Coping With Shakespeare

shakespeareThere are two things to remember about Shakespeare. Firstly, the reason his plays have lasted for 500 years is that he knew what makes people tick. Secondly, if he was missing the precise word to express what he wanted, he made one up.

So the first thing is to hit the glossary, or better still, a Shakespeare dictionary. Don’t get too hung up on poetic and old-fashioned common words like thee, thou, yon, whither, wherefore, thus, doth, dost (both from “do”), nay, ay, wouldst, couldst etc. It doesn’t take long to get a handle on them as they pop up all the time.

Once you’ve got what the words mean, you can get to grips with the construction of the language. Since most of Shakespeare’s plays are written in verse, you need to forget about straightforward English and expect to find topsy-turvy sentence structure to accommodate the rhythms of the text. You can get poetic help with GCSE English quizzes.

With “Call you me fair?” we might now say “Are you calling me fair?” The word “fair” here means beautiful, so a modern idiomatic sentence might be “Are you saying I’m beautiful?”

It always pays to take time to turn Shakespeare into idiomatic modern speech, because once you understand what is being said, the old-fashioned words and constructions become meaningful. For this you need to ignore the rhythms and the verse structure, and concentrate on the punctuation which may well roll into the next verse line in order to make sense.

Here’s a sample:
“O, teach me how you look, and with what art
You sway the motion of Demetrius’s heart.”

Modern idiom:
“I wish you would show me what feminine tricks you’re using to make Demetrius fall in love with you.” (Understood here is the idea of “how you look” meaning “the way you look at him”.)

“Do I entice you? Do I speak you fair?
Or rather do I not in plainest truth
Tell you I do not nor I cannot love you?”

Modern idiom:
“Have I come on to you? Am I nice to you? No, actually I keep on telling the truth, which is that I don’t love you and I can’t love you.” (“fair” here meaning “nicely” rather than “beautiful”)

Immediately you make the connection with modern idiom, you also discover how the emotions of Shakespearian characters are just the same as ours. The situations may be different, as so much of his world is peopled by kings, queens and princes. But the essential human conflict might have come straight out of EastEnders!

Shakespeare deals in the common problems of life and the difficult emotional battles we deal with every day: doubt, fear, pain, grief, love and hate, wrapped up in themes we all recognise and understand. Jealousy, betrayal, honour, faithfulness or faithlessness, ambition, greed, sorrow, joy, triumph, winning and losing – you name it, Shakespeare has written about it.

Don’t be intimidated or fooled by the language. Treating Shakespeare like everyday speech is the surest route to appreciating his genius. After all, he was writing for an audience of ordinary people, mostly illiterate, who came to the theatre to be entertained, and Shakespeare gave them in full measure all the emotional highs and lows we expect from any drama on TV.

So now Shakespearean language is not so confusing, but do any of the terms used in education leave you scratching your head? What’s the EYFS or a SENCO? You’ll find the answers to these questions and more on our Knowledge Bank page. Our articles provide oodles of information on school and parenting. Take a look and see what you can discover!

shakespeare-theatreGuest Blog by Elizabeth Bailey

Coming from professional theatre, Elizabeth Bailey taught drama for many years alongside her writing career. Multi-published, she now writes full time, both her own novels and ghostwriting, as well as critiquing for other writers.


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