Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Shakespeare as homework

In "The Shakespeare Wars," Ron Rosenbaum laments the huge number of mediocre Shakespeare productions, and then, building to a crescendo, he writes:

As someone who who has come to realize ... after a lifetime of hoping to find something ... electrifying ... on stage ... very little approaches it. I don't think people realize it's rarely their fault if they don't "get" Shakespeare. Shakespeare done right is supposed to get you.

As much as I love the quote, to me it's more of a general note about theatre than a specific note about Shakespeare. Good theatre should "get" you. Good Shakespeare should too, but that assumes something about "you" -- that "you" understand the language. When you think about it, it's really simple. It's my responsibility, as a director, to craft plays that grip people. If people aren't gripped, that's my fault. But I'm talking about people who speak English. If my plays don't grip (non-English speaking) French people, that's not my fault. And I would never call a German play "bad," just because I don't understand it.

All average-Joes know that Shakespeare plays are in a foreign language, but theatre people tend to deny it. Maybe this is because they've spent so much time studying Shakespeare that it doesn't seem foreign to them. But when they casually say, "Anyone can understand Shakespeare," they come across as disingenuous. Anyone CAN understand it, but not without some work.

I've thought about writing a Shakepeare "appreciation" book, for people who want to get into his plays but don't know how. Only I don't think anyone will publish my book, because my message would be too unpopular: in order to understand the plays, you need to do a considerable amount of homework (most actors don't notice this "homework," because they do it while working on characters in rehearsal). Except for a few people who are into this sort of thing, the homework won't be fun. But it has a great payoff: getting in touch with some of the most beautiful creations of the human race.

Most Shakespeare books and teachers claim that in order to "get" Shakespeare, you should just rent some really good film adaptations and/or go see some really good stage productions. "Shakespeare was meant to be seen and heard -- not read." This is bullshit. If you don't get charged up when you read Shakespeare, you don't really "get" Shakespeare. And I mean "get" on a simplistic level: get = understand. I don't mean you're lacking in soul or intelligence. I just mean that you haven't yet fully grasped Shakespeare's language, which you can only do through study, so there's no way you can really get what he's saying. And if you don't get what he's saying (and how he's saying it), you can't grasp the beauty of the plays. (I'm operating under the assumption -- maybe false -- that most people who really do get the language will be wowed when the read the plays. There have been a few people, like Tolstoy, who hate Shakespeare despite understanding his language, but such people are rare.)

Usually, when people who don't understand Shakespeare see a great production and love it, they're not really loving Shakespeare. They're not really loving what's unique about Shakespeare. They're loving the production in spite of Shakespeare. They're loving the theatrics of that specific production. Maybe this will prompt them to learn more about Shakespeare on their own; maybe not.

One problem is that people want to get Shakespeare for at least two different reasons: (1) because they really want to connect with his writing, (2) because they want to look smart (or feel like they are cultured). Ron Rosenbaum calls this gaining "cultural currency." I don't think there's anything wrong with cultural currency, but it's worth disentangling it from the first reason. One can appear smart (and maybe feel cultured) by going to see a lot of Shakespeare plays, even without really understanding them. And if that's what one wants, fine. But let's not call an apple and orange. (Except that for culturally ambitious people, they must call an apple and orange. Who are they going to impress if they say, "I went to see MacBeth, but I didn't understand it."?

I'm always amazed by the hyper-educated, upper-middle class people who come see my shows and, afterwards, say something like, "Thank you for making Shakespeare fun." It's flattering but sad. Shakespeare is a chore for them, and they're grateful for a "spoon full of sugar to help the medicine go down." I want to pull them aside and say, "You're a grownup now, and you're not in school. You don't have to see Shakespeare plays if you don't want to. There's no test on Friday." But of course, for them, there is a test. It's a cultural test. To pass the test, they need to fit in with a whole group of "cultured" people.

In my darkest moments, I imagine huge bands of people, all of them wearily forcing themselves to attend event after event that they loath. If just one of them would admit that the emperor has no clothes, they could all relax.

And then -- maybe -- a few of them, those who want to, could do some homework and meet Shakespeare on his own turf: Elizabethan English, which is a language one has to learn, just like French and Italian are languages one has to learn. You can't magically know Italian, just by watching a few Fellini films.

In order to learn Elizabethan -- or to want to learn it -- you have to take on trust that there's gold at the other end of the rainbow. You're not going to appreciate the gold until you DO learn it. So you just have to take the gold on faith.

We who have already reached the pot should emphasize the beauty. Sometimes, we make it sound like it's one's cultural duty to reach the pot, and that the only payoff will be to have fulfilled that duty -- and maybe to seem a little smarter. Which makes it seem like yet another burden, like getting a diploma in order to get a job. The diploma itself is worthless, except maybe that it makes one feel smarter. It's a hazing ritual. And I fear that's how many people see Shakespeare. He's the hot coals you have to walk over in order to be let into the culture club. We need to emphasize that there's great personal benefit, beyond seeming smart, of entering the club.

I remember they first time I really got Shakespeare. I had just finished the pre-production work on Winter's Tale, the first Shakespeare play I ever directed. I had gone through the whole play, word by word, and looked up each word that I didn't understand. I had about ten editions of the play, and I had read all of the editorial notes in all of them. Shakespeare had clicked, I was in love, and I knew my life would never be the same. But I also knew that Shakespeare never would have clicked for me if I hadn't put in that effort, and I probably wouldn't have done so if I didn't have a first-rehearsal deadline looming. It just didn't seem reasonable to expect other people to put in this same effort (which wasn't always fun). But without the effort, they will never really fall in love with Shakespeare the way I have -- the way other scholars and experienced actors have. And the falling-in-love is so worth it. But how can one communicate that?

Perhaps the best way is to find a difficult passage of great beauty, and to walk someone through it, explaining each word until they understand it, pointing out levels of meaning, poetic and rhetorical devices, complex metaphors and humor. It should be a short passage, and a self-contained one, so that the neophyte can -- within a reasonably short period of time -- feel the beauty without an agonizing amount of work. Maybe that's chapter one of my book.


Anonymous said...

wierd, wouldn't use again

MariAntoinette said...

I've just signed up at the age of fifty six to try and read my first ever Shakespeare Taming of the Shrew. Not because I want to fit in, but I'd like to understand why his work is so popular and I want to write myself. Late I know, but it's never too late!
I found your blog just wandering the web. And so glad I did. I'm getting to know the characters before I even read the play and rather than the daunting feeling I had a week ago, I'm looking forward to it now. I think you are right, Shakespeare will get me, I won't get him! Really, thans so much for that! MariAntoinette