How Not to Suck at Shakespeare

Having just passed the (alleged) anniversary of his birth and death, I thought it time to bring to the light the name which strikes fear into the hearts of many a high-school (and university) student:

SHAKESPEARE!

The horror!

THE.

HORROR.

But why? Why does the mention of The Bard’s name cause this gut(churning) reaction in so many? And, on the other side of the coin, the 10% of the population that adore Billy Spears, can’t get enough of him, argue over the Folio v. Octavo v. Quarto editions of his plays; which sonnet is his most sublime; whether the Oxford or Cambridge (or Yale or Arden or any number of other) publication is superior in the annotations etc etc etc YAAAAAWN…

Here’s my suspicion, because I’ve got both sides of the argument living in my head simultaneously:

It all comes down to who taught you, and how.

I started on Shakespeare my Freshman year of high school with Romeo and Juliet (as did many of you, I’m sure). We read it –

s   l   o   w   l   y – and watched the Zeffirelli version. We read it in English class. Which is where the problem begins: we read him like he’s literature.

He’s not.

Oh yeah, I said it.

Here’s the thing, kids: Billy wasn’t writing literature for the ages, he was churning out blockbusters for the masses, more often than not on commission from someone, and/or as a vehicle for a particular actor or troupe of actors. Us studying his scripts like they’re literature is the equivalent of people in 2415 analyzing what Riddick meant in the synonymous film during this bit of conversation:

CONSORT: So what is the best way to a man’s heart?

RIDDICK: Between the fourth and fifth rib. That’s where I usually go. I’ll put a twist at the end if I wanna make sure.

Riveting.

Don’t get me wrong, I actually enjoy the heck out of that flick, but plenty of people would say “Hey, it ain’t exactly Shakespeare.” Except, it is.

Go with me on this: Shakespeare wrote for the masses. He wrote time-honored cliches he knew would get a laugh: fart jokes, boys dressed as girls (and vice versa), political satire, and sexual innuendo. Often in combination. He had to keep the rabbles’ attention, so he put in sword fights, animals, curse words, and chase scenes. He had bad guys and good guys, and sometimes they swapped sides. Fair maidens got rescued, tough chicks scammed pretty boys, and plenty of people lost their heads. Is this Riddick enough for you yet?

Yes, I am saying not to fart on Sarah Bernhardt’s Hamlet!

The difficulty comes when you read the script. There are few stage directions, and those are all very matter of fact: “With Titania still asleep onstage, enter the Clowns” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act III Scene 1). There’s no special effects, there’s no car (or cart) chases, there’s no vivid costuming, stark settings, or even riveting performances. There’s just a bunch of chicken scratches on paper.

Look! Vivid costuming! And it’s not even Elizabethan, whaaaaat?! (Yes, these are all from Shakespearean performances)

If you want to get anything out of Shakespeare, you need to see it performed, by performers who know what they’re doing. Oh Lawd in Heaven, SIT THROUGH SHAKESPEARE?!?!

Calm down, I know there’s a lot of awful Shakespeare out there. I’ve been subjected to plenty of it. I’ve also seen some wonderful productions, and luckily for you, I’ve made a primer of performances which you should watch. Also, in the case you just absolutely cannot abide the thought of jumping in with both feet before testing the waters, I’ve also included some wonderful Shakespeare-adjacent performances. That means things surrounding Shakespeare, but not double-barreled Bard himself.

If you want to indulge in the privacy of your own home, here are some excellent pieces to start you off:

This is Laurence Olivier’s 1936 As You Like It  – Nearly all the performers in this one were known from the stage, and many (like Olivier) for the classics. Some of it may seem a bit grand-standy, but I promise you will understand the meaning of every word. Even with all the Shatner-esque pausing.

Here is Orson Welles in King Lear, a shortened version made for T.V. As it says in the information page, the sound quality is a bit dodgy, but the performances are solid.

Olivier!

Another one from 1953, a star-studded version of Julius Caesar. Marc Antony is played by Brando, Cassius is John Gielgud (before the Sir), James Mason plays Brutus, Deborah Kerr plays Portia…the list goes on. This copy is excellent quality, even if it does have Turkish language subtitles.

In another of the well-done T.V. specials, we have Sean Connery as the title character in a 1961 Macbeth. (For those of you superstitious types, as far as I’m concerned, as long as I don’t say the name in an actual theater, I’m fine.) The sound starts a little wonky, but it evens out.

Additionally, here is a list of many of the companies which regularly perform Shakespeare’s works across the USA. Some are festivals, some are year-round. Some of of them are even free, or offer free or reduced price performances on a regular basis. Many perform in really nifty outdoor or unconventional spaces, are family friendly, have activities to get you involved and understanding.

Now, as far as Shakespeare-adjacent things go, I highly recommend you begin with this video on Original Pronunciation by London’s Globe Theatre. It speaks of the difference between performing Shakespeare in modern (British) English, and performing it in Original Pronunciation (or OP). Here’s some more snippets of Shakespeare in OP, along with excellent information on additional research. You can also follow The Globe on Twitter!

Here is a link to an excellent article by Brendan Cole of the BBC about translating Shakespeare, and the challenges of performing it in various languages and cultures around the world.

Back in 1981 Raoul Julia and Meryl Streep performed Taming of the Shrew in Central Park, and there was a fantastic documentary made of the rehearsal and performance process titled Kiss Me, Petruchio. Though the resolution is low, here is a clip.

More of Taming of the Shrew is covered in the first episode of the PBS series Shakespeare Uncovered. Morgan Freeman narrates, and you also get to see clips of his production of the play (with Tracy Ullman as Kate). PBS has the entire series online for FREE.

Also available on PBS is a behind-the-scenes look at The Hollow Crown, their series of Shakespeare’s history plays.

If you happen to be in western Massachusetts this year in May, there will be a copy of the First Folio on display at the Mead Art Museum beginning on May 9. The Folger Library is actually sending a First Folio copy on a tour of every state in the US – if you want to gawk, they have an interactive map so you can find when it will be near you!

For just plain fun, I highly suggest you visit The Shakespearean Insult Generator, Thou accursed knotty-pated whore-master! (that was the insult I got when I hit the link just now). Or, if you prefer, make up your own with a great do-it-yourself insult kit from Playing With Plays, a site that makes Shakespeare more accessible to kids (and non-academic adults).

We’ve even mentioned Shakespeare a time or two on the blog.

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