Meant To Be Performed, Not Read? Nonsense.

For the umpteenth time today I saw that old cliche about how Shakespeare’s works were intended to be performed, not read. I don’t, quite frankly, care a whit was Shakespeare intended.  He’s long dead.  So, newsflash.  Every performance of Shakespeare does not imply that he intended it to be performed in that particular way. Do we think that he intended Oberon to speak in Klingon?  Or Lady Macbeth to drag Macbeth across the stage by his ear?  Or Hamlet to jump in a child’s wading pool, complete with goggles and swim fins?  Yes, I’ve seen productions that included all those things.  When you see a performance of Shakespeare you are separating yourself from the original (what Shakespeare did actually mean, to the best of our ability to figure it out) by a few dozen other people’s opinions – the director, the actors, the costume designers, the set builders, the production company…  At any time, any of them could make a decision that would have Shakespeare spinning in his grave.  You could see ten productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, each substantially different from the rest, and have no closer clue about what Shakespeare intended for you to take away from it. That is unless, of course, you read the play.  Even then you’ll have no idea what Shakespeare meant, but at least you’ll be able to make up your own mind.  Then, go see it.

11 thoughts on “Meant To Be Performed, Not Read? Nonsense.

  1. My head has been spinning trying to think of a decent, simple (and clean) metaphor to help ease you poor wretch into an understanding of what a play text is, and isn’t.

    Best so far – the cooking metaphor (not really the best, but cleanest).

    The play text is nothing but a recipe: There are some in the world who, lacking the requisite sense receptors (or experience) can never get further than the intellectual delights of reading and imagining what the finished dish would taste like – sad really.

    Others like to do the cooking – and await the reaction of the diners.

    But the true delight awaits those who eat – and never is the same dish served up twice.

  2. Wow, Alan, I’m trying to decide if the “poor wretch” comment was intended to be insulting, or a really witty Hamlet reference (“Look where sadly the poor wretch comes reading”). I’ll assume the latter, since I thought you enjoyed my blog.

    [Well, I’ve tried responding three different ways and none sounded satisfactory, but I’m here at work without any more time to devote to it. So hopefully I’ll be able to come back to it later.]

  3. Read? YES! Reading into understanding is the best, and reading for understanding with other folks is just a lovely thing to do.
    A recipe? Hmmm…digesting a play by “Shakespeare” can lead to more understanding.

    (By the way, I am a member of the Mary Sidney Society in Santa Fe, NM. Perhaps you have heard of the recent book “Sweet Swan of Avon: did a woman write Shakespeare?” by Robin P Williams — it’s defintely worth a look.)
    Thanks for your comments.

  4. Hmm. As a teacher and Shakespeare fan who laments the “Shakespeare’s too hard!” type of attitude most often found in members of the public, I have to disagree with you, at least in part.

    It’s been my opinion since my own high school experience that we do our students a great disservice by sending them home with a copy of R&J or Julius Caesar or Macbeth, telling them to read it and be prepared to discuss it the next day. Doing so is like sending them home with a Beethoven score and asking them to be prepared to discuss it without ever hearing it. No decent music teacher would do such a thing without providing a CD to listen to while viewing the score; why do we insist, then, on subjecting our students only to Shakespeare’s text?

    I firmly believe that most people grasp Shakespeare when they see it performed. They may not get all of it, but they get more than they would by attempting to read the play, getting frustrated, and chucking the book against the wall.

    I’ve no objection to the play being read *as well*, but I feel the play should be seen before a book is introduced at all. If a student (and here I really refer to anyone approaching any play) is familiar enough with the material to begin asking questions and hunting for answers in the text, we all win.

    I’m standing by the idea that the play needs to be seen rather than read, or at least seen before being read. As Alan says, expecting folks to read first and understand is a bit like trying to describe the taste and texture of the cake without actually having sampled it.

    (Now if only we could get schools to teach this way…)

  5. I think we all agree on the “it should be both performed and read” thing. I was originally ranting against somebody who’d basically made the point that there’s no point in reading, because they were meant to be performed.

