Where Are You On The Interpretation Spectrum?

OK, I’ve tried to write this post 4 times now and it never seems to get where I want it to go.  Let’s try again.

Whenever an interesting question comes up where Shakespeare didn’t necessarily make it clear what he meant, people start to split up.  Some folks dig into the text, and others move away from it and into pure conjecture.

So I’m imagining a line. On the far left is “perfect Shakespeare”.  As if we jumped in a time machine and travelled back in time 400+ years so that we could see, and thus mimic, exactly what Shakespeare meant and said and why he meant and said it.  Of course we’d have to actually go back and live there for a little while to get the right frame of reference, we couldn’t just pop in for a show, but you get the idea.

On the other hand is pure interpretation.  Or at least, pure in the sense that you’ve retained only the essence of the original, to the point where maybe “inspiration” is a better idea.  West Side Story comes to mind, or Lion King.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is an interesting case, because on the one hand it’s entirely the imagination of Stoppard, but he’s weaved it beautifully into the original source material. 

So, where do you put yourself on that spectrum?  Would the time machine be interesting to you? Do you care at all about West Side Story sorts of production that have no actual Shakespeare content? What’s your opinion on each end?

I’m somewhere closer to the “inspiration” side than the time machine side.  I think that for Shakespeare to have remained relevant for this long, the important part has to lie more in the common core than in the details of what that specific audience would have known going into the show.  I do like source material. That’s where I draw the line.  If ya ain’t speaking lines that Shakespeare gave you, then have a nice day and go wait over there. I’ll enjoy you, but you don’t get to be in the same camp as those that use the source.  Make sense?  Take Shakespeare in Love.  Obviously, most of the lines in that movie are not in their original context.  Don’t care – they’re still good lines.

It’s not that I don’t like the lessons in Elizabethan history.  They’re … interesting.  But when the lesson becomes “To understand Shakespeare you have to understand the following,” I start to lose it.  I don’t *want* that to be true.  I want to be able to meet someone who’s never heard of Shakespeare and say “Watch this” and know that he can still come away seeing the genius.  You may understand it more if you study it, but that of course is true of everything.  When it’s presented as an obstacle to understanding, that’s when I camp myself on the side of the folks that don’t and possibly never will know or care about that stuff.  And then I go searching for as much of that core/essence that I can find, and share it with those folks.

19 thoughts on “Where Are You On The Interpretation Spectrum?

  1. Good question, Duane. I think there is something to be gained by understanding Shakespeare in the context in which he wrote, but it can be taken too far. Some insights will become apparent that might otherwise be missed if one studies Shakespeare's times. But I agree with you that Shakespeare's works would not have endured if they could not stand on their own without such study. That does not mean that it is not worth avoiding misunderstanding the text. Aside from that, I love interpretation when it is done well. Stoppard rocks.

  2. I actually find myself torn on the subject, as a scholar on one hand, and as an actor/ director on the other. As a scholar, I would love to see letter perfect Shakespeare being performed. I would take this time machine,and I would go back and see the shows as they were originally meant to be performed. (Granted, I might also try to steal a copy of Love's Labour's Wonne, but I mean, who wouldn't?) Also, as a scholar, I really do think that knowing about Shakespeare's source material, and Elizabethan culture as a whole, do really enrich the play. (The Ghost in Hamlet is a perfect example of this.)

    Then again, on the other hand, is the practical actor/ director side of things. The most important part of a play, aside from the performer, is the audience. Practically, we cannot expect our audiences to be familiar with a large amount of period culture, and truly, it isn't our job to spoon feed it to them. That attitude is what leads to a lot of people hating Shakespeare. They don't hate Shakespeare, they hate the fact he represents such a holier than thou attitute, which is really difficult not to assume in the situation. As an actor, knowing the culture has truly helped enrich my performances, but I've dealt with many actors who have given fine performances but only knowing the text that was in front of them. The point for this side is that knowing the culture really isn't necessary to enjoy the plays, as they can stand on their own, both as performance and literature.

  3. I think I would locate myself more in the interpretation side of the spectrum. Although I admit that it can be interesting to have a closer look at Elizabethan/Jacobean culture, I guess that the real problem is that we cannot simply go back there and no matter how much we try we will never be able to understand the way they were thinking (ok… except for the time machine option).

