On reading Shakespeare, with tips

2020-07-26 @Literature

Challenge your reading canon. Read Shakespearean works if you haven’t already.


The rhetoric is as good as it gets in the English language. You’ll find crafty word play, endless puns, plethora of personification, allusion, and plenty of witty philosophizing among even the most casual of characters.

Shakespeare wrote much of the plays in poetic form. Be it blank or rhymed verse, this aspect makes each fragment independently appreciable. It’s quiet stellar.

Many of the common plot devices encountered in modern Western canon trace to Shakespeare. The storytelling elements of inner-conflict, lust, conceit, betrayal, jealousy, redemption, as we encounter in literature and cinema, tend to find roots in some of the bard’s plays.

Granted, Shakespeare also drew heavy inspiration from even earlier material. Any edition of the plays containing supplementary content will generally relate these sources along with the relevant historical background.

But most of those works long faded from attention. Meanwhile, the Shakespearean plays continue to thrive, having pervaded the English literary tradition.


Both native and non-native English speakers can undertake and enjoy Shakespearean works. With any genuine interest, you probably already have what it takes.

As a native speaker, read especially if you haven’t read since school. Unless you willingly enrolled in a Shakespeare reading course in college, whatever you did as part of obligatory (supposed) education was likely in vain anyway.

As a non-native speaker, even with restricted reading abilities, you can gradually trot your way to Shakespearean literature.


You could read a handful of 19th-century literature as a gateway. Victorian (19th-century) English exhibits more in common with Elizabethan/Jacobean (latter 16th, earlier 17th centuries, when Shakespeare wrote), than, say, the contemporary. Obvious.

You could do that. Or you could plunge directly into Shakespeare. The will is everything.


  1. Read the poetry like poetry. As I mentioned, Shakespeare wrote much of the plays in verse, primarily in iambic pentameter (five, two-syllabic feet per line, emphasis on each second syllable). You’ll generally discern the verse fragments from prose.

    Be it rhymed or blank (non rhythmic) verse, it’s important that you read the poetry like poetry. Much of the reading pleasure you’ll derive from that alone.

  2. Use an edition with supplementary notes. These notes tend to clarify obscure vocabulary and passages.

    Now, of special importance: try to only reference the segments you believe fairly crucial to your overall comprehension. If you feel to have caught enough of the gist, abstain from the notes and continue. Don’t needlessly violate flow, especially across the verse.

  3. Read slowly, but not too slowly. Again, this concerns flow.

    Read at a sufficiently slow pace to appreciate the rhetoric subtleties and follow the rough development. But don’t recess to such a crawl as to distort flow, this likely to result in more frustration than pleasure.

  4. Don’t read summaries prior. Annotated editions are notorious for appending the plays with revealing detail, this often juxtaposed with historical background.

    Unless already well acquainted with the plot (details fresh in memory), don’t read the summaries until after. Don’t spoil the otherwise captivating story. Retain the element of surprise.

  5. Annotate as you proceed. Mark passages, verse, or word usage that ignites your interest. Mark directly in the book (if at liberty) or on a separate sheet, but do annotate.

    Accumulate your own interpretation of the plot. And only once finished with the play, permit yourself to compare your notes with the included summaries (or online). Or do so at least on an act-by-act basis.

  6. Start with the more accessible plays. Then slowly proceed towards the more challenging.

    Among the plays, Shakespeare wrote comedies, tragedies and histories. As a heuristic, the earlier comedies (in date of publication) tend to be the more accessible for beginners.

    My few recommendations: The Comedy of Errors, The Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It.

    I’ve yet to read a single history play, but have reason to suspect them as the most challenging. Everything else - the later comedies and most tragedies fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. Again, this is only a heuristic.

  7. Forget translations and modernizations.

    I believe poetry that’s any good to be untranslatable. The original language is essential to maintain the integrity of those emotions, hues and cultural context which the poetry evokes.

    Now Shakespeare was a playwright and a poet. Unless you read the works untranslated and unhampered, you no longer experience his poetic product. Beyond the mere plot, you’re mostly cheating yourself out of a mixture of elements: the poetry, the rhetoric, the historical literary context.

    That applies equally to translations as well as those - abominable English modernizations of Shakespearean works.

    It’s obviously your choice, but I write this entire guide presupposing the original Shakespearean opus. Otherwise, I would sooner advise that you forget Shakespeare. Seriously.

  8. Avoid side-by-side editions. Some readers opt to read the original jointly with a translation or modernization.

    Look. The problem with such editions is similar to the too heavily annotated versions affixing supplementary material to nearly every other line. Remember what I said about the maintaining of flow?

    Unless you tame your curiosity to the strictly more obscure fragments, you’ll find yourself too frequently shifting attention between the two versions. You’ll hinder poetic flow and you’ll diminish the pleasure inherent to self-sustained progress.

    Do yourself a favor of adhering mostly to the original version of the text. Or better yet, avoid these side-by-side editions.

Questions, comments? Connect.