|The Cobbe Portrait of Shakespeare |
With a Dictionary
Although I don’t find Shakespeare's work difficult to understand now, there was a time when I found some of those beautiful verses challenging at best and incomprehensible at worst. So, what’s the answer to this problem?
How to Understand Shakespeare
Well, in my opinion, the solution is a simple one. If you’re reading Shakespeare and have difficulty understanding it, stop reading Shakespeare. Let’s face it, none of it was ever intended to be read anyway. No, instead, it was written to be performed and to be watched.
So, as far as I'm concerned, the best route to understanding Shakespeare is to enjoy it as it was intended to be enjoyed: as a play, not as a book. And, thankfully, with numerous film and television versions of many of Shakespeare’s plays - finding a DVD of Hamlet, Macbeth, Twelfth Night or A Midsummer Night’s Dream is relatively easy.
Words, Words, Words
Now, with all that in mind, I’m aware that there are still some of Shakespeare’s words that are difficult to understand, because they are archaic and no longer in common usage. You may be able to glean the general meaning of a passage of dialogue, but there are still some words that seem completely alien to many people.
I think, getting to grips with these pesky words can make a drastic difference to the way you view Shakespeare’s work. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem quite so incomprehensible anymore. For example:
Avaunt: Used in many of Shakespeare’s works, ‘avaunt’ quite literally means “get lost” or, to put it slightly more politely, “go away”. Although, I think Macbeth (in the quote below) is going for the former.
"Avaunt, and quit my sight!" Macbeth (III.iv)
Belike: Again a pretty commonly used word for Shakespeare, but rarely heard or seen anywhere else. ‘Belike’ is used to describe something that might happen. Therefore, it simply means “probably”.
"Belike you thought our love would last too long, if it were chain'd together." The Comedy of Errors (IV.i)
|"I Kissed The Ere I Killed Thee..." |
Othello in Desdemona's Bedchamber (1803)
Ere: Pronounced “air” rather than “ear” or “err”, ‘ere’ means “before” or “sooner than”. In Othello’s case, below, it’s being used in place of “before.”
"I kissed thee ere I killed thee" Othello (V.ii)
Incidentally, if you want to know the difference between ‘thou’ and ‘thee’, you can find out here.
Fie: Now, most commonly associated with Jack and The Beanstalk, ‘fie’ is an expression of disbelief or disagreement. A modern equivalent could be, “Rubbish!” or “You’re talking crap!” whichever takes your fancy. So, when Salarino suggests that Antonio’s melancholy is caused by love, Antonio leaves us under no doubt about his opinion of that theory…
"Fie, fie!" The Merchant of Venice (I.i)
Hie: Quite simply, ‘hie’ means “quickly” or, more specifically, to move quickly or encourage someone else to do so. As demonstrated by Olivia’s insistence that Malvolio get a wiggle on…
"Hie thee, Malvolio!" Twelfth Night (I.v)
If you’d like to get to grips with more archaic Shakespearean words, check out What’s It All About Shakespeare? An Introduction to The Bard of Avon - available from Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com and European Amazon sites.