How to read a Shakespeare Play for the first time!

Hi folks! Since this site is basically a Shakespeare appreciation site, I wanted to start off this week by showing you how you can enjoy Shakespeare at the first reading, even if you’ve never read him before! What follows is a list of advice based on the way I myself learned to enjoy Shakespeare, backed up with some nuggets of wisdom I’ve picked up from teachers along the way.

I. Learn the Story of the play.

I would argue that the biggest advantage the Elizabethans had over us was they knew the story of the play before they even came into the theater. All of Shakespeare’s plays were adapted from other sources, including myths and fairy tales. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is literally a fairy tale about the Fairy Queen Titania. There was no such thing as “spoiler alert” in Shakespeare’s day, in fact the prologue of “Romeo and Juliet” gives away the ending before the play has begun!
Clearly, Shakespeare wasn’t interested in making his plays a surprise. The thing is that back then audiences didn’t want new stories, they wanted familiar stories told in a new way, the same way we base movies off of comic books and novels. So the first thing you can do to put you on the same level is read the story of the play before hand. Quiz yourself about what happens: who are the characters you should be rooting for? Whom are they fighting against? What is stopping the hero(s) from achieving their goals? This is a rare time when cliff notes and spark notes actually help; learning the story of the play will help you connect with the action on the stage and instead allow you to concentrate on the characters and the language. I also recommend websites like Crash Course that tell the story with a sense of fun.
II. Read the play- the whole thing, (preferably out loud).
The first time you read Shakespeare, you probably won’t get every word, but don’t worry, you’re not supposed to. Every single edition of Shakespeare has a glossary on the opposite page that translates the basic idea of what you’re reading. If you’re a first time reader, I highly recommend the Folger Shakespeare edition, (available at These editions not only have a good glossary, but big, friendly pictures of a lot of the terms. They also have a free online version of Shakespeare’s texts which you can look at here:
I would also advise you to read the plays out loud. Shakespeare loved playing with the sounds of words- having characters hiss and bellow and whisper and seduce the ear. Some of the most fun I ever had with Shakespeare was having a Shakespeare reading party with my friends, where we discovered a play by reading it together and playing with voices and accents.
Another option is to listen to the play while you read it. There are great websites like and Librivox that allow you to listen to the play spoken by voice actors. Hearing the play will open it up in a way that just reading it can’t After all, the plays are meant to be heard, that’s why they call it an audience (audio- to hear).
Finally, if you go to nearly every public library there’s a recording of The Archangel Shakespeare, a series of CD recordings of professional actors performing every one of Shakespeare’s plays. Many of these performers have done Shakespeare professionally, so you know they know what they’re taking about.
III. Watch a movie. There are hundreds of Shakespeare movies out there, and each one can show you a little bit about how the play feels and looks when it is placed in the hands of an actor or director. You may be expecting some guy in wrinkled tights bellowing his lines in a fake-Elizabethan set, but lots of Shakespeare movies have chosen inventive settings for Shakespeare in different times and places, like Ian McKellen’s Fascist-era Richard III, Michael Hoffman’s 19th century Midsummer Night’s Dream, or my favorite, Julie Taymor’s epic retelling of Titus Andronicus in a fictionalized blend of ancient Rome and modern Italy. A movie allows you to hear the text read, and allows you to see ideas from the play brought to life on the big screen.
IV. Go see it if you can. Almost every major city has a Shakespeare festival, and lots of regional theaters also choose to do Shakespeare. The reason is simple- he’s royalty free, and everyone recognizes his name. As you watch the play, try to answer these questions:
-Which characters did you like?
-Was there a line you really liked or one that seemed to speak to you?
-Did this play remind you of another play or movie? Did it remind you of something from your own life?
V. If I can recommend a good play to start with, start with Å Midsummer Night’s Dream. This play is not only very easy to understand, it’s also charming, funny, romantic, magical, and has a lot of colorful characters. I myself have directed and starred in Dream, and seen no less than 15 productions on stage and screen! If I can quell the fear you may have about Shakespeare, my wife and I directed the play with actors who had never read Shakespeare before, never acted before, and most of them were only 8 years old! So if they can learn this play and grow to love it as much as I do, then I firmly believe you can too!
Helpful hints-
1. Shakespeare’s company performed outdoors in the middle of the day, so they had no control over their environment. All the actors had was a bare stage, costumes, and a couple of props. This is why Shakespeare devotes lots of passages to just tell you where the characters are, and what time of day it is. His is a theater of the imagination, so read the descriptions and let the world come to life in your head.
2. Shakespeare drew heavily on images from Greek/Roman mythology and the Bible. If you need help looking up some of these resources up, I can recommend the Encyclopedia Mythica for Greco-roman references, and the Catholic Encyclopedia for Christian references.
3. There is a glossary of every single word Shakespeare ever used and plenty of books too. In terms of simplicity and ease of use, I recommend
4. Shakespeare wrote four types of plays – Comedy, History, Tragedy, and Romances.
    • In Tragedy, the hero dies by the end, and the overall tone is one of change and struggle.
    • In Comedy, the hero and the heroine usually get married by the end.
    • The History Plays- are all about a struggle for the English crown and are based on historical chronicles. Most of them conclude in a battle or in the peace after a battle.
    • Romances– “Romance” is a term invented by scholars to describe some of the last plays Shakespeare wrote that don’t end in death like tragedies, and don’t end as happily as the comedies. One such play has a man get eaten by a bear, and another has a man forced to marry a prostitute! Some scholars don’t like this title, but i keep it here because it’s the most common term for these weird plays that include Cymbeline, Pericles, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest.

    4. DO NOT READ THE NO-FEAR SHAKESPEARE EDITIONS. These books and websites advertise to be a clear-cut translation of Shakespeare with his text on the left, and a modern translation on the right. I believe these editions don’t do justice to the cleverness of Shakespeare’s writing. For example, here’s the famous speech of Macbeth when he discovers that his wife is dead:

    She should have died hereafter.
    There would have been a time for such a word.
    Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
    Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
    To the last syllable of recorded time,
    And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
    The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
    Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
    And then is heard no more. It is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    Signifying nothing.
    I’ve actually played Macbeth, and when I saw this speech, I played it as a struggle to deal with the loss of his wife, (the only person he truly cares about), while at the same time dealing with imminent war. Macbeth wants to put off dealing with the news until tomorrow because he can’t possibly handle it now. What’s really cool about Shakespeare is you don’t have to agree with me; you could just as easily interpret the speech as a manifestation of psychosis, of loneliness, or how bitter and unfair Macbeth’s life is and it would still work! That’s why actors and directors love going on and on about Shakespeare; he gives us the freedom to interpret the speech the way we want, as long as we stay true to the basic text. I don’t think anybody could claim that this is a happy speech! The problem is that No Fear Shakespeare makes it too simple, and doesn’t allow you to really consider the possibilities for interpretation. Read their translation of the speech below:


    She would have died later anyway. That news was bound to come someday. Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. The days creep slowly along until the end of time. And every day that’s already happened has taken fools that much closer to their deaths. Out, out, brief candle. Life is nothing more than an illusion. It’s like a poor actor who struts and worries for his hour on the stage and then is never heard from again. Life is a story told by an idiot, full of noise and emotional disturbance but devoid of meaning.
    Of course, if you bear in mind the limitations of translating Shakespeare and give yourself the freedom to take it with a grain of salt, that could work too.
    So there’s a basic guide for first time readers. Let me know if you agree with my approach, what strategies work for you, and if these techniques were helpful!

    Leave a Reply

    Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

    You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

    Facebook photo

    You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

    Connecting to %s