Feeling lost trying to understand history’s greatest playwright?

The thing you have to remember about analysing Shakespeare is that there’s nobody who approaches a Shakespeare play for the first time and finds it easy.

If you pick up Richard III and find you cannot understand anything that he’s going, it doesn’t mean you’re dumb or illiterate.

Rather, you’re reading a text which was created a little under 300 years ago, for an audience who is completely different from you, in a form which it wasn’t intended to be consumed in.

There’s also the fact that Shakespeare plays are very different from anything else you read in high school.

The message here is that even if you’re struggling with the texts at first, there are ways to make it easier. Nobody is trying to trick you: it’s just that language has changed a lot since Shakespeare’s time.

Grappling with difficult texts is a process, which means that you have to work towards understanding, rather than try and get it all perfectly on your first read of it. It also means that it takes time, which is why within this guide, I aim to help you strategise your analysis of Shakespeare.

Step 1: Watch an Adaptation

Even though I adored English, and chose to pursue it in my tertiary education, I didn’t really enjoy Shakespeare until I was assigned Hamlet in my first year of university.

What changed was that this time, I had a film adaptation assigned alongside it, and strategised my studies so I would have enough time to enjoy it.

I was irritated that I didn’t get it, and watched and read it until I did, and that’s what led me to read Shakespeare in my own time for my own enjoyment. Once I had the general order of events down, the qualities of the words themselves were much easier to appreciate.

understanding shakespeare for HSC English

Watching adaptations is essential to really getting Shakespeare, for a few reasons:

Firstly, you’re watching somebody else’s interpretation of your prescribed text, which gives you an insight into how characters and themes might be perceived.

Secondly, adaptations you a visual reference to the events of the play. It can get hard to keep track of a cast of Shakespeare characters with unfamiliar names and little to work from in the way of physical description.

As an example of how tricky it can be to distinguish the different characters. Being able to put a face to a name, so to speak, is very useful in order to decipher what’s going on.

It’s a strategy I use in my own study — whenever I’m prescribed a Shakespeare play in my tertiary English studies, the first thing I do is track down either a recorded production or a film version.

Below is a table of my recommended Shakespeare interpretations, with a trailer linked in the title.

However, take note: watching the adaptations will lead you into understanding the text, but it’s not a replacement.

 

Shakespeare’s plays, when performed, often lasted upwards of three hours, so filmmakers have had to abridge them in order to have them work as a film.

Here, I’ve put together a list of the Shakespeare adaptations I would recommend for all of his plays which are in the senior years’ syllabi.

Play Adaptation
A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream (2006)
King Henry IV, Part 1 The Hollow Crown: Episode One
King Richard III The Hollow Crown, The Wars of the Roses: Episode Three
Hamlet Hamlet (2009)
The Merchant of Venice The Merchant of Venice (2004)
The Tempest The Tempest (2009)

Step 2: Read and Annotate the play

Okay, so now you should have a basic understanding of the play.

The next step is to grab your pens (or your e-reader, whatever) and read the thing! If you’re not already annotating your HSC texts, now is the time to start, as it’s a very useful skill to seperate parts of the text and start thinking about what matters for your assessment.

understanding Shakespeare for HSC English

In my Kindle app, I use three different highlight colours for Shakespeare plays: yellow is for quotes I think will be useful for my work, red is for things I don’t get (so I can research later without breaking my reading flow), and orange is for quotes that I like but don’t feel like they’ll be relevant to whatever topic I’m writing about.

I also make notes, particularly in the parts I’ve labelled yellow. Sometimes they’re almost clear enough to copy and paste into whatever essay I’m writing, but most of the time they’re next to incoherent.

Both, however, let me see my own knowledge developing, see what I found the most important lines to be, and keep my ideas down so that I can build on them later. I also feel like this lets me engage with the text, because I’m developing something as I go!

If you’re lucky, you have a version of the text which comes with its own annotations. This can mean little explanations of what’s going on, and/or definitions, which are very useful to have at hand.

However, if you are given a particular quote in your text, you’re not going to have this luxury, so it’s vital to get used to the rhythms and structures of Shakespeare’s writing.

