Why Shakespeare doesn’t have to be brutally boring. Written by, Studio Director Marianna Psaltis “Shakespeare? Ugh.” This is usually the response teachers receive from students when the time comes to study Shakespeare. In 15 years of professional practice, I have rarely been met with an enthusiastic reaction when Shakespeare’s name is mentioned. In my classroom Shakespeare is...
Why Shakespeare doesn’t have to be brutally boring.
Written by, Studio Director Marianna Psaltis
This is usually the response teachers receive from students when the time comes to study Shakespeare. In 15 years of professional practice, I have rarely been met with an enthusiastic reaction when Shakespeare’s name is mentioned.
In my classroom Shakespeare is essential. As are the Greeks, Wilde, Dickens, among other authors and eras. I have never impressed upon any student that they must LOVE Shakespeare; instead, I cultivate an environment of appreciation for his body of work.
Appreciation. Not like, not love but an appreciation of Shakespeare’s contribution to literature, to performance and to the modern English language.
Every student of English Literature and undoubtedly, every actor should have a working knowledge of Shakespearean literary theory but more importantly, an understanding of the elements of performance. Shakespeare’s work was intended to be performed, the fact that we can discuss at length the nuance of the text is a bonus. In fact, we can deconstruct and unearth many interpretations using even the most arbitrary or fragile guidelines that underpin literary theory to create a reverent and entertaining argument.
We can freely and openly create discourse surrounding the use of literary and poetic devices, overarching patriarchal values, socio-cultural and socio-historical contexts, misogynistic and feminist viewpoints alike. Shall we open the pandora’s box of cultural appropriation at this point? Let’s not ignore how much was pilfered from Ancient Greek Theatre. That aside…
Any and all of these viewpoints open the argument to scrutiny and further discussion. And therein lies some of the brilliance of Shakespeare – the endless conversation. Discourse that prompts critical thinking and emboldens participants to connect with characters, plots, emotions and perspectives all while discovering their love for a playwright who, we actually know very little about.
Okay, so let’s start with what we do know. William Shakespeare lived in the Elizabethan era, was a working actor and possibly playwright and poet, although we can’t be certain. History attributes thirty-nine plays, one hundred-and-fifty-four sonnets, and many verses to William Shakespeare. His body of work includes comedies, histories and tragedies.
He part-owned a theatre called The Globe, and coined many modern expressions like, “in a nutshell”, “all the world’s a stage” and, one of my favourites “off with his head!”. Some of you may recognise this last one from, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but alas, Lewis Carroll didn’t create this saying, he merely popularised it with his character, The Queen of Hearts.
The history surrounding Shakespeare is blurry at best and we don’t in fact know who wrote the work. Popular theories claim that the literature was likely published under the pseudonym of William Shakespeare while actually having been written by a Duke who valued his anonymity. And let’s not forget the lesser believed but highly plausible theory that the works were written by a woman. The Shakespeare’s Sister theory is explored widely in essays by prolific author, Virginia Woolf where she cites other astute and controversial viewpoints:
Many contemporary critics maintain that protest literature is the strongest kind of art, the only art that can truly affect social change.
Virginia Woolf (A Room of One’s Own, 1929. Read an extract, HERE)
I tell my students that while this information is important to know prior to commencing Shakespearean study, I largely focus on the literature itself and the legacy with which we are now bestowed. How we choose to interact with it is autonomous and abundant.
Critical thinking, rich discourse and insightful contemporary thought lift words off the page and into performance. An actor’s innate ability to emotionally connect with characters, thereby understanding and embracing their varied emotional states, motivations and objectives allows profound communication with an audience and therefore an appreciation of the text that extends beyond words.
The fragility of human emotion is bared on stage for all to witness. A character’s deep emotional state is shown through the rawest moments and transcends costumes, backdrops, make-up and everything in between. Shakespearean performance allows us to see ourselves on stage as we mirror our own affections for characters, battle through arguments, relate to sentiments both comedic and tragic as well as feel deeply when a battle is lost and a character’s journey ends.
It would be presumptuous and limited to expect people to connect with a bygone era that is so foreign to us, magnified by a language barrier and distanced by the pretentious belief that Shakespeare is only truly accessible to the privileged. This is further exacerbated by the ongoing omniscience some people project when having been educated in Shakespearean text. Shakespeare is for everyone – no matter your age, education level, culture or creed – Shakespeare should be made accessible to everyone.
While studying Shakespeare can undoubtedly increase your literary knowledge, is it not solely the literature itself that holds value: it’s how we choose to interact with it. The link between theory and practice cannot be untethered and this is especially prominent in creating moving Shakespearean performance.
Human fragility, emotional connection and critical thinking are arguably the most essential principles to understanding and appreciating Shakespeare.
That’s why acting and performance is pinnacle to the understanding and appreciation of Shakespeare. Shakespearean plays don’t have to be long, arduous and disengaging (although, we know unfortunately they can be). Theatre companies, directors and actors are always offering up new ways to access Shakespeare’s texts. Although few are visionaries, everyone strives towards a common purpose – to give lifeblood to the stories and transcend barriers to successfully communicate a message.
Baz Lurhmann’s, 1996 movie, Romeo + Juliet brought to life Shakespeare’s timeless love story in an enigmatic, theatrically-cinematic way; synonymous with Lurhmann’s signature directorial style. Original text coupled with contemporary, artistic cinematography and stunning performances from the renowned cast gave modern audiences a timeless classic with a contemporary edge. The portrayal is vital, raw and immersive and to this day, remains a cinematic masterpiece. Lurhmann resurrected an archaic text and plunged it into mainstream popular culture, seamlessly.
How you choose to engage with Shakespearean text is up to you and believe me when I say that even the smallest understanding of Shakespeare’s word can leave you feeling inspired and motivated.
I’ll leave you with one of my favourite quotes, albeit existential, synonymous with melancholy and fodder for the overanalytical, not to mention that critics have sighted Jaques, (the character in, As You Like It who recites the famous speech) as “overrated” (The Shakespeare Companion J. C. Truwin, 2017). Anyhow… here it is!
“All the world’s a stage,
and all the men and women merely players;”
So be inspired, take to the world stage and make your contribution, whatever your talent, because your time is now.
Want to read Jaques’ speech? Click HERE to read the famous monologue.