How to Study Shakespeare

The best way to develop an appreciation for Shakespeare is to see some good performances. The plays were written to be performed, not studied in classrooms. One of the great literary mysteries of all time (besides “Who Really Wrote Shakespeare?”–to which I go not) is, Why didn’t he take any care to preserve his works? There’s no such thing as an authorized version of a Shakespeare play, and if John Heminges and Henry Condell hadn’t put together the First Folio, seven years after the author died, we’d probably be left only with bits and pieces. This suggests that William Shakespeare, an actor himself, was mostly interested in performance, and to him a play on the boards was worth two on the shelf.


Fortunately, several movie versions are available–see my “Shakespeare at the Movies” page. Live productions aren’t that hard to come by either, especially if you live in a city big enough to have a public transportation system and a professional sports team. Touring companies, resident theater companies, little theaters, colleges and even high schools perform Shakespeare now and then (he looks good on an actor’s resume). A couple of caveats, though:


  1. Shakespeare plays are often hard to get into because nobody talks like that anymore.  In fact, they didn’t talk too much like that in his time–his speech was admired for its high-flown poetry, which sometimes flies right out of reach for most of us.  In addition, his vocabulary includes words we don’t use any more, words that have changed meaning, and words that he apparently made up.  SO, before you dress up and plunk down $20 for a ticket, or even before you download a movie from Netflix while still in your pajamas, read a synopsis of the play so you’ll know what’s going on in the first scene.  Even better, you might want to read an annotated version of the first scene to get a taste of the language and figure out what’s being said.  That’s usually enough.  After Act I, your ear will probably accept Elizabethan dialogue and the momentum of the play will carry you forward.  Unless you are 100% Shakespeare-proof.


  1. Amateur groups, such as schools and little theaters, usually handle the comedies better than the tragedies.  There’s more room for goofiness, improvisation, and plain bad acting in A Midsummer Night’s Dreamthan there would be in King Lear or Macbeth.  Also, unprofessional actors tend to rattle off lines–more so toward the end of the play when it may seem like everybody’s in a race to see who gets to the end first.  (If speed is what you want, check out the “One-Minute Hamlet” performed by the Reduced Shakespeare Company.)


After you’ve seen the play, then try reading it.  It might not be easy even then–I get bogged down in long speeches and sometimes have to check the notes to understand the references. But nobody cracks better than Shakespeare, once you’ve cracked him.  If a whole play is too scary, try reading and analyzing just one scene, or make a comparison of scenes.


Here’s a list of some of my favorite scenes, with suggestions for viewing or reading:


Richard III.  This play is really a melodrama, and Richard is one of the world’s greatest all-around villains.  Shakespeare did such a good job of demonization that there are societies and websites devoted to restoring Poor Richard’s reputation.  In the play, he is crippled, ugly, and unloved, which gives him some psychological motivation for lashing out at the world.  But he’s so audacious in going about it we can’t keep our eyes off him– all the while wondering, “How does he get away with it?”  Read Act I, Scene 2, where he “woos” Princess Anne, the widow of Prince Edward, a man he helped to kill.  (It’s all part of the Wars of the Roses, which I gave up trying to figure out.)  Anne knows Richard probably murdered her husband, and naturally loathes the sight of him, but such is his snaky charm that by the end of the scene she accepts his ring.  And while she hasn’t exactly said “yes” to his proposal, both he and the audience know she will.  Try to find the place where Anne’s defenses are worn down.  What tells you that Richard knows exactly how to push her buttons?  Do you think she half-believes his professions of love?  Is her surrender due to Richard’s persuasive power, or her weakness, or both?  Is he like any abusive boyfriends or husbands you’ve heard of?


The Taming of the Shrew hasn’t worn well, in some ways, because of its supposed smug view of male superiority.  But modern critics often overlook the obvious fact that Katherine needs to be tamed; she’s so dead-set on having her own way that she doesn’t even know what her way is anymore.  In Act II, Scene 1 Kate meets Petruchio, her suitor.  He’s already made a deal with her father to marry her in exchange for cash, but many directors make it clear that he soon decides he likes her.  The scene also contains Kate’s sister Bianca, her father Baptista, Bianca’s two suitors who are posing as tutors, and two servants posing as masters, so it may be a teeny bit confusing–but stick with it.  Before meeting Kate, Petruchio decides on a courting strategy: he will insist that she is fair and gentle, even as she acts just the opposite.  In the words of St. Paul, he will “call things that are not as though they were” (see Romans 4:17).  Eventually it works, but we’re a long way from it here.  Read from the beginning of the scene to Kate’s exit (or read the whole scene if you can keep the characters straight).  What can you tell about her family life?  How do you know she’s not happy?  Where does Petruchio apply his strategy?  In what ways are they a good match?


