By: Taylor Ferreira
With four years of required English courses, you are bound to encounter Shakespeare at one time or another, and with a few tips, those analysis essays can be a bit more approachable. The first step in deciphering what sometimes seems to be another language, is understanding the structure.
Shakespeare often uses a rhythm known as Iambic Pentameter in which the lines are composed of five iambs, or ten syllables alternating between stressed and unstressed beats. An iamb begins with an unstressed syllable and is followed by a stressed syllable. For example, “Would thou wert clean enough to spit upon” (Timon of Athens, Act 4, Scene 3) If you read it outloud, there is natural emphasis on the syllables in bold, and the alternating structure creates a rhythm some liken to a heartbeat.
Because of this structure, Shakespeare will often make alterations to his sentences and words to make the phrase fit the rhythm. Some of these alterations include contractions, inverted sentences, and accented syllables. We use contractions in everyday language, (‘I’m’, ‘they’re’, etc.) but in Shakespeare, there are some contractions rarely seen in literature, making it quite hard to pronounce when reading.
Common Shakespeare Contractions:
tis ~ it is i’ ~ in
e’er ~ ever oft ~ often
a’ ~ he e’en ~ even
ope ~ open o’er ~ over
gi’ ~ give ne’er ~ never
Shakespeare will often invert his sentences, (and no, he’s not dyslexic, again it’s simply so the line fits the rhythm) or begin with the verb instead of the subject. For example, “Never was seen so black a day as this:” (Romeo and Juliet, IV, v). In a normal sentence, one would start with the subject and follow with the verb. It would sound something like this, “A day as black as this was never seen.” Thinking of these sentences in this more familiar form when reading, can help make the meaning of the sentence easier to understand.
An accented syllable is used to change the stress on the word from the first syllable to the second in order to fit the rhythm. This is indicated by a little accent mark like so: è. This shows up on some words ending in -ed in which, with the accent, are then pronounced like the name Edd.
Common Accented Words
You may be wondering, why would someone want to go through all this trouble just to make the syllables fit? The answer is simple, he liked the way sounded. The rhythm has an even cadence, which in my opinion, is why it’s so easy to fall asleep when listening to Shakespeare.
After understanding these language variations, the next obstacle is understanding the difficult meanings within the strange words and phrases. Make sure when reading a Shakespeare play, to use an annotated version of the text. The Folger Library has easy-to-use versions that define obscure words and phrases as well as provide short synopsis of every scene on the left-hand page. This makes it easier to piece together the meaning by combining what you understand with what is unfamiliar, and reading the synopsis beforehand can help provide a context for the scene.
Besides deciphering the meaning, one of the biggest battles when reading Shakespeare is applying a visual to the lines of the play. Because there are very little stage directions provided, the movement and actions of the characters as well as the setting of the play is much up to the reader’s interpretation. When reading the section, first think of all the characters in the scene, as well as the location and time frame the scene takes place in. Having a more three-dimensional idea of what is happening in the scene can help connect the dialogue to the actions of the characters.
Of course the most effective way to understand the visuals of the play, is watching one of the movie versions, in which you will find many different interpretations of the time frame, setting, and characters. But of course I must add that simply watching the film will not give you the ability to analyze the text, and you will miss many key details only found by close-reading.
I have found that the sooner I accept that Shakespeare is unavoidable, the easier it is to study his writings. It would be very difficult to find an English Language Arts curriculum without one of his plays among it, and his works are pieces of literature that are countlessly referenced in music, books, films, memes, you name it. His insights have baffled people for centuries, and his innovation in the theatre industry has greatly influenced the art form. Once exposed to the old Bard’s writing style, many of these references will come to light. Shakespeare plays take time and determination to get through, but hopefully these tips can make it a bit easier to understand. However, as much as you don’t want to hear this, the only way that you can truly understand what he is trying to say, is by putting in the time and the effort – but who knows, if you’re a Lit nerd like me, you may even enjoy it.