Learning to Read Shakespeare:
Matthew C. Hansen
Let’s start at the very beginning,
Considerable anxiety accompanies both the teaching and learning of Shakespeare. Students of varying ages and experience levels are frequently apprehensive about learning this ‘Old English’ as students often term it; and teachers, particularly at the high school level, often worry that their non-specialist knowledge of Shakespeare is insufficient to light a passionate flame for reading and thinking during the so-called Shakespeare unit. At the university level, even Shakespeare and early modern literature specialists often approach teaching with hesitation: how do I convey something of my passion not to mention detailed knowledge of the texts, contexts, intertexts, language, symbolic and metaphoric meanings of multi-faceted works with student readers who, as noted above, are anxious about their own abilities to read this work?
This anxiety is well-entrenched. In asking my freshmen composition students at the beginning of the semester to comment in a preliminary, relatively informal analysis on their history as readers and writers many comment on the lack of sophistication of what they either read or write claiming apologetically, ‘It’s not Shakespeare.’ A significant number of articles related to teaching Shakespeare likewise attest to a prevalent anxiety about the accessibility of Shakespeare to students and teachers alike. Nearly every essay in James E. Davis and Richard E. Salomone’s collection Teaching Shakespeare Today: Practical Approaches and Productive Strategies (1993) identifies this tension and offers strategies for addressing it. Charles H. Frey’s essay in this volume likewise discusses student anxiety over Shakespeare’s ‘Old English.’  What many of these articles and their insightful strategies for teaching Shakespeare affirm is an underlying belief that Shakespeare is a writer to be revered and not to be taken lightly; it is assumed that few if any students can pick up a copy of Shakespeare and actually make sense of it. No scholar to date has yet addressed the issue of the first reading of Shakespeare: the moment when a student first reads through the play in preparation for a lecture or class discussion. This paper addresses that oversight. I recommended here that we begin at the beginning -- a very good place to start -- and offer a strategy for better helping our students learn how to read Shakespeare.
In the best of all possible worlds, Shakespeare could be made considerably easier if one’s students had greater facility with the text and less anxiety about the arcane nature of the language and the obscurity of the intertextual and contextual allusions. Given the realities, how do we help our students achieve any kind of comfort zone with material we ourselves likely recognize as challenging for them? In fact, specific strategies for reading Shakespeare can be implemented to more quickly and easily allow students to begin gaining the kind of ease with Shakespeare and early modern verse and prose similar to that which has come to us after years of study and numerous readings of the plays and poems.
The strategy I offer is borrowed from performance practice or more to the point, play production. That performance offers new insights, new opportunities for learning and teaching Shakespeare is not a new idea. David Kennedy Sauer and Evelyn Tribble’s essay ‘Shakespeare in Performance: Theory in Practice and Practice in Theory’ charts the history and rising fortunes of performance-based Shakespeare pedagogy. The last two decades in particular have seen an explosion of publications addressing aspects of teaching Shakespeare and offering a wealth of strategies for empowering critical thinking and student ownership of the learning process. An ever-growing number of these articles suggest the use of performance-related strategies for teaching Shakespeare, with many of these strategies directly or indirectly drawing on foundational suggestions from Christopher Parry’s 1972 English Through Drama. Insightful and helpful as many of the available essays on teaching Shakespeare are, none of them address what I contend is a crucial detail in this process, the first reading. As instructors we seem to assume that our students are fully equipped to deal with the assignment ‘Read this play for the next class session. Understand it, analyze it and be prepared to discuss it.’ Why do we assume this -- or why do practicalities and logistics force us to assume this? As a best case scenario it is almost certainly true that we are concerned as instructors about making the most of the limited amount of classroom time that we have. In other words, we can’t -- or won’t -- devote classroom time to reading the play line-by-line with our students. A worst case motivation -- and one that often results whether intended or not -- is that we are acting as intellectual bullies towards our students. Sending off college freshmen and sophomores who have perhaps read one or two Shakespeare plays in their lives and maybe taken a class in Freshmen composition since arriving at university and expecting them to fully comprehend 150 or so pages of Shakespeare’s verse and prose is more often than not setting them up to fail. Doing so often serves to underscore the aforementioned anxieties about Shakespeare that many students perceive and perpetuates academic elitism by throwing up more barriers and distance between our students and ourselves. This paper therefore offers a practical teaching method for improving the process of reading Shakespeare by beginning at the beginning. That is, my focus here is on first readings of Shakespeare. I offer a strategy -- and a rationale for that strategy -- for improving first readings of Shakespeare for relatively inexperienced student readers of Shakespeare. My strategy is likewise an outgrowth of performance-related ideas and experience. In what one might term a classroom reading of Shakespeare -- reading Shakespeare in preparation for a classroom discussion or lecture -- the work of reading is typically done silently and on one’s own. In contrast, a performance reading -- a reading of the play in preparation for performance -- may likewise occur in similarly silent, solitary conditions but at some point the cast will in all likelihood come together for a collaborative read-through. Each actor will take her part and the cast will give voice to -- and hear -- the entire play. This is often a crucial moment in the rehearsal process. What I am advocating here is that we make use of a parallel process in classroom reading. Our students’ first reading of Shakespeare shouldn’t be silent, internal, and solitary, it should be audible, external, and collaborative. The first time our students read Shakespeare should parallel the theatrical read-through rehearsal.
