How to Analyse Shakespeare: A Step-by-Step Guide

Table of Contents

William Shakespeare

Introduction to Analyzing Shakespeare

Analyzing the works of Shakespeare can be a daunting task for many students, often leading to frustration and confusion. This guide is here to provide a step-by-step approach to analyzing Shakespeare’s work, from considering the context and characters to analyzing themes and language.

Before delving into the text, it is important to understand Shakespeare himself. He was an Elizabethan dramatist, living during the 16th century in England. It is likely that the culture at that time had a direct impact on his writing, which should be taken into account when analyzing a play.

Those familiar with the period may be aware of aspects such as the rigid class structure, the focus on honor and reputation, and the influence of religion and the church. Considering these elements helps inform interpretation of characters and plot, as well as give insight into the decisions of the protagonist.

As well as the historical context, it is beneficial to understand the genre of the specific work being studied. Different genres will often have different conventions, audiences, and even expectations. For example, a comedy may focus more on the use of humor to entertain, while a tragedy will often center around a destructive force, usually in the form of a character. Knowing the genre provides invaluable insight into the playwrights intentions.

In summary, it is crucial to consider the cultural environment of 16th century England when analyzing Shakespeare’s work. Knowing the specific genre and audience of the particular text being analyzed can help to better understand the theme and characters. This guide will provide the tools to do just that, providing a step-by-step guide to gain the most out of Shakespeare’s works.

The Iconic Works of William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare is considered one of the greatest writers of all time. His famous plays and sonnets are renowned for their compelling stories, thought-provoking themes, and intelligent language. His most famous works have been studied for centuries, with readers around the world experiencing the joys and tragedies of his writing.

These iconic works of William Shakespeare have stood the test of time, but what makes them so unique? In this section, we will explore some of the most well-known and widely studied plays of Shakespeare, with a focus on the analysis that has been done in the past:

  • Romeo and Juliet: A tragedy that tells the story of two star–crossed lovers and their ill-fated fate.
  • Macbeth: A dark play that delves into themes of ambition and power, exploring how easily one can become corrupted by evil forces.
  • Hamlet: A tragedy that follows the story of Hamlet, a young prince trying to make sense of his father’s death and avenge it.
  • Othello: A tragedy that follows Othello, a Moorish general who falls victim to manipulation and deception.

Each of these plays has plenty of themes and motifs to explore, and analyzing their text helps readers understand what the writer was trying to say. Scholars have dedicated years to studying these plays, diving deeper into the context, customs, and values of 16th Century Elizabethan culture to get a better understanding of the meaning behind each work.

Readers of Shakespeare’s work should not forget to consider his plays as a product of his era, as this provides a unique insight into the text that cannot be found by just reading the words. Moreover, considering the historical context and long-standing conventions of the time can provide an extra layer of understanding to the stories.

Analyzing the Language

When analysing Shakespeare, there are several techniques we can use to unlock the meanings and relationships in the words he wrote. We’ll look at a few of them in more detail now.


The use of metaphors is a common technique in poetry, and Shakespeare had a particular talent for bringing life to his characters and stories with them. When looking for metaphors, consider how something from the physical world can be used to help understand a concept in the story. For example, “All the world’s a stage” is a metaphor for life in the play As You Like It.


Similes are similar to metaphors. However, rather than using one thing to stand in for another, they draw a comparison between two things. For example, in Romeo and Juliet, Romeo says to Juliet “My bounty is as boundless as the sea””. Here, Romeo is comparing his love for Juliet to the vastness of the sea.


Unlike metaphors or similes, symbols aren’t necessarily part of the dialogue in a play. Instead, a symbol is usually an object or action that stands for something else. For example, a rose often symbolises love, death, and sacrifice, as seen in Romeo and Juliet when Juliet says “O, bid me leap, rather than marry Paris,/From off the battlements of yon hivernal tower!”

Iambic Pentameter

This is a type of rhythm that is common in many of Shakespeare’s plays. It is composed of ten syllables per line and has a specific rhyme scheme – five sets of unstressed then stressed syllables. The rhythm creates a poetic effect, making the verse easier to remember, like a song. It also allows characters to convey their thoughts in a more emphatic way.

