My middle grader needs to read Romeo and Juliet next fall. It is so HARD to understand. How can I help?

Reading Shakespeare is reading a foreign language to 21st Century English speaking people who struggle with 400 years of changes in pronunciation, meaning, and even the existence of many words.

Reading a children’s version of a classic can help establish the main ideas and character relationships.

Even so, educated English-speaking people are expected to know Shakespeare.  Words from his plays are quoted or alluded to more often than anything except the Bible in Western literature.  Shakespeare is to the English language what Lincoln is to American democracy.

So how can you help a student to read Shakespeare?

  • Buy your son his own copy of Romeo and Juliet so he can write in it. The No Fear Shakespeare series which prints the original Shakespearean version on the left and a modern paraphrasing on the right, is good.  So are other annotated versions.
  • Keep and annotate a list of characters which your son can use as a bookmark. Shakespeare populates his plays with many characters.  List Romeo and his friends, for example, and identify them (hot-tempered, funny, talks in puns, or mixes up words).
  • Read Shakespeare as you would read poetry, with pauses at punctuation, not at the ends of lines. Shakespeare wrote in verse.  Some of the lines end with a period or comma, and you should pause there.  But many lines end without punctuation and should be read without a pause until the next punctuation mark, usually in the next line.  Reading this way will help with understanding.
  • Rewrite the words in normal word order if they don’t make sense the way they are written. In English, we usually have a subject–verb-direct object word order.  But Shakespeare sometimes uses a direct object-verb-subject word order.  “Never was seen so black a day as this:” (Romeo and Juliet, IV, v) puts the verb before the subject.  The quote makes more sense if you read it as “No one has ever seen a day as black as this.”   If there is not room in the margin, rewrite on tiny post-it notes.
  • Supply missing words. Just as we leave out words today (Haven’t seen y’in a while), so did Shakespeare.  Since his original audiences left out or shortened the same words he did, there was no problem to understand what he meant then.  But now, 400 years later, you need to write in the missing words or parts of words. Shakespeare contracted words to keep the meter of the verses and because his generation used those contractions.
  • Identify pronoun antecedents. Identifying who or what the pronouns refer to helps with understanding.  If your son owns the copy of the play he is reading, he can draw arrows to show relationships.  Or you can highlight using matching markers.  Take, for example, this quote from Romeo and Juliet (the boldface is mine):

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art more fair than she:

“It” refers back to light.  “Who” refers to the moon.  “Thou” refers to Juliet.  Both “her” and “she” refer to the moon.  Drawing arrows helps.

  • Paraphrase confusing verses. The above quotation can be rewritten as, “But wait.  What is that light starting to come through the window from the east?  That light is Juliet, the sun.  Rise up, beautiful sun, and overshadow the envious moon which is already growing dim. The moon realizes that you, Juliet, are more beautiful than it is.”  Not as elegant as Shakespeare’s words, for sure, but the rewrite in modern English is easier to understand.
  • Figure out metaphors. Shakespeare used lots of them.  Encourage your son to write them in the margins of his book.
  • Identify allusions. Just as authors today refer to Shakespeare, Shakespeare referred to the Bible, to British history and to ancient Greek and Roman myths.  Again, annotate.
  • Untangle wordplay. Shakespeare delights in puns and words with double meanings, especially words whose secondary meanings are sexual.  Some children need help understanding the secondary meanings.  Write the meanings in the margins.
  • Use a dictionary to look up unfamiliar words. Even though almost all of Shakespeare’s words are still in use today, some are not, or their meanings have changed over the centuries.  In dictionaries, such meanings might be listed as archaic.  A long list of such words can be found at shakespearehigh.com
  • Reread some parts several times. Once your son has analyzed words, phrases and verses, another reading will make more sense.  And if he reads aloud, the play will make even more sense.
  • Watch a good film or stage play after you have analyzed the written play. Even then it might take some getting used to the British accents (if it is a BBC production) and to the unfamiliar word patterns.  But Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be acted out, not read on a page, and will come to life when acted.

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