How I Read a Shakespeare Play

This is how _I_ read a Shakespeare play, and I’m not necessarily recommending it for anyone else. Also, I’m not an academic, and this is not a rigorous or systematic approach, merely the one that works best for my learning style. But it works for me, and it might for you, It’s a combination of different people’s advice over the years.

1. Plan to watch a performance. I think the reading of the play should go in tandem with a viewing. They were meant to be viewed, not read, though reading them brings its own rewards. For example, I am going to see a production of As You Like It tomorrow night.

2. The edition. I prefer single plays–they’re easier on the wrists. Yes, every house should have a collected edition for reference, but I buy individual books for each play I read. Because my dear and learned friend Thalia recommended the Arden editions to me many years ago, they are the ones I favor. They have all the background I could want for and more with footnotes on the page, so helpful when I want to know what that phrase means right now. My one complaint is that there is not a big enough visual difference/divider between the text and the notes.

3. The first reading. When I was in grad school, i.e. single and childless, I would read the play the first time through from Act 1 through Act 5 (no introduction or afterward) in one sitting, looking at the notes as little as possible. I was reading to get to the end, and divine as much meaning as I could before delving deeper. This usually took about 2 hours, depending on the play. Now that life doesn’t tend to have 2 hour stretches, I just read it from beginning to end as I can, picking it up and putting it down, but not adding anything else, even magazines or newspapers, in between.

4. The second reading. I re-read the play, starting with the introduction, with all the notes (or all the notes I can handle) and on to the afterward.

5. I see the performance and re-read or re-watch as is possible or desirable.

How do _you_ read Shakespeare?

6 Responses to “How I Read a Shakespeare Play”

  1. Amy Says:

    Sadly, it’s been years since I read Shakespeare, although he’s on my list for this year. This is helpful. I remember taking lots of Shakespeare classes in college; the best one was from a professor who made us read the entire semester’s worth in the first two weeks–that was a LOT of reading–but then we spent the rest of the semester looking at his works as a whole, not piecemeal. Very eye-opening.

  2. girldetective Says:

    Amy, I was just thinking this morning that I _wouldn’t_ like to read all his works at once, since many of the comedies are so similar. I imagine spreading them out would make them more distinct. Reading a whole bunch at once would make me woozy, I think.

  3. Amy Says:

    Well, I was 19. That might have helped. I want to say it was 5 or 6 plays and a batch of sonnets.

  4. Tom Says:

    Curiously, I just heard a reference on NPR this morning to Star Trek VI. I paraphrase, To fully appreciate Shakespeare you need to read it in the original Klingon.

  5. Jennifer Reese Says:

    I haven’t read Shakespeare since college. I did see Coriolanus with Ralph Fiennes a few weeks ago and felt very stupid because I couldn’t understand half the dialogue. I aspire to read Shakespeare again but somehow the urge never strikes.

  6. girldetective Says:

    Jennifer! You are not stupid! (I have a personal mission to get women to stop saying things like “maybe this is stupid” or “I’m so stupid.” It’s inevitably said by some of the most intelligent, accomplished women I know.) Shakespeare is hard–it’s like a different language. And it’s a skill–the more you do it the easier and more pleasurable it gets. My friend M at Mental Multivitamin says the No Fear Shakespeare series can be a good, low pressure entry to reading the plays. I bet if you got Coriolanus, gave yourself an afternoon with it, you’d get a retrospective expansion on the movie, plus a great basis for when you watch the DVD and a boost to your confidence.

    A good production will make the archaic language accessible. My gateway to Shakespeare was Branagh’s Henry V, which I saw, then read.