Learning English with Shakespeare (celebrating the anniversary of his birth and death)

If you are a learner of English you may think that reading Shakespeare is something you do when you have acquired a very high level in the language.  This is not the case.  It is possible to read and enjoy Shakespeare from a relatively low level.  In fact, like any text, Shakespeare’s writing can be used to help learn English.  Here’s how:

  1. Poetical language is composed of metaphorical and figurative language. This means that the central message of the language is presented in a rhetorical manner, designed to provoke an emotional reaction or an appreciation of its artistic value.  Because of this we can treat Shakespeare’s writing like a puzzle to decipher.  For example, here is the beginning of a famous speech from Much Ado About Nothing:

All the world’s a stage / And all the men and women merely players


The verse talks about ‘a stage’ and ‘players’ (actors), but from the context and comparison made to the ‘world’ and ‘men and women’ we know that the stage is a metaphor for the world and our lives on it.  We can then assume that the speaker’s attitude is negative or fatalistic and that he thinks that reality is a kind of pretense and not ‘real’ at all.

What we have done here is use our reading skills to analyse a short text.  The text is not complicated but we have to apply our critical thinking to solving the metaphorical puzzle it represents.

  1. An extension of this process is to paraphrase what Shakespeare says in a simple, non-metaphorical way. Our example from Much Ado About Nothing could be paraphrased like this:

Our lives are not real.

This is a simplified version of the original language.  However, our reading of the original may help us detect more possibilities for meaning in the text.  For example:

Our lives are not real, or they are real but unimportant

in a larger context.  Perhaps, the stage metaphor indicates

that we are directed by a higher force and have no real

control over our lives.



So, in this case our simplified version of Shakespeare’s language is suddenly longer than the original as we are ‘unpacking’ some of the meaning hidden in the original text.  Here we are practicing productive, writing skills and using our imaginations to give us a real reason to write.  If you are with other people (perhaps in a language class) another stage in the process before writing would be discussing your analysis with them.

Let’s have a quick practice of the process of analytical reading and identifying a short paraphrase.  Look at the table below and match up the famous quotes from Shakespeare plays to their paraphrases.  The answers are at the end of this article:



1. “To be, or not to be, that is the question” Hamlet a. Love is tough!
2. “Neither a borrower nor a lender be; For loan oft loses both itself and friend, and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry” Hamlet b. People become important in different ways.
3. “This above all: to thine own self be true” Hamlet c. It hurts when your child turns against you.
4. “The course of true love never did run smooth”  A Midsummer Night’s Dream d. Names change nothing.
5. “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”  The Merchant of Venice e. Appearances can be deceiving.
6. “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!” King Lear f. Keep and spend your own money only.
7. “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em” Twelfth Night g. Clever people know there is a lot still to learn.  Stupid people think they know everything.
8. “All that glisters is not gold” The Merchant of Venice h. We are just the same as you!
9. “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Romeo and Juliet i. Shall I kill myself?!
10. “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool” As You Like It j. Be yourself

You will have noticed that the exercise really makes you think about meaning.  You may also look at the paraphrases in the second column and think they are not quite right, or they don’t say enough.  In that case it would be a very effective exercise for you to write your own paraphrase or extended analysis!

  1. The third way we can use this language to learn is by analysing the language itself that Shakespeare used. You may think that this language is antiquated and strange.  However, much of the language he uses is the same as we use today, indeed in many cases the things we say today come directly from Shakespeare’s use of language.  In any case, a good dictionary will help us detect any language which is not in modern use and a printed play with notes will interpret many difficult words for us.

To return to our example from Much Ado About Nothing, what stands out for me is the use of ‘all the…’ before a noun to indicate totality, as in this English expression ‘I wouldn’t do that for all the tea in China’.  Also the use of the word ‘merely’ as a more formal synonym of the adverb ‘just’.

From the examples in the table I might pick out some idioms which are as useful today as they were 400 years ago:

                                               ‘dull the edge’ of a knife, for example

                                               ‘run smooth’: a problem-free process, perhaps

Or the vocabulary doubles from Shylock’s famous speech in The Merchant of Venice:

                                                ‘Prick … bleed’

                                                ‘Tickle … laugh’

                                                ‘poison … die’

The point is that these are extremely rich texts which can be analysed to help our language development at the same time as we are enjoying some of the greatest writing in the English language.  The key is to not be intimidated by a reputation for ‘difficult’ English and to be ready to think critically about what we are reading.

Although, as I have argued, Shakespeare is more accessible than you might think, as with anything it is a good idea to start small.  Shakespeare’s famous soliloquys (monologues) are a good place to start.  Here is one of my favourites from Macbeth.  Again, it is a little ‘negative’ in tone, but that is when I think Shakespeare is at his strongest!

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.


You will notice the echoes from the text from Much Ado about Nothing about the ‘stage’, but here are a few other themes to think about in relation to the text:







If you have not already tried reading Shakespeare I hope this article inspires you to do so.  In many ways Shakepeare’s best writing represents the cradle of modern English, and its value culturally and linguistically is hard to calculate.  At the same time it is a really rewarding reading experience which can be accessed easily and in small quantities at a time.  Shakespeare, and good poetry in general, represents an opportunity to learn which would be a shame to miss.  As Brutus said in Julius Caesar using a sailing metaphor:

And we must take the current when it serves

Or lose our ventures.

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