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Eliza Shoell
Ms. Blommer
ENG1010
May 11, 2015
Issue Exploration Project: Why do Modern Audiences Find Shakespeare Difficult to
Understand?
Self-Reflection
Through the Issue Exploration Project and through the course English 1010 as a whole, I
have developed as a writer. Learning to analyze text and image has made me able to understand
others arguments, and what elements make a convincing paper. I was able to apply this
knowledge when researching and writing my paper. Researching the paper also gave me the
opportunity to explore online libraries, and other online tools. Working with a group to edit my
paper helped me to learn how to give criticism and how to professionally accept and apply the
critiques of my peers. In addition to these new skills, I am prepared to use the MLA format style
and create a cohesive, and eloquent papers that will help me to excel in other classes.
This assignment challenged my views in an unforeseen way and showed me biases I was
not aware I possessed. I began approaching the project as an actor looking at Shakespeare, but
attempting to understand a much wider audience. In order to write my papper I had to take a step
away from my field and attempt to look at Shakespeare from an audiences perspective.

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I chose this topic because it intrigued me. The answer seemed so obvious, that
Shakespeare is difficult to understand because of the language. However from my experience
with the text, this could not be the only reason. I have met several people who struggle with
complicated text, because if dyslexia, or just because they do not enjoy it, be deeply emotionally
touched by Shakespeares work, others with complex knowledge of poems and literature
absolutely detest and misunderstand his work. This was not consistent with the theory that
Shakespeare is only difficult because of language. I began the research proses quite hazy, I was
unclear as to what exactly I was looking for. The discovery of OBriens paper on the teaching of
Shakespeare (8) gave me my first point of view, that the method of teaching could have an
extreme impact on Shakespeare comprehension. The next papper I found was by David Crystal
(2), it was not about Shakespeare specifically, but on how language has changed throughout the
centuries; opening my second view point.
My third View came from a documentary Muse of Fire (10) which is about why people,
especially in the theatre world, fear Shakespeare. The fourth came form an interview with Judie
Dench (4). The interview was conducted for Muse of Fire, but there was an extra hour worth of
material unused by the documentary. I continued to flesh out each view point with new
documents and by conducting my own interviews.
The sections of the paper were due at separate, well-spaced, intervals. This helped me to
pace myself, and to not procrastinate my entire papper until the last moment. I was able to spend
the appropriate time to meet the demands of each section. For instance the literary analysis
section asked for a summary of each point, as well as a textual analysis and comparison. We had
learned how to analyze text in class, so it was fairly easy to compete the later part. The former,

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however, had no president in our class work. We were given carful instructions, and because of
the time and peer reviews, I was able to revisit and correct my mistakes from my first attempt.
This project has pushed me to progress towards the course objectives of English 1010. I
learned how to recognize when an author of any given document I was researching used a
rhetorical strategy. I could assess the effectiveness of the strategy and from this gauge the
authors credibility. What I learned both in class, and from reading others work factored into my
own writing. I was able to create a better paper because I could use rhetoric to my advantage.
Critical thinking was imperative to this paper and helped immensely to develop my
ability to do it. The Annotated bibliography was entirely summary and synthesis of the
documents main ideas and claims. The literary review was a summary and synthesis of the
major viewpoints on my question. It was also an analysis of the different documents used for
each view.
The entire paper is a different composition style then I am used to working in and
required adjustments. I was glad we had worked throughout the semester with our one group of
peers because I was comfortable giving and receiving advice from them, this helped me to deal
with the new writing style. My group constantly challenged me, which helped me to question my
choices and pay attention to bad writing habits that I was consistently critiqued on.
I have grown as a writer through this project and this class. It has helped me face my
weaknesses in writing and learn ways to strengthen it, such as use of rhetoric and critical
thinking. This project not only allowed me to explore a topic I find fascinating but helped me to

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refine my analysis skills and gain insights form peers while I did it. This was extremely
beneficial experience which has given my knowledge I will defiantly use as I carry on in school.

