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Studying Shakespeare can be hard, but it is well worth the effort. Because Shakespeare is, frankly, old, he can be difficult to understand, which makes it easy to become frustrated and give up. Don’t! As you come to understand the language he uses, you will see plays and poetry that are written beautifully, with vivid images and hilarious plays on words. You will see the subtleties in the differences in the way different characters speak and appreciate the attention to detail he pays each particular line to make sure that the audience sees the parallels and foils between characters. Shakespeare’s grasp of language is utterly unparalleled in the English language. When I was reading Hamlet this time around, I was struck by the beauty of the language of the play. There’s a reason Hamlet is Shakespeare’s most-quoted play; before I ever read it, I knew dozens of quotes from it simply from other books and media. Hamlet’s lines are my favorite; he is such a complex, maddening, delightfully intelligent character that I loved to read everything he had to say over and over again to try to understand the deeper meanings to his words. His “To be or not to be” soliloquy is justly one of the most famous speeches in the English language, but he has many other gems that I think of often: “I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw,” “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” “how weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world!”
I think it’s easy to get caught up in the sheer volume of a play, and to get depressed and fail before you even start. Accept that reading Shakespeare will take you more time than reading Harry Potter; put aside a larger amount of time than you would normally, and take it slow. When you read slowly, you will comprehend a lot more, and the whole thing will be much more enjoyable. The best way to study it, however, is to watch it! Go out of your way to find clips or even full plays; for some reason, Shakespeare is a lot easier to understand when you’re watching it. Perhaps it is because you have body language, tone, and setting to set the scene, but absolutely Shakespeare is much more comprehensible and enjoyable when you’re watching it, so do that! It will help you learn it and retain it.
The first key to writing about Shakespeare is understanding it. Most of us can intelligently discuss key characters, themes, and lines from Star Wars or Lord of the Rings; Shakespeare is no different. There is a rich array of topics to write about, so find something that interests you, and work with it. Out of all the different plots, characters, and themes in Shakespeare’s plays, there will without a doubt be something or someone you can relate to. Then find other people who feel as you do. Shakespeare has been around for nearly half a millennium, so pretty much everything you can think of has been written about it. Find people who are fascinated by the same things you are: this includes scholars, of course, but also ordinary people who blog and tweet and post about Shakespeare all the time. Between the peer reviewed articles you find at the library and short blog posts, you will be able to gather more ideas and interpretations than you thought existed about the same play and same characters. Finding people who cared about Shakespeare made the whole process more interesting to me. Many would disagree, but I think that reading is a social experience. When you read something really good, you want to share it with others and discuss it with people who love it like you do. Media and informal research is good for that; people aren’t as concerned with being “right” and are more excited to talk about something they love. That helped me ignite my enthusiasm, and I’m sure it will help you with yours. Finding all this also helped me see trends in what people think about a specific play or theme, which prompted me to think differently about it. I would get an idea of a pattern, then think, “okay, how can I see this differently? What if Shakespeare is actually saying the complete opposite of what these people say?” Then I would search through my knowledge of Shakespeare to examine my hypothesis.
Don’t give up! Shakespeare is wonderful, and he’s worth all the effort you put in. The more you do it, the more you’ll like it.