    My Shakespeare tutor at univer
    sity likes to point to this picture (http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_c4twH_sjx5o/SR9R1zfgnlI/AAAAAAAACCA/VkxFhFMHB70/s400/imperaum.jpg) when trying to prove this theory. This is a cabinet of wonders (Wunderkammer) and the interesting thing about it is that many cabinets in early modern times looked exactly like this. There seemed to be a kind of rule, which objects were desirable and in which order they were supposed to be exhibited. However, we cannot understand this order. We do not know why the crocodile is on top and we do not know why the fishes and shells are hanging from the ceiling and so on. But apparently there was some kind of logic behind it.

    Another (maybe depressing) example can be Tillyard's "The Elizabethan Word Picture". He published it in 1942 and everyone thought: "Oh yes! That's how it must have been like! That's how they thought"… and then along comes New Historicism and says: "No way"

    See my point? Maybe I am a bit too pessimistic and I do not want to suggest that we should not try to dig into Elizabeth culture but I also want to say that we will probably never be able to understand it completely.

  4. I have two comments:

    First, in regards to the question of a Spectrum, I have myself felt very strongly for some time now that there is a spectrum within producing Shakespeare's work and for the most part it is very similar to yours with some differences. The things that make my spectrum different from your puts me I think on your spectrum at the interpretive side. In my spectrum there is no "Perfect Shakespeare." I believe that is a very modernist notion of which the early modern audiences (and directors for that matter) would not have even conceived. Therefore, my spectrum is one of Adaptation. Every edition you get with its annotations, footnotes and adjustments to the text, change your understanding of the text by the addition of the editor's views. Every time you see a play directed, no matter how "true to the time" they produce it, forces on us the director's and actors' understanding of the text. Those smallest deviations I put on the left side of my spectrum, and I put Romette and Julio, West Side Story, The Two Gentlemen of Lebowski on the right as the most adapted forms still recognizable as comeing from Shakespeare.

    Second, In response to Duane:

    'Does anyone else, by the way, see any irony in the "it's all right there in the annotations!" argument in a world where "Shakespeare is meant to be performed, not read" is the norm? ;)'

    I agree with your statement about directors. It is the Job of the Director and the Actors with the help of their Dramaturg (if they have one) and the rest of the crew to know all that is necessary to produce a play in the way they best see fit. Then it is also their job to be able to convey everything to the audience so that the audience doesn't know need to understand the symbolism of Ophelia's Flowers to understand that deeper things are at work in her mind that she can't or wont let bubble to the surface in a coherent way.

  5. All great answers with the possible exception that I think maybe they miss some of the import of the argument in the original statement.
    My question is, since when did common accepted knowledge become a barrier to understanding? Especially when the information is served up on a platter willingly?

    And I believe that the offering of that information to be something other than what can only be described as the disingenuous creation of a world of "perfect Shakespeare"; pretending that everything we might not know (or in fact might not WANT to know about because it disagrees with our fantasy) is some deep, dark secret which takes "too much work" to find out about–even when someone might quite easily make us aware of it.
    "Pure conjecture" can be a wonderful imaginary exercise until it begins to intentionally ignore blatant facts in an effort to prove its point. Then it becomes not only illegitimate, it becomes a threat to understanding and accurate and evidently salient interpretation, to say nothing of a great waste of time.

    Carl wrote: "That does not mean that it is not worth avoiding misunderstanding the text."

    Forgive the impression that that is indeed the advice we are being asked to let go unheeded.
    To put it bluntly, what kind of apologetic nonsense are we talking here in an effort to praise ignorance? This isn't rocket science–most of what was talked about in the previous Ophelia's Flowers thread (apparently the spur to this one) is available in annotation, and if not, in the text itself. And it's not simply about understanding what Elizabethan audiences would have understood. It's much more importantly about what S. was saying and why. If we can understand something about that, it might prevent us from flying off on some unsupportable tangent, thereby doing a disservice to the work by in fact MIS-interpreting it against all odds.
    Or, we can simply pretend it's too hard, doesn't exist, and go blissfully about our way in ignorance.

  6. Seems like I finally managed to make my point? 🙂 I think JM in particular hits on exactly the argument I was going after, since in his wording alone he show his position – on one end we have "all the deep dark secrets" are really served up on a silver platter, while at the other end we have an "illegitimate threat to understanding" that "intentionally ignores" blatant facts.

    I think that we're talking about multiple standard deviations away from the norm at that point. Your typical user who is trying to decide whether to rent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, or who is going to see a production of Twelfth Night because their kid is playing Viola, are not intentionally being ignorant of anything. Nor is the sort of information that we're discussing anything that I would call easily available. You can't expect my daughter's grandfather to go get himself an Arden edition and start reading the footnotes so he can get subtext.

