When you first approach reading Shakespeare, it can be a daunting experience. Even though I grew up reading the King James version of the Bible with similar language, I still found Shakespeare a difficult read unless I had a teacher holding my hand throughout the play. I could understand the basic plot line and even some of the language, but many of the jokes, the history, and the language went over my head.
When I first started planning to teach Shakespeare to my children, I knew I was going to need some help. Three things especially have made an enormous difference in our Shakespeare studies.
First, whenever I could find them, we would use the Oxford School Shakespeare editions of the plays. Each volume contains a synopsis, commentary, and extensive line by line notes on the language, jokes, people, places, and history. There are also discussion questions and a book list in the back for more information. Throughout each book, there are black and white photographs of the play being performed. I have grown a lot in my understanding of each of the plays for which I’ve had this version.
Second, we listen to the play while we read. The Complete Arkangel Shakespeare recordings are the best approach to the play, in my opinion. While many people say that everyone should take parts and read it aloud, I did not feel confident to do so and neither did my children. Now we can listen to Shakespearean actors act out the play on audio while we follow along. These recordings are brilliant and make all of the difference in bringing Shakespeare alive.
Third, I read commentaries on the play for myself before, during, and after I read the play. The two books I read most often are Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human and Brightest Heaven of Invention: A Christian Guide to Six Shakespeare Plays by Peter Leithart. Both of these books have been a great help in understanding what Shakespeare is doing. I may not always agree with the author but at least it gives me a starting place in my thinking about the play.
Just recently I heard about Shakespeare After All by Marjorie Garber. I just picked it up at the library today and am hoping to dip into it for my reading of Hamlet. Another resource that has been a great help is Peter Saccio’s lectures on Shakespeare, two of The Great Courses lecture series. My library carries these series and Dr. Saccio is an engaging teacher who “unpacks” each play thoroughly and winsomely. I recommend them.
Of course, many teachers recommend watching Shakespeare whenever possible and we do that, too. I will write about some of our experiences another day.
I hope these helps in reading Shakespeare will make a difference in your reading, whether you are reading on your own, for a class, or with your family.