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Interpretation of Shakespearean Speeches

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Being given a Shakespeare speech to analyse can be a daunting prospect, but here are some tips on how to approach the task, and hopefully improve your marks!


Before you start your analysis, make sure you understand what each line of the passage means. This might seem pretty basic, but it's very easy to skip over a Shakespeare speech and "get the gist" without being sure of the specifics. And it's the specifics that teachers and examiners will want you to discuss. It can help to write your own paraphrase of the speech, putting its meaning into modern prose. (Don't worry if your version looks lifeless and uninspired beside the original - this is just a study tool, and Shakespeare was, after all, a bit of a genius.) Look up any words which you don't understand, or which you think might be used in an unusual sense in the passage.

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Next, consider what kind of speech this is. If you had to assign it a genre, what would it be? A declaration of love? Someone thinking over a problem out loud? Even if it's not a formal genre, like a soliloquy or a speech in court, think about what the speaker is trying to achieve with it. Are they trying to persuade someone, to express emotion, to tell a story? (Bear in mind that sometimes a speech can use an expression of emotion or a story in order to persuade someone.)


Where does this speech come in the context of the play as a whole? How does it relate to the plot? The other context to be aware of is that of the stage. It's all to easy to forget that a Shakespeare speech is not simply a passage on the page, but is a set of directions to an actor. Go back to the beginning of the scene, and find out where the scene is supposed to take place. Note down who is on stage, and who enters and leaves before your speech: the listeners can drastically affect the significance of the speech.

Read on

The Quality of Mercy

Often confused with a soliloquy, Portia's speech "The quality of mercy is not strain'd" is a clever piece of courtoom oratory.


Rhetoric has fallen into disrepute, usually associated with politicians and lawyers, but the formal devices, or "figures", of rhetoric have a huge influence on Shakespeare's writing. Look at how techniques such as repetition, rhetorical questions, and circumlocution



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