    Does anyone else, by the way, see any irony in the "it's all right there in the annotations!" argument in a world where "Shakespeare is meant to be performed, not read" is the norm? 😉

    A distinction that's apparent here, though it's not been outright stated, is in whether we're talking about producers or consumers. A director of Shakespeare who remains intentionally ignorant of the information available to him, I agree completely, is doing a disservice to his audience. But isn't it unfair to the audience (i.e. the consumers) to essentially assign them homework before they can enjoy a show, telling them things like "Unless you understand the symbols of each of Ophelia's flowers, like the Elizabethans would have, then you didn't really get it at all"?

    I don't see intentional ignorance at the far end of the spectrum I set up. I see things like Shakespeare in Love or West Side Story or even Ten Things I Hate About You. Very little Shakespeare, in the sense of text. Sure we geeks may cringe when a quote is used out of context (it is a requirement for your Shakespeare Geek badge that whenever somebody misuses "wherefore" to mean "why" you must immediately correct them), but there's an entire audience who doesn't even recognize what just happened and still manages to enjoy the heck out of it.

  7. I apologize in advance for it, but when we start discussing meals, and Shakespeare, I immediately jump to Titus Andronicus. In regards to the spectrum of interpretation (since I now understand the situation more correctly) I enjoy the interpretation when it's done for a point, (The Lion King comes to mind here) but by that same token, I dispise it when it's a blatant rip off by people who have made no attempt to understand the original source material (insert obligatory Ten Things reference here.)

  8. We're not really talking about the interpretation spectrum, but a spectrum with interpretation on one end and just a few allusions on the other with partial appropriation somewhere in between.

    Of course, it depends on what it is one is appropriating from Shakespeare. When one is taking the basic storyline from Taming of The Shrew (or a number of his comedies) one isn't really appropriating anything that is original to Shakespeare. These sorts of stories were performed widely throughout Europe by the commedia dell'arte troupes, and Shakespeare was certainly aware of those traditions. He set most of his comedies in Italy because it was understood that "comedy comes from Italy." Shakespeare generally appropriated from other sources for his plots.

    What's particular about Shakespeare is a.) his poetry; b.) a number of experiments where, after mastering the form of a particular genre, he deliberately subverted genre conventions (Love's Labour's Lost, Romeo & Juliet in comedy; Henry V in historical propaganda, et cetera) c.) the fleshing out of some stock characters into more complex characters, and d.) a couple of latter works that are of a completely new genre entirely (The Tempest, and Midsummer Night's Dream as two instances.)

    The point is that sometimes appropriating from Shakespeare is really just appropriating from the same pot he appropriated from– people were telling stories before Will walked the boards, and as we see, people still do!

  9. Hi Ian!

    First, you're right about the difference between "interpretation" and allusion. I think I tend to see them as a continuous spectrum that really comes down to "farther and farther away from what Shakespeare meant." Interpretation is when you start selectively choosing evidence to make your case, allusion is more when you know full well that you're just picking bits and pieces of the source and then going off to do your own thing.

    Re: the other bits, I'm going to assume you haven't seen the followup "chicken and egg" post where we cover exactly what you just said :).

  10. I might be way off the map with this analogy, but–what about a fine gourmet meal?

    Do I need to know and understand that the meat served to me was raised in a particular way, fed a special type of organic grain, raised to the peak of perfection, slaughtered through a patented, humane process at the full moon, carved to a perfect portion, seasoned with a blend of spices picked by hand and crushed with a marble pestle with hand-pressed virgin olive oil….okay I could go on with this forever, and I'm only talking about the entree, not the whole meal or how it was eventually prepared and served!

    Isn't Shakespeare like that? He was like an amazing chef, serving up all kinds of unique dishes.

    A few of those dishes are just a different take on something familiar: like romance, jealousy, ambition, or cheeseburgers.

    Some of them I find absolutely delectable, and because I know a little bit of what went on in the kitchen in the preparation, I appreciate it even more, like Chicken Kiev or the reason why it matters that Julius Caesar opens on the feast of Lupercal.

    There are other bits that are wonderful, but I'm not sure what's in the sauce. Still, I enjoy and savor: like the political intrigue in Richard III.

    Lastly there are dishes served that look unappetizing to me. They're not part of my typical palate and I don't understand why he's serving it, but if I come to learn more about it, I'm willing to give it a try (Titus Andronicus).

    I'm not sure if I've added anything helpful to the conversation, but this is how I read Shakespeare.

