How to Read Shakespeare: 6 Techniques | Shakespeare for Actors
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How to Read Shakespeare: 6 Techniques

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William Shakespeare is one of the greatest poets and playwrights the world has ever seen. Certainly in the Western canon, his works are rivalled by few. For an actor, Shakespeare is the pinnacle of our craft. Nothing compares to playing a Shakespearean character in a good production, when we are immersed in a role we love and are feeling the language flow through us. It’s an experience quite unlike anything else. But – we are faced with a problem. It’s one thing to know how great Shakespeare is and be told time and time again that it is the one thing that all actors should be practising, but it’s another thing to actually sit down with a play in front of us and read. Shakespeare’s language, through the passage of time, has grown archaic and difficult for us to access. There’s no two ways around it. Shakespeare is hard. Anyone who says it’s not is either lying or deluded. However, the challenge that accessing Shakespeare poses is not an excuse to not try! If we can push through our own fears and doubts about our ability to read and understand Shakespeare, we unlock the potential for us to experience some of the best writing in the world, and some of the best characters for us to play and build our craft as actors.

Why Should We Act Shakespeare?

Acting Shakespeare is like a full body workout for actors. It is challenging. It targets all the different ‘muscle groups’ of the actor’s craft: The mind, the voice, the body and the heart. This is why we must continue to do it. Unlike some contemporary mediums, which only strengthen our ability to do that one specific thing, Shakespeare enables us to tackle anything which is placed in front of us as an actor. Acting a sitcom script will develop your ability to do sit coms, but little else. Acting a Shakespearean character, however, will enable you to do Shakespeare, sitcoms, contemporary dramas and comedies and whatever you decide to do next. It is deep practise for the actor. Look at the landscape of the world’s most successful actors right now: the majority of the ones we consider to be truly exceptional have spent at least some of their careers working on Shakespeare. 

The example of the Shakespearean-enabled actor most present in my mind right now is Brian Cox, who plays Logan Roy in HBOs Succession. I’m obsessed with this show right now, and the newly released season three is blowing my mind. Let me prove that actors trained in Shakespeare are incredibly versatile to you with two clips: (Heads up: Succession is full of strong language!) 

  • The first, Brian Cox does Titus Andronicus:

  • The second, Brian Cox in Succession (spoiler alert):

Though these two examples are vastly different in terms of given circumstances, language, character and style, what connects the two is Cox’s capacity for a powerful performance. Cox is classically trained and has spent much of his career performing Shakespeare, and I believe this gives him immense power, confidence, status and capability even in his non-Shakespearean performances. The same could be said for Judy Dench, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, David Tennant, Olivia Coleman, Mark Rylance, Maggie Smith, Paapa Essiedu, Ralph Fiennes… The list goes on and on.

Tackling Shakespeare gives us the power to tackle any text or story which comes our way. I have felt and experienced this fact, and I’d like to share my thoughts about the fundamental question about starting off on a Shakespearean journey: How do we read Shakespeare?

How to Read Shakespeare

It’s all fair and well to speak of the famous Shakespearean actors who have come before us, most of whom have grown up in a time and culture which prioritised Shakespearean exposure and education far more highly than we do today, but it’s another thing to actually try and do some Shakespeare for ourselves. Opening the first page of The Merchant of Venice, we are smacked in the face with the following speech from Antonio:

Antonio:

In sooth, I know not why I am so sad:
It wearies me; you say it wearies you;
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff ’tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn;
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me,
That I have much ado to know myself.

Like,  come on, Will. Give us a break. These are the first words in the play and already I’m rereading lines to get a sense of what’s going on. When we’re met with language which is challenging to access right from the beginning of a play, it’s going to be a real struggle for us to get through to the final scenes of the fifth act. So let’s talk about five ways we can enhance our ability to access Shakespeare’s text, so we can enjoy the works and see what all the fuss is about.

#1 Start Small

The task of developing any skill requires us to start small. Studying and understanding Shakespeare requires this patient process from us, too. If you’re new to Shakespeare, start with bite sized chunks of text before attempting to read entire plays. 

Soliloquies, (speeches addressed directly to the audience) are a fantastic place to start this process. Some of Shakespeare’s most famous moments are in his characters soliloquies, so by choosing one to read and practise your understanding of, you can rest easy knowing that there is tremendous value to this process. 

Make the process of choosing a character’s soliloquy really simple. Choose a play you have heard of and potentially know a few things about. Choose a character from that play who seems familiar to you, either because you have heard of them before or because they are a character which you can relate to. 

Here is our list of soliloquies you might like to choose from: Monologues Unpacked

One other thing to keep in mind when you’re selecting the play/ scene/ character from Shakespeare you’d like to start reading is that there are certain plays which are more accessible to us than others. This is an undeniable fact. This is not to say you shouldn’t work towards diving into Shakespeare’s more complex work, like Cymbeline, A Winter’s Tale or King Lear, but to begin with it’s much more beneficial to start simple. The most popular of Shakespeare’s plays, (Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, ect) are undeniably more accessible than some of the other plays in the canon. Don’t worry yourself with preparing a monologue no-one has ever read before or reading a lesser known play because you want to try to be original, just tackle the first plays you come across.

In all of Shakespeare’s plays are links and threads connecting them to the rest of his work. The more you read of Shakespeare, the more you’ll be able to read and understand. All that’s required from you is to start, and to start small. 

#2 Read the Text Aloud

Shakespeare’s plays were never made to be read or studied, they were made to be performed. I sometimes wonder what Shakespeare would think of the fact that in schools all around the world today young people have their heads buried in plays of his, riddled with analysis and footnotes. Perhaps he’d be delighted, perhaps he’d be mortified. One thing is for sure: this was never Shakespeare’s intention. Shakespeare died decades before his works were compiled together and released in folios and quartos, so perhaps even people reading the plays for leisure would have been an odd concept to him.

What this means for us, as actors today, is that in order to access Shakespeare we need to experience the words in as close to their natural way as possible. This means that the words need to be spoken out loud. 

Shakespeare’s audience was much more of an auditory culture, whereas we are primarily a visual one. We have so much visual stimulation in our lives today, from screens and films to vivid lighting in our homes. Vision was less of a primary sense for Shakespeare’s audience than that of hearing. Listening to words being spoken in plays and poetry was a primary form of entertainment, and even though much of the population would have been illiterate, their ears would still have been far more attuned to the verse structures present in Shakespeare’s plays than we are today.

So, once you have chosen your piece to dive into and dissect, start off by reading the text aloud. Read slowly, read quietly, don’t place the pressure to perform on yourself. Simply just read the words for sense. Reading out loud will be more of an active process of dissecting the text than reading in your head. It will ensure your focus is entirely with the words. In addition to this, reading along will allow you to begin noticing the rhythms and structures tied into the words and enhance your ability to understand what is being said.

#3 Translate the Words!

As generations pass, language changes a LOT! How many words do you use, whether in person or over social media, that your parents would have no idea about? These words, slang, and abbreviations may not have found their place in a dictionary yet, but that doesn’t mean they won’t, one day. Language is constantly changing and developing with the passing of time, which is why Shakespeare’s English is so different to that which we use today. His language is archaic, and can be really difficult to access. So, that’s why we make ourselves a simple translation!

When working professionally in Shakespeare, we will always be mining the text for meaning and understanding, and in the more complex sections and speeches, we may even write ourselves a modern translation of the text to ensure we truly comprehend what is being spoken. This is absolutely ok to do, and I’d encourage you to do this for yourselves. 

Let’s take the same section we looked at above, for example:

Antonio:
In sooth, I know not why I am so sad:
It wearies me; you say it wearies you;
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff ’tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn;
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me,
That I have much ado to know myself.

