How to read Shakespeare for pleasure

Martin’s Droeshout portrait of William Shakespeare (1623)
Bodleian Library, Oxford.

Emma Smith, University of Oxford

In recent years the orthodoxy that Shakespeare can only be truly appreciated on stage has become widespread. But, as with many of our habits and assumptions, lockdown gives us a chance to think differently. Now could be the time to dust off the old collected works, and read some Shakespeare, just as people have been doing for more than 400 years.

Many people have said they find reading Shakespeare a bit daunting, so here are five tips for how to make it simpler and more pleasurable.

1. Ignore the footnotes

If your edition has footnotes, pay no attention to them. They distract you from your reading and de-skill you, so that you begin to check everything even when you actually know what it means.

It’s useful to remember that nobody ever understood all this stuff – have a look at Macbeth’s knotty “If it were done when ‘tis done” speech in Act 1 Scene 7 for an example (and nobody ever spoke in these long, fancy speeches either – Macbeth’s speech is again a case in point). Footnotes are just the editor’s attempt to deny this.

Shakespeare plays hand bound by Virginia Woolf in her bedroom at Monk’s House, Rodmell, Sussex, UK.
Ian Alexanber/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-NC-SA

Try to keep going and get the gist – and remember, when Shakespeare uses very long or esoteric words, or highly involved sentences, it’s often a deliberate sign that the character is trying to deceive himself or others (the psychotic jealousy of Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, for instance, expresses itself in unusual vocabulary and contorted syntax).

2. Pay attention to the shape of the lines

The layout of speeches on the page is like a kind of musical notation or choreography. Long speeches slow things down – and, if all the speeches end at the end of a complete line, that gives proceedings a stately, hierarchical feel – as if the characters are all giving speeches rather than interacting.

Short speeches quicken the pace and enmesh characters in relationships, particularly when they start to share lines (you can see this when one line is indented so it completes the half line above), a sign of real intimacy in Shakespeare’s soundscape.

Blank verse, the unrhymed ten-beat iambic pentamenter structure of the Shakespearean line, varies across his career. Early plays – the histories and comedies – tend to end each line with a piece of punctuation, so that the shape of the verse is audible. John of Gaunt’s famous speech from Richard II is a good example.

This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle,

This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars.

Later plays – the tragedies and the romances – tend towards a more flexible form of blank verse, with the sense of the phrase often running over the line break. What tends to be significant is contrast, between and within the speech rhythms of scenes or characters (have a look at Henry IV Part 1 and you’ll see what I mean).

3. Read small sections

Shakespeare’s plays aren’t novels and – let’s face it – we’re not usually in much doubt about how things will work out. Reading for the plot, or reading from start to finish, isn’t necessarily the way to get the most out of the experience. Theatre performances are linear and in real time, but reading allows you the freedom to pace yourself, to flick back and forwards, to give some passages more attention and some less.

Shakespeare’s first readers probably did exactly this, zeroing in on the bits they liked best, or reading selectively for the passages that caught their eye or that they remembered from performance, and we should do the same. Look up where a famous quotation comes: “All the world’s a stage”, “To be or not to be”, “I was adored once too” – and read either side of that. Read the ending, look at one long speech or at a piece of dialogue – cherry pick.

One great liberation of reading Shakespeare for fun is just that: skip the bits that don’t work, or move on to another play. Nobody is going to set you an exam.

4. Think like a director

On the other hand, thinking about how these plays might work on stage can be engaging and creative for some readers. Shakespeare’s plays tended to have minimal stage directions, so most indications of action in modern editions of the plays have been added in by editors.

Most directors begin work on the play by throwing all these instructions away and working them out afresh by asking questions about what’s happening and why. Stage directions – whether original or editorial – are rarely descriptive, so adding in your chosen adverbs or adjectives to flesh out what’s happening on your paper stage can help clarify your interpretations of character and action.

One good tip is to try to remember characters who are not speaking. What’s happening on the faces of the other characters while Katherine delivers her long, controversial speech of apparent wifely subjugation at the end of The Taming of the Shrew?

5. Don’t worry

The biggest obstacle to enjoying Shakespeare is that niggling sense that understanding the works is a kind of literary IQ test. But understanding Shakespeare means accepting his open-endedness and ambiguity. It’s not that there’s a right meaning hidden away as a reward for intelligence or tenacity – these plays prompt questions rather than supplying answers.

Would Macbeth have killed the king without the witches’ prophecy? Exactly – that’s the question the play wants us to debate, and it gives us evidence to argue on both sides. Was it right for the conspirators to assassinate Julius Caesar? Good question, the play says: I’ve been wondering that myself.

Returning to Shakespeare outside the dutiful contexts of the classroom and the theatre can liberate something you might not immediately associate with his works: pleasure.The Conversation

Emma Smith, Professor of Shakespeare Studies, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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The Book To Read: The Librarian Of Basra.

middle east revised

librarian/image © The Librarian of Basra/

Here is a real-life hero story. Alia Muhammad Baqer was the chief librarian in the Al Basrah Central Library in Basra (Iraq). Baqer saved around thirty thousand books from destruction during the Iraq War, including a biography of Muhammad from around 1300.

