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Why so many people hate Shakespeare

I promised to give you all a follow-up to a post called ‘Play-readings – the Why and the How (next week)’,  [click here to read it] so I sat down towards the end of last week to start to write it, and quickly got stuck.

 I’m an enthusiast for play-readings, and enthusiasts are dangerous people. They get carried away and start to apply their enthusiasms where they are not relevant.

 I was waxing lyrical in my post on how wonderful play-readings can be as an introduction to Shakespeare, particularly for children. I was brought short by a memory from school-days of horrific play-readings of Shakespeare plays. The class read round-robin, not speech by speech, but line by line. I break out in a cold sweat now just thinking about it. Let’s face it – Shakespeare’s language is difficult, and any chance of meaning emerging from it in such a format is just about nil. I was so upset by this memory that I put my post away and started working on something else.

Judi Dench Luckily, that very evening, I saw a BBC documentary called ‘Muse of Fire: A Shakespearean Road Movie’ which dealt with this very issue. Two actors, Giles Terera and Dan Poole, who find Shakespearean scripts difficult if not terrifying,  travel the world to find out everything they can about tackling the greatest writer of them all by asking the Shakespearean great and the good (Dame Judi Dench, Sir Ian McKellen, Sir Nick Hytner, Peter Hall, Baz Luhmann, Harold Bloom, etc., etc., etc) how to tackle Shakespeare.

 [This is available on BBC iPlayer until 10:00pm on Thursday 31st October for those of you in theMuse - Baz Luhrmann UK, or able to look as if you’re in the UK. It will also be shown at Raindance 2013, and I cannot believe it will not get distribution on PBS in the USA, but probably not until 2014. Keep a look out for it.]

 One key idea from the film was that Shakespeare’s language is really rather difficult and the best way to be introduced to Shakespeare is through live performance where the actor deals with the language and presents the underlying emotions to the audience.

 We go to the theatre to be moved. Shakespeare’s plays have the capacity to move us greatly. But the difference in language and culture between his time and ours means actors are needed, beyond the ‘telling of the tale’, to interpret Shakespeare’s script for us, and so to move us. For children, experiencing and being moved by the story seems to me to be the key to getting them interested in Shakespeare.

Sitting in rows of desks, trying to understand the text, reading line-by-line or even part-by-part seems almost guaranteed to fail.

My own experience of working with children on Shakespeare, is limited to the use of 30 or so children in each promenade performance of Shakespeare we put on in the grounds of a Scottish Hunting Lodge. They take some of the minor roles of the play,  help move the audience from scene to scene, and frequently there’s a specially-written scene which relates to the play but is mainly played by the children. As the play gets close to performance, we rehearse the play in sequence (either the first half or the second half, or the whole play). What always surprises me is how engaged the children are with the play. By the time of first night, some of the children will know the complete text of some scenes, and whisper the lines along with the actors (not during performances thank heaven). Or every time we rehearsed Act 4 Scene 6 of King Lear, where the blind Gloucester tries to commit suicide and then meets the mad Lear, a group of the youngest children, aged maybe 8 to 10, would be there watching the two old men with great interest. Of course this is one of the more moving scenes in the play – I frequently started blubbing myself – but I am surprised that such young children came again and again to see this scene.

This supports the advice in ‘Muse of Fire’ that people should be introduced to Shakespeare by going to see productions, ideally live. Of course it’s important that they are good performances, and perhaps the growing tendency to broadcast plays by major theatre companies such as the RSC, NT-Live, and The Globe, provides a way for children to be moved by high-quality productions.

But what then, is the role of the play-reading group? I love them myself, and can get a group of 8 or 10 people to gather together to read a play on a regular basis, and they must enjoy it, or they wouldn’t come.

The key difference seems to be that all the attendees are pretty familiar with Shakespeare. They’ve acted in quite a few shows; they’ve seen a lot; and perhaps they have the confidence to know that if they work at it a bit, they can read the play together, and feel what’s going on. Perhaps they can also dig deeper than they could if they go to a performance of the play. A performance unrolls in real-time and one always loses a lot, but if you read a play carefully, you can reach a deeper understanding of the writing. Our own group is now exploring the idea of running a play-reading before going to see the RSC / NT-Live / Globe production to see what effect that has.

