Surviving a Shakespearean College Course

Last semester I had the pleasant horror of taking a Shakespeare course. Let me just tell you that I would not wish the displeasure on my worst enemy…well maybe I would… Many people would read the staple Shakespeare plays, A Midsummer’s Night Dream or Romeo & Juliet or even Hamlet in High School and take about the use of fairies and ghosts and whether or not you think that Hamlet was crazy or something along the lines. Or, how Romeo and Juliet were star-cross lovers and they did what they did because they felt that they had to in the name of love. But, none of that prepares you for what they talk about in college. Now, I had my fair share of Shakespeare in the past prior to this class; high school with Romeo & Juliet and A Midsummer’s Night Dream, and also I read Hamlet and Macbeth for my English Lit class when I was at Harford. So, when I signed up for an upper-level Shakespeare course to finish up my English minor I was thinking that it was no big deal, especially since I opted for the less complicated Shakespearean Comedy class. Boy was I wrong, very wrong! First of all understanding Shakespeare’s language is a job in itself, but to grasp it quickly and understand it fully for tests was a nightmare and took most of the semester. And like I said before I do not want to wish that on anymore. So I would like to help out those who have to pain through the world of Shakespeare for the semesters coming up. 

Survival Guide

What you would need:

  • LOTS of Highlighters
  • The individual plays that you would be studying for the semester
  • A clear schedule for the duration of the semester
  • Spark notes to the plays that you would be studying (HOWEVER DO NOT JUST GET THE HAVE NO FEAR ONES)
  • A notebook
  • Pens (that’s goes without saying)


  1. Breathe and remember that it is just a play; no harm has come from reading a book before. So relax. But also remember that these plays were meant to be seen not just plainly read. So you have to take all the stage directions in account and rely on your imagination fully to help you comprehend.
  2. To make it easier buy the individual hard, not electric, copies of the plays instead of an anthology of his work. I know that the anthology would be more cost effective, especially when you are reading more than one play in the semester but there is a method to my madness. First, you would need to bring it to class every class. And I don’t know about anyone else but I would rather carry a little light book rather than a heavy anthology to class. Especially when you have more than one class that day. Secondly, with the individual plays the writing is bigger and there is room for you to take legible notes next to passages. And trust me…YOU WANT TO TAKE NOTES. That is also, why I suggest you buy the hard copy instead of an EBook. It’s hard to take notes one EBooks.
  3. Which sort of leads to the next thing. USE SparkNotes. I know that you may be worrying that your professors might not approve of it. But it’s there to help you understand classics better. And as long as you are not using it for dishonest reasons there is no reason for you not to use it. Hell, my professor recommended us to use it. On SparkNotes it has summaries of all the Acts and Scenes within the plays if you miss something or read it and just did not know what the hell he was talking about, which I wondered a lot. But, I would still have you read, or attempt to read, the play itself as well.  DO NOT RELY SOLELY ON SPARKNOTES FOR THE JEST OF THE PLAY.
  4. While you are reading the plays highlight important information that has to do with the plot or theme or whatever you might feel is important. Take notes in the margins to what might have confused you. Something that relates to another thing in the play. Or finding example of theme or even comparing the plots and connecting it to previous plays that you might have read. During class, write everything that you can in the margins. Ask questions to what confused you. Underline or highlight important passages. By the end of the semester your books should be all marked up.
  5. Clear you schedule. For the next 15 or so weeks Shakespeare is the only thing that you would have time for I’m sorry to say.  For my class we had to read eight different plays and we had four small papers and one big research paper we had to do on top of all my other work for my other classes. I felt like every night I was reading Shakespeare or doing something Shakespeare related.
  6. Make it relatable to something that you already are familiar with. I know you may be wondering… How would I possibly do that when this stuff was written 400 years ago. And one word MOVIES. There are many movies that are loosely based on his plays. And you could get an idea of what they are talking about. For example, the Lion King is like Hamlet, She’s the Man is based off of Twelfth Night (even the names are the same), 10 Things I Hate About You is based off of The Taming of the Shrew (like in Twelfth Night the names and this time the whole plot is the same), Shakespeare in Love is of how Romeo and Juliet came about and ending with Twelfth Night being started, ect.

Things that they won’t tell you about Shakespeare:

  • In all his plays there is a sense of “getting what you deserve” within them.
  • Play formula:
    • Act 1-3 character/plot building (very slow and where most of the information is and the themes are developed. The most boring part of reading happens but also where all the important stuff is.)
    • Act 4-5 Climax (Where all the action is)/ Fast conclusion (ending seems rushed and forced)
  • By the end of the semester basically all the plays that you have read will mush together into one big play. (I’m not kidding, for my final all the plays were so similar I could not decipher one from the other….sad I know.)

I would have to say though reading Shakespeare makes you think differently and really helps you in the long run. It makes you think outside the box and beyond what is written. It helps you see things as you would have thought to see them before and that is something that you can use in your other classes. So I wish you luck with your semester full of Shakespeare. And I hope that this blog helps you!!


One thought on “Surviving a Shakespearean College Course

  1. Pingback: School Ties | WWW.DBESTREVIEW.COM

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