Annotated Bibliography
Crystal, David. A Brave New Linguistic World. June 2002. London: Trinity College.
www.davidcrystal.com. Magazine article. April 20, 2015.
A Brave New Linguistics World by David Crystal tells the reader about the reasons for the
changes in the English language, especially in the last two hundred years. Mostly the reason
behind this is increasing technology, explains Crystal. Technology has been able to give English
speakers an idea of what the language should sound like and globalize slange. Crystal believes
that technology and mass media have made new words and rules acceptably used wide spread
quickly, so that English is developing faster than ever.

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Crystal uses logos in the first paragraph, throwing a lot of fact at the reader. In the second
he uses details of history to convince the reader of his point of view. In this paragraph he states
that all people in the 1800s did not hear much beyond their own dialect, which may be a hasty
generalization. He uses diction to create humor in the third paragraph, this is used to illustrate his
thesis. Throughout the article he uses a heightened diction which convinces the reader that he
knows what he is talking about.
This essay changed the way I thought about my question in that it made me realize I
could use the ways language as a whole has changed, and not just focus on Shakespeare. This is
important because it covers the view that Shakespearean text is difficult to understand simply
because of the change in language. This counters the easy fix approach of active learning that
O'Brien conquers and is a good variation in perspective.
OBrien, Peggy. Doing Shakespeare: "Yo! A Hit! A Very Palpable Hit!". 1993. The English _
Journal. National Council of Teachers of English. www.jstor.org. Article. April 20, 2015
In Doing Shakespeare: "Yo! A Hit! A Very Palpable Hit!" OBrien teaches that
Shakespeares work is not boring or difficult, it is just taught as though it were. OBrian makes a
case for breaking out of the traditional style in which Shakespeare has been taught. Her first
suggestion is that Shakespeare should be taught to all levels of English classes, and not just too
advanced classes. The reasoning behind this is that Shakespeare wrote his plays to be seen and
enjoyed by a wide variety of socio-economic classes and that it should and can be still. OBrien
also points out that while Shakespeare wrote over thirty-six plays, only about six of those are
ever mentioned or taught in classrooms. These six plays are over doctrine-ized and every line has
a correct answer in it, OBrien argues, because of this students are not encouraged to think freely.

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It is her belief that students should be allowed to pose and answer their own questions, not pose
and answer the right questions. Another reason that Shakespeares work is feared, explains
OBrien, is because teachers are afraid of it, and she suggests that the stigma surrounding
Shakespeare would dissipate if teachers would be unabashed and enthusiastic about teaching it.
She thinks the best approach to teaching Shakespeare it to put on a play, or at least have the
students speak the text allowed, and doing this will help students not only understand
Shakespeare, but enjoy his work.
OBrien establishes credibility by explaining importance of herself and The Folger
Shakespeare Library where she works, to the audience of American high school English teachers.
Pushing their prestige by using imagery of high school students rehearsing and being involved in
Shakespeare plays, as well as images of the library itself. She then uses diction such as,
important and most significant to paint the value of schools. Syntax in the sentences, a
very short list ofoh say five or six Shakespearean plays. The man wrote thirty eight, perhaps
thirty nine, plays. show humor in the traditional limitation of Shakespearean plays taught. To
point out the need for exploration and free thought she uses repetition in diction and variation in
syntax, giving examples of what student should be doing; this highlighted the absurdity of the
predetermined way students are to study the Bard. Pathos is shown through several stories of
underappreciated or underestimated students who thrived when given Shakespeares text.
OBrien uses facts about brain chemistry to explain why an active learning approach is the most
effective for these students. She also uses connection of brain stimulus to create imagery in order
to show the need to connect the story to the play. The diction throughout the piece is informal,
but educated, this makes the reader feel comfortable, safe, and makes OBrien seem friendly,
while still being informed and professional in her paper.

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This essay covers some integral parts of my research question such as the belief that often
Shakespeares work is being taught in an ineffective way, to scholarly and cut and dry, instead of
as an exploration. It moved my line of thinking from the way the text is perceived to the way the
text is taught. This essay will be used to bring up the problem of the way Shakespeare is taught
and to quote a credible source on the matter. It counterbalances the idea that simply because
English has changed, we cannot understand Shakespeare.