    I will, however, debate with you whether they should be read first. After all, aren’t we told in school the exact opposite about novels — read the book before you see the movie? I realize it’s a different argument given the horrible movie adaptations of many novels, but some of the points are the same. Seeing a production you see someone else’s interpretation. Often, unless you’re watching Kenneth Brannagh, they’ll cut out large pieces of the story.

    I’ve sat through productions with adults who’ve never read the play, and while they can get the gist of the plot, they certainly miss the intricacies of the dialogue. And if you miss the dialogue, what exactly was the point of seeing Shakespeare in the first place? why not just go see somebody walk through the motions so you can get the general idea?

    On the other hand if you read it first, then sure, you’re not going to follow it 100%. But there will be parts that you do get, and you’ll find that you have a whole different level of understanding because now when you do go and see a show you’ll realize that you actually know what they’re saying to each other, and not simply “Ok, that guy’s mad at that guy.”

    Additionally, you can read at your own pace. during performance, even if you catch a piece of something htat sounded cool, you can’t say “Wait, go back, what did he say?” but when reading, you can do exactly that.

    Then again I’m not a teacher of the stuff. I still can’t believe that if most high school students knew just how much sex and violence there was in Romeo and Juliet that they wouldn’t absolutely love it.

  6. As someone who decided in the past few years that reading the book first generally means I have no chance of enjoying the movie on its own merits, I either see the movie first, or read the book several months, if not a year or so, ahead, so that my recollection of the book doesn’t ruin the movie for me. Probably not the best analogy, then 😉

    I think it’s important to emphasize that I’m coming at this from a teaching angle, and I can tell you that high school students will not under any circumstances voluntarily read a Shakespeare text. Ever. (With the very occasional exception, who will not be able to make his or her enthusiasm understood to the rest of the class.) They do it only under threat of a rotten grade, and even then, they grumble and complain.

    However, if you give them the opportunity to watch it, they’re at least willing to give it a chance. And I’m not arguing about a production’s quality or their understanding of the intricacies of the language–in terms of snaring the teenaged (and, for that matter, average “Shakespeare is too hard” adult) viewer, we’re not talking about high art–they’re not going to get the intricacies the first time, no matter how they first encounter the play. We’re talking about demonstrating that this stuff is not hard, and is not boring. We’re showing them that it’s far more accessible than they might previously have imagined.

    I don’t think you need to be Laurence Olivier to manage that. I’ve seen local groups do thoroughly respectable, if not perfect, and entertaining performances that can snag an audience just fine.

    That’s all we’re going for here. The rest comes when you start asking questions, read the play, and dig in. No student is going to give a damn about what’s going on in a play they’re determined to believe, from the get-go, that they can’t read, can’t understand, has nothing to do with them, and they don’t care about.

    And I hardly need mention that no high school English class affords a student the opportunity to read at his or her own pace. You’re lucky if you get much more than a week on any book or play these days, so your students are scrambling to cram the reading in in time to take care of the obligatory pop quiz or five-paragraph essay.

    My point is that most people believe that Shakespeare is too hard because they don’t understand it, and they don’t understand it because they’re forced to read it, struggle with language and action they can’t visualize, and then, if they’re lucky, they might get a chance to see a movie with, as you say, many scenes cut (which is why, in my ideal world, you’d be taking them to the theater).

    I think we could change the way people respond to Shakespeare if we change the way it’s taught in schools. Alas, most schools just don’t seem interested, and so we perpetuate the belief that Shakespeare is inaccessible and irrelevant. It breaks my heart.

  7. Duane, I was an exception to those rules, too (and I did mention exceptions in my last comment, because I was one of them). But I’m going on what I’ve seen in high school, both as a student and a teacher. You say “Shakespeare” to most average people, regardless of age, and watch them shudder or whine. I’d like to see that change.

