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!

The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin

The Stepford WivesWhat is it about Ira Levin? How did he write things that seem so normal on the surface only to be downright chilling and horrific underneath?

Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew the story behind The Stepford Wives, either from seeing a TV show, or a movie, but I couldn’t remember the specifics. The story is short at only 150 pages so I read it in entirety last night and it’s been on my mind since.

Not only is the main theme scary (what is happening to women to make them such perfect housewives?), but the nuances to story hit the mark as well. As Joanna sees others in the supermarket with their groceries perfectly aligned as they shop, she too feels the desire to match what they are doing, and be like them. She is disgusted at their tendency to disparage all interests outside the home in exchange for having the perfect, clean, house… yet she feels inadequate when compared to them. If given enough time, Joanna would probably have become a perfect Stepford Wife all on her own, even without the antics of the men in the town – and that – is quite scary indeed.

I like that the details are not completely spelled out, but instead you are left to your imagination to figure out… just what happened to Joanna.

All in all, it’s a good quick read that is still relevant – and will be as long as the concept of a Stepford Wife is in use in our vocabulary!

The Stepford Wives is available on Kindle for a whopping $7.99 (at only 150 pages), or you can read it on Scribd. You can use this link to get a free two-month free trial to Scribd – and I highly recommend it!

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

Tell the Wolves I'm HomeI’m speechless. When a book is THIS good, I usually skip writing a review. For one thing, the reviews are already glowing off the charts, and the description on Amazon boasts a variety of awards and recommendations. What can I possibly add? But, I decided to share my thoughts anyway, just in case you’re in need of a good book to read today.

I went into this book blind, no knowledge of what it was about, or the reviews. I just started reading, and then, I couldn’t stop. I read Tell the Wolves I’m Home on my Kindle, but I’m eager to own it on paper, and read it again… and again… and again.

The main character is a young teen in the mid-80s and there are so many images this story brought back to mind. Some fun nostalgia, some painful memories. And the fear. I remember exactly where I was the day I first heard the word AIDS, and how I learned about it, and how it was presented in the news. I remember Ryan White.

Though I think this book may be enjoyed by anyone above the age of 13, I think there are some parts that will just wring your heart into a million pieces if you’re closer to my age or just a little older.

I don’t want to say much more than that so you can experience the story as the author intended. And even if you are younger, the story is a must-read, as it’s simply great on it’s own even if you didn’t live through that time.

Would you like this book? I’d recommended Tell the Wolves I’m Home for fans of Markus Zusak, Catherine Ryan Hyde, and those of us who came of age in the 80s.

There is no I in TEAM – Anthem by Ayn Rand

Anthem by Ayn RandPublished in 1938, Anthem by Ayn Rand was way ahead of it’s time. Of course, that’s likely the goal with a Dystopian novel, but apparently it wasn’t taken as a warning.

In a society where children are growing up without knowing what it means to lose (everyone wins!), books like this should still be read today. It is a bit odd to read a book where there is no “I” – even though it’s written from the first person point of view, as people are not individuals and being alone is against the law. Since there is no alone, there is no “I” only “we” and it’s a little too easy to read this as though Gollum from The Lord of the Rings wrote it. Yes… yes, we read it we did!

I still shudder at the workplace environments where open collaborative spaces are the norm and quiet places to do actual work are few and far between. Most Fortune 500 companies are inspired to: foster a creative work environment where the team can cohesively work together and drive innovation that will bring sustainable improvement to key-emerging technologies destined to be a game-changer.

Yeah. Read this book. It’s a quick short story that gives new meaning to justice and liberty for all.

Liked Coraline? Read Dust by Arthur Slade

Sometimes books listed as “for children” are really an “all ages” type of read – but the only way to find out, is to read them. Since I just read a book listed for ages 9-18 on Amazon, and loved it, I wanted to be sure to write a quick review. Because… I’m not 18 anymore…

Dust by Arthur SladeIf you’re in the mood for something that’s a quick read but has some serious creepiness, enough to make you want to keep turning the pages because you MUST find out what happens next, be sure to check out Dust by Arthur Slade. Part fantasy, part horror, it’s quite a unique story. Children go missing and an entire town is mesmerized… What has happened to the children, and why are people held captivated by the town newcomer? You’ll have to read to find out.

