July 26, 2012
How To Succeed in Viewing Shakespeare
Without Really Trying
I’m not an actor. I’m not a director. I’m not a Shakespearean scholar. In fact, my qualifications for writing this blog are entirely questionable. I am, however, a reader, a viewer, a lover of Shakespeare in its various forms. Being an audience member of one of Shakespeare’s works usually starts in the classroom, so that, my friends, is where I will begin.
Shakespeare for Shakespeare’s Sake
I had read the typical Shakespearean high-school canon (i.e. Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar) by the time I was preparing to start at UC Berkeley. I had half a mind to major in English—a route I did actually end up taking—but felt grossly unprepared for collegiate-level literature. So what did I do the summer before college? Instead of spending my days at the beach and my evenings partying with my friends, I decided to read a little Shakespeare, Hamlet and Othello, to be precise. I had gotten it in my head that every incoming freshman must have read these two plays, and I would be the village idiot if hadn’t. I refused to be the village idiot.
So I opened up my Barnes and Noble edition of Hamlet—right-hand side of the book filled with the original text, left-hand side with footnotes—and when I finished it, I felt good about myself because I had read Hamlet. But did I really understand Hamlet? No. Did I enjoy Hamlet? No. I read Hamlet to fulfill some sort of societal expectation that kids who go to Berkeley are smart, and smart kids read Hamlet. I’m just explaining my thought process to you; I don’t say it was logical or rational or good.
This skewed approach to Shakespeare is actually the approach taken at the college level—at least the introductory level. I took a Shakespeare class where the expectation was that each comedy received one day (60 minutes) of lecture time while tragedies and histories received two. That’s a lot to get into a short lecture, people. What it came down to was reading Shakespeare for the sake of reading Shakespeare—getting through the plays the night before (or after, if I’m being completely honest) lecture, skimming through footnotes and introductions in an effort to stay afloat, saying that I had read the major works of Shakespeare because if you’re going to be an English major, you have to read The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Richard III—but not really reading Shakespeare. I was a sham of an audience member.
And Now For Something Completely Different
The summer before my senior year at Cal, I had the incredible opportunity to study abroad at the University of Cambridge in England, and with that, the chance to see one of Shakespeare’s plays performed at the Globe. It had been raining off and on all day, but we all bravely trekked inside the open-air theater, ready to watch As You Like It. Luckily, it didn’t rain that evening, but because of the imminent danger, every dry minute felt like a gift. The actors—who were also doubling as musicians, providing their own soundtrack to the play—seemed to feed off of the gracious vibes of the audience, and their performance was one of the best I have seen (once again, take this statement with a grain of salt, as I am no theater aficionado).
The actors were on balconies and in the audience, playing flutes and guitars and delivering lines with incredible clarity. Despite the fact that I was standing throughout the performance, I was swept off my feet and into this Shakespearean world where the language made sense! And the jokes were funny! And the characters reminded me of myself, or someone I knew! As I filed out of the Globe that evening, I couldn’t help but think: Shakespeare never felt that way in the classroom. What was so different about it?
The Page vs. The Stage
When I watched a dress rehearsal of Hamlet a few weeks ago under the direction of Lisa Tromovitch, I started to realize what was so different about Shakespeare on the stage. It’s the connection you feel with the actors in front of you, or the atmosphere, or even the people around you. Shakespeare never intended for his works just to be read. His words were meant to be spoken, taken in, interpreted, laughed at, cried at, acted out, lived. Just reading them on a page is one-dimensional; we see the words in typeface, but we don’t hear the passion or meaning behind them. In fact, it’s easy to get bogged down in the attempt to understand every single word rather than enjoying the sentence as a whole.
Sitting on the grass at Concannon Vineyard, struggling with the gnats that come out to play come dusk, but also enjoying the beautiful sunset that came before, reminded me of being at the Globe almost a year ago. I appreciated my surroundings, and I could feel that mutual appreciation in the actors on the stage and the crew around me. I wasn’t sitting in my room on a summer evening, trying to boost my intelligence and prove to myself or to my peers that I am a capable and well-read scholar. Instead, I understood Shakespeare more than I ever had, identifying with his characters, his inventions, his jokes, his metaphors, his world. And when a centuries-old play becomes relatable to a twenty-something, that is when becoming an audience member is not a chore or a task or a requirement, but an absolute pleasure.
Next week we’ll move back from the audience to the artist perspective. Actor Michael Wayne Rice will share some of his experiences in moving from rehearsal to performance.