  11. Hi Duane (yes, I know it's been I while since I've been by these parts!)

    I haven't read the other post yet.

    I'm not sure I would necessarily view "interpretation" as being so deliberate as you present it. So much of an interpretation is going to be on a visceral level (after all, how much of our differing attitudes towards the more controversial plays has to do with whether we feel attacked or our sensitivity to provocation?)

    The idea that one is selectively emphasizing evidence has to be considered in light of what evidence is decipherable to the interpreter– and a lot of that might be determined again, by outside factors.

    And when we are talking about an interpretation that stays true to the original, are we talking about a production that recreates as best as possible the dramaturgy of circa 1600? or are we talking about a production that gets the overall effect on a contemporary audience that we suspect the 1600 audience experenced? Or are we talking about a production whose design attempts to hint at some of the linguistic symbolism that is lost to a 21st century audience?

  12. Great ideas being thrown around here!

    First, JM, I want to clarify, I think there are some scholars out there who are stuck on the idea that we cannot understand Shakespeare's text without understanding the exact context in which it was written and the exact meaning of the words when they were written. I think this is a mistake, because such a strict understanding is bound to be elusive. But Monica's point is more important: directors and actors must understand the text as best they can, and it is their job to allow the audience to understand the play without any special knowledge. There is an important distinction between READING the plays and SEEING them performed. Should Duane's daughter's grandfather (um, his Dad?) get an Arden edition and read the footnotes? Ideally, yes, but maybe the only reason he shouldn't is because the Arden footnotes can be such a royal pain sometimes! What if there were really good editions that were better than the goofy Folger's and not so arcane as the Arden? Is it impossible, Duane, to imagine an edition that explained Shakespeare without going off the deep end? I wish!

    I love Ian's list of what makes Shakespeare special: a) his poetry b) subversion of genre (like The Sonnets, by the way!!) c) character development d) new genre.
    He just left out incredible dramatic instinct.
    Excellent point that appropriating from Shakespeare is "just appropriating from the same pot he appropriated from." Without the Shakespeare magic they are just plots.

  13. JM express the view I believe most academics today have. No prominent scholar in the realm of Early Modern Drama believes today that there is one right way to do Shakespeare. With the advent of New Historicism there was a return to looking at the historical time period a piece of literature came from. (This had been lacking in most scholarship to that point, which instead read all literature in a vacuum.) But New Historicists also realized that history is ultimately unattainable. No one CAN take a time machine back to see what really happened. Modern academics who have not adopted this system of thinking about Shakespeare are in vast contradiction with the med/ren community as a whole.

    In fact many of the Professors I have worked with encourage the same type of thought experiment that we have just lately discussed here, asking their students to take a scene such as Ophelia's Flowers scene and figure out different ways that it could be performed to emphasize different aspects within the text.

    This multiplicity of view points is a very Post-modernist idea but in a book I read recently "Shakefear and How to Cure it," the author suggested embracing Post-modernist thought in regards to Shakespeare rather than shying away from it because it gives a reader, a teach, an actor, a director all more wiggle room to play with the nuances of the text.

  14. I will have to check that out. I'm currently obsessed with the thought exercise that the American Shakespeare Center is doing over in Staunton VA.


    They research Shakespeare's original staging conventions. Then try to adapt them to modern conveniences. So that what they see as the 'spirit' of Shakespeare isn't lost.

    They are very successful at producing very active (and interactive) performances of Shakespeare's plays and during their off season they do many lesser known renaissance plays (Not limited to but including "the Roaring Girl," "The Alchemist," "Dr. Faustus" and so much more).

    They are successful specifically because all the directors and many of the actors are also scholars who do research into Renaissance Drama, and they take the time to really know what in the text so that they can use it to its fullest potential.

    The biggest complaint I've ever heard about their work is that they make Shakespeare too bawdy. But really to me that seems more like the person needs to reexamine what manner of jokes are there in Shakespeare's text and I think they would find that Shakespeare is Bawdy. No one needs to make him so.

