Not So Scary Shakespeare

Tips for Approaching His Work

The works of William Shakespeare are a staple in middle and high school English classes, but here at A Grade Ahead, we understand that they can often be intimidating for students. The archaic language can be a real roadblock that discourages children and adults alike from engaging with these texts. Not only is understanding Shakespeare important to succeeding in the classroom, but it also gives the opportunity to look at some genuinely interesting and powerful stories with themes that are still relevant all these centuries later. Here are some tips and tricks for making the Bard feel a bit less intimidating.

Read the Text Aloud

Throughout his sonnets as well as his plays, Shakespeare’s use of verse brings a sense of rhythm and musicality to the text. It can be helpful to read lines aloud to yourself or seek out a recording in order to hear this music at work. Iambic pentameter, the main poetic meter that Shakespeare uses, is often said to mimic the human heartbeat with its alternating stressed and unstressed syllables. Try speaking lines aloud while tapping your fingers to internalize the rhythm.

Use Context Clues

The way we speak English today is vastly different from the Early Modern English spoken during the Renaissance, and all the “thous” and “forsooths” can understandably set off alarm bells in readers. However, like with any text, you can look at the surrounding words and sentences for context to try to determine the meaning of words you don’t know. Some editions of Shakespeare plays, like the Folger editions, will have footnotes after unfamiliar words to help guide the reader.

Despite the differences, Shakespeare did have a great influence on how we speak today. Did you know that he is said to have invented the phrases green-eyed monster and wild goose chase?

Watch It

Shakespeare’s plays are plays, after all, and were originally meant to be seen rather than read. Of course, reading them is valuable since doing so allows you to delve deeper into specific sections and take things at your own pace. However, seeking out a production, either online or at your local Shakespeare in the Park, can bring the text to life. Hearing how an actor delivers certain lines – which words they emphasize and what emotions they’re projecting as they say them – can aid in figuring out meaning. The Globe Theater’s website has affordable, full-length recordings of several Shakespeare shows put on by professional companies in the very place where Shakespeare’s troupe used to perform!

Look Into Adaptations

Are you a fan of 90s and early 2000s teen comedies like 10 Things I Hate About You or She’s the Man? Then you’re already somewhat familiar with the plots of The Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night! What about Disney’s The Lion King? This story of a young prince who struggles with his sense of duty after the murder of his father by his usurping uncle is loosely based on Hamlet, though with a much happier ending and more musical numbers.

These movies are not exact retellings of Shakespeare’s plays, and you won’t know everything about a play by watching an adaptation of it, but they often use characters, plot beats, and themes from them. The differences between these movies and their source materials are worth studying in their own right: what aspects of the original texts might not translate well to the modern day or to certain audiences? Why would a director choose to tell this older story in this new way?

Find the Funny

A lot of people treat Shakespeare like the height of serious literature, but that doesn’t mean that his works are stuffy or humorless by any means. Shakespeare uses comedic tropes such as mistaken identity or clever banter throughout his works, appealing to a wide audience in his day, from your everyday ‘groundlings’ to Queen Elizabeth herself. The same holds true today: Shakespeare doesn’t have to be just for English classes. Try to approach these plays not just as pieces of excellent literature, which expertly tackle themes of the human condition, but also as entertainment that you can enjoy rather than just revere.

It’s understandable to feel intimidated by Shakespeare. He is often upheld as the greatest writer to ever exist, and whether or not you think he is, that attitude can result in what seems like a high barrier to entry. However, Shakespeare has stood the test of time precisely because there is something for everyone to take away from it, not just those who “get it.” “Getting it” is a skill that takes time, just like learning a language, mastering math, or studying science, and the more Shakespeare you read and watch, the easier it will be to comprehend. Anyone can engage with these stories; all it takes is getting over that initial fear to unlock some amazing literature and enrichment along the way.

What do you think? Do you enjoy Shakespeare? What is your favorite Shakespeare work or adaptation? We would love to hear from you in the comments!


Author: Sydney Goldstein, Teacher at A Grade Ahead


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