10 Tips for Reading Shakespeare

The following is the first draft of a bit of editorial apparatus for some upcoming Oxford University Press Canada editions of Shakespeare. Still not sure if they will make it into the final draft, but I thought I would put them up here anyhow.


1.      “Thou” vs. “You”
In the early modern period, “thou” was used when speaking to a social equal or a social inferior, whereas ‘you’ was the more formal form of the second person pronoun.  Think of it like “tu” and “vous” in French.  For instance, in Richard III, when Richard is talking to Tyrell about the murder of the young princes, Richard—who is a king—uses “thou” and Tyrell—a commoner—uses “you.” 

2.      Original Pronunciation
Early Modern English pronunciation was immensely different from our current form of the English language. In fact, an outport Newfoundlander’s accent may be the closest modern equivalent to Shakespeare’s own. Vowels that we don’t pronounce were in Early Modern English, such that the suffix “ –tion,” for instance, was two syllables, not one. Many of Shakespeare’s jokes and double-entendres rely on the pronunciation he was familiar with—for instance, there is far more sexual connotation to the word “hour” when spoken in Early Modern English, where it was a homonym for “whore.”

3.      Status
We live in a culture where personal etiquette dictates that one should treat all people with a certain kind of deference, no matter if they are rich or poor, nor who they are related to.  Shakespeare’s culture was totally different.  There was more social mobility in his day than there is today (meaning someone born poor could die rich and someone born rich could die poor – today, you are probably going to die in the same socio-economic class that you were born in).  That social mobility caused anxiety for all as the culture was ostensibly rigidly hierarchical.  So, people began to insist upon “proper” etiquette that we don’t understand today.  For example, in Hamlet, Osric the courtier repeatedly takes off his hat to Hamlet, indicating deference to him as his lord.  Hamlet tells Osric to put his hat back on, leaving Osric trying to follow two different imperatives: the dictates of etiquette on the one hand and Hamlet’s own commands on the other.

4.      Prosody
Just before Shakespeare started writing, a fellow playwright named Christopher Marlowe wrote a play called Tamburlaine, where he established “blank verse” as the predominant mode of dramatic writing.  “Blank verse” is simply unrhymed iambic pentameter poetry.  An iamb is a unit of poetry where an unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed syllable.  Pentameter means that there are five (penta) iambs per line (meter).  Shakespeare uses this as the baseline throughout his drama, sometimes adding a syllable or breaking up the rhythm for effect.  Beat out the lines with your fingers as you read and you will hear when Shakespeare is playing against/with the verse.

5.      Words, Words, Words
It has long been supposed that Shakespeare’s vocabulary was bigger than anyone else at the time, but computerized stylistical analysis has shown that he was actually no different than anyone else who was writing at the time in terms of his creation of new words.  It is just that his words caught on, while other playwrights’ new words didn’t. One of the ways in which Shakespeare “created” new words is through a device known as a “functional shift.”  That is when one kind of word (a noun, say) becomes another kind of word (a verb, for instance).  An example of this is when, in Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio is described as being “Kated.”

6.      Poetry vs. Prose
Sometimes characters speak in poetry, sometimes in prose. As a general rule, poetry indicates a kind of elevated speech, perhaps indicating the character is being polite, is of a high social status, or is engaging in witty repartee. Prose on the other hand tends to indicate characters who are of lower social status or for “everyday” scenes.  For example, in 1, 2 Henry IV, Prince Hal speaks in prose when he is with his lower-class friends, but in poetry when he is at the court.

7.      Vowels vs. Consonants
It is a good rule of thumb suggested by Patsy Rodenburg, Head of Voice at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, that when you are reading aloud (and you should always read aloud), the consonants carry sense while the vowels carry emotion. Note when a certain vowel sound is held.  For example, the sound of the words echoes the sense of them in King Lear when he says “Howl! Howl! Howl! Howl! Howl!”

8.      Take Him Off the Pedestal
The best way to approach Shakespeare is, first, to stop thinking about him as “the greatest writer of all time.” Make up your own mind about that. If you don’t like him, that is fine, but then you have to answer “why?” in a complex and thoughtful manner. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking of Shakespeare as just for upper-class stuffed shirts. Shakespeare wrote fart jokes and sex jokes.  In many ways, the early modern sense of humour was closer to Family Guy than Downton Abbey.

9.      These are Plays, Read them as Plays
The genre of the novel is the most popular traditional literary form today, thus when we read other genres, like plays and poetry, we try to read them like novels.  We really ought to stop that. Plays have unique problems when you approach them as a text to-be-read rather than to-be-performed. For example, if someone does something significant in a novel, the author will usually spell it out in the narrative, but a playwright like Shakespeare doesn’t need to waste the ink.  Sometimes actions are merely implied in the dialogue in what are known as “internal stage directions.” These editions have tried to point out some of the more obvious cases of internal stage direction but you should look for them everywhere.

10.  Classical and Biblical References
Shakespeare came from a world steeped in the classics and the Bible. We do not. His audience would immediately have recognized references from classical learning and Biblical stories that we simply don’t without help. Use the editorial notes to help you whenever you can.
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