We can all agree that William Shakespeare is hard to understand, but perhaps Shakespeare knew that about himself, too. Because he didn’t leave us without help—he teaches us how to “get” his plays, how we can read, watch, appreciate and understand them. What we need to do is learn how to identify and use these tools.
It all starts with the meaning behind his scenes and the meaning of his words—these are the first two tools in understanding Shakespeare.
This is the second of a three-part series on how to understand Shakespeare. A series overview, Four Literary Tools to Help You Understand Shakespeare, explores the four tools Shakespeare gave us to understand and appreciate his work. Read the third in this series, Stagecraft & Participation: Key Tools in Understanding Shakespeare, to explore his remaining two tools.
The First Tool: The Meaning of the Scene
Let’s get right down to it: What makes a Shakespeare play so difficult to understand? Why is it tough to grasp what’s happening and being said? One reason is that we try to figure out what the whole play means. What we need to do is start with one scene, a moment of action on the stage, and try to figure out what’s going on right then and there. We do this by asking questions.
This is a transcript from the video series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
The first tool for understanding Shakespeare is to start small with one scene and ask questions, and this then starts to unlock the whole play.
To practice, let’s start with the famous balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet.
Where in the play does this scene occur?
It’s at the start of Act II; this scene is arranged first to be a pivotal moment to move from the preliminary business of Act I into the real heart of the play in Act II.
How does this scene begin?
A young man, hardly more than a boy, looks up at a balcony where the young girl—whom he has just seen for the first time an hour before—is herself also looking up, toward the stars. The young man exclaims softly, as if to himself:
“But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? / It is the east and Juliet is the sun!”
Romeo looks up and sees a light. The audience can infer Juliet’s bedroom candle is burning. But Romeo does not stop at that literal meaning. He likens the window as the eastern horizon, and the light he beholds is the sun rising, which, he says, is Juliet herself.
This leads us to the second tool in understanding Shakespeare—the meaning of his words.
The Second Tool: The Meaning of the Words
I call this tool the “words, words, words” tool, because when Hamlet is asked what he’s reading, he responds, “Words, words, words.”
Studies suggest that Shakespeare’s vocabulary numbered about 29,000 words—a huge number, almost double that of the average college student in America. So it’s no wonder we struggle with the meaning of all these words.
Shakespeare uses language in what we call “figurative” ways, meaning the language is symbolic and metaphorical, using words to mean something other than their literal meaning.
Now, what is gained by using language in this way? What is gained precisely is a greater meaning than the literal words would allow. If Romeo is telling us that Juliet is now his sun, this means that she has a cosmic significance to him, becoming a goddess to Romeo, just as primitive man once worshiped the sun. Indeed later in the play, Juliet will call Romeo “the god of my idolatry,” which is a dangerous confusion of the love one gives to a man with the love one gives to God.
One of the long-standing interpretations of this play is that the love Romeo and Juliet bear for one another is somehow too fine for Earth, belonging to the heavens. In almost the last lines of the play, the prince will say that because these young lovers are now dead, “The sun for sorrow will not show his head”—as if the light that was embodied in Juliet has now been extinguished. All these meanings are suggested in this scene through the first small comparison Romeo makes with his language: “It is the east and Juliet is the sun.”
More Than Just Words
However, Shakespeare is just getting started. Romeo continues to elaborate on this metaphor:
Arise fair sun [speaking of Juliet] and kill the envious moon / Who is already sick and pale with grief / That thou her maid art far more fair than she.
Romeo suggests that the moon itself envies Juliet’s beauty, just as the moon must envy the greater light and glory of the sun. As we see here and something to keep in mind with Shakespeare, his language means more than one thing and works on multiple levels of meaning. Shakespeare uses language to show the many rich meanings that words contain—and by extension, the rich meanings that life itself contains.
Not every line has double meanings: Romeo relieves us at line 10 when he says:
“It is my lady, O it is my love!”