The Players of Shakespeare series offers essays by Royal Shakespeare Company artists analyzing the rehearsal and performance process. Many of these essays expose the extent to which actors and directors are engaged in a purposefully collaborative teaching and learning process, exploring and exploding Shakespeare’s scripts. I choose ‘script’ as opposed to ‘text’ here deliberately, as anyone even passingly familiar with recent articles on performative approaches to teaching and learning Shakespeare will recognize this as an increasingly predominant term. ‘Script’ as opposed to ‘text’ is suggestive of a less monolithic entity; one can play with, rehearse, and develop a ‘script’ in ways that the more venerated ‘text’ will not allow.
While the middle school or high school teacher may well be able to give over several class sessions to a serialized reading of the script, I recommend going still further into the details of the performance process and making it a single-sitting read-through. Fortunately this is actually easier at the college level.
In the spring of 2001, when I co-taught a 70+ student section of a 200-level Shakespeare class, I began employing this strategy. This course focused on Shakespeare’s comedies and aimed to give students the facility to read the plays formally, historically, and intertextually. No doubt that sounds like everyone’s -- or at least anyone’s -- approach to Shakespeare. Interpretive readings advance the exploration of specific historical contexts more focused on concerns with such issues as, for example, power, or gender, or cultural materialism. Here, however, I want to avoid any and all discussion of that and focus more narrowly on an earlier moment in the teaching and learning process, the first reading.
Most students (ourselves included), during the first reading of any text, are likely concerned primarily with grasping exposition. We want the facts: ‘who, what, where, when, why?’  In other words we are concerned with familiarizing ourselves with the characters, the setting and a fundamental understanding of the plot. In doing so, typically, the ability to read silently, to ourselves, is privileged over reading aloud or over that wonderful intermediate stage, silent reading with lips moving. We would be well served to interrogate this hierarchy, especially as it applies to the teaching of Shakespeare and Renaissance drama. I suggest that our ability to read plays effectively and as we grow in sophistication and experience as readers, our comprehension of other nuances of critical understanding is maximized, in fact, by reading the text out loud.
Even with silent reading consistently accepted as the highest level of reading sophistication, many pedagogical discussions of reading throughout the primary and secondary levels recognize the ongoing importance of oral reading in the curriculum. At the primary level children learn to listen first, then speak, and finally to read. Bamman, Dawson and McGovern concluded in 1973 that ‘each form of communication in turn forms the basis for learning the one to follow.’  Stephen B. Kucer in his exclusively theoretical exploration of teaching reading and writing, Dimensions of Literacy, asserts ‘Teachers, regardless of the age of their students, should read to them. Students need to hear the sound of language and the expression of ideas in forms they may not yet be able to read on their own.’  In a practical guide to Teaching Reading in the 21st Century Michael Graves, Connie Juel, and Bonnie Graves suggest the inclusion of oral reading as crucial in the process of fostering an emerging literacy. 
While students in our Shakespeare classrooms aren’t learning to read in the same ways that a new reader at the primary level is, there are important lessons to draw from the formative educative process of first learning to read. Our students are learning to read Shakespeare. While one doesn’t necessarily want to exacerbate the earlier identified anxieties students often have about reading and studying Shakespeare, it is legitimate to recognize that for many students Shakespeare’s vocabulary, syntax and imagery is a brave new world. To illustrate in terms of one truth identified by the authors of Fundamentals of Basic Reading Instruction, ‘if [a child learning to read] never says sentences in inverted order, such as ‘Away to the house ran Jimmy,’ he is likely to have great difficulty in reading this, or any inverted sentence.’  My experience having college-level students reading aloud (in both the Shakespeare classroom and with poetry in introductory literature courses) reveals that a considerable amount of the confusion that accompanies inverted word order is dispelled when the sentence is spoken. What I suggest we do is get our students to read through Shakespeare’s plays out loud -- that we get them to speak and hear the play scripts rather than read them silently to themselves.
