moments, take some time to think about them together.
THIRDLY: When characters interact with the plot, you get CONFLICTS, and MAIN THEMES. That is, a conflict is HOW a character reacts to a plot situation. Often Shakespeare is more interested in the character’s INNER struggles with events as he is with their OUTER actions. He uses his famous SOLILOQUYS to develop these inner struggles of his characters; see our separate discussion on soliloquies for more on this subject.
If Shakespeare’s VOCABULARY is distracting you and bogging you down, know that you are not alone! The English language has changed a lot in the 400 years since Shakespeare wrote, and even the most intelligent scholars still debate what some of his phrases mean. My advice to you is to be brave, and PUSH ON! Try not to stop and look up words unless you get absolutely LOST. You’d be amazed at how well you can get the sense of it once you have a better sense of the whole. IT IS MORE IMPORTANT TO MAKE SENSE OF THE WHOLE THAN TO UNDERSTAND EVERY WORD!
But there will be entire scenes that are particularly difficult to understand the words—especially when the characters are servants and workmen talking among themselves and using a lot of slang. For these rare occasions, you’ll have to work through each line by referring to the notes in your edition. For more help with understanding Shakespeare’s language in general, see our special section on that topic.
FINALLY, a few warnings: If you see a production of a Shakespeare play—whether live or on video—remember that you are seeing the director’s "vision" of the play, and he or she may not be true to the entire play! If you "see" things differently, trust yourself!
And remember, just because there are many BAD productions of Shakespeare, that doesn’t make Shakespeare a BAD playwright. Give him half a chance, and you’ll discover how down-to-earth, exciting, and "relevant" he can be.