Introduction
Shakespeares name is known throughout the globe, and he is considered by many to be
the greatest playwright in recorded history. However, people all across the world are baffled by
his work, they find it difficult to relate and even to understand what is going on. They are either
scared off by his legacy, taught that Shakespeares work is boring and old, or are simply
confused by the out dated text. Still, countless continue to read, perform, and attend
performances of his plays, some even say they are easy to understand.
Shakespeare was born June 1564 under the rule of Elizabeth the first. He began writing
his known works (N.A.12). His plays were the first to depict true characters instead of merely
caricature (Bloom, 1). This meant that his plays are able to speak truthfully to people in a way
that others before him, had not.

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Also a master at language, Shakespeare sculpted English to fit his plays and his verse.
Within this he took steps towards modern English. In the four hundred years since his death the
language has changed considerably, mostly thanks to mass media, which started in the 1800s
with mass print, followed by the telephone, and phonographs (Crystal, 2). This not only changed
English from how it was in Shakespeares plays, but gave it strict rules in order for everyone to
understand everyone elses writings. The irregularities in Shakespeares writing are difficult for
many modern readers to understand, and make his writing easy to fear.
This paper will explain the nuances in language that make Shakespeares writing
so challenging, explore the awe and fear regarding the infamous playwright, discuss the
problems with many methods of teaching Shakespeare, and show that in some ways his writing
may be easier to understand than any other.

Literature Review
View One: Use of Language
Over the last four hundred years since Shakespeares death, the English language has
changed enormously. Shakespeares plays were written in the colloquial slang of his day, which
makes his writing difficult to
understand today. English stayed
much the same for hundreds of years,
this is because, as is explained in A
Brave New Linguistic World, by

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David Crystal there was no mass media. English progressed slowly and few major changes could
be made popular. Though Shakespeare was one of the key players to modernizing English,
creating words such as eyeball and bedroom, it was not until mass print in the nineteenth century
that major changes took place (Crystal, 2). Up until that point English was a language with few
rules; the grammatical organization of sentences and standardized spelling did not exist. The
language used in Shakespeares plays are often words that have fallen out of use, or the meanings
have changed (Poole, 10). This makes following exactly was the text means difficult for modern
readers, who are used to a formulated grammatical standard, to read. The English of Shakespeare
is only the root language for the English of today, this makes reading and comprehending his
plays a challenge.
The main sources for this were A Brave New Linguistic World, Muse of Fire, and Tips for
Making Sense of Shakespeares English. The diction in the first seems inconsistent, sometimes
very casual, other times extremely academic. This inconsistency did not help him seem credible.
The diction of Tips for Making Sense of Shakespeares English, though not highbrow, was
consistent and fit the intended audience, making Pressley seem trustworthy on his subject. Muse
of Fires diction is extremely informal, this is not detrimental because the audience becomes very
connected to the narrators, and through their hard work, humor, and credible sources are both
endeared and trusted by the audience.

View Two: Teaching

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Often Shakespeare is difficulty to understand because of the way it is taught. The teachers
fear Shakespeare, and so the students do as well. Teachers usually make one of two mistakes,
either they put on a movie of the play or they try to translate (OBrien, 8) Shakespeare for the
students. Meaning they tell students the exact meaning of the text instead of letting the children
learn how to read the text and make discoveries inside of it. The teaching of Shakespeare is
surrounded by many, many shoulds, reports Peggy OBrien in Doing Shakespeare: "Yo! A Hit!
A Very Palpable Hit!". Students are told what text they should read and what they should think
about it, instead of studying Shakespeare, they are studying someone elses interpretation and
analysis of Shakespeare, a recipe for boredom and frustration. Translation for the students also
makes them believe that the text is something a person has to be trained to understand, that
Shakespeare is only for the very bright and the very fleet of mind (OBrien, 8), when
Shakespeare really wrote for the masses and his plays are full of ideas and jokes that connect to
people today. The alternative to approaching Shakespeare as a textbook is to approach it as a
play. These stories were written to be engaging, exciting, funny and most of all active, its about
doing (OBrien, 8). To invest students in the language and literature of Shakespeare they have to
first be invested in the story and characters. An excellent way of doing this is to have them play
the story and be characters themselves. Focusing on the humor, the tragedy, the emotion that
makes Shakespeares plays still worth teaching. Teaching Shakespeare like it is supposed to be
understood, instead of as a stagnant confusing bore.
The main source in this view is Doing Shakespeare: "Yo! A Hit! A Very Palpable Hit!",
and it is backed up by the Dukeofbookingham, Plaugedhouse, and Miles interviews. OBriens
writing is creatable because she is a very experienced teacher in the Folgers Library. She uses
friendly diction and her article is clearly formatted. The interviews were all fairly informal, but