Having selected this piece, and spoken the words out loud a few times, now I want to create a modern translation of the words to make sure I really know what is being said. The translation can be very simple and purely for sense, something like this:

To be honest, I don’t know why I’m so sad.
You think you’re tired of it? I’m tired of it!
How I caught this sadness or came across it,
what has caused it or given birth to it
I am still trying to figure out
This sadness makes me feel like such a fool
that I have a lot of work to do to get to know myself better.

To create this translation, I read through the text slowly and out loud, trying to piece together the puzzle for myself. I also looked up some information about the text online, and read a few other translations which had been written. Most importantly, I translated the unfamiliar language which was preventing me from understanding the text. In the case of this speech, words like, ‘sooth’ and ‘want-wit’ were crucial for me to translate to something more modern, like ‘truth’ and ‘fool’, respectively. 

A word of caution with this process. Translating Shakespeare is a useful device for sections of text which are really hindering your understanding of a play. There are many websites which provide their own translations of Shakespeare’s text. It is important to remember that these translations (even the ones on this website!) are a huge simplification of the language, and will only serve to benefit your understanding, not necessarily your performance. Once you feel confident with the meaning of what is being said, go back to the original text and do your best to weave your new-found understanding into the original text on the page. The challenge and complexity of Shakespeare’s text is all a part of its sophistication and marvel, and we should strive to embrace that challenge rather than find too many shortcuts and simplifications.

#4 Given Circumstances

As with any text, we’re going to be hard pressed to understand what is going on if we don’t understand the given circumstances of the story. This, in simple terms, means the ‘who, what, when, where, and why’ of the story. Who are the characters and relationships, what has happened between them up until this point/ what do they want/ what are they saying, when is the scene taking place, (time period and night or day), where are they and why are they here. Answering all of these questions surrounding the moment you’re trying to understand will greatly increase your ability to do so. 

Now, much of this information will be revealed to you as you read the play, but you might also like to read complimentary resources to assist you with the process. Reading summaries of scenes, acts and plays is a tool I find really useful in understanding what is going on whilst I am reading.

I feel it’s important to flag at this point the shame that some of us may feel when attempting to read Shakespeare. Some of us, (including myself) feel this obligation or this expectation to be able to fully understand Shakespeare as we’re reading it for the first time, and if we’re unable to do this then we feel that this reflects our intelligence. If this is your experience and you’re putting this pressure on yourself to be able to immediately understand Shakespeare with no additional assistance, then please let me reassure you that you do not need to feel this way. Shakespeare is really difficult to dive into, even for experienced actors. The most experienced actors I have worked with, some of whom have been acting Shakespeare for 50+ years, still take the time to ensure they understand the language and what is happening in the scenes.

If an aid will make the process of reading Shakespeare more accessible and enjoyable for you, then use whatever assistance you like! Read along with scene and play summaries, read character descriptions, read translations. It’s much better to search wide for the access to a script rather than giving up when you meet your first roadblock.

#5 Watch a Production

In addition to reading laterally from the play you’ve chosen – the summaries and translations helping you access the play – it’s also incredibly useful to watch a production of the play. This task tackles a few of the points we’ve already raised: we’re hearing the words spoken out loud, and the play is clearly anchored in its given circumstances. We’re able to see the characters brought to life, speaking these words to each other across the space. Even though we may still miss some of the meaning of the language, (and filmed versions of Shakespeare have often been significantly abridged) we’re definitely going to pick up the sense of the story more than we might while reading it silently to ourselves.

One step better than finding a film of the play to watch, is to watch a theatre production! This may be more difficult, especially if you’ve chosen a rarely performed Shakespeare play, but there’s a high chance you’ll be able to find at least a few options for live Shakespeare to watch in the near future in your hometown. 

Shakespeare’s works are still very much alive and present in our culture today, so there’s nothing stopping you from watching his work, whether live or recorded, right away!

