Sorry Gandalf, I’m Gonna Side With Hannibal On This One

Sir Ian McKellen doesn’t think you should read Shakespeare.

Sir Anthony Hopkins does.

How great is it that we can actually have a conversation that starts this way? Both actors are starring in The Dresser, and there’s plenty of articles coming out where both are interviewed.

McKellen: “I don’t think people should bother to read Shakespeare. They should see him in the theatre! Reading just reduces him to an examination subject.

In the joint interview, Sir Anthony urged actors to read “anything you can get your hands on” and took a less rose-tinted view of acting in the theatre.

Now, let’s be clear. This is not a black and white topic.  I think that if someone has the option, then of course you need to go see live theatre every chance you get.  I’ve always taken issue with the idea that it has to be one or the other, as if there’s teachers out there saying, “Well we have a chance to go see the Royal Shakespeare Company person Othello, but we’re just going to read it instead.” If you find those people, then absolutely, gouge out their eyes and read King Lear to them.
But if you see it, and you love it, and you say “I want to do everything I can to get closer to the material”, then isn’t reading it (and everything about it) the logical option?  In fact, say that the thing you want most is to perform Shakespeare. They’re doing Macbeth next.  So what do you do, exactly? Do you run and watch every version of it you can find? Or do you, I dunno… it?
If you *want* to read Shakespeare, read Shakespeare. Anyone who tries to talk you out of it has missed the point. Period.

4 thoughts on “Sorry Gandalf, I’m Gonna Side With Hannibal On This One

  1. To claim that one should not read Shakespeare is an argument for ignorance. Shakespeare and all his finery are only available to a highly imaginative mind who can read a line with all the actor's possible interpretations, all the directors' adjustments and settings, all the designers' sets, props and costumes. Shakespeare is more than one production. The tragedies take nearly any reading you want to impose on them. There is no single correct interpretation of the text. The text is the interpreter. We are the flute.

    I love to see Shakespeare played well. I love when an actor or director shows me a truth in the text I've never before perceived. But to allow oneself to be played on like a pipe by other interpreters of Shakespeare is an ignorant way to study him. An actor must choose one interpretation of a line or his motivation is unclear and his acting bad. A reader may glide through a plain of endless possibilities, following multiple simultaneously.

    Directors must read Shakespeare. We are all the directors in our own heads as we read, with unlimited resources to limn the texts into being. Reading Shakespeare is not for the unimaginative, but it is for the rest of us. It is a creative act.

    *note: of course high-school students without the ability to read and understand Shakespeare at a literal level should not be made to slog through the text without visual aid and an incredible teacher.

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