The ides of July are upon us, and that means the next best thing to summer reading — summer Shakespeare! Across county stages, players are speaking the speech, holding a mirror up to nature with comedies and tragedies alike. But what if the Bard’s language doesn’t come trippingly to your tongue, or your ear? Here’s how to avoid an evening of inexplicable dumb-shows and noise.
Don’t freak out
It usually takes 10 to 15 minutes for your ear to settle into the rhythm of the language. In the meantime, enjoy the scenery and costumes, try to pay attention to names, and refer to your handy plot summary. See below.
You can handle iambic pentameter
You won’t hear the line breaks on stage, but you will feel the lilting heartbeat of Shakespeare’s poetry. Each line is composed of five iambs, a unit composed of one stressed and one unstressed syllable: “a-NON.” But achieving that melodic rise and fall naturally is tricky, so allowances had to be made.
Shakespeare was educated in Latin, a language where meaning doesn’t depend on word order. He imported that slippery syntax into English. That’s why we get lines like “What fools these mortals be!” He just shuffled around words to get the stress pattern he needed.
Master the lexicon
“Coz” means cousin, but “to cozen” is to deceive. A “benison” is a blessing, and a “cuckold” is a man with a cheating wife. “Thee” and “thou” are intimate, familiar forms of “you.” “Prithee” means please, and “marry” is an exclamation like “indeed.”
Speech reflects class
The upper crust (usually our main characters, heroes and villains) speaks in verse, while the fool and servants mumble in unmannered (but often quite clever and cutting) prose. Hamlet is a prince. Bottom is a workman who becomes a donkey.
Spark Notes is your friend
This isn’t school. It’s not cheating to peruse a quick online recap before curtain. At the very least, save a few minutes to read the director’s note in the program, which often includes a plot summary and explains the reasoning behind a modernized setting. Extra credit if you actually pick up the play!
Know the rules
Is it a tragedy? Don’t get too attached — (nearly) everyone dies. A comedy? Expect to finish up with a double or triple wedding. There are five acts. You’ll get a break after the third one.
Look for motifs
In Shakespeare, magic is a fact of life, with ghosts, fairies, witches, prophecies, and spells cropping up in abundance. Deception plays a huge role, with disguise and cross-dressing often employed for protection and to test loyalty. (Somehow, no one is ever the wiser.) As it is with an action movie, there are stock characters — the virginal ingénue, the striving hero, the autocratic father, the wise fool and the villainous bastard (illegitimate children have it very rough in Shakespeare). See how many you can spot.
Become a control freak
Shakespeare’s plays reflect the Elizabethan notion of natural order, with the monarch at the top of the ladder — just under God — followed by the nobility and trickling on down to the lower classes. When civil disruption happens (as when Macbeth slaughters the king), it’s often mirrored by chaos in the natural world.
Get down and dirty
A lot of summer Shakespeare is outdoors. Bring a low-backed chair, a blanket and a picnic. And remember that despite his modern highbrow reputation, Shakespeare knew his audience. He inserted high-flown metaphors for the educated nobility, and romance and swashbuckling for the common folk. We won’t judge you for enjoying the latter.
Where to find summer Shakespeare: The Tempest, through July 14, Kingsmen Shakespeare Company, kingsmenshakespeare.org; Taming of the Shrew, July 12 – 14, Thousand Oaks Repertory Company, libbeybowl.org; A Midsummer Night’s Dream, through July 21, Elite Theatre, elitetheatre.org; Hamlet, July 19 – Aug. 4, Kingsmen Shakespeare Company, kingsmenshakespeare.org.