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.