Then, if you want to continue reading more books that fit the same vibe, be sure to check out Coraline by Neil Gaiman, and Ashlyn’s Radio by Norah Wilson and Heather Doherty.

P.S. Isn’t that cover just awesome? I admit to purchasing this book because of the cover. See? Sometimes that choice pays off!

Ride the Roller Coaster of Madness: A Bipolar Life

It takes a certain level of sanity to know you are mentally ill, yet try to hide it from the world – and succeed. I just finished reading Madness: A Bipolar Life by Marya Hornbacher and I’m slowly coming back to reality. It was tough to put this book down and do anything else, it’s captivating, and quite frankly, mind-blowing. It’s difficult to imagine someone living this way, not only simply coping, but coming out on top and living a successful life. It is not a “how to be well” handbook, there are no answers here. But there is a journey well worth taking.

“I am silent. I do not exist. I am merely a pair of eyes, looking around the room. The rest of me is invisible. I won’t be visible again until someone sees me. If a woman stands in her kitchen rubbing her eyes and pouring coffee with no one there to see her, does she exist?”

MadnessMarya Hornbacher has managed to squash Anorexia, Bulimia, Alcoholism, and seems to be finding a way to live with what sounds like, fairly severe Bipolar disorder. Her descriptions of the rapid-cycling between hypermania and depression left me with a very clear understanding of what it would be like to face these obstacles, and a much better understanding (and empathy) for being mentally ill.

During the years her biopolar was misdiagnosed – then the years she fought the diagnosis, she led a somewhat functional life. Rather, it was highly dysfunctional but she accomplished some amazing things. Her book “Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia” was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1998 – all while being shuffled in and out of the psych ward (and associated reality).

“You wake up one morning and there it is, sitting in an old plaid bathrobe in your kitchen, unpleasant and unshaved. You look at it, heart sinking. Madness is a rotten guest.”

Marya used both food and alcohol to try to manage her moods and mind, and it’s unfortunate it took so long for her to receive appropriate help with each of these areas (eating disorder, alcoholism, and then finally, her biopolar). I learned, the longer bipolar goes undiagnosed, the more severe it will get (and the more frequently swings will occur). Since bipolar is often diagnosed as something else first, the patient is at risk.

Marya Hornbacher is a beautiful writer. As a lover of words, she has an amazing way with them. This book will likely be one of my favorite reads for this year – and it’s only January!

Madness: A Bipolar Life is of course available on Amazon, and also on Scribd.

A Snapshot of my Reading Life: January 2015

ReadingThis week I’ve been working my way through reading the biography, Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. It’s a tough read for me – not because of writing style, but simply because Steve Jobs was such an absolute jerk. And I’m being polite. He was really awful to so many people, for that reason, I’d rather not read this book. However, the history of Apple and of personal computers is interesting to me, so I’m reading it – I just have to keep taking breaks. And in those reading breaks today I discovered:

  • The complete works of H.P. Lovecraft, for free, online. Sadly, prior to today, I had never read anything by Lovecraft, and I see that as a huge gaping hole in my reading life. I remedied this today by reading The Tomb (published 1917) and was astonished! It’s a page turner, and not at all what I was expecting. I shall be reading more of Lovecraft soon, as I now have his entire collection on my Kindle.
  • The blog “101 Books,” by one very determined reader to read (and review) his way through Time’s 100 Greatest Novels (plus Ulysses). Many of the books on that list are ones I have been planning to read, and his reviews are excellent. In fact, I discovered this blog today while attempting to find any other lost souls who are also bored by Virginia Woolf. I tried to read To the Lighthouse. I did. I really, really did. However, I am done trying now, and I appreciate Robert Bruce’s honesty about what he thinks about Virginia Woolf (thank you, you kind soul sir). Anyway, I have bookmarked his list of reviews and plan to read more of them, they are quite enjoyable.
  • A Knowledge Junky’s Heaven in Open Culture – the best free cultural and educational media on the web. I knew about this site, but for some reason, forgot about it. Talk about a tragedy. I spent over an hour browsing the various goodies found here and all I can say is, be sure to make sure you have time before you visit. One of my favorite finds from today was the Commonsense Composition textbook from CK-12, but there are endless treasures to be enjoyed on Open Culture.

Are any of you as tired and cold as I am? I’m ready for Spring now. Any day now.