Unraveling Difficult Aspects of Shakespeare’s Plays: A Quick Guide

things that are difficult to understand about shakespeares plays

Shakespeare is widely regarded as one of the greatest playwrights of all time, but his works can be complex and challenging to understand. From deciphering his Elizabethan English to untangling intricate plots and puzzling characters, readers often struggle to make sense of Shakespeare’s plays.

However, with a little guidance, tackling the difficult aspects of Shakespeare’s plays becomes much easier. In this quick guide, we’ll explore some of the most challenging features of Shakespeare’s works and provide tips and insights for understanding them better.

Key Takeaways

  • Shakespeare’s plays are renowned for their complexity and challenging aspects
  • Deciphering the Elizabethan English can be a daunting task
  • Shakespeare’s intricate plots and puzzling characters require close scrutiny
  • Understanding the cultural and historical context of Shakespeare’s plays can provide valuable insights
  • Despite the difficulties, appreciating the artistry of Shakespeare’s works is immensely rewarding

Deciphering Shakespearean Language

One of the most significant challenges readers face when approaching Shakespeare’s works is interpreting his language. Shakespeare’s plays were written during the Elizabethan era, a time when English was in a state of flux and evolving rapidly. As a result, his writing is filled with archaic and unusual language that can be difficult to decipher for modern readers.

To make sense of Shakespearean language, it’s essential to understand Elizabethan English and the poetic devices used by Shakespeare to convey meaning. Here are some tips to help you interpret and appreciate the language of Shakespeare’s plays:

  1. Read the text aloud: Reading Shakespearean language aloud can help you hear the rhythm and cadence of the language, making it easier to understand the meaning behind the words.
  2. Use contextual clues: Pay attention to the context of the scene and the characters involved to help you understand unfamiliar words or phrases.
  3. Look up unfamiliar words: Don’t be afraid to consult a dictionary to look up unfamiliar words or phrases. It’s essential to understand the precise meaning of the language to appreciate Shakespeare’s artistry.
  4. Identify poetic devices: Shakespeare often uses poetic devices such as metaphors, similes, and personification to convey meaning. Identifying these devices can help you understand the language on a deeper level.
  5. Watch performances: Seeing Shakespeare’s plays performed can provide valuable insight into the language and how it’s meant to be spoken. Many performances also use modern language translations to help audiences understand the dialogue.

By following these tips, you can begin to decipher Shakespearean language and appreciate the artistry and depth of his writing.

Examples of Shakespearean Language:

“To be, or not to be: that is the question.” – Hamlet

“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun; Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;” – Sonnet 130

“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players;” – As You Like It

Unraveling Shakespearean Plots

unraveling Shakespearean plots

Shakespeare’s plays are known for their intricate and complex storylines, filled with twists and turns that can be hard to unravel. But fear not, for with a few strategies and tips, you can navigate these complex plots with ease.

One effective way to approach Shakespearean plots is to pay close attention to the characters and their motivations. Shakespeare’s characters are often driven by strong desires or conflicts, and these can serve as the key to understanding the plot. Take note of each character’s relationships with other characters, as these can also reveal important plot points.

Another useful strategy is to identify the different themes present in the play. By understanding the overarching themes, you can better grasp the plot’s purpose and meaning. Keep in mind that these themes may be subtle and implicit, so it’s important to read between the lines and pay close attention to the details.

It can also be helpful to break the plot down into smaller sections or acts and focus on understanding each section before moving on to the next. Shakespeare’s plays often have multiple storylines and subplots, so it’s important to keep track of each one and their individual contributions to the overall plot.

Finally, don’t be afraid to revisit the play and reread certain passages or scenes. Sometimes, a second or third reading can reveal new insights and understanding that may have been missed the first time around.

In conclusion, while Shakespearean plots may seem daunting at first, with a bit of effort and attention to detail, they can be unraveled and understood. By focusing on the characters, themes, and smaller sections of the plot, readers can gain a deeper appreciation for Shakespeare’s storytelling and the complexities of his plays.

