Why is his work so popular and integral to our culture?
- Shakespeare's work uncannily captures the good and bad in human nature in such a way that even today we can easily relate to the issues and emotions faced by his characters;
- He took (familiar) older stories/poems/myths and reworked plot and /or language in such a way that audiences easily related and understood the passions, challenges, loves, hates,and motives of all his characters - and yet there is nice depth to them;
- Shakespeare was the master of the art of language. He fabricated meaningful and nonsensical words making sure audiences were involved in the performance (and not just those down by the stage), he toyed with puns, curses and saucy slams, and he spoke of the people and to the people with wit, passion, humor, insight and sensitivity.
- Inconsistent writing format: Shakespeare's plays are part verse, part prose. While verse follows a regular, rhythmic pattern (usually iambic pentameter), prose has no rhyme or metric scheme as it is the language of everyday common conversation. This can often make reading Shakespeare more challenging for beginners.
- Helpful hint #1: In modern published editions of his work, each line in a multi-line verse passage begins with a capital letter; while each line in a multi-line prose passage is in lower-case letters, except for the first line or beginning of that passage.
- Helpful hint #2: Shakespeare typically used verse to express deep emotion, share deep insights, inject irony, or simply share a lyrical poem. He typically used prose to relate commonplace discussions, make quick one-line replies, poke fun at characters who lack wit or to suggest madness (in King Lear, Lear speaks almost exclusively in verse for the for half of the play but wavers between verse and prose as the story and his madness progress).
- Artistic liberty: In Shakespeare's time, there were no official English dictionaries. As a result, Shakespeare 'penned' words as he chose to spell and use them, often taking words from Italy, France and other countries. Furthermore, when words did not exist, or could not fitinto the meter of his works, he would make them up (see the next bullet). These 'creative' spellings and word usages make reading his works fun for some, challenging for others.
- New words: William Shakespeare used approximately 17,000 words in his plays, and almost 2,000 of those, were words he 'tweaked' or made up. He did this by changing nouns into verbs, verbs into adjectives, adding prefixes and suffixes, and coining a few all on his own. Consider the following list of fifty plus words that, as far as can be told, were first found in Shakespeare's writing:
accommodation aerial amazement apostrophe assassination auspicious baseless bedroom bump castigate clangor countless courtship critic critical dexterously dishearten dislocate dwindle eventful exposure fitful frugal generous gloomy gnarled hurry impartial indistinguishable invulnerable lapse laughable lonely majestic misplaced monumental multitudinous obscene pendant perusal premeditated pious radiance reliance road sanctimonious seamy sneak sportive submerge trippingly useless
- New compound words: Aside from coining or 're-minting' individual words, Shakespeare combined and connected words never before used together, creating new compound words such as:
barefaced civil-tongue cold-comfort eyesore fancy-free foul-play play-fair green-eyed heartsick high-time hot-blooded lackluster leap-frog laughing-stock itching-palm lie-low long-haired love-affair ministering-angel sea-change short-shift pinch-battle primrose-path snow-white tongue-tied towering passion
- Weird sentence structure: Shakespeare frequently shifted his sentences away from "normal" English arrangements in order to:
- create the rhythm or rhyme he sought;
- use a line's poetic rhythm to emphasize a particular word; or
- give a character his or her own speech pattern and /or to identify his or her social status (i.e. in Romeo and Juliet, the servants and nurse have very different speech patterns from Romeo, Juliet, and their social peers).
How did he do this?
- Look for the placement of subject and verb. Shakespeare often puts the verb BEFORE the subject. For example, in Act 1, Scene 1 in Romeo and Juliet, line 140, Montague says, "Away from light steals home my heavy son." (Instead of "...my son steals home.")
- Sometimes Shakespeare placed the object or adjective before the subject and verb. For example in Act 1 Scene 2 line 4 of Romeo and Juliet, Paris says "Of honorable reckoning are you both."
- Imagery and figurative speech. Shakespeare frequently used literary devices such as:
- Hyperbole (exaggerations);
- Simile (comparing one thing to another using "like" or "as");
- Metaphor ( comparing one thing to another without "like" or "as");
- Oxymorons (combining words opposite in meaning, such as 'freezing fire', usually to startle the audience and make them think);
- Archaic speech. some words used in Shakespeare's plays have fallen into disuse or their meanings have changed. Here are a few:
- anon = straightway
- buckles = small shields
- marry = indeed
- heavy = sorrowful
- o'er = over again
- morrow = morning
Shakespeare Starter Suggestions:
- Find and share his insults. Here is a link to begin: Shakespeare's Saucy Slams
- Start them with the stories, with the magic in the stories, great characters. Some of the easier plays are the ones with a lot of dialogue (and not necessarily the famous soliloquies) such as Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, and The Tempest. Macbeth can be fun for the more morbid kids, kids into witches and high drama.
- Watch classic video clips. Here are a few of my favorites:
- Great slams: Beatrice and Benedick arguing in "Much Ado About Nothing"
- The games people play in (and accepting) love: David Tenant and Catherine Tate in Much Ado About Nothing
- Great motivating speech: Henry V St. Crispin's Day Speech to the troops from Henry V
- On bigotry, antisemitism and revenge; Shylock's monologue from The Merchant of Venice
- On life, living, the seven ages of man, and the 'stage' - from As You Like It
Some additional Shakespeare resources:
- Folger Shakespeare Library
I hope you find these resources helpful. Please share some of your favorite teaching/viewing/reading Shakespeare moments of your own in the comics. Thanks for you visit and have a great week.