When I was an undergraduate at Indiana University, I took an English Lit. course entitled (as I remember it) “Major Plays of Shakespeare.” Since I’d always enjoyed the Shakespeare plays and it seemed reasonable that I might be involved in presenting one sometime, the course seemed likely to be of some value. However, on the first day of class, the professor (whose name I have [purposely, I think] forgotten) said that he didn’t enjoy seeing Shakespeare on the stage because you can get so much more out of them when you read them. I got through the class with a reasonable grade because I had to and I’d almost forgotten about that incident until a couple of years ago when I ran across Ralph Alan Cohen’s book, Shakesfear and How to Cure it. Now, since Dr. Cohen is the co-founder of the American Shakespeare Center in Virginia, and the title intrigued me, I got a copy and read it. I found it quite interesting and would suggest it as worthwhile reading, even if I don’t agree with everything in it.
Part of what got me thinking about this is the fact the Western is about to do a production of a play entitled Macbeth is the New Black. This is, as I understand it, an adaptation of the Scottish play set in a girl’s reformatory. Okay, I confess that I’m not particularly excited by this idea, but at least it’s not pretending to be Shakespeare’s play, like several movies I can think of, as well as a couple of productions which I’ve seen fairly recently and which have been so altered as to barely resemble the original work.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m NOT opposed to “modern dress” versions of the plays when there seems to be a reason for it and it clarifies the ideas of the play in some fashion. I really enjoyed Josh Whedon’s movie of Much Ado, which was certainly transformed in time and place, but I thought worked beautifully. What bugs me is the notion, which I’ve heard expressed, that the plays have to be modernized in order to be comprehensible and it would probably be better to use the “Shakespeare in Modern Language” versions which have become widely available (and made their author/translators a good deal of money). Of course, these are TRANSLATIONS into “modern” English, which guarantees that they are also interpretations based on what someone has decided that Shakespeare really meant. I think that’s a dangerous notion as Shakespeare loved puns and frequently chose to use words with multiple meaning. The word, “nothing” in the title of Much Ado About Nothing can be said to have four different meanings, all of which could be relevant to the play, but I’ll bet this isn’t made clear in the “Shakespeare for Dumb Folks” versions. I think that this variety and subtlety of word choice is part of what makes the plays interesting and material for an endless number of legitimate productions.
Anyway, to get back to Cohen’s book. Chapter Two of that book is entitled “The Shakespeare Teacher’s Seven Deadly Perceptions.” In it, he discusses what he considers to be the basic attitudinal mistakes made by many of those who teach Shakespeare. These are listed as:
- Shakespeare’s works are long poems.
- Shakespeare’s works are philosophical tracts.
- Shakespeare’s works are primarily narratives.
- Shakespeare’s works have definitive interpretations.
- Shakespeare’s works are “high culture” for serious adults.
- Shakespeare’s works are written in a difficult language.
- Shakespeare’s works are primarily historical artifacts.
Okay, I have read Cohen’s book (a good while ago) and I did get it out to make sure that I was quoting him correctly, but I’ve put it away, so I’m not going to make this all “scholarly” and quote Cohen, or other sources, etc. All I’m going to say is that I find each of these statements to be both untrue and pretty foolish (I probably should say “stupid,” but I’m trying to be polite). On the other hand, I probably should make some effort to explain, briefly, why I find them to be idiotic.
1.) Of course, Shakespeare’s works were considered “poetry.” ALL literature had been considered “poetry” since Aristotle (possibly earlier) and that wasn’t going to change for the convenience of modern English teachers. The fact is, however, that while Shakespeare did write some specifically “poetic” works (the Sonnets, etc.), many of his works were plays which contain a varying amount of prose along with the lines which were written in blank verse (poetry), as was the convention of the time throughout most of the Western World.
