Many students dread the inevitable studying of Shakespeare. However, while it is true that Shakespeare's dramas are some of the most demanding works encountered by high school students, any student can master Shakespeare with a little perseverance. Below are some steps to successfully read a Shakespeare play:
(1) Get a good plot synopsis. There are many plot summaries available, but many of them are too brief and don't provide you with the detail you want. You should look for a synopsis that includes passages from the actual play in the discussion. Even though you may not understand these discussions at first, when you read the play later you will know exactly what is happening in the story.
(2) Get Annotated. Like me, You probably have no idea what Hamlet meant by a "bare bodkin". This is, of course, because Shakespeare's plays are over 400 years old. You can get a well-annotated version of the play you are reading. In these versions, obscure phrases are footnoted with explanations of their origins and meanings, so you can understand what Shakespeare is talking about (A "bare bodkin" is a dagger, by the way). Still, in terms of the English, Shakespeare's plays aren't really that complicated to understand. Let me demonstrate by comparing Shakespeare's English to the really Old English of some other works:
Here is a passage from Beowulf, which was written in Old English:
"baet hine on ylde eft gewunigen
wilgesibas, bonne wig cume,
leode gelaesten; lofdaedum sceal
in maegba gehwaere man gibbon."
Yep, that's English, not gibberish. And here is a passage from the Canterbury Tales, written in Middle English:
"Whilom, as olde stories tellen us,
Ther was a duc that highte theseus;
Of atthenes he was lord and governour,
And in his tyme swich a conquerour,
That greater was there noon under the sonne."
Now, here are a few famous lines from Shakespeare's Hamlet:
"To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them."
So, Shakespeare wrote in what we call Modern English. There isn't a word in his plays that you don't know; the problem is due to his language being poetic. As you continue through his works, head over to your local library and grab an annotated version. Soon, you will get into the rhythm and be able to breeze over the archaic anomalies.
(3) Start with Reading the Classics. Start your familiarization of Shakespeare with Romeo and Juliet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In addition to being two of his best plays, they are also two of his most accessible. It is most probable that you would be reading Shakespeare's most famous, rather than more obscure, plays for school anyway.
(4) Get a Resource to Help you with Shakespeare's Words. Use an online resource that has a full glossary of Shakespeare words you can refer to as you're reading. Such resources are extremely helpful. To see a good example of such a resource Click Here
(5) If for no other reason, then for the curses. For those who need an incentive, Shakespeare's plays contain a library full of "curses" that will give you a chance to improve on your creative turns of phrase. Study Shakespeare's plays and learn all of his insults. Change "Stop iiiittttt!" into “Methink’st thou art a general offense and every man should beat thee!"(All's Well that Ends Well). That is sure to end the argument in your favor.
(6) See the Play. Simply reading Shakespeare's plays, although rewarding, is an incomplete experience. The real radiance of his works comes through when you see able actors performing it. Not only does it make the play enjoyable, you will get an even better understanding of the play after watching it.
In the words of Shakespeare himself: "Courage and comfort, all shall yet go well" (King John). Enjoy Shakespeare!
*Sources used were "How to Enjoy Reading Shakespeare" by Joseph Smigelski from the Huffington Post, "How to Read a Shakespeare Play" from enotes.com and "Five Steps to Success Reading a Shakespeare Play" from shakespeare-online.com