Shakespeare-Phobes, Here’s How To Get The Bard
Each year I write a short piece on Mr Billy Shakespeare, and this is today’s.
It’s not enough to be able to decipher the more complex parts of the Bard’s work (would that we all had enough time to do so), we have to discover it through sometimes appallingly modish stage re-inventions (I’ve sat through some of at the worst Midsummer Night’s Dreams of all time). At the root there are the words, and if the director doesn’t make the comprehensible then no number of unicycling drag queens will save the play. Shakespeare is not about staving off boredom by adding distractions, but about stripping back to the language. If you don’t make an audience’s spine tingle when Hamlet visits his repentant mother you’ve failed.
However, there are ways of making your understanding of the bard a bit easier. Why should we bother to do this? Because Shakespeare gives you the world.
The problem for Shakespeare-Phobes is that many were put off him at an early age. At our school we read him aloud, and the worst thing you can do is sit in a stifling classroom listening to Peason Upper 4B stumbling through Prospero’s speech from The Tempest with no zeal, intonation or interest, running the words on in the same manner as Nigel Molesworth reciting Charles Wolfe’s ‘The Burial of Sir John Moore After Corunna’, ie;
shut up Person larfing
As his corse
As his corse
what is a corse sir? gosh is it
to the rampart we carried
So for newbies, the first thing to do is hie yourself to a theatre or watch a play on DVD. First time around you will understand, on my estimation, 40% of what you hear. What you’ll get is the rough shape of the story. This is the precise point when you’ll feel like going back to Game of Thrones (basically, Shakespeare without the wondrous dialogue). And that’s why you shouldn’t abandon hope here. But there are some things you should know;
The jokes are generally dreadful.
The plots are unnecessarily convoluted.
There are always at least two characters who could be dispensed with (literally so in the case of ‘Hamlet’)
The dramas are punctuated with really stupid bits of crowd-pleasing business.
The unicycling drag queens so beloved of new directors really shouldn’t be there.
But ‘Hamlet’ is nearly always fab, and even the ridiculous Kenneth Branagh film version has its moments. Like all great writers Shakespeare built his plays on existing legends and folk stories, so they had a solid base, and although there are longeurs in every play there are always moments that touch the soul. You just need a good director who knows that at the heart of each play, behind the modern dress or elaborate staging, there are characters whose feelings you care about.
So,you’ll need to do some prep. Reading Shakespeare only works if you can see some as well, but the RSC have started doing Shakespeare multi-media apps. I have the one for ‘The Tempest’, and it has performances, history, the text and timelines, plus much more.
Here’s my reading list, depending on how serious you are about getting to grips with the biggest author of them all. Start with the texts from the RSC, conveniently gathered together in one gigantic affordable paperback based on the 1623 First Folio. This is edited by two of the finest Shakey scholars, Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen. It’s unwieldy but the motherlode.
Next, try DK’s ‘The Shakespeare Book – Big Ideas Simply Explained. This is a nicely designed volume with half a dozen contributors explaining what you need to know about each play quickly and succinctly. Also useful is the Oxford Illustrated Shakespeare Dictionary by David & Ben Crystal, names you’ll come across in other volumes. It’s a guide to the tricky words, and is quite fun.
Better still is DK’s Essential Shakespeare Handbook by Leslie Dunton-Downer and Alan Riding. This is the Baedeker of Shakespeare and includes unique features like the prose-to-verse ratios. If you were to buy one volume to guide you, I’d pick this.
There are thousands of Shakespeare analysis books but I like Michael Bogdanov’s ‘Shakespeare: The Director’s Cut’, which gives you a set of essays on the plays and is quite opinionated, and Frank Kermode’s ‘Shakespeare’s Language’, a delightful volume from a master critic.
You’ll find a number of more detailed articles here on this site.