The Merchant of Venice is often called a “problem play.”  Its chief problem is the character Shylock.  As a Jew in more-or-less Christian Venice, he has been mocked, cheated, spat upon–and for a crowning insult his daughter Jessica has stolen a chest of his money and jewels and run off with a Christian.  So he deserves sympathy–but is not a sympathetic character.  The trial in Act IV, Scene 1 shows him at his worst.  Here’s the background: Antonio, the merchant, has borrowed 3000 ducats from Shylock to give to his friend Bassanio, so Bassanio can court the wealthy and beautiful Portia.  But Antonio can’t pay his debt to Shylock, who hauls him into court to collect the literal “pound of flesh” the Antonio had agreed to forfeit.  Bassanio and his friends plead with Shylock to give up his bond in return for a double repayment of the debt, but he refuses.  Since the law is the law, it looks hopeless for Antonio until a “learned law student” (Portia, in disguise) strides into the courtroom and finds a loophole.  From this scene, how would you describe the character of Shylock?  Antonio? Bassanio?  Portia?  Gratiano? Shylock’s fate at the end is disturbing to many.  Do you think it’s justice or mercy?  Why or why not? (See the study guide for The Playmaker for more suggestions on this play.)


Romeo and Juliet.  When this play is mentioned, most of us think about Juliet leaning from a balcony (or floating in a pool).  But for sheer drama, nothing beats Act III, Scene 1, where Mercutio is killed by Tybalt and Tybalt killed by Romeo.  (If you’re familiar with West Side Story, this is “the Rumble” scene.)  This is the climax of all the baiting and mocking and casual swordplay that was set up in the very first scene of the play: here the violence comes to a head, and here it ends.  It might even be that this scene is the real tragedy, if we accept Aristotle’s view that tragedy must result from a fatal flaw in an otherwise noble character (what happens to Romeo and Juliet after this is just bad timing).  If Mercutio is Aristotle’s kind of tragic hero, what’s his flaw?  What do you like and dislike about him?  What’s your view of Romeo in this scene–generally positive or negative?  How about Tybalt?  Do you think any of these three deserve what they get?


A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  This is the kind of goofy play that even rank amateurs can perform well.  Obviously you can have a lot of fun with the “rude mechanicals,” who think they have a real shot at performing a terrible play for the Duke of Athens.  Such is the enchantment at work, that their wish comes true!  The play is largely about wishes coming true, though not at the wishers expect.  Try this: read Act I, Scene 2, then Act III, Scene 1 (to Puck’s entrance), then Act IV, Scene 1 (short scenes, all).  Bottom, Quince, Flute, Smug, Snout, and Starveling are all recognizable types–foolish but also lovable in their way.  Think about these characters and how they behave, then cast the parts with people you know at school, work, or home.


Richard II.  Unlike Richard III, this Richard is no villain, but he’s just as interesting.  The play is about how he was forced to give up his crown, partly due to the aggression of his cousin Bolingbroke (who became Henry IV) and partly due to defects in his own character.  Richard finds himself endlessly fascinating–so much so that he spends more time in studying his own responses than actually responding.  No scene shows the rich variety of his emotional life better than Act III, Scene 2, which takes place after Richard returns to England from France and learns that Bolingbroke has also returned from exile.  Bolingbroke is gathering an army to win back the lands that Richard confiscated from him, but the king fears his cousin won’t be satisfied until he wears the crown.  His mood swings are remarkable–every piece of news provokes another shift.  Read the scene, and chart his journey from defiance to despair to irony . . and how many more can you find?


Much Ado about Nothing.  This is a play about love and betrayal, but since it’s a comedy, everything turns out okay.  My favorite scene (and just about everybody agrees) are Act II, Scene 3 and Act III, Scene 1, when Benedick and Beatrice realize–with the aid of a little well-meant deception from their friends–that they are in love.  I don’t think it’s been done better than in Kenneth Branaugh’s movie version (see movie page).  Watch it first, then read the scenes at least twice.  Pretend you are the director, and imagine how you would stage a cynical version, where B & B are not that well matched but are just being manipulated by their friends.  Facial expressions, gestures between the characters and voice inflections would be very different from the movie version.  Can you make it work?  Would you want to?


