Why Shakespeare is hard to read

Near the end of her course on classical mythology, Elizabeth Vandiver speculates on why people find Shakespeare hard to read. She says that, contrary to popular opinion, the difficulty is not the language per se. Elizabethan English is not that foreign to modern readers. The difficulty in reading Shakespeare comes from the literary allusions, particularly the allusions to classical mythology.

Her explanation matches my experience. I can easily read the King James version of the Bible, produced during Shakespeare’s lifetime, but I find it hard to slog through Shakespeare. (To be fair, I must say I grew up with far more exposure to the King James Bible than to Shakespeare.)

Vandiver when on to say that the primary source of classical mythology for Shakespeare and his audience was Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Studying this one book would make the Bard much more approachable.

9 thoughts on “Why Shakespeare is hard to read

  1. I think the Bard is accessible if given time and good teachers. I had a lot of Shakespeare, first in high school. Then, when I cut a deal with my dean on reducing the number of liberal arts courses I had to take in favor of more science and math, he demanded I take two course, such as history and literature. On the history I opted for American, which was two semesters of a fun experience. For the literature I opted for “Honors” Shakespeare, a.k.a., Shakespeare for English majors. That was actually a lot of fun, with a great professor. I have a Pelican complete. I’ve annotated/mutilated it (in fountain pen, no less) with hundreds of notes from the late Rene Fortin. Sure, he emphasized a Christian take on things, less classical. It was at a Dominican college, after all (Providence College, Providence, RI), but surely the Bard had a lot of New Testament to which to refer.

  2. The allusions may be a small part of the difficulty, but I don’t buy that it’s most or even a large part of it. Look at Hamlet’s famous soliloquy. Unless I am far more ignorant of the Bible & ancients than I would’ve credited myself as being, there’s not a single classical allusion (aside from a generic ‘Nymph’ in one version) in that speech, yet it’s still much more difficult to read & understand than the KJV.

    Shakespeare uses a now-difficult vocabulary and prefers to express things in a contorted way; nothing to do with Ovid. If he wants to, he can write as clear as anybody even when dealing with classical subjects (consider Mark Antony’s funereal oration).

  3. As I understand it, Shakespeare is not just Elizabethan English – it is quite literally a new genre entirely: Shakespearean. Sure, they used Elizabethan English at the time. But Shakespeare also invented his own words, on top of writing poetically and deliberately embedding metaphor atop of metaphor. No one actually spoke like they do in Shakespeare’s plays.

    So they say, anyway. Im not too impressed with Shakespeare. Or any other “older” literary work we as students are supposed to dissect in today’s world. I always thought, if I wrote horribly my own novel – got no ones attention – in five hundred years students of the day might be dissecting my own work. The only obstacle for which me and Shakespeare are different is that in todays world I have a lot of competition. Any two year old can get published.

    I could write with no depth whatsoever but someone, someday, of the professor-sort, will be grading their students on their interpretation of my depth, a depth I know today I didnt intend. There will be entire books devoted to scholarly discussions and essays about my work. I find it annoying, actually, that teachers could believe there is more depth than there might actually have been. Because there is no way to verify by asking good ol’ Will.

    I have written short stories for classes, and classmates make all sorts of outrageous comments about subtle meaning and whatnot that I know full well I had no part in. My intended depth had in fact fallen on deaf ears. When youre as poetic and vague as Shakespeare, anyone with an imagination can put their own interpretive spin on anything.

  4. Allusions to ancient myths is why one can think Pouchkine difficult to read, esp. “Eugeny Onegin”. For our education suggests knowing no things Pouchkine’s one used to suggest. Still Pouchkine and Shakespeare did the same thing and that was language we talk now in Russia and world-wide resp. Shakespearean language is the beautifulest English I ever come across.

  5. Is Shakespeare really harder to read than other old books? Does anyone think Milton or Spenser are easy? I suspect any churchgoing kid gets more exposure to the KJV’s style (even if the particular church doesn’t use the KJV directly, its words and cadence appear in various other places) than he does to Shakespeare in English class, which offers an alternative explanation for your experience.

    And what about spoken Shakespeare? Branagh’s Henry V or Much Ado are true to the original Shakespearean language, but there is nothing hard to understand about them at all. That would seem to cast doubt on Vandiver’s argument.

    On the other hand, anecdotally that theory would explain why my teen-age daughter likes Shakespeare so much–she likes mythology even more.

  6. KJB was written in formal English, or so I understand. Much of Shakespeare was in the gutter slang of the day, most of which is lost to all but Shakespearean scholars. I don’t quite see how those are comparable.

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