Experiencing Shakespeare

So many people have complained about the unpleasant way they were introduced to Shakespeare back when they were in school, perhaps a few words about what works might be in order as we leave the summer for another year of school or other communal activities.

The best way to create understanding for Shakespeare is for the class or group to read one of the plays out loud, each taking a part in rotation, scene by scene.  Sitting in a circle, in chairs or at student desks or around a cafeteria or library table, or even on the floor, everyone must have their own copy.  They don’t all have to be from the same edition, each can bring his or her own from home.

It begins with the teacher or leader giving a quick sketch of the plot and the characters; if some already know the play, they can contribute their knowledge and ideas.  The person to the right of the teacher/leader begins with the first scene of the first act, taking the part of the first character to speak.  The person to their right takes the part of the next to speak, and so on.  If the scene has only three people in it, which many do, then only three people will read that scene.  When the scene changes, the first person who has not yet spoken to the right of the last of those who have taken that scene, will takes the first part in Scene 2, and so forth, around the circle.

The mechanism that propels this foray into drama is the fact that everyone gets to read, and the most important factor is that, at every scene break, the parts pass to the right, so that if Joe plays Hamlet in the first scene in Act III, when the scene changes, he will have to wait until the parts work their way around to him to read again, this time most likely a different character, which he will read for that whole scene.   More than how much each gets  to speak, this brings the sensation of being part of the action of that scene, for you feel that as others speak, you are involved.  This pays no attention to type casting; a boy or man may take the part of Cleopatra while a girl or woman can read Brutus or Mark Antony.

This process is not perfectly equal to all members, but it’s a lot more evenly distributed than assigning parts so that one person reads that part all the way through while others get little or nothing.  If the play takes two or three sessions to read all the way through, then everyone in the group should have as full an experience as any other.  A group can be any size from three to thirty, although the more people there are the less each will get to read.  Perhaps the ideal group is somewhere between ten and fifteen.  If your class or group exceeds that by much, it might be better to split into two or more groups.  In this case each group can work on a different play.

In this way, everyone in the group gets the opportunity to read the lead character; if the play is Hamlet, usually at some point, everyone will have gotten to read his part, as he has more lines than anyone else.  In this way the characters, even the least of them, become real to the readers.  In this way, the story comes across through dialogue and the unselfconscious dramatizing that occurs naturally once the group gets caught up with the story, and without having to know exactly what each word means.  For although the language is very beautiful, and spiced with famous quotations, because of the great differences between Shakespeare’s language and ours today, it’s not all that easy to understand through reading alone.  Through this experience of group reading the language almost becomes secondary, as the action of the story conveys more to the reader than a dictionary ever could.

As I’ve expressed elsewhere, I believe that Shakespeare’s greatest gift wasn’t his language or his poetry––marvelous though they be––it’s the stories themselves that have made them classics in all languages, that have inspired symphonies, operas and ballets.   Story is the greatest medium of learning.  Like a game or a sport, or an  experiment in chemistry, drama takes silent, quiescent objects in the form of characters, setting them in motion with and against each other, revealing through their interactions their values and motivations, which, without the action of story, would remain hidden, all leading to a climax that, in the case of a great masterpiece, can bring each viewer or reader the kind of awareness normally gained only from personal experience.

Like a song, a dance, or a game, a play is not a thing, it’s a process.  The pleasure it brings comes through action in time, like watching a flower unfold, a toddler take her first steps, or a tired veteran hit a line drive in the nineth inning.  There’s drama in everything, most of it hidden, buried in “getting and spending,” but in a great play revealed, line by line, scene by scene, until the curtain comes down.

In Shakespeare’s day the theater was cheap, and everyone, in London at least, could see a play once a week, during the season, if they cared to.  Now of course it’s risen, or sunk, to a level where only the wealthy can afford to see more than one or two professional plays a season, and there’s no guarantee if the experience will be worth the price.  In the twentieth century, movies took the place of the stage as the entertainment of the masses.  Midway through the century, television caused the movies too to lose their place in our lives, so that it’s not only live drama that, for most of us, has lost its place as a communal event, what’s been most grieviously lost is the feeling we got from sitting for two hours in a darkened theater as part of an audience of substantial size, all sharing the same emotional experience.

It’s something of an irony, that the Theater, having replaced the Church as the center of  communal life in the sixteenth century, now seems to be filling the theatrical void with the rise across America of the huge modern evangelical churches with their “Christian” entertainment in which, once again,  swaying and clapping, huge audiences hear sin condemned and the wicked consigned to a twelfth-century fiery furnace.

For those who find no solace in swaying and clapping and grieving over sin , getting together in reading groups to experience Shakespeare in much the same way that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men must have done when first provided with something like Romeo and Juliet, may actually be more rewarding in some ways than just sitting passively in a theater, letting the actors do all the work.  And certainly less expensive.

4 thoughts on “Experiencing Shakespeare

  1. …so true, so true : This method for any group, young, seniors and amateurs reading Shakespeare together, with individual own texts, works, it really works well – and has such a quality that we want to come together and read again and again. Good idea to shift the reading of roles like you suggest according to your experience. I came alone to a University in Africa, put up a sign: I ended up reading King Lear with people of all beautiul colors and a bushman, an old boer, a british lady, a local shaman, a tall nubian and a young girl from Ethiopia. It would have been a good idea to switch reading different roles, because I am still called ‘ bastardo’ The Bastard after the role I read that happy evening

    1. Dear Bastardo, Thank you so much for this wonderful anecdote! It’s worth writing the blog just for this marvelous example of how Shakespeare’s stories transcend all divisions of culture and language, age and sex. I will treasure it. Stephanie

  2. Well we did something like this with Julius Caesar when I was in 11th grade so I disagree. It was beyond a bust. Most of the kids had no idea what was going on, the language was foreign to them and was way above their heads. They were bored out of their skulls. Hamlet would have been a better choice.

    But as destiny would have it, a friend of the family got me a ticket to Catholic University’s production of the play and I went nuts, especially during Anthony’s funeral speech. It was electric and so alive and the language actually meant something. I was stunned and mesmerized.

    I came back to class and raved and said “You’ve got it all wrong, its amazing”. I then replicated as best I could Anthony’s oration, my mind on fire trying to convey the magnificence of what I had seen.

    They have to see it first, in person, and a play that will interest them. Then you can have them read it.

    Shakespeare has to be seen as theater. Then he can be read.

  3. Of course, it’s much better to see it first, done well, but that’s not always possible. There are some excellent films, in particular the Julius Caesar with James Mason and Marlon Brando. And a class of high school juniors is a tough sell, most of them are very tired of school. Prison inmates might be more accommodating.

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