Shakespeare’s influence is everywhere. In fact, it’s so embedded in the English speaking world that it’s hard to see where it begins or ends. Firstly, there are the words, all 1,700 of them. And not just words like ‘congreeted’ and ‘coppernose’. Some of the most common words in English were first used by Shakespeare: ‘bedroom’, for instance, and ‘eyeball’. Then there are the phrases. When we ‘break the ice’ with someone, or when we ‘catch a cold’, we’re doing things that Shakespeare didn’t invent, as such, but which he did make far easier to say.
Shakespeare did more than most to shape modern English. So why is he so difficult to understand?
The first thing to say is don’t panic. Nobody in your class finds it easy. Grown adults find it hard. Even your teacher will from time to time. In fact, many of the people who first watched Shakespeare’s plays would have been baffled. Imagine being pelted not only with brand-new words, but with classical references and dense metaphors, all wrapped up in metrical verse. You’d be confused too.
But you have to be able to read it. All four of the main GCSE exam boards (AQA, OCR, WJEC and Edexcel) have extract questions which require you expected not only to understand the language but to analyse it too. So where on earth do you begin?
Why is Shakespeare so hard?
When faced with a difficult problem, it’s good to step back and ask yourself, why is it so hard? There are three main things that make Shakespeare difficult: language, metaphor and metre.
Shakespeare may have invented many of the words we use today, but that doesn’t mean that we speak the exact same language. Words like ‘welkin’ (sky) and ‘bawcock’ (a good chap) would have been in everyday usage during the English Renaissance, but have since disappeared. Not knowing them doesn’t mean you’re stupid – it just means you need to check a dictionary. The internet is a good resource, but it’s better to get yourself a scholarly copy of the play you’re reading. The Oxford Shakespeare and Arden editions both have glossaries printed at the bottom of the page.
Even when you’ve decoded all the words, you still need to pierce the veil of metaphor. When Orlando in As You Like It, for instance, tells Duke Senior that ‘the thorny point of bare distress hath ta’en from me the show of smooth civility’, he’s using fairly common words (remember that apostrophes replace missing letters, so ‘ta’en’ is just taken). The trouble is that ‘distress’ doesn’t have a ‘thorny point’, and neither is ‘civility’ literally ‘smooth’ to touch. What Orlando is saying is that he’s in a difficult situation, which is so painful, or ‘thorny’, that he can no longer behave in a polite or ‘smooth’ way. In other words he’s using an extended metaphor in which he gives the abstract nouns ‘civility’ and ‘distress’ tactile qualities. Glossaries at the bottom of pages, even in good editions, won’t clarify lines like this – if they did, every page would be even thicker with footnotes than they already are. You just need to stop and think – is the phrasing concealing a metaphor or simile which you need to take apart? And if you really can’t figure it out, then No Fear Shakespeare offers (at a price) modern English translations of Shakespeare. Compare the original with the translation to clarify the sense, and then you’ll be able to start analysing the techniques that Shakespeare uses in the original.
The fact that the ‘e’ and the ‘r’ have swapped places isn’t the only weird thing about metre. It can also play havoc with word order.
Metre is the rhythm of poetry. Poets arrange words in patterns of syllables to give their lines a beat. Shakespeare most often uses iambic pentameter, which is five iambs, or an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, positioned next to each other. This is what gives a lot of Shakespeare’s lines their familiar rhythm: de dum de dum de dum de dum de dum.
When Berkley tells Bolingbroke in Richard II, for instance, that he doesn’t want ‘to raze one title of your honour out’, he’s using iambic pentameter. He’s also putting the preposition ‘out’ in a weird place. The sentence becomes easier to understand when we realise that Berkley doesn’t want ‘to raze out one title’ of Bolingbroke’s honour, because prepositions usually come next to verbs. The reason Shakespeare phrases it in this way is because, if out was in the middle of the line and not the end, the iambic pentameter would be broken; ‘to raze out one title of your honour’ is far less smooth. So next time you’re tripping over a line of Shakespeare think – has he messed with word order to make the rhythm work? And, if so, can you rearrange the line to make it easier to understand?
Can’t we just watch the film?
If it’s the Hollywood version, then the answer is no. Not until you know the play, that is. Big budget productions will cut large sections of the text and add in new sequences to zhuzh it up.
But these plays were written to be performed, and some film versions are excellent. The RSC, for instance, did a series of full-text productions for the BBC. Try watching one of these and then returning to the text. Or, even better, read a plot summary, watch the film, then read the text. It’ll be much clearer when you know what’s going on. But remember – you will have to get cosy with the language sooner or later or you’ll score badly on the extract questions. So don’t put it off for too long.
What extract will they choose in the exam?
The extract they choose changes every year and exam boards like to keep students on their toes by picking weird ones. But it’s almost certainly going to come from one of the major scenes, so learn those well, in the knowledge that they might well come up, but then again they might not...
Know thy play
These questions require you to relate the extract you’re given to the play as a whole. They’re also often closed book. This means that you will need to learn important quotes from the parts of the play you’re not given. Remember that you’re not summarising the play, you’re analysing it, so don’t go for quotes which simply illustrate plot points. Go for words and short phrases which exemplify techniques, be they linguistic, structural or to do with poetic form.
Context is key
Many exam boards will require you to mention context. In these questions, you’re analysing how Shakespeare uses language, form and structure to create meaning, while keeping in mind that certain things would have resonated differently with Shakespeare’s audience. When Juliet defies her family to marry Romeo, it might not seem like such a big deal to us, but back then it would have been a very difficult decision. When Macbeth kills Duncan, it’s still shocking to a modern audience, but it’s made been even more so if you remember that, for Shakespeare’s audience, Duncan, as King, would have sat at only a few removes from God in the Great Chain of Being.
Private GCSE English Tuition
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