Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Strumpets on Shakespeare:
How To Study Shakespeare

Rick and Jennifer: Two Former Shakespeare Students
Washington State University


We’re going to have to make a couple of assumptions right off the bat. If you’re like us, you probably have bad memories of struggling through Shakespeare in high school: maybe something short like Macbeth, or one of those abominably abridged versions of Romeo and Juliet, with all the racy jokes cut out (true story: circa 1982 the nurse wasn’t in the version Rick had to read in freshman lit). Maybe you were even lucky enough as a tyke to see a civic theater performance or a university troupe. Unless you’re one of the rare exceptions, you probably didn’t like Shakespeare the first time you were exposed, and thus have probably shied away from further exposure like vampires to sunlight. That’s cool, we understand. We were there once too.

Another assumption we’re going to make is that now you’re being forced to read the Bard, either for a class or because you’re trying desperately to impress some English major hottie. We’ll also assume that whatever your reason, you want to do well in your study of Shakespeare; otherwise, you’d almost certainly be surfing at webslutz-dot-com rather than wading through our medieval meditations. With these initial assumptions out of the way, we can get on with crafting a study plan that will help you get the most out of the collected WS, and maybe, just maybe, help you learn to like it a little.

First, the basics. You will need a good “collected works of” volume. If you’re using the kind you can pick up at Barnes & Noble for $4.95, you’re guaranteed problems. First of all, cheap editions are frequently based on inadequate or incomplete texts that have not been checked or proofread. There’s nothing worse than Romeo spoiling the mood on the page by asking, “What wind through yonder window breaks?” Believe me on this one. Secondly, scholarly editions will have extensive footnotes to explain the obscure or outdated references and clue you in on words that have changed their meaning over the centuries. You can spend hours online looking up dozens of Catos to see why Brutus doesn’t want to be compared to . . . er, one of them, anyway . . . or you can glance at the bottom of the page. Your choice. But you really do need to know that “brave” in Shakespeare’s time doesn’t mean “courageous,” it means “fine or ostentatious.” You need to know that so when you’re reading about someone’s “brave” clothing, you don’t get the idea that his Fruit of the Looms are off to face down the Trojans (oooh, bad juxtaposition).

Anyway, spend the extra shekels and get a good complete text. Some other things to look for: how many plays does it include? If the text your instructor wants you to use doesn’t contain The Two Noble Kinsmen, walk away — that play has been an accepted part of the Shakespeare canon for years, even if Shakespeare didn’t write very much of it, and any editor who doesn’t include it is hopelessly stodgy, stubborn, or brain-dead, or at the very least hasn’t kept up on current scholarship since Harry Truman was in the Oval Office. (Note: you’ll likely never have to read 2NK, but its inclusion or lack thereof is a good indicator of the editor’s hipness.) Look for a text with 38 or 39 plays: less and it’s an outdated edition, more and it’s trying to pass off apocryphal stuff that really doesn’t belong. Shakespeare did not write the script for Pulp Fiction, okay? If that one’s in the table of contents, move on.

The best, and most popular, scholarly versions (which of course are not the same thing) are easily available in the university bookstore or on Amazon. Odds are, your instructor has asked the bookstore to stock enough copies of his favorite to equip all your fellow lit slaves. (You can actually tell a lot about an instructor by which Shakespeare text he wants you to use, but that’s a whole other discipline of study.) You’ll probably see the Norton, the Oxford, the Riverside, or the Bevington (published by Longman). Get whichever one your instructor suggests, if only because some are prone to calling out passages in class by page number instead of act-scene-line. But if your instructor ordered the Riverside and you already have a Bevington, don’t sweat buying another ten-pound sixty-dollar book; the line numbers will be a little different sometimes, but all in all you won’t be at a disadvantage.

You will also need: Nothing. One good book is all you really need. If, that is, you want to beat yourself over the head with it. However, any or all of the following resources are helpful, though completely optional. You can get by with one of them or less, or you can overkill yourself by using all of them. Odds are, you’ll find yourself somewhere in between.

A library card. Your university or city library will have tons of stuff on Shakespeare: criticism, journals, audio and videotapes. If you want Mel Gibson’s take on Hamlet, you can go to Blockbuster and shell out $3.50 (not including popcorn), or you can get it in almost any library free of charge. Plus, most good libraries have the BBC Shakespeare collection, which, at four figures for the set, is way too costly to just stick in your entertainment center between MI:2 and Jurassic Park. You may also want to familiarize yourself with the way to the Oxford English Dictionary, so you can look up what the afore-mentioned words like “brave” and “nice” meant in Shakespeare’s day without having to leave a trail of breadcrumbs. (Helpful hint, here: Will is responsible for a sizable percentage of the words contained in the OED, plus new meanings he invented for hundreds more, so a working knowledge of how to use a historical dictionary will level the playing field when you’re struggling to get your head around early modern English.)

