Few things are as daunting to high school English students as reading William Shakespeare. Between Shakespeare’s use of complex sentences, archaic vernacular and dated references, understanding Shakespeare’s work can be a terrifying task.
In the third quarter, freshmen began reading Shakespeare’s “Othello,” which challenged students with difficult comprehension and analysis. In response, Upper School English teachers offer various tips that can make reading Shakespeare much more approachable and rewarding.
Starting with the Right Attitude:
The stigmas surrounding the difficulties of Shakespeare’s work are intimidating for beginners, but the key to conquering this intimidation starts with having the “right” mindset, according to English teacher and Writing Center Instructor Maura Sincoff. Students must learn to enjoy their frustration and to not give up when faced with a challenging passage or sentence. “If you give up or wait for the teacher to tell you what the words or sentences mean, I think it detracts from the experience and overall satisfaction,” Sincoff said.
Watching Onscreen or Live Versions of the Play:
Understanding Shakespeare’s complicated language can be made easier through visual or live components. For example, freshmen can watch the movie, “Othello,” in their own time or even a recorded, performed version online. When Shakespeare wrote his famous plays, they were intended for audiences and not readers, so many of the details that make the play come to life can be understood when hearing the words said out loud by actors and actresses.
English teacher Margaret Ramsey believes that audiobooks can also help readers to better understand “Othello.” Readers can take notes while they listen along to the text – not to mention, the audio can clarify how to pronounce certain words. According to Ramsey, audiobooks create voices for the characters, bringing the play to life even more and making the plot much easier to digest. For good audiobook options, Ramsey suggests Librivox, Libro FM and Audible. Ramsey also recommends reaching out to any of the Menlo librarians for support in finding reliable audiobooks.
When Lost, Look for Punctuation:
A simple but helpful tool when reading Shakespearean plays is identifying punctuation. “People get confused [when] they read a line and that line doesn’t make sense because it’s not the full sentence,” Ramsey said. Punctuation in Shakespeare’s plays provides readers with the necessary context for the delivery and meaning of a passage and is vital when interpreting the play. According to Ramsey, even a missed comma or question mark can change the entire meaning of a given sentence drastically.
Paraphrasing Chunks into Contemporary English:
The language and dialogue in Shakespeare’s plays are extremely different from how we talk today. Sincoff believes it can be helpful for students to take chunks from the original text and attempt “translating,” or paraphrasing, it into simpler, modern-day English. “The more you’re able to [paraphrase], the more you start to get the hang of what’s being said,” Sincoff said. To assist with understanding Shakespeare’s language and dialogue, teaching assistants will be in room A142 every Thursday during tutorial.
Plot Notes at the Top of a Page:
Ramsey thinks students should consider picking out the most important details of each passage — summaries, figurative language, motifs, analysis — and writing them at the top of that page. Not only does picking the key details out of a passage help you to understand the writing, but plot notes also make finding quotes related to an essay or thesis more accessible in the future.
To read or not to read — that is the ultimate question. Shakespeare’s plays may pose a challenge to some Menlo freshmen, but the Upper School English teachers still perceive them to be valuable and meaningful reads. “Reading plays, but specifically Shakespeare, is a uniquely challenging but also rewarding experience because it’s activating so many different parts of your brain at once,” English teacher Whitney Newton said.