#6 Verse and Prose

The points we’ve covered so far will have enabled you to develop a strong understanding of the play your currently reading, so now let’s dive a little bit deeper. Let’s talk briefly about how Shakespeare writes. 

Shakespeare writes in two different ways: he writes in verse, and he writes in prose. Prose, simply, is written word without metric structure. It is ‘ordinary’ writing that you would find in a novel, or an article, such as the one you are currently reading. Verse, by contrast, is written with a poetic structure. Verse is poetry. 

Shakespeare will have his characters speaking in verse or prose, depending on a number of different factors. These factors include the character’s status, intention and psychological state in a particular moment. Hamlet, for example, speaks soliloquies in verse, but while he is speaking to the other members of the Danish court, he will often speak in prose. This may go in line with his wish to appear unhinged whilst wearing his ‘antic disposition’ in order to distract Claudius from his vengeful desires.

The first step in understanding verse and prose and feeling the impact of it whilst you are reading is to be able to identify it on the page. Simply put, prose is written without a physical structure on the page, whereas verse has a structure to it. You can actually spot verse based on the formatting of the words on the page. Let me give you an example.

The following text is from one of Hamlet’s soliloquies:

Hamlet:

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t! ah fie! ’tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this!

This soliloquy is written in verse, and we can see that from its formatting on the page. Each line begins with a capitalised letter. The physical length of each line is fairly uniform. Going a step deeper, Shakespeare used the poetic structure of Iambic Pentameter to base his verse on. This manifests in many ways throughout his works, but in the main, each line of Shakespeare will have 10 syllables – 5 unstressed when spoken, and 5 stressed. If we were to speak a few lines from this speech with Iambic Pentameter from of mind, it would be stressed like this: (stressed syllables in bold)

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!

Prose is written with a noticeable lack of structure when it appears on the page. This is from another of Hamlet’s speeches, however this time he is not addressing the audience, but two of his prying friends:

Hamlet:

I have of late,—but wherefore I know not,—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man!

We can see that these words are without the same rigid structure that we had in the previous speech. The lines are long and uncapitalised and the syntax is sporadic. 

As you are working your way through your play of choice, keep an eye out for how Shakespeare plays with form. When are his characters speaking verse, and when are they speaking in prose? There are many further discussions to be had about this topic, but for the moment, identifying whether the character is speaking casually or poetically may increase your understanding of what is going on in the scene. If you’d like to read more about this subject, head here: How to Act Shakespeare.

Conclusion: Words Words Words

So, there you have it. You’ve begun your journey into the world of William Shakespeare. It’s wonderful, believe me. It may be challenging at first, in fact I can promise you that it will be challenging, but so are all the worthwhile things in life.

Use these six steps: start small, read the words out loud, translate the text, understand the given circumstances, watch a production of the play and then begin noticing the style of the writing. By following this progression, you’re infinitely more likely to continue your reading of the play and enjoy it, leading you to a deeper level of confidence and skill with tackling Shakespeare’s works.

If all else fails, and you’re really struggling to find the motivation and confidence to read Shakespeare, but you still want to be able to do it, then it’s time to organise a reading party! Invite a few like-minded friends around, organise some chips and dips and a beverage of choice, and read the play out loud whilst sitting around the living room. SO much can be gained from reading with friends, and they will help you access and enjoy the work.

About the Author

StageMilk Team

is made up of young professional actors and writers from around the world. This team includes Andrew Hearle, Luke McMahon, Indiana Kwong, Patrick Cullen and many more. We all work together to contribute useful articles and resources for actors at all stages in their careers.

About the Author

StageMilk Team

is made up of young professional actors and writers from around the world. This team includes Andrew Hearle, Luke McMahon, Indiana Kwong, Patrick Cullen and many more. We all work together to contribute useful articles and resources for actors at all stages in their careers.

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