Monday, 21 May 2012

Making Sense of Shakespeare | How to Read Shakespeare's Work

It wasn't Shakespeare's intention
for you to read his plays.

As you may already know, many of Shakespeare’s plays weren’t published until several years after his death. He wrote his plays to be performed rather than read and, I suspect, it would be beyond his wildest imagination to think that almost 400 years after his death, schoolchildren would be sitting in classrooms reading his work. But, who knows, maybe he was terribly narcissistic.

What I quickly discovered when I first starting studying Shakespeare (which wasn’t that long ago….it wasn’t! Shut up) is that there are three very important things to remember about Shakespeare:
  1. Plays should be seen and not read
  2. Shakespeare’s work can mean anything you want it to (within reason)
  3. His plays were written for the entertainment of the masses

See a Play Before You Read a Play

Shakespeare’s plays are just that - plays; intended to be watched not read. Therefore, reading Shakespeare is akin to reading the screenplay of a modern film; it simply doesn’t have the same impact as seeing it performed.

So, I think the way to get the best from a Shakespeare play is to see it. Thankfully, with numerous film versions of his famous works, finding a DVD of Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream or any other Shakespearean masterpiece is easy and relatively cheap.

It’s All Open to Interpretation

Because Shakespeare probably never intended to publish his plays and he directed almost all of his own work, there was no need to write lengthy stage directions or descriptions. You’ll find precious few, with the possible exception of Titus Andronicus. Consequently, Shakespeare’s work can be, and has been, interpreted in any number of ways.

A skecth of the interior of the Globe Theatre
There is simply no way of truly knowing what Shakespeare’s intentions were; what he was thinking when he wrote a play or the message he was attempting to impart.

This is a particularly sticky issue when it comes to the problem plays, such as The Merchant of Venice, which was used by the Nazis as an anti-Jewish piece of propaganda. On the other hand, of course, many interpretations of Shylock have been extremely sympathetic towards his character.

Subsequently, throughout the centuries, people have seen what they want to see in Shakespeare’s work. Naturally, this freedom of interpretation does not always produce favourable results. However, one thing is for sure, it keeps Shakespeare’s work relevant, because it can be interpreted to fit almost any time or location.

His Aim Was Mass Appeal

When it comes to talk of Shakespeare’s intentions, scholars and historians can speculate forever. However, the most important concern for the man himself was that his plays were entertaining.

Today, there is a common misconception that Shakespeare is somehow elitist and only relevant to a certain section of society. Of course, he had royal patronage from Elizabeth I and, later, James I, but, in his own time, Shakespeare appealed to a large spectrum of the population, including the ‘great unwashed’.

The south bank of the Thames in Elizabethan
was a bit like Las Vegas

It is worth remembering that Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre was situated on the south bank of the Thames, in London, which was the Las Vegas of Elizabethan and Jacobean England (minus the Elvis impersonators).

I suppose that would make Shakespeare the Celine Dion of Elizabethan and Jacobean London or perhaps the Barry Manilow. It may be best to leave that dodgy analogy alone now. But the point is, William Shakespeare wasn’t some literary genius in an ivory tower, he and his plays, were entertaining very ordinary people.

The theatre was surrounded by public houses, bear baiting pits, brothels and gambling houses. Consequently, Shakespeare’s audiences were often a little tipsy (to put it mildly), rowdy and easily distracted. Shakespeare had to ensure that his plays would keep the attention of these audiences for the duration of the play. In the case of Hamlet, this is over four hours, so no easy task.

Therefore, before starting to read a Shakespeare play, I urge you to shake any notion that you must desperately search for profound meaning. Yes, we can read those messages within the texts, but that wasn’t what was foremost in William’s mind. Oh, no. If tills (or cash registers for my American chums) had been invented in the 16th century, the only thing Shakespeare would have been thinking is ‘kerching’.

This post is an excerpt from What's It All About, Shakespeare?An Introduction to The Bard of Avon, which is avialable from,, Smashwords and all good online book retailers.


  1. "The theatre was surrounded by public houses, bear baiting pits, brothels and gambling houses."

    When you are drunk, must be careful not to enter the bear pit when you think you are entering the brothel!

    1. Oh, Atrox, how that made me laugh! And it is, actually, very sound advice. : )