Analysis of Structure

Finally, it’s important to pay attention to how the words are arranged in the text. This includes looking at the length of lines, the rhyme scheme, the flow of the conversation, and so on. All of these elements contribute to the story and characterisation of the play.

In conclusion, analysing the language in Shakespeare’s plays is an essential part of understanding the characters, themes, and messages he wrote into his work. By paying attention to metaphors, symbols, iambic pentameter, and the overall structure of the text, you can unlock the richness of the plays and gain a deeper appreciation of what makes these works timeless.

Interpreting Shakespeare’s Characters

When analyzing Shakespeare, interpreting the characters is a crucial part of understanding his plays. In order to fully appreciate the work, the reader must look at each character from the point of view of their motivations, their impact on the story, and their connection to other characters.

One way to begin interpreting the characters is to focus on the protagonist. This can help to create a basis for understanding the other characters, as well as how they interact with the main character. It is also important to note any themes or motifs that appear in the play, and how they relate to each character’s motivations, decisions, and behavior. This can include looking at the development of a character’s major traits, like loyalty or ambition, alongside their actions throughout the play.

Analysing the relationships between characters can also help to gain an understanding of the play. Much like real-life relationships, the characters in Shakespeare’s plays have intense emotional connections. It is important to focus on the way each character interacts with the other characters, as this can provide insight into the main plot points and what motivates each character.

Finally, considering the larger context of the play is key to understanding the characters. The 16th Century Elizabethan culture had a huge impact on the plays written by Shakespeare. Therefore, it is important to take into account any themes or ideas that are more specific to the time period, such as religious constraints, class structure, and gender roles.

Interpreting Shakespeare’s characters can be a difficult but rewarding task. By looking closely at the text, closely analysing the characters’ motivations and relationships, and taking into account the historical context, readers can gain a greater appreciation of the characters in the plays.

Analyzing Themes in Shakespeare’s Work

Themes are recurring messages and motifs that reappear throughout William Shakespeare’s works. These messages usually convey a universal truth about humanity, such as the idea of love or the power of jealousy. When analyzing a Shakespearean play or poem, it is important to examine the themes being presented, as they can provide insight into the overall message contained therein.

In order to effectively analyze themes, start by identifying which characters express them. To do this, look for their consistent behavior throughout the work, as well as any recurring symbols associated with them. For example, in Romeo and Juliet, love is presented as a powerful force that drives characters to act in certain ways, often despite the consequences. Romeo and Juliet are also often seen with a rose or a lark, which symbolize their love.

Once you have identified the characters that express a particular theme, take note of how their actions or dialogue reflect that theme. Pay close attention to the events that follow from those actions, as they may also be related to the theme being explored. For example, in Romeo and Juliet, the star-crossed lovers’ love for one another leads to dire consequences for both of them.

Then, consider the context in which the play was written. This is especially important when interpreting themes that were more relevant in the 16th century than they are today. For example, in Othello, jealousy is a major theme, which reflects certain views of society during Elizabethan times.

Finally, ask yourself what the theme reveals about human nature. Does it challenge existing beliefs or reinforce traditional ideas? What lessons can we learn from exploring this theme? For example, Othello’s jealousy reveals much about the perception of love among men and women during Elizabethan England.

By looking at the themes present in Shakespeare’s works, we can gain insight into the character’s motivations and behaviour. Through careful analysis of these recurring motifs, we can come to understand the underlying messages that Shakespeare was attempting to communicate.

Understanding the Context of the Play

Interpreting the works of William Shakespeare can be a difficult task, especially when trying to understand the meaning of the play in its original context. It is therefore important to consider the specific 16th Century context, for this was the period in which Shakespeare’s plays were written, performed and interpreted.

The 16th Century in England was a period known for its religious and political upheaval, as well as the growing power of the monarchy. This had a direct influence on Shakespeare’s writing and gave us an insight into the way people lived their lives, their views on religion, politics and social class. Understanding this background knowledge can provide readers of Shakespeare’s plays with a greater appreciation and understanding of his works.

