Cooking With Shakespeare

It was either this or Titus Andronicus.

To read, or not to read…..that is the age old Shakespeare question. I hang out on many Shakespeare forums, and whenever the question comes up about “Which Shakespeare play should I read first?” there’s always somebody quick to jump in with, “They’re not meant to be read, they’re meant to be seen! Go see one!”

Long time readers know that this drives me crazy. The only answer to this question is, “Do both. If you have a chance to see it, by all means see it. But if you want to read it then by all means you get in there and you read it, every chance you get. And then go see it again. Repeat.”
In my continuing quest to put an end to this argument, I used the following analogy with a coworker this morning:

You go to a restaurant, you order a dish. You like the dish. Some time later, you are at a different restaurant, and you see that they offer the same dish. You try it. It’s different. It’s the same dish, but it doesn’t taste the same as the first one. Maybe you like it more, maybe less. Maybe they added something that wasn’t in the first one, or left something out that was. 

This cycle repeats. The dish becomes a favorite of yours, and you begin to seek it out at every opportunity. You pay attention to the details, you learn whose version you like and whose you do not, and why. You develop a fine sense for what goes into making the best version of this dish. 

Do you know what else you could do? You could get the recipe for the dish and make it yourself. 

That’s when you get the true appreciation for the dish, because you understand all the parts that went into making it. You can invent your own interpretations because you see what you have to work with. The next time you visit a restaurant and try the dish you understand immediately what they left out, and why, and you have a strong opinion about whether you feel this was the right decision. You explain to your companions why you’re not crazy about this version of the dish, and what the restaurant one town over does that makes it better.

So, there you go, that’s the new analogy I’m going to start using. Do you have to know how to cook a dish yourself before you go to a restaurant? No, of course not. You’re also unlikely to sit down to cook the recipe for every dish you might encounter in a restaurant. On the other hand, maybe there’s a dish you had once and you can never find it again no matter how hard you try. Maybe there’s a dish that your friend raves about and says you must try, but you never see it on the menu. The analogy works both ways. You can’t just stroll into the theatre district and watch whatever Shakespeare play you want, just like you can’t walk into any restaurant and order any dish you want. You’re restricted by the choices available.

My point is that there is a level of appreciation and understanding beyond just going to experience what other people did with the raw ingredients. You can and you should experience them for yourself by getting your hands and your eyes on the text. If you go down that path, you will be infinitely rewarded.

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7 thoughts on “Cooking With Shakespeare

  1. I like the analogy, but I think it supports the opposite argument.

    If I understand, the dish is the play, the recipe is the text, preparing it is a performance, the restaurant is a theater, and eating the dish is "seeing a performance". Reading a recipe and imagining what it will taste like is analogous to reading a play without performing it.

    The situation is that someone asks, "I know very little about Italian food, have only tasted it a few times, and would like to learn more. Which recipe should I read?"
    The natural answer is still, "They aren't meant to just be read, and they are tricky to prepare if you are unfamiliar with the technique and flavors. You should find a good restaurant and taste the dish first."

    But your argument seems to be that sitting down to read a recipe you've never tasted, in a style of cuisine that you are unfamiliar with, and with no intention of actually preparing it, will be just as enjoyable and instructive as actually eating a professionally prepared meal.

  2. No.

    I never said anything like "read the recipe and imagine what it will taste like" or "with no intention of actually preparing it." How come everybody wants to make it a competition between reading and seeing?

    My only argument has ever been that the text should not be feared, it should not be left to the professionals, it should not be kept at a distance. You get closer to Shakespeare by digging into the text, just like you get closer to your food by trying to prepare it yourself. Of course a professionally trained chef makes a better dish, because at some point in her life she dug into a recipe and decided that she loved it and went about dedicating her life to it. Some hate cooking, some dedicated their lives to it, and there's a whole bunch of people in the middle. But sitting on the sidelines and letting other people do it for you, no matter how good they are at it, is only half the game.

  3. You didn't say it, but isn't it implied that reading the play without intending to perform it is analogous to reading a recipe without intending to prepare it? If not, which part of the analogy have I got wrong?