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the answers were mostly eloquent and thoughtful. Miles, who is a college student studying
Shakespeare and other playwrights, answered seeming annoyed at people who might perpetuate
the problems and with those whom have different views, this was not endearing, but it was more
passionate and explanatory than Dukeofbookingham who seemed cold and bored.
Dukeofbookingham also is less creatable because she is a Tumblr blog, however, her well
thought out answers along with her schooling at Cambridge make her a reliable source.
View Three: Fear
Shakespeares plays come with a stigma, so many are afraid of them. Even those that
have never read them frequently fear it is above them, something confusing and scholarly. This is
often because the first impression most people have of Shakespeare is rarely a good one.
Confused and disheartened people decide that Shakespeare is not for them, it is too scary. James
Earl Jones tells about his introduction to Shakespeare through his uncle who would, give us
some vernacular, he was suddenly like an old time black preacher he was reciting
Shakespeare, but like he loved it (Poole, 10). It is this kind of unapologetic introduction that lets
people not fear Shakespeare. The next step is to not be overwhelmed, this can be a difficult task
because, as Fiona Shaw, a classical actress, says, He is a very extravagant writer and we live in
a time when people are terrified of extravagates (Poole, 10). The language, the wit, the play on
words, in addition to Shakespeares use iambic pentameter is extravagant and enough to
overwhelm most people. Especially with the old language and the number of subjects covered in
a single monologue, meaning can be hard to grasp. The meaning for audiences can come from
many different places because Shakespeares text can be interpreted many different ways.
Shakespeare was able to sculpt the English language to fit his plays and verse. That is why he

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was such a master, he was able to make up whatever words he wanted. The key to Shakespeare
comprehension is to concentrate on character and story. According to Sir Ian McKellen, a wellrespected Shakespeare actor, Some words will be difficult to understand because of syntax
But the story being told, here, now, in front of your eyes, in front of your ears is intense reality
(Poole 10).
Muse of Fire along with Kristopher Miles interview where the sources used to support
this view point. The two sources were nearly identical on this point, the two backing each other
makes them both seem more credible. Though Miles did have frustrated undertones in his diction
and syntax, both sources were open and friendly. Muse of Fire went into much more detail and
had many recognizable Shakespeare experts voices in it, but the interview is supposed to be a
representation of one mans opinion, while Muse of Fire is meant to be a documentation of fact,
so both were useful in their own way.
View Four: Ease
There are very few people find Shakespeare easy to understand; one person who does is
world renowned classical actress, Dame Judi Dench, It couldnt be easier (Dench, 4), says she.
The simplicity comes from the rhythm and the humanity in the writing. Shakespeares characters
are well developed and relatable. These characters were meant to connect with everyone and that
is why he wrote so many types and so many voices (Bloom, 1). Along with his characters iambic
pentameter, or Shakespeare verse (Pressley, 11) also help to make his writing easy to understand.
The stress in the pentameter will tell the reader where the stress goes in the sentence, making his
meaning clear in every line. Irregularities in a verse can show true emotion and give depth to a
character to make them clearer (Miles, 7). The spelling and grammar, which others find to make

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Shakespeare more difficult can actually make him easier to grasp. Spellings can give light to
puns and double meanings that when lost make the text absurd (Miles, 7). The humanity in his
writing can speak to nearly anyone. Between his crass humor and his eloquent, potent emotion
there is no need to give up understanding Shakespeare. Paying attention to the play is all that is
needed to understand it, though there are many different interpretations, they are all right there in
the text. Though the text can be complex, the stories are not supposed to be, It is not a fearful
thing, one never need be frightened (Dench, 4), because the humanity in Shakespeares plays,
which have had such an impact on people, and his use of english to create a clear meaning, make
them easy to understand.
This section used all the interviews, as well as Tips for making sense of Shakespeares
English, and Shakespeare: Original pronunciation. Dame Judie Denchs interview is given
credibility for the fact that she was made a Dame for her work with Shakespeare, also her love
and knowledge of the text. The other interviews are from less impressive sources, but they match
Dench in reasoning behind opinions and sometimes are superior in organization of thought.
Shakespeare: Original pronunciation was conducted by men who work closely with the Globe
theatre, an important and highly regarded Shakespeare theater. They use wonderful organization
and well placed examples of the use of dialect to prove points. It is based much more off fact
than the interviews.
Commentary
When discussing why Shakespeare is difficult to understand, the answer seems to
obviously be the outdated language; however Shakespeare made up many of the words and
phrases that we use today, that this could not be the only reason. I concluded that though the

