Starting university this month? Shakespeare Magazine’s Editor Pat Reid shares the FIVE things you absolutely need to know if you’re new to studying Shakespeare (and you want to get the most out of your English Literature degree)

Shakespeare Magazine is based in the English city of Bristol, which is also home to one of the major British universities (well, two if you include nearby UWE). At this time of year, I can’t help but notice the influx of new, fresh-faced young students as the academic year begins, and I often take a moment to reflect on my own, not-exactly-distinguished university career.

Yes, the sad truth is I was a lousy student. But I’ve learned a lot since then. And I reckon that if I ever had the chance to be a student again, I could actually end up with a pretty decent degree.

One of the reasons why students can underperform is because it’s such an overwhelming experience. You’re bombarded with so much information about your subject that you end up not knowing what you’re supposed to be doing. It’s easy to find yourself wasting all your time and energy on areas that are ultimately irrelevant.

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So right from the start you need to work out two things:

What are the key areas I need to cover?

How can I add something of myself that will make me stand out from everyone else?

With this in mind, here are Shakespeare Magazine’s Five Essential Tips that every new student of Shakespeare should pay attention to.

ONE: Get a grasp of all Shakespeare’s plays, not just the big ones.

If you’re only familiar with a few of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, like Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar, the full list of 38 plays can look a little scary. But it’s really important that you delve into as many as possible if you want to be ahead of the game. To lots of people, the least attractive titles are Shakespeare’s History plays, because they just look like a traffic jam of names and numbers – Henry IV, Part 1, and Henry VI, Part 3, and so on. However, once you start actually getting into the Histories, this is where you find a lot of Shakespeare’s best and most entertaining stuff.

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It’s a similar story with Shakespeare’s Comedies, which are an awful lot ruder and funnier than many people realise. I’d even go as far as to argue that contemporary hit comedies on TV such as Peep Show and The Inbetweeners are the direct descendants of Shakespeare plays like The Comedy of Errors and The Merry Wives of Windsor.

A great way to investigate Shakespeare’s complete plays is with the Shakespeare300 app. It’s very cheap, and it gives you a clear and simple introduction to each play, along with some really useful information and statistics. Then, when you start reading chunks of plays or entire works, the www.playshakespeare.com website has another excellent free app, Shakespeare Pro, where you can easily access the complete plays.

TWO: Read up on Shakespeare’s biography and the history of the times he lived in.

You can’t study Shakespeare without being at least partly a historian. It’s an inescapable fact that the more you know about the historical background to Shakespeare’s life and times, the greater will be your understanding of the man’s works. For example, there’s still a very strong perception that Shakespeare was an exclusively Elizabethan playwright. Outside the academic community, many people don’t realise that a big chunk of his career was actually spent as a King’s Man, working for Elizabeth I’s successor King James I (who was also King James VI of Scotland).

Once you get a taste for it, Elizabethan and Jacobean (the era of King James) history is as dramatic and compelling as any of Shakespeare’s works. Did you know, for example, that the infant Shakespeare narrowly survived an outbreak of plague in Stratford-upon-Avon? Or that, as a King’s Man, the 41-year-old Shakespeare could easily have been blown up in the Gunpowder Plot? Or that the Globe Theatre was burnt down by a fire started by a cannonball (fired as a special effect during a performance of Henry VIII)?

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Bill Bryson’s book on Shakespeare
is still probably the most readable introduction to Shakespeare’s life and career. When you’re feeling a bit more ambitious, try two books by James Shapiro – 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare and 1606: Shakespeare and The Year of Lear.

THREE: Don’t be afraid to ask questions

A pretty good rule for life is: if you don’t know something, ask an expert. Obviously, you need to put in a good amount of work yourself, and try not to waste your tutor’s time with stuff that’s irrelevant or trivial. But remember, your tutor or lecturer is a font of expert knowledge, and they are there to be tapped. Back in the Dark Ages when I was a student, I felt embarrassed about the gigantic gaps in my knowledge, and one or two tutors did make me feel stupid for asking stuff. Today, of course, my job as a journalist involves putting questions to Shakespeare experts in order to get good information to share with my readers. It’s exactly the same with your university coursework.

Shakespeare is a massive subject, and you can’t be expected to know everything. However, do try to work on presenting your questions so they stimulate an enthusiastic response. Find out your tutor’s special areas of expertise and mine them for all they’re worth. When asking a tutor a question, it’s good if you can demonstrate that you’ve gained a certain amount of knowledge of the subject, but that you’re trying to acquire more. For example: “My teacher at school said that in Shakespeare’s day it was illegal for women to act on the English stage. Is this true? Can you tell me what is the current academic consensus on the subject?”

FOUR: Remember Shakespeare’s poems – and not just the Sonnets

In his own lifetime, Shakespeare’s name as a writer was perhaps most widely known in connection with his two bestselling long narrative poems – Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Today, these once hugely-popular poems are often forgotten, as so much attention is given to now-legendary plays like Hamlet, Othello and King Lear. So if you want to score some extra points with your tutors, make the time to read Shakespeare’s poems, and demonstrate your knowledge by including quotes and references in your essays. The good news is that Venus and Adonis is entertaining, quite saucy, and relatively easy to read. And in combination with Lucrece, it’ll help increase your knowledge of Classical (ie Greek and Roman) literature which is essential background to Shakespeare.

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The bad news is that many people, myself included, find Shakespeare’s Sonnets dense, demanding and difficult. However, there’s only 154 of them and they’re only 14 lines each. Believe me, you can do it. And once you’ve read Shakespeare’s sonnets, you can afford to feel proud because there is now officially nothing in English Literature that you can’t handle. For help with the Sonnets, try William Sutton’s Sonnet Book. There’s also an engaging YouTube series by the Sonnet Sisters.

FIVE: Get used to thinking about Shakespeare all the time.

During my school days, a great teacher named Mr Murphy once pointed out that the best way to get good at an academic subject is to make it part of your everyday life. So for example if you’re studying Economics, the student who reads the Financial Times every day (and The Economist each week) is going to learn more about the subject than the student who just does their coursework and nothing else.

It’s like that with Shakespeare. You’re going to get out what you put in and, quite frankly, why settle for doing the bare minimum, when there’s so much fun to be had in reaching for the absolute maximum. Everything you learn about Shakespeare is going to help in some way, so here’s some of the best ways to maximise your Shakespeare intake.

1. Read Shakespeare Magazine. Obviously. Get every single issue completely free here.

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2. Go and see any and all Shakespeare plays in your vicinity. Can’t afford a ticket? Try blagging a freebie by offering to review it for your student magazine. See if you can help organise student trips to major theatres such as the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, and Shakespeare’s Globe in London. (While you’re in Stratford, be sure to visit Shakespeare’s Birthplace as well)

3. Get a part in a student production of a Shakespeare play – one of the best ways to experience Shakespeare is on the stage itself. Not up for acting? There’s a plethora of backstage roles, so there’s bound to be one that suits you.

4. Watch as many Shakespeare videos as you can. The two series of The Hollow Crown are a great starting point, as are any of the Kenneth Branagh Shakespeare films, plus the Baz Luhrmann Romeo and Juliet. Here’s a tip – watch them with the subtitles on. You’ll find that you understand it better when you’re seeing it, hearing it and reading it at the same time.

5. Listen to Shakespeare podcasts. These are great for listening to on journeys, or for a bit of extra learning while you exercise, relax – or even while doing the dishes. Three of the best ones are Reduced Shakespeare Company, Emma Smith: Approaching Shakespeare and Sheldrake on Shakespeare.