What I am advocating is a performative or production-oriented approach, but with a specific and narrow focus. Shakespeare’s scripts demand to be heard. One doesn’t have to delve far into early modern commentary on playgoing in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century London to realize that one goes to the theatre to ‘hear’ a play. While seeing is obviously also important I find it revealing that what is so often stressed about early modern playgoing is the hearing. In both word and idea the term ‘audience’ places a stress on audition, on hearing. Aristotle, favoured drama critic of so many early modern playwrights recognized the importance of language and music. One shouldn’t assume this to mean music in the strict sense of song, but in the solo and choric sounds of voices as well. Aristotle was analyzing scripts, of course, but he knew enough to identify the inherent importance of spoken word to the theater as a medium
What follows are the particular details of how I implement the teaching strategy I am advocating here with some reflection on its results. In a recent experience co-teaching a sixteen-week course on Shakespeare’s comedies we moved along at a rate of roughly a play a week. I arranged read-throughs of the scripts immediately prior to the week devoted to discussion and lecture on each play. This particular course met three days a week, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Apart from the first week (where I scheduled a read-through on Tuesday evening) I arranged a meeting time and place on Sunday evenings for anyone who was interested to meet with me and we would read through the text as a group. I negotiated this with my students based on their preferences and work schedules. 
While we weren’t coming together for the purpose of preparing the play for production, we were incorporating a foundational step in that process by sitting around a table together and listening to the script. I was still teacher and would pause after each scene and as a group we would briefly raise and work through any immediate questions. A group of between 12 and 14 students were very regular in attendance; approximately two-thirds of the students who attended were women. Casting was non-traditional, that is we ignored gender and race to the extent that the given circumstances of the play permit. I would go through the characters at the start of the scene and say a few comments about that character, noting in particular the length of the part (some students preferred larger roles while others preferred to read two or three smaller parts). I would pick up a few roles here and there or occasionally take a more juicy role -- like Jaques, or Prospero -- for myself. Everyone had to read (or by my way of thinking got to read) but as important, if not more so, everyone got to hear the entire script. 
At the end of each read-through everyone walked out of the room with a solid sense of ‘who’s who’ and ‘what happens’ in the play we had just read. More often than not, however, my students and I walked away with much more. In addition to being true to the early modern idea of hearing the play, we also proved that the comedies indeed occupy approximately a two hour’s traffic: most of our read-throughs finished in under two hours, even with pauses for questions and plot summaries. There was no movement, no bodily acting of the text, just reading, just hearing. Movement can (and in my approach invariably does) come later.
What I found over the course of sixteen weeks was that the anxieties about reading the text among the faithful regulars at the read-throughs was greatly diminished. There were immediate and tangible moments where shifts in register, and the varying application of prose and verse became far better understood for having heard how the script changes at these moments. Students were also given a very open forum in which they could test themselves and each other to make sure they did have a grasp of the plot basics, but they could also ask about unfamiliar terms or concepts that cropped up in the read-through. To be sure there were still strata in terms of the level of critical engagement and understanding (just as there was a range of performance quality) but that in no way detracted from the practice or its intention. We all walked out of the room at the end of a read-through confident in at least the nuts and bolts of the script; we were beginning to see and think about its themes, and were certainly in a good position to get deeper inside the themes, the construction, the significance of the play in the week ahead.
I recommend single-volume texts in paperback such as a Signet, Penguin, Pelican, or Folger Shakespeare Library edition. When we actually do explore blocking and movement during the discussion and more detailed script work later in the week, these texts provide a much more feasible acting environment than balancing an unwieldy complete works. Plus the notes tend to be rather fuller, especially in terms of glossing terms generally unfamiliar to student readers. At the read-throughs I will often have multiple editions on hand and prefer to have the Arden (third series) available for answering unfamiliar questions. I fear that the Arden editions -- especially the third series -- with their lengthy introductory essays and fulsome notes present information overload for most undergraduates, however. While my coming to the read-through with multiple texts might accentuate a sense of difference -- student script versus teacher script -- it can also lead to fruitful discussions of textual authority and the varying underlying purposes and readerly audiences of Shakespeare. I have let such inquiry come from my students; if they are interested they will invariably ask me why I have half a dozen different copies of a given play or they’ll ask why the version I’m reading from appears twice as long as theirs (e.g. the Arden Shakespeare).