Navigating Shakespearean Themes and Motifs

Shakespearean themes and motifs

Shakespeare’s plays are known for their intricate themes and motifs, which often carry deep symbolism and meaning. Understanding these themes can be challenging, but doing so is crucial to unlocking the full impact of his works. In this section, we’ll explore some common themes and motifs found in Shakespeare’s plays and provide insights on how to navigate and interpret them.

Themes in Shakespeare’s Plays

Shakespeare’s plays address a wide range of themes, from love and passion to betrayal and revenge. Some of the most common themes found in his works include:

  • Love and Romance
  • Power and Politics
  • Jealousy and Betrayal
  • Appearance versus Reality
  • Identity and Self-Discovery
  • Mortality and the Transience of Life

These themes are often intertwined, and understanding the relationships between them can provide valuable insights into the meaning and impact of the plays.

Motifs in Shakespeare’s Plays

In addition to themes, Shakespeare’s plays are also known for their recurring motifs. These are symbols, images, or ideas that appear repeatedly throughout a play and carry a deeper significance. Some common motifs found in his works include:

  • Light and Dark
  • Nature and the Natural World
  • Madness and Sanity
  • Masks and Disguises
  • Blood and Violence
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An Example: The Motif of Light and Dark in Romeo and Juliet

An example of a recurring motif in Shakespeare’s works is the motif of light and dark in Romeo and Juliet. Throughout the play, images of light and dark are used to symbolize the conflicting forces of love and hate.

“But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun” – Romeo, Act 2, Scene 2

Here, Romeo compares Juliet to the sun, using the image of light to represent his passionate love for her. Later in the play, when Romeo receives news of Juliet’s supposed death, he exclaims:

“Well, Juliet, I will lie with thee tonight.
Let’s see for means: O mischief, thou art swift
To enter in the thoughts of desperate men!
I do remember an apothecary,–
And hereabouts he dwells,–which late I noted
In tatter’d weeds, with overwhelming brows,
Culling of simples; meagre were his looks,
Sharp misery had worn him to the bones:
And in his needy shop a tortoise hung,
An alligator stuff’d, and other skins
Of ill-shaped fishes; and about his shelves
A beggarly account of empty boxes,
Green earthen pots, bladders and musty seeds,
Remnants of packthread and old cakes of roses,
Were thinly scatter’d, to make up a show.
Noting this penury, to myself I said
‘An if a man did need a poison now,
Whose sale is present death in Mantua,
Here lives a caitiff wretch would sell it him.’
O this same thought did but forerun my need;
And this same needy man must sell it me.
As I remember, this should be the house.
Being holiday, the beggar’s shop is shut.
What ho! apothecary!” – Romeo, Act 5, Scene 1

Here, the image of darkness is used to symbolize death and despair, highlighting the tragic consequences of the lovers’ actions.

Interpreting Shakespearean Themes and Motifs

To interpret the themes and motifs in Shakespeare’s plays, it’s important to consider the context in which they were written. Understanding the historical and cultural background of Elizabethan England can provide valuable insights into the meaning and significance of the plays. It’s also helpful to look for patterns and connections between different elements of the plays, such as the relationships between themes and motifs.

Ultimately, interpreting Shakespeare’s themes and motifs requires careful analysis and attention to detail. By delving into the deep symbolism and meaning of his works, we can gain a deeper appreciation for his artistry and the enduring impact of his plays.

Understanding Shakespearean Tragedy

Navigating Shakespearean Tragedy

One of the most challenging aspects of Shakespeare’s plays is navigating the genre of tragedy. With complex storylines, multifaceted characters, and devastating endings, Shakespearean tragedies can be difficult to understand and appreciate. However, with a deeper understanding of the elements that make up this genre, readers can navigate the tragedies with greater ease and appreciation.

Shakespearean tragedy is characterized by a protagonist who experiences a downfall due to a tragic flaw or external circumstances. The protagonist’s downfall often results in the loss of life, liberty, or happiness, causing the audience to experience a range of emotions from pity to fear. The tragedy also emphasizes the consequences of human actions and the hubris and flaws that lead to downfall.

