Performance Enhancing

“Shakespeare was meant to be performed, not read.”
I hear that often. We discuss it, often. For the most part, however, I’ve been a defender of Shakespeare-as-literature. It’s simple reality that most people, in their entire lives, will not have the opportunity to experience most of Shakespeare. And even when they do, they will at best be seeing one particular company’s vision of Shakespeare. You need to see multiple versions to begin to get an idea of the whole. Or…you could just pick up a copy of the Complete Works and read what Shakespeare wrote. Nothing’s stopping you. I flinch when people suggest that the way to interpret the opening quote is “Shakespeare was meant to be performed, not read – so go see it performed, don’t read it.” Argh argh mother fricking argh. No no no. The proper interpretation for me has always been – “Shakespeare was meant to be performed, not merely read – so don’t *just* read it. See it performed at every opportunity, and read to fill in the gaps.”
But I’ve had an epiphany. I’m changing my interpretation, and it goes a little something like this.
“Shakespeare was meant to be performed, not read. SO PERFORM IT, DAMNIT.”
I would love to live in a world where every child, from the time they can sit still for a story, knows the stories of Shakespeare like they know the stories of Cinderella and Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. The problem has always been that not every child will grow up to be an actor. Most, in fact, won’t. So it is unfair to say that unless you perform it, you will never get it. Most won’t ever perform it, therefore most won’t ever get it? Unacceptable.
But who says that perform must mean “become a professional actor” or even “join the school play”? Three Steps, right now off the top of my head, so that everybody can perform Shakespeare, wherever you are, whenever you are:
1) Say it out loud. If you do not ever hear the words you will never fully internalize the words.
2) Stand up. You are not reading a novel, you are speaking an actor’s lines. When you speak, you move. Therefore when your actor speaks, you move.
3) Interact. Shakespeare’s got plenty of soliloquies and sonnets, so if you’ve really got no Shakespeare geek friends you’re not out of luck. But, seriously, if you bust out some Shakespeare and then somebody in your immediate vicinity follows up with the next line? Spontaneous freaking Shakespeare?? I swear to god I don’t know how you don’t sleep with that person immediately. Ok, well, maybe that’s unrealistic. A bit. But I can’t promise it wouldn’t cross my mind. 😉
I’m long out of school and never been an actor. I say Shakespeare, out loud, any and every chance I get. I only wish that I knew more, and that I had more opportunities. My confidence is not always perfect – every time there is a “toasting” opportunity I secretly wish for someone to turn to me and say “How about some Shakespeare?” but I never step up and just do it. I’ll work on that.
You know what they say, Be the change you want to see in the world. Don’t dream it, be it.

7 thoughts on “Performance Enhancing

  1. Absolutely read it out loud!!! I tell all my students that Shakespeare must be read out loud to be appreciated. You can't hear the rhythm of the poetry or appreciate the sound of the wordplay fully unless your ear is hearing it. YAY for your change of idea on this!

  2. After reading that I now can't wait for both your sonnet videos to upload on the iloveshakespeare FB blog group, Officers Morin and Mahler. In case you forget your faustian pact by joining it's sonnet 93 for Duane and sonnet 3 for Joe.


  3. I think if I had a nickel for every time I've written "OUT LOUD" on this blog, others, and my own, I'd be listening to more investment commercials that seem to inundate the airwaves nowadays. 🙂

    And absolutely, Duane, you're right; there's no need to have an aspiration to become an actor. Being able to speak well is a talent we all need to cultivate. And it happens best that happens earliest. I've watched speeches of Shakespeare imbue elementary age students with a power of self expression and confidence that amazes their teachers, parents, and most importantly, their fellow students. It's contagious. I've found myself having to write in parts into my adaptations for students begging to participate who had no intention or idea in the beginning that they'd want to 'be in a play'. Quite the opposite feeling is pervasive among 1/2–2/3 of the student body until they see how much fun it can be.

    Along the way, they learn about the history, poetry, etc., etc.,. But the most important thing is that they learn about the power of positive self-expression. The power to say what you're thinking! And that power serves them well in EVERYTHING they do from that point forward.
    Fear is the greatest enemy of learning. In my world, Shakespeare is the greatest enemy of Fear.

  4. "And absolutely, Duane, you're right; there's no need to have an aspiration to become an actor. Being able to speak well is a talent we all need to cultivate. "

    I think this might be the crux of it, at least from where I sit (at least, at this moment in my life). I think there's this gap between "I memorized it so I could recite it" and "I was in the school play" and/or "I went on to become an actor", and not much filling in that gap. I was never in the school play, nor am I an actor. But I can memorize and recite things. I would love to do it more, and do it better.

    And for the record I have no fear of public speaking, so maybe one informs the other? 🙂

  5. Reading it out loud comes first. And one informs the other.
    A promise I make to every student I teach–and I'm never wrong: The more you do it, the better you get at doing it. I'm constantly, without fail, pointing this up.
    Not everyone's going to become Olivier. But EVERYONE will improve progressively, commensurate with their own beginning level. I've seen it work with 1st graders, high school students, college students, and even captains of industry–yeah, I've been hired to teach them the same techniques as well.

    Our Language is a Gift. Shakespeare knew that. And he used it to its fullest. Who better to use as a tool of communication to teach us HOW to use that tool of communication–that GIFT?

  6. This is absolutely right. The words were written to be spoken, and make much more sense that way. The rhythm and even the stringing together of certain sounds informs us of the character's intent almost as much as the words' meanings. For example, read Queen Mab aloud, and you'll find the moment when the speech alters from light to dark, purely in how suddenly the words become harder to say.

  7. My take on it is, you need to see the play first, then read it. It is meant to be seen first, definitely. Jokes come across better, difficult Elizabethan language makes more sense, etc. If I was a teacher of Shakespeare, that would be my policy. Thanks to the ready availability these days of Shakespeare plays on DVD, as well as live productions in most communities, it's much more possible to do this in classrooms these days.

    Luckily videos were just coming in when I was in high school and I loved getting to watch Sir Derek Jacobi's wonderful Hamlet in class. (It remains, to this day, my favorite Hamlet of all the ones I've seen (and I've seen all the ones that are available to see!)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *