Introduction to Reading Shakespeare
(English Literature tutor at The Edge Learning Center)
“I have read three hours then: mine eyes are weak:
Fold down the leaf where I have left: to bed…”
If you’re on the IB track in Hong Kong, you’re almost certainly dealing with Shakespeare either as practice on the MYP/IGCSE curricula or for IB marks on the IOC or Paper 2 exam. And if you’re tackling Shakespeare for the first (or second) time, chances are you’re finding him pretty rough going.
Here’s the thing nobody tells you about starting to read Shakespeare:
You’re going to have to relearn how to read.
That’s not really news anyone wants to hear, but it’s actually a necessary mental adjustment to make if you want to get good at reading Shakespearean texts. With practice, reading texts from this time period becomes much easier and faster, but when you’re starting out, you will need to allocate more time and energy than seems reasonable to the basic task of reading.
The thing is, by the time you hit high school, you’ve accomplished a certain level of reading and perhaps even analytical proficiency, and you probably expect to be able to read and understand texts at a fairly fast pace. You may have certain reading strategies to help you through, like skipping words you don’t know and figuring out the general sense of a sentence from context. Unfortunately, reading 400 year old language from a 400 year old culture does not lend itself to the reading habits you may have developed for more modern works. Skipping words you don’t know in a Shakespearean text probably means you’re skipping way too many words.
Is that even a word?
Reading quickly and trusting your brain to give you a general sense of the meaning is unlikely to provide a nuanced understanding if you’re unfamiliar with both the linguistic and cultural patterns of the text. You’re going to miss things if you don’t slow down.
There are three major layers of understanding students at the high school level should pursue when reading Shakespearean texts:
- Basic Comprehension
- Syntax (sentence structure)
- Cultural references
2. Poetic Meaning
- Literary devices (Paper 1 and IOC type close reading)
3. Dramatic Meaning
- Character actions
- Power dynamics
All three of these layers help you reach a thematic understanding of the text. We’ll be able to circle back around to Poetic and Dramatic meanings in later blog posts, but for now, I want to focus on the often overlooked Basic Comprehension category – precisely because students usually don’t realize they have to focus attention and effort here. We’re used to jumping straight into analyzing poetic devices and major themes, but all textual analysis rests on the foundation of accurate reading comprehension. If you don’t know what’s going on in a scene – what characters are literally saying to each other – you have no basis on which to build more sophisticated analysis.
And, sadly, basic comprehension of a (really) old text takes time and effort. So let’s get started.
When I say you’re going to have to relearn how to read, I literally mean you’re going to have to learn a new method of reading the book in front of you. The first thing to realize is that, to read Shakespeare, you’re not just reading Shakespeare. To make up for the unfamiliarity of the language and culture, you’ll also need some supporting texts: at minimum a set of explanatory notes from your text’s editor and a dictionary. (Do you have a dictionary app on your phone? You should put a dictionary app on your phone.) Sometimes, you may also need to look up references online. You’ll get used to having multiple texts open – like multiple windows in your browser – so you can refer between them quickly and synthesize the data in front of you.
Take a look at a sample page from the Arden edition of Hamlet:
The editor’s notes at the bottom of the page provide information on vocabulary, untangling confusing sentence structures, and cultural references a modern student wouldn’t be expected to know. To make the most out of these notes, you’ll need to become adept at reading both the top and bottom of the page together:
- Read Shakespeare’s text until you hit a confusing point.
- Drop your eyes down to the editor’s notes for clarification.
- Return to Shakespeare to apply the editor’s knowledge to your understanding of the play.
Let’s consider an isolated incident involving vocabulary. In Act 2 Scene 1 of Othello, Iago is watching Cassio kiss his own hand in a sort of courtly gesture to Desdemona. Iago thinks it’s over the top.
Off to the side, he keeps a running commentary on Cassio’s actions, including the following line:
“Yet again your fingers to your lips? Would they were clyster pipes for your sake!”
The first sentence describes Cassio kissing his own fingers and indicates (a) that he’s done the action several times and (b) Iago’s kind of over it. The second sentence introduces the unfamiliar vocabulary word, “clyster pipes.” If you were reading quickly, you might be tempted to skip the “clyster” part of the term and be satisfied with that part you readily understand – “pipes.” Iago is wishing Cassio’s fingers were some sort of pipes. The tone is kind of mean. It’s probably an insult of some sort. Moving on.
However, if you stop and drop your eyes to the editor’s note, the additional knowledge you find there is rewarding. And gross. But also rewarding. It turns out “clyster pipes” are enema tubes. Do you need a minute to google that? Here. Okay? So basically, Iago is wishing Cassio’s fingers (that he’s kissing) were enema tubes so that every time he kisses them, Cassio would be smearing fecal matter on his mouth. That is so much more specific an insult than just wishing there were something wrong with Cassio’s fingers.
If we want to push it further, this is a perfect example of how Iago operates as a character. He always, always looks at something and sees it in its worst possible form. In fact, his action throughout the play is not only to see things in their worst light, but to actively transform them into the worst version of themselves. Under his direction, Cassio becomes a drunken brawler, Desdemona becomes (in Othello’s eyes) a deceitful and manipulative whore, and Othello becomes a barely coherent brute of a man: irrational, violent, and, tragically, the very stereotype of black bestiality he’s been trying to escape his entire career. Good thing we stopped to check the notes.
However, while editors will certainly give you the meaning of weird words like “clyster pipes,” you’ll also need to be able to cut your eyes over to a dictionary or an internet search from time to time, because there are going to be things you don’t know that aren’t covered in the editor’s notes. For example, there will be commonly used words the editor will expect you to look up on your own, such as “ere” (before), “whence” (from where), “hence” (to there), and “wherefore” (why). Even familiar words like “but” can take on additional meanings (except, only) that you’ll need to look up.
Here are some lists of common Shakespearean words:
Next time, we’ll continue looking at aspects of reading comprehension you need to master to be able to read Shakespearean texts fluently. For now, just make sure you’ve adjusted your expectations to this slower and more active style of reading.