One way to navigate Shakespearean tragedy is to pay attention to the themes and motifs present in the play. Tragic themes such as love, power, and fate recur throughout Shakespeare’s tragedies, emphasizing the universal nature of human suffering. By analyzing these themes, readers can gain a deeper understanding of the tragedy’s message and significance.

Another way to navigate Shakespearean tragedy is to pay attention to the language and imagery used in the play. Shakespeare’s use of metaphor and symbolism adds depth and complexity to the tragedy, providing insights into the characters’ motivations and emotions. For example, in Macbeth, the imagery of blood symbolizes guilt and violence, adding layers of meaning to the play.

Overall, navigating Shakespearean tragedy requires a deep understanding of the elements that make up this genre. By paying attention to the themes, language, and imagery present in the play, readers can appreciate the tragedy’s impact and significance.

Analyzing Puzzling Characters in Shakespeare’s Plays

puzzling characters in Shakespeare's plays

Shakespearean characters are renowned for their depth and complexity. From Hamlet’s erratic behavior to Lady Macbeth’s manipulation tactics, it’s not always easy to understand their motivations and actions. However, by analyzing their behavior, relationships, and language, readers can gain insights into these puzzling characters and appreciate the artistry behind Shakespeare’s work.

Behavior and Relationships

When analyzing a character, it’s essential to consider their behavior and relationships with other characters. For example, in Hamlet, the eponymous character’s behavior is erratic and unpredictable. However, when analyzing his interactions with other characters, such as his mother and Ophelia, we can gain insights into his motivations and emotional state. Similarly, Lady Macbeth’s behavior and relationships with her husband and the other characters reveal her ambitious nature and the lengths she’ll go to achieve power.

Language and Dialogue

Shakespeare’s language is an essential tool for character analysis. By studying a character’s choice of words, mannerisms, and speech patterns, we can gain insights into their personality and motivations. For example, the Fool in King Lear uses humor and wordplay to hide his true feelings and provide commentary on the other characters’ actions. Meanwhile, Iago in Othello manipulates the other characters through his use of language, using his words to sow doubt and suspicion.

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Contradictions and Complexity

Many of Shakespeare’s characters are full of contradictions and complexity. For example, Macbeth is a tragic hero, torn between his ambition and his conscience. Similarly, Ophelia in Hamlet is a complex character whose actions and motivations are open to interpretation. By exploring these contradictions and complexities, we can gain a deeper understanding of the character and appreciate the nuance and artistry behind Shakespeare’s work.

Understanding the puzzling characters in Shakespeare’s plays requires careful analysis and attention to detail. By examining their behavior, relationships, language, and complexity, we can gain insights into their motivations and appreciate the artistry behind Shakespeare’s enduring works.

Grasping Shakespearean Stage Directions

Shakespearean stage directions

Stage directions play an important role in Shakespeare’s plays, providing readers with context and visual cues to better understand the play’s performance. These directions are typically written in the script and describe the physical actions, movements, and gestures of the characters, as well as the stage setup and other details relevant to the performance. To truly grasp the significance of stage directions in Shakespeare’s plays, readers must learn how to interpret them and understand their impact on the overall performance.

Interpreting Shakespearean Stage Directions

Interpreting Shakespearean stage directions can be a challenging task due to the many nuances and intricacies involved. One way to decipher these directions is to focus on the active verbs used by Shakespeare, which provide insight into the characters’ motivations and emotions. For example, in Hamlet, the stage direction “he falls into her lap” (Act III, Scene 2) conveys Hamlet’s emotional state and his vulnerability.

Another useful strategy is to pay attention to the stage setup and blocking, which can provide important clues about the characters’ relationships and interactions with each other. For instance, in the same scene of Hamlet, the direction “Enter Hamlet and Players” followed by “They stand apart” highlights the distance between Hamlet and the players, underscoring Hamlet’s isolation and alienation.

Stage Directions and Performance

Stage directions also have a significant impact on the performance of Shakespeare’s plays. They help to set the tone and mood of the scene and guide the actors in their portrayal of the characters. For example, in Macbeth, the stage direction “thunder and lightning” (Act I, Scene 1) creates a foreboding atmosphere and enhances the sense of supernaturalism in the play.

