Login | Register

Conquering Shakespeare for Senior HSC English

By Niamh Brazil in HSC
6th of May 2021

Ah, the bane of the English Advanced student’s reading list.

Reading Shakespeare, with its metaphors, its allusions and its straight up incomprehensibility, can be a challenge and is often massively time-consuming for your English study. When I began reading Richard III with its dense family trees and heavy historical context, it took me several tries before I could even make myself read the thing, let alone analyse it!

Fortunately, there a couple of simple strategies to make reading and analysing Shakespeare more efficient, more nuanced and more engaging!

STEP 1: UNDERSTANDING THE LANGUAGE

Before you jump into reading the play, read a plot summary. This isn’t cheating! It will give a good overview of the plot points so that you don’t get bogged down in the detail of the language and lose sight of the story unfolding. This can be especially helpful in the history plays which have large casts of characters and a lot of historical background that you need to be across. Reading a summary can also give you a sense of the key ideas in the play and which key scenes you can go to for them. You can often find useful summaries in the front section of your text, on educational websites or even Wikipedia.

Now, armed with your overall knowledge of the play, it’s time to crack it open and start reading.

Shakespearean language gets pretty dense pretty quickly so it’s good to have strategies to get you through the tough middle sections. A handy reference to use is No Fear Shakespeare which offers English “translations” for each line of the play. This is especially useful as you read through the play for the first time and are trying to get a sense of the unfolding plot.

Another resource to make use of is the large bank of Shakespearean audiobooks available online. Listening to actors perform the lines while following along with the text is a more authentic experience of the play which is, ultimately, meant to be experienced as performance. The performances will also reveal the emotion driving each scene which often helps you untangle the web of allusions and metaphors to cut to core meaning of the text. Even watching a film adaptation can be really helpful here!

STEP 2: ANALYSING FOR TECHNIQUES

The best place to start analysing language features is in soliloquies. That is because they represent pivotal moments in a character’s arc, where they undergo some transformation or epiphany, which often links into the key ideas of the play. Additionally, it is where Shakespeare’s powers of imagery, metaphor, symbolism and form are fully in play. Soliloquies are rich with techniques and thematic detail.

So how do you approach a soliloquy?

As an example, let’s look at a key moment in Hal’s development in King Henry IV, Part I

Prince Henry:

I know you all, and will awhile uphold

The unyoked humour of your idleness:

Yet herein will I imitate the sun,

Who doth permit the base contagious clouds

To smother up his beauty from the world,

That, when he please again to be himself,

Being wanted, he may be more wonder’d at,

By breaking through the foul and ugly mists

Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.

If all the year were playing holidays,

To sport would be as tedious as to work;

But when they seldom come, they wish’d for come,

And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.

So, when this loose behavior I throw off

And pay the debt I never promised,

By how much better than my word I am,

By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;

And like bright metal on a sullen ground,

My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,

Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes

Than that which hath no foil to set it off.

I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill;

Redeeming time when men think least I will.

Firstly, we want to understand the literal function of the soliloquy in the text. What is the characters expressing? What conflict are they experiencing?

We can ascertain this by paraphrasing the lines of the soliloquy into simple English to grasp their basic meaning:

My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,

Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes

Than that which hath no foil to set it off.

My transformation into an honourable son and prince will seem greater and attract more admiration if it stands in contrast with my current disobedient behaviour

In summary, Hal is deliberately letting himself be “corrupted” by Falstaff and others to create a performance of disobedience. Thus, when he returns to the throne he will be perceived as more honourable due to the dramatic reformation of his character.

We can also get a sense of the purpose of the soliloquy by paying attention to the emotions that drive it. This in turn begins to reveal the key ideas below the surface of the soliloquy. For example, Hal is driven by an acute awareness of how he is being perceived; how his personal qualities are being assessed by others and how he can manipulate that perception. This in turn illustrates how the political arena in which Hal hopes to participate, it is the appearance of having honourable qualities that matters more than actually having them. Politics is about performance.

Now to get into the weeds of analysis: language techniques. Shakespeare works from a toolkit of similar techniques in each play: allusion, natural/celestial imagery, motif, metaphor, metatheatrical language, puns, wordplay and so on. Keep an eye for these, as well as your basic theatrical techniques (exclamatory language, rhetorical questions, anaphora, tone).

It is important that you aren’t just pointing out language techniques for the sake of it. Each piece of analysis should develop a thematic argument. For example, a thematic argument we might make about this soliloquy could read: Politics and performance are entangled. In Henry IV Part 1, it is the performance of honour, rather than its actuality, that empowers political figures.

In support of that we can draw on:

* Use of third person pronoun – Hal objectively observes himself to manipulate people’s perceptions of him

* Weather imagery & juxtaposition of light and dark – mimics the contrast between Hal and the tavern dwellers he associates with, a contrast he aims to mobilise for his performance of redemption, symbolic association of the sun with Great Chain of Being represents his superiority

* Active voice in final rhyming couplet – asserts his own agency and acts as a personal call to action

* Self-consciously plays into the narrative of the Prodigal Son

Note that none of these techniques are especially complex or difficult to identify. However, the effect produced by each technique is clearly linked and develops a distinct idea that proves our initial argument. The development of a thematic argument is the most crucial part of your analysis. To make your analysis of Shakespeare easier you can focus on building these ideas from simple techniques!

STEP 3: THESIS

Let zoom out now and take a look at the big picture.

A good thesis addresses the central ideas of the play through a conceptual argument. For example:

Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet explores the internal barriers that consume individuals and stall action; in particular, the fear of mortality, the intrusion of conscience and the tension between rational thought and primal desires.

A thesis should encapsulate the key concepts of the play, address any rubric requirements, and most importantly, attempt to persuade the audience as to what meanings the play contains.

To elevate your thesis, you can also consider why Shakespeare is still relevant to us today. When you bring your opinion about the value of the text into your essay it adds complexity to your argument and enhances your personal voice.

There are lots of ways you can write about Shakespeare’s relevance. His work speaks to universal experiences which we can see in how his characters are invoked to describe contemporary politics and social issues. Flowing from this, he adds nuance to these ideas by inserting ambiguity into binaries such as free will, deception and gender. Furthermore, unlike many other playwrights of his time, Shakespeare platforms voices from all classes within society and to make constructive commentary on class, gender and race.

On a more meta-textual level, Shakespeare notably draws attention to the artifice of theatre and yet illustrates how such constructions of language can influence people and societies.

Finally, consider how Shakespearean dramas are intended to be entertaining! Shakespeare wrote his plays for a diverse audience and given his personal economic investment in the success of the Globe Theatre those plays had to hold the attention of audiences for years. How have those elements been lost or reshaped over the years?

Your thesis should be the culmination of your personal interpretation of the text and its value. Don’t be afraid to have your own opinion and both the meaning of the text and whether you think Shakespeare is something we should still study in the 21st century!

Tl;dr

Shakespearean dramas are some of the most dense and complex texts you will study. But by approaching it with a wide view for the play’s events and themes, rather than the minute details of the language, you can develop an understanding of the key ideas and emotions that drive the story. From this holistic starting point you can begin delving into the language choices and begin forming your arguments.
Good luck, and hopefully you might find something to enjoy in Shakespeare’s work!

COMMENTS (0)

Advertisement