How to Read the Classics

Five Methods:Reading a NovelReading a PlayReading PoetryContextualizing Your ReadingShakespeare Terms Guide

Some people find it difficult to start reading classic literature, especially if they have not studied literature before. Classic works can be enjoyable if you know how to approach them. There are many strategies you can take for reading classic novels, plays, and poems that will improve your comprehension and your enjoyment.

Method 1
Reading a Novel

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    Set a schedule. If you are reading the book for school or college, you can look ahead on your syllabus to see when you will need to have finished the book. Divide the page count with the number of days that you have left. That is the minimum number of pages you should read each day.
    • Alternatively, you could choose to read a certain number of chapters a day. Divide the number of chapters by the number of days, keeping in mind that some chapters are longer than others.
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    Read the novel. Every day read at least your minimum page count for the novel. You should try to read uninterrupted in a single session. Do not end in the middle of a page or chapter. Try to end your session at a conclusive point so that it will be easier for you to pick up the novel the next day.
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    Consult the footnotes. You may have an annotated text that has footnotes or endnotes. These will appear as small numbers above the text. These numbers refer to an explanatory note on the bottom of the page or in the back of the book. Reading these notes as you work your way through the text can help you understand the historical, social, and linguistic meaning of the book. They can also point out literary allusions, symbolism, metaphors, and double-meanings in the text. Often, they will translate difficult or old words into simple modern English.
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    Create a list of words you do not know. You do not want to interrupt your reading by constantly checking the dictionary. Keep a list of words you do not recognize, and after you have finished reading for the day, look them up and write down their definitions. You may encounter these words again while reading the book.
    • If the word prevents you from understanding what is going on, then you should probably look it up right away.
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    Write in the margins. Use a pencil to circle, underline, and box any key phrases, quotes, or symbols. Record your reactions to certain parts of the text by using smiley faces. If you have an opinion or you notice something interesting, jot a quick note in the margins.[1] This kind of active reading helps you process and remember the novel with greater ease. It can help you recall important moments in class or on a quiz, and it prepares you for discussing the book at a critical level.
    • Be sure to erase your notes if you are giving or selling your book to someone else.
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    Summarize each chapter. After you finish for the day, write a brief summary of what happened. This will help you recall at a later date what the novel was about. It can also help you process what you read for that day. Keep these summaries in a notebook together. When you are finished with the novel, you can look back over your notes.[2]

Method 2
Reading a Play

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    Study the cast list. The cast list comes at the very beginning of the play before the first scene. It will show the characters in the play as well as their relationships to one another. It may even provide a brief line on their motivations or role in the play. Learning the cast list before you begin can help you keep track of different characters as they appear throughout the play.[3]
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    Skim the play. Before you do anything, you should skim the play. Plays do not take long to read, but they only provide dialogue and a few stage directions. There is little interior thought, and it may be hard to grasp the motivations of each character. Skimming quickly through the text at first can help you learn the plot of the play.
    • During this brief read-through, you should look up any words, terms, or directions you do not know. This will make later readings easier to follow.[4]
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    Read the play out loud with a friend. Assign parts so that you and a friend (or multiple friends) each have a part. Read the words out loud to each other. Add emotion, inflection, and bravado to make it fun. You may even act out the movement. This will help you understand the action and the emotion of the play.
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    Watch an adaptation. Plays are meant to be heard and seen, not read. After reading through the play once, you may want to watch a version of the play, either on television or live on the stage. You will see how the actors have interpreted the words, motivations, and actions. Props and movements will help you imagine the play more vividly.[5]
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    Record each character’s motivations. Unlike a novel, the character’s inner thoughts and motivations may not be instantly recognizable. As you take notes, question each character’s motivations. Why are they doing what they are doing? Point to places in the text that demonstrate these motives.
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    Map out the stage directions on a piece of paper. Plays all have some kind of scene direction. Shakespearean plays have minimal direction while twentieth century plays may have abundant direction. Draw a rectangle on a piece of paper to represent a stage. Draw circles for each character, and map their movement through the scene. This can help you visualize where characters are going, who they are speaking to, and when they enter/exit.[6]
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    Reread the play. Once you have seen the play or mapped out its movements, you should read the play one last time. You will probably have a firm grasp on what is going on and how events are unfolding. Now, you can read it for meaning and themes. Your visualization of the text may be much stronger.[7]

