The language used in Shakespeare's plays is obviously quite different to our modern usage. Typical of Elizabethan times, the dialogue used would have accurately reflected everyday language, though used in a more poetic and lyrical style. It is important to realize that the majority of the audience was illiterate and poor, therefore Shakespeare is not intended to be an exclusive form of 'high art'. His plays were enjoyed by people from the lowest to the highest echelons of society. Initially, Shakespearean language can be a little hard to grasp. Keep in mind though that this was destined to be performed and not judged as a literary contribution. When spoken on stage, much expression and action aids in determining the meaning of what is said. The language is a visual one where every word and phrase creates an image for the reader to understand the concept. Once you gain the knack of understanding Shakespeare it appears before you as a language rich with imagery and poetics.
Middle English language can be discouraging for some and you'll find students who will get too bogged down trying to understand one word rather than looking at a section as a whole. It will help if they recognize that (not strictly but generally) the dialogue flows on a continuum where each thought is linked to the last and the next. In soliloquies it can be found that the first line will give an indication as to what thought the character will explore in the passage. Within the final lines is usually the conclusion they come to. Also, when studying a play encourage students to read the
play first to get the general story line then a second time to look deeper into characters' motives, themes or another element of the play that is being studied. Trying to grasp this thoroughly in one reading is difficult.
Have students select a soliloquy (a monologue that expresses a characters thoughts eg Hamlet's ‘To be or not to be…' [III.i.56-61]) and in groups of 2-4 determine what thought the character explores (hint: look at the first lines). Ensure they discuss what ideas are held in the passage and the conclusion made by the character. Then one student takes on the role and under the direction of the others, act the part in a way that might suit.
Sometimes, we are able to quote famous lines without even knowing what they mean. This can lead to inappropriate emphasis, overall confusion and boredom. For this reason, it is essential that one becomes acquainted with the language of Shakespeare and the meanings that lay behind what is being said.
Assign each group with a different quote, and ask them to discuss the meaning behind their quote. Ask them also to determine a series of a few movements that could symbolise what their quote means. Then run all movements in the order of the play.
Some of Hamlet's most famous quotes reveal much of what is happening in the play. Here are some examples:
Queen: "Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted colour off,
And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.
Do not for ever with thy veiled lids
Seek for thy noble father in the dust:
Thou know'st ‘t is common; all that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity." (I.ii)
Rough Translation: "Stop looking so dismal. Look at Claudius (Denmark) as a friend. Everyone must die, accept this."
Hamlet: "Heaven and earth!
Must I remember? Why, she would hang on him,
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on; and yet, within a month,
Let me not think on't: Frailty, thy name is woman!" (I.ii)
Rough Translation: "Bloody Hell. I remember how in love with my father she was. It has only been a month and look-remarried! Women are imperfect."
Laertes: "He may not, as unvalued persons do,
Carve for himself, for on his choices depends
The safety and the health of the whole state;
And therefore must his choice be circumscribed"(I.iii)
Rough Translation: "He can't make his own decisions because his choices decide the fate of Denmark"
Ghost: "The serpent that did sting thy father's life
Now wears his crown" (I.v.)
Rough Translation: "Claudius killed me and wears my crown."
Hamlet: "Oh cursed spite!
That ever I was born to set it right" (I.v.187-188)
Rough Translation: "Damn, why does it have to be me to sort this out."
Hamlet: "The play's the thing,
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king" (II.ii.606-07).
Rough Translation: "This play will make the king feel guilty and expose him."
Hamlet: "To be or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ‘t is nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more:" (III.i.56-61)
"To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the Rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause."(III.i.65-69)
Rough Translation: "Should I live or die. Is it nobler to live through this torturous world or is it better to kill myself. If I kill myself what happens next? There's the catch, what could happen next must make us think twice."
Hamlet: "A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath
fed of that worm" (IV.iii.17-29).
Rough Translation: "We are all alike in death- we are all worm food."
Horatio: "Good night, sweet Prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest" (V.ii.)
Rough Translation: "Goodbye Hamlet, may angels care for you in death".
Take a piece from Hamlet (one of the more humorous scenes would probably be fun) and get the students in groups to transform the language in to modern tongue.