At Williams College, students spend the month of January taking a single course as part of a Winter Study term. Students are encouraged to explore learning through courses that are not available during the semester and that enhance skills in new subject areas. Though I could have branched out from my love of reading, I decided to take a class called Shakespeare’s Henry IV.
I have always loved reading William Shakespeare's writings because of his complex and beautiful use of language. The fact that we continue to read his works today and use them to shape popular culture is telling of how profound his characters, stories, and speech is.
Expecting to read only one play in my course, I ended up reading three‒"Henry IV Part I," "Henry IV Part II," and "Henry V."
I have had many classmates ask me how I am able to get through reading Shakespeare, so here are a few suggestions based on my experience reading works of the Great Bard:
1. Place yourself in a focused environment.
I wouldn’t recommend a party or loud setting for reading Shakespeare. Reading these plays takes a certain level of focus and willingness to communicate with a text. Remember that reading is a conversation between the reader and the author. You don’t want to miss what William Shakespeare has to say to you. Be ready to think and tackle the text. It can be dense and difficult to understand, but you can do it!
2. Read out loud or watch.
It is easy to forget that Shakespeare’s works are plays, which means that they are meant to be performed and viewed by an audience. If reading the text isn’t working for you, try reading it aloud by yourself or with others. You can also find readings online. Hearing different voices for characters can be helpful in distinguishing the multiple voices and absorbing the language.
There are also great performances and film adaptations of his plays. I would suggest watching more than one visual depiction, however, because certain performers and directors choose to emphasize certain parts of the play differently or interpret facial expressions and character tones differently.
3. THINK DOUBLE.
My professor emphasized these words throughout my Henry IV class. Almost anything that Shakespeare says has more than one meaning. If you interpret something a certain way, most times, saying the opposite, or even something slightly different, can be justified as well. Always be open to new ways of reading parts of the text and new ways of thinking about what Shakespeare is trying to say.
4. Take apart soliloquies or monologues given by main characters.
Whenever the main character or one of the main characters gives a long speech, it is usually very important. When reading Henry IV Part I, I memorized Prince Hal’s first soliloquy as part of an assignment. This helped me realize that the same character used the same words and phrases later in the play and in the other plays. The speech offered me a solid reference point to examine how Prince Hal’s character developed later in the play and how he both stayed the same and strayed away from his initial intentions and values. I also noticed that other characters would at times say things that were opposite his words and helped me understand both the main character and the surrounding characters.
5. Pay attention to repeated phrases or words.
*See rule 4 above*
6. Analyze how characters interact with one another.
The manner in which characters address each other reveal more about individual characters and those they address. It is also good to examine the way characters talk about characters who are not present in the same scene.
A key term that I analyzed in high school and in my Winter Study course is: foil. Foils in literature are two characters who are juxtaposed. Their personalities and attitudes both mirror and contrast each other and allow readers a means of comparison and better understanding the characters who are important to the plot.
7. Make connections to the world around you.
Another reason I love reading Shakespeare and literature as a whole, for that matter, is because, despite the fact that these plays are centuries old, they reflect individual characteristics and patterns of behavior in human nature. There are surprising similarities between the relationships between characters in Shakespeare’s plays to the people and the world around us. It is also cool to think about how much literature influences our culture. Relating to current events or important figures helps cement an understanding of why we continue to read these plays. If you re-read a Shakespeare play, you will identify and learn new things each time, and I find great joy in that.
To end, I would like to give a huge shout-out to Cal Trembath, my high school English teacher, who taught me many of the things above and showed me how cool it is to read Shakespeare. Also, shout out to one of my best friends, Yesenia Garnica, who helped me start a Macbeth book club senior year of high school.