How to Analyze the Plays of William Shakespeare
Shakespeare's vast body of work and enormous cast of characters make his plays popular for analysis and interpretation. While it is easy to find interesting characters, scenes and story lines in Shakespeare's plays, figuring out exactly how to analyze these elements can prove challenge to students and general readers. Despite the difficulties, analysis of Shakespeare's plays can provide readers with a richer understanding of his plays and the timeless themes he addresses in his writing
Read your chosen play in a well-annotated version of the text. The play "Hamlet" remains one of Shakespeare's most famous works and one that exists in numerous annotated versions. Annotations are explanatory notes that provide background on individual terms, historical references and other elements of the story that aid readers' understanding of the text. Much of Shakespeare, as much of the language is archaic and unfamiliar to contemporary readers (Source #1).
Consult a plot synopsis of the play as well as the play in its original form. Several print and online resources exist that include detailed summaries of Shakespeare's plots (www.shakespeare-online.com/plots). Using a plot synopsis of each scene helps you focus on the language of the play without struggling to understand the plot at the same time.
Evaluate the genre of the play. Is the play a tragedy, comedy or history? Does it mix elements of different genres? If so, what effect does this have on the narrative? How closely does the play follow traditional definitions of these genres, and how does the genre determine the ways in which the play's action unfolds? Be aware of genre conventions and how the play corresponds to or diverges from them.
Examine the characters. Describe the key characteristics of each main character and what part they play in the text. By considering the main characters, you can better understand how the conflicts in the play arise from the relationships between characters.
Determine the major conflicts of the play. Which characters are at odds and why? What emotions, ethical questions or moral concerns drive the conflict? How do the characters feel about them? By identifying the conflicts, you can use them to further explore the broader issues of the play.
Review common critical perspectives for ways to approach Shakespeare. Although dozens of critical perspectives exist to choose from, a few common ones might be useful in your analysis of a Shakespeare play. Critical perspectives such as psychoanalytical criticism, which focuses on the Freudian psychological reading of a character or story, feminist or gender-based criticism, which addresses the ways in which men and women interact and the assumptions made about them, Marxist criticism (which focuses on economic issues and how they affect behavior) and cultural criticism, which uses popular culture of the time the text was created to analyze the play's meaning are all popular perspectives you can take to better understand the play. Although you do not have to strictly adhere to any particular critical method, they can offer interesting ideas for starting your analysis.
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