    I think that there is an extra level of resistance to the idea that Shakespeare can be fun and rewarding (and come on, can you really compare Shakespeare to a mathematical proof? To most kids, neither looks like fun, but the proof is relatively quick by comparison, and thus not nearly as odious). That’s what I’m talking about.

    Is it the student’s fault, or the teaching method’s fault?

    I’ve been advocating for a better method of teaching Shakespeare since I jumped into this conversation. I don’t blame kids for hating it as it’s taught now, because, as I’ve been saying, it’s not taught in an accessible way. When I say kids won’t voluntarily read Shakespeare, it’s because our culture has managed to string him up as the Great Literary Bogeyman, and that’s due in large part to the way it’s taught in school.

    I am getting the feeling that we’re actually agreeing more than we may realize, but the last point I want to make is that you and I are both exceptions, given the current take on teaching Shakespeare. I’ll quite happily pick it up and read it. So will you. But the fact is that most people won’t go anywhere near it, and I think the way we teach it is to blame. If we want to keep looking for kids who are exceptions, then by all means, let’s not change anything. I’d really love to see classrooms full of kids who, even if they aren’t destined to become Shakespeare geeks, are at least comfortable with the plays and appreciate them for what they are.

  8. Your arguments, Saphira, could equally be made for all students in all subjects, no? “No student will ever, under any circumstances, voluntarily complete a mathematial proof. Or perform a chemistry experiment.” And so on. They’re students, and if you tell them they have to do something or get a rotten grade, then naturally they will hate it. I don’t come at that from the teaching perspective, I come at it from the student perspective. In an english class of 8 kids I was the 1 who properly memorized his Romeo and Juliet assignment, and enjoyed it, and was afraid to share my enthusiasm for fear of ridicule. I currently work with guidance counselors helping kids apply for college, and the same rule continues to apply – tell them they have to do it, and they start out by hating it.

    I agree with you that there are certainly bad ways to teach Shakespeare (I hope Alan chimes in, because if I recall he believes quite strongly that there are in fact good ways to teach Shakespeare so that students actually like it). But when you take the position that “No student will ever …” then what’s the point, really? Is it the student’s fault, or the teaching method’s fault?

    I completely and totally believe that Shakespeare can be made accessible, and even fun, for everybody. My daughter, who is 5, knows some foundations of Shakespeare (the Tempest makes a very nice fairy tale). I am a trained computer geek who really should have no opinions on Shakespeare at all – I have no theatre experience, I went to an engineering school not a liberal arts school, and I’ve never acted, directed or otherwise been involved in a production of Shakespeare. And yet, I love the stuff. I am the exception to all of your rules. And given that the vast majority of people out there will be forced to read Shakespeare but will also never act in or direct (or teach!) the plays, I expect that I’m representative of the potential audience that’s out there. If I can rise above all of the horrible teaching that’s out there and still be the Shakespeare geek I became, what’s to say that others can’t learn to enjoy the subject as well?

  9. Nice discussion going on here.

    I teach Shakespeare to undergrads, and I use film versions of the plays a lot. My intention is to show them to students who have already done the reading, so that they can get a feel for the different possibilities for performance of the play. I am realistic to know that it doesn’t usually work that way. Most of my students start the year this way — they don’t read at all, and hope they can pick up enough in class and secondary readings to pass, without ever having to wrestle with the “hard” priamary texts. Usually, watching the different versions gets them interested, especially as they see how different they can be. I try to use a wide range, so that it will get their interest going. It often works, and by the end of the year, I will have a fair number of students actually reading the plays. (And, I never show the full version of any play. Usually just a scene or two from several different performances — the same scene done several different ways.)

    For what it is worth, I have friends (not Shakespeare geeks, just good friends) who will go see performances with me. They always read the plays first, saying they are afraid they won’t understand what they are watching if they don’t read in advance. I suspect it works both ways, and that it is most accurate to say (as has been said above) that reading and watching are best done hand in hand. Which “should” come first probably depends on the individual.

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