Her story inspired two children’s books, one of them being The Librarian of Basra by Jeanette Winter (illustrated by Winter in bright acrylic and ink). It might be presented as a children’s book, but this lovely story is out there for everyone.

The book is written in a simple style and it’s very easy to understand, but the story it describes is not a simple one – it took a lot of courage to do what Alia Baqer and her friends did.

Baqer worked at the library for fourteen years.  As the war spread out, she tried to make sure books from the library would be…

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M. Ali Lakhani: The Timeless Relevance of Traditional Wisdom

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M. Ali Lakhani: The Timeless Relevance of Traditional Wisdom

More than ever, there is an urgent need to rediscover timeless and objective principles in order to confront the issues of our times. In this collection of remarkable essays, Lakhani summons us to rediscover the sacred worldview of Tradition, governed by truth, virtue, and beauty, as he addresses some of the most pressing issues today, including fundamentalism, gender and sexuality, religious diversity and pluralism, faith and science, and the problem of evil.

M. Ali Lakhani: The Timeless Relevance of Traditional WisdomM. Ali Lakhani graduated from Cambridge University before moving to Vancouver where he has practiced as a trial lawyer for 25 years. In 1998, he founded the traditionalist journal, Sacred Web, with the aim of identifying the first principles of traditional metaphysics and promoting their application to the contingent circumstances of modernity. The bi-annual journal has included contributions by many leading traditionalists. In the words of Professor Nasr, “Along with Sophia, Sacred Web is the most important journal…

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Fables taught universal values but were adapted to local cultures

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Panchatantra Panchatantra

A long tradition of preparing princes to rule was the genre of literature known as ‘mirror for princes,’ fables with tales in which animals are the leading characters of the stories. These tales, thought to have been introduced to the Muslim world through India, were derived from the Indian Panchatantra (‘The Five Principles’) and Mahabharata written in Sanskrit around the year 200.

 Khalila wa Dimna (Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France) Khalila wa Dimna (Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France)

The tales were adapted and translated into numerous languages including Persian and Arabic, and were illustrated in Kalila wa Dimna manuscripts – from the thirteenth century onward in Arab lands, and from the fourteenth century in Iran.

The tales address the moral education of princes through two jackals, Kalila and Dimna, and a host of other animals as lead characters. These tales also illustrate “universal human strengths and weaknesses, as well as aspirations for justice and truth.”*

Sassanian silver plate, dated 7th century.(Image: British Museum) Sassanian silver plate…

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Persian literature was dominated by a sophisticated tradition of poetry

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A manuscript of Rumi's Masnavi dated1652–53. (Image: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford) A manuscript of Rumi’s Masnavi dated1652–53. (Image: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford)

Persian literature is dominated by a highly  sophisticated tradition of poetry dating to the tenth century. Persian poetry can generally be divided into two forms: the lyrical and the epic. The major lyrical forms are the qasida, ghazal, and rubai. The basic form of epic poetry is the masnavi.

The qasida, a long mono-rhyme (aa, ba, ca) similar to an ode, is mostly used as a speech or in praise of somebody as well as for secular or religious moralism. It consists of three parts – a prologue, the actual praise or tribute, and a final appeal to the patron. It was also used to praise of God and the Prophet. The chanted qasida is part of the religious tradition of Arabic and Persian–speaking Nizari Ismailis.

The ghazal, rhythmically similar to the qasida only…

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Arabic Literature in Persian, Persian Literature in Arabic

Kalila Wa Dimna – Original text was written nearly 2,500 years ago in Sanskrit and translated to Pahlavi Farsi and Greek to Farsi and Arabic. My interest is in the wide varied illustrated manuscripts of Kalila Wa Dimna.

ArabLit & ArabLit Quarterly

Last week, Iranian journalist Farahmand Alipour (@FarahmandAlipur) had a fascinating interview with Farsi-Arabic translator Ghassan Hamdan:

Kalila w Dimna, a text that traveled from Persian to Arabic. Kalila w Dimna, a text that traveled from Persian to Arabic.

In a wide-ranging talk, the two addressed Hamdan’s personal history, the growing interest in Iranian novels in Arabic, the particular difficulties in distributing novels published in Iraq, and what sorts of Arabic novels are published in Persian.

On that topic:

 According to research conducted a few years ago about Persian and Arabic novels, only 2% of the novels that have been translated into Persian in modern time were Arabic novels. Those Arabic novels that have been translated into Persian usually have historical and religious themes — for example, works of Jurji Zaydan, who is also popular because he has a simple writing style and uses an easy and understandable language. Gibran Khalil Gibran is also popular among Iranians, because the mystic theme in his…

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