Method 3
Reading Poetry

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    Identify the genre or form of the poem. Different genres of poetry follow different conventions. If you can identify the poem’s genre before reading, you will be able to follow its structure, narrative, themes and meter with greater ease. There are many different genres of poetry, but many classics will fall into a particular form.
    • Epic Poetry: A long narrative poem that describes heroic or mythological events. Example: The Odyssey by Homer
    • Sonnet: a poem of fourteen lines. Sonnets typically are Petrarchan (two stanzas of four lines each plus one stanza of six lines) or English (three stanzas of four lines and a stanza with two lines). Example: “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day? (Sonnet 18)” by William Shakespeare
    • Ballad: a folk tale told in song, typically taken from oral tradition. Example: “The Ballad of Chevy Chase”
    • Free verse: poems that do not have any identifiable meter, rhyme, or form. Example: “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman[8]
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    Read it out loud. Reading aloud can help you figure out the sounds of the poem while increasing your comprehension of it. Recite the poem in a slow but natural voice. You do not have to pause at the end of every line. As you do so, try to note where you are naturally pausing.[9]
    • What words are you emphasizing?
    • Does the poem sound lyrical, or are there abrupt breaks in the verse?
    • Which sounds repeat through the poem? What kind of effect does this create?
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    Listen to a recitation. If you are having trouble listening to your own voice, you can find a recording of the poem where an actor or poet recites the verse. Pay attention to where they are pausing and how they are emphasizing each word. Does the sound of the poem have any particular effect on how you interpret it?
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    Tap out the meter. Many poems have an established meter. This means that there is a certain number of stressed and unstressed syllables in every line. See if you can identify which syllables are strongly pronounced (stressed) and which are lightly pronounced (unstressed). Stressed syllables are those that are pronounced with emphasis while unstressed are pronounced quickly with no emphasis. Count the number of syllables in the line. Recite the line slowly, tapping along to your words. A hard tap should signal a stressed syllable while a light tap signifies an unstressed syllable.
    • For example, in the line “If music be the food of love, play on,” the stressed syllables are bolded and the unstressed are not.
    • Mark stressed syllables with a / or a ^.
    • Mark unstressed syllables with an x or a u.
    • Be aware that free verse poems have no meter.
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    Mark rhyme scheme. Many forms of poem have distinct patterns of rhyme. The rhyme scheme will usually be somewhat consistent through the poem. Assign a letter to every type of rhyme, and use that letter to mark every time that rhyme is used.
    • For example in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “In Memoriam,” the following stanza has an ABBA rhyme scheme: “To-night ungather'd let us leave/This laurel, let this holly stand:/We live within the stranger's land,/And strangely falls our Christmas-eve.” The A rhyme signifies that “leave” and “eve” rhyme while the B rhyme marks that “stand” and “land” rhyme.
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    Consider the title of the poem. Sometimes the title of the poem can give away what it is about. If the poem itself seems ambiguous and obscure, reread the title for clues. You may be surprised at what the poem is actually saying. Locate imagery in the poem that connects it to its title.

Method 4
Contextualizing Your Reading

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    Research the historical period and the author. You may find a book confusing, especially if it was written more than a hundred years before you were born. You can do research on the historical context to find out more about the book itself. You should also search for the author's biography. This may help you understand what events are occurring in the narrative or why the characters do the things that they do.
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    Obtain a brief overview of the work of literature. If you struggle with reading classic works, especially historical works, you can find a brief summary on the internet. This will help you process the difficult language as you work your way through the novel. It can also help you with understanding symbolism, imagery, allusions, foreshadowing, and other literary devices.
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    Choose a modern translation of the book with annotations. Classics were generally written in the distant past. They may contain phrases or words that are no longer used, and their sentences can be long and confusing. Annotated books may have updated the spellings of the original text, and they will have plentiful notes to help guide your reading.
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    Research recent literary critiques on the text. Literary scholars are trained to understand books critically. You can gain keen insight on a text by researching what critics and scholars have to say on the matter. They can explain the historical context, provide a biography of the author, and connect motifs to philosophical theories. By getting someone else's opinion through a critique, you can obtain a better analysis of the book.
    • Don’t be afraid to disagree with literary critics. Reading their analyses are supposed to help you think more critically about the book. You should not accept anything they say blindly.
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    Identify figurative language and imagery. As you begin reading classic literature, pay attention what is being described. You may find that the language is vague, but you can discover what it means. Literature often uses figurative language to signify something other than its literal meaning. Knowing what literary devices are being used can help you interpret the text.[10]
    • Metaphor: a phrase that describes one thing by comparing it to something else or by referring to something entirely different. For example, the phrase “an elephant in the room” signifies that somebody is ignoring an important problem.
    • Hyperbole: an extreme exaggeration. “Her eyes were as big as dinner plates” is hyperbole.
    • Allusion: a reference to another work of art, person or event. The title of the novel Ulysses by James Joyce is an allusion to The Odyssey.
    • Metonymy: a word that has associations with a larger institution but is used to signify the whole. For example, the White House is metonymy for the US Presidency.
    • Irony: a phrase that should signify one thing but actually means the opposite. It may also represent a situation where things occur differently than anticipated. In Samuel Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, “Water, water, everywhere,/Nor any drop to drink” is an example of irony.

Shakespeare Terms Guide

Sample Shakespeare Terms


  • Don't forget to reflect on what you've read throughout the work. If you wait until the end, you risk forgetting what happened.
  • It helps to keep a notebook for each novel. This way, you can have all of your information for that novel in one place.
  • Remember that classics are hard to understand for most people. Just take your time, and you will get it!
  • Always make a bibliography. When you write down any information from a source, make sure to add that source to your list of bibliographies. In doing this, you will always have a list of the exact sources you used in your research.

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Categories: Studying Literature