    You say it doesn't matter if one starts their exploration at home or at the theater, but your analogy doesn't work that way. It specifically starts with "You go to a restaurant…"

    I think the problem is that you are conflating the acts of preparing the food and eating it. There are many people who would like to eat good food and learn about it but have no interest in cooking, just as there are many theatergoers who love watching plays but have no desire to act in or direct them. I would argue that it almost always works in the direction suggested by your analogy, that someone experiences great food or great theater before they choose to create it. You say "Of course a professionally trained chef makes a better dish, because at some point in her life she dug into a recipe and decided that she loved it and went about dedicating her life to it." But the question wasn't "Where should I start if I want to create great theater?" I don't think most chefs go about dedicating their life to a classic dish simply based on the recipe. I think they usually have tasted it first.

    Another analogy seems to be that someone asks what recordings to listen to if they want to learn more about jazz music, and you respond by saying that it would be just as useful to get a copy of the sheet music. There is nothing wrong with analyzing sheet music, and if you love music already and have the background to interpret it, you can learn a lot. That is the situation you or I are in when sitting down with an unfamiliar Shakespeare text. But for a novice who just wants to know where to begin, the jazz club or the record store is the place to go, not the Real Book.

    I completely agree that there is no competition between reading the plays and seeing the performed. Each has its own benefits, and there is much to be gained from either. The question is whether one is more useful in the specific context of someone who knows very little about Shakespeare. In that case I do think that seeing a production is more useful than reading the text.

  4. The two big issues with my analogy, I realize, are that (a) you have experience with food since the day you're born, but you at some point in your life start with 0 experience in Shakespeare, and (b) Food is an entirely physical experience, you either eat or you do not, you do not imagine what food would taste like. This latter is why "eating the food" and "performing the play" are lumped together, but isn't there a third option? Why can't imagination play a role? Don't we read books without having to see the movie first? Don't we have to imagine for ourselves what the characters look like, and how they sound, and so on?

    This gets back to the whole "meant" to be performed thing. I understand that, and it is always preferable given the choice, absolutely the same as "eat this chicken parm" is preferable to "read this recipe for chicken parm and imagine what it would taste like". Agreed. Completely. There is no contest that, side by side, you experience the physical world version of the thing.

    But what if it sucked?

    The first and only stage performance of King Lear I saw (which I drove several hours to see), he did not rage at the storm, he cowered and pleaded with the storm. The whole "Blow winds and crack your cheeks" scene was whimpered, as if the whole thing was one big "You are much more powerful than I could ever be, nature, so please don't hurt me, I never did anything to you" speech.

    Did I get a good Shakespeare experience there? If I knew nothing about King Lear, never read or studied it or saw multiple versions, and everything I knew about the play came from that performance, do you think I can check that one off the list and go through life thinking that my life has been changed by exposure to Shakespeare's greatest work?

    If you have the opinion that this interpretation is incorrect (or weak or poor or what have you), ask yourself how and why you get to have that opinion. Probably because you've actively chosen the path that leads you to learn more about the subject?

    Consider how many people know Romeo & Juliet entirely from the DiCaprio version (or, worse, that new one that just came out last year). Is that ok with everybody? If so, I don't know my audience like I think I do. You meet somebody that says "I love Shakespeare, Hailee Steinfeld was awesome in Romeo & Juliet wasn't she? That's my favorite Shakespeare! What other plays of his do you think I'd like?" what do you say? At what point does "You may want to see a few different versions of R&J" come into the conversation? Why? How do you go from "Go see it" to "Yeah well you saw it but I didn't mean that one, go see a different one"? How does our newbie do that on his own, without you to guide him on when he's seen a good production and when he's seen a flop?

    People see a good movie and we tell them, "You should totally read the book." Why is it so different with Shakespeare?

    >"The question is whether one is more useful in >the specific context of someone who knows very >little about Shakespeare."