A close reading of Act One, scene one of King Lear and some of the insights that have arisen for my students and me as a result of a read-through of that scene can, I hope, illustrate some of the immediate benefits of the practice I am advocating here. The scene of course opens with Kent and Gloucester in mid-conversation:
As the scene unfolds and our students (hopefully) are able to understand that there must be a significant number of actors on stage (nearly the entire cast is in this scene) spatial relationships have to be dealt with. Perhaps still more immediately students will recognize the gossipy nature of the conversation here and of their own accord many students can identify that the discussion of ‘who’s in’ and ‘who’s out’ sets up the central action of the scene when Lear arrives to divide up the kingdom.
Lear’s entry also allows students to hear several significant changes in the script. The king speaks in verse whereas the conversations -- rumours followed by Gloucester’s off-color jokes about Edmund’s bastardy -- preceding the king’s entrance were in prose. It looks different on the page; and students will likewise register that it sounds different. At first student reading of the verse passages will likely be less than fluid. This can be an advantage; they will be aware that they are reading poetry, that the lines break in seemingly funny ways and an immediate discussion of register and the use of verse as formal, performative language in this scene can slot in nicely. Significant character clues about the king are also evinced in his opening lines. The King barks out commands in the imperative mood. ‘Attend the Lords of France and Burgundy, Gloucester’ (35). ‘Give me the map there. Know that we have divided / In three our kingdom...’ (39 ff.). Later in the scene, the King of France will likewise employ the imperative, but with a difference: France’s use of honorifcs softens his sneer of cold command: ‘Come, my fair Cordelia’ (284).
Most editions also effectively display some of the imbedded stage directions for the pacing of speeches. For example, again in I.i of Lear, the frequent use of half lines in verse where one speaker completes the metric line of another is often set on the page to convey the speed with which one speaker ought in all likelihood to take up her or his cue (as at lines 155 and following: the argumentative interchange between Kent and Lear). This pacing stands in stark contrast with the repeated ‘Nothings’ at lines 89-94 (made all the more powerful when heard repetitively) which stand alone and thus are suggestively followed by intensely pregnant beats of silence.
Of course attentive readers can pick all this up from a silent reading. We will assist more of students in hearing these nuances and put them in a better position to then gain still more insight and meaning from the play if we provide the enhanced opportunities for discovery that a theatrical read-through allows and indeed encourages.
An alternative approach is to encourage our students to read the text aloud to themselves. This will do as a second best but ultimately the poly-vocal and collaborative nature of drama is best served by a poly-vocal and collaborative approach, hence a group read-through.
One other point of practicalities: the practice I’m advocating, especially if scheduling demands would have you, like me, organizing read-throughs on Sunday nights or weekday evenings does necessarily mean giving more of ‘your’ time (and/or your time with others to your students. Yet in a way I would argue it does not. I know that even though I have read the plays numerous times, as I teach a Shakespeare course I re-read the play at hand at least once each week as my students and I discuss that particular play. I assume most of us do. So, if you are going to re-read the text anyway why not do it in a public, collaborative manner rather than privately? I personally find the reading at least as informative and generally more efficient because it tends to take less time.
Is this necessarily more effective than reading silently to one self? Yes, at least for our students, especially those who are largely unfamiliar with reading and hearing Shakespeare, it is fundamental to hear the text. Even if we don’t pronounce the words correctly (yet another potentially fraught issue since the sound of Elizabethan English can never be fully reconstructed) the importance of the aural to communication and in particular to understanding Shakespeare cannot be over-emphasized. As I tell my freshman composition students, most of us spend a lot more time speaking English than we do writing it. This is, I suspect, just as true for professional academics as it is for everyone else, even if we do in fact write more on average than people in other trades and professions. Because we speak more, we are relatively accomplished at making and receiving meaning through speaking and listening. We draw on this in the process of learning to read, why not continue to draw on it in the process of learning to read Shakespeare?
To suggest that learning to read Shakespeare is a different or more specific task than simply learning to read in general may inadvertently further feed the cultural anxiety that we have towards Shakespeare. I’m willing to take that risk because I do think that a healthy respect for the undeniable complexity of Shakespeare is a good thing; it only becomes a bad thing when that healthy respect becomes unhealthy fear or anxiety. I would contend, however, that the approach of a read-through strips away much of the privilege, distance and mystery that is bound up with Shakespeare. Theater professionals when mounting a production begin by reading-through the script; whether it’s a script by Shakespeare, or Marlowe, or Jonson, or Baillie, or Pinter, or Beckett, or Miller, or Wang doesn’t matter. They get read, out loud. When scripts are the literary artifact under study for a course in the drama department, the English department, the History department, or the Modern Languages department, whether in a classroom setting or whether the teaching and learning is achieved through preparation for public performance, we should take a cue from the performance process and begin at the beginning, we should begin our process of understanding and reading the play by reading it out loud and helping our students to hear it.
