How to Enjoy Reading Shakespeare


The first thing you have to do when confronting Shakespeare is break down the wall of resistance that has been constructed between you and him by a cultural atmosphere fraught with willful misunderstanding. For instance, how many times have you heard someone say that Shakespeare wrote in Old English or Middle English? That right there might be enough to put you off. But both of those claims are patently false.


Shakespeare wrote in Modern English, the same language that we speak today. [. . .] Your problem with understanding Shakespeare is due to his language being poetic. Most of your everyday discourse has become so pedestrian that your ears have become unable to tune in to language that aspires to greater heights. This may or may not be your fault. We all are aware that the state of education in this country is woefully bleak. But why submit to the prevailing philistine attitude without a fight?

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4 thoughts on “How to Enjoy Reading Shakespeare


  2. Yeah, mikespeir is spot-on. Shakespeare’s language is “modern English” in the same sense that everything since the Renaissance is the “modern era”; nevertheless, people living in the 1600s would probably have more in common with people living in the 1200s than with us, thanks to all the changes wrought by technology since about 1850. (In my lifetime, there has never been a point where it was not possible to speak to someone on the other side of the planet more-or-less in real time. I can cross a continent in 24 hours if necessary. When there is a famine in the first world — at least for the time being, knock on wood — it generally has to do with temporary snags in distribution, usually because of natural disasters, and not with crop failures, and people generally don’t die as a result of these temporary famines. We expect our children to live to adulthood, and it’s a shock when they don’t. The 20th century — and, so far, the 21st, although right-wingers around the world are working as hard as they can to stop this — are a whole different world.)

    There are all sorts of ways the language has changed since Shakespeare’s, which contribute to making Shakespeare incomprehensible in passing. Just for example: in Shakespeare’s time, they were still using “-n” as an alternate to “-s” to form plurals. (As in “and his sandal shoon” in Ophelia’s song in Hamlet.) With a few specific exceptions (“children” and “oxen” and maybe a few others which aren’t coming to mind) we no longer use these. All sorts of grammar and spelling has changed. In fact, the mere existence of grammar or spelling as a solid set of mostly-agreed-upon rules is new since Shakespeare’s time.

    For that matter, the semiotics of Shakespeare’s topics have changed dramatically. Just for one example, think how differently a modern American audience sees Othello than Shakespeare’s contemporaries. To them, the character would just be another foreigner, albeit one who was instantly identifiable because of his physical appearance. We read all sorts of things about slavery and race relations into that play because that’s how we think of “moors”. Royalty, and loyalty, and war have all changed dramatically.

    The language is different, the worldview is different, and the audience is different. Shakespeare is directly readable by a modern audience in the same sense that the morality of the Old Testament is directly applicable to the modern world: not at all.

  3. Well, technically it’s modern English. That’s not quite the same thing as saying it’s the same language we speak today. If any of us were to travel back to Shakespeare’s time we might have a little trouble communicating. I don’t think I’d have much trouble getting by. I grew up on the King James Bible, after all. Once my ears tuned to the differing enunciation I’d probably be okay.

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