A reader’s guide or reference. There are whole books with play summaries, historical background, and sometimes nifty photos. A good one at a great price (i.e., single digit between the dollar sign and the decimal point) is Joseph Rosenblum’s A Reader’s Guide to Shakespeare (New York: Salem Press-Barnes & Noble, 1999). An incredible wealth of data is contained in Isaac Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare (New York: Wings-Random House, 1970; sometimes published in two volumes), as well as some equally incredible insight. This is a book that could launch a thousand theses. Finally, one of my favorite resources is Shakespeare for Dummies (Foster City, CA: IDG Books, 1999); it’s informative and irreverent, and incredibly easy to read, not to mention funny as hell sometimes.

A movie version. These will never replace actually reading the damn plays, but sometimes they can help you get a handle on the action and characterization. Virtually every play has at least one filmed version out there, thanks to the BBC (with the exception of the aforementioned 2NK, which no self-respecting professor will ever assign you to read anyway, so don’t sweat it). Some of the most popular plays, like Hamlet, are available in more than a dozen incarnations. One caveat: the recent trend toward modernizing Shakespeare bites both ways, so keep in mind what’s textual — meaning what Will himself included in the story — and what’s extratextual — what the filmmakers added to the story to make it appeal to a modern audience. If you state on an exam that the Capulets don’t like the Montagues because they’re not Puerto Rican, your instructor is probably not going to give you full credit, daddio.

Et tu, Cliffs Notes? We have nothing against Cliffs in some circumstances. Let’s face it, the last guy in the English-speaking world to actually read Moby Dick was the guy who wrote the Cliffs. But think twice before shelling out the bucks to buy a baker’s dozen of them for your undergrad Shakespeare course. First, the critical revolution in literature in general, and Shakespearean studies in particular, has (IMHO) left Cliffs Notes in the new historical dust, so to speak. Secondly, there are plenty of great references in print and on the web without filling up your book bag with those annoying caution-sign covered overpriced Hallmark cards of the literary world. Look on Shakespeare Online, or Mr. William Shakespeare and the Internet, or any of the other resource sites before forking over the equivalent of dinner for two at Chez Mickey to get the same stuff you could’ve cadged off the net for free.

So, now you’re armed with a thumping great edition of the Bard’s greatest hits. You’ve got a good reader’s guide at hand, the BBC version of the play is cued up in the VCR, your pad and pencil are ready, and you’ve got a good supply of your drug of choice within reach (so you don’t have to keep bugging Bardolph to bring you another cup of sack). You’re primed, you’re pumped, you’re Ready. To Study. The Bard.

Now what do you do?

Okay, here’s the way we suggest going about it. Feel free to switch steps around or skip steps if it suits you. Only you will know what’s helping you learn and what is just wasting time. Our method is proven to produce desirable results in a small test audience (meaning the two of us), but like a ’64 Ford Falcon, there’s always room for improvement. With that in mind, let’s begin.

1. Read the syllabus to get the day’s assignment. Sound like a no-brainer? It isn’t. Picture if you will: you’re schlepping through Richard III, having a gay old time reading about hunchbacked misogynists and “jolly thriving wooers,” and then you get to class and find out the assignment was really Richard II, and you should have been studying the Lords Appellant and “this scepter’d isle.” Misread one lousy letter in a Roman numeral, and you’re screwed, pardner. (And before you ask, yes, it did happen to one of us once. Almost exactly like that. It sucked.) What’s worse, Will wrote two different plays called Henry IV, and three called Henry VI. So, of course, you want to make sure you’re on the same page (literally) as everyone else who’s scrambling to get that Rhodes scholarship. Reading the syllabus also gives you an idea of how long you can spend on each phase of your reading. In a typical sixteen-week semester, you might read seven plays, or you might have to jam through eleven. It’s all based on the instructor and his predilection for sadism. If it’s Wednesday night and Friday is the last class day you’re spending on The Merry Wives of Windsor, you’re going to want to tailor your study schedule toward getting the maximum reading done in the shortest amount of time.

2. Read a play summary. Whichever one you have or want to use, it doesn’t matter. It should be longer than one sentence — that’s not a summary, that’s a tagline — and it should be broken down into acts (and maybe even scenes). Use the one in your reader’s guide if you have one, or find one online, such as Delahoyde’s. It’ll help you get a handle on the plot and the major characters.