So for experienced ‘Shakespeare-lovers’, the thought is that play-readings can enrich a performance. For newbies, perhaps it is more important to see the production and be moved by it. But then the thought arises, would it be helpful for those newbies to read the play after having seen it. I guess it rather depends on the confidence and maturity of the newbies.

It all seems a lot more complicated than I first thought, and I wonder what your experience has been. Many of you have taught Shakespeare at school or at university. What is the role of play-reading and seeing productions in that process? Do you have the same reservations about play-reading as an introduction to Shakespeare? Do let me know by leaving a comment after this post if you have something you want to say.

And once you’ve done that, I’ll have enough information to continue my post on “Play-readings – the Why and the How”.

The Director

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7 Responses to "Why so many people hate Shakespeare"

  • Kay Riley
    October 29, 2013 - 8:28 am Reply

    I am an English teacher in Australia and I feel very much for the students who find studying Shakespeare one very long grind! We frequently do the reading round routine – can sometimes spur on those more extroverted students who get into their role but in general I think a play is meant to be performed to be enjoyed and reading is definitely not performing. Unfortunately, we have little to no affordable access to performances for juniors which is sad because they miss that special opportunity which might just be the turning point they need in their study of Shakespeare.

    • Richard Forsyth
      October 29, 2013 - 10:41 am Reply

      Hi Kay,
      Thanks for your comment. I wondered if you’d thought of taking your children to NT-Live or RSC Broadcast performances, or are you too far away from a cinema that broadcasts those shows, or does your budget not cover the costs?
      Best wishes,
      The Director

    • Richard Forsyth
      October 29, 2013 - 11:33 am Reply

      Another thought, Kay. Would it be useful for you to have a casting for a play which allowed you to give 8 to 16 pupils different parts of the play to read, where each reading pupil had an ‘interesting’ part to read. We’re in the process of developing just such castings, primarily for our own use, but if other people were interested….

      • kayak1871953ay Riley
        October 31, 2013 - 6:35 am Reply

        Thanks for you thoughts Richard. Financial constraints and a belief that only seniors facing the HSC are worthy of the bother and expense of live performance or a cinema performance of a play, sadly. But, I do very much like your second suggestion of the casting for a play. That sounds great and quite do-able. Please, put me down for that! Thanks.

        • Richard Forsyth
          November 1, 2013 - 1:25 pm Reply

          Hi Kay,
          We’ve been doing quite a bit of work on trying to produce castings for play-readings. We’ve done one for Richard II which you can find on the site (it’s free) at https://players-shakespeare.com/portfolio/richard-ii-mffe-play-reading-pack/ which might be worth a look. However, we’re currently working on Henry IV Part I and I hope to have that up on the web-site in a week or so, along with a post explaining what we can do. If you have a look at that, and give me some feedback on how useful (or otherwise) it would be for you or other teachers, I’d be very interested.
          All the best,
          Richard F

  • Richard Forsyth
    October 29, 2013 - 11:20 am Reply

    Colin David Reese on Shakespeare Performers UK says: very interesting blog and thoughts. Thank you for posting that. I so want to see the road movie but being in France the BBC link will not let me. Actually I don’t think Shakespeare is that difficult to understand – but it needs to be spoken in a way that makes it understandable. If we accept that his work is essentially visceral, emotional, passionate and avoid the intellectual then the essential meaning becomes abundantly clear. What makes Shakespeare boring is trying to understand intellectually and not emotionally.
    Trying to understand Shakespeare intellectually would be like trying to understand the mathematical formulae upon which Bach is based … rather than just listening to the music.

  • Richard Forsyth
    October 29, 2013 - 11:21 am Reply

    Paul Daly on Shakespeare Performers UK says: “What makes Shakespeare boring is trying to understand intellectually and not emotionally”. Nail on the head Colin David Reese. This should be the mantra for anyone attempting the Bard. When I did Merchant and Hamlet for Irish exam year students the director insisted that students hated Shakespeare because they had to read it. If they saw it performed it made so much more sense. That was also the general consensus of the students and teachers. One teacher said she had a degree which qualified her to teach English but not specifically Shakespeare.

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