2.) Shakespeare’s works do contain some expressions of philosophy, but I would be hard pressed to find an especially coherent and consistent philosophical approach throughout the entire body. It’s pretty hard to create characters and have them perform actions (which is what characters do in plays) without treading on philosophical matters. And, of course, England was, at the time, legally a Church of England-based monarchy and it was illegal to support ideas which contradicted the teachings of that church or were deemed offensive to the monarchy. That means that the plays were censored to make them conform with accepted ideas. But any expression of “winners and losers,” “good vs. bad,” “right vs. wrong” is a philosophical statement and the plays do have some of that, as it’s hard to imagine a good plot without some of this. On the other hand, it seems unlikely that that was the fundamental intent, or they wouldn’t have been written as plays. “Sugar-coated pills” may work, but these seem like rather poor attempts to accomplish this sort of goal.
3.) Since Shakespeare’s plays tell stories, they often contain narrative elements. Some even have a choral figure to fill in the gaps in the action which aren’t presented on the stage. However, purely narrative fiction did exist at the time Shakespeare was writing and it would have been much simpler for him to have utilized this form, if that had been his intention.
4.) As to the idea of “definitive interpretations,” the entire notion seems absurd. I have in my possession eight different video versions of Hamlet, each one with a different cast/director and each one different in innumerable ways. Yet, all are Hamlet! All seem to be honest attempts to portray the situations, actions and characters of Shakespeare’s play honestly. I’ve seen this play performed several times, as well. Again, each production was different. I confess to being something of a Hamlet nut. I’m very fond of the play. I’ve found things to like (and not like) in every version I’ve encountered, because if there is a “definitive interpretation” for me it’s my own and probably was different last year and will be still different next year. These works are works of theatrical literature (ART). If you can convince me of a definitive interpretation of a piece by Bach, Mozart or Beethoven (let alone Picasso, or da Vinci), then I might buy into the idea that this makes some sense, but I find it hard to believe that this is going to happen.
5.) The idea that Shakespeare is “high culture” is the product of the Romantic movement of the early Nineteenth Century when it became fashionable to ignore what had been the accepted rules of art since the Renaissance. In his day, Ben Jonson, who was much more an advocate (and follower) of the standard rules, was considered a far better playwright. After all, while Shakespeare’s play were popular, he didn’t (generally) follow the rules so. While his theatre company did become the King’s Men (sponsored by the King, himself) after James I became King, but Jonson was selected to write the court masques and is considered the first Poet Laureate in England. Shakespeare was more comparable to Neil Simon of today, a good popular playwright, but not a creator of great art. In fact, Shakespeare’s works were generally regarded as a bit crude, as far as great art, but which pleased the popular (mostly uneducated) audience so that those of his plays which were produced (they weren’t all produced) were generally modified to fit the “proper” mold of art. It was those versions which held the stage until nearly the Twentieth century.
Only when the Romantic rejection of the traditional models were accepted did Shakespeare gain the reputation of being a “genius” and the notion of his works being great art become common. His poetry was considered sufficiently “artsy,” but his plays were thought to be too full of murder, vengeance, and just plain dirty humor, to be considered “high art.” Of course, after the ideas of the Romantics got accepted, too many English teachers either ignored the bawdry, or weren’t aware of it’s existence as many editors didn’t (still don’t) gloss the “dirty” stuff. It was the Romantics who made Shakespeare’s works “art,” by changing the accepted standards of what comprised art, which led to this notion of them being “high culture.” Now that’s fine with me, but it should be understood that they were not considered great art until long after the plays were written and a fair number of the plays are still less than “high art.”
