Many students—and adults, for that matter—find Shakespeare difficult to read and hard to understand. They accuse him of not speaking English and refuse to believe that ordinary people spoke the way his characters do. However, if you understand more about his language, it is easier to understand. Several pointers can be especially helpful:
Soliloquies and Asides
Shakespeare’s characters often make comments to each other or to the audience which the other characters never hear. These asides usually comment on the action. Also, characters sometimes think out loud, alone on stage, for the benefit of the audience. Sometimes the character talks directly to the audience, sometimes not. These speeches are called soliloquies. For example, Antipholus of Syracuse, after receiving a gift of a chain and while alone on stage, gives the following soliloquy:
What should I think of this, I cannot tell:
But this I think, there’s no man is so vain
That would refuse so fair an offer’d chain.
I see a man here needs not live by shifts,
When in the streets he meets such golden gifts.
I’ll to the mart and there for Dromio stay:
If any ship put out, then straight away. (3.2.179–185)
In addition, Shakespeare uses imagery as he speaks with metaphors, similes, and personification. Recognizing when his characters are doing this helps in understanding the play. For example, Antipholus of Syracuse compares himself to a drop of water:
I to the world am like a drop of water,
That in the ocean seeks another drop,
Who, falling there to find his fellow forth
Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself.
So I, to find a mother and a brother,
In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself. (1.2.35–40)
Another example is of Dromio of Ephesus comparing himself to a football:
Am I so round with you, as you with me.
That like a football you do spurn me thus?
You spurn me hence, and he will spurn me hither:
If I last in this service, you must case me in leather. (2.1.82–85
Prose vs. Verse
Prose is the form of speech used by common people in Shakespearean drama. There is no rhythm or meter in the line. It is everyday language. Shakespeare’s audiences would recognize the speech as their language. When a character in a play speaks in prose, you usually know that he is a working class member of society. However, many important characters also speak in prose at times. For example, both Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Syracuse speak in prose as they comically describe a large woman who is chasing Dromio:
Antipholus: Then she bears from breadth?
Dromio: No longer from head to foot than from hip to hip: she is spherical, like a globe; I could find out countries in her. (3.2.112–15)
Of course, working class characters can also speak in verse, especially when they are being pompous or making fun of others. For example, Dromio of Ephesus speaks in verse in the
Return’d so soon! rather approached to late:
The capon burns, the pig falls from the spit;
The clock hath strucken twelve upon the bell:
My mistress made it one upon my cheek:
She is so hot, because the meat is cold:
The meat is cold, because you come not home:
You come not home because you have no stomach:
You have no stomach, having broke your fast:
But we that know what ’tis to fast and pray,
Are penitent for your default to-day. (1.2.43-52)
Also, Shakespeare will often signal the end of a scene by ending with a couplet, or two rhyming lines:
Dromio of Syracuse: Master, shall I be porter of the gate?
Adriana: Ay, and let none enter, lest I break your pate.
Luciana: Come, come, Antipholus, we dine too late.