How to Study Shakespeare: DIY Romeo and Juliet

Recently I read a book that had a profound affect on me – Shakespeare Saved My Life by Laura Bates. It’s a phenomenal book that immediately inspired me to dive into the words of Shakespeare and see if I could make sense of things. I mean, let’s face it, reading Shakespeare is intimidating.

I hadn’t looked at any Shakespearean plays in several decades, but this has been something I’ve “been meaning to do” for quite a while. You know, “someday.” It’s just that someday has taken me a very long time, because it’s hard to know where to go and how to start. The plays are PLAYS. They are scripts. It really doesn’t sound like fun to read a script but the book Shakespeare Saved My Life made it clear that there is so much more beyond the words in the scripts that I really needed to find some way to break the code. I think I’ve found some cool methods so I decided to go ahead and share what I’m doing for anyone else interested, or for my future self who wants to do this again and can’t remember what I did. Future self: take note.

Of course, the first step was to ask Google, What is the best way to study Shakespeare? –  and that kick started my journey. Thanks to my research results, I had a few stepping stones directing me, not only where to begin, but how.

Online Course

Through my research I found that I wouldn’t have to do this completely on my own. There is a great FREE online course that covers 6 of Shakespeare’s plays, kicking things off with Romeo and Juliet. Interested? The course is called Shakespeare: On the Page and in Performance and you can check it out here.

The course is the real deal – it’s a 12-week course that allows you to be a fly on the wall at Wellesley College, while English Professor Yu Jin Ko teaches. The class was filmed a few years ago so as online students, we get to take this “12-week course” on our own time frame, at our own pace. And the best part? No term papers! At least for the online audience…

Get the Play with Analysis

Once signed up for the online course, I watched a few of the introductory videos, then ordered a book from Amazon that includes the play, along with literary analysis. After a LOT of research, I decided to go with Romeo and Juliet: Shakespeare Made Clear – I love the analysis so much I am very disappointed they do not have editions of every play!

With the book safely on it’s way from Amazon, I decided it was time to watch a movie version of Romeo and Juliet. Plays are not novels, they are meant to be performed, and watched. A movie is a great way to get started when learning about a play! For some reason, the 1968 version that traumatized me in high school is still recommended as the “Go To” Romeo and Juliet. I don’t understand the sentiment behind these recommendations. That movie is… terrible.

Watch a Movie

For a movie, there aren’t many options, but even so, the 1996 version directed by Baz Luhrman (staring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes) is excellent and I highly recommend it. The story is true to the original, complete with Shakespearean language, yet the setting is modern and the filming and directing help make the story clear to a modern day audience. Some critics of this film dislike Luhrman’s choice of using guns instead of swords and daggers, but today’s audience doesn’t have an emotional response to swords – we do however, to guns. Anyway, after watching the movie I felt it was time to dig in to the words on the page.

This is the part where having the proper edition of a play, with analysis that works for you, is very helpful. Even though I like the edition of analysis I purchased, I still wanted to supplement my text as much as possible to make this read-through very strong. Next up, study guides!

Read Some Study Guides

GradeSaver is an excellent site, and has a ton of free content. I bookmarked the GradeSaver Romeo and Juliet Study Guide on my iPad and read through the beginning material up to the point where the play begins. Then, I switched to reading my book and would read an Act through to completion, then switch to reading the analytical information provided from GradeSaver. About half way through the play, I added another analytical text to the mix – CliffsNotes! And would you believe, CliffsNotes are fully available online for free too?! So yes, CliffsNotes Romeo and Juliet got a bookmark from me too.

At this point, I almost felt like I didn’t even need the online course! That is, until I actually started the lectures. I’m learning an amazing amount from Professor Ko! He’s a great professor and very well suited for online students. His enthusiasm makes it feel like you’re actually attending a class, not just watching a lecture. In fact, I’m quite jealous of the students who get to attend his classes in person.

I’ve spent about two full weeks on Romeo and Juliet: watched a movie, read a book, some literary analysis, and watched a few lectures – yet I feel like I’ve spent 3 months on this play. And, at the same time, I feel like I could spend 3 more months studying Romeo and Juliet.

🚦Ding! Ding!

This week I had one of those, “Ah Ha” moments. I GET IT. Now I understand why people love to re-read the plays over and over again. There is so much depth to plays, much more so than you get from simply reading them or watching them performed. It takes studying the characters, their motivations, the language – so many words used by Shakespeare have double meanings that can allow an entire phrase to be interpreted in multiple ways. The deeper you dig, the more meaning you find.

So, where do I stand with all this now? For one thing, the book Shakespeare Saved My Life has most definitely changed my life. I was motivated enough to learn how to do this, got my husband involved (we are going through this together), experienced myself transition from hating Romeo and Juliet to, dare I say, loving it. And this is just the first play! 

There are 5 more plays in the online course and after that I expect to continue because I think I may just be addicted to Shakespeare now.

I really didn’t see this coming.

Bonus Content

If you’ve read this far, you may find these links interesting.

Youtube Videos – Think of these as having a guest lecturer! There is a surprising amount of literary analysis on Youtube, here are some of my favorites (so far):

Online Study Guides for Romeo and Juliet – these are all free!

Mobile Apps

  • Shakespeare in Bits (awesome on the iPad) – has the play, audio, animations, and analysis – for the entire play. It’s like a book, movie and study guide all rolled into one. It’s pricey for an app, but considering what it contains, it’s well worth the price.
  • Folger Luminary Shakespeare Apps – includes text, audio, analysis and essays. Professor Ko has contributed his knowledge to this app (along with many other Shakespeare scholars).

Why so many extra sources? Well, I think that is part of the beauty of Shakespeare. There are so many different ways you can view a passage, a scene, a theme – that the more people you encounter and learn from – the deeper your knowledge can become.

I think that about covers it. Two weeks ago I admitted that I really hated Romeo and Juliet, and it took about a full week into this intense study for me to realize how much my thoughts have transitioned. If you read this entire post, thank you, and, I’m sorry it was so long. I hope this helps any of you would like to journey down this path, it’s quite fun!

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