Pre-Flight (Before You Read) for
A Midsummer Night's Dream
by Glen Draeger
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Reading Advice (for Shakespeare)
What, ho, readers of Shakespeare!
Let me begin by stating the obvious: Shakespeare is difficult to read. Michael Macrone, an English and Western Civilization professor at the University of California Berkeley and author of the book Brush Up Your Shakespeare, wrote, “Frankly . . . even on the page, let alone the stage, Shakespeare’s English can be difficult to follow . . .” Macrone is a professional. The point is don’t be discouraged if you are having difficulty understanding Shakespeare. Everybody does. But don’t give up. He is worth your effort.
I don’t know how many of you have ever played video games. I’ve played a few video games in my brief time on this earth that when I first started playing I could barely last a minute or so or that were so difficult they were not any fun and I found myself thinking, “What a stupid game!” However, if I was able to get past that point of frustration I can also remember thinking, “This is a great game.”
Shakespeare is like that. He will be difficult for you in the beginning—but stick with him. Most people when they start reading Shakespeare have the same experience. This is early 17th century English—most of us were not around at that time—I barely remember it. Shakespeare is considered by many one of the greatest, if not the greatest writer/poet/playwright of all time. Only the Bible is quoted more often than Shakespeare. Don’t give up on him. He’s funny. He’s sad. He provokes thought. He writes about love, war, peace, laughter, acting—you will find it all in Shakespeare.
Here are some suggestions to help you read his plays.
First, before you tackle one of his plays in the original language read a synopsis of it, that is, find something that gives you the plot so you know what’s going on. I read from Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb. It’s a children’s book that was written in the early 1800’s. It puts the plays in story form. You can also read very brief accounts of the plots in Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia or The Oxford Companion to English Literature. I want to stress to you to read these in addition to the original play. You will miss what is most important in Shakespeare if you never make it into the play as the bard wrote it.
Secondly, watch the play. If you can actually see a production locally that would be the best, but since that is unlikely get the video. You can usually find his plays on video, in the original language, at your local library or even at a Blockbuster or some other place like that. Seeing it will help you understand the language a little better.
Thirdly, read the play. If you have done the above I guarantee the reading will be easier. Not easy, but easier. Read it slowly and read it out loud. Most of Shakespeare’s plays are written in verse. It’s poetry. When you read his verse follow the punctuation for clues when to pause or stop, not the end of each line. If you stop or pause at the end of each line you will have a much harder time understanding it. Following the punctuation will help you grasp the meaning.
Read the footnotes! Read the footnotes! Look up the words you don’t understand. Sometimes all the words make sense but the structure doesn’t. Stop. Think about it. Read it over. Much of the time you can figure it out or the surrounding text will allow you to understand it, but it may take some time. If, after all that, it still doesn’t make any sense—forget about it—go on. You can always come back. And you will, in your twenties, in your thirties, your forties, your fifties . . . you get the idea.
Take your time. Try to read some every day. This is good stuff—take small bites—eat slowly—savor it—remember, it’s not polite or healthy to gulp your food down like a hungry baby bird. This is steak. Prime rib. If you don’t chew it well you’re going to miss most of the flavor.
Fools and Jesters
Dearest Readers of the Bard,
Before and after you read A Midsummer Night's Dream (or any Shakespeare) consider this:
Shakespeare often used fools and jesters in his plays and people who, at first glance, appear to be stupid or silly or not very serious. Watch out! Don't let their antics make you overlook them. These are often the people in the play who have the most important and wisest things to say. Hidden within their jesting and joking you can find great wisdom and insight not only about what is happening in the play, but about life itself.
From the Bottom of my heart,
From the Bottom of the sea,
Consider, please, these words from me.
Shakespeare’s Language i.e. Elizabethan English
Here are some common words and contractions that Shakespeare uses. Some of these are no longer in use today and some have or can have different meanings than their common usage in our day.
a— this usually means "a" in the way that we use it but it can also mean "he." Context will give you the clue.
an, and— also used in the sense that we use them, but they can also mean "if."
cur— can be any dog, but also used as an insult
forsooth— in truth
hence— refers to a place or time away from here "He went hence."
hither— here, as in "come hither"
sirrah—used to address a man or boy of low station
thence—like hence, but means away from there
troth—truth, faithfulness or faith
Here are some common contractions that Shakespeare uses:
't = it
'tis = it is
o'er = over
e'er = ever
ne'er = never
©2005-2013 Glen Draeger (all rights reserved)
Millstone Education: World Literature / http://www.millstoneeducation.com/worldLit