English & EAL

How To Approach Shakespeare: A Guide to Studying Shakespeare

Timothy Clarke

April 1, 2020

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Whether you’re studying english, literature or even language it’s hard to avoid Shakespeare. So, we’re going to take a broad look at: Shakespeare’s historical context, his language, and of course, what this means for interpreting his plays. Since Shakespeare has so many plays chances are your text will be excluded. Instead I’m going to use Othello as a case study.

Before you start reading, LSG's Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response is a must-read for anybody studying VCE English.

Background

Othello follows the Moorish general Othello and his relationship with his wife, Desdemona. The antagonist Iago is jealous that Cassio was made Lieutenant instead of him, and seeks vengeance on Othello. Iago attempts to destroy Othello’s reputation, and uses the rich but foolish Roderigo to fund his revenge plot. Through careful manipulation of his Wife Emilia, Roderigo, Cassio, and Othello, Iago convinces Othello that Desdemona is unfaithful, sending him into an obsessive jealousy. When Emilia steals Desdemona’s handkerchief, a token of Othello’s love, and Desdemona cannot produce it, Othello believes he has all the information necessary to condemn Desdemona. He smothers her to death, before Emilia reveals Iago’s involvement. Othello, struck by regret, stabs himself, declaring that he “loved not wisely but too well”

Context

So who is this Shakespeare guy? And more importantly, what kind of a world did he live in?

Shakespeare was born in England in 1564, in the middle of the Renaissance Period. This period of “rebirth” was categorised by the increasing reliance on ancient classical authors for information about the world. This is why Shakespeare plots are famously reinterpretations of Ancient histories and Roman plays. Changes in education resulted in the Elizabethan moral and social customs being questioned. This included the Divine Right of Kings, and notions of gender and identity.

Religion is also significant in this period, and the Protestant Reformation is a subject often alluded to by Shakespeare. It is necessary to contextualise Shakespeare within the Renaissance period, because as you will see, themes, words, and references that make very little sense to us were common knowledge in Shakespeare’s time, and understanding them boosts our appreciation of his work.

The context and intent of the author are important considerations when studying VCE English or Literature. For more on this, read Context and Authorial Intention in VCE English.

The Language

Now that we understand when Shakespeare was writing, let’s look at how.

Starting as broadly as possible, Shakespeare’s difficult-to-read language is actually Early-Modern English, and so many words Shakespeare used are either lost or unused in modern English. Any good copy of Shakespeare will have definitions of these words in the margin or opposite page.

Moving in closer, we have the two types of plays, Tragedy and Comedy.

Comedy is tonally more light-hearted, and has an apparently happy-ending. These are Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing, or As You Like It among others. Despite being made to entertain, they are rarely unsophisticated, and the genre may mask something more sinister. For example, the character of Malvolio in Twelfth Night is entertaining and presented as self-obsessed, but could be used as an example of Shakespeare critiquing masculinity in Elizabethan society, as Malvolio feels entitled to Olivia’s affections.

Tragedies cannot be defined by their tone, however. They are defined by a tragic hero, who has a fatal flaw or Hamartia that results in their downfall. This may be Othello’s Jealousy, Macbeth’s ambition, or Brutus’ naivety in Julius Caesar. These traits all cause the tragic heroes’ demise, as their hamartia leads them to make bad decisions or fail to address the real evil. Tragedies will usually end in the unnecessary loss of lives and an unhappy ending for all involved. Most of Shakespeare’s plays fit into tragedy, including most of those based on historical figures. An analysis considering the conventions of Tragedy--like hamartia and tragic heroes--is a great way to stand out when discussing Shakespeare, and so when interpreting a tragedy you should consider what about it is tragic. For example, is Othello a tragedy because Iago is able to manipulate Othello, or is Othello’s jealousy and mistrust ever-present? Either of these options reveals Othello to be a tragedy, however they both say different things about the characters and plot. If Iago manipulates Othello, the tragedy is because a fundamental good person is corrupted. However if Othello was always mistrusting, the play becomes tragic as the audience must watch an unloving marriage slowly dissolve.

