How To Read Shakespeare is a slim volume, 120 pages. The author, Nicholas Royle, takes an interesting approach to this condensed study: he selects a single word from each of seven plays and shows how that word sets the tone or echoes and re-echoes through that play. This is an exercise in close reading of a particular kind: for Royle, Shakespeare’s language is in a class by itself, and cannot be understood as simply good writing. Royle says that the language of Shakespeare’s plays is ‘shakespeared’ language - it has been transformed and re-invented. In some cases (‘witsnapper’, ‘love-shaked’) it has literally been invented: Shakespeare’s plays are full of neologisms. In other cases, a seemingly common and simple word is used in conflicting senses, adding irony or foreboding.
Each of the seven plays is treated in about 15 pages. The plays are: ‘The Merchant of Venice’, ‘Julius Caesar’, ‘As You Like It’, ‘Hamlet’, ‘Othello’, ‘Macbeth’, and ‘Antony and Cleopatra’. Royle’s analysis of each play is clear and interesting. Ordinary readers such as myself have no hope of using these analyses as a guide, of course. ‘Close reading’ is seldom about paying close attention to what is on the page, but instead requires a prodigious memory (where has this word been used before? how has this idea been used elsewhere?), and a thorough knowledge of the critical literature. Most of us have not the time or the developed skills for that. But maybe we can learn to pay more attention to the small words and the small scenes, and gain a deeper appreciation for Shakespeare’s plays.