How to read Shakespeare

Just do it. Really. Grab a play and open it up and start reading—out loud with friends!

I have every book ever written on “how to read Shakespeare.” Personally, if I had to read a whole book before I felt confident enough to read a play, I'd never start. The very fact that there are so many of these books is part of what intimidates people to plunge in and read!

If you're pretty new to reading Shakespeare, you might stumble along the way and you might feel you don't understand some stuff, but that's perfectly fine. Take the time to talk about difficult passages. Ask questions of each other. Ask why a character is behaving this way or how someone might be saying this line. Let go of things you've heard all your life, such as, “Hamlet's to be or not to be speech is about suicide" or “Petruchio is an abusive husband.” Read the play carefully and make up your own mind!

The remarkable thing about reading Shakespeare's plays is that you will never fully comprehend every bit of a play the first time you read it, nor even the second or third or fourth time—in fact, you’ll never totally understand every line and nuance and layer. Honestly, every time you enter a play you will discover something new, so do not limit yourself by feeling you have to get the whole thing the first time around. This is a lifetime achievement!

The Readers’ Editions I developed are designed specifically to make reading a play so much easier, but without dumbing it down one tiny bit or losing one word. I'm not very good at selling myself, so it takes a lot for me to say that I truly believe the Readers' Editions are the best way to start a Shakespeare reading group!  There. I said it. whew.

If you've used one of the Readers’ Editions in your group, please let me know how it worked for you, what didn't work, and what you might like to see in future editions! 


When Reading Shakespeare, Everyone is Right and No One is Right

There are no right or wrong answers in Shakespeare—the ambiguity is part of what makes it endlessly fascinating.

This has occasionally created a tricky situation in a reading group, where one person tries to insist that his/her thought is the correct reading and wants everyone else in the room to agree with that conclusion. If this person stays in the group long enough, s/he eventually comes to accept that there is always more than one way to understand just about anything in Shakespeare.  ;-)

Only once have I had to gently put my foot down and say, “I understand that you truly believe this is the only way to see this situation, but I encourage you to listen to the other possibilities. Sometimes we have to hold several ideas in our minds at the same time, which is a remarkable testament to this author, a good exercise for our brains, and all of us in the room gain insights from the process. You have a great idea, and let's hold that along with the other great ideas."

If this person cannot accept that, then they leave the group and lose the entire experience. It's sad, but fortunately it's also rare. Most everyone rises to the occasion and eventually learns to revel in that darned ambiguity!

Have you had any difficult situations in a reading group? How was it handled? What did you learn?

Every Shakespeare performance is an interpretation

One very important thing that Shakespeare Readers come to appreciate is that every performance is only one interpretation of the many possibilities. As we discuss the text and talk about the potential ways of acting it, Readers constantly come up with various meanings and actions and attitudes that could present very different performances.

These rich experiences with the possibilities has led to a pet peeve! How many times have I been told that I should not read Shakespeare, that it is meant to be performed and that is the only way I should experience the plays?! Aarrghh!  This annoys me because when I see it performed, I get is one director's interpretation. And if, for instance, a production of A Winter's Tale only comes to my village once in my lifetime (if at all), that one interpretation is all I will ever know of that rich and complex play. And of course it has also been cut, so that's another way I lose part of the experience.

When I read the play—especially out loud and in community—I get to hold all the potential in my own heart. Then when I watch a performance—because reading it makes me want to see it performed—it can round out or inform my personal connection instead of that interpretation being my only experience.

We always learn something from performance, of course. Have you seen a fabulous performance that enriched your reading of a play, one in which an interpretation gave you new insights into the text? Tell us about it in the comments below!

Anti-Dementia Shakespeare

It’s actually true—reading Shakespeare can help prevent some forms of dementia. British neurologist Oliver Sacks has a wealth of experience, experiments, and anecdotes that show how you can challenge your brain to improve cognitive fitness:

“To what extent are we shaped by, and to what degree do we shape, our own brains? And can the brain’s ability to change be harnessed to give us greater cognitive powers? The experiences of many people suggest that it can. . . . While it is often true that learning is easier in childhood, neuroscientists now know that the brain does not stop growing, even in our later years. Every time we practice an old skill or learn a new one, existing neural connections are strengthened and, over time, neurons create more connections to other neurons. Even new nerve cells can be generated.” 
—Oliver Sacks, “This Year, Change Your Mind,” in The New York Times, December 31, 2010

How does this relate to Shakespeare? Reading Shakespeare's language makes our brains work in different ways than they're accustomed to, which forces our brains to create new pathways for understanding. EEGs show that when reading Shakespeare, having to process the unusual use of language, plus the odd construction of the lines written to fit into the iambic pentameter rhythm, excites positive brain activity. For instance, your brain has to work a wee bit harder to re-order the words in this line into a more typical order so we can understand it:

Words, to the heat of deeds, too cold breath gives.  —Macbeth

Working at it regenerates your brain! See the [fake] charts on for a fun chart to share that shows how reading Shakespeare can improve your brain! Have you felt any difference in your brain since you started reading Shakespeare—out loud and in community? Tell us about it.

Welcome to iReadShakespeare!

I hope you sign up for the mailing list so you receive the blog post in your email box before it appears here. Don’t worry—you will only receive an email every other Tuesday morning, and it’s always short! Plus the email has a couple of extra fun tidbits that don't appear here.

If you haven’t yet done so, check out the article about why the thousands of Shakespeare reading groups in America disappeared. It’s a sad but fascinating story that just might encourage you to start your own reading group, if you haven’t already. And is here to support you.  :-)

If you have a Shakespeare reading group, please send me your info so I can post it on the list.

with a smile,