Moreover, stage directions can provide insight into the intended audience and the social and cultural context of the play. In The Taming of the Shrew, the direction “Enter Petruchio and Grumio” (Act II, Scene 1) highlights the importance of social class and status in Elizabethan society, as well as Petruchio’s attempts to gain power and control over Kate.

Example of a Shakespearean Stage Direction

PlayActSceneStage Direction
HamletAct IIIScene 1“Polonius behind the arras”

As shown in the table above, the stage direction “Polonius behind the arras” (Act III, Scene 1) in Hamlet reveals the character’s deceitful intentions and underscores the play’s theme of betrayal.

In summary, understanding Shakespearean stage directions is essential to fully comprehend the meaning and impact of the play’s performance. By focusing on the active verbs, stage setup, and cultural context of the play, readers can gain insights into the characters’ motivations and emotions and better appreciate the artistic brilliance of Shakespeare’s works.

Contextualizing Shakespeare in his Time

cultural context simplified

Understanding the cultural and historical context in which Shakespeare wrote his plays can significantly enhance readers’ comprehension and appreciation of his works. It helps unravel the various nuances and allusions that are embedded in his plays and offers insights into the social, political, and cultural background that influenced his writing.

Shakespeare lived and wrote in the Elizabethan era, a time of cultural and intellectual enlightenment in England. The period witnessed a revival of classical learning, a flourishing of the arts and literature, and a renaissance of English drama.

Moreover, the Elizabethan era was marked by significant political, social and cultural developments. Queen Elizabeth I, who ruled England during this time, was a patron of the arts, and her court was a hub of artistic and cultural activity. The era also saw the establishment of the first theaters in England, including the famous Globe Theater, which was home to many of Shakespeare’s plays.

Shakespeare’s Plays and the Elizabethan Society

Shakespeare’s plays reflect the values, beliefs, and behaviors of Elizabethan society. They are a reflection of the people and the era in which they were written. For instance, his plays often deal with issues such as politics, power, love, and betrayal, which were all relevant to the Elizabethan society.

Moreover, Shakespeare’s plays were written for a specific audience, mainly the educated elite. They were expected to be knowledgeable about classical literature, history, and mythology, which explains the many allusions and references in his works.

Another significant aspect that influenced Shakespeare’s writing was the religious and philosophical beliefs of the Elizabethan era. The era saw a significant debate between the Catholic and Protestant churches, and this debate is reflected in many of his plays, such as Hamlet, which deals with issues of faith and morality.


Contextualizing Shakespeare’s plays in the Elizabethan era is key to understanding their meaning and significance. It provides readers with an insight into the cultural, social, and political forces that influenced his writing and offers valuable insights into the complexity of his works. By understanding the cultural context of Shakespeare’s plays, readers can gain a deeper appreciation of his artistic genius and enduring legacy.

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Appreciating Shakespeare’s Artistry

Shakespearean complexity

In this section, we will delve into the artistic brilliance of Shakespeare. His mastery of language, intricate symbolism, and wordplay have given his plays a timeless quality that has endured for centuries. Although his works can be difficult to understand, the complexity that makes them challenging also makes them enduring and impactful. Let us explore some of the ways in which Shakespeare’s artistry has made his plays so remarkable.

Masterful Use of Language

Shakespeare’s language is one of the defining features of his works. His plays are full of wordplay, puns, and double meanings that can be difficult to grasp at first. However, once we decode these linguistic puzzles, we can appreciate the depth and complexity of his writing. For example, in the play Hamlet, the protagonist Hamlet famously says, “To be, or not to be: that is the question.” This line is not just a simple inquiry into the nature of existence; it is a profound meditation on life, death, and the human condition.

Intense Symbolism

Shakespeare’s plays are also rich in symbolism. He uses recurring motifs and imagery to explore complex themes and ideas. For example, the image of blood appears throughout Macbeth, symbolizing both guilt and violence. Similarly, the use of light and darkness in Romeo and Juliet serves to highlight the contrast between the characters’ love and the hatred that surrounds them.

