Understanding Shakespeare

Reading & Writing, The Arts

Probably the most consistent criticism I hear about Shakespeare from people I talk to, especially kids, is that the language is impossible to understand. To an extent I agree – if you only read the text it often seems to make little sense – and certainly the analogies and references prove hard work. But the astonishing thing is that, spoken aloud, some kind of transformation occurs, and things start to fall into place.

Now of course, not everything does, particularly in the history plays, which require a larger field of reference. One thing that always amazes me is the seemingly shambolic changes of tone Shakespeare goes for – but in this he’s duplicating life itself, which rollercoasts from one state to the next – and this is something teenagers particularly experience. And his language does exactly the same thing, which is what makes it so truthful.

A very good, very easy book on the subject is ‘Shakespeare On Toast’ by Ben Crystal, which explains how Iambic Pentameter makes the language simpler to follow. Here’s the trailer for the National’s current ‘Hamlet’, which perfectly illustrates the point.

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3 comments on “Understanding Shakespeare”

  1. Martha says:

    For people with phobias about watching Shakespeare – Merde!!! – in a theatre, the Kenneth Branagh film of Hamlet is one of my all-time favourite movies as well as being as good an production of Hamlet as you’re likely to get.

  2. J. Folgard says:

    There’s the same issue in France regarding Molière -brilliant comedies with difficult language for students, but the kids get most of it once they see it performed in front of them. Several weeks ago I accompanied a class to see “Tartuffe” and the company did a wonderful, lively & ingenious job -the students had a blast with the whole affair. They admittedly didn’t get all the finesses, but their feedback was completely positive!
    Oh, and I agree with Martha.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    Haven’t seen Branagh’s Hamlet, but I liked his Henry V. I remember doing Moliere at University and yes, it was hard, but even with just the general sense of the sentences it could be pretty funny. We’re too often turned off by an unfamiliar diction and miss the ideas, which aren’t unfamiliar at all. Unfortunately, we were taught Parisian accented French which didn’t prepare us for the Quebec French spoken here. The Quebecois seem to leave out all vowels and speak at 120 clicks an hour so I’m lost unless I’m watching a news broadcast.

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