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Tips for Studying Shakespeare: Study Guides & Help

By Peter Boysen

Are you going through a brain-bending Shakespeare play in your English class? Sick and tired of trying to interpret the language on your own? Use one of our nifty study guides to help you understand plot, theme, characters and symbolism of Shakespeare's most commonly taught plays.

How to Use This Guide

The plays of William Shakespeare have proven to be timeless in their ability to explore the passions that affect all of us: love, desire, Shakespeare envy, greed and hatred, among others.

However, the language of Shakespeare has not proven timeless, which means that readers opening up the plays of the Bard for the first time may have a difficult time comprehending not only individual words, but the meaning of longer speeches, and perhaps even the basic plot line.

This guide will introduce you to the characters in many of Shakespeare's most widely taught plays, and you will also find articles that explore themes, explain important quotations, summarize the plot lines, and give you a look at some potential questions you may face on tests.

Shakespeare's Comedies

While Shakespeare's definition of "comedy" might differ from the modern one, these plays all feature romantic intrigue and hilarious wordplay (that you're sure to find funny once you understand what they're talking about). These guides will help.

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" is one of the more accessible Shakespearean plays. One of the more fascinating aspects of this story is the play that takes place within the play.

"The Merchant of Venice" is the story of Shylock and is commonly studied as part of units on racism, then and now, as the Jewish merchant is the subject of considerable prejudice in the story. However, Shakespeare shows him to be no less (or no more) human than the rest of the characters.

"The Tempest" is on many high school lists but is most commonly read in junior or senior English in high school. A storm has set a crew adrift on a magician's island so that their various love triangles can work themselves out.

"Twelfth Night" is commonly read in upper high school and college, because of the gender-bending comedy that takes place and is often the focus of discussion.

Shakespeare's Tragedies

These plays cover the tragic stories of Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth among others. Through studying these plays you'll learn such concepts as the tragic flaw, devices such as the soliloquy and other elements at work in these plays.

Applicable to the comedies as well, these tips help you understand Shakespeare's language. Romeo & Juliet features the doomed love of the children of two warring families. Leonardo di Caprio and Claire Danes star in a modernized version that uses the original language, and many students watch this to facilitate comprehension of the story.

Lear is a fictitious king who banishes his one true daughter, which leaves his enfeebled mind at the disposal of his other treacherous daughters. In genuine tragic fashion, he does not learn his error until it is too late.

"Hamlet" is often read in senior English in high school and is the defining tragedy in Shakespeare's canon.

"Julius Caesar" is another of Shakespeare's commonly studied tragedies, often in ninth or tenth grade. It follows the classic formula of the tragedy more closely than does Hamlet or Macbeth and is easier for younger students to comprehend.

Macbeth is commonly read in junior English and features one of the most diabolical female characters in all of literature: Lady Macbeth.

Together with "The Merchant of Venice," "Othello" is Shakespeare's other exploration of prejudice. This time the prejudice is against the black general Othello, who makes the dual mistake of falling in love with the white daughter of Brabantio and promoting the "wrong" man beneath him, raising the ire of the envious Iago.

Shakespeare's Sonnets

In addition to writing over 30 plays (as many as 37, depending on your position on the plays' provenance), Shakespeare also wrote more than 2130 sonnets -- poems that not only have a strict pattern of rhyme and meter, but also have a firm structure regarding movement from one idea to another, and all in 14 lines, no less. These lessons will help your students explore devices and other elements at work in his sonnets.

Focusing on Sonnets 29, 116 and 130, this lesson asks students to identify the two comparative devices and then allows them to pair music with one of the three works, finishing up with a poster and a dramatic reading. Students analyze the poem's meter and rhyme scheme as well.

In groups of three or four, students analyze poems by Shakespeare, write a poem of their own, and mount copies of the sonnet and their analyses in scrapbooks, along with their own poems.