Sarah Neville, Ohio State University

Educational Level

Beginner to advanced

Writing component

Transcription, annotation

Group size

Small, medium, large


Oxford English Dictionary, textbook


This exercise was originally designed for a General Education-level Introduction to Shakespeare course but is easily adapted to accommodate the work of an author from any historical period that uses an annotated textbook. The first goal of the assignment is to familiarise students with one of the best digital resources for the historical study of English literature: the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The second goal of the assignment encourages students to think about the paratextual elements of their assigned textbook, and consider its intended audience. How does the glossarial, hyperlinked, or footnoted information of the textbook provide students with insight into an author’s language, characters, themes or message? Is the textbook as informative as it could be? By interrogating the choices made by commentary editors, students learn that critical work in the humanities is subject to judgements of scholarly reliability and verifiability. The assignment concludes with students applying their newfound linguistic knowledge to serve a creative purpose – recasting the historical language in a modern adaptation. By double-checking the work of critical authorities and considering alternative possibilities for interpretation, students learn the implicit message that critical work in literary study requires making difficult choices about authorial intention, and about a finished scholarly work’s intended audience.


In preparation, I choose a 25 to 40-line expository passage from the textbook that is unlikely to provoke a great deal of online critical commentary. For example, in past iterations of this assignment I have chosen Horatio’s speech on Denmark’s preparations for war in 1.1 of Hamlet rather than one of the play’s over-determined soliloquies, as students are less likely to have preconceived ideas about what such expository speeches are “about”. There are three steps to the assignment. I ask students to first transcribe the speech from their textbook, then to examine it and use the Oxford English Dictionary to correct and/or supplement the textbook’s glossarial notes. The third step is to rewrite the verse speech into modern English, translating Shakespeare’s ideas into everyday prose. A summary of my instructions to students follows below.

Prepare a full and complete perfect transcription of the speech, not including the gloss, footnotes or line numbers. While you are doing this, familiarise yourself with the forms of the sentences, rhetorical tropes, and repeated words that Horatio uses. This part of the exercise is crucial to your acclimatising yourself to Shakespeare’s language, so even though this process is tedious, it is important that you actually transcribe rather than cutting and pasting from an online source. You may find it helpful to underline every word you do not know well enough to define on the spot – that will help you with step 2.

Begin to gloss (or annotate) your text, using the footnote feature in your word processing program. Look up every word that you either do not know or that is being used in an unfamiliar way; if a word is glossed in your textbook, look it up, because you may decide to modify and/or change the note that your textbook’s editor has provided. Your goal is to locate the most likely definition of the word that Shakespeare meant to use, which may or may not mean the word’s oldest, most common, most archaic, or most vulgar form.

Pay particular attention to the year a word or definition of a word entered the language. This version of Hamlet was written around 1600, so definitions that became common only at a later date cannot reasonably be used to explain Shakespeare’s meaning. Also be careful to make sure that the word forms between the speech word and footnote match: if a word is used as a verb, don’t define it as a noun. You may find that explaining that language is figurative or symbolic might help you write a better note.

Your glosses should be very, very, short – use your textbook as a model. Usually 2-3 words are sufficient, up to a single sentence to explain a complex idea. If more than one meaning is possible, separate distinct meanings with a semi-colon (e.g. “well off; virtuous”). You should end up with a total of 30-50 footnotes; having fewer than 25 will not merit a passing grade.

To make sure that it is clear what word or words are being cited in your footnote, use a lemma.1 Using a lemma will help your reader to twig the vicissitudes2 of your notes, even when you switch between annotating single words and phrases.

Completely rewrite the passage in modern English prose, sentence by sentence. (You may need to break up longer sentences in the passage into shorter ones to make your own meaning clear.) Your goal is to translate the complex ideas conveyed in the speech into simpler language that is more familiar to modern readers.

Your rewritten passage should not simply copy the words of Shakespeare’s speech and change a few words here or there – students who attempt this will not to do very well on this assignment. Instead, try to convey Horatio’s ideas in the language of today, using common idioms, metaphors, and phrasing. Be careful that you don’t add additional information that is not actually present in the speech.


After completing the assignment, which I usually assign within the first few weeks of class, students are more inclined to make distinctions between the text of an author and the paratexts of their textbook’s editors, recognising that the authority of the latter category is subject to a different level of critical debate. Likewise, after having sought evidence in the OED supporting or refuting a commentary editor’s chosen gloss, students are better able to appreciate that textual evidence is always needed to support critical arguments in secondary literature, leading to more adventurous student essays that are less deferential to received opinion. Students generally dislike one half of the assignment but like the other – and when the matter is taken up in class afterward on the day submissions are due, students are mystified to find that not everyone shares their opinion on which part was easier to complete! Regardless, many students who have completed this assignment have later reported that they made use of the OED in later coursework as a result.


1. The thing that is glossed, rendered in bold.

2. Understand.