Henry IV, Parts One and Two.  This is my favorite history play (actually two plays), and not just because of Falstaff.  I think there are lots of interesting characters here: Hotspur, Owen Glendower, Justice Shallow, King Henry himself, and Prince Hal.  The relationship between Falstaff and Hal is the continuing story throughout, and there’s no one way to play it.  Is Hal a cold, calculating s.o.b., ready to dump his friends as soon as he has no more use for them?  Or does he sincerely love Falstaff, and gives him up only because of the higher call of duty? In Part One read Act II, Scene 4, then compare it with the final scene in Part Two.  What do you think?  Here’s the setup for II,4: Falstaff and his gang have cooked up a plan to rob some Canterbury pilgrims on the road, but Hal and Poins, who pretend to go along with the scheme, disguise themselves and rob Falstaff of the loot.  Then they ride to the Boar’s Head Tavern, their rendezvous, to wait for Falstaff to show up.  The scene is long but funny, with a bittersweet ending.  What’s going on under the horseplay when Falstaff pretends to be Hal’s father, and then Hal himself takes that role with Falstaff as the miscreant son?  How does Hal let Falstaff know what’s going to happen to their friendship? Is the warning brutal or merciful?  Does Falstaff take the hint?  The final scene of Part Two will answer that question, but what do you think Hal’s attitude really is, now that he’s King Henry V?  (See the study guide for The True Prince for more suggestions about this play.)


Henry V.  The St. Crispin’s Day speech is the highlight of this play for many–a stirring call to battle that could rouse a corpse.  But before you read that (Act IV, Scene 3), turn back to Act IV, Scene 1.  The exhausted and outnumbered English are bedding down for the night, knowing that a mighty French army is preparing to chew them up and spit them out the following day.  King Henry, who got them into this mess, is patrolling the camp in disguise, eavesdropping on conversations to gauge the mood of his men.  Some, like Fluellen, are gung-ho; others, like Pistol, have grudges to settle.  Three soldiers around a campfire–John Bates, Alexander Court, and Michael Williams–are ordinary guys who expect to killed or maimed in the battle.  Still incognito, the King joins their conversation, which develops into an ethical discussion of who bears the greatest responsibility for death in war–the leaders, or the soldiers who do the killing?  Try to summarize each man’s position.  Do you see any part of the conversation reflected in the King’s soliloquy and prayer that follows?  From this scene, and the St. Crispin’s Day speech of IV, 3, how would you evaluate Henry’s leadership?


Hamlet.  Where do you start?  This is the most famous play in the world, and the most famous character, and no one has figured him out yet.  Hamlet is brilliant, witty, inventive, angry, vindictive, emotionally unstable . .  also cynical and idealistic, impulsive and hesitant, devious and totally sincere.  But when is he what?  I don’t think he is seriously mad, but there are times when his own personality makes him a little crazy.  Actors who try to play him and scholars who try to analyze him can sympathize.  If you want to tackle it, I would suggest these scenes: Act I, Scene 2 (beginning with “O, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt”); Act I, Scenes 4 and 5 (Hamlet meets Ghost); Act II, Scene 2 (beginning with Hamlet’s entrance); Act III, Scene 2 (from Hamlet’s entrance to his exit); Act III, Scene 2 (from the entrance of Rosencranz and Gildenstern); and Act III, Scene 4 (Hamlet and his mother).  That still leaves a third of the play to go, but if you’re trying to understand this character, it’s a good start.  Notice particularly the many references Hamlet makes to truth and deception.


Julius Caesar doesn’t seem as highly regarded as it used to be, but it’s the play that introduced me to Shakespeare, so I think it’s great.  It’s more a study of politics than character, and anyone who thinks ancient Rome has nothing to tell the contemporary political scene should read Marc Antony’s funeral speech several times during any political campaign.  Julius Caesar is actually about the title character’s assassination and the fallout from it.  Read Act I, Scene 2 to discover how the plot was set in motion. Cassius  is the instigator, but he draws Brutus in easily enough–why?  How does Cassius make use of Brutus’s noble character?  How would you describe the character of Cassius, Caesar, and Casca in this scene?  The assassination (Act III, Scene 1) is high drama–as you read it, try to visualize the facial expressions of each character as he speaks.  Finally, compare Brutus’s funeral oration with Mark Antony’s in Act III, Scene 2.  Antony’s speech is a classic lesson on How to Sway a Mob.  If you have political ambitions, study it closely.