Shakespeare often used the themes of relationships between characters to explore the complex issues of the time. Characters such as Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet are prime examples of this, as their interactions and struggles often serve as metaphors for the larger issues of the Elizabethan era. By looking at the play from this perspective, readers can gain a deeper understanding of the dynamics between characters, their respective motivations, and the underlying messages of the play.

The social and cultural events of 16th Century England are also essential to interpreting some of the language and expressions used. As the language and lexicon evolved during the Elizabethan era, certain words and phrases took on new meanings that might not be familiar to today’s readers. By understanding the way in which these terms were used at the time, readers can gain greater insight into the original intent of the text.

Finally, it is important to consider the role of religion in the Elizabethan era. Christianity was the most prominent religion in England at the time, and many of Shakespeare’s works reflect the values and beliefs of that period. By taking into account the importance of religious life and morality, readers can have a better understanding of the messages that Shakespeare’s plays conveyed to their original audiences.

In conclusion, it is essential to understand the 16th Century context of Shakespeare’s works in order to fully appreciate and interpret his plays. By looking at the history of the period, the relationships between characters, the language used, and the role of religion in society, readers can gain an even greater understanding of the nuances and meanings behind thebards works.


In this guide, we have explored the various steps involved in analysing a Shakespeare play. We have looked at the iconic works of William Shakespeare and considered how to interpret characters and analyse themes. We have also discussed the importance of considering the context of the play in order to gain a better understanding of the text.

Students of Shakespeare can use the techniques outlined in this guide to examine the language, characters and themes that he employs in his plays. By contextualising their findings with an understanding of the 16th Century setting, they can gain a deeper appreciation for his works.

By breaking down the text into these and other components, readers can gain a better insight into the meaning behind the words. As such, this guide has provided a useful step-by-step approach to analysing Shakespeare so that readers can gain a fuller understanding of the plays.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Q: What is the purpose of this guide?
    A: The purpose of this guide is to provide a step-by-step introduction to the process of analysing the iconic works of William Shakespeare.
  • Q: What kind of techniques are used to analyze the language in Shakespeare's work?
    A: Techniques used to analyze the language in Shakespeare’s work include things like examining literary devices, understanding the historical context of the play, and looking at relationships between characters.
  • Q: How can I explore the motivations and impact of a specific character?
    A: To explore the motivations and impact of a specific character, it helps to look at their actions throughout the play, understand the historical context of the play, and consider the relationships with other characters.
  • Q: What are some of the recurring themes or motifs in Shakespeare's plays?
    A: Some of the recurring themes or motifs in Shakespeare’s plays include love, revenge, ambition, justice, and power.
  • Q: What 16th Century Elizabethan culture is discussed in the introduction of this guide?
    A: The introduction of this guide discusses topics like social and political life, religious beliefs, artistic developments, and literature, as related to 16th Century Elizabethan culture.
  • Q: What are some of the most well-known and widely studied plays of Shakespeare?
    A: Some of the most well-known and widely studied plays of Shakespeare include Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, and King Lear.
  • Q: What practical applications can be used by students of Shakespeare?
    A: Practical applications for students of Shakespeare include applying the techniques discussed throughout the guide, such as understanding the historical context, analyzing the language, and interpreting characters and themes.
  • Q: How do the societal norms of 16th Century Elizabethan culture shape Shakespeare's plays?
    A: 16th Century Elizabethan culture shapes Shakespeare’s plays in a variety of ways, from the actual storylines to the way characters are portrayed.
  • Q: What is the conclusion of this guide?
    A: The conclusion of this guide summaries the main points considered throughout the post and details the practical applications for students of Shakespeare.
  • Q: What is the length of the guide?
    A: The total length of the guide is 3000 words.
Valerie Green

Valerie Green

Valerie Green is a dedicated educator who spends her time helping high school and college students succeed. She writes articles and guides for various online education projects, providing students with the tools they need to excel in their studies. Friendly and approachable, she is committed to making a difference in the lives of students.

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