Rich Characterization

Shakespeare’s characters are some of the most complex and fully realized in all of literature. Through their words and actions, we gain insight into their motivations, contradictions, and complexities. For example, in Othello, the central character Othello is simultaneously brave and vulnerable, loving and jealous. His inner turmoil is reflected in his speech, which is full of contradictions and juxtapositions.

Innovative Techniques

Finally, Shakespeare’s plays are notable for their innovative techniques. He was one of the first playwrights to use soliloquies and asides to reveal characters’ inner thoughts, and he often broke the fourth wall to engage with his audience directly. These techniques were groundbreaking in their time and have since become staples of stage and screen.

Overall, Shakespeare’s artistry is a testament to his enduring legacy. By exploring the linguistic play, intense symbolism, rich characterization, and innovative techniques of his works, we can gain a greater appreciation for the complexity that makes his plays so remarkable and enduring.


Understanding Shakespeare’s plays is an enriching experience that requires patience, attention to detail, and a willingness to delve into the intricacies of his work. By unraveling the difficult aspects of his plays, readers can gain a deeper appreciation for his artistry and the enduring impact of his works.

We’ve explored deciphering Shakespearean language, interpreting complex plotlines, navigating recurring themes and motifs, analyzing puzzling characters, grasping stage directions, contextualizing Shakespeare in his time, and appreciating the complexity of his artistry. By applying these insights, readers can approach Shakespeare’s plays with newfound confidence and understanding.

While tackling Shakespeare’s plays can seem daunting, it’s important to remember that these works have endured for centuries for a reason; they offer insights into the human experience that are as relevant now as they were in Shakespeare’s time. By taking the time to unravel the difficult aspects of his plays, readers can gain a richer understanding of the depths of Shakespeare’s brilliance.


What are some of the difficult aspects of Shakespeare’s plays?

Shakespeare’s plays can be challenging due to the complexity of the language, intricate plots, puzzling characters, and deep themes and motifs.

How can I decipher Shakespearean language?

To decipher Shakespearean language, it can be helpful to familiarize yourself with Elizabethan English, read the plays aloud, use annotations and footnotes, and seek guidance from reliable resources.

What strategies can I use to unravel Shakespearean plots?

When unraveling Shakespearean plots, it can be beneficial to pay attention to key events, analyze character motivations, identify recurring themes, and consider the historical and cultural context of the play.

How do I navigate Shakespearean themes and motifs?

Navigating Shakespearean themes and motifs involves identifying recurring ideas, exploring their symbolism, examining character actions and dialogue related to these themes, and considering how they contribute to the overall message of the play.

What defines a Shakespearean tragedy?

Shakespearean tragedies are characterized by the downfall of a central character, often due to fatal flaws, and explore themes of fate, ambition, and moral dilemmas. They typically end in the protagonist’s demise.

How can I analyze puzzling characters in Shakespeare’s plays?

To analyze puzzling characters, focus on their contradictions, motivations, relationships with other characters, and their growth or transformation throughout the play. Consider their soliloquies, actions, and interactions to gain deeper insights.

What should I know about Shakespearean stage directions?

Shakespearean stage directions provide instructions for actors and insights into the intended interpretation of the play. Pay attention to them to understand the physical movements, emotions, and staging choices that enhance the performance.

How can I contextualize Shakespeare in his time?

To understand Shakespeare in his time, explore the political, social, and cultural context of the Elizabethan era. Research the societal norms, historical events, and literary influences that shaped his works.

What makes Shakespeare’s plays artistically remarkable?

Shakespeare’s plays are artistically remarkable due to his mastery of language, intricate wordplay, poetic devices, and profound symbolism. These elements contribute to the enduring complexity and impact of his works.


Baron Cooke has been writing and editing for 7 years. He grew up with an aptitude for geometry, statistics, and dimensions. He has a BA in construction management and also has studied civil infrastructure, engineering, and measurements. He is the head writer of measuringknowhow.com

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