For more general information on how to read and annotate your texts, be sure to read our guide here!

Step 3: Write TEE Tables

Now that you’ve underlined, highlighted, bracketed, or however you mark your text as you’re reading, it’s time to look at the parts you’ve checked and start putting them in Technique, Example, Effect Tables.

If you’ve never heard of them, read our guide here!

If you’re not entirely confident of the angle you’re going to take on the play, it could be useful to start by organising your key quotes in terms of what theme they’re about.

Alternatively, you could write TEE tables based on characters, with your ‘explanation’ column explaining what is being revealed about the character and their perspective on the issues of the play.

However, the further you are in your study, the more you want to be thinking about what kind of arguments you will make.

Here’s an example of a table I could use to collect evidence to discuss the experience of deep friendship within The Merchant of Venice:

Edit
Technique Example Effect
Accumulation My purse, my person, my extremest means,
Lie all unlock’d to your occasions.
Here, the intensity of Antonio’s loyalty to Bassanio is emphasised through the accumulation.
Metaphor Whose souls do bear an equal yoke of love… Portia’s poetic description of Antonio and Bassanio’s friendship for one another demonstrates their love is both equal in both of them and that it is also a burden.
Superlative “The dearest friend to me, the kindest man,
The best-condition’d and unwearied spirit.”
Bassanio’s explanation of Antonio’s qualitys repeatedly uses superlative language to demonstrate the extent of his affection for his friend.

Even when you’re confused about most of a Shakespeare play, writing about the things that are more clear to you than others gives you a sort of base you can use to build an understanding of more complicated parts of the play.With this, I’ve built myself a handy repertoire of techniques which will let me discuss the experience of Antonio and Bassanio’s deep friendship. It’s also another little visible product which shows there’s learning being done.

Having this kind of reference point will make you much more confident in developing your ideas!

Step 4: Research!

There’s a few ways to research Shakespeare’s plays, but a good first stop is YouTube.

There are plenty of videos online, both professional and amateur, detailed and surface-level, of Shakespeare analysis, often with valuable insights and handy visual cues.

I can recommend John Green’s CrashCourse series, for instance — his Hamlet analysis videos are great, for example.

Other great channels to check out are Authentic English, which does summaries alongside analysis, and Dr. Aidan, who does break-downs of the most important sections of the plays.

In terms of what you’re looking for, context is often key.

For instance, Richard IIII was characterised as a monster because he was the enemy of the ancestors of Queen Elizabeth. Details like these will help you develop a more holistic understanding of the play.

There’s also the academic literature written about Shakespeare. Now, academic criticism gets a bit of a bad rap, but it’s well worth pushing through the dense language.

Most of my students get nervous as soon as I mention it, but most, if not all, are grateful once they’ve read an article on their Shakespeare play that I’ve tracked down.

There’s a few reasons that reading academic criticism is great for bettering yourself as an English student, because criticism provides more context and analysis.

Plus, because you’re essentially reading somebody else’s analysis of the text you have to analyse, it’s a great tool to help you form the kind of original arguments that Band 6 students write!

Shakespeare has to be one of the most written-about writers of all time, so it’d be a bit of a waste to not enhance your knowledge of his plays with a look at what’s been said earlier. You can find critics on piece on sites like JSTOR, or even in your copy of the play!

Analysing Shakespeare is hard, and there’s no way to get around that.

However, you can make it a lot easier for yourself by planning out how you’re going to master whatever play you’ve been given, and putting in the effort to really think deeply about the plays.

While you may feel it’s absurd that you have to study texts written 400 years ago, but there are reasons why they’ve endured across time, and rewards if you rise up to the challenge.

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Cameron Croese completed his HSC in 2013, earning first place in his cohort in Advanced English, Extension English 1, and Extension English 2. Privately tutoring throughout his university career as an English and Education student, he enjoys helping his students at Art of Smart understand, write well on, and enjoy their texts, as well as assisting with other aspects of school life. He is a contributing editor to his student magazine, in which he has had reviews, feature articles, and short stories published.