Now I’m not going to get into the whole so-called “authorship question” right now. I may take a look at that at some later date, but I don’t want to get into that at the moment. Perhaps I’m just completely out of touch in thinking that these 400 year-old plays still have some relevance and deserve at least occasional productions, but I don’t seem to be alone in that belief, if one looks around a bit. There are many full-time, professional theatre companies (some with major international reputations) devoted largely to the works of Shakespeare. There are many Shakespeare festivals, I think at least one in every US state, which are devoted to these plays during at least part of the year. There are several important libraries and research centers devoted to scholarship related to these plays, their author and those times. The plays are studied regularly in literature classes and performed regularly in acting classes. Yet Shakespeare’s 450th birthday seems to have been, largely, ignored. That bothers me….
My suspicion is that at least a part of this may be an outgrowth of the contemporary trend to insist that “Shakespeare is HARD!” The language is hard to follow (it’s archaic AND poetic), the action is obscure, only English teachers (and a few other nuts like Yours Truly) can even begin to understand them, so how can the average person be expected to care about them? Part of this has been bred by teachers (not just English teachers) who have succumbed, in some cases forcibly, to the notion that everything of any importance can be learned (by which they mean memorized) as multiple-choice, “true-false,” “right-wrong,” “black-white” sorts of responses for standardized tests which will prepare the student for his/her “education,” which actually means “job training.” Lip service is constantly paid to the importance of learning how to think creatively, gather data and arrive at reasonable conclusions based on that data, etc., but the reality is that that really doesn’t seem to be what is rewarded (which means that it isn’t really valued). Even in higher education, a great deal of “research” seems to be based on assembling, critiquing and quoting what other “researchers” have said, rather than engaging with original information and trying to find a way of better understanding/explaining it.
This kind of thinking has also led to the proliferation of “… for Dummies,” “Idiot’s Guides…,” and so forth. Yes, there are a lot of these, covering many subjects but Shakespeare’s plays are pretty easy to find. What I find insidious about these is that they play to (and add to) the perception that “Shakespeare is ‘high’ art, capable of being understood by only those of the “intellectual elite.”
That belief is, of course, absolute “bull.” While it is certainly true that at least many of these plays were performed at court for the aristocracy, it also is rather obvious that it would not have been possible for a permanent company to have survived solely on what they were paid for court performances and that there would have been no reason for them to have performed the same plays in theatres for the general public if that same public wouldn’t pay to see them. In fact, we know that the public DID attend plays (not just Shakespeare’s) and that a number of people apparently made a pretty good living from the theatre of the time, so the plays MUST have attracted popular audiences. By the way, for any of you who weren’t listening in my classes, Shakespeare (who did get to be fairly wealthy) didn’t do so by writing plays, but by being an actor and part owner of a theatre and a theatre company (and by investing his money pretty carefully).
Yes, the plays (like most in the period) were frequently written in poetry and the language usage was rather careful and sophisticated, at least in the modern days of “textese,” but the plays could, obviously, be followed, and enjoyed, by not very sophisticated or well educated people. Why? I’d suggest because most of the time they just plain tell a good story, most often “borrowed” from popular, or known, sources. Most of the time those stories have both serious and comic elements, and there is often a degree of subtlety even within these categories so that there is often some just plain clowning as well as rather witty use of language, so that the comedy can appeal to audiences of multiple levels of education.
By the way, it should be pointed out that the language used is often rather bawdy. I‘ll even go further: sometimes it’s just dirty. A different appeal, but an appeal, nonetheless. Of course, that tends to be suppressed in modern editions either by cutting it altogether, or by simply ignoring it in the notes. It is true, therefore, that a fuller understanding of the language can be gained through some study (although some folks claim that as much as 90+% of Shakespeare’s language usage is identical to ours). Still, I do recommend Shakespeare’s Bawdy by Eric Partridge and Filthy Shakespeare by Pauline Kiernan as worth reading as bawdry IS likely to have changed over the years.
A single example might be worth including: in Hamlet II, ii, there is a line where Hamlet calls Polonius a “fishmonger.” I think that most editions of the play (if they note this at all) says that Hamlet is calling Polonius a seller of fish. Well, of course, that is the most obvious meaning. However, when you consider that (in the day) a reference to a fish was frequently a reference to female genitals or one who made a living using them, there is the strong likelihood that Hamlet is implying the Polonius is a “flesh-monger” or (to be more modern) a pimp. That opens up a whole new level of meaning in that scene, I think, and many of the plays are shot through with this sort of thing which many editions simply ignore.
Still, I think that actors and directors need to be aware of this sort of bowdlerizing, because an UN-expurgated reading just might help us to understand the play more fully and so, to arrive at a better PRODUCTION, even if we choose not to emphasize the use of such “politically incorrect” references. The entire point of writing a PLAY, after all is to have it seen/heard in a theatre. If one wanted it read, they’d write a novel. The idea of one’s primary exposure to a play being from reading it silently to one’s self and (perhaps) discussing its literary merits in a classroom was NOT the reason for its being written. Folks like one of my English professors who didn’t like to see Shakespeare’s plays in the theatre “… because you can get so much more out of them by reading” simply don’t get it. I’d suggest that if it can’t be communicated to an audience or it doesn’t advance the plot, it probably isn’t present. Of course, that means that those of us in the theatre may have to work a bit harder to fully understand this material than for something written last week: there MAY be more there than is readily obvious. Still, one can learn a lot by simply reading the play as if you were seeing it performed, at least for the initial reading.
So, read the plays aloud, if you have to read them. Better yet, read them aloud in groups with your friends. Yes, it can help to research some things about any of the plays, but if you pay attention to what the characters say, it’s rarely all that hard to at least get the gist of what’s going on. At the risk of rousing the wrath of publishers: DON’T read those “translated into modern English” on the facing page editions. While they CAN help, they do so at the cost of telling you ONE way of thinking about the play, one interpretation, if you will. We theatre folks shouldn’t accept that. We should want to make up our own minds. To go back to my example from Hamlet: the wish that Polonius was as honest a man as a seller of fish does work on one level, but the implication that he is a pimp to the king (Claudius; the King; murderer of Old Hamlet, his brother; Hamlet’s father) seems worth considering, if one were playing, or directing, that play.
I think it’s too easy to assume that the editors who did the “translation” (which I think is mostly a ploy to sell books) are providing you with complete information, when, in fact, they aren’t. What they are mostly doing is trying to make this “hard” stuff easy. And, in the process, telling you that you are too stupid to understand the original without their “help.” (Rather like misguided English teachers.) We ought to want to make up our own mind (especially for a production) AND IT’S NOT ALL THAT HARD! Remember, these are PLAYS, written by an ACTOR for actors. They weren’t written to be great art, that’s what the Sonnets and other poems are all about. The plays were written to put “butts in seats” and make money. The fact that they ended up being (in many cases) pretty well crafted works of literature is rather beside the point. Although it does seem true that well crafted plays make up a lot of what is remembered in the history of dramatic lit.
Anyway, I’ve rambled on too long about this. I do hope that at least some folks outside of “Shakespeare companies” do something to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016 (also in April). As is probably obvious, I think it’s worthy of marking in some way. Probably the most appropriate form for such recognition would be through production. I hope others will agree with me and that we’ll see an increased number of Shakespearean productions at least during that year.