1. I am extremely grateful to Professor Patricia Behrendt in the Theater Department at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, whose patient and insightful comments on an earlier draft of this essay were tremendously helpful. [back]
2. James E. Davis and Richard E. Salomone, eds. Teaching Shakespeare Today: Practical Approaches and Productive Strategies (Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1993). Charles H. Frey, ‘Goals and Limits in Student Performance of Shakespeare’ 72-8. [back]
3. David Kennedy Sauer and Evelyn Tribble, ‘Shakespeare in Performance: Theory in Practice and Practice in Theory’ in Milla Cozart Riffio, ed. Teaching Shakespeare through Performance (New York: Modern Languages Association, 1999) 33-47. [back]
4. Christopher Parry, English Through Drama: A Way of Teaching (Cambridge: CUP, 1972). See also Peggy O’Brien ‘“And Gladly Teach”: Books, Articles, and a Bibliography on the teaching of Shakespeare’ Shakespeare Quarterly 46:2 (Summer 1995): 165-172. Robert K. Pierce, ‘Teaching the Sonnets with Performance Techniques’ 43-9 in Ronald E. Salomone and James E. Davis, eds. Teaching Shakespeare into the Twenty-First Century (Athens, OH; Ohio U P, 1997). [back]
5. While my comments here concern teaching Shakespeare specifically, I would contend that my method is equally appropriate for teaching all Early Modern drama, if not for all literature courses where drama is on the syllabus. [back]
6. See Michael Flachman, ‘Changing the W’s in Shakespeare’s Plays’ in Davis and Salomone, Teaching Shakespeare Today, 100; Rex Gibson, ‘“O What Learning Is!”: Pedagogy and the Afterlife of Romeo and Juliet.’ Shakespeare Survey 49 (1996): 141-152, see especially 145. [back]
7. When learning to read, comprehension at this level follows early on after recognizing letters and words; see Michael F. Graves, Connie Juel, and Bonnie B. Graves, Teaching Reading in the 21st Century (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, second ed. 2001) 284-290. [back]
8. Most analytical schema for teaching reading perpetuate this hierarchy. Robin Campbell in Reading Together (Milton Keynes & Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1990), for example, presents a four-stage scheme for teaching children to read that moves from ‘story reading’ in which the adult reads aloud to the child, ‘shared reading’ in which adult and child read aloud together to ‘hearing children read’ in which the child reads aloud to the adult and finally ‘sustained silent reading’ when the child reads to self (2). [back]
9. Henry A Bamman, Mildred A. Dawson, and James J. McGovern, Fundamentals of Basic Reading Instruction (New York: David McKay Company, third edition, 1973) [back]
10. Stephen B. Kucer, Dimensions of Literacy: A Conceptual Base for Teaching Reading and Writing in School Settings (Manwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 2001) 266. [back]
11. Graves et al., see especially 266-7. [back]
12. Bamman et al. [back]
13. But see Gabriel Egan, ‘Hearing or Seeing a Play?: Evidence of Early Modern Theatrical Terminology’ Ben Jonson Journal 8 (2001): 327-48. [back]
14. In presenting a version of this paper at the Fifth National Symposium for Theater in Academe and in discussing this idea elsewhere colleagues have asked important logistical and detail-related questions. One colleague raised the issue of how to implement read-throughs on a commuter campus. I don’t have a ready answer for that; I believe I would use classroom time to get the texts heard. Another colleague suggested alternating days or times for read-throughs so that over the course of a semester one might be able to get more students involved in read-throughs. Yet another colleague alluded to an experience where students in a drama -- as opposed to English or literature course -- had organized their own play-reading groups. Colleagues also raised the issue of motivation: how do I get my students to come to an extra, optional session when I often have difficulty getting them to come to required class meetings and to produce the minimum work required? My answer: bribe them. Offer bonus points. Offer to substitute one response journal for every three read-throughs they attend. Be willing to do what you can to make it worth their while -- or more to the point, appeal to what your students see as valuable (points affecting grade, work replacement, efficient use of time). [back]
15. A colleague has suggested that rather than assigning roles, a round-robin approach be adopted in which each reader at the table read a sentence or that readers change with each change in speech heading. I prefer my method as I feel it better conveys a sense of character and that students are better able to assess individual aspects of character having heard that part voiced by one actor. All line references here are to the Signet Classic edition of King Lear, ed. Russell Frasier (New York: Penguin, 1987). [back]