Sunday, May 20, 2012

Saluting Shakespeare: A Study Guide

Shakespeare is believed to be the most read author in the Western Hemisphere other than the Bible.  Whether this is true or not, his work is integral to our cultural past, present, and future.

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.
And yet, given all this, his work is often hard for younger audiences and today's students to understand. 

Why Shakespeare may be challenging and helpful hints and tools to tackle his great works:
  •  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?
      1. 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 " son steals home.")
      2. 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
Given all these challenges, reading, studying and acting out Shakespeare's plays is just loads of fun.
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:
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.


    1. Omigosh, I LOVED this post! Thank you so much for linking up with Makes My Monday....a dear friend named his daughter Miranda, and we were discussing the often unsung ingenuity of Shakespeare when it came to "creating" words.

      Can hardly wait to send this his way. (And the Henry V speech....LONG a favorite!)

    2. Absolutely delightful post!Have not read Shakespeare's plays since I left college more than 30 years back!Brought back college memories and now I'm longing to read his plays all over again!:)
      Stopping by from Friday Hop.

    3. I like your post, you're helping with my english (LOL) & I follow your blog for GFC. I am from Monday Mingle, I hope your visit!

      Happy Week!

    4. Great post. I liked to read, see, and act in Shakespearean plays beginning in high school. There is so much to enjoy in his body of works. Carver, ABC-Wed. Team

    5. Wonderful post. I am a new follower via Tuesday hop at Reflexions. Can't wait to read more of your blog. Donna

    6. I must return anon and listen to each of the videos.
      Because of my high school senior English teacher I have a love for Shakespeare.
      Miss Murtaugh even took the whole class to see Midsummer's Night Dream staring Bert Larr (sp?)
      Now I am dating myself. It was an experience I will never forget.

    7. Thank you for the wonderful videos! I love the works of Shakespeare, but these are very difficult to understand for a non native speaker. I like to have them subtitled. Have a great week, Meryl!
      Wil, ABC Team.

    8. Verily, thou hast dexterously addressed the topic.
      I think the "modern" takes of Shakespeare, from West Side Story to more recent fat-re, aid in the understanding. I'll have to get back to the videos, though.

      ROG, ABC Wednesday team

    9. I taught Shakespeare for years; it's great to read the excellent information you present about our friend. Thanks.

    10. Ah, yes, also as a former English teacher, I enjoy your post today!

    11. I haven't read so much Shakespeare since high school as I have these last 2 years ...I now have a huge binder full of information on many of his plays and have quite enjoyed studying them with my students. Have a stupendous week,

      abcw team

    12. Hi Meryl,
      Your post bring back old memories. I love Romeo and Juliet except for the sad ending. Great post.
      Following you now from the flock together hop.

    13. We enjoyed Shakespeare the most when watching our Son doing plays in college. Nice videos.

    14. As I've gotten older, I've found a new appreciation for Shakespeare - now even more thanks to you. ;)

      Field Trip Fun-ish, Future Nagging Guest Blogger, Angry Birds Take On Stonehenge

    15. What a great posting. I could spend the whole evening investigating your links, but will look forward to coming back later and doing that....

    16. Wonderful resources here. Every time I read your posts, I wish I had discovered your blog before retiring from teaching.

    17. Always loved the word, anon. Too bad it has not been able to make a comeback-it just might though! What a great lesson for today-a breakdown of Shakespeare's 'tricks'! I always feel like I leave your blog a bit smarter than when I arrived!

    18. Great post,have a lovely week :)

    19. Hi! I'm visiting from the hop and now following your blog. There is a lot to absorb in this one post. I'm pinning it to find easily when we study Shakespeare.

    20. Hi, I found you on the Welcome Wed. blog hop hosted by Take it from me. I am your new follower. Please follow my GFC pop-out icon on rt. @

      This post is a fantastic resource and I will share it with my homeschooling support group.

    21. I copied and pasted so that I can help my grandson to better understand Shakespeare. How clever you are!!! I Love Your Blog!!! Saw it on Welcome Wednesday. Please follow me back at

    22. Hi thank you for all your information and tips on this subject I sure could have used those at school lol. I am a new follower from the blog hop i hope you may have time to visit me at

    23. Oh the legendary Shakespeare! Now following your blog.

      S is for..
      Rose, ABC Wednesday Team

    24. Hi! Stopping by from the Welcome Wednesday Hop, new follower

    25. This is great stuff, and you do a good job of showing Shakespeare's charm, a charm too often understood only by actors and English teachers. Would like to see you tackle Dante in the same way.

      Visiting from bassgiraffe

    26. You took me back to my schooldays. I studied "Merchant of Venice", "As you like it" and "Twelfth Night" at school. But Romeo and Juliet is my favourite. Loved your post.