Twelfth Night.  During Elizabethan times, “Twelfth Night” (twelve days after Christmas) was a celebration when servants became masters, students became teachers and “lords of misrule” presided over activities that were barely legal.  There’s the same sense of displacement in the play of that name: the fool is wise, the respectable man is a fool.  Almost everyone who’s in love is in love with the wrong person for the wrong reason: Viola loves Orsino, who loves Olivia, who loves Viola; in addition Malvolio and Sir Andrew are pursuing Olivia and Antonio appears to have a crush on Sebastian.  The use and misuse of words is another theme; in Act III, Scene 1, Feste identifies himself as a “corrupter of words,” and throughout the play characters are deceiving themselves and others by high-sounding sentiments.  In the end, everything sorts out and falls into place.  Read the final scene (all of Act V) and notice how the plot is given its final twist.  Then mark each place where it untangles, until all identities are known and couples sorted out as they are supposed to be.  (Read a synopsis of the play or see the movie first, or else you won’t make sense of it.)


Othello.  Iago is considered one of Shakespeare’s greatest villains (Richard III being his only rival) because he appears to have little or no motivation for the evil he does.  He’s just evil.  Othello himself is more of a tragic hero: a good man with a fatal flaw that brings him down.  That flaw, on the surface, is jealousy–but is there anything behind it?  Act III, Scene 3 is called the “temptation scene,” for it’s here that Iago first plants the suspicion in Othello’s mind that will lead inexorably to tragedy.  Iago’s carefully constructed plot involves the manipulation of several other people, including his own wife.  First he maneuvers Cassio, Othello’s second-in-command, into starting a brawl, for which Cassio is demoted.  Then Iago encourages the distraught lieutenant to ask Othello’s beautiful young bride Desdemona to intervene for him.  Cassio is doing just that when the scene opens.  Read from the beginning of the scene to Iago’s exit.  How does he first raise doubts about Desdemona’s virtue?  How does he nurture those doubts?  Is he stoking Othello’s jealousy all by himself, or is Othello complicit at all?  (Don’t try this with your friends.)


King Lear.  The world’s most depressing play: foolishness, pride, and revenge lead to madness, death, and disillusionment.  If there is a ray of light anywhere, it’s in Cordelia’s unspoiled love and Kent’s unshaken loyalty.  Lear himself is a pitiful figure, but since he brought misfortune on himself, even our pity is compromised.  To see how Lear set himself up for destruction, read Act I, Scene 1, to the entrance of France and Burgundy.  What are Lear’s mistakes?  Why do you think he makes them?  The scene opens with a brief conversation between Kent and Gloucester (usually pronounced “Glah-ster”), where Gloucester makes light of his illegitimate son, Edmund (“Yes, he’s a bastard but I had fun making him, ha ha”).  He, like Lear, is another foolish father, and Edmund will turn out to be one of the villains of the play–can you see any reason why from this scene?  Act III, Scene 6 is one of the most heartbreaking in all literature.  In spite of his best resolutions, Lear has descended into madness due to the cruelty of his two eldest daughters.  Kent has returned from exile in disguise and Edgar, Gloucester’s lawful son who has been falsely accused of treason, is also in disguise as “Tom of Bedlam.”  (The Fool is still the Fool.)  With this curious entourage, Lear takes refuge in an abandoned hut on Gloucester’s property, and enacts a mock trial against his daughters.  In what ways does this scene compare with the first?


Macbeth.  Plenty of havoc and destruction, but with witches thrown in.  Other Shakespeare plays contain supernatural elements, but this is the only one that mucks around in witchcraft–one reason for the tradition among theater people that this play dares not speak its name.  Cast and crew members, when rehearsing and performing Macbeth, are supposed to call it “The Scottish Play,” or else very bad stuff happens.  The three weird sisters set things in motion in Act I, Scene 3 by making certain predictions to Macbeth that throw his mind into an uproar.  Or would his mind have been uproared eventually anyway?  The great question is, do we make our destiny, or does our destiny make us? Macbeth is aware of this conundrum from the beginning.  Act I, Scene 3 is his first entrance: how would you describe him?  What purpose does Banquo appear to serve?  If you were casting this play, what would the witches be like: malevolent spirits? deluded souls? crazy bag ladies? supernatural beings, or mad prophets?


