GCSE English Literature: Understanding Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s works have been studied in schools since the 1960s. His plays and poems are part of nearly everyone’s school experience. There is no escaping him. Since this is the case it is in your best interest to make sense of his work.

Is Shakespeare Even English?

The biggest gripe pupils have with Shakespeare’s work is struggling to understand the language. There is no denying that it is very different to the way we speak today but over 90% of the words used in Shakespeare’s works are still in use today. We’ve all heard the phrase “All that glitters is not gold” but many of us probably aren’t aware that it originates from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (written between 1596 and 1599). This shows we aren’t so far removed from Shakespearean English. The more you read the works of Shakespeare, the more familiar and confident you will become with the words.

Tips for Understanding Shakespeare:

1. Expose yourself to a variety of Shakespeare’s works.

There is no way around this tip. In order to understand you must read. Read a variety of plays and poems to become more familiar with the language. You will begin to notice clear patterns and understanding the language will become easier. Looking at the context a word or phrase is written in also makes it easier to discern its meaning. These plays are actually very relatable. Their plays contain interesting themes and great explorations of characters. Upon study, you will see the correlation between the themes explored in Shakespeare’s plays and the experience we have in our lives today.

2. Watch Shakespeare’s works in Performance.

Shakespeare’s works were written to be performed. His plays should be performed live and his poems should be read aloud. Watching this work can really deepen your understanding. Good actors will bring the language to life through the different scenes, facial expressions and intonations. You will be able to understand the context of the language which makes it easier to follow. So go and watch his plays live at a theatre or watch DVD versions.

3. Proactive With Research

If you don’t understand a particular word or phrase Google it! The benefit of studying Shakespeare in schools for so many years is that there is a wealth of knowledge waiting at your fingertips. There are many useful educational resources on the internet that will help you to do this. YouTube is an excellent site to use. Shakespearean English glossaries are also an effective research tool that allows you to determine the meaning of the text for yourself. Being proactive about working out the meanings of words yourself will boost your understanding greatly.

Shakespeare’s works are not as scary as they first appear. Be patient with yourself and enjoy the challenge of unravelling the meaning!

-Taiwo Bali