    Here's the important bit. When, and by whose metric, does a newbie know more than "very little"? I've always agreed that if somebody came up to you and said, "I know nothing about Shakespeare, where should I start?" I'd never in a million years say "Read it." No question, never has been one. But how about the newbie above who has seen one or maybe 2 productions, probably film versions, possibly high school versions, and says "I want to learn more." Now what? At what point is it ok to tell them to actually read it?

  5. I was definitely assuming that "Which shakespeare play should I read first" implied that we were dealing with someone who is just beginning their exposure to Shakespeare. I also assumed they were young enough to have not read any in school yet. Perhaps I over-assumed. Perhaps the best answer is, "Well, which films or theater productions have you seen, and what did you think of them?", and then to make suggestions based on that answer.

    "isn't there a third option? Why can't imagination play a role? Don't we read books without having to see the movie first? Don't we have to imagine for ourselves what the characters look like, and how they sound, and so on?"

    Yes of course there is. I completely agree that this is an important distiction between reading a play and reading a recipe, and my main point was that the analogy doesnt deal with it well and so implies that reading is less useful than it is.

    My thoughts about your Lear experience are complicated and not as relevant to this discussion as they might at first seem. I'd like to hear more about your feelings coming out of that production, and have a conversation about it, (maybe e-mail or skype?) but I think I will derail myself to tackle it here in this thread.

    "You meet somebody that says "I love Shakespeare, Hailee Steinfeld was awesome in Romeo & Juliet wasn't she? That's my favorite Shakespeare! What other plays of his do you think I'd like?"…How does our newbie do that on his own, without you to guide him on when he's seen a good production and when he's seen a flop?"

    If the person loved it, I have no standing to insist that it was no good. I can say, "Well if you liked that there are some amazing productions that might make you love the play even more!" Or, "Shakespeare fanatics were not impressed with that one. They made a lot of non-traditional choices and textual edits that I had a hard time getting over, and I've seen some phenomenal Juliets that have spoiled me." Yes, even, "Oh, now that you loved the movie you should read the text! You'll be surprised how much it was changed. Its much racier, much more funny, and much more tragic." But I can't claim any authority on which productions are good or bad. I can't say, "You loved it, but there was nothing to love about it." Each individual will either take something away from it or not, and it's not my place to say that what they saw in it wasn't actually there.

    Besides, if someone sees a Shakespeare adaptation and loves it so much that they now have a favorite Shakespeare play and want more, I can not see that as anything but positive. But that seems like a different discussion.

    All in all, I think the answer that we can both agree on is that whether one should turn to the text, stage, or screen really depends on their specific circumstances, and the best thing we can do is learn more about those circumstances before making suggestions.

  6. Now, I'm not a scholar, didn't even attend college, and I never read Shakespeare until someone "turned my brain on", so to speak to his plays.

    My first reading was King Lear; it is my favorite of the plays I have read so far. I have the speech of the King of France to Cordelia memorized; they are one of the most beautiful words of love I have ever read.

    To me, I like the challenge of reading Shakespeare. I have seen some of the plays, but in my average opinion, much of the beauty of the words, and the thoughts behind them are somewhat lost when I see the play.

    Not that I didn't enjoy seeing some of the plays, but to use the analogy of eating at a restaurant, I like to linger over the words, the beautiful, the harsh, the joyful, and the tragic, like someone would linger over a delicious dessert, enjoying it one bite at a time.

    So to sum it up from a very average Mom, reading first, then seeing, because the love of Shakespeare, for me, is in the language.

    –Average Mom

  7. I am not a scholar, so I will give you an average opinion from an average Mom.

    I first started reading Shakespeare because someone introduced me to the plays.

    It's funny you mentioned King Lear. It was the first play I have ever read. I have the speech of the King of France to Cordelia memorized. They are one of the most beautiful words of love I have ever read.

    I like the challenge of reading the play first.

    To use the restaurant analogy, the words, be it words of love, disdain, happiness, deceit, etc. are like lingering over a delicious dessert. I want to take the words in, one bite at a time.

    While I have enjoyed some plays I have seen, the words are spoken so quickly, I think the beauty of the words can easily zoom by.

    So coming from this average Mom, my appetite, so to speak, and my hunger satiated, is by reading.

    –Average Mom

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