6.) Shakespeare’s language does seem difficult, at least at times. Good glossary notes can help. Still, I do remember that Cohen maintains that the vast majority of the words Shakespeare uses (90+%, as I remember it) are still available to us and still mean pretty much what they meant when he used them. I don’t know if that’s true, but it does seem reasonable. I confess that I was raised on the King James Bible (1604-1611) written in the same language as that Shakespeare uses because it was the language of people who could read English at the time, so I may have an advantage on people who weren’t, but not much of one, as I’m not a Biblical scholar. Of course, being a theatre person, I would argue that the language should be more of a problem (if problem it is) for the actors than the audience. Good actors can make an audience understand what’s going on in spite of their not understanding the words (or at least all of them). If they couldn’t, pantomime would be impossible. But the fact is that even actors shouldn’t have to work a lot harder on Shakespeare’s characters than they do on those of any other playwright who creates good, complex characters. And the character creates the words at least as much as the other way around. If you understand the character, you can express the ideas behind the words which that character uses which are the ones the playwright chose to put on the page for that character to speak. If you can express the characters’ ideas, you can make the audience understand what’s going on or you are not an actor, but just a “word-speaker.”
7.) If Shakespeare’s plays were, primarily, just historical artifacts, why would people still be attracted to seeing them? Some of his plays rank quite highly on the lists of most frequently produced plays of all time and more appear on such lists. Obviously, a lot of people seem to find these plays interesting and important enough to attend them. That suggests that a fair number of people seem to think that there is still something of value in these plays. Yes, they do have some historical importance, but that wouldn’t seem to explain their popularity. Apparently, a lot of people still get something of value from the experiences they have with Shakespeare’s plays, both on the page and, better still, on the stage. In other words, they aren’t just “historical artifacts.” They are, in fact, simply good plays which can do what good plays do (get us to think and react) the way plays have been doing it for 2500 years.
Note that I have been speaking about the plays. That’s important, too, I think. These plays were no more written with the intent of primarily being read to one’s self than any other play. They were written to be heard and performed by a playwright who was also an actor. I have no problem with those who enjoy examining the literary nuance of every word, but they are NOT reading the play, they are studying the words. They are looking at a twig on the branch of a tree in the hope that it might help them to understand a forest. Perhaps it can. I would never discourage an actor from studying everything she/he could find about his/her character. But, in the long run, there’s more there than one can ever portray on a stage and putting it on the stage IS WHY BILL WROTE THE PLAY! Historically, most actors didn’t worry the way we do today about interpretation and motivation and the like. They just did the play. Often the blocking amounted to just keeping out of the other actors’ way and letting them play their role as they thought fit (at least if they were the “stars.” I like our modern way better, but that doesn’t mean that I believe in “definitive” anything.
The real point here is that we theatre people have to get Shakespeare’s works (certainly the plays) out of the exclusive hands of people who only see them as works as literature, not as scripts for performance, which they were most certainly written to be. Yes, there are things we in the theatre can learn from the scholarly techniques of literary analysis, etc., but these techniques need to be used to inform productions, not as an end in themselves.
Classes on acting Shakespeare need to work on understanding the words themselves just as much (maybe more) than understanding the scansion of the line. And this doesn’t mean just looking up the lines in someone else’s translation. If we don’t understand ALL of the possible meanings, we can’t make intelligent choices as actors or directors. We analyze the character’s words, actions, motivations, etc. for characters in modern plays, why shouldn’t we do it for the Shakespeare?
This means that we need to reclaim Shakespeare as a theatre person, not just an author of literature. I don’t think one can truly understand these plays without an understanding of how they work in performance, as they were intended. That’s the province of those of us in the theatre, not literary scholars. Only by reclaiming them as works of the theatre, can Shakespeare’s works (at least the plays) be properly understood. Then we can eliminate at least some of these “Seven Deadly Perceptions” and start to understand the real value of Shakespeare.
I think that is why Shakespeare’s works are worth producing. They provide ample opportunities for different ideas which can still be worth examining even 400 years after they were written. Will we ever get them completely right? Has ANYONE ever gotten them completely right? Probably not. After all, theatre is about pursuing perfection while knowing that it will never be achieved. But we do it anyway, because it’s worth all the agony for those occasional moments of ecstasy when we think we got close. At least it’s been that way for me…. That seems all too unlikely when the works are controlled by English teachers who are trained to just think of them as literature.