Antony and Cleopatra.  Finally, a nice little love story–NOT!  The title characters are co-ruler of Rome and queen of Egypt, who fall tempestuously in love and create a vortex of self-centered passion that destroys not only themselves but also their closest friends and followers.  Not a pretty sight, but it does make for good drama.  In the course of the play, Antony alienates himself from Octavius and Lepidus, his co-rulers in Rome, and plots with Cleopatra to establish a Roman-Egyptian empire with themselves at the head.  Octavius (Caesar) doesn’t go for this idea, and war looms.  Act IV, Scenes 1-4 depict the gathering storm, and how all the principals react to it.  Read these scenes (they’re short) and notice how the dramatic tension builds.  What is Antony’s attitude to the approaching conflict?  What is Cleopatra’s? What attractive qualifies can you see in them that inspire loyalty in their followers?  Often these parts are taken by young attractive actors, but historically, both Antony and Cleopatra were middle-aged.  Imagine a couple of young, hot actors in these roles, then re-cast them with . . . I don’t know, Meryl Streep and Roberty Downey Jr.  (And don’t ask, Who are they?)  How do these cast swaps change your understanding of Act IV, Scenes 1-4?


The Winter’s Tale.  This is one of those plays (The Tempest is another) that falls into an uncertain category, neither tragedy nor comedy.  Sometimes it’s called a tragi-comedy, sometimes a romance–it ends happily, but not without a few deaths along the way.  The linchpin of the story is Leontes, King of Bohemia, who without any material cause whatsoever begins to suspect his faithful wife Hermoine of adultery with none other than his best friend, King Polixenes of Sicily.  Leontes’s mad jealousy leads to death and misery, but in it are the seeds of grace and redemption.  All this is set in motion in Act I, Scene 2.  It’s a long scene, but there are lots of interesting little by-plays between characters.  How does Leontes act with his friend and wife at the beginning?  When does his attitude toward them change?  Do you think his suspicions have come on suddenly, or have they have been building?  Does Leontes show any defects of character that might lead to unreasonable jealousy?  How does he act with his noblemen?  With his son?  (See the study guide for The Playmaker for further suggestions about this play.)


The Tempest.  Many of Shakespeare’s plays have fantasy elements, but this one is a fantasy from first to last.  Shakespeare supposedly received his inspiration from the actual account of a shipwreck on the island of Bermuda.  From that story comes this tale of an enchanted island ruled by Prospero, a nobleman deposed by his treacherous brother.  Most of the action of the play is influenced by his magic, by which Prospero punishes his brother, marries his daughter to a handsome prince, and gets himself restored to his rightful place as Duke of Milan.  With all this accomplished, he gives up his magic books and sets free the spirits who served him.  Since this was one of Shakespeare’s last plays, if not the last, it’s easy to see him as Prospero, giving up his magic stage in order to return to a quiet, normal life in Stratford-on-Avon.  The play’s most beautiful lines occur in Act 4, Scene 1.  The setting is a wedding “masque” arranged by Prospero for his daughter Miranda and Prince Ferdinand.  A masque is a solemn dance performed by actors dressed as gods or mythical figures.  For his last bash Prospero summons the real thing: Iris, Ceres, and Juno, the goddesses of the rainbow, the harvest, and the hearth.  At the end of the masque comes the speech beginning, “Our revels now are ended” (start at line 148).  Read the speech and compare with the Epilogue, also spoken by Prospero.  How might these words reflect Shakespeare’s own thoughts?  Compare the speech with Puck’s speech at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  What similarities do you see?


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These questions, thought experiments, and comparisons don’t suggest everything there is to think about a play, or even a single scene within a play.  The possibilities for interpretation could keep you busy for a lifetime–and I haven’t even mentioned Measure for Measure, Coriolanus, As You Like It, and the rest.  That’s nice, you may be thinking, but all I want to do is get through this semester of English lit.


Got it.  But what literature is supposed to do is open up your mind to other ways of looking at the world, as well as express thoughts and feelings you didn’t even know you had.  About 400 years ago, a country boy from Stratford managed to think and feel for the whole world.  Maybe you ought to check him out.