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language plays a huge part, more detrimental is the stigma that comes along with Shakespeare.
The fear of his work is often because of poor first impressions. Most people meet Shakespeare
for the first time in a classroom where the teacher treats the play as a text book. Students then
understand Shakespeare as only a dull jumble of rhetoric fit only for the scholars (OBrien, 8) I
believe that Shakespeare is quite the opposite.
Shakespeare wrote for the masses, meaning his plays were meant for everyone who could
get into the theater, from queens to the illiterate common man. The plays were meant to solicit a
reaction from all the audience and to entertain, not to bore. It is true that the people alive in this
time had a more limited selection of entertainment, still his work would draw huge crowds and
the audience was known to rush the stage. With more audience interaction than contemporary
performances, they were not dull affairs. The audience was encouraged to boo the villain and
cheer the heroes, it would have been as interactive as a sports event today. Because of this I
fervently believe that Shakespeare is as much for the casual viewer as it is for a classical
literature expert.
I am convinced one reason why it is so heavily believed that Shakespeare is only for
academics is because of what parts of his text is most emphasized. For instance in Romeo and
Juliet the focus is placed on scene like the balcony scene, and lines similar to, But soft, what
light from yonder window breaks (Shakespeare, 13)? which are beautiful, innocent, and have
little wordplay. What we fail to see is that most of Mercutios lines are sexual innuendos, or the
most obvious line in act one, scene one spoken by the servant Sampson, My naked weapon is
out (Shakespeare, 13). This refers to his penis being drawn, not his sword; which is a wonderful
use of double meaning. In a performance of Romeo and Juliet I attended they played every

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innuendo in the script, in response a whole school of students left because the play was to vulgar.
Many times people think of this highly regarded writer as a pure, and teach the rhetoric, but I
believe a person cannot understand the human mind like Shakespeare did without the relating to
most people in the carnal way. Most times teachers have a difficult time teaching this bawdy
humor because they either do not know it is there, or fear bringing it up with students. Either way
it furthers the idea that Shakespeare is elitist, and disconnects students from the text.
Often people dislike Shakespeare simply because of one class. Dame Judi Dench, a
renowned Shakespearian actress, does not enjoy the Merchant of Venice because, it was ruined
for [her] at school (Dench, 4). I have found poor teachers can make reading Shakespeare much
more difficult than it truly is, making students feel afraid instead of freed by the loose rules of
Shakespeares English. No Fear Shakespeare is a commonly used reference material which
seems helpful, but is not. The very name suggests that Shakespeare is something to be afraid of
and it too often bleaches out wordplay, all of the poetry, and even a good portion of the
characters. Reference materials such as this not only destroy the fun of Shakespeares writing,
but also leach away the reasons for which it is taught.
The reason it is taught in English classes is of course his use of the English language.
This does seem a little ironic as any self-respecting English teacher would have been horrified by
this sentence structure, his atrocious spelling, his over use of the semi colon, and abundant sex
jokes. This is not to suggest that I think his work is not of literary merit, simply that the stress is
misplaced. Shakespeare was a master of language to create characters that is why he was a
playwright, he was the first to write true characters (Bloom, 1) and they are so often overlooked.
One person I spoke to, who is studying Shakespeare at Cambridge believes that teaching his

