How to Analyze a Shakespeare Play
When analyzing a Shakespeare play, you should examine the basic elements of the work and the literary devices that the playwright employed to highlight themes. In addition, exploring the historical context of the play will help you to locate central messages Shakespeare wanted his audience to discover about human nature.
Research Background Information
Research background information about the play. Historical context, social attitudes and political culture play important roles in Shakespeare's plot developments.
For example, King James I from Scotland became the king of England during Shakespeare's time, in 1603. "Macbeth" is based loosely on the rivalry between two real-life Scottish kings, Macbeth and Duncan, who lived in the 11th century. "King Lear" is based on the real account of British King Leir's testing of his three daughters to determine how much they loved him. An ancient Scandinavian saga provides inspiration for the tragedy "Hamlet."
Background information offers insight about the characters and themes and explains why Shakespeare's plot lines drew the audience into the play.
Examine Recurring Themes
Identify the theme, or themes, of the play, such as justice, fate, free will, identity, loyalty, lust for power, revenge, unsettling romantic relationships and guilt.
For example, themes in "Macbeth" and "Romeo and Juliet" revolve around fate versus free will and good versus evil. "Hamlet," "Julius Caesar" and "Macbeth" examine the consequences of an unquenchable lust for power.
The comedies "Twelfth Night" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" discuss pains and illusions associated with romantic love; lasting relationships require more than physical attraction.
Focus on common themes that showcase Shakespeare's understanding of misfortune and support his interpretation of the good and bad sides of human nature.
Find Imagery and Symbolism
Examine Shakespeare's use of imagery and symbolism. He wanted his audience to look beyond the obvious to find the deeper meanings. For example, he uses nature -- trees, roses, weeds and floral fragrances -- to compare and contrast beauty with ugliness and youthfulness with age. He uses blood to symbolize death, guilt and corruption, especially as it relates to murder.
Shakespeare relies on spiritual images, such as witches, the cosmic universe and Greek mythology, to create melancholy moods, dark tones and an ominous foreshadowing of events. Evaluate how symbols and imagery add mystery, suspense, curiosity and humor to his plays.
Study the Scenes
Observe the setting, character interactions and audience involvement in important scenes. Opening scenes typically set the tone and foreshadow significant events. Climactic scenes help the audience understand why characters respond the way they do and whether they'll eventually find peace or resolution.
For example, in the first scene in "Romeo and Juliet," Shakespeare clearly sets the stage by showing the bitter animosity between the Montagues and Capulets. The audience suspects that the story won't end well. In Act 1 of "Hamlet," Hamlet speaks to the audience without other characters hearing -- a dramatic device known as an aside -- to reveal his feelings about his corrupt uncle, Claudius.
Individual scene analyses offer insight into Shakespeare's views on social structure, political authority and relationships.
- Sophia: Analyzing Shakespeare
- Yale National Initiative: Shakespeare's Characters -- A Visual Analysis
- Chatham University: Hamlet for High School; David Mathews, Westinghouse High School
- University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: The Writing Center -- Drama
- Southern Nazarene University: Shakespeare Short Papers -- Options and Guidelines
- Folger Shakespeare Library: "Touching this Vision" -- Imagery in Hamlet
- Poetry Foundation: William Shakespeare
- No Sweat Shakespeare: Shakespeare's Play Themes
- Royal Shakespeare Company: King Lear
- Royal Shakespeare Company: Hamlet
As curriculum developer and educator, Kristine Tucker has enjoyed the plethora of English assignments she's read (and graded!) over the years. Her experiences as vice-president of an energy consulting firm have given her the opportunity to explore business writing and HR. Tucker has a BA and holds Ohio teaching credentials.