  15. Carl.
    Whenever I speak of the text and context, I'm talking about what is there that we might be able to first use as a guide to help us understand the actuality of what's there, thereby allowing the material to be presented in a fashion as fleshed-out as we can make it. This is, of course, from a performance standpoint. But attempts to pigeon-hole me into some invented category:

    "Does anyone else, by the way, see any irony in the "it's all right there in the annotations!" argument in a world where "Shakespeare is meant to be performed, not read" is the norm? ;)"

    sorely miss the point. As I am quick to tell any professor of academic Shakespeare I come in contact with, I refuse to be a member of any "camp" on either side of the battlefield when it comes to interpretation. What is accurate, textually AND dramatically, since one feeds and supports the other, and since Sh. USED both in creation, and since that it what I teach and employ in direction (if anyone has at all been listening to anything I've written here) is what I'm concerned with. And although I do believe, from having studied such things and having employed them in actual, professional performance venues, that certain stylistic performance and theatrical values of the time can be important catalysts in audience comprehension (the archetypal character study as opposed to the modern Method technique as I spoke of with Monica, for instance) Nothing is a be all or end all.–EXCEPT Awareness.
    Hence, Duane:
    There is no such thing as "perfect Shakespeare". It's a ludicrous idea. Repeated attempts to categorize me and place me in one of your invented polar scenarios fail miserably. (Especially when in quoting me, you misquote and mis-categorize out of context to fit YOUR bill) Everything I said re:"illegitimacy" had to do with "Pure Conjecture" (again, your concept) which, in anyone's logical estimation, without pertinent information to guide it, is not worth the paper it's written on. (Philosophy 101)

    "Unless you understand the symbols of each of Ophelia's flowers, like the
    Elizabethans would have, then you didn't really get it at all"?

    Nobody said this-except for you.

    Any information in the Elizabethan context, provided by Monica or myself was given to YOU—and was given to you in context re: a subject YOU picked–not to somebody's grandpa as "homework". And after all, aren't you "ShakespeareGeek"? Do you offer advice, opinion, and discussion, and then pretend to be the "man on the street"? Such flip-flopping does little to help justify any scenario you might dream up.

  16. Come on, J, you're always the one that seems to go getting all serious and offended. That kills some of the fun, don't you think?

    I'll see if I can address some of your concerns, though I'd rather this doesn't devolve into nitpicking over word choice. There's times when giving others the benefit of the doubt is helpful.

    My "spectrum" was hypothetical, of course, as this is a philosophical discussion. Naturally it has no end points, and of course there is no perfect shakespeare. I said at the far left like I might have said "infinity". Similarly to the far right is some abstract concept of "pure interpretation", which, granted, was a poor choice of words – adaptation, conjecture and other words all came up that mean different things, and I'm not fully sure which I meant. Well, what I meant was "Just how much Shakespeare has to be in an idea for it to still be Shakespearean?" but then we get into a chicken and egg debate over whether a given idea was Shakespeare's or not.

    They are not "polar scenarios", they were intended to represent, as the title suggests, a spectrum between the two.

    There were three responses before yours, all of whom tried to understand the question as best they could ( I admit it the opening lines to having trouble expressing it properly ), and try to answer it. You were the first one to come in with all the negative language. True, you did say that pure conjecture could be an wonderfully imaginative exercise, and I did not note that in my original response. Point ceded. But that's two positive words in a sea of negative ones about implied intentions.

    Perhaps use of such polarizing words of your own is just your style. I'm going through the other comments as I write this and cannot really find another example where anyone uses similar vocabulary.

    We haven't done this sort of arguing in a while and … I don't miss it. My kids are out of school starting today and I'm sitting here trying to respond back to all of your points. I'm going to stop now. I think you read into my philosophical spectrum some intentions that were never implied, and then ran those to your own conclusion. Go read all the comments again, and you might see that I don't need to categorize you, you do fine all by yourself. No one will mistake your responses for anybody else's, that's for sure.

    Have a nice day. See you in the next post.

  17. Monica,
    If you don't know about it already, (just listening to you makes me think you might) you might be interested in a series devoted to producing Shakespeare's plays under as many of the same conditions as they were done originally. It's a series by Ronald Watkins called "In Shakespeare's Playhouse". The first is "The Poet's Method". Subsequent volumes are devoted to each play. I don't think the series was ever finished, but there are volumes on Macbeth, Hamlet, and Midsummer. Watkins was concerned with how the poetry itself was shaped to fit the circumstances and how Shakespeare turned necessity to advantage with his poetical technique. Also with how emendations of the lines and syllabic structure affect performance logistically and emotionally. Interesting and revealing stuff.

  18. Monica,

    the American Shakespeare Center is fantastic. I'm actually at their Young Company Theater Camp right now, and I can attest that seeing Shakespeare with the lights on is a great way to see it, and brings to light some things inherent in the text that are obscured by modern staging methods. I'd highly recommend checking out the ASC if you are anywhere near Staunton. Their current productions of Taming of the Shrew and Othello are particularly good.

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