Everything Shakespeare - GCSE English Literature

May 9, 2016

GCSE English Literature: Understanding Shakespeare

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When studying GCSE English Literature, Shakespeare is inevitable. Unfortunately, even if you aren’t massive fan, you will encounter him again if you wish to further your English studies.

The good news is that Shakespeare is actually not as difficult to get to grips with as he seems; even if you dislike him you will still be able to pass.

There are some key aspects common to all Shakespeare plays that you need to know and they are relatively simple to remember and work with.

Tragedy or Comedy?

The first thing to do with any Shakespeare play is identify its genre. This is easy, just work out if it has a happy or sad ending. For example, Romeo and Juliet ends in the two main characters dying. This is pretty sad so we can consider the play a tragedy. Much Ado About Nothing ends in two weddings, which are happy occurrences, so it is a comedy.

Most of Shakespeare’s plays have some comedic and tragic elements. Don’t let this put you off. Remember, is the ending happy or sad? This should decide your answer.

Shakespearian language

It’s no secret that reading Shakespeare is difficult and the language can be extremely off-putting. The best way to understand the language, we believe, is to watch Shakespeare’s plays.

There are many adaptations – film, TV, and stage – that you can watch online. Try watching one before you tackle reading the play.

When reading the plays it’s easy to get lost; there are a lot of characters to keep track of and many of the words/phrases used make no sense in today’s world. Watching the play being acted out helps you to contextualise what is being said.

For example, in Romeo and Juliet some characters are seen ‘biting their thumb’. Out of context, this action has no meaning. But when watching the play you 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 guesswork.

Moreover, you can refer to your notes or online resources to check the meanings of the words and phrases you do not understand; many editions provide a glossary.

Context

Although you probably had a lesson at the beginning of term advising you of the history of Elizabethan England (when Shakespeare lived and worked), you may have forgotten all of it.

When reading Shakespeare’s plays, you should always keep in mind when the piece was written and whom for. You will encounter characters, language, actions and ideas that do not make sense today. Be open-minded and see reading Shakespeare as having some history mixed into your English class.

Shakespeare wrote during the sixteenth century. Although we often study his plays in a similar fashion to the way we read novels, remember that they were written to be performed; you can only learn so much from reading them.

Through his plays, Shakespeare comments on the social issues of the time and, back then, the characters language and behaviour would be easy for his audience to relate to. Many of the plays’ themes and ideas stem from mythology, folk tales, and ancient dramas also.

 

Characters

Character analysis is an important approach to take when working to understand Shakespeare’s plays. Given the times in which they were written and set, one of the key defining features of any character is their gender.

Society’s expectations of men and women at this time were extremely rigid. Typically, women were seen as their father’s property until a man wanted to marry her. Accordingly, Shakespeare often depicted them as objects of desire (Rosaline, Juliet) or as duty-bound mothers and wives (Lady Macbeth).

Men, on the other hand, were depicted as heroes; soldiers, knights and kings. Their role was to protect and provide for their families. If they were single, they would looking to woo women in their search to find a wife. Once married, they would generally have children and be viewed in a more noble light.

Shakespeare, however, also liked to challenge the binary roles of men and women. In Twelfth Night we encounter our two characters portraying opposite genders and in Much Ado About Nothing Beatrice is uninterested in finding a husband, much to the disapproval of her father.

A character’s social class also determines a lot about them. In Shakespeare’s plays, wealthy families often have a different set of morals than poorer ones. Powerful characters such as Lady Macbeth use their social status to pursue their desires. Poorer characters use their wiles and are often seen as conducting unfair trades to obtain little wealth.

Every character in Shakespeare’s plays has a role, even if they seem insignificant to the play’s overall context. Each character is somehow 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.

Themes

Shakespeare explores many themes and these often cross over between comic and tragic plays. Themes such as romance, betrayal, death, family, reality and even fantasy are depicted. Themes are important to the play’s narrative, how it is structured, and where it ends.

Because Shakespeare typically incorporated multiple themes into his plays, it’s good practice to identify these early on and consider how they will develop throughout, as well as where they will lead in terms of the play’s ending.

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