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work should focus on, mechanics of the language and helping people develop and
understanding of it, Which is a good point and a lot of people agree with her. Becoming able to
understand the language by ones self is important, but I believe it is much easier to be both
interested in learning the mechanics, and to actually understand them if the reader is involved in
the character. Also many of Shakespeares mechanic were based around his characters, for
instance, he would often use different letters and sound to distinguish characters, an example,
Richard III who uses most the s sound and m sounds to give him a more slithering feeling
(Shakespeare, 13). Shakespeare stole most of his plots from preexisting texts, and he made up
half of his words, but his characters were his true genius. Focusing on his language can often
distract from the character, whereas focusing on the character will enhance the language. The to
be or not to be speech is far more interesting if the audience is invested in the character Hamlet,
then if it is taken out of context and studied purely academically.
Shakespeare will always be more difficult to understand than modern text simply because
it sounds odd to our ear, but, it need not be feared (Dench, 4). It is often perceived as
something it is not, and the teaching emphasis is not always where it needs to be. There should
be more focus on character and on the human aspects of Shakespeares writing; in depth text
analysis should come later. Shakespeare is wrote engaging stories, not an encyclopedia, and his
work should be treated as such.
Solutions and Conclusions
Often Shakespeare is difficult for modern readers to understand because of its language.
Out of date word usage, odd sentence structure, and word play is not normal for the modern ear
and can be shocking. Societys feelings of fear towards Shakespeare can also make

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comprehension of his texts a challenge. Many people have preconceived notions of Shakespeare
as boring and meant strictly for scholars. Ideas such as these can be a significant discouragement
to contemporary audiences. Another contributor to the problem is the way Shakespeare is taught.
Focus is placed on more dull topics and the interest, emotion, and characters are ironed out of
stagnant lesson plans. Once students have had such a painful experience with Shakespeare they
rarely revisit his work.
Some believe that Shakespeare can be easy to understand simply by acknowledging the
humor and becoming interested in characters. Looking at irregularities in his writing as helpful
clues rather than stumbling blocks helps to make sense of old fashioned language. Teaching
Shakespeare in a more actively helps student early in life to develop an understanding and love
of the text. His writings have transcended all levels of social, economic, and education systems
since they were written. Shakespeare being taught to lower level classes, and having cheap
community theatre productions of his plays could continue this tradition and make his work
available to all different types of people. Shakespeare should not be feared, remembering this
will make readers more able to understand his work.

Works Cited

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1. Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. 1998. South Atlantic Modern
Language Association. Book. May 15, 2015.
2. Crystal, David. A Brave New Linguistic World. June 2002. London: Trinity College.
n.p.www.davidcrystal.com. Magazine article. April 20, 2015.
3. Crystal, David and Ben. Shakespeare: Original pronunciation. Oct 17, 2011. The Open
University. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gPlpphT7n9s. Video. May 15,
2015.
4. Dench, Dame Judi. Muse of Fire at the Globe. 2014. The Globe Theatre.
https://globeplayer.tv/museoffire. Video interview. April 24, 2015
5. Dukeofbookingham. May 18, 2015. Interview. May 18, 2015.
6. Gosling, Maya. Shakespearian Vocabulary, part 1. 2015.
http://goodticklebrain.tumblr.com/post/114019332763/lets-face-it-shakespeare-isntalways-easy-to. Comic. May 18, 2015.
7. Miles, Kristopher. May 16, 2015. Interview. May 16, 2015.
8. OBrien, Peggy. Doing Shakespeare: "Yo! A Hit! A Very Palpable Hit!". 1993. The _
English Journal. National Council of Teachers of English. www.jstor.org. Article.
April 20, 2015.
9. Plaguedhouse, Isaiah. May 17, 2015. Interview. May 17, 2015.

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10. Poole, Dan and Terera, Giles. Muse of Fire. 2013. n.p. http://www.museoffirefilm.co.uk/.
Documentary. April 24, 2015.
11. Pressley, JM. Tips for making sense of Shakespeares English. 1997. Shakespeare
Resource Center. Online Article.
http://www.bardweb.net/content/ac/shakesreader.html. May 7, 2015.
12. Na. William Shakespeare Timeline. April 28, 2012. Shakespeare Resource Center.
Online Timeline.
http://www.nosweatshakespeare.com/resources/timeline/comment-page1/#comments. May 10, 2015.
13. Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 1623. Houghton Mifflin Company.
Book. May 20, 2015.