Next, we have the two ways Shakespeare formats his dialogue. Students will often focus on what the characters say without considering how it is said. Knowing the difference between Verse and Prose and how they are used is an easy way to stand out in an essay.

Verse is essentially poetry, where one line follows another. It can rhyme, but often doesn’t. What Shakespeare verse will ALWAYS do, however, is follow the Iambic Pentameter. This is a line of poetry with 10 syllables where every second syllable is stressed. This creates a kind of bounce or flow like a heartbeat. The easiest way to recognise this is to count the syllables in each line: thus / do / i / ev / er / make / my / fool / my / purse. Pay attention to when it is not followed, or when characters are interrupted during the pentameter. When the pentameter is interrupted by another character, look at who is interrupting it. It is likely to reveal a power dynamic between the two characters. Alternatively, a character finishing the pentameter, literally finishing their sentence, could be a symbol of love or affection between them. Using linguistic devices like the iambic pentameter as evidence shows an understanding of the text beyond the words spoken

The alternative format is prose. It’s used quite sparingly so look out for it. Is the way we speak normally in conversation, or how a normal novel is written. You can tell a character is speaking in prose as it’s usually just a big chunk of text. Shakespeare’s prose can reveal different things, so it depends on the context and the character using it. In act 1 scene 3 of Othello, Iago speaks to Roderigo in prose and then transitions to verse once Roderigo leaves. This displays Iago’s ability to code-switch and manipulate those around him with words. Prose is considered more simplistic, so in order to control Roderigo, who is presented as quite dumb, Iago relies on simple language, bringing himself to Roderigo’s level. This is directly contrasted with Iago’s use of the complex verse form, which he uses at all other times.

Interpreting Shakespeare

We’ve now covered Shakespeare’s historical context, his play styles, and his dialogue, but what should we look for when reading Shakespeare that allows us to use this information in a text response or close passage analysis. I’ve already given some examples of how Shakespeare’s language is relevant to his themes, but I’m going to give a rough guide of what themes are common in Shakespeare’s plays, and how they are shown in the language.

Fate versus free-will

This is a theme that can lead to a long discussion and gives you the opportunity to express your own opinion. Are the characters acting with free-will, or is some other force impacting their fate? This isn’t really in Othello, so let’s look quickly at Macbeth; if we consider fate versus free-will with the characteristics of a tragedy in mind, then the tragic hero must act freely even though his ‘fatal flaw’ will lead to his demise. However, the inclusion of the witches in Macbeth subverts the tragic structure and implies Macbeth is being toyed with. Even though Macbeth believes he is in control his fate is met, so is it a coincidence that his decisions fulfill his fate, or was the Witches’ prophecy real?

Appearance versus reality

The different uses of verse and prose are a good way to show when characters are genuine or performing for others. I have already mentioned how Iago ‘code-switches’ by using prose to speak to Roderigo, appearing simple and ‘laid-back,’ but his revelatory soliloquy in verse displays his true nature, both in the content of the speech, and the way it is presented.

Order and disorder

In Othello, disorder could be represented by Iago, destabilising the lives of those around him through his use of rhetoric and manipulation. Order is then returned when Iago is revealed and Othello takes his life, recognising himself as tragically misused. Analysing the theme of order and disorder would support the interpretation that Othello is a good man controlled and abused by disorder and manipulation.

Conclusion

So, hopefully this very brief introduction helps you get into Shakespeare! Even if I didn’t cover your text, the use of tragic heroes, prose, verse, and iambic pentameter are things evident in all Shakespeare plays, so you just have to make it relevant to your text. And remember that in order to read Shakespeare, one must first read Shakespeare. It may take several readings or viewings to grasp what is happening in the play, only after that can you start to analyse in the way I have today.

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