Shakespeare 101

What’s in a play? A whole lot of confusion if you’re not familiar with The Bard. But what seems like a baffling mess of Elizabethan drama is actually a lot of fun, wit and philosophy if you know how to read it right.

1. The Spoken Word

The majority of Shakespeare’s works were written between 1585 (approximately) to 1613, when few people could read or write. This is probably why most of his works were meant to be read out loud or performed. The idea that these works are meant to be spoken, not read, is very important when you’re going through Shakespeare’s works. Reading a work out loud rather than just looking at it on a page can bring a whole new depth of meaning to the work. So, the first thing you should do when you go through one of his plays or sonnets is read it out loud. Read it more than once. Put the emphasis on different words or phrases. Play with the inflection. Each time you change something, the meaning of the work changes. This is called subtext. It’s the difference between “I’m so glad to see you,” and “I’m so glad to see you,” and it can only be expressed if you read it out loud.

2. Accents

Some people think that it’s perfectly fine to read Shakespeare with any accent, while others insist that it must be read with a British accent. But what neither of them realize is that the work wasn’t even written for actors with British accents at all! Elizabethan English falls into the category of “early modern English”, which is a completely different animal than any accent we have today. It’s this accent that makes the difference in this passage from As You Like It:

And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe,
And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot;
And thereby hangs a tale.

Now, in the modern accent it sounds like a maybe a comment on morality or the banality of life. But, in the original pronunciation, it’s a filthy sex joke (which you can hear here, starting at 8:10). Considering the original pronunciations helps shed light on the original puns and rhymes.

3. Not all Shakespeare is serious

Comic courtesy of Kate Beaton at Hark! A Vagrant.

Too often, Shakespeare’s works are considered the pinnacle of English literature and end up being treated like holy scripture. But the plays weren’t meant to be so stiff and formal. The Globe Theatre was built so that the actors were right next to the audience. Sometimes, the actors would use members of the audience in their acts. Not to mention that not every play is a tragedy. Shakespeare wrote tragedies, comedies and histories. The comedies are outright silly, but even the tragedies have humor in them. Shakespeare loved puns and sexual innuendos (double entendres) and every play that I’ve read so far is full of sex jokes and bawdy humor. Which brings us to our next point.

4. Consider the Clown

Whether the Porter in MacBeth, the gravediggers in Hamlet or Peter in Romeo and Juliet, nearly every play has a clown. Shakespeare knew the importance of comic relief, because really, who wants to watch death and tragedy for three hours straight? The clown serves to alleviate tension in the play. The clown also serves as a character that is relatable to groundlings and nobles alike. This is important in Shakespearean theater since the plays were not put on solely for the upper classes, but instead were attended by everyone. The clown usually comes from a lower class, and his interactions with the principle characters represents a mingling of classes, which was becoming more common in the Elizabethan age.

Shakespeare was using clowns to break the fourth wall centuries before it became popular. In Hamlet, which takes place in Denmark, one of the gravediggers asks his companion to “‘go, get thee to Yaughan, fetch me a stoup of liquor,’… Yaughan was a pub around the corner from the London Playhouse where Hamlet was playing.” Just a few lines later, the gravediggers are at it again, making fun of Englishmen. This kind of humor gets lost when modern people read Shakespeare, but the more you dig into it, the more you realize how deep and complex Shakespeare’s works really are. Many of the references have been lost in time, but there is a reason that Shakespeare is considered a genius of the English language and has been studied for centuries after his death!

5. Couplets and Other Poetic Devices

Shakespeare is not only known for his plays but also his poetry. But if you look closely, he incorporated many of his favorite poetic devices into his plays. He usually ends acts and/or scenes with couplets, which signifies the end of the scene or act and gives it a surprisingly satisfying sense of closure. The speech patterns of the characters are also filled with poetic devices (meter, rhyme, rhythm, stress) and you can tell that they’re bringing up a really important point when they start speaking in iambic pentameter. Lastly, keep an eye out for whether the characters are speaking in prose (formal, highly structured language) or just plain ol’ vernacular (slang or common speech).

6. Imagery and Motifs

When writing an essay about a Shakespearean play, you should always mention imagery and motifs, because his plays are chock full of them. There are a few that show up again and again, so these are the ones you need to know for sure.

  • The body (esp. as a metaphor): Ears, eyes, tongues, hands and limbs- Shakespeare loves to bring up body imagery, which also plays nicely with the sight & blindness and hearing & deafness motifs.
  • The garden: garden imagery is everywhere you look, and is especially prominent in Hamlet and Othello, but also pops up in other places, like Romeo and Juliet. Iago is constantly associated with the garden motif, as he sows the seed of doubt in Othello’s mind. This also ties in with the poison motif in Hamlet, showing the darker side of gardening.
  • Color (esp. black and white): Again, this motif is especially prominent in Othello (for obvious reasons). Several times it is paired with animal imagery (“an old black ram is tupping your white ewe”).
  • Opposites: Another thing that Shakespeare was fond of was pairing opposites.  Sight & blindness and hearing & deafness are just two that he liked to repeat. Also keep an eye out for reality & illusion and sanity & madness.
  • Driven to madness by grief, guilt or jealousy: See Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, all of the characters in King Lear, etc.

This is only a very elementary overview of a few of Shakespeare’s many works. Many people spend their whole lives going through all of his works and still never finding everything- but hopefully, this has inspired you to see past the image of the stuffy old bard and to recognize and appreciate the humor, nuances and human complexity of Shakespeare’s works.

About SIwordsmiths

"Writers should be read but not seen. Rarely are they a winsome sight." - Edna Ferber

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