This is simple enough: The girl he beholds is the girl he adores. Shakespeare alternates between lines fraught with condensed, poetic meaning and lines that mean exactly what they say. Usually, it is the characters who are most interesting who move back and forth between figurative language and literal language.
When Juliet first speaks from that same balcony, her initial words are a succinct statement of the whole problem of the play: she is of the Capulet family and Romeo is a Montague, the sworn enemies of the Capulets. She says:
O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo? / Deny thy father and refuse thy name.
Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love / And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.
Notice that every word here is familiar to us. Only one word might seem confusing: “Wherefore,” an archaic term that means literally “for what purpose?”, “for what end?”, or even, “why?”
“Wherefore art thou Romeo” means, “Why are you named Romeo?”
Shakespeare’s language is not as difficult to understand as people think—but there are words in each play that will be unfamiliar to us. Often we can get the word’s meaning from its context or its use. Every good edition of Shakespeare includes a brief glossary of the outmoded words on the page to gain clarity and context of his meaning.
The Struggle With Words
Back to Juliet. This problem of the name strikes Juliet as an odd thing: If she loves Romeo and Romeo loves her, why should mere names be such a problem? She quickly moves into her meditation on language itself. She muses,
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other word would smell as sweet; So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes Without that title. / Romeo, doff thy name, And for thy name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.
Juliet takes on the very problem of Shakespeare’s words: What difference does a word make? What’s in a name? Can’t Romeo just throw away that name? Yet, if this play tells us anything, it tells us we cannot simply abandon the meanings words have.
Romeo and Juliet struggle mightily to escape the fate that their family names demand, and the tragedy of the play is that they cannot do it. Words, Shakespeare tells us, are of enormous, life-changing, world-shaping importance, which is another reason why Shakespeare tries to bring out their power through his figurative language.
We constantly see characters in Shakespeare’s plays wrestling in scenes with the meanings and functions of words:
- Cleopatra describes her beloved Antony as a giant reared above the earth. She says, “His legs bestrid the ocean; his reared arm / Crested the world” (5.2.81–82)
- Richard II uses metaphorical language to claim that the true king cannot be denied. He says, “Not all the water in the rough rude sea / Can wash the balm off from an anointed king” (3.2.54–55)
- Prospero compares human life to a mere dream, and death itself to sleep: “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep” (4.1.156–158)
Learn more about the ability to engage meaningfully with any Shakespeare play
Words are the medium of Shakespeare’s art, just as paint is to Monet’s, or stone to Michelangelo’s.
In trying to grasp a Shakespearean play, it’s best to start with a single dramatic scene and branch outward from there. The most important thing to keep in mind with Shakespeare is his use of language, of “words, words, words,” to attain the maximum amount of meaning.
By employing these first two tools, we already gain remarkable power in understanding what’s happening in a Shakespearean play. We are well on our way to understanding not only the surface events of the play, but also the deeper meanings, hidden symbols, larger themes and patterns, and dramatic techniques that will unlock the beauty and the power of his great plays.
Common Questions About Understanding Shakespeare
Following a guide is a great way to understand how Shakespeare uses the English language. In his time, words he used such as “thou” and “thee,” which both mean “you,” were common. Some other common words in his plays are contractions of words with “it” such as “do’t,” which means “do it,” “be’t” or “be it,” and “know’st” or “know it.”
Shakespeare’s plays are somewhat difficult to read as they were written in Early Modern English. Additionally, a play is written to be performed or seen. Thus, reading them requires one to visualize the setting using one’s own creativity rather than having the scene detailed out as in literary fiction.
The easiest Shakespearean play to read would probably be one that you are most familiar with. A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Romeo and Juliet are cornerstones of modern culture, having been told in numerous ways through movies. A good idea would be to watch one of the films while you read the play to help visualize the scenarios.
In addition to inventing nearly 2000 words which we use in modern times, today Shakespeare’s plays reveal human nature in a pure form and are relatable and relevant to us, as human nature is unchanging and the human condition is always relevant.