Thursday, March 03, 2011

"The Play's The Thing", (And Not the Text?)

Here in this article, Helen Mirren takes exception to having school children read Shakespeare, as opposed to being introduced to it via a live performance, or at least a film.

I agree in principle. Certainly introducing Shakespeare strictly as text has its advantages. I'll never deny that. And once students get to high school, it can and probably should be a large part of studying the Bard.

Even then, if one's only goal is to introduce textual analysis and iambic pentameter and other linguistic subjects to a student. And while there is nothing wrong with that approach, (I study such things myself informally, I think as an introductory approach, it misses a great deal of the point.

Shakespeare's plays are scripts. Intended from the very beginning to be performed. They existed for the benefit of actors, and not readers. That is not to say that English scholars have no business dissecting them,  but if one's ultimate goal is to introduce Shakespeare itself to young people, as opposed to merely introducing the literary devices he may (or may not) have employed in his story telling, there is a great advantage to having a performance be one of the first exposures to the Bard a student experiences.

I say "one of" because I wouldn't rely 100% on a "cold viewing" in order to introduce students to Shakespeare. A primer on his language and vocabulary would be in order before exposing them to an actual production. A brief discussion of how we believe his plays were staged originally would not hurt either. For I do not, as many do, believe that a "perfect" performance of a Shakespeare play will make all of the unfamiliar language suddenly clear to the totally uninitiated. The Bard was brilliant, but he was not magical. Those four centuries between his time and ours cannot simply be ignored. (Though many companies believe Shakespeare is only ever confusing because it is not performed properly, and that's bogus.)

Still, I favor de-emphasizing textual analysis in favor of viewing of performance for the earliest of Shakespeare exposure. I am, after all, an actor, and Romeo and Juliet first and foremost is in fact a script, not a novel.

And if Helen said it, it can't be that off the wall of a concept, can it?


Swollen Foot said...

I remember the first two Shakespeare plays I ever studied were Macbeth and Twelfth Night, and the reason I remember them so clearly is because for both we had a task to write a very brief version of them using modern language. We then had to rehearse and perform them to the class. Obviously we studied it before we jumped into this task, but I don't remember any of those classes, only the scripts we wrote & the performances we did! Similarly, a few years ago I played Juliet, and it was only when I had to perform the words and really think about what I was saying that I fully understood and appreciated the language. This was despite having read it and seen it countless times! As you rightly say, Shakespeare's work was intended to be performed, so why not use performance itself a bit more when studying it? I guess that doesn't solve the issue of whether to introduce it as text or as a live performance/film... But I guess I'm just saying with Shakespeare I think it's best to work actively rather than passively!

Ty Unglebower said...

That is a good point...the performance aspect. Even if someone doesn't understand 100% of the text yet, and even if there is no audience outside of the class itself. When we recite something, and invoke the characters and actually tell the story instead of reading the story, it stays with us longer because it seeps into parts of our brain that do not get activated by mere reading.

Good observation.

Swollen Foot said...

You explained it better than I did! Glad you agree. :) I think the sooner you get active when studying it the better!