How to Understand and Perform Shakespeare

Two Methods:Getting StartedShakespeare Cheat Sheet

Shakespeare was and still is one of the most known poet and writers of all time. His works are beautifully written, but I think everybody at least once in their life has gone, "What the heck does all this mean?" OR "My baby is the star of this play and I have no clue what she's saying!" Does this sound like you? Do you want help understanding and performing Shakespeare? Well, you've come to the right place!

Getting Started

  1. Image titled Understand and Perform Shakespeare Step 1
    Get into the right mindset. Feel the mood of the play. Never assume that this is too difficult for you anyway. Going through the text step by step will enable you to understand it.
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    Read the play, or at least a summary. It helps to know what's going on. Look at other performances of Shakespeare; they're plays, they were written to be performed, and you can get ideas on how to say that one line you can't figure out. Also, it helps if you read up on the context and setting of the play so you can understand what some of the laws or common practices (etc.) of the place.
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    Get used to the old-fashioned language. Whenever you hear the word "thou," thy" or "thee", that means "you," "your," or "you"--singular. When you hear "art", that means "are". When you hear anything that ends in "-st", don't freak out. Shakespeare adds "-st" to any word that goes with "thou", thus "mayst not" = "may not". Shakespeare also likes to take out syllables to make the line flow smoother--example: "o' th' " would translate to "on the".
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    EXAMPLES: "For in my sight, she uses thee kindly, but thou liest in thy throat." translates to: "From what I see, she is kind to you, but you lie." and "No, faith, I'll not stay a jot longer!" translates to "No, I will not stay here a second longer! or "What light through yonder window breaks, it is the east and Juliet is the sun." translates to "Juliet is as radiant with beauty as the sun is radiant with light". Remember, people were people 500 years ago, and even though they talked differently, they still had emotions like we do.
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    Familiarize yourself with stylistic means used in poetry, like similes, oxymorons, metaphors etc. These are usually discussed in literature classes at school, and knowing what they mean will make the whole process of reading Shakespeare's work less intimidating. Look them up on the internet and try to find examples of them in your text.
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    If you're Performing Shakespeare, be sure to enunciate (speak out entire words rather than a slur of words). The way Shakespeare puts sentences together are very unorthodox in terms of modern English, so it will be very easy for the audience to lose track of what you're actually saying. By enunciating clearly and fully, the audience can piece together the words much more easily.
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    When performing, remember that your character is an actual person with actual feelings, not a fancy-talking english person. Your character has feelings just like you. It helps if you understand your character's personality and how he or she behaves throughout the entire play and not just in one scene or act.

Shakespeare Cheat Sheet

Sample Shakespeare Terms


  • Ask a librarian, teacher, professor, or a smart adult to help you decipher the text of Shakespeare.
  • Spend time deciphering little bits that you like, such as Hamlet's or Macbeth's very famous speeches. Annotate! It may be difficult at first but it gets easier.
  • Shakespeare is not at all different from modern entertainment. It may be in an unfamiliar dialect but it has sex, violence, drugs, and even low-brow humor. It is not a "higher" form of literature, remember that it was written to entertain mostly uneducated and illiterate peoples.
  • Consider watching the movie "Renaissance Man" with Danny DeVito. His character has to teach a bunch of soldiers how to understand Shakespeare. The pieces used in the movie are "Hamlet" and "Henry V". The strategy he uses to do it is quite good and the movie is entertaining, too.
  • Watch or read the work with a person who understands the material and have them "translate" for you.
  • Learn to enjoy watching Shakespeare plays or movies. One of the easiest ways to understand Shakespeare is to fill your ears with the language and get used to it.
  • Find a good quote and use it. "Neither a borrower nor a lender be", from Polonius' speech in "Hamlet" goes down very well at the bank or stock market.
  • Go through the text step by step and decipher the sentences. For example translating "thou" to "you" etc. Have a modern english version near by and check your understanding with it. However, you should be careful with this as Shakespearean english is different from modern english and hence the meaning may differ slightly.
  • You will begin to know the background of many of Shakespeare's expressions that have turned into modern cliches, like "Brave New World", "Seachange" (both from "The Tempest").
  • Watch a contemporary reinterpretation of a Shakespearean play like "Puppet Shakespeare", "Drunk Shakespeare" or "Gary Busey's One Man Hamlet". There are many ways that modern directors and playwrights have found new insights and meaning in old texts. Sometimes this can be an easier way to get in to the language of Shakespeare.


  • Shakespeare may be a little "adult" for some people.
  • Never get mad while learning.
  • Don't get frustrated or confused.

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Categories: Acting | Studying Literature