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The Ultimate Guide To Everything Shakespeare

February 21, 2017

The Ultimate Guide To Everything Shakespeare


It is no secret that reading Shakespeare is difficult and the language can be extremely off-putting. The best way to get your head around the language, I believe, is to watch Shakespeare plays. There are tonnes of film adaptations that you can watch online so I suggest doing this before you tackle the reading of the play alone.

I found when reading the plays I got lost; I couldn’t keep track of the characters (a lot of names to remember) and the words/phrases used often make no sense in today’s world. When you watch one of the plays acted out it helps you to contextualise what is being said.

For example, in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ some characters like to advise they are ‘biting their thumb’. This has no meaning out of context; this could mean literally anything and have all sorts of connotations. Now, when watching the play you can see that ‘biting your thumb’ is a type of non- verbal insult. This small piece of knowledge, attained through viewing the performance, will save you a lot of time guessing. You can also refer to your notes or online resources to check the meanings of the words and phrases you do not understand; many editions will provide a glossary.

Remember: Watch the plays and take notes! It is also important to read the text but don’t get bogged down in it…it is time consuming and will make you feel worse when you don’t understand!


Although you probably had a lesson at the beginning of term advising you of the history of Shakespeare, this may well have been forgotten. When reading the plays you must always keep in mind when the piece was written and who for. You will come across characters, language, actions and ideas that do not make any sense in today. Be open-minded with this and see it as having a bit of history thrown in with the literature class that day.

Shakespeare was writing plays in the Sixteenth Century, even though we do study them in a similar way to novels try to always keep in the back of your mind that they were written to be performed. It has been claimed that many of Shakespeare’s works have been lost and the collections were only put together after the playwright’s death. The plays were meant for entertainment, they were written to be shown to the English rich and poor in London. The audience would be paying each time they watched a play and so the better the plays were, the more money they would make.

Shakespeare is often commenting on the social issues of the time and all of the characters language and behaviour would be easy for his audience to relate to. Some of the plays themes and ideas do stem from mythology and folk tales also. As many of the audience would not have been able to read, their only source of entertainment would have been through watching these plays.

Remember: Shakespeare was writing for a broad audience, his plays were written to be performed.



Character analysis is a great way to understand Shakespeare’s plays. One of the key defining features of any character is their gender.

The stereotypes of men and women at this time were extremely rigid. A woman was still seen as property of her Father until a man wanted to marry her. Women were seen either as objects of desire (Rosaline, Juliet) or as Mothers and Wives (Lady Macbeth). Men were depicted as heroes; soldiers, Knights and Kings. Their role was to provide for and protect their families. If single, they would be looking to woo many women and eventually find a wife. If married they would generally have children and would be viewed in a noble light.

The social class of a character also determines a lot about them in Shakespeare’s plays. Richer families often have a different set of morals of poorer ones. Powerful characters, such as Lady Macbeth, use their social status to get what they want. Poorer characters use their wiles and are often seen as conducting unfair trades to obtain a little wealth.

Every single character in all of Shakespeare’s plays has a role; he did not add in characters for the sake of it. Each character, even if they have just one line, will be intrinsic to the scene they are in. We get to see mothers, fathers, princes, ghosts, clergymen, merchants, spies, soldiers and many more types of characters in the plays.

Remember:  Be aware of the main characters and their traits, see how their actions and influence contribute to the overall plot.


Shakespeare explores many themes. Themes such as romance, betrayal, death, family, reality and even fantasy are depicted. The themes will always be very important to the plays narrative, how it is structured and where it ends. As Shakespeare enjoyed putting in a few themes in to each play it is a good idea to figure those out first and then apply examples.

Remember: Define the themes and keep them in mind when reading and watching the plays. You will see many examples of them so write them down and put them in your revision notes.



Remember when studying Shakespeare it is easier to break down these elements first. Once you have these key facts in the back of your mind, you will be able to spot examples easier.

Try to write down all you know about the play and refer to your class notes and also website revision guides.

Avoid taking the play(s) all in at one time; you may feel overwhelmed and you may be wasting a lot of time trying to sieve out the appropriate information that will help you get high grades.

Make bright and easy to read notes, watch the film adaptations and who knows you may even begin to enjoy them!

Good Luck with your Shakespeare study!

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