How To-50: "How to Read Shakespeare – For Beginners"

How to Read Shakespeare for Beginners

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Reading Shakespeare can initially be a confusing and frustrating experience, especially since most of us find little emotional connection with poetry written 400 years ago. But with a little common sense and a few general guidelines, you’ll be equipped to expertly communicate the political backdrops and emotional motivations of “Hamlet” in no time. With the right tools, the process can be incredibly rewarding and you can always pride yourself in the knowledge that you now possess an understanding of some of the most successful theatrical sensations to have ever been written. You can even impress your dates by dropping in a few appropriate quotations here and there.


  1. Decide on a play. It is generally helpful to choose a play that is highly popular. Reading “King Lear,” for instance, can give you greater motivation to understand the text than reading “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” It is also helpful to choose a play with themes in which you are interested. Does a tale of “star-crossed lovers” appeal to you? Then “Romeo and Juliet” is right up your alley. Remember that understanding Shakespeare can be a tiring experience for the novice and can easily discourage readers. Most editions will have a brief synopsis printed on the back cover. If the play sounds intriguing, it might make for a good selection.
  2. Choose a good edition. There are several to choose from. The textual differences are generally minute, but they will differ drastically in their explanation of the text. The Arden is highly regarded as being the most detail oriented edition and providing the most historical information pertaining to the play. The New Folger Library edition, if it is available is a nice choice, as are the Spark notes treatments.. Each page of text provides simple notes and explanations on the opposite side to give you a more accessible understanding of the language.
  3. Find a synopsis. This might sound like cheating, but is highly valuable to understanding the play. If you possess the New Folger Library edition, a synopsis is provided before each scene. They are written to provide just enough information. Read it. You will then be able to match each character’s lines with your understanding of the plot. In addition, because you are not burdened with the effort of “figuring it out,” you will be more receptive to the nuances of language and character. Remember, it is difficult to appreciate anything when you have a puzzled look on your face.
  4. Read the play out loud. Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be performed. Do not fall into the trap of intellectualizing the material before you’ve had a chance to experience it. The reason Shakespeare’s works have survived for as long as they have and with such popularity is because we, as an audience, have understood the connection with the human experience. Read aloud. Have fun and act it out if you can. Make it a living experience. You will then reach an understanding that is far greater than what any scholar can say about the subject. You will also have more fun.
  5. Attend the play. Or watch the movie. After you’ve finished reading it, of course! It can be a real treat to see a performance of the piece once you’ve already imagined it in your head. How does the performance compare with your perceptions of the play? Was there something the actor provided that you did not consider? Was there something you would have done differently? Generally speaking, having read the play makes you a much better audience member as you are not struggling to understand the words. If you have finished reading one of Shakespeare’s more popular plays as prescribed above, there is a very good chance it is currently in live production or has been produced into a film, often several times.


  • Many of the Bard’s plays are now available for listening on CD, audio tape or iPod download. Listening to these may help you become familiarized with the language and make it easier for you to do the reading.
  • A basic rundown of some of Shakespeare’s more popular plays:
  • Romeo and Juliet Romance Tragedy. A tale of star-crossed lovers. One of the simpler plays due to its straight plot structure, highly recommended for the beginner, but if romance isn’t your thing, you may want to put it off until later. Highlight: Mercutio’s death speech alone is well worth the cost of admission.
  • Twelfth Night Romantic Comedy. A woman cross-dresses in order to fit into a male-dominated career (which was, well, all of them, at Shakespeare’s time) and falls in love, causing confusion and hijinks to occur.
  • Taming of the Shrew Romantic Comedy. A rather temperamental woman is “domesticated” by the man who becomes her husband. Warning: May insult modern sensibilities.
  • Richard III Historical. Full of murder, insanity and a strive for power. A bit more advanced but well worth the effort since so much is going on. Highlight: The conversation between the pair of assassins who go after Richard III’s brother (who is in jail at the time).
  • The Tempest Fantasy. A Shakespearian equivalent to “Lost” or “Survivor” with a bit of wizardry tossed in for fun.
  • A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream Fantasy. Fauns, and pixies and magical creatures galore.
  • Macbeth Tragedy. A Scottish warrior meets a trio of witches who prophesize that he will become king. He tells his wife, who urges him on in his quest to become king. He quickly becomes obsessed, and blood shed and betrayal ensues.
  • Sometimes, when you are unfamiliar with Shakespeare, you find yourself reading a bunch of lines and have no idea what is being said, what’s going on, or even what has happened. The best way to remedy this is to just keep reading. Eventually (even if you are already halfway) you will find that suddenly you can read the script! It just means that you are a beginner, and don’t worry if you have trouble understanding. It will come.
  • Warnings

    • “Shakespeare Made Easy.” Is a book in which Shakespeare’s plays have been translated into modern vernacular. Each page of text is paraphrased into easily understood sentences on the facing page. Although a nice idea to help make Shakespeare more accessible to the masses, this edition is not recommended. Most people who pick up this edition end up only reading the “modern” text and completely ignoring the original writing.

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