3. Find the play. Bookmark the dramatis personae, the list of characters. Depending on the play, you may need to refer to it occasionally during the read. Why? In any good edition, there will be little tags after each name that will tell you who they are. Yeah, sometimes you’re not going to know from the script whether that one guy is Antony’s servant or Octavius’, but you’ll need to know nonetheless. Then too, Shakespeare’s audiences had a base of knowledge that modern-day Americans just don’t have. For example, if you were reading a play about the American Civil War, you wouldn’t need pages of dialogue explaining who Abraham Lincoln was. You’d know. Same with Shakespearean audiences. A sixteenth-century groundling watching a play about the Hundred Years’ War wouldn’t have needed someone to tell him who the Duke of Bedford was. But you probably will. The dramatis personae will tell you that he’s the King’s brother (said King being The Artist Formerly Known As Prince Hal). In virtually any play, the dramatis personae is organized into royalty, nobles, commoners, women, servants, and Muppets . . . or something like that. You’ll figure it out. The notes in the dramatis personae also allows you to keep straight which characters are “rebels against the King” or “sons of the King” or “servant to the King.” That’s important.

4. Cue up the BBC version. Ever spent an hour bogged down on the same page of a book? We have. Sometimes, no matter how motivated you are to read, the words just don’t sink in, and especially when it’s in early modern. Listening to a Shakespeare play while reading along eliminates that problem by acting as a metronome. It is possible to read an entire play in two or three hours — those BBC guys prove it, plus every once in a while they take time out to stab each other between lines (bonus!). However, there’s another good reason to do it this way: these plays were made to be heard, not read. Listening to the lines while you read gives you the rhythm and the subtle wordplay that Shakespeare built into every line. And hearing an interpretation by a classically trained actor helps you decipher some of that dense early modern. (Although, to be honest, sometimes even the BBC guys don’t know what the hell they’re saying. You’re a for-reals Shakespearean when you can spot the diction errors in a high-falutin’ Brit production.)

5. Take your time. Stop after each scene, pause the Beeb if you’re using it, and reflect on what you’ve just read. How has the story advanced, based on the summary you read? What does each scene contribute to character development? Have you come across any famous quotations? Take notes. Shakespeare for Dummies contains “scorecards” for each play, based on the kind they use for baseball (acts and scenes instead of innings, and getting married is a home run); they’re a great resource for keeping track of the action, but you’re still gonna want to take some notes. If nothing else, eventually you’re probably going to have to write a paper or two, give a presentation, draw a comic strip, or just strip, or something based on all this reading. Listen for potential paper topics, even just a nifty line that would make a good paper title. We cued in on a single word in Hamlet, and it became a monster web site, cottage industry, and all-around time-waster. What bits resonate with other things you’ve read this semester? (Think Shakespeare has something going on with all this cross-dressing stuff? Can you turn it into three to five double-spaced?) Taking the play in small bites will not only help you keep your thoughts straight, but it’ll prevent the dreaded Bard burnout we’ve seen so often (usually when students put off reading all nine assigned plays until the weekend before finals).

6. Read the introductory notes. In most scholarly editions, each play is prefaced by a few pages of commentary by the editor. Here you’ll get interesting stuff like: When did Will probably write the play? What are the major themes presented? Which parts of this play are still relevant in the twenty-first century? Even an obscure, repugnant play like Troilus and Cressida is noted for Ulysses’ speech in Act III, which is still regarded as one of Shakespeare’s most important statements on social order. These intro pieces can be great, depending on which edition you’re reading, but we suggest leaving them until after you’ve read the play. They’ll make way more sense, and your concentration won’t be divided looking for a theme you were supposed to have picked up on (which may only become clear when you contemplate the play as a whole — Zen Shakespeare). It’s much easier to look back on something you’ve read than it is to imagine in something you haven’t.

7. Sample the scholarship. Especially if you’re going to write on this play, you need to know what contemporary scholars are saying out there. Check websites, check the library, check ProQuest if you’ve got it — the MLA Index is better. Even scanning the titles of the articles will give you an idea which veins have been mined to death, which are still productive, and which would be best avoided. When you do write your masterpiece, you’ll need to bring these other scholars in as expert witnesses, so you want to know what they’re going to say before you put them on the stand, so to speak. If nothing else, a few minutes on the web or an online database will give you neat ideas for literary connections that you can toss out in class tomorrow morning and make yourself look like a studboy genius. (No, really, chicks dig guys who understand why Ophelia took a dip.)

That’s it, really. If you came here looking for a way to study Shakespeare without having to spend hours reading the plays, forget it. You came to the wrong place (and the wrong vocation — we suggest dropping out of school to explore a career in the exciting field of quick-service restauranteurship). If you think we’ve got our heads up our asses, or think we deserve a standing O (pun intended, on multiple levels), or even just want to BS about the Bard, drop us a line. [N.B. This page was salvaged from